Taking God to Court

By Volf, Miroslav | The Christian Century, December 16, 1998 | Go to article overview

Taking God to Court


Volf, Miroslav, The Christian Century


IN JOSEPH and His Brothers, Thomas Mann tells of an exchange between Jacob, who has just seen what he believes is proof of his son's death, and his servant Eliezer. The passage reminds me of two friends who were complaining about God.

"Yes, I acknowledge him, that terrible God," said one friend in a muted voice full of pent-up anger. "But God is my enemy. He refuses to do what even the worst of friends would gladly do. A small miracle to alleviate my pain and remove my humiliation would cost the Mighty One nothing. But he is deaf to my prayers. I'll fight him to keep my dignity, even if I lose my life."

"I despise God, that self-obsessed Lord of Lords," said the other friend, trying to shake loose of the One to whom she was still clinging, even in her anger. "On Friday evenings, God would just sit there in heavenly glory, soaking in all the praise that my mother and her fellow believers showered on him in church, while back at home my uncle was molesting me."

I understood perfectly well the rage of my friends; I sensed it welling up within me too. The dissonance between the belief in a mighty and loving God and the experience of unnecessary and unremedied suffering is too shrill to the soul's ear not to demand a resolution. In the absence of harmony, rage and rebellion reign. What my friends wanted from me, a theologian, was an acknowledgment of their pain and rebellion. And I gave it.

There would be no need for theology, however, if its task were merely to empathize with what people feel and to echo what they say about God. Rogerian therapy, say, would suffice. Theology's purpose is to help people speak rightly about God. After I expressed my genuine sympathy, I therefore added a "but." I gently challenged not their experiences but their claims about God's indifference and self obsession. Predictably, my friends rebelled against my correction with even greater force than they had rebelled against God. I found myself cast in the image of Eliezer, the defender of God in Mann's story.

Eliezer warns the bereaved Jacob, who is accusing God of bad faith, not to sin. Jacob is aware of the danger. He is willing to monitor his lips; he lets them say only that what the Lord does is well done. He insists, however, that his heart has the right to "grumble against the unacceptable" and to accuse God of the "savage design" of taking his son. When Eliezer objects that Jacob is dragging "down the majesty of God against all warrant," Jacob sets him straight, drawing upon theological wisdom learned in the depths of suffering:

   Thresh not words, old man, they are lint empty straw. Espouse my cause, and
   not God's; for He is overgreat and laugheth at thy concern, while I am but
   a storehouse of wailing. … 

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