Ordination Questions -- Part 1: Evil and Suffering
This Fall, I applied for ordination in the United Methodist Church. Because the Church of the Nazarene removed my ordination (after 23 years) because I was serving in another denomination, my ordination couldn’t simply be “recognized” by the United Methodist Church. (This is a much longer story fraught with ugly church politics that I would rather not air on a public forum). As a result, I have to go through the formal process of applying for ordination like a first time candidate. After 30 years of being a pastor, some of the requirements are funny (“Prepare a sermon using the following Gospel text…”) But the most time consuming and interesting aspect was the sixteen questions that every candidate must answer. They are written responses that I submit to the Board of Ordained Ministry that are an “examination of doctrine.” The final product that I submitted was 71 pages, single spaced. (My doctoral dissertation was 121 pages double spaced).
It took me a solid 20-30 hours to write out the responses to the 16 questions. Some of my answers were not that interesting and basically “boiler plate” responses from Wesley’s writings and the Book of Discipline. However, some of them I was a little proud of. So, for the next few days, I will be posting several of the questions that I thought were more interesting. (Hopefully, the Board of Ordained Ministry will find them more interesting than heretical).
b) What is your understanding of evil as it exists in the world?
Shalom has to do with the harmonious, interdependent design of God. When God created the world, He created a world that was intricately woven together. The picture that one psalmist uses is that creation is like a garment or a fabric. What makes a fabric a fabric opposed to a pile of threads is that threads of the fabric are interwoven with each other. There are thousands and thousands of interdependencies in a fabric. Each thread has to touch and go over and under every other thread. The more interwoven the threads are, the stronger and more beautiful the fabric.
That is the picture of how we are made and how life was meant to be -- all the entities of this world: God, creation, humanity, are interwoven together in this beautiful, harmonious, interdependent relationship. This is how it is meant to be: universal flourishing, wholeness and delight, a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts are fruitfully employed, all underneath the arch of God’s love. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be. It is the way God created this world to be.
Evil is the result of forces that tear apart the fabric of shalom: isolation, disharmony, and lostness.
Questions surrounding evil naturally beg the question of theodicy (at least in Western thinking). If God is both all-powerful and all-loving, how does God allow evil to exist in the world? It is worth noting that in some religions, evil does not constitute the basis for an intellectual problem:
In Hinduism, suffering is a result of bad karma left over from a previous life. If a person is suffering in this life, they are working off bad choices they made in a past life.
In Buddhism, both suffering and joy are understood to be illusory—the result of human desire. Thus, the goal of spiritual life is to eliminate desire to become immune to suffering and evil and pain.
However, the Christian tradition, with a God who lovingly creates and is deeply involved with all of creation leading it toward greater shalom, sees evil and suffering through a different lens. I have been influenced by David Ray Griffen’s and Thomas Jay Oord’s attempts to reconcile this theological quandary:
Love, not freedom, lies at the center of God’s nature and character. That is, God’s freedom flows out of and is determined by God’s love.
God made creation with free will. Free will inevitably includes the capacity to bring evil and suffering to other parts of creation.
God, in Christ, has chosen to take the full weight of human suffering and cosmic evil on Himself. (Mark 15:34)
Jesus introduced humanity to a God who enters into our human suffering and suffers with us.