Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Theodicy of Glory

Taken from Evangelical Outpost:

“A chance for Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to show his quality…”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers
Caution: The following post contains a slight spoiler to G. K. Chesterton’s The Man who was Thursday.  Read the book and then come back to read this afterwards. I’ll wait.

Given an omnipotent, fully good and loving God, why do good people suffer?
That is the question for the ages. The suffering of bad people, of evil people, is (for some) an easier question. There is a notion of cosmic reparation, whether of impersonal karma or personal Justice, that provides an explanation on that front. But what of good people?
That, at least, is a question asked repeatedly by characters in G. K. Chesterton’s The Man who was Thursday, and the answers Chesterton hints at are some of the most incredible I have ever read.
But first, we must eliminate the greatest of the false trails apologists often stray down: that human goodness is never good enough in comparison to Christ’s perfection. This relativity, while actual, is nonetheless irrelevant. The goodness and righteousness even of fallen humanity is real enough and meaningful enough to be attested to even from the throne of Jehovah himself. I trust ye have heard of the patience of Job?
The question, therefore, is not one of goodness. Any answer which depends on any concept of “deserving” is no answer at all, but merely a dodge—a dodge in the finest tradition of miserable comforters and worthless physicians the world over.
Having avoided the dodge, we return to Chesterton, who illuminates a facet of theodicy that I have never before and never again seen illuminated so clearly and eloquently:
Why does each thing on the earth war against each other thing? Why does each small thing in the world have to fight against the world itself? … So that each thing that obeys law may have the glory and isolation of the anarchist. So that each man fighting for order may be as brave and good a man as the dynamiter. So that the real lie of Satan  may be flung back in the face of this blasphemer, so that by tears and torture we may earn the right to say to this man, ‘You lie!’ No agonies can be too great to buy the right to say to this accuser, ‘We also have suffered.’
This is what I have long thought of as the “theodicy of glory.” Without adversity, there can be no perseverance, only the potential for perseverance. Without overwhelming odds, there can be no valor. Without fear, there can be no bravery.
And without these things, each and every believer is subject to the great accusation that begins the conflict in Job. Without these things, we are unproven, untested, and even Satan himself could rightly claim to have persevered through suffering, while we ourselves could not. Without this, all the saints are open to the accusation that they loved God merely because they were safe, and not for any other reason.
Why do the people of God often feel alone? Why do they often suffer? Why do they, at times, seem to fight against the entire world?
So that they may stand firm despite their loneliness. So that they may remain resolute in their suffering. So that they may feel the same distress and pain as those who reject God, yet emerge victorious.
And by this, by their blood and sweat and tears, the people of God may earn the right to say with pride, “I have fought the good fight, though armies were against me. I have finished the race, though terrible obstacles stood in my path. And I have kept the faith, though the world itself tried to take it from me.”
Having passed through the fire and emerged triumphant, the saints will take no heed of the Accuser, for his talk is meaningless. And at the end, they will receive their crown of righteousness from nail-scarred hands and hear the voice which echoed from the cross of Calvary say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Thursday is, in many important ways, a parallel of the book of Job, and this is as far as the story of Job takes us. Thursday, however, goes further. Job (and Thursday himself) are thus free from the accusation of safeness and surety and happiness. But to Chesterton, the final piece of the puzzle is found when God—the same God who spoke out of the whirlwind in power and majesty—places himself on the cross and refuses to come down. In this way God himself puts the Accuser forever to shame, and proves that he is God and he is Good even when he is not safe, even when he is not happy.
And while this may not always put my reason at ease, I can say, along with Thursday, that it puts my heart and soul at ease.
Follow-up Post written here:

The above post was actually much harder to write than I thought it would be. When I have something turning over and over in my head for years on end (as is the case with the theodicy of Chesterton), it's actually fairly difficult to flesh out the connections between my various thoughts. And continuing with my tradition of giving you guys something extra, here it is:

(Spoiler Alert for The Man who was Thursday)
Chesterton's The Man who was Thursday is basically Job, with the addition of one crucial element: The Incarnation and the Cross. The book of Job takes us to a place where we can accept suffering from God, even though we don't know why. Job is comforted not by reason, but by the sight of God himself. God doesn't give him any answers, yet Job withdraws his complaint and is satisfied.

However, that is where Job stops, because there is literally nowhere else to go. God is God, and, as God says, feel free to create your own universe if you're not happy with this one: Until then, stop whining about it. That's all that can be said on the matter.

Until the cross. Until that day when it is not man suffering under the bitterness God hands him, but God Himself suffering. Karl Barth says it best:
"In the Old Testament there is always the antithesis between the righteous God and the bitter things which man has to accept from Him without murmuring. In the passion story of the New Testament this antithesis is done away. It is God Himself who takes the place of the former sufferers and allows the bitterness of their suffering to fall upon Himself."
When I read this passage, I immediately did some research to see if there was any possibility that Chesterton could have been influenced by Barth, or Barth by Chesterton. The result: Maybe? Probably not. But that amazing, incredible moment when Syme, having proclaimed to Gregory that he has not been happy, turns to Sunday and asks, in a slow, stuttering voice, "Have you ever suffered?"...

And he is answered by a "commonplace text that he had heard somewhere: 'Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?'"

When Job demands an answer of God, God replies with a flurry of questions, all unanswerable. Here, Sunday replies with just one question, but even more unanswerable. God's answer to the suffering of the world is not to stand aloof, but to descend into it and drink more deeply of the bitter cup than any mere man could do.


  1. I'm finally getting a chance to read through some of your Chesterton posts. I really enjoyed The Man Who Was Thursday. (To be honest, I haven't read anything by Chesterton that I didn't enjoy.) I hadn't specifically thought of the book as a Job parallel, but your comparison was intriguing. I love the idea of adversity as a necessary chance to show mettle - and that would be a very Chestertonian idea too.

    1. I'm glad you're enjoying the posts! Yeah, the "Thursday as Job" thing didn't click until I was doing a CS Lewis thing in Oxford, and when it did, I wrote a 4,000-word paper on it (and even that was significantly shorter than the first draft!). There are way too many parallels to get into here, but it's definitely worth noting that he had a special affinity for the book: he published an awesome introduction to the book of Job in 1907, just one year before he published Thursday, and in "The Everlasting Man" he called Job "one of the colossal corner-stones of the world." Let me know if you'd like to take a look at the paper!