Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Jars of clay

7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you (2 Cor 4:7-12).

7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor 12:7-10).

The argument from evil has a cliché form. It's about moral and natural evil in general. Evils that befall humans in general. Evils that men in general perpetrate on their fellow man.

It's useful to ask yourself if the problem of evil in that sense even registers in the Bible. Christian philosophy and apologetics have deployed massive ingenuity in responding to the argument from evil, according to that stereotypical formulation. I'm not saying we shouldn't respond to unbelievers on their own level (at times), but how they frame an issue ought not condition our own understanding.

In Scripture, the argument from evil is much more specific. It's not about the pain and suffering which men in general suffer, but the suffering of God's people. Why doesn't God do more to protect his own people? Isn't that what a father is expected to do? Isn't that what a "Good Shepherd" is supposed to do?

Yet evil is so indiscriminate. Believers and unbelievers suffer alike. Sometimes believers suffer more than unbelievers.

To some degree that can be explained in terms of Christian witness in the face of persecution, but lots of Christian suffering isn't due to persecution. So what's the explanation, if any?

I think there's a theodicy in 2 Corinthians. Christian suffering provides a point of contrast. What believers suffer is no different from what unbelievers suffer. But how they suffer makes the difference.

Suffering exposes what, if anything, lies behind or inside suffering. In the case of believers, suffering provides a point of contrast between jars of clay and what they contain. The jars become translucent as they flicker with the inner light of grace. In the case of unbelievers, there's nothing behind the suffering. Just the blackness of an empty soul in pain. Darkness through-and-through. Night without first light, moonlight, or starlight. But Christian suffering turns believers into lamps and lanterns.

Imagine a child's cancer ward where a Christian child, who's dying of cancer, goes from bed to bed to befriend and witness to his fellow patients. Imagine unbelievers visiting the cancer ward, as they overhear Christian parents in the next bed praying for their child and reading Scripture. Cultivating heavenly-mindedness in the shadow of death. In one respect the same suffering, but in another respect, suffering transfigured by hope.

1 comment:

  1. It seems to me a Biblical theodicy shifts the focus away from the sufferer to God. It is less about rectifying personal pain and more about using personal pain as an occasion to shine forth the grace and glory of God. Part of what magnifies God's glory in the illustration you use is that this sort of response is unexpected and exceptional. The normal response to indiscriminate pain is, "Woe is me! Why, why, why?" The exceptional response is, "Great is God. Great is his grace." That makes the believer attractive. But it makes their God even more attractive.