Madeleine McCann and the character of God

I approach this post with considerable caution and trepidation.

One, because this is not a theoretical situation but real people’s lives. Two, because I have no direct personal relation to the situation and know nothing but what I’ve seen in the news. Three, because despite that lack of involvement and knowledge, it still arouses incredibly strong feelings and questions in me. Four, because some of the feelings and questions it arouses seem to impugn the God who I love and worship.

So I’ll try to tread carefully through the minefield.

‘Maddie’ is back in the headlines just now, after some years’ media silence. Fresh lines of inquiry have opened up and the BBC has run a special Crimewatch programme which has provoked a massive public response. There seems once more to be a small but tantalising new hope that she might be found – or at least that the truth of what happened might finally emerge.

The Madeleine McCann case is one that has stirred an enormous emotional response in countless people who are in no way connected with the family or the situation – myself included. It taps into some of our deepest instincts – to protect young children; and our deepest fears – that our own child may be taken. And the fact that the image we’ve all seen of Madeleine’s face shows us a sweet, innocent, trusting and pretty young child hugely strengthens the emotional and visceral pull.

Of course, hundreds of other children go missing every year, and receive no media attention. They all matter just as much as ‘Maddie’, and are all as tragic and troubling. But ‘Maddie’ has somehow become symbolic or representative of all of these, and of something deeper and wider than herself. The search for her has taken on an almost spiritual significance.

So though I have no personal involvement with the case, I find I still have strong feelings and views on it. And some of those take the shape of profound theological concerns, which is why they’ve made their way onto this blog.

The problems of pain and evil

Now of course the problems of pain, of suffering and of evil are not new theological conundrums. Probably every Christian throughout the ages has wrestled with them, not just intellectually but personally, when faced directly with the reality of death, disease, war, poverty, violent crime, betrayal, bereavement and all the other pains and horrors of the world. The Bible is chock full of these things, which is partly why it’s such uncomfortable reading – and frustratingly it offers very few answers.

So we know that there is evil in the world (and in us), and that bad things frequently happen to good people apparently for no reason. Most of the time most Christians are still able to worship God despite this – even in some cases because of it, driven to God by our desperate need. We live with the tension and the mystery, as I think we have to. Much of the time we simply ignore it, because it’s too difficult to face.

But occasionally a case comes along which causes some of us to pause and question again, and for me Madeleine McCann’s is just such a case. Perhaps it’s because it involves a young and defenceless child. Perhaps it’s also because I have a daughter of my own, whose safety and wellbeing are regular subjects of my prayers.

For some the main question raised by the ‘Maddie’ case is why God let it happen. Doubtless the McCanns prayed for their daughter’s safety like most parents who have any form of religious faith. Why didn’t God answer that most basic of all parental prayers?

I don’t know. But I do know and accept that God does at times let all sorts of awful stuff happen, including to Christians. I don’t like this; but I do accept that it may just be part of how the world has to be if we’re to have any degree of freedom and moral responsibility. And I believe that God is in the business of redemption, of bringing good out of bad.

When God knows but seems to do nothing

So for me the big question is not why God let it happen, but why God has not (apparently) done anything about it since it happened.

I did a double-take when I first prayed ‘God, please find Madeleine’ and then realised that God didn’t need to find her. For if God is who I believe him to be, he knows exactly where Madeleine is, and always has done. Furthermore, I believe that God must be capable of communicating the knowledge of her whereabouts to someone who could do something about it. And this is what bothers me – that God knows and yet appears to do nothing.

I struggle with this. If God is good and loving and has any power at all, I can’t make any sense of this apparent inaction. It also hugely challenges my own faith – not that God exists, but that he will look after my own children.

The thing is, belief in a perfect, all-wise and all-loving God is axiomatic for me. I consider that the existence of goodness, reason, beauty and love in the universe point inevitably to a personal God who is both the source and epitome of these qualities. Otherwise their existence makes no sense to me. And much in my own experience backs up this view.

Yet the world also throws other evidence at me – like the Maddie case – that doesn’t seem to fit with this at all. At times I feel like the title character of Voltaire’s satirical Candide, who naively refuses to let go of his philosophy that this is the ‘best of all possible worlds’ in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Atheism, Deism and other possible answers

It would be easy then just to say that life is meaningless and God is a childish fantasy. Many do say this. But for me this is too easy; a cop-out.

Others will say that God exists but never intervenes; that’s just not the kind of God he is. After all, it’s obvious that a loving, wise and powerful God should act in such a case unless he’s fundamentally opposed to such involvement or intervention. QED.

The trouble is, I’m convinced that I have experienced God’s active involvement in my own life, and seen it in the lives of others. Which makes it harder to understand why he isn’t apparently acting in cases like this one; but at the same time slightly easier to trust that he does care and knows what he’s up to.

A few possible answers occur to me which preserve God’s character in the face of his apparent failure to act.

Firstly, it may be that God just hasn’t been able to act overtly or directly, because any such action would endanger Maddie or not actually be in her best interests. He may well have been acting slowly and painstakingly behind the scenes, and the new lines of inquiry may be the fruit of that. Just because God takes a lot longer to do things than I’d like doesn’t mean he’s not doing anything.

Alternatively, it may be that God has been doing his best to communicate her whereabouts, but no-one’s been listening. That strikes me as harder to accept, because I’m sure plenty of people have been listening; and surely an infinitely wise and resourceful God could find a way to get a message across even to the most recalcitrant of non-listeners. There are plenty of Christians who claim to receive messages from God on an almost daily basis; if even any of them are for real, couldn’t God have spoken through one of them?

Finally, there’s the longer-term answer which feels like a cop-out but I think isn’t. Which is that this life and this world are passing away, and there is a coming Kingdom in which all the wrongs of this world will be finally and fully righted. Evil will not get the last word. But that’s not always very comforting right here and now.

I’m sure there are other possible answers too. But perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to provide answers when God himself offers none. Perhaps we do sometimes simply have to live in the unresolved tension between our faith and our experience.

And perhaps we’re also allowed to get angry with God and to hold him to account according to his character. The biblical psalmists and prophets did it all the time, and God generally didn’t seem to object. Perhaps such anger can at times even be the truest worship.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Anger at God, Divine intervention, Evil, Suffering, Tragedy, World events and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Madeleine McCann and the character of God

  1. Anne Raustol says:

    Thank you for this post. As always you make me feel a little less alone in how I’ve come to understand how God works in the world which a lot of the times amounts to me not understanding much at except that I keep believing. And I think sometimes my “proof” of God’s existence is my persistent belief in the face of so much doubt. Reading your post: proof. Felt like a direct pat on the head from God. Mostly because I have been thinking so much about how hard it is for me to even thank God for the “little” things in my “privileged” life when children are sold as sex slaves or my sister in law can’t have babies even though countless people have prayed. I, too, was captivated by the Maddie case because my daughter is exactly her age and like you, (i was a little more irrational in my thinking because i literally thought this…)wondered why God couldn’t tell ME where she is and I could call Englad and tell everybody. Today in the car I sat and cried listening to JJ Heller sing, I Believe. Check it out.

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    • Thank you Anne – that’s a lovely comment. I very much identify with ‘not understanding much except that I keep believing’. There’s just so much stuff that doesn’t seem to make any sense… and yet at the same time, for me there’s even more that doesn’t make sense if I don’t believe in Christ.

      I look forward to checking out JJ Heller…

      Bless you,
      Harvey

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  2. Anne Raustol says:

    Somehow my comment got put in the follow-up comment box. I hope you are able to read my comment. Got kind of long. Let me know if you don’t see it.

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  3. I don’t really want to comment on the McCann case. I cannot begin to express the sorrow I feel for her family. I bring them before God with nothing but helplessness and compassion. I know the continuous exposure is for their benefit, and of course as a mother I hope for her safe return – is it too late to hope for that? :-/ but I feel like I am intruding by commenting, if that makes sense?

    Looking to a more general view, we see all sorts of other kinds of suffering, which happen on a daily basis and which are ignored, because the victims are poor, or hidden, or ‘different’, or far away. I write this as the victim of years and years of abuse – sexual, emotional and physical – which God also did not stop. Does it matter that He could have? I don’t know. I just know that I must do what I must do, by grace, one day at a time.

    To put this in some perspective, 19,000 children under the age of 5 die from *preventable* causes every day. If it’s preventable and yet it still happens, are we to blame? Am I responsible? It is almost unimaginable. I think of my precious children. I think of those lost children – each one as precious, each one holding the potential to love and to be loved. Their faces don’t get on television.

    Yet I do believe, strongly, that God is present. He is present in you and in me. We are His hands and His feet. Love knows no bounds. The Church, God’s shining, glorious presence on earth MUST wake up to this. Yet many Christians can’t even be bothered to buy fair trade coffee, or to find out how to behave in an ethical manner as a ‘consumer’. Jesus makes it clear what our response to suffering must be, in Matthew 25:31-46. For me, my response right now is to be studying for a degree in International Development and Statistics, and to be the best mum that I can be, with an open and hospitable home.

    Sorry this is so long – it’s almost a blog post in itself! One last thing – have a read of ‘Kisses from Katie’ by Katie Davis. We’re never going to have all the answers in this life, but she brought me closer to understanding a few of them.

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    • Thanks, and I completely understand your reluctance to comment on the McCann case. When I wrote this post I felt I was maybe a fool rushing in where angels fear to tread, and also in danger of intruding on others’ grief and privacy. So I applaud your wisdom in refraining from comment.

      I completely take your point about the countless other victims of suffering who go unnoticed and unremarked every day, including the 19,000 children who die of preventable diseases. It’s a tragedy and a scandal, and yes, we each have to ask ourselves whether we’re part of the solution or part of the problem.

      And I do believe that God is present, both through us and also in other ways that we mostly don’t see or realise.

      As a small aside, I wouldn’t be too harsh on Christians who don’t buy fair trade. I have some good friends in the world of coffee trading, and they have grave doubts as to the long-term effectiveness of fair trade. I’m not sure I agree with them, but I’m no longer sure it’s a black-and-white issue. But again, I take the point that as consumers we can make choices that affect other people more positively or more negatively.

      And thanks for the book recommendation 🙂

      All the very best,
      Harvey

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      • I don’t want to be harsh. It’s more frustration than anything – because some people can be trapped within their happy Jesus bubble and ‘thank you Lord for the pretty flowers’ or whatever, which is not wrong, but it is a rather monochrome view of a multifaceted God and limits His boundlessness. Surely those of us who have been believers for a long time should have matured…? Anyway, self-righteousness is also not good so I won’t go down that road any longer.

        This post raised some very important questions, and I’m glad you wrote it. The overall stream of thought is very worthy of questions which we must not shy away from.

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  4. I would ask you one simple thing: Have you ever put the same amount of energy you are now using to make excuses for god, used to ask yourself if it is possible, that your personal experience is biased and not the proof you want to see in it? Have you every spent that much energy into look at it objectively, checking for other explanations?
    Taking personal bias, human error, etc. out of the equation is a very important thing before coming to conclusions like this one.

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    • Thanks for your comment 🙂

      Firstly, I’m not out to change your mind. I’ve no problem with you or anyone else being an atheist, agnostic, or anything else. I think atheists are right about a lot of things, and that Christians would do well to listen to them. I actually find that I have more in common with a lot of non-believers than I do with certain types of Christian (particularly the fundamentalist variety).

      Secondly, I haven’t been a Christian throughout my life, and there was a time when I seriously considered atheism, or at least agnosticism. I think both have a lot going for them, but ultimately I didn’t find either worldview thoroughly satisfying or convincing. There were elements in my experience that didn’t chime with these views, and I also had objections on rational grounds.

      I’m not here to try and persuade you; simply to say that I have thought these matters through in some depth. If you want to see some of my reasons for belief, I’ve posted about them here and here.

      Nonetheless, yes, I accept that there may be unnoticed bias and psychological factors influencing my conclusions. The same can be said for anyone’s beliefs, or lack of them – it’s something we have to live with as humans. And ultimately, I may be wrong. As may you.

      Most evidence for and against belief is equivocal and can be interpreted either way depending on your starting assumptions – something I’ve written about here.

      All the very best,
      Harvey / The Evangelical Liberal

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  5. Noel says:

    “Perhaps such anger can at times even be the truest worship.” This is true, more than just reciting repetitive prayers just to follow a certain doctrine. But true worship, I believe, is going out on the streets and serving the poor, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, etc. Trying to solve the mystery of evil (and God) with human reasoning is pointless. I believe God is too great to even start to understand his purpose. However, I also believe that there is a possibility that God does not intervene at all, but let things happen to see if we pass the “test of life” by learning to love unconditionally and forgive. Great post!

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    • Thanks! Yes, you’re right of course – getting angry can be part of it (with God, with the world and with ourselves); but as you say, the truest worship is living out of Christ’s love and mercy, as in The Sheep and The Goats story in Matt 25.

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  6. lotharson says:

    Hello Harvey, it is very interesting you apply your theological reflection on a very specific instance of the problem of evil.
    Being a new comer in the UK, I don’t know much about Madeleine.

    Generally those are very challenging questions for Christians believing in the goodness of God.
    Several months ago I responded to a video made by three atheists on the problem of evil
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/09/05/the-problem-of-evil-revisited-by-lothars-son/

    and you might be interested to take a look at it.

    Right now, I am struggling with a far worse version of the problem of evil:
    why does God allow the weather to be so rainy in the UK even though He knows very well I’m here? :=)

    Cheers, Marc.

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    • Hi Marc, sorry for taking a while to get back to you!

      Sounds like you’re wrestling not with the problem of pain, but the problem of rain… 😉

      I look forward to reading your piece on the problem of evil revisited…

      It’s been fun engaging with atheists on your blog. Not sure how helpful the discussion has been, but it’s enjoyable and challenging.

      Hope it stops raining soon in the North of England!

      All the best,
      Harvey

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      • lotharson says:

        Hello Harvey, thanks for this kind words!

        Rain is not the only cause of pain for froggies in the UK, the terrible healthcare system was also a shock for me. Does this very poor quality have something to do with Thatcher’s policy towards public services?

        Anyway, it seems pretty clear to me that the ultracons are dominating modern Britain (and to a large extent the entire Western world).

        Otherwise I have just written another post about a recent conservative attempt to whitewash the Biblical terror texts and I am sure you could bring about a different and complementary perspective.

        But I don’t want to give you too much work at the same time since you seem to be a pretty busy man 🙂

        Lovely greetings from a region plagued by flood-like showers.

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        • Hello Marc – once again many apologies for my slow reply!

          I’m shockingly biased against political conservatism, so I’d be very tempted to blame all of Britain’s ills (including the weather) on Thatcher and subsequent Tory governments. But sadly I suspect the truth may be more complex. The National Health Service seems to have suffered under every government and it’s constantly in the headlines for its poor quality. But I’ll put in a good word for it and say that it’s done me pretty well over the years.

          I’m looking forward to reading more of your blog posts – I just don’t seem to get enough time for all the reading, writing and responding I’d like to do!

          All the very best,
          Harvey

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  7. zilch says:

    Hey, TEL, I hope you forgive me for completely ignoring the topic here (I’ll come back as time permits) and just dropping in to say hello. I just wanted to say that it’s a pleasure to converse with a Christian who is so openminded and warm. I guess I’ve spent too much time with American Calvinists, who tend to be snarky and smug, almost as if they’re practicing to be atheists. 😆

    anyway, cheers from sunny Vienna, zilch

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    • Hi Zilch, it’s lovely to hear from you and please always feel free to ignore the topic – particularly if you’re going to say such nice things about me! 🙂

      Allow me to return the compliment and say that it’s a pleasure to converse with warm, open-minded atheists like yourself and the good xon-xoff.

      From my limited dealings with American Calvinists (and their British counterparts), some of them seem enough to drive even Jesus to atheism! I’m sure there are many good Calvinists but on the whole it seems to me a harsh, deterministic form of religion with a cruel and aloof God who I barely recognise as related to the one I’m trying to follow. But I’m probably being entirely unfair.

      Wow, sunny Vienna – that sounds lovely. I’m in rainy, windy London and rather wishing I was where you are!

      Harvey / TEL

      Like

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