Tuesday, February 21, 2012

More Than an Academic Question

  A Slice of Infinity


More Than an Academic Question
In many ways, I have spent my life as a perpetual student. As a young student, I was always hungry to learn new things—new facts, new information, new tools to help me solve problems. At the time, my focus was on academic learning—I wanted to master a subject area and become an expert at a particular field of knowledge. All of my study focused on this single pursuit. 
What I didn't anticipate, after finishing graduate school, was that very few people were interested in my intellectual knowledge. Sure, many were interested in the information I would transmit through presentations and lectures. But as I began to interact more and more with individuals at my work, I soon realized that for most the questions were not purely academic, but arose from the deepest places of the heart. Academic questions concerning the proofs for the existence of God did not arise as much as questions about whether or not God cared and was involved in human lives. If academic questions arose, they came as a result of personal experience with suffering of one form or another. When fervent prayers did not prevent the cancer from spreading, or the child from dying, or the plane from crashing, or the marriage from failing, the questions came like water bursting through the dam. Is God really there?  Does God even care? If God cares about me, then why doesn't God intervene?
Unfortunately, these questions are not unique in our generation. They have been asked for millennia. The academic term for the problem of suffering is called theodicy. Theodicy is a word invented in the seventeenth century by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, one of the great intellectual thinkers of the Enlightenment period.(1) Theodicy attempts to explain how and why there can be suffering in the world if God is all-powerful and loving. 
Yet behind the intellectual wrangling over this problem, the experience of suffering in light of both the goodness and power of God has caused great difficulty for people who have faith and for those who do not claim any faith. It is reasoned that if God does not prevent suffering and if God does not care about the sufferer, then God does not exist in any meaningful way.
In Mark's gospel, a simple story about a boat caught in a terrible storm provides an altogether different kind of theodicy—one that involves far more than an academic answer. When evening had come, Jesus and his disciples got into a boat, most likely on the Sea of Galilee, in order to go over to the other side. In the course of their travel, a fierce storm arose suddenly and violently. It was so intense that the waves were not only breaking over the boat, but the boat was filling with water and on the verge of sinking. Jesus, asleep in the stern of the boat, was resting soundly when the disciples roused him with their fearful, first question: "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" Jesus doesn't answer their question, but instead answers the wind and the waves, "Peace, be still." His exhortation to the natural elements of wind and water was nevertheless intended for the disciples as well, for he returns their question with a second question: "Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?" To which the disciples reply to one another with the ultimate question, "Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?"
It is not difficult to surmise that the presence of Jesus in the boat would preclude any kind of suffering or disaster. But suffering does come, and the wind roars and the sky turns black, and the storm of all storms appears to envelop the disciples in darkness and terror. And this is the human experience in suffering. We are afraid, we feel alone and we wonder if anyone cares that we are drowning. For people of faith, Jesus, don't you care that we are perishing, becomes an incredulous statement because of the assumption that as Christians we should be immune from the troubles of life. But Jesus's answer reminds us that faith does not insulate us from life's storms. Indeed, as Craig Barnes has written "Faith...has little to do with our doctrines or even with our belief that Jesus could come up with a miracle if he would only pay attention. Faith has everything to do with seeing that we have the Savior on board."(2) 
In the midst of our questions about suffering—academic and borne out of human experience—there is Jesus in the storm of doubt, in the tempest of despair, in the gale of defeat, resting calmly in the assurance of God's care in the storm. His presence with the disciples in the storm gives a provocative theodicy; Jesus is neither removed from suffering nor does he always prevent suffering. And for those on either side of problem of suffering, the more important question may well be: Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him? 
Margaret Manning is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington.

(1) Bart Ehrman, God's Problem (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 8.
(2) M. Craig Barnes, When God Interrupts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 138.

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