Beliefs about God matter. What we believe about God, and in particular God’s role in the midst of suffering, has potent spiritual and psychological consequences. As a pastor and licensed therapist, I have worked with countless emotionally hurting people who struggle in their relationship with God, and some who outright hate God, due to their conscious and unconscious beliefs about Him.
Researchers have sought to determine whether there is a correlation between mental health and one’s beliefs and inner wrestling with God—what they call “divine struggle” (Exline, Grubbs, & Homolka, 2015). Researchers, Wilt, Exline, Grubbs, Park, & Pargament (2016), state “divine struggle is related to lower levels of positive indicators of mental health, such as self-esteem, problem solving skills, life satisfaction, meaning, and positive affect, as well as to higher levels of negative indicators of mental health, such as anxiety, anger, depression, and general emotional distress” (p.353). Beliefs not only draw us closer or farther away from God, they also have powerful effects on our psychological health and relationship with self and others.
A recent study looked at how people’s beliefs about suffering relate to divine struggle (Wilt et al. 2016). You can find the study here: https://goo.gl/d8LNSp). The researchers used what is known as the Views of Suffering Scale (VOSS) to measure participant’s beliefs about God’s relationship to suffering (Hale-Smith, Park, & Edmondson 2012). You can find the VOSS scale here: https://goo.gl/1Xuph8
The VOSS includes 10 scales that assess how much a person subscribes to particular theodicies, which include theistic, Buddhist, Atheist, Hindu, and unorthodox views of God. Additionally, the researchers assessed the participant’s divine struggle using the Religious and Spiritual Struggles scale. Lastly, the researchers assessed the participant’s mental health using the Satisfaction With Life Scale, the Mental Health Continuum-Short Form, and other scales measuring stress, anxiety, and depression.
One particular scale listed on the VOSS, which will be pertinent for our discussion below, is the Limited Knowledge scale. The Limited Knowledge scale adheres to the Open View of God. The three core propositions of the limited knowledge scale are:
- The main obstacle to God preventing suffering is that God doesn’t know when it will happen.
- God cares about people who are suffering, but can’t protect them because God doesn’t know in advance what will happen.
- The main impediment to God protecting people from suffering is that God doesn’t know when or how it will happen.
There is an interesting finding in the study. The researchers wrote “Unexpectedly, beliefs that attribute a benevolent role to God in suffering were also related to experiencing more divine struggle” (p.358). In other words, those who believed that God was good and ascribed “good intentions to God with regard to suffering” experienced a greater degree of spiritual, mental, and emotional issues than those who adhered to other theodicies (such as the limited view, which will be discussed shortly).
The researchers admit God’s benevolent role in suffering and its relation to divine struggle is “counterintuitive,” (p.359) but they offer an explanation. They suggest that divine struggle relates to “greater engagement with God, and that part of this engagement is expressed via negative emotion and/or conflict” (p.359). Apparently, the researchers imply that the deeper our relationship with God, the more potential our relationship with God will be conflictual. Therefore, being in conflict with a loving God is natural.
Does this need to be the case? Do people who are in a relationship with God need to experience divine struggle, particularly when it comes to theodicy?
Divine struggle—emotional, psychological, and spiritual conflict—does not need to be the norm for lovers of God, especially during times of suffering. Though the researchers try to normalize divine struggle, which they correlate with belief in, and relationship with, a benevolent God, they do so to the neglect of the elephant in the room—the incongruence and dissonance that occurs with believing in the traditional view of God in relationship to evil and suffering.
Divine struggle is not an inevitable outcome of being in a relationship with God. It is being in relationship with a particular God—a God who is good and loving; who plans and purposes the difficult and evil events in our lives; who can easily intervene and stop evil events that occur, does so on occasion, and for the most part mysteriously chooses not to. I have written elsewhere on the incongruence of this view here: http://markgregorykarris.com/theodicy/stop-saying-god-allows-evil/
There is a unique finding that points to a biblical option that when believed has an increased probability of experiencing greater well-being—believing in a God who deeply loves people yet cannot stop evil events from occurring (as opposed to a God who could but chooses not to).
The researchers found “beliefs attributing a benevolent role to God in suffering and beliefs that God has limited knowledge of the future (and thus cannot prevent suffering) had direct, positive relations to well-being variables” (p.360). One of their conclusions for why the limited knowledge view, or the view of open theists, could have a direct, positive relationship to well-being is that it can “empower people to take steps to alleviate their suffering with the hope of proactively bringing about positive outcomes” (p.360).
While empowering people in the midst of suffering to lean on themselves and make positive choices to increase their well-being is a step in the right direction, the researchers do not address the issue at hand. In my opinion, divine struggle, and the anguish that usually accompanies it, at least according to this study, is relatively absent for those who adopt an open theist position. The reason why open theists experience less divine struggle is because there is a decrease in cognitive dissonance and increase in a more congruent understanding of God (at least philosophically, though some might have difficulties with the open view biblically). In other words, their theodicy has less Olympic-sized theological obstacles to jump through. For open theists, God genuinely cares for his creatures; God does not know the future; and therefore cannot come to the rescue every time something bad is about to happen (thought admittedly the open theist view is more nuanced than researchers describe). The God who plans and purposes evil and suffering and has the power to do stop it, yet chooses not to, which is one of the biggest cognitive obstacles to a congruent faith in a loving God, is absent from the open theist’s paradigm.
There is one view that I believe should be added to the VOSS and that is Thomas Oord’s Essential Kenosis view. For Oord, it is not just God’s inability to know the future (the emphasis of open theism) that prevents God from stopping evil events from occurring; it is due to God’s uncontrolling love. Oord’s theodicy elevates the nature and characteristic of love, which for me, offers a more robust reason why God cannot stop evil events and the typical aftermath of suffering from occuring. For Oord, since God is love, God cannot unilaterally intervene and control outcomes in the world. Oord writes, “mermaids cannot run marathons because a mermaid’s nature includes leglessness. God cannot create controllable creatures because God’s nature is uncontrolling love” (p.148). For a more detailed account of essential kenosis, read Oord’s stellar book, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (2015).
In my opinion, Oord offers one of the most congruent theodicies that is in line with God’s loving nature, philosophy, the natural sciences, and for the most part scripture. I would love to see the same study done with essential kenosis as a possible scale for participants to choose from. Would those who adhere to essential kenosis, with an emphasis on God’s uncontrolling love, experience less divine struggle and greater well-being than other theodicies?
For many, the divine struggle is very real. Their anxiety, depression, and stress can be traced directly to their beliefs surrounding theodicy. Due to the complex nature of theodicy, it is often a neglected topic of discussion. Though you might disagree with the limited knowledge view, or essential kenosis, I urge you to find one you feel is congruent intellectually, biblically, philosophically, and grounded in our lived experience. Your well-developed, thought-out, and prayed-through theodicy will not only enhance your overall well-being but will help you help others through their trying times as well.
Exline, J. J., Grubbs, J. B., & Homolka, S. J. (2015). Seeing God as Cruel or Distant: Links with Divine Struggles Involving Anger, Doubt, and Fear of God’s Disapproval. International Journal For The Psychology Of Religion, 25(1), 29-41. doi:10.1080/10508619.2013.857255
Hale-Smith, A., Park, C. L., & Edmondson, D. (2012). Measuring beliefs about suffering: Development of the Views of Suffering Scale. Psychological Assessment, 24(4), 855-866. doi:10.1037/a0027399
Oord, T. J. (2016). The uncontrolling love of God: An open and relational account of providence. Downer’s Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic.
Wilt, J. A., Exline, J. J., Grubbs, J. B., Park, C. L., & Pargament, K. I. (2016). God’s role in suffering: Theodicies, divine struggle, and mental health. Psychology Of Religion And Spirituality, 8(4), 352-362. doi:10.1037/rel0000058