Many Christian (and other) theodicies involve the claim that evil and suffering give us the opportunity to experience, witness and take part in certain goods that would otherwise be impossible. So for example, this kind of theodicy
points out that certain kinds of especially valuable free choice are possible only as responses to evil. I can (logically) show courage in bearing my suffering only if I am suffering (an evil state). I can ‘show’ sympathy for you […] and help you in various ways, only if you are suffering and need help. […] It is good that we should have the opportunity (occasionally) to do such actions as showing courage or sympathy, actions that often involve resisting great temptation because thereby we manifest our total commitment to the good. […] Help is most significant when it is most needed, and it is most needed when its recipient is suffering and deprived. But I can (logically) help others who are suffering only if there is the evil of their suffering. In these cases, if there is a God, he makes possible the good of free choices of particular kinds, between good and evil, which – logically – he could not give us without allowing the evils (or evils equally bad) to occur.
– Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, 2nd Edition (OUP, 2004), 241
If someone were to offer this analysis as the whole of their thinking about suffering in the world (which Swinburne does not do), that would be vastly inadequate. But there is something to it. If nothing else, it poses the following questions to the believer who either experiences or witnesses suffering (or both): How will you react to this? With courage or with cowardice? By helping others or by ignoring their plight? Trusting in God or sulking at him? As an opportunity to grow in faith or as an excuse to give up?
I’ve been reflecting on disagreements among Christians recently, and I think that something like the above analysis can be applied to that situation as well. I’m not saying that God allows people who trust in Jesus to disagree about theology in order for some good to result; I don’t know that. But I will say that disagreements in theology offer the opportunity for some goods that otherwise might not be possible:
- they encourage to seriously check the basis we have for holding the beliefs that we do by asking searching questions of our own assumptions,
- they force us to be clear in our own minds about which of our beliefs are central and which are more peripheral, and to what extent,
- they afford us an opportunity to show grace towards those with whom we disagree about less than essential matters by genuinely thinking of and treating them as brothers and sisters in Christ.
This last point is so important. Perhaps if we always agreed with all Christians about everything then we would be even more at risk of treating the church as a mutual congratulation club than we already are. I’ve long been deeply affected by the following story:
A few years ago when I was working in Johannesburg, I was troubled when a student I had discipled spoke to me about another church in the area. I had some theological disagreements with the leadership of this particular church, but there was no doubt that they were genuine Christians. What upset me most was not so much that the young man spoke so dismissively about the church, but that he clearly thought I would be delighted that he did so. He was copying the example I had unconsciously been giving him. I felt like Dr. Frankenstein must have felt after creating his monster and I thought to myself, “What have I done? It’s my fault that he is so critical of others.” Seeing my own harsh attitude reflected in someone else made me realize how ugly it was and that I needed to repent.
– Vaughan Roberts, Battles Christians Face (Authentic, 2007), 100
If nothing else, this analysis poses the following questions to the believer who encounters theological disagreements with fellow Christians: How will you react to this? With pride or with humility? By seeking clarity or refusing to listen? By examining your own beliefs or by closing ranks within your own group? By building up disciples or by creating monsters?