Friday, February 05, 2010

On Theodicy and Prayer

I’ve always kind of prided myself on not having major “theodicy issues.” (Theodicy = the theology of how bad things can happen if God is all-good and all-powerful.) My faith has never been rattled by news of natural disasters, terrorist attacks, or life-threatening illnesses. Bad things just happen, I believe, because that’s the way the world works. It doesn’t mean that God made those things happen or that the people affected by such tragedies deserve them in any way. Bad things happen, in some cases, because of sinful actions (terrorism, murder, rape, etc.) and in the case of natural disasters, because of complex weather and geological systems. That reality has never threatened my image of God or my confidence in God’s power or goodness.

Admittedly, I have never been too closely affected by tragedy. I have never lost my home to a tornado or fire, I have never suffered a major illness or injury, and most of the relatives I’ve lost have been elderly. Still, I would like to think that if such a tragedy were to befall me or my immediate family, my faith would be strong enough to sustain it. I would like to think I would sense God mourning with me and see the power of godly love in family and friends who would be there to support us.

I’ve mentioned before the extreme fear I feel of something happening to Kate. That fear (in itself something I am wrestling with, pondering especially the phrase “perfect love casts out fear,” from I John) has caused me to reflect more deeply on my theodicy, particularly as it pertains to prayer. I pray countless times a day for Kate’s health and safety, and at the same time worry that if, God forbid, something were to happen to my precious child, the many prayers I have prayed would themselves challenge my faith.

By voicing the deep desires and fears of my heart, I put God in charge of the outcome. And I wonder, am I prepared for the theological consequences of that risk? I have never prayed for anything so fervently and I have never prayed such a specific prayer. Certainly, I pray for people facing disease and disaster. I pray for starving people in Africa and for people endangered by war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But I have never prayed for a specific Tanzanian child not to die and then he did. I have never prayed for the safety of a specific Afghan family only to hear they became “collateral damage.” I never prayed specifically for a hurricane not to destroy my aunt and uncle’s house—therefore, when it did, I could have doubted God’s goodness or power, but I could not accuse God of specifically ignoring my prayer.

Therefore, prayer carries great risk and I have begun to wonder about the purpose of prayer and its implications for God’s goodness or power. If I pray for Kate’s safety and Kate remains safe, I thank God. But if I pray for Kate’s safety and something happens to her, my long-held theodicy says God is not to blame. That paradox implies that good things are from God and bad things are not. Okay, fine, but that idea is complicated by the fact that a bad thing (e.g. car accident) not happening is a good thing, and a good thing (e.g. healing) not happening is a bad thing. Credit and blame are not so easily ascribed.

This issue has troubled me for almost a year now. As a person of faith, I feel like I'm not supposed to admit this, but over the past year, I have dealt with what I describe as an "almost debilitating" fear of something happening to Kate--no, of Kate dying--I shy away from those words like they're a jinx, but that is such an ever-present fear of mine. I feel like it shouldn't be, and I look at women who have lost or almost lost babies and wonder how they claim to trust "whatever God chooses" for their child. I don't know how they do it, living day to day with the reality of a life-threatening condition.

Maybe I do lack faith, but I do worry that my child will die. Literally every time I walk into her nursery in the night, I worry she's not breathing. Every time she has a fever (as she has off and on for six days straight now) I worry she has an illness that will kill her. I know how lucky we are--that she is a healthy child overall, that we live in a part of the world where malaria and contaminated water are not constant health threats--but I still worry. While some people of faith avoid using the word "lucky," and prefer the word "blessed," I have trouble saying that we are "blessed" to have a healthy child or to live where we do. Blessing implies that God chose good things for us while not choosing such good things for others.

I still pray for Kate. I can't not pray for her. I love God and sincerely believe he is all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful--and so I naturally speak to him and cry out the deepest desires of my heart. But I love Kate too, and this motherly love has opened a new dimension--a new, deeply-penetrating question in my faith that I do not understand, and hope never to have to face.

What do you think? How does prayer affect your understanding of God?

9 comments:

Kim and Josh said...

I just posted a comment to your comment on my blog about this! It's definitely something I would love to chat more about and something people struggle with. But I do believe that prayers do not go unanswered... sometimes they just get answered in different ways than we expect. Losing a child would be devastating and would make anyone question their faith, but it is the ultimate healing for that child. I could go on and on and on, so hopefully we'll have the chance to chat more about it soon! I loved this post though... it really does make you think. But as long as you're thinking and not questioning it's a good thing. True faith is a challenging journey.

SpeasHill said...

Oh my. As a theologian, mother who almost lost her baby, and a diagnosed and medicated worrier, this post really hit home. I even paused my new episode of NCIS to read it. :) But I have to ponder a bit more before I solve the world's problems. Thanks for your openness...and stay tuned for my $0.02.

Katie Bug said...

I would answer your final question by reversing it. My understanding of God affects my prayer.
I, too, have found myself grappling with new fears this year. Fear of losing Katelyn. Fear of her losing me. Fear of us losing Jer and being on our own. When these fearful thoughts crowd my mind, I take myself through the "checklist" in Philippians 4:8. Since my fears are not even true, I ask for help to stop them right then.
I know this doesn't address your theodicy questions (thanks for teaching me a new word, by the way), but I am learning to deal with my fears.

Matt Kelley said...

Questioning is good. God is not threatened by our questions, because if we didn't care, then we wouldn't bother to ask.

Jessica Miller Kelley said...

Thanks for your comments. I am definitely trying to overcome fear and worry (natural as they are for a parent), but I disagree, Kim, that questioning is a bad thing.

It is not comfortable to wrestle with these issues, but it is important to growing closer to God. I love the image of Jacob wrestling with God--an entire nation took its name and oriented its faith on this "Israel," this "struggling with God."

Kim and Josh said...

I don't think I worded that right... I agree that questioning is good (as I said, faith is a challenging journey). I think I was alluding to not questioning God's sovereign plan through it all. And I love all of the discussion that this topic started! It's definitely one that really makes you think!

Jessica Miller Kelley said...

I gotcha, Kim. I love seeing God work through events both good and bad, and I do trust that he wants good for all of us.

I'm glad I've gotten some discussion started too (Some conversations have been offline--some people don't like to comment ON the blog, I don't know why! :0)

Tracy Wells Miller said...

Hi Jess - sorry I am catching up on your blog so long after the fact, but I wanted to weigh in on this one.

I really struggled with this issue (what is the purpose of prayer) when my sister's friend Mark lost his mother (when he was in college) only a few years after his father had died (when he was in high school). When his mother was diagnosed with leukemia, I was adamant that she could absolutely NOT die. Not after what Mark and his sister had been through in losing their dad at such a young age. Although I tended to pray for "God's will to be done" for things, in that case, I unabashedly prayed for Mark's mother not to die. And then she did. And I was really mad at God.

I remember talking about this with the minister at the Outdoor Church in Boston. I had been bringing prayer requests for Sharon to that group for a long time and then shared with them that she had died. I questioned why God would let her die. I questioned what the point of prayer is if it "doesn't work." The minister wrote back something that was very helpful to me at the time -- that prayer is not primarily about changing God's mind or causing certain events or actions to happen, but about bringing us closer to God and bringing the person for whom we pray closer to God. I feel like what he wrote was eloquent enough that it is worth sharing, even publicly. He wrote,

"I'm terribly sorry to hear about Sharon's death. You have been so faithful in your prayers for her. It is dreadfully unfair, as you say...and unjust, and wrong. There is no logic chopping that can make any sense of it. But, the prayer was not in vain. We don't pray to get God's attention - he is with us at every moment, whether we are calling out to him in that moment or not. But it is a way for him to get our attention - our focused, undivided and very intentional attention. And, because it is, it is also a way for Sharon to get our focused, undivided and very intentional attention. You have (and we have, as one of your communities in faith) been ever mindful of her condition and her suffering and have drawn closer to her (and drawn us closer to her as well) than if you were living next door. It is prayer as love when there is nothing left but love. It's analogous to the Outdoor Church itself - we are there when there is nothing else that can be done. Like hospice care, after medicine has done everything it can. Whether we are lawyers or doctors or teachers or parents or children - as people of faith, there isn't much more to do than to extend ourselves in love beyond all reason to those who need us most. That is what you have been doing all year."

At the end of my unit of CPE, I find myself very humbled theologically and more open to the vastness of what God's will may be for the world and willing to consider that some things that we experience as "negative" (or even heart-wrenching and gut-wrenching) may actually be for some higher purpose. I used to recoil against such a notion, but I am becoming more and more open to it as I begin to trust God more deeply in the face of the fragility of the human condition. We should talk soon. I miss our deep theological discussions.

Jessica Miller Kelley said...

"prayer as love"--I really like that, Trace. That's pretty much what it is, though that sentiment makes me less likely to use words, or at least not very specific words like "don't let her die."

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