Harold Kushner holds a special place in my heart even in disagreement. Kushner, perhaps the best-known rabbi in the United States, is a prolific author. One of his nonfiction books, 1986's "When All You've Wanted Isn't Enough," helped me decide to go to seminary. As I read his words in a bed and breakfast in Cooksburg, Pa., it occurred to me that God might be calling me to full-time Christian service. (I recommend the book to anyone who is restless with a chosen life path.) The other day, the venerable 74-year old clergyman spoke on National Public Radio. Several men in my congregation commented on his remarks. Kushner said he often receives thanks about his most famous work, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People." Many seem to consider it to be a landmark treatise on suffering. The book is nearly 30 years old and yet is still quoted with remarkable frequency within the circles in which I move.
When you read the words of anyone, it helps to have some notion of the author's history. The events of our lives do cast a sheen over our thoughts, even if we claim to be impartial. What happens to us during life's journey turns into a prism through which we see just about everything. To his great credit, Kushner does not deny his prism. Many years ago, Kushner lost his 3-year old son, Aaron, to progeria, a severe genetic condition that produces accelerated aging in children. Nearly all progeria's victims develop complications of atherosclerosis, and death occurs due to heart attack or stroke. Progeria has no cure and manifests itself in few people, occurring in less than one in 8 million live births.
Aaron Kushner's mind was unaffected by the disease that fast-forwarded his body into old age. His father's attempt to understand led to the following conclusion: God is all-loving and all-knowing but not all-powerful. There are just some things, the rabbi concluded, that God can't stop. With no disrespect to Kushner, that seems a too tidy resolution.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that both my children are healthy. I admit I've never walked Kushner's path. Yet it is difficult for me to embrace his position. Walking away from the concept of God's omnipotence is a bridge too far -- for me.
The ex-atheist-turned-Christian author Lee Strobel has a completely different view. To quote him: "If God has the power to eradicate evil and suffering, why doesn't he do it? The answer is that because he hasn't done it yet doesn't mean he won't do it. In fact, the Bible says that the day will come when sickness and pain will be eradicated and people will be held accountable for the evil they've committed. So what's holding Jesus up? The answer is that some of you are.
"[God] is delaying the consummation of history in anticipation that some of you will still put your trust in him. He's delaying everything out of his love for you."
Strobel goes on to say that evil exists because God granted people the ability to make their own choices. Sometimes people make unfortunate choices; sometimes other people's choices affect us even if we've done nothing. Take away that freedom, Strobel goes on, and God could eliminate evil and suffering. But the price of that seeming utopia would be that we would be little more than marionettes; puppets able to do only what God wished. God, Strobel insists, wants each of us to respond to him freely in faith -- not because he pulled the strings.
Both perspectives strike me as a little too orderly and neat. But Strobel's idea -- for now -- sits better with me than Kushner's. What say you about the business of suffering and God's place in it?
Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.