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“‘My life is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes.’ That’s a sentence I read in a book once, and I say it over to comfort myself whenever I’m disappointed in anything.”

Anne of Green Gables

As a Canadian, reading L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables was practically mandatory. I didn’t read this classic until I was in my late 20’s and finally discovered the delights of the little orphan girl with bright red hair and an imagination as big as the cosmos.

Her strategy of encountering disappointment, which involves adding high drama to the everyday by imaging herself as the heroine of a novel who woefully utters: “My life is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes” is actually quite a good way of encountering the uncontrollable suffering she experiences. (In this case, she is mourning the fact that her hair will not change from the dreaded red to a more acceptable colour as she grows older)

By using imagination, Anne actually puts herself in the place of agency. She is not the victim of the universe, but a heroine of tragic proportion. She is the one who nobly faces her fate and chooses to accept it. It is the mental equivalent of squeezing a finger that has been stubbed.

It turns out that acceptance and agency are more important than you would think. Having agency—feeling like you can do something about the challenges you face—is integral to enduring pain and hardship without despair. The alternative is a state called “learned helplessness” when, after a few failed attempts, we give up any effort because we’ve learned that we are powerless to change a situation. It takes time and effort to then relearn agency again, to learn that our choices and actions do have an impact on those around us. That process of learning to think differently about seemingly self-evident truths is called “reappraisal” and it is a powerful tool in the equipment of the mind.

We can apply it is systemic injustices, such as those we are seeing in the uprisings around the death of George Floyd. We can apply it to how we respond to the imposed isolation of the novel coronavirus circulating the globe. We can change the way we think, and that changes the way we feel, which in turn changes the way we act.

Surprisingly, we can also apply the tools of reappraisal to our encounter with God in the face of evil. Studies have shown that the way people think about God affects how well they adapt and respond to painful situations.[1] People who imagine God as an angry judge who sets out to punish those who do wrong have a harder time with catastrophic situations than people who see God as a tender parental figure who embraces us in our suffering. As our theology changes from one to the other, we can develop a growing resilience in times of trouble.

Now, you might be rightfully suspicious of a theologian whose answer to the problem of suffering is “learn more theology.” It seems indecently self-serving. So let me be quick to say that learning more and better theology will not, in itself, be a solution to suffering. At best, our theology can be part of a much larger picture of resilience that must include physical, psychological, and material considerations. Yet even a small part of the overall picture can provide either significant help or present significant obstacles to a desired end, as anyone trying to walk with a broken toe can tell you!

So, take some time and investigate: how do you think God is involved in the outbreak of COVID 19? Did God create a world with viruses or not? Was its outbreak at this moment preordained? What is God doing as we try to cope with this new world? How does God love a suffering world?

My purpose here is not to try to answer those questions (there are numberless books/articles/podcasts on the problem of God and suffering), but rather to give you permission to take the time to really think about them, and to change your mind if you need it. Sometimes we think that what we believe about God is just self-evidently true. Changing our theology would simply be a result of convenience or compromise. However, it is impossible to hold on to that view for very long upon reflection. The best physicists in the world only know a little about the 4% of the universe made up of matter. The other 96% remains a significant mystery of dark matter and dark energy. The most devoted, most loving spouses in the world finish life together with the other person still concealing mysterious depths that cannot be accessed by decades of communication. How much less do we know of God? The clearest picture we have of God is God’s own gracious self-revelation in Jesus Christ. And yet, any honest Christian’s answer will be that our apprehension of that revelation is slow and faltering. “We see through a glass darkly.”

Re-investigating our theology, asking what other people have found to be true about their encounters with God, is a simple act of humility that we should all take. Otherwise, we may find ourselves saying similar things about God as Albert Michelson said about physics in 1894: “The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote… Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.” The primary revelation for Christians is in Jesus Christ and the Scriptural accounts that testify of Him. But the end of revelation? May that never come.

In the meantime, we both receive and recreate our theology in communities of practice with the help of the Holy Spirit. Trying to properly describe God with our words and concepts is like trying to make a rainbow out of playdough. But it’s as good as we’ve got! Take up your mind’s conception of God. Look into the Scriptures again. Read some unfamiliar theological viewpoints. In light of the current turbulent global moment, it is time to reappraise.

 

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[1] E. Exline, et. al., “Seeing God as Cruel or Distant: Links with Divine Struggles Involving Anger, Doubt, and Fear of God’s Disapproval,” The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 25 (2015): 29-41; J. D. Aten, et. al., “God Images Following Hurricane Katrina in South Mississippi: An Exploratory Study,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 36:4 (2008):249-257.