Where is God when bad things happen? Part 1: The basics
with Scott Preller
From the pandemic to political division to climate disasters, today's news begs the question "Where is God when bad things happen?" And if God is here, why doesn't it seem to make a difference? Our guest shares a different view of God that can help you experience the kind of stability we all want these days.
Ethel Baker: Hello and welcome to Sentinel Watch, a weekly production of the Christian Science Sentinel. I’m Ethel Baker. It’s hard to read a newspaper or turn on the TV without hearing not just bad news, but devastating and seemingly insurmountable news from the pandemic to civil wars to political divisions to climate disasters. And in this month in particular, many people are thinking about the events of September 11, 20 years ago. These events raise big questions for many people. Where is God when bad things happen? So we’ve decided that question is our focus this month at Sentinel Watch. And with me to explore this topic today is Scott Preller. Scott is a longtime Christian Science practitioner and teacher. He’s also currently serving on the Board of Directors of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, Massachusetts. It’s great to be able to talk to you today, Scott, thanks for coming.
Scott Preller: It’s nice to be with you.
OK, so let’s begin with that big question. Where is God in bad times?
The more I’ve thought about that question, the more I’ve realized that in order to come up with a meaningful answer, we first have to spend a little time looking at the question itself. On the surface, it can feel like if the question is coming from a position of somebody who’s convinced, you know, there is no God, everything is horrible and it’s dark, and the question itself can feel more like an accusation than a real question. But when I thought about the question from that perspective, I was realizing that, you know, here we are having a conversation about God from a Christian Science program. And so you kind of feel yourself put into a position of, well, I’ve got to defend this and, you know, argue against that view. And then I realized that has not been my experience with this question.
Well, I think when the question is asked as an honest question, it more often comes from the perspective of faith. It certainly has been the case for me as I’ve had to wrestle with that question at different points in my life. I think most people who really are asking that question are people who have actually experienced something more than just the limits of material living. They have felt a sense of love, for example, that they know is more than anything a material sense of life can know, or they’ve experienced the inspiration of individual creativity in a way that makes them realize that they have encountered a source of intelligence beyond anything the brain can discern, or maybe they’ve experienced physical healing through prayer in a way that made them feel utterly overwhelmed with gratitude for the nature and power of good.
In other words, they’ve experienced God’s presence in a real way, as a real thing, not as a topic for discussion, and yet at some point they’ve also had to come face to face with a situation that didn’t readily yield to prayer, or they saw or experienced some tragedy or disaster that made them naturally ask, “OK, if God is wholly good and all powerful, why is this terrible thing happening? Why did God allow it?”
Now, that’s an honest question and one each of us has to face and think through. In fact, I don’t know anyone of any real depth of faith who hasn’t had to wrestle with that question and sometimes repeatedly, because the short answer is God is right here. That’s where God is when bad things are happening and is continuing to be all-powerful, all-good, and loving us.
You know, it’s like asking, Where did the sun go on a cloudy day? It’s there—the real thing that has to be explored and answered is what is demanded of us in order to be able to feel that despite the things you described going on in the news.
Well, OK, let me ask you this then. You’ve mentioned about God being omnipresent and omnipotent. You know, those words are used to describe God in many faiths. And yet there’s also this impression that God is kind of a big person, you know, big human being in a way in the sky or, you know, at a distance. And we’re, you know, we’re pleading with God. We’re asking God to help us, to bail us out. And what you’re describing is a different sense of God than that. Can you just elaborate on what God is in Christian Science?
Well, sure. In Christian Science, which is wholly based on the Bible and particularly the ministry and teachings of Christ Jesus, you see in Jesus’ healing work, the force, the power, the presence of good being supreme in everything Jesus did when he encountered disease, when he encountered evil things. You never see in the Gospels a presentation of Jesus saying, “Well, that one’s too big. I’m sorry, I can’t do anything about it.”
Rather, what yields is the magnitude of the problem, whatever it is, and in that ministry and in the teaching of Jesus, that we too are expected to experience this presence of the Kingdom of God. I mean that that really is what faith is all about, right? It’s in many ways saying, “Look, there is something more than just what you can perceive and with the material surroundings that we face and that something more is really substantial.” And in the teachings of Christ Jesus, Christian Science explains that you see this good operating as law, as an operative divine principle.
So you’ve been talking about Christ Jesus and the Bible in the light of this question, Where is God when bad things happen? Can you flesh that out a little bit more for us—about the foundation for this sense that you have that Christian Science puts out there about the reliability of God?
Yes. One of the things that I love about the Bible is that it really covers the whole of human experience. And you realize that in so many ways, the questions we wrestle with today about existence are not new to us. And these questions about where is God when bad things are happening. There are so many instances where individuals in the Bible had to wrestle with that.
I think one of the places people often turn to today, they’re looking into the Bible to figure this out, is the story of Job, for example, because Job depicts a person of perfect faith, totally upright, loves God, hates evil, and has all the blessings that you think would come with that. He has great wealth. He has a healthy family. He’s got lots of kids and a lot of possessions, and Job depicts this kind of a challenge between God and the devil where the devil says, “Well, OK, sure, he believes in You, God, because everything is going great. But what about if things don’t go so great?”
And so in the course of just a few opening chapters of Job, you see Job going from everything going just wonderfully to—you find out that all of his possessions are stolen and wiped out, all his children are killed in a violent storm, and eventually he himself becomes diseased. And in the final picture we have of Job, as you know, sitting in ashes, scraping away at a wound that won’t heal. And the whole rest of the story of Job is, is this wrestling with, “OK, how is this right? How do I make sense of this?”
And in this account, you have all of Job’s friends coming and presenting a lot of conventional theological explanations for why things are happening. Then they kind of represent the same kinds of arguments that we may go through when we’re wrestling with, you know, “How do I explain why everything was going so well and now it’s going so badly?” You know, “Why isn’t God fixing this?” And, you know, they come at him with arguments of, “Well, you must have done something to deserve this; we just don’t know what it is. Or if you, maybe if you ask God just right, He’ll fix it. You know, you can’t know the ways of God. And, you know, since God is good and only punishes sin, the fact that you’re going through this means, of course, you’ve sinned. And Job does not yield to this. And this is all kind of bad theology based on the assumptions that the things Job is going through are valid.
But Job continues to defend his faith, his uprightness before God. And, you know, to make a long story short here, in the end, what happens with Job is, I think something that happens with most of us when we’ve really had to wrestle with this question. And that’s why I say it is a question of faith, because when you really wrestle with it, it often becomes the occasion for strengthening our understanding of God. And it did for Job. He had to realize and come to terms with seeing that the infinitude of God, the reality of God, no matter what he’d been through, was an actuality that he just had to deal with, and as he did, you know, everything changed.
In other words, he had to make sure the whole of his heart was on that faith with God rather than being impressed by all the things that had happened to him. And the story ends with the Bible account saying that he ended up with twice as much as he had before and so forth, and God blessed him even more.
And so what’s meaningful about that story, I think, is it shows just how human consciousness has always had to wrestle with this. I think then, in particularly in Christ Jesus and in the Gospel accounts in the Bible, this sense of God’s consistency and goodness is affirmed throughout Jesus’ ministry.
You know, there’s account of Jesus in Mark in a storm with the disciples,. and Jesus is asleep in the back of the boat. And his disciples basically kind of come and say, “Why aren’t you concerned about us? Don’t you see our storm?” And he basically says, “No, don’t you see my peace?” And he calms the storm [see Mark 4:36–41].
And it teaches us, I think if we’ll let it, when you’re faced with these horrible things, you either be impressed by them or you work to be impressed by the presence of God, and that can make all the difference. And Christian Science endeavors to approach his teaching from a scientific method. You know, you test it, you experiment, you explore, but you do it based on understood laws. And Christian Science comes at this with a sense that God is wholly good, is all-powerful, and insists that God therefore has nothing whatsoever to do with evils or calamities, the material world and all its troubles. That is not God’s raw materials for doing God’s will. The experience of God is to let us experience the spiritual qualities of God. And so Christian Science invites us to change our perspective.
I mean, I think a lot of what we may be talking about here today is the need when we’re wrestling with that question, “Where is God when bad things are happening?” the need for us is to do more turning some of those questions and the assumptions they’re based on upside down. And so Christian Science invites us to change the perspective that we’re thinking from—from looking at and being impressed by the dire circumstances surrounding us and then deciding based on those circumstances, how we feel about God—to instead looking at God, understanding and feeling the presence of God and letting the reality of God challenge how we feel about the circumstances we’re in. And that very often is what’s brought healing. That’s what brought healing in the Bible. It’s what has brought healing to generations of Christian Scientists.
Mm hmm. So you’re really talking about a radical shift in perspective. As you said, it’s a different definition of reality than is typical. I would say the vast majority may be feeling that the world is a mixture of good and evil and we ourselves are. And that we’re trying to juggle this good and evil scenario all the time. And when it gets out of hand, we may reach for this perceived Supreme Being that seems far away. But you’re talking about something that’s God is right here. We are in the midst of God, in fact, and it’s we who need to change how we’re looking, how we’re seeing ourselves as well as God.
Yeah, and, you know, this idea that we’re in the midst of, you know, real evil and real good and it’s kind of this endless tennis match that, you know, kind of goes back and forth. And in our experience is something that, you know, frankly, is just exhausting and doesn’t really ever get us anywhere. But when you look at the nature of the claims of the material world and so forth, and look at the nature of the claims of God, they don’t really allow for space for each other. In other words, they don’t, there’s nothing about them that seeks to sort of cohabitate in any kind of realistic way. The fact is, the material world says everything is matter. That’s all there is. That’s all you can know. That’s all you’re subject to. And, you know, one of the things that Christianity shows us is that, no, that’s completely upside down.
The reality is what there is, is God and God’s creation created like God, expressing the same love and goodness. And that’s why when we talk about this different reality, it’s not really an unknown reality. You know, you can talk to anybody and they know what love feels like. They know what honesty feels like. They know what intelligence feels like. You know, these are the qualities of God. They are the reality of right now.
Could you maybe give us an example of how this works just in an individual life, in a particular experience?
Sure. You know, when I referenced Job before and I think as a when I was young, I still remember going to a Christian Science testimony meeting where people go and testify to the presence of God’s healing power in their lives. And I went and I heard this man stand up and he talked about because of Christian Science, that he had not had a day of sickness in his life and that his business had boomed. And he really painted a picture of, wow, everything went great because of all of Christian Science. And I remember thinking, “Holy smokes, that’s what Christian Science can be and do for me.”
And, you know, then I got to live my own life and found that that wasn’t what happened. In fact, there were days where it felt like when I looked at Job, if I could have traded positions with him, it would have felt like an upgrade. But I remember when I was serving as a Christian Science chaplain in the United States Air Force, I was asked to go attend a conference and I was going to be the only Christian Science representative there, but there would be many other chaplains from many other faiths. And I had been dealing with an ear infection for a while and I’d asked for help from a Christian Science practitioner, and I was not really looking forward to this conference, to put it mildly, because I really was in quite a bit of discomfort. I especially wasn’t looking forward to the flight. And when I got there, the infection had gotten so painful, I still remember very vividly that when I got in a taxi, I got to the conference center and by then the pain in my ear was so great that I had lost my sense of equilibrium. And I remember getting out of the taxi and falling into the gutter. And I eventually did, you know, make my way to check in. And then I found a little quiet corner and I called the practitioner who was praying with me and really kind of spilled out my tale of woe about how awful this situation was. It wasn’t getting better and what was I doing wrong and why wasn’t God healing me? And I just kind of and I said, “This is you know, it’s really very painful.”
And she listened patiently. And then after a bit, one of the things she said to me was so arresting. She said, “There’s nothing there.” And I remember walking to my room after that and the whole way there, I was thinking, “Wow, she just doesn’t get it. She doesn’t realize how much pain I’m in and there’s something there.”
And then I got into my room and I’ll never forget this. I sat down on my bed and I thought, “Well, wait a minute now. If I am ever going to heal this through Christian Science, through my understanding of God, through prayer, at some point, in my experience and in my thought, I’m going to have to feel that there’s more reality in God’s goodness and the identity that God has given me than there is in this infection and suffering and pain that is arguing that all you are is matter, guy.”
And I remember I just kept exploring that question. I kept going, you know, OK. I am going to have to get to the point where I realize that there is in fact nothing there. There isn’t any authority, there isn’t any truth, there isn’t any reality in this depiction of me as a suffering mortal. Where there is reality as in God’s presence in my life and in my own identity as God’s child. And this was one of those rare times I can tell you I just, I lost track of time. I kind of forgot where I was. I just kept deeply going into that thought until I felt more the reality of God’s presence than I did this problem. And I remember when I kind of finally came back to an awareness of being in this room, the pain was completely gone. It wasn’t just improved. It was gone. And it was one of those moments where you realize, “Well, OK, so where did it go?”
Well, you know, according to Christian Science, it was evidence of the fact that it never had the authority it claimed it had in the first place. But I had to see it. I had to I listen for that voice of Christ, assuring me of the reality of good and really the emptiness of the claim of evil. And that is that voice of Christ destroying error that we’ve been talking about.
And, you know, one of the things I think is awfully important as we relate that to this topic today is to realize. You know, Christian Science has a history of people relying on prayer for healing, but I think it’s important to remember that the healings aren’t about fundamentally, you know, using an approach to faith to fix up a material body or fix material problems. They rather are evidence of the fact that when we do deepen our sense of God’s presence and really listen for and rely on Christ to animate our lives, to give us our sense of reality, irrespective of what the material picture is saying, it gives evidence of what Jesus was talking about the kingdom of heaven is present and it’s within you. That’s the great reality.
Mm hmm. So this understanding of God as purely good, as always present as love itself really changes what prayer is from what is often assumed to be this, again, reaching out to a Being apart from ourselves and, you know, hoping for some special favor or care to be delivered that wouldn’t otherwise happen. It sounds like a prayer must be a very different thing with an exact starting point.
Well, I think prayer can be a very different thing. I mean, you know, obviously prayers, whatever we do to reach out with a desire to know God better. But if prayer is, “Oh, look how awful things are; please, God, fix my problem,” we’re kind of in that place of, well, we’re putting just as much power and faith in evil as we are in God. And it doesn’t tend to get us very far.
But I think another way to think about prayer is about a very active alignment of thought with God and God’s sense of reality. That’s really what it’s about doing. It’s about, OK, I’m not going to focus on this horrible situation and how God can fix it. I’m going to focus on the allness of God and why that gives me authority and power to challenge the situation that seems to be such a problem for me.
And one of the things that I think is really striking about the nature of what Christian Science teaches us about our relationship to God is that it really does turn on its head the idea that the material world has authority and power over us. One of the things I find interesting, an interesting question, is if you took a kind of poll and asked people what the single most destructive power in the world is, they might come up with interesting answers like, you know, nuclear war, pandemic, disease, climate disaster, economic collapse, hatred, and so forth. But one of the things that I so love about Christian Science is it has helped me realize that actually the single most destructive force in the world is Christ. And the reason is because Christ is the only force that has shown that it can destroy those things that seem to destroy good, that Christ can destroy disease, Christ can destroy death. Christ can destroy distrust and dishonesty and so forth. And so I do want to say something about what Christian Science helps us understand about the nature and presence of Christ to bring healing in our lives and to get us through those moments when we are trying to figure out what to do, when it seems like bad things are happening around us.
So, you know, Mary Baker Eddy, a devoted Christian and the Discoverer and Founder of Christian Science, in her textbook, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, includes a chapter in the back that includes spiritual definitions of biblical terms, the chapter called Glossary. And in her definition of Christ, she defines Christ as “the divine manifestation of God, which comes to the flesh to destroy incarnate error” [p. 583]. You see right there the sense of the Christ being the most destructive force, right? And what’s so helpful about that definition is she helps us realize that while Christ Jesus fully manifested the sense of Christ in all he did, the encouraging thing is he made it clear that that power of Christ, that presence of Christ, is always present for us to experience in our own lives. And so when we stop thinking of Christ as some thing that’s not part of our experience, some person in the Bible or some unattainable presence that we would like to have here, but isn’t but rather think of Christ as this manifestation of God in our lives which comes to us—it’s not passive there—it comes to us to destroy incarnate error, we begin to look for more of the presence of Christ in our lives. And in other places she talks about Christ as the true idea of God voicing good. She speaks of Christ as speaking to the human consciousness. So in any situation, even in horrible situations, we can always listen for a sense of, “OK, I know what the material world is screaming at me right now, but what is God saying to me? What is God showing me of the presence of Christ? Because I know that the Christ is the power that can destroy incarnate error.”
And she includes that same sense of Christ being destructive in the Glossary definition of Jesus. She speaks of Jesus as “the highest human corporeal concept of the divine idea, rebuking and destroying error and bringing to light man’s immortality” [p. 589]. So there’s that destroying error element.
This is the wonderful thing that the more we think and live from the basis of God’s allness and our own identity as the expression of God, the more we become conscious of Christ animating our lives, speaking to us, reassuring us in times of challenge, of the presence of good and the power of love to transform the situation we’re in.
So when you talk about error in those passages you quoted from, that’s really the same thing as evil. Any form of it, whether it’s illness or it’s destruction or it’s harm or it’s the thoughts associated with or that produce this phenomenon that are not of God, that are not good.
So then when you’re doing this kind of praying, could you maybe give us an example.
Sure. One of the things I found tremendous encouragement in is when I looked at Mrs. Eddy’s own experience, you know, when she discovered this scientific sense of Christianity that is anchored in a sense of the allness of God and the goodness of God and really, the lack of authority that evil has, no matter how grotesque it seems to be, I realized that she didn’t come by that understanding through some, you know, rose-petaled life herself. And in fact, in her own spiritual autobiography, Retrospection and Introspection, she writes about the trend of human life being too eventful to leave her undisturbed in the illusion that this so-called life could be a real and abiding rest. And she talks about how those lessons, when she began to experience them, they became sterner that up until then, you know, mortal existence seemed to have like a little bit of a silver lining. But at that point, it just wasn’t even fringed with light because things had gotten so bad.
I mean, here was a woman who, you know, had really spent most of her young years as a semi-invalid, had, you know, experienced tremendous loss in her family of her mother, brother, and her husband when she was pregnant, and then had her son later taken away from her when he was a child. I mean, she really went through a lot. Yeah.
And yet this is what she discovered and it changed everything. She didn’t create this theology. She discovered it and realized that it was only by the experience that forced her to lean on God more than ever she thought was possible, that it opened up to her the reality of God in a way that just transformed everything else. She couldn’t think or live from a different basis once she saw the allness of God and good.
And another example like I was thinking of was I came across a photo, a family photo, as I was preparing for our conversation today. And I know I need to describe this because this is a podcast, after all. But it’s a picture of my dad as a young teenager sitting at the piano. And my grandfather is standing next to him, accompanying him on a violin. And what was arresting to me about seeing this photo and realizing we were going to be having this conversation today is I was thinking about when and where this photo was taken.
My family’s from Germany, and this photo was taken when they were living in Berlin and it was in 1941 and World War Two was already going on. But in this photo, you would just think it was a happy family occasion to look at it. And part of that, because, you know, I realized in looking at this photo, they didn’t realize what was coming. They didn’t know, for example, that my grandfather, who was a Christian Science practitioner, would be put in prison when the Nazis outlawed Christian Science very soon. They didn’t know that the Allies bombing would intensify over Berlin very shortly. My dad certainly didn’t know that he was going to be put in a forced labor camp for refusing to be part of the Hitler Youth. And what’s interesting, you know, as I think back about the family accounts of that time during the war, it certainly depicts what we’re talking about today—this sense of where’s God when bad things happen.
And what I find helpful is in thinking about the answer that my family experienced, because I know, well, an interesting thing was that after my grandfather was let out of prison, the war continued to go badly for the Nazis. And eventually they came and grabbed him again and forced him into military service. But they certainly knew he was no soldier. So they put him as a guard on a bridge in a fairly remote area. And so he spent a portion of the war just sitting there, supposedly as a guard of this bridge. And so he spent that time actually writing poetry. And interestingly, at some point, the bridge was overrun and he actually was shot in the leg and was taken to a field hospital, where he asked if he could just be left alone to pray for a while and let them attend to others. And they had told him that they were going to have to amputate the leg. And by the time they came back, they realized they didn’t need to. And he eventually had a full and complete healing through Christian Science treatment.
What’s so striking to me is that in that time, that tremendously turbulent time, it would be easy to look at that account and say, “Well, gee, that’s not really very reassuring because it could feel like, well, things can feel like they’re going just great and then you don’t know what’s coming—disaster’s coming.” But for my grandfather, it was evident that this became a time of deepening his understanding of the presence and power of God as a reality, as something he could rely on completely and utterly.
And it comes out in some of the poetry he wrote during that time. One of the poems was put to music in a hymn in our new Christian Science Hymnal. And I want to read the second verse of Hymn 476. This is part of his poem:
Longing heart, don’t give up hope
When threats of evil overwhelm.
Love now keeps Her promise true,
God sure hand is at the helm. Bringing joy when all seems darkness—
God will keep you safe, secure.
You go forward, loved and peaceful:
Victory is always sure.
And of course, he wasn’t talking about victory of one combatant over another. He was talking about the victory over the feeling of feeling forlorn and without hope. I mean, he was talking about the victory over the material sense of existence, you know. So there was a case where my grandfather was faced with great evil, and really through what Christian Science had told him about the presence and allness of God found in his own experience why it made so much sense to challenge the authority of the circumstances he was in within his heart, rather than to challenge his faith and his understanding of God. And it brought healing; it brought a stronger realization of good.
So it says to me, you know, that this is saying we can expect healing. We can expect healing for ourselves; we can expect healing on this wide scope of things. Can you just maybe give us a little example of how one might pray about, let’s say, the upheaval in Afghanistan right now?
What we’re seeing right now in Afghanistan is a great example of news that can try to overwhelm your sense of hope, your sense of humanity’s great promise. But everything we’ve been saying about prayer and what it shows us about the nature of reality, the nature of God, has to do with the basis from which we’re thinking. We can pray to realize because we’ve had experience in our own lives of how at dark times our capacity to know good and to be animated by good is what took over.
And I find one of the things I’ve been trying to hold to more and more in my own prayers about the situation is realizing that if God is the author of creation, if the true nature of men and women is as spiritual ideas of God, if God truly is the cause of our identity, then there is no darkness that can snuff out our ability to hear that true identity, that higher self that knows how to love. And I keep affirming that the only real intelligence is the intelligence coming from God; the only real power is the power coming from love; and that every single individual, whether it’s people, you know, trying to find safety, people trying to help those trying to find safety, or even those who are trying to prevent people from feeling safe, that somewhere there’s that capacity to hear Christ speaking to consciousness. Christ, letting people think from the basis of intelligence and care and love rather than fear and darkness and oppression.
Mm hmm. Great. Well, Scott, let me just ask you one final question. If anyone listening, this is brand new to them and this is a totally different idea of God or a prayer than they’ve ever heard of before, is this something out of reach for people that are just hearing about this for the first time?
Not at all. This spiritual reality we’re talking about is the actuality of God and the infinite unlimited power of God’s goodness and of our true identity as children of God animated by Christ. That fact is true for everyone. And that if people stop and think about this enough, they will discover within their own heart a sense of, “Yeah, that’s what I’ve always believed. I’ve always known that love is more who I am than anything else. I’ve always known that good is what defines life and makes life really worth living and that I am not powerless to experience that in my life.”
So it’s not something foreign to anybody. It’s what’s already there. I mean, if what we’re saying has any validity at all, it’s founded on a premise that Christ is speaking to human consciousness, and if we’ll listen for it, if we’ll then act on it, we’ll experience the power of it, we’ll find new capacities to do and be good. And, you know, life will feel like what it’s meant to be. And that’s, you know, an expression of God, an expression of Love and Truth and Spirit.
Well, great. Thank you so much, Scott. You have given our listeners so much to think about, to pray with. Thank you so much for coming on the program today. It’s really been a pleasure.
It’s been a joy to be with you. Thank you.
You’ve been listening to Sentinel Watch a weekly production of the Christian Science Sentinel. I’m Ethel Baker.