Joy, Sorrow & the Divine

I posted a thought for the day earlier today:

We choose our joys and sorrows long before we experience them. ~Kahlil Gibran

My friend and colleague Duncan responded, “Profound. I’m a firm believer in the Lord chastiseth those whom he loves. Some sorrows are in many cases not of our choosing but rather chosen for us by someone who knows what is good for us.”

This particular aspect of faith, though, is one I struggle with on a visceral level. I’m not entirely sure I believe that, on an individual, human basis, the Creator has our individual happiness and best interests at heart, at least here on this earth, during this lifetime.

Imagine a giant, divinely inspired maze, with God the mad scientist and we faithful – or somewhat less so – humans the rats. (No, this is not a special edition of Who Moved My Cheese; I detest that book.) In this cosmic model God administers jolts of joy and sorrow to his lab subjects to steer them toward their reward, whatever that may be. Purina rat chow? Increased rat status and pay raises?

Although I am not a biblical literalist, the most specific assurance of God’s love for individual humans that I am aware of is here, and it seems somewhat indirect and conditional:

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. Romans 8:28

This seems to say that God defines the reward at the end of the maze. What if the reward is a published paper for God the mad scientist? That’s not very motivational for the average rat. Oh, wait, I overextended the metaphor. ;)

Balancing that assurance, we see many stories of God allowing anguish, pain and suffering for His/Her glory. In the old testament, don’t we have examples like Isaac, Job and Jonah? And in the new testament we have Lazarus, Stephen, and the crucifixion of many of the apostles.

This would be the rat-maze equivalent of God directing his favorite rats through the maze with a taser. Or a BB gun.

If I could choose between living a peaceful, joyful, fruitful life here on earth, or painfully enduring to my maximum capacity, serving as an example and/or cautionary tale for God, I’d surely prefer the former, as I think might much of humanity.

So, how can a God who loves us ignore our agonized pleas for help and relief and instead administer a plan that serves His/Her glory rather than mere human happiness? I’m not asking “Why does God allow suffering?”, but “How can I serve a God that prioritizes His/Her own glory over individual happiness and welfare?”

On a related note, I also realize prayer, even in the desperate, darkest hour, isn’t a giant wish list in the sky. In many ways it primarily serves to draw us nearer to the divine, rather than the converse, which is actually rather amusing when you reverse the phrasing that way.

Still, my initial concept, “We choose our joys and sorrows long before we experience them,” is essentially, to me, one of self-determination. Our intentions and our beliefs drive our actions and create self-fulfilling prophecy in our lives.

I am fine with a God who randomly drops joy or abundance into my life – but random sorrows, as part of some cosmic, divine rat-in-a-maze plan, just don’t fit comfortably into my theology. I’d really rather wander the world without that particular type of help.

I have friends who are religious and philosophical scholars, of both a Christian, pantheist and atheist bent, who can probably expand on this subject much more eloquently than I.

My faith continues to have blind spots the size of the Bermuda Triangle, and yet I stumble on. I wonder what’s around the next corner?

7 Responses to “Joy, Sorrow & the Divine”

  1. Janiece Says:

    “You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice
    If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice
    You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill
    I will choose a path that’s clear
    I will choose freewill.”

    Not that Lee, Lifeson and Peart are “philosophical scholars,” but this pretty much says it for me.

  2. Holy Says:

    One of Robert Fulghum’s fave quotes is apropos here:

    “Sometimes it rains on the just. I believe that.
    Sometimes it rains on the unjust. I believe that, too.
    But I also believe that sometimes it just rains.
    Neither God or Justice or belief has anything to do with it.” Anonymous

    That’s a vast imagination that can account for God as concurrent Rainmaker, Clockmaker, Cheese Move and Individual Prayer Answerer. Not to mention that such a personal God is more akin to the archaic gods of old than this new Western thought religiosity would suggest.

    My theology – while panentheistic (part & whole – the Divine is intrinsic/Immanent in all reality and yet Transcendent, as well) is also therefore, a bit process theology. God evolves and suffers along with us – in the gallows, through drought, etc. It’s a tricky theodicy but it also allows me to blend the matriarchal/creative force of the Divine into the mix and see how all of creation is really in this mess together. So when it’s all said and done, I subscribe to the Matthew Fox school of creation spirituality. He has the whole trinitarian metaphor figured out.

    Anyways, long ramble short, I love that you are living your questions now and comfortable being with the mystery. As Rilke asserts, “perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers.”

  3. Janiece Says:

    It maketh me to giggle that Holy Schmidt describes the divine as the “Cheese Mover,” mostly because I, too, hate that book.


  4. Random Michelle K Says:

    I really really really REALLY don’t get the whole, “G-d causes things to happen” and “G-d answers prayers” bit.

    Why would anyone want to believe in a god who sometimes answers prayers and sometimes didn’t, seemingly at a whim? Why would anyone want to believe in a god who would allow horrific things to happen? Why would anyone want to believe that horrible things happen for a purpose?

    I don’t WANT a god who watches my every move, and who sometimes decides to answer my prayers and sometimes didn’t, depending upon how worthy I seemed on any particular day? I don’t WANT a god who chooses to act in some instances, but in others allows infants and children to be harmed and tortured.

    No. Just no.

    If there is a god (and I don’t know one way or the other, but it seems likely to me that there are powers in the infinite universe beyond our comprehension) I believe such a being doesn’t meddle in the lives of humans–that if there is a divine creator, the world was made and then the creator stepped back and let things proceed as they would.

    But a god that acts capriciously? A god that torments souls for eternity? I don’t believe that for one instant.

  5. Random Michelle K Says:


    Since reading the title of your post I’ve had “Joy & Pain” by Rob Base stuck in my brain.

    “Joy & pain
    like sunshine
    & rain”

  6. Anne C. Says:

    I knew Michelle would speak up on this subject, since free will is near and dear to her heart.

    I used to think that the Universe might work in the following manner: the Universe, with your complicity (because you are part of the Universe), presents you with opportunities to grow and choose mature/evolved ways to handle things (or to choose immature methods), if you learned these lessons well, you would, through your personal growth, be rewarded.
    My recent experiences have brought me to the belief that while it is certainly useful to learn to handle things in a mature way, it won’t get you any reward. Those are handed out indiscriminately. Just as it rains on the just and the unjust, the sun also shines on both.
    And I’m tired of being handed tests. I’m tired of having to be the mature one. :/

  7. Michelle Says:


    Since reading the title of your post I’ve had “Joy & Pain” by Rob Base stuck in my brain.

    “Joy & pain
    like sunshine
    & rain”