Written by Chaplain Intern Dave C. Chikosi
Scottish Chaplain Ian Macritchie has argued that the hospital “is no place for a chaplain who does not have a theology of suffering and healing” (Macritchie, “The Chaplain as Translator,” p.208). I concur. Every chaplain must wrestle with the conundrum of human pain and suffering. And for chaplains from the three Abrahamic religions (Islam, Judaism and Christianity) there is the additional question of how to justify God in the face of evil.
Muslims, Jews and Christians all describe their Supreme Being as omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent. But if their Deity is all that (plus omni-loving), why hasn’t He prevented suffering? The problem was stated succinctly by Scottish philosopher David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779): “Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”
Muslims, Jews and Christians have responded (to the “Inconsistent Triad”) by offering counter-arguments that seek to justify God in the face of evil. The theological term for these arguments is “theodicy”(from theos ‘god’ + dike ‘justice’) – a term coined by 18th century philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. In his book Théodicée Leibniz controversially declared that this world was “the best of all possible world” and that if a better alternative existed “God would have brought it into actuality.”
Of course Biblical Christianity rejects that thesis because it fails to take into account the doctrine of the Fall of Man. It was the ‘best of all possible worlds’ until Adam messed it all up. And it won’t be until after God has renovated this present world with fire and “the elements melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein are burned up” (2 Pet 3:10), that a new world shall emerge from the old. It is this new world that will be the ‘best of all possible worlds’. No more “death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain” (Rev 21:4).
Leibniz’s philosophical optimism laid the foundation for a new “religion i.e. today’s massive Positive Thinking and/or Self-Help industry – estimated to be worth over $10 billion. According to University of Denver religious studies professor Cark Raschke, Positive Thinking is America’s secular religion. It is “an extension of our pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps frontier ethos” that permeates the present cultural landscape, and articles of faith are echoed in the mystical mind-over-matter certainties of celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and others.
The Christian’s Bible-based optimism, on the other hand, is very different from secular mind-over-matter. It is Mind-over-matter i.e. the Mind of Christ over human matters. The Christian believer can be the eternal optimist precisely because Jesus Christ has conquered sin, death and the grave in the Resurrection. In Him all pain and suffering is woven into a tapestry and made to “work together for good to those who love God” (Rom 8:28). Doesn’t make suffering easy, but it sure makes it bearable. Hence the exhortation to “consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2).
And even when I don’t see or understand the ‘why’ of a crisis, I know God is working on it, and He never stops working on it. This is the message of an extremely popular and contemporary African Gospel song that has been sung across the globe by almost every Christian denomination, from the most fundamentalist to the most liberal.
“Way Maker” is a song by African Gospel artist Sinach (full name Osinachi Kalu Okoro Egbu). It has been called “the American church’s quarantine anthem.” It made its way to the States from Nigeria and has since topped the US charts for both Christian airplay and church worship during the first months of the pandemic. It has been sung by demonstrators marching and calling for racial justice (see video clip).
The God of Sinach is not Deus Absconditus or literally “the God who has absconded.” On the contrary, her God is deeply involved in human pain and suffering. This is not always apparent to the naked human eye, but He is working all things for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. The hospital chaplain can thus assure, especially the Christian patient, that in Jesus “we have not a high priest that cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (Heb 4:15). He works to mitigate crises, and many times He will supernaturally intervene directly, but He is always working His purpose through it all.
Even when I don’t see it. He never stops working.