Originally, I had set out to do a series of posts on Terryl and Fiona Givens’ The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life, one post for every chapter of the book. Equal parts narcissism and unfounded optimism informed me that this was a good idea, but in the end the extremities of my work and other issues prevented me from doing this.
Instead, I had intended to do one more post addressing the depiction of God in the book. I may one day write that post. But today, there was a shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut. An elementary school. Children died, almost 20 of them, from what I can gather from conflicting reports. Several adults as well, likely their teachers. By the time you read this, we’ll probably know the number. We’ll eventually know the names of the victims, and the identity of the shooter.
We’ll rage at anything that even has a hint of an acceptable target: God, guns, gun advocates, inadequate security, human nature. We’ll also ask ourselves what can be done. What do we do next, not necessarily collectively as a culture but quite literally the very next thing we do. Maybe we’ll struggle to finish the work day, or leave work, or obsessively pick over every report we can find about what happened. If we have children we’ll gather them close, and no matter what we say or don’t say we’ll say it or say nothing through tears. We’ll call friends and family, asking if they’ve heard the news, and take a moment to cry with them. We’ll be a little more sensitive to others’ suffering around us, and we might see opportunities for service to others we didn’t notice before.
At some point, usually in the beginning, there are no words. Some suffering is unspeakable. It can’t be explained or poetized or sung. It can only be witnessed and acknowledged.
At some point, usually a little later, we’ll speak. We’ll feel compelled to speak, to ask, to give words to our rage and our grief. Some of us will betray the suffering of innocents and the ones they left behind with trite explanations or inadequate quotes from favorite scriptures. Others will rail–justifiably so–against God and demand through tears of anguish how we can be expected to worship a being that allows things like this to happen. How dare he ask us to have hope when we have to endure things like this. How can he ask it of us, even if at some point in the past we consented? We’ll ask the inevitable question every believer asks: Where was God? How come he didn’t save these children? How come he didn’t send someone, anyone able to hear him at all, to warn the parents or the school about the terror that was coming for them? What was to be gained by allowing freedom of choice in this instance? How could anything be worth God’s non-intervention in an event like this? And of course we’ll realize that we can ask that question of any moment of any day throughout the history of humankind. In locations throughout the earth, at any given moment, the sufferings and deaths of innocent children–not to mention people in general–blights the human race with a steady consistency that’s far too appalling to fully comprehend. David Bentley Hart puts this under the merciless light of inspection when he considers Ivan Kamarazov’s depiction of suffering children:
Famously, Dostoevsky supplied Ivan with true accounts of children tortured and murdered: Turks tearing babies from their mothers’ wombs, impaling infants on bayonets, firing pistols into their mouths; parents savagely flogging their children; a five-year- old-girl tortured by her mother and father, her mouth filled with excrement, locked at night in an outhouse, weeping her supplications to “dear kind God” in the darkness; an eight-year-old serf child torn to pieces by his master’s dogs for a small accidental transgression.
Nothing that Ivan hears by way of explanation for these horrors convinces him.
He grants that one day there may be an eternal harmony established, one that we will discover somehow necessitated the suffering of children, and perhaps mothers will forgive the murderers of their babies, and all will praise God’s justice; but Ivan wants neither harmony—“for love of man I reject it,” “it is not worth the tears of that one tortured child”—nor forgiveness; and so, not denying there is a God, he simply chooses to return his ticket of entrance to God’s Kingdom. After all, Ivan asks, if you could bring about a universal and final beatitude for all beings by torturing one small child to death, would you think the price acceptable? . . .
Ivan so much as admits that God exists. But what to do with that? What to do with such a belief that asserts that only in the next world will things be set right, only in the next world will brokenness finally be made whole? None of that is right. If things can be set right there without restricting others’ agency in the eternities, then they can be set right here without restricting agency. Here’s my ticket back for entrance into your kingdom. I don’t want to go there anymore.
What, then, of our God? We read that he weeps over the suffering of his children, that Enoch, who witnesses it, is astonished. After everything he had just seen, and been granted power to do by God, he saw God as the all-powerful sovereign, able to do anything he willed, the God of traditional Judaism and Christianity. But this is troubling for Enoch. Doesn’t God already live in that painless realm of beauty and joy, that very place where we yearn to go and have been promised if we are righteous and law-abiding? When God explains that the heavens weep over suffering due to the sins of humankind he then shows Enoch all of it, all of the wickedness and suffering that God witnesses with ghastly regularity, and now Enoch weeps, and his heart swells wide as eternity, and his bowels yearn and eternity shakes. Enoch experiences, as perhaps no one really had or no one really would in scripture, not Nephi with his vision of the end of his people, not John with his Revelation of the Apocalypse, what it was like to live God’s life, to live and move as he lived and moved, as one who is intensely connected to all the happenings and events and lives of the universe. And oh what joy he did not feel from this experience. He weeps bitterly and refuses to be comforted. This could not be it. This could not be all there was for all eternity, worlds without end. Enoch realizes that the essence of what it would mean become a divine being, to become like God, the heart and core of the the gift of the Good News for humanity, was not to escape to another realm where pain and suffering cannot touch you. It was to develop into a being who would and could endure the present of all moments, in wave after infinite wave of pain, suffering, and wickedness, because this would be, despite the good that humanity would also do and be capable of, the terrible gift of humanity to God.
If that is how Mormonism most radically alters traditional conceptions of the doctrine of God in Christian theology, we might be tempted to say along with Ivan, “Here’s my ticket back. I don’t want to go.” Was this not Jesus’ initial response in the terrible Garden, who would that he might not drink the bitter cup and shrink? And he didn’t shrink–until he was on the Cross, until he had borne more than he knew how to bear and cried out in anguished hopelessness that God had abandoned him. It was in that moment, perhaps, more than any other, that he finally, and truly, and terribly, became one with us, one of us, down here in this miserable hell-hole where little children are tortured and killed and entire generations are exterminated in genocidal slaughter. No, don’t come down here to be with us. It’s too horrible for you to imagine. Stay in those celestial spheres where disease doesn’t humiliate you by taking your mind before it takes your life. We don’t deserve it anyway. We’re too terrible to save, this race of beings who doesn’t just butcher its young but finds ghastly ways to make them suffer before the end.
But those celestial spheres are not quite like that. There is weeping. And the swelling of hearts. And the yearning of bowels. And the shaking of eternity. Those celestial spheres are not wholly stable and unmoved. They don’t prevent the terrible truths of the living universe from penetrating invincibly rigid walls. They are shaken. They are destabilized. They are pierced over and over again with our cries and our anguish.
This doesn’t seem comforting in the least. What kind of vision of God is this? Can such a God really save us? And do we really want him to? What kind of salvation is this, to never escape being a being who suffers, whose suffering, in some ways, only intensifies, as he or she is exalted?
That vivid moment in the Book of Mormon allegory of the olive tree, when after digging and dunging, watering and weeding, trimming, pruning, transplanting, and grafting, the great Lord of the vineyard throws down his spade and his pruning shears and weeps, crying out to any who would listen, “What could I have done more for my vineyard?”
….Jesus did not come to improve God’s view of man nearly so much as He came to improve man’s view of God and to plead with them to love their Heavenly Father as He has always and will always love them. The plan of God, the power of God, the holiness of God, yes, even the anger and the judgment of God they had occasion to understand. But the love of God, the profound depth of His devotion to His children, they still did not fully know—until Christ came.
So feeding the hungry, healing the sick, rebuking hypocrisy, pleading for faith—this was Christ showing us the way of the Father, He who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, long-suffering and full of goodness….” In Their mutual suffering and shared sorrow for the sins and heartaches of the rest of us, we see ultimate meaning in the declaration: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” (Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Grandeur of God”)
Feeding the hungry, healing the sick, lifting up the hands that hang down, weeding, dunging, trimming, pruning, weeping that we can’t do anymore but realizing that there is still more to be done, always more to be done–this is the life of a God: tasks to be accomplished, not reasons to be given. Injustice to make right, in this eternal present, not a future of fantastical bliss. Or perhaps better: the tasks are the reasons. God rarely offers explanation in scripture for why things occur. Explanations usually come from us, trying to comfort ourselves out of fear for our loved ones and fear to face what we’ve become as a species, the darkness that lies within us. God gets down in the dirt with a shovel and a determination to do what can be done, and he does it forever. Eventually he gets a body that can’t get sick and die. Eventually he lives with his family forever. But the work that they do together and the love that they radiate –trying to persuade us to be better, love a little more deeply, help those in need–is all there is and all there ever will be. And together their hearts swell in agony, and their bowels yearn for justice, and as a family they weep over the sufferings and deaths of their little ones, who will one day be doing that same work with them, shoulder to shoulder, engaged in in that eternal, terrible, joyful soulwork, and all we can do here is the same. We often wish it wasn’t true. But look around. Look at all the suffering before you. Look at the appalling injustice of the world. Look at those who need you to mourn with them and to comfort them. You need the same. The answer to your question is: We haven’t yet begun to dig.
One more time into the breach.
Look, over there. There are others. They will help. They want to be good, too.
Once more covered in blood and mud.