Art and LiteratureSufferingTheology & Spirituality

The Power of the Enemy or the Hands of a Friend?

It seems to me at this stage of my life that one of the harder parts of maturing in faith is coming to grips with the fact that all of scripture, all of our experience in Christ, all the core beliefs and convictions of the Christian gospel, all the ancient writings and creedal magnificence and great teachings and profound ideas of all the saints—all of this put together—is still not enough to answer some of the profoundly difficult questions we face, or to assuage our pain in the midst of them. Sometimes “it”—whatever that dismaying and dread-filled “it” is—just doesn’t end well.

Raised on fairy tales, I am addicted to happy endings. Fairy tales nearly always gave us gratifying reversals, surprising upsets in dire circumstances kindled by horrible enemies who personified our worst fears. The ogres and trolls, frowzy hags and evil beauties, deceptive princes and fallen magicians all incarnated our childhood anxieties around physical and spiritual dangers, and yet we were always rescued, deliciously and completely. Tolkien’s coined word for this, “eucatastrophe”—“the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears”—shapes most of my encounters with the nasties of life. But I gotta tell you, life these days seems less and less like a fairy tale. I’m tired of waiting for the eucatastrophe.

It behooved me this spring to read Denys Turner’s article, “All Will Be Well,” in which he explores Julian of Norwich’s struggles with suffering that never seems to yield to the reversal we await.  I use that archaic word, behooved, intentionally. This word—behoove, behovely—is at the heart of Julian’s theology around the relationship of faith and suffering. God cannot do anything that is not good, for God’s goodness is not a divine personality trait; God is goodness itself. So where is God in the agonies, great and small?

Turner points out that at one level, this is the perennial impotent-or-malevolent conundrum: is God too weak to prevent our pain or too cruel to care? Fairly standard theological arguments address this challenge with a simple defense of God’s actions by pointing out that in a world with morally free human beings, free to choose love or free to reject love, evil becomes a necessary possibility. Were God to create a world where human beings were prevented from making any choice for evil, they would not be genuinely free to make a choice for good either. Thus love, authentic love, would not exist. Evil is the odious byproduct of free choice, like slag from a refinery.

According to Turner, Julian sees a more substantial divine consent to the existence of sin: “sin so ‘fits’ with the divine plan that nothing can be ‘amiss’.”[i] Her message from God was that sin and the evil that proceeds from it is “behovely.” It “behooved” God’s purposes to permit sin. Julian understands that God made a world where sin and its evil consequences somehow make sense in God’s long story. As Turner rightly points out, however, it is impossible to see the “behoveliness” in a great deal of human existence; every moment of comfort and pleasure we might enjoy is shadowed by the knowledge that acute physical, mental, and social suffering runs rampant through and around these pleasures and deeper than we can imagine in the lives of our neighbors, communities, and world. Yet we do not know the whole story. We cannot see the fullness of the beginning nor the majesty of the end. We can only know, according to Julian, that everything we experience is part of a larger narrative, and in that epic adventure, sin has a place.

The “behoveliness” of sin and evil, according to Julian, will be realized at the end of the Grand Narrative of God’s creative and redemptive actions. “It is as if [God] said, ‘Pay attention now, faithfully and trustfully, and at the last end you shall see it in truth, in the fullness of joy.’” (chap. 32)[ii] That joy, that eucatastrophe, will happen on the last day, when God does something that makes sense of it all.

There is a deed that the blessed Trinity shall do on the last day… This great deed is the one ordained by God from eternity, treasured and hidden in his blessed breast, and only known to himself. By this deed, he shall make all things well. Just as the blessed Trinity made all things from nothing, so the same blessed Trinity shall make well all that is not well. (chap. 32)[iii]

Julian, however, is not writing a fairy tale, and thus she needs more than the promise of this hidden deed. Our lives, she says, are more than a long waiting for God to act. Julian does believe that “all will be well,” but she also sees that even now, in the midst of the “unwellness” of our lives, all is well. Julian believed that the love and power of God are even now intentional and active in all our suffering. Our pain is not merely victimization at the hands of the enemy or wretched chance; it is part and parcel of what God is doing in our lives.

In The Doors of the Sea, David Bentley Hart argues that a God who found evil “useful” would be complicit. To suggest that sin is functionally useful to God in any way would be to erase the difference between goodness and evil altogether. Sometimes, Hart writes, we are merely victims of a fallen world, of “forces—whether calculating malevolence or imbecile chance—that shatter living souls.”[iv] Sin and evil are nothing but aberrations in the divine plans, malignant abnormalities that both God and we must simply bear with for now as we await God’s judgment. Our tears in the dark will be wiped away on that last day, but for now, fallen nature will have its way.[v]

This, however, does not lend itself to any integration of suffering right now and the sovereign action of God. It does not address the “problem” of miracles. If sometimes God intervenes and prevents some evil, then God’s “failure” to do so every time seems to imply incorporation of them into God’s plans. Does this not make God complicit? It does not acknowledge that scripture seems to show some symbiotic something between evil human choices and divine intent, best displayed in the Cross. Scripture is neck-deep in the divine use of violence and violent perpetrators to accomplish God’s judgments, God’s justice, and ultimately God’s goals. Where do we see God’s present engagement, not merely God’s future judgment?

Julian is trying to understand how to live right now as one of God’s own. How, she ponders, do you sustain faith in a world that is undone by plague, riddled with violence, shaken by social and cultural upheaval, fraught with desperate people and so very little light? (That’s the 14th century I’m describing. Her world, though it sounds quite a bit like ours.) Like the famous optical illusion in which, looking at an image you sometimes see the old woman and sometimes the young girl, so Julian looks at her life and her world and sees two concurrent realities: real woe and suffering and the hand of the God of goodness and love. “Faith is nothing other than a proper understanding of our being, with true belief and certain trust, that we are in God and he is in us, though we do not see it.” (chap. 54)[vi]

When I read Julian, I remember the patriarch Joseph and his magnificat to the ways of God: “What you intended for evil, God intended for good” (Gen 50.20). While we privileged readers can sit with his story’s eucatastrophic end and feel some sense of completeness, it doesn’t really get us into the drama of his lived experience—family abuse, slavery, unjust punishments, imprisonment, forgottenness. There wasn’t any way he could see or know God’s intentions as he lived through one tragedy tumbling after another, creating intense suffering and a sense of total abandonment.

We must be careful about what Joseph does not say. Joseph does not say that since God used his brothers’ wicked plans, they were anything other than wicked. Julian would agree: Sin is “vile” and “greatly to be hated”; there is “no hell but sin.” (chap. 40)[vii] Nor does Joseph say that their sin was necessary to accomplish his ends. Evil does not turn into good. Nothing about God’s purposes made the evil intentions anything other than evil. But what happens when they are used by God? And most importantly—getting us out of speculative theology and into the real lived experience we must cope with—is there some truth here that can sustain us? How far can we go with Joseph’s theological declaration: “What you intended for evil, God intended for good”?

Joseph’s end-of-story interpretation weaves together evil intentions and God’s purposes. In his commentary on the Joseph cycle, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that Joseph, reinterpreting his story, finds meaning in God’s actions within his “victimhood.” As Joseph reconciles with his brothers, he alleviates their fears by insisting: “So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Gen 45.5-8). Sacks suggests that at the end of the story, Joseph understands that his brothers’ actions—violent and sinful—were the channel of God’s purposes, and thus the meaning of what had happened was found in God, not in the brothers’ actions.[viii]

Julian concurs: “The fulness of joy is to behold God in everything, for by the same blessed power, wisdom, and love that he made everything, our good Lord leads it to the same end continuously, will himself bring it there, and when it is time, we shall see it.” (chap. 35)[ix]

Hart concludes his theodicy with a bifurcation of the actions of God and, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it, the wearisome changes and chances of this life: “Now we are able to rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace.”[x] Julian’s reflections, however, refuse to pit history and nature against grace; she suggests, along the lines of Joseph, that the immanent mechanisms of history and nature are themselves infused with God’s presence and power, and thus are also the mechanisms of grace. “It is God’s will that we know that all the power of our enemy is taken into our friend’s hands.” (chap. 65)[xi]

Kathleen Mulhern is an associate professor of Christian Formation and Soul Care at Denver Seminary. Raised in the Evangelical Free Church, she is now an Episcopalian. She holds a Ph.D. in European History, an M.A. in French Literature, an M.A. in Church History, and a book in each hand.

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