Friday, June 7, 2013

When Winter Comes

winter is coming, Game of Thrones, Ned Stark, HBO
by Jacob Campbell

I love Game of Thrones - the show, not the books, and yes, I know this makes me some sort of Westerosian heretic. I am presently on my third attempt to tackle the books, so please, a little grace. But the show...holy cow, it is good. I love Ned Stark, the ostensible hero of the first season. He is noble, just, and loves his family, but what makes him so interesting is that those are the very things that trap him as well. His virtue keeps him caged, in a world where everyone else acts in complete freedom, regardless of law or tradition. And I also love the ancient motto of his house, a reminder to prepare for hard times are ahead: “Winter is coming...”. 

The show teaches me, again and again, that notions of good and evil really are limited, that they break down in a complex world. It teaches that winter really is coming. Winter itself is neither good nor evil, it’s merely the reality of naturally complex world and a perfect metaphor for the struggles of life. And, it also proves to me that I probably shouldn’t watch a show with this much sex.  

But yeah, in Game of Thrones, there really aren’t many truly good guys or, for that matter, truly bad guys. Life is more complex than that. A character may commit a petty atrocity in one scene and in another, we see him acting nobly and heroically. And what’s more, both seem entirely consistent with his nature. Like King David, who a professor of mine refers to as a petty tyrant, some characters do cruel things and yet remain the shows ‘good guys’.  

Consider Tyrion Lannister: he’s a scheming, whoring, drunken, acerbic dwarf who, at the same time, is brilliant, nurturing, and even shows himself to be the hero on more than a few occasions. Can he be categorized as simply good or simply bad?

And here is the one I’ve been wrestling with: can God? 

The events two months ago in Boston left many shaken. And while the national attention was focused on the bombings and ensuing manhunt, other more personal tragedies unfolded in my life. A member of my church was broken as his wife left him, and took their children with her. A friend’s twins, born prematurely, were unable to survive; they died in the NICU. With the world so often in turmoil, so viciously dishing out pain and horror, it always seems like winter. 

God on Trial, Job, auschwitz, BBC, movie, holocaustAnd inevitably the “why, God?” questions emerge. They don’t just emerge; they pile up. How could a God who is good continue to allow such pain at every turn? How could he not stop it?  But I’m not convinced anymore of the premise of behind such questions. I don’t think it’s a simple world we live in; it’s far more complex. As Game of Thrones shows us, in a complex world, our simplistic notions of good and bad no longer work.  

We cannot confine God to our categories, even the ones we name “good” and “bad”. It’s easy to think of God as good in the long, green summer; it’s easy to call God good as long as nothing too terrible happens. But when winter comes, it’s much harder to grapple with a good God. The lines start to blur. 

This isn't just a philosophical exercise for me; there have been far too many winters in my life already. My father was an alcoholic. He abused my brother and mother both physically and verbally. That same brother was later killed in a gas station robbery, leaving my father deeply depressed. That began a long slow decline of more alcoholism and eventually, death by cancer. My wife and I have struggled with joblessness and financial difficulties. Sometimes it feels as if God has turned against me. 

Now, I don’t mean to claim I have the hedge on suffering, but I can truly say I have experienced my fair share. And what I have discovered is that chasing the “If God is good...” rabbit into a bottomless hole accomplishes nothing.      

There is a great line in the movie God on Trial, which has Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz prosecute God for allowing the Holocaust, where one of the rabbis gives an impassioned speech that includes the line, “God is not good; he was never good. He was simply on our side.” 

What do we do with God when it seems like he’s turned on us? Is this not the cry of Job, “Yet God has found fault with me, he considers me his enemy.”  What do we make of God when it seems like winter has come, and that winter never ends?

We need to understand that God is above what we understand as good or bad. How does a good God let bad things happen? Because he is God. He is neither good nor bad. Sure, Scripture proclaims God as good in places. And certainly, the goodness of God was manifested in Jesus. 

God is, infinite, good, bad, unknowableBut something as wild and uncontainable as God cannot be serviced by simplistic terms like ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Heck, ‘magnificent’ and ‘malevolent’ don’t do him justice. When winter comes, it’s all our finite brains can do to attempt to understand God in the present by trying to frame him in good or bad terms. 

Job pleaded to know the mind of God and was answered with more mystery. In the presence of God, Job was humbled as a mere human. And in the end, that is all we are. As we wrestle with an infinite reality, we need to remember how finite we actually are.    

It can be difficult to see God in the hard times. But hard times always come, and when they do, we must let go of our limited categories, give up confining God to the boxes of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. God transcends such things. We don’t need hollow phrases like, “It’s just his will,” or “God has a plan”. Sometimes it is best, even in the midst of a winter of suffering, to just be still, and know that God is God.

Jacob Campbell is a husband, father and teacher living in Chattanooga, Tennessee. According to Facebook he's a fan of the movie Road Warrior. Do with that information what you will. You can follow him on Twitter @Jake43083.

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