Bruce Epperly: First Do No Harm! (Job, Anne Graham Lotz …)

by Dr. Bruce G. Epperly, pastor, professor, and author of Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with JobProcess Theology: Embracing Adventure with GodHealing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel, and more!

9781631991073One of the first principles of medicine and ministry is “first do no harm.” This is sagely advice, since it is easier to say things that harm than cure, especially in sermons, interviews, and books. Words matter and this is especially true when we try to explain the tragedies of life. The Book of Job is a treatise aimed at exposing harmful theology. While the Book of Job may not give us the right answer – and in some ways the text suggests that humans can never fully fathom the intricacies of creation and providence- the Book of Job, like the (possibly) contemporary dialogues of Plato uncovers the wrong answers to the questions of “why the righteous suffer” or frankly “why do we suffer period?” since, for the most part, the morally ambiguous often receive greater suffering than they deserve, and the downright violent and greedy often to get away scot-free in this lifetime, which for the author of Job is the only one there is.

Recently, Anne Graham Lotz, tried to explain the problem of evil as it relates to terrorism. She tied it to national infidelity. According to Ms. Lotz, when we turn from God’s way, “God abandons us and backs away, and takes his hand of favor away, [God’s] blessings. [God takes] his hand of protection away from us and abandons us…..We’re struggling with our own pride and self-sufficiency. I think that’s why God allows bad things to happen. I think that’s why he would allow 9/11 to happen, or the dreadful attack in San Bernardino, or some of those other places to show us that we need him. We’re desperate without him.” [link to Huffington Post report]

Ms. Lotz claims to have an orthodox Christian position and to be able speak for the God of Universe, discerning clearly God’s thoughts and inclinations. Frankly, that’s above her pay grade and mine, as the author of the Book of Job confesses. Still, her comment is worth considering, especially since the Book of Job is a sustained critique of literal acts-consequences approaches to the problem of suffering. According to the text, Job is the best of persons, and yet he suffers almost beyond his ability to endure. He recognizes that there is no justice in his suffering. Job’s experience is proof that “righteousness leads to rewards” and “sin leads to punishment” approaches to suffering cannot not be theologically sustained, if it taken literally. The majestic dialogue that crowns that climaxes the text suggests that in this intricately connected and wonderful world there are pockets of chaos with which God must even contend. Such pockets of chaos insure that, as Jesus asserts, the sun shines and the rain falls on the righteous and unrighteous alike. Evil institutions and nations prosper, as do persons, and likewise faithful institutions, nations, and persons may also flounder. (Matthew 5:45)

Acts do have consequences and a nation’s fidelity shapes its future, to a certain extent. A godly nation – if there is such a one – creates a social order of hospitality, economic justice, and earth care that leads to flourishing. The quest for the peaceable kingdom that inspired the prophets – fair business dealings, concern for the poor, affirmation of the needs of vulnerable persons – leads to less violence in the streets, healthier relationships between law enforcement and minorities, and happier homes, but does not insure complete security for the nation and its citizens. Ms. Lotz’s linear cause and effect understanding of divine blessings and curses does not square with reality, either individually or corporately. Job is clear that it is the wrong answer; and a harmful answer.

Although the Book of Job struggles to find a compassionate God, the text leans toward a vision of God as creative, intimate, concerned with the details of creation, and caring for the world in all its diversity. This theological inclination renders Lotz’s pontifications problematic in terms of their characterization of God. While our actions may enhance or limit what God can do in the world, just as our behaviors place limits on the love others can manifest toward us, no good friend, parent, or grandparent “abandons” her or his child or friend because of her or his mistakes. The Good Shepherd seeks the lost one. The father runs out to greet his wanton (prodigal) son. Jesus is fully present on the cross, praying for the forgiveness of those who crucify him. My guess is that Ms. Lotz’s relationship to her own family is reflects a higher morality than she attributes to God.

If Jesus said anything about God’s morality and love, it is that God is more moral and more loving than we are. This is God’s nature, not something God can arbitrarily withhold. A deity who withholds his care to allow terrorist acts in Orlando, San Bernardino, or on 9/11 can be feared but hardly loved, and in character is little better than abusive parent whom we would prosecute for child endangerment and manslaughter.

The Book of Job reminds us to be careful about what we say about God. Our words about God can hurt or heal, can incite violence or promote love, can open the door to seekers or turn outsiders away. Popular religious leaders would do well to consult Job – and Jesus – before making pronouncements on the reality of evil.