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The Gods

Just a short observation tonight. This evening I’ve heard from two friends who are going through extremely difficult times in their lives. Loved ones close to them died — one of a sudden heart attack (he was young), the other by her own hand. And … well, it’s not right to go into details of other people’s suffering, but talking to one of these friends, I said that Matthew and I are reading The Iliad together, and as we approach the end, after all that slaughter, I find that I really despise the gods. They are the ones who play games with the lives of these poor mortals. They urge them on to fight, they make them rage against each other, they use the husbands and sons and brothers to work out their own anger against other gods, or just to have their fancy.

“I can’t help thinking, as I’m reading this, that these gods are literary creations, but in this way they are a little too close to our God for comfort,” I said.

When I hear stories like the suicide of a beloved family member, which is what that friend is living through now, and hear of how the family member who killed herself suffered so terribly in mind and body for so many years before finally ending it — well, I wonder how God, our loving God, allows that to happen.

I know. I know. This is the question everybody has, and it is for me the only serious argument against the existence of God. But I do believe in Him. I just don’t understand why He does the things He does, or allows certain things. Did you read the story the other day about the couple, now both arrested, who conceived a child for the purpose of sexually abusing her? How does that happen? How does God allow people like that to live? How does God live with Himself knowing such people walk the earth?

I don’t expect you to answer these questions. There are no answers, at least none that satisfy. I’m just venting, because I’m thinking about so many people I know who are suffering, and who don’t deserve to be. And I’m thinking about this passage that the late literary historian Paul Fussell wrote about leaving sunny Pasadena and going into combat in the Second World War:

Everyone knows that a night relief is among the most difficult of infantry maneuvers. But we didn’t know it, and in our innocence we expected it to go according to plan. We and the company we were replacing were cleverly and severely shelled; it was as if the Germans a few hundred feet away could see us in the dark and through the thick pine growth. When the shelling finally stopped, at about midnight, we realized that although near the place we were supposed to be, until daylight we were hopelessly lost. The order came down to stop where we were, lie down among the trees, and get some sleep. We would finish the relief at first light. Scattered over several hundred yards, the 250 of us in F Company lay down in a darkness so thick we could see nothing at all. Despite the terror of our first shelling (and several people had been hit), we slept as soundly as babes. At dawn I awoke, and what I saw all around were numerous objects I’d miraculously not tripped over in the dark. These objects were dozens of dead German boys in greenish-gray uniforms, killed a day or two before by the company we were relieving. If darkness had hidden them from us, dawn disclosed them with open eyes and greenish-white faces like marble, still clutching their rifles and machine pistols in their seventeen-year-old hands, fixed where they had fallen. (For the first time I understood the German phrase for the war dead: die Gefallenen.) Michelangelo could have made something beautiful out of these forms, in the Dying Gaul tradition, and I was startled to find that at first, in a way I couldn’t understand, they struck me as beautiful. But after a moment no feeling but shock and horror. My adolescent illusions, largely intact to that moment, fell away all at once, and I suddenly knew I was not and never would be in a world that was reasonable or just. The scene was less apocalyptic than shabbily ironic: it sorted so ill with modern popular assumptions about the idea of progress and attendant improvements in public health, social welfare, and social justice. To transform guiltless boys into cold marble after passing them through unbearable fear and humiliation and pain and contempt seemed to do them an interesting injustice. I decided to ponder these things.

Some people come through great suffering with their faith intact, even strengthened. Others find it ripped out of them like fingernails in the pincers of a torturer. It’s all a mystery. I don’t understand them, the gods. I suppose if I did, their ways wouldn’t be a mystery.

This will pass. I just wanted to say it, because people dear to me are hurting tonight, and if I were God, I would deliver them from it, right now. A friend of mine has a broken bone. She’s a hard, hard worker, but has no health insurance. She refuses to let anyone help her, and refuses to take a break from her physically demanding work. A broken bone — can you believe that? She is indomitable. She’s older, and has had a difficult life, one filled with hardship and abuse. And now, this stupid broken bone.

No, she says, thanks, but I don’t need any help. Really, I can make it. Thank you, though. This dear lady struggles for everything, but doesn’t complain. She works through the pain of a broken bone. She can’t afford a doctor, and won’t let anyone help her. Why was she born into this hard life? Why has she never had peace and comfort? Kind and hard-working and honest, but it doesn’t get her far. She told someone who begged her to go to the doctor, and offered to pay for her medical bills: “No, I’m not going to do that. But thank you, that means a lot. Nobody has ever offered to take care of me.” I am told she had tears in her eyes when she said that.

I do not understand the gods. I know the theologically correct answer, and I believe it. Honestly, I do. Still.

Christianity gives us a god who suffers. I think that is the only kind of god I can believe in.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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