Calling God Good in Bad Times

by Susan K. Smith

 We are constantly on the lookout for a “good” God, and to be honest, sometimes we say God is good when we are full of doubt about it. The late Rachel Held Evans shared how, when she was in seminary, she asked one of her professors how any Christian could legitimately say that they practice a “just and fair,” a faith that gave the Nazis a better shot at salvation than the Jews they murdered? His response to her was that she had allowed “hypersensitivity and emotionalism –“ – her feelings – to creep into her faith and that she was “soft” and “weak.”

 Her question was not unique to her. Many of us have asked similar questions, albeit with fear and trembling, because when we ask those questions, the “saints” are ready to pounce on us with terse responses much like that of Held’s professor. But when we are in bad times, especially bad times that seem never to relent, our very humanness makes us ask the question, “God, where are you?”

 The late C. Vann Woodward wrote in The Strange Career of Jim Crow that Jim Crow laws “blurred the lines between formal law and informal enforcement. He wrote, “…Jim Crow laws put the authority of the state or city in the voice of the street car conductor, the railway brakeman, the bus driver …the hoodlum of the public parks and playgrounds.”

            ​How can that be okay with a “good” God?

 In a society that is quick to call out the “violence” of Black people, there is a strange silence about the history and the legacy of white violence in this country, allowed by “the law,” which has caused far too many innocent Black people to be murdered by law enforcement officials and by vigilantes who were basically ignored by officers who often stood by and watched these violent crimes take place or who, worse, participated in them.

 Violence against Black people (and other marginalized groups in this country as well) is as much a part of the American story as is its claim to being exceptional – but the white violence is ignored and not spoken about. These days, to mention it or teach it is to be a proponent of “critical race theory,” and to be “anti-American. To share the truth about this country’s history is too threatening; just this week, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said that “teaching that the United States was built on stolen lands is inappropriate and not true.”

 But it is true, all of it, and our struggle is to make sense out of it all in light of the fact that there is a God whom we call “good.” We know that God “is,” but we wrestle with how God works. While it is good to look back over our lives and see that God has been there and has thus given us a testimony, we find ourselves wanting to see God working against the forces of racialized evil in real-time. We want to see those who work to deprive others of their liberty and justice and human/civil rights struck down where they are, silenced, and stayed by the very presence of God.

 Because we do not see that and have not seen it, as a rule, we wrestle at times with our faith. We dare not stop believing, but we find it difficult to keep on believing. We know that if it had not been for the faith of those gone before us that God was in fact good and that they prayed to that God with deep fervor, we quite possibly would have been decimated as a people long ago.

 This walk with God, and calling God good, is one of the toughest things we will ever do. Too often, the people who find themselves in a wilderness come to realize that there are too many wildernesses and not enough open, clear spaces where they can live full, free, and fair lives. We are tired of the wilderness called White Supremacy, which has wildernesses within it called racism, sexism, homophobia, Christian nationalism, ableism, and ageism …and we ache, some of us, for a showdown between the God we call good and the forces we call evil. We want the forces of evil to be stymied and ultimately stopped.

 The only thing our ancestors had to keep them going was a stubborn insistence that God was good, and that stubbornness kept them fighting, getting knocked down over and over but refusing to stay down – and they would credit the “good” God with being the reason they were able to hold on.

 Calling God good in bad times is a spiritual skill set. We have to be able to state our beliefs and our doubt about what we believe at the same time, as did the father who asked Jesus to cure his son who was possessed by a demon. “If you can,” the father said, “heal my son.” Jesus, whose response shows he didn’t like how he had been approached, said, “If? All things are possible for those who believe.” And the father said, “I believe. Help thou my unbelief.”

 It was the man’s honesty about his struggle with believing that has always drawn me to this story. The father didn’t honestly know what Jesus could and would do. He presumably had been to a lot of people claiming to know how to cure his son, and none of them had been able to. Jesus got the demon out of the man’s son; we pray for Jesus to get the demon out of the system of government that is wreaking havoc in the lives of all of us.

 We have to continue to pray – with our mouths and with our feet – that God will exorcise the demon of white supremacy out of the spirits of those in power – and find comfort in the fact that in spite of the forces that work against us, that it is the “good” God who has kept us and held us close, as the song says, “so we wouldn’t let go.”

 Letting go is not an option.

 Amen and amen.