“Deconstructing” Theodicy—the Surprising Utility of Profound Disillusionment

A guest post by Jim Reitman

“Ours is not to reason why; ours is but to do or die.” -Alfred Lord Tennyson

Perhaps the hardest interpretive “pill” to swallow in the history of interpretation of Job has been the apparent contradiction between Job’s steadfast faith and God’s blistering sarcasm when He finally appears to confront Job (Job 38-41). Even after Job seemingly bows in deference to God’s challenge (40:4-5), God never explains his suffering and only escalates the irony and sarcasm in his reply (40:6-41:34). What’s up with that?

Let’s look more closely. The KJV “Behold, I am vile” (40:4) misconstrues the Hebrew-the word translated “vile” is best rendered “insignificant,” and we finally get our needed insight into YHWH’s scathing rhetoric: God has just painstakingly informed Job of His intricate design and care in all Creation, placing man in an exalted position of dominion (Job 38-39, cf. Psalm 8). Accordingly, Job’s retort “Behold, I am insignificant” (40:4) amounts to a bold denial of God’s creative/redemptive character; Job still maintains that God has unfairly confiscated his entire estate as he has contended since Job 29-31. Job’s apparent humble submission is thereby unmasked as obstinate pride.

If we think God’s scathing sarcasm is unfair leverage on Job who was not culpable for his total devastation, note that Elihu (in the power of God’s Spirit, 32:1-33:6) had already anticipated the very points that God makes, and Job had no answer (Job 33-37). In fact, Elihu had even pointed out that dumb cattle obey God’s voice as he is “heard” throughout creation (36:29-37:12), whereas Job merely “multiplies words without knowledge” (35:16). A fitting response to this loquacious presumption is the “rhetoric of humiliation” (cf. James 1:10), which God uses to graciously peel off Job’s resistant pride; only then does Job ultimately “repent in dust and ashes” and accept God’s invitation to serve him as the redemptive mediator he was created to be (42:1-9).

An all-too-common conceit in a theistic frame of reference is the presumption that we can know what God is up to in this life; but this presumption is constantly challenged by the universal observation of evil and unjust suffering in a world we presume is governed by a benevolent and sovereign Creator. While the task of theodicy is precisely the attempt to respond theologically to that challenge, the drama of Job depicts the consummate failure of theodicy, unmasking the merely human philosophical enterprise. Rather than explain suffering the argument of Job exposes the more serious underlying problem of tenacious human self-sufficiency, even among religious “servants” like Job and his friends. They find uncertainty over God’s purposes intolerable and must proffer explanations of evil and suffering that God never validates. The dramatic tension in Job resolves only when God trumps theodicy by revealing himself as a secure Sovereign who graciously invites his servants to redemptive human co-regency. Theodicy is thus “deconstructed” in favor of soliciting obedience to God’s gracious invitation. Yet, who would ever obey when we still have no idea what God is up to?

Enter disillusionment. “Disappointment” is our basic response to frustrated expectations, but disillusionment invariably follows frustrated dreams (Job 29-31), and unresolved disillusionment leads to existential despair (Eccl 6). How can that be good? It depends on how tenaciously we demand “an explanation of things” (cf. Eccl 7:25, 27, NASB) in the interest of pursuing our own ambitious “dreams,” convinced that “knowledge is power.” It took profound disillusionment to graciously dislodge Job’s pretentious aspirations in favor of the far more life-giving enterprise of redemptive intercession. Yet, God never violated Job’s prerogative of choosing whether to obey His redemptive “voice” or not; ergo, the fitting denouement of 42:10-17.

This same role of disillusionment is central to the argument of Ecclesiastes; theologically, the two books are thus “joined at the hip.” The literary “hinge” or “pivot” occurs at 7:1: “A good name is better than fine perfume, and the day of death [is better] than the day of one’s birth.” If this morbid contention is just the cynical capstone of one “vanity” piled on another in the first half of the book (“vanity of vanities”), why does the author go on in 7:2-4 to substantiate the claim of 7:1 in such detail?

Better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for that is the end of all men; and the living will take [it] to heart. Sorrow [is] better than laughter, for by a sad countenance the heart is made better. The heart of the wise [is] in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools [is] in the house of mirth.

The Hebrew word for “sorrow” here is more often translated “vexation” or “anger” and carries the core meaning of “frustration” or “disillusionment.” In fact only 6 verses later (7:9) “sorrow” does not even fit, most English versions render the word “anger.” Thus, surprisingly, it is actually disillusionment that “makes the heart better.” The second half of Ecclesiastes then explains how this can free us up to participate in God’s purposes-and even rejoice-by accepting His unpredictable invitations amid disillusionment, just as Job did by finally attending to God’s voice.

In this light does it make sense to respond to disillusionment in life by grinding our teeth in the face of suffering and evil, tenaciously determined to vindicate our heart’s desires? What is the fitting response of pastors called to come alongside the lives of others in the face of unexplained suffering? Do we engage theodicy to proffer a plausible explanation? Or do we resist the temptation and emulate Elihu instead, patiently assuring people of God’s primarily redemptive character and thus preparing them to hear His unpredictable invitation, even as they harbor a grudge against Him? Which is easier? …then what?

A full exposition of the role of disillusionment in Job and Ecclesiastes can be found in my commentary, Unlocking Wisdom: Forming Agents of God in the House of Mourning.


One thought on ““Deconstructing” Theodicy—the Surprising Utility of Profound Disillusionment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s