This past Sabbath, one of the members of our congregation and a fellow volleyball coach during the fall and winter months gave his second sermonette in a row that dealt with a matter of considerable emotional difficulty while using a clinical and cerebral sort of response. Normally this would not draw any attention from me. After all, I am a rather analytical and cerebral person myself in general and it is natural for me to first approach matters with that sort of approach. Nevertheless, I see a major weakness and difficulty in dealing with the sort of subjects that this person has dealt with in the matter he has, attempting to wrestle with questions of the reason why bad things happen and the workings of divine providence in such a cold-blooded fashion, and I thought my own musings would allow us, at least briefly discussed, to deal with some of the difficulties that adopting this approach can have when it comes to providing genuine comfort and encouragement.
First of all, I question whether the sermonette is really the best place to discuss issues that are as big as the matters of understanding the categories of God’s will based on what God directly brings to pass, what God prefers would be the case, and that which God permits for his own reasons as well as the subject matter of seeking to grasp the beneficent purposes of tragedy and suffering. These are large subjects, in which very large books can and have been written–I have many such books in my personal library–and ten to fifteen minutes is simply not enough time to grapple with what makes these problems so difficult. It is easy to talk about the intellectual categorization of these matters, but hard to talk about the emotional resonance that makes these subjects such a challenge to deal with in our own lives and in the lives of loved ones. Until we have a better understanding of why these problems are so difficult to deal with, then we will not grasp why dealing with such problems in a merely intellectual fashion is not sufficient.
Let us first understand this intellectually, as there is a category error going on in the dealing of emotional problems via intellectual means. Some time ago , I addressed the problem of justification and commented that it was an emotional matter of such delicacy that we attempt to shield ourselves from the vulnerability it involves by dressing it up with fancy language. That is also true of the subject of divine providence, theodicy, and the justification of God’s behavior or lack of action as it relates to our own struggles and suffering. Indeed, the problems that we have when it comes to addressing the meaning of the trials and agony that we have to wrestle with as human beings is itself tied up with the question of justification, namely the question we have of clarifying what (if any) responsibility that God has to help us in our time of need and what such trials have to say about our relationship with God in the first place. And as justification is primarily an emotional and relational matter, it is not possible to address the real issues at stake when we merely look at these problems from a cerebral standpoint.
To wit, the sermonette quoted a verse that is universally quoted, it seems, when discussing the topic of the meaning of the suffering that we endure in this life, Romans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” There is, however, one very big problem with using this passage in such a circumstances. And that is the fact that the working together of all things for the good is limited to those who love God and to those who are called according to His purpose. Loving God and being called according to His purpose are not intellectual matters. The first is somewhat emotional and volitional in nature and the second is relational in nature. How is one to know that one genuinely loves God and how is one to know, and not merely to hope, that one has been called according to His purposes? These are precisely the sorts of things that are called into question when calamity strikes us. And knowing that all things work together for the good does not help when the qualifications of that statement and the doubts and fears one has about emotional and relational matters happens to precisely coincide. The solution to such concerns must address the level where the problem is at, and that is an emotional and relational problem and not an intellectual one. What is needed is not information, but rather comfort and encouragement.
And how is this to be provided? It must be provided personally, through patient listening and the showing of love that we have for people who are struggling. Obviously different people will respond to different approaches, and that requires that we know them and know how they are best reached. What is for sure is that people will not be comforted and encouraged by cerebral appeals when the source of their trouble is not in their knowledge but in their confidence. To know that the heart is unsteady and deceitful is not enough. It is still the way that we process what we feel about things. And to know that our perspective is often not the way that things are is also not helpful when it is the only way that we have to make sense of the world. But it takes more time and more personalization to comfort people individually, and far more people prefer to address divine providence and justifying God’s ways intellectually, even if such an approach is not particularly effective at dealing with the root causes of such concerns and worries. Let us remember when we seek to deal with matters of God’s working with humanity that we act in ways that do the most good rather than those which are the most convenient to ourselves.
 See, for example: