Monday, July 9, 2012

Clinging to the Truth

Grenz, Guretzki and Nordling defined evil as “any act or event that is contrary to the good and holy purposes of God” (1999). People have struggled with the problem of evil for a long time. Writers in the Old Testament questioned how a just God could allow wicked people to prosper (Jeremiah 12:1-2, Psalm 73:3-9, Habakkuk 1:3-4). Philosophers argue that it is illogical that a God who is omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly good, can co-exist with evil (Mackie, 1955). A much more personal question is asked in the counseling room, “Why did God allow evil to happen to me?” The question may be in the form of “Why did God allow a drunk driver to kill my loved one?”, “How could a good God allow my child to be sexually abused? “or “Where was God when the tornado destroyed my home?”

The counselee may answer these questions by deciding that God is not good or even that He does not exist resulting in the counselee choosing to live a godless life. Another possible answer is that the evil happened because of something that the counselee did and so the counselee blames himself. Although at times the counselee may be responsible, for example if he was the drunk driver, many times the counselee is not responsible. So in addition to grieving the loss, the client must now deal with false guilt. However, the true answer is that God is all powerful, all knowing and perfectly good and evil can and does happen even to those who love and follow God. This is the answer that Job concluded (Job 42). Paul came to a similar conclusion when he stated that he had learned to be content in any situation (Philippians 4:11). The Christian not dealing with the personal consequences of evil usually accepts this theological tension. The person in the midst of suffering accepts the reality of evil, yet may have a deficient view of God or self. The Christian counselor could give a theological or philosophical argument for the existence of both God and evil explaining that God has a good reason to allow evil. The Free Will Defense presented by Alvin Plantinga (1965) is an example of one way philosophy has attempted to deal with the problem of evil. However, the hurting person does not need a philosophical argument but an intimate relationship with Christ.  

Paul said that all else was rubbish compared to the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:8). It was this intimate relationship that allowed Paul to be content in all situations.  When one knows Jesus intimately one knows God’s character. In describing God’s character, Millard Erickson (2005) classified God’s attributes into two categories, the greatness of God and the goodness of God. Under the category of greatness, God is described as spirit, personal, living, infinite and unchanging. The goodness of God is seen in his relationship to man. God is morally pure in that He is holy, righteous and just. God exemplifies integrity in that He is genuine, truthful and faithful. Finally God is love in that He is benevolent, gracious, merciful and persistent. The scope of this article does not allow opportunity to explore each of these attributes; similarly one in the midst of pain does not always have the ability to understand all of God’s attributes. Sometimes one must simply cling to the fact that God is good, God is great.

How does one cling to these truths? It is a matter of intentional focus. One can choose to focus on the evil that has occurred or the goodness of God. One way to illustrate this principle is to share with the client the passage in Matthew 14:22-33 where Jesus walks on the water and Peter joins Him. The passage may be read aloud during the session or the counselor can describe the event to the counselee. Next, the counselee would be asked to visualize the event using as many senses as possible. The goal of this exercise is for the counselee to engage her emotions as she visualizes the scene. The client may be aided in her visualization by giving the following prompts. Visualize the darkness, hear the wind blowing and feel the boat rising and falling in the tumultuous waters. Smell the dampness and feel the water spray on your face. Then after the scene is developed, the client is directed to see a figure in the distance walking on the water. Imagine the fear that the disciples experienced thinking they are seeing a ghost. Then the disciples hear Jesus voice and feel relief and joy. Peter in his enthusiasm asks to join Jesus in the water. Peter jumps overboard and begins walking toward Jesus. But then Peter becomes aware that he is in the waves and wind, and begins to sink. Peter cries out for help and the Lord reaches out to him. As long as Peter was focused on Christ, he was fine, but when he turned away he began to sink.  Now, ask the client to place herself in the water with Christ and visualize Jesus reaching out to her. As she keeps this image in her mind’s eye ask her to describe Jesus character. The counselor may direct the client to focus on a particular characteristic such as his faithfulness or simply his goodness. At the end of the exercise, it is important to devise a plan so that the client can keep this truth in the forefront of her thoughts.  The plan may be to write a brief sentence such as Jesus is good on several cards and place the cards in places that she will frequently see or places where her mind tends to drift to the evil she has suffered. It may also be helpful to identify a symbol such as a boat that will help her remember God’s goodness. Then the client can draw boats or purchase boat magnets or toy boats and place them in key positions. She may also start a list of times in which she has experienced God’s goodness in her life. Finally in times when she is having difficulty maintaining her focus, instruct her to state out loud the truth such as “God is good”. 

This intervention does not answer the question of why God allows evil to happen, for many times God has not chosen to disclose His intention.  As Christian psychologists, we may help others move from a simple, but often ineffective trust, to a trust that is grounded in the knowledge of God's character.  For example, as we see with Job, his ability to trust deepened as God's holy character was revealed to him (Job 42:1-5).  Our ability to ground our interventions biblically and to depend upon the work of Holy Spirit is what allows us to be wise counselors rather than miserable comforters (Job 16:2). 
Erickson, M. (2005). Christian theology (2nd ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics.
Grenz, S. J., Guretzki, D. & Nordling, C. H. (1999). Pocket dictionary of theological terms. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.
Mackie, J. L., (1955). Evil and omnipotence. Mind, 64, 200-212.
Plantinga, A., (1965). The free will defense.  In Black, M. (Ed.), Philosophy in America (204-220). London: Allen and Unwin.

Dana Wicker Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Psychology and Counseling
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

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