It takes no great insight to say that for many, many people who reject faith, the biggest stumbling blocks for them are the “problem of evil” and the related “problem of suffering.” How can an omnipotent (all-powerful) and all-loving God allow so much suffering to occur among those who merit so much better?
(Today’s preferred Old Testament reading from the Revised Common Lectionary, Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, contains a lament about all the suffering of Hebrew tribes, and the familiar question of where God is and why he won’t help: “Is the Lord not in Zion?… Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why has the health of my people not been restored?”)
All of us who proclaim the faith have been faced, sometimes angrily and often from the asker’s place of deep sorrow, with the insistent question of why God doesn’t step in and help ease pain. (“Is there no physician there?”) And sometimes the question is almost in the form of an accusation, stemming from the assumption that God not only allows pain but deliberately causes it.
(“He’s all-powerful, right? Then everything that happens must be His will, and thus His doing — right?!?”)
For discussion purposes only — absolutely not as a statement of doctrine, but as a hypothetical — consider the possibility that while God is omniscient (all-knowing) and all-loving, He might not actually be omnipotent. What if He is only multi-potent: our world’s Creator, yes, and able in certain circumstances and in certain ways to influence earthly events, but not absolutely able to bend all events to His will? What if He sees the suffering and wants to help, and tries to help, but can’t just snap His Godfingers and make things better all at once? What if God’s power has limits?
Some might say that even to consider this possibility is to commit a heresy of one degree or another. Clearly, discussing such a hypothetical state of affairs is unorthodox.
But, if the idea is couched in a certain way, it need not be entirely heretical. What if God’s powers are less-than-absolute only in the way humans understand absolutism and power? What if what seems merely to be a contingent power to us is, in some deistic sense, not a lack of power at all? After all, we readily accept that God’s time is not our time, that God’s knowledge is different than our knowledge, that God’s love is multitudinously greater than our Love. So why should we not also misunderstand, or fail to appreciate, the real ways and means of God’s power?
What if, for instance, God created rules for Himself at the very instant He created the universe? What if God’s great act of creation included all sorts of conditions that allowed for the world to evolve, for His chosen Creatures (men) to develop and learn and grow in ways that can happen only if God limits His own tendency towards interference? What if God made His own power contingent upon man’s co-participation through faith? After all, have we seen — does church history record — miracles happening without an act or expression of deep faith?
And what if, by virtue of making His own power contingent, God arranged things so that what once was done could not be undone? What if, once His own power was bound by rules that only He understands, he used his cosmic omnipotence to limit his earthly omnipotence once and for all?
If something like this is the case, then God is neither the direct source of our sufferings nor even an uncaring being who sees suffering not attributable to Him and merely chooses not to alleviate it. Instead, He would be the loving, creative force who works in ways we do not comprehend to lessen the pain; to strengthen our ability to withstand the suffering; to comfort us as we experience it; and, under certain circumstances that only He understands, to intervene more directly (including, on very rare occasions, via what we know as “miracles”) so as to deliver us from it?
What we do know is that our faith teaches us that God will not forsake us. It teaches us that His everlasting joy awaits us, through faith in His grace, after we pass from this Earth. And it teaches us that God loves us not just in some future sense but in our corporeal existence as well — and that we are sometimes so weak or incomprehending that we do not recognize His love and mercy even when it is there for us all along.
If we want to proselytize to the doubters, if we want to evangelize and persuade, then perhaps it wold behoove us not to focus on the idea of God as omnipotent, but only on our knowledge that He is indeed omniscient and all-loving and on the promise of the joy He offers us in paradise.
I think that God does give us the wherewithal to endure bad situations; and that faith helps us keep a clear head, calm demeanor, and hopeful heart that allows us to see solutions we might otherwise not see.
From a multipotent God, those are quite nice gifts and rewards indeed. And if the exact extent or form of God’s power remains a mystery to us — well, sometimes mysteries, too, are alluring, and extremely fulfilling when the mysteries’ answers are revealed.