The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her? (Luke 13:10-17 – NIV)
This is the passage where Jesus heals a woman who suffers from what appears to be a spine-related illness – maybe kyphosis, or Ankylosing spondylitis. Begs all sorts of questions, though, doesn’t it?
The synagogue leader is moaning about Jesus healing on the Sabbath. Jesus responds – 18 years she’s suffered, and I can’t heal her on the day off? And his devotion to a woman’s healing has been lifted up above the synagogue leader’s pettifogging rule-clinging ever since.
But it’s maybe Jesus’s followers that might come back with the strongest response. Yes, 18 years she’s suffered, and she’s finally been healed. The synagogue leader’s arguing over a day either side – why couldn’t it be Friday morning, or Sunday? But what about the other 18 years? If Jesus’s Father is so good at healing – why didn’t he do it 18 years ago? If she’s been bound by a demon – why didn’t God free her back then? Why wait till now to let her stand upright? If the healing was available – why make her wait for Jesus to enjoy his set-piece? Why couldn’t Jesus have nipped round earlier and done it when he was younger? In short, and to take this argument to its logical conclusion – why let this daughter of Abraham be bound by a demon in the first place?
Stephen Fry seemed to be having a bad day on Twitter yesterday, as several thousand people who promised to explain why he should have faith, got on his case. I had a lot of sympathy for him – it’s not often you see somebody just getting fed up and ranty because he’s getting so much stick – even when a lot of it’s well-meaning stick. For what it’s worth, I reckon that chasing Stephen Fry down on Twitter and telling him that God is love, is not going to convert him. Anyway, his response to being told that God is love, was the following:
@KingConradArc This is just drivel and you should be embarrassed. Children born with bone cancer? Love?
(Direct link here)
It’s a problem, isn’t it? The argument that a God who allows suffering is either not good, or not almighty, is an old one. The fact that Christians – and others – have been aware of this issue for a good many centuries, and yet have continued in their faiths, suggests it’s not as much of a knock-down argument as it might appear to some. (I don’t think Stephen Fry thinks it is a knock-down argument, he’s just a handy, famous, recent user of the problem of suffering, for the purposes of this little blog-post). There are other ways of looking at it – maybe there is a higher good we’re not aware of. Maybe, God’s ways not being our ways, he’s got something up to in the background.
Obviously, you could just argue that God’s not good at all. It wouldn’t necessarily mean much – if God exists, and if “good” doesn’t mean “what God approves of”, then what do we mean by good? (If you don’t believe God exists, by the way, feel free to believe that “good” means anything you like). And it was Thomas Hardy, trying to imply that goodness and the definition of God’s nature can be separated, who said the following: you may need to read it slowly, as is often the way when he’s trying to prove to Oxford what it missed:
Human beings, in their generous endeavour to construct a hypothesis that shall not degrade a First Cause, have always hesitated to conceive a dominant power of lower moral quality than their own; and, even while they sit down and weep by the waters of Babylon, invent excuses for the oppression which prompts their tears. (Return of the Native)
I think Hardy’s overstating the passivity of the Israelites in Babylon here, to be honest. It seems pretty clear from the psalm quoted that, while sitting down by the rivers of Babylon, they were actually planning exactly what they wanted to happen to the children of Babylon. And it doesn’t make pretty reading. But they don’t let God off the hook on this one by assuming his ways are higher than theirs and there must be some ultimate purpose – they actually, and in rather a graphic way, demand he sticks to his side of the Covenant
So I’ve pondered and prayed long about this and I’ve come up with a conclusion about the whole matter.
I don’t know.
I can hypothesize that the wonders of seeing the woman healed were worth her suffering – but then wonder why, in that case, Jesus didn’t just move a mountain or create some more wine out of water, and the demon could have left her unbound the past two decades.
I can read the awe-inspiring start of the Silmarillion, where the Creation story is retold as a story of one of the deity’s creations making his own music – rebelling by weaving his own tune. I can see that as a myth in its own right – of God giving free will – well, to what? To the Enemy and his henchfiends? To the Creation itself, that wrong may happen? Just accepting that in a world where any stuff – including good stuff – can happen, bad stuff can also happen? That it’s a part of the whole package deal, where the destructive powers of the universe are those that also give life?
I can reflect that, in the salvation story of the whole Universe, one woman’s 18 years of misery ain’t really that great, although bad news for her as she lived through them.
But I don’t know.
All I know is that I trust in that same man who did that, apparently-18-years-late, miracle. Because I do believe that he is indeed the same God that allowed her to be bound by a demon all those years. And believing that though this seems like a bloody awful thing to do, the fact that the same man had to go through his own agony before he temporarily left these shores, means that he knew something about what she went through. I do believe that somehow, as he himself was broken and twisted on a cross, it was his own brokenness that joined her spine into the right ways. That he lifted up her head, as his own head was lifted up. That he was broken so that she, and I, could be whole.
So I don’t know. But I don’t accept the knock-down theodicy argument because it’s not a knock-down argument. It’s the hardest one to deal with, sure, but it’s not a knock-down. Because I can imagine that God is higher than me, smarter than me, more good than me so I can’t understand how he’s working for good and, possibly – in his outrageous, ludicrous, sacrificial plunge into a world that he made and yet didn’t fix infallibly on the rails – madder than me. I don’t know, but I don’t need to unbelieve, I don’t want not to unbelieve and I don’t have to unbelieve. And I’m not going to. Maybe it’s genetic, maybe it’s emotional, maybe it’s artistic, maybe it’s just plain bloody-mindedness. But I still don’t stop believing.
The people that were dragged off to Babylon to sit down by the rivers, with children killed and women raped and young men slaughtered – left behind a man who wrote this. I suspect he understood the problem of suffering, as well. But he could look through it, and live through it, to something else:
Remember my affliction and roaming,
The wormwood and the gall.
My soul still remembers
And sinks within me.
This I recall to my mind,
Therefore I have hope.
Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed,
Because His compassions fail not.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “Therefore I hope in Him!” (Lam 13:19-24 – NIV)
By the way, I notice this woman’s demon appears to be causing a physical ailment – an interesting question Gurdur asked the other day was, can a demon cause pancreatic cancer? Well, according to Luke, demons don’t just cause psychic and psychiatric ailments. What we mean by demons, of course, is a different day’s question.