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Interview

Where is God when bad things happen? Part 1: The basics

From the March 2022 issue of The Christian Science Journal


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. These events raise a big question for many people: Where is God when bad things happen? Recently Ethel Baker, the Editor of the Christian Science magazines, explored this topic with Scott Preller, a Christian Science practitioner and teacher. Scott is currently serving on the Board of Directors of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, Massachusetts. The following is adapted from the recording of their conversation featured on JSH-Online.com.


Ethel: Let’s begin with that big question: Where is God in bad times? 

Scott: To come up with a meaningful answer to that, we first have to spend a little time looking at the question itself. If it’s coming from the position of someone who’s convinced that there is no God, that everything is horrible and dark, then the question can feel more like an accusation than a real question. But I think most people who are asking that are coming from a position of faith. They have actually experienced something more than just the limits of material living. They have felt a sense of love, for example, that they recognize 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 they’ve encountered a source of intelligence beyond anything the human mind 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 as a real thing, not just 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 naturally made them ask: “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. But the short answer is, God is right here. And God is continuing to be all-powerful, all good, and is loving us. Asking that question is like asking on a cloudy day, Where did the sun go? It’s there. What has to be explored and answered is what is demanded of us in order to be able to feel God’s presence despite the events being reported in the news. 

You’ve mentioned that God is omnipresent and omnipotent. Those words are used to describe God in many faiths. And yet there’s also the impression that God is kind of a big human being in the sky, and we’re pleading with God to help us. But what you’re describing is a different sense of God. Can you elaborate on what God is in Christian Science? 

Christian Science is wholly based on the Bible, particularly on the ministry and teachings of Christ Jesus. You see in the Gospels the force, the power, the presence of good being supreme in everything Jesus did when he encountered disease and other evils. You never see 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 according to the teachings of Jesus, we too are expected to experience this presence of the kingdom of God. That’s what faith is all about—the conviction that there is something more than just what you can perceive in the material surroundings we face, and that something more is really substantial. Christian Science explains that in Jesus’ ministry, you see this good operating as law, as an operative divine Principle. 

Would you talk a little more about the foundation for this sense that Christian Science puts out there about the reliability of God? 

One of the things I love about the Bible is that it really covers the whole of human experience, and it shows that the questions we wrestle with today about existence are not new. There are so many instances where individuals in the Bible had to wrestle with the question of “Where is God when bad things are happening?” 

Take the story of Job, for example. Job is depicted as a person of perfect faith, totally upright, loves God, hates evil, and has all the blessings that you expect would come with that. He has great wealth, a healthy family, lots of kids, and lots of possessions. The book of Job relates a kind of challenge between God and the devil, where the devil says, “Well, sure, he believes in You, God, because everything is going great. But what if things don’t go so great?” And in the course of just a few opening chapters of Job, you see this man going from everything being just wonderful to finding out that all of his possessions are stolen and wiped out, all of his children are killed in a violent storm, and eventually he himself becomes diseased. And the whole rest of the story of Job is about his wrestling with “How is this right? How do I make sense of this?” 

Job’s friends offer conventional theological explanations for why bad things are happening. They represent the same kinds of arguments that we may go through when we’re wrestling with “How do I explain why everything was going so well and now it’s going so badly?” And “Why isn’t God fixing this?” The friends come at him with arguments like “You must have done something to deserve this. We just don’t know what it is.” Or “Maybe if you ask God just right, He’ll fix it.” And “You can’t know the ways of God. Since God is good and punishes only sin, the fact that you’re going through this means, of course, that you’ve sinned.” 

This is all bad theology based on the assumption that the things Job is going through are valid. But Job doesn’t yield to any of it. He continues to defend his faith, his uprightness before God. And in the end, what happens with Job is something that I think happens with most of us when we’ve had to wrestle with this question. That’s why I say it is a question of faith, because when we really wrestle with it, it often becomes the occasion for strengthening our understanding of God. It did for Job. He had to realize that no matter what he’d been through, the infinitude of God was an actuality that he just had to yield to. And as he did, everything changed. In other words, he had to make sure the whole of his heart was on that faith in God, rather than being impressed by all the things that had happened to him. The Bible account ends with saying that God blessed him even more, and he ended up with twice as much as he’d had before. 

According to the teachings of Jesus, we too are expected to experience this presence of the kingdom of God.

In the Gospels, God’s consistency and goodness are affirmed throughout Jesus’ ministry. In Mark there’s the account of Jesus in a storm with the disciples, and Jesus is asleep in the back of the boat. His disciples come to him 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. This teaches us that when we’re faced with horrible things, we’ll either be impressed by them or we’ll work to be impressed by the presence of God. And that can make all the difference. 

Christian Science endeavors to approach Jesus’ teaching with the scientific method—you test it, you experiment, you explore, but you do it based on understood laws. Christian Science comes at this with a sense that God is wholly good, is all-powerful, and that God therefore has nothing whatsoever to do with troubles or calamities. Evil is not God’s raw material for doing God’s will. God’s way is to let us experience the spiritual qualities of God.

When we’re wrestling with questions like “Where is God when bad things are happening?” the need is for us to turn those questions and the assumptions they’re based on upside down. So Christian Science invites us to change the perspective that we’re thinking from. Rather than looking at the dire circumstances surrounding us and then deciding, based on those circumstances, how we feel about God, we instead need to look at God, understand and feel the presence of God, and let the reality of God challenge how we feel about the circumstances we’re in. That’s what brought healing in the Bible, and it’s what has brought healing to generations of Christian Scientists. 

A majority of people may be feeling that the world, including us, is a mixture of good and evil that we’re trying to juggle all the time. When it gets out of hand, we may reach for this supreme being that seems far away. But you’re talking about God being right here. 

This idea that we’re in the midst of a kind of endless tennis match between evil and good is exhausting and doesn’t get us anywhere. But when you look at the nature of the claims of the material world, and the nature of the claims of God, they don’t really allow space for each other. There’s nothing about them that seeks to cohabitate in any realistic way. 

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. But Christianity shows us that that’s completely upside down. The reality is God and God’s creation, made like God and expressing the same love and goodness. That’s why, when we talk about this different reality, it’s not really an unknown. You can talk to anyone and they know what love feels like. They know what honesty feels like. They know what intelligence feels like. These are the qualities of God, and they are the reality right now. 

How does this work in our individual lives? 

When I was serving as a Christian Science chaplain in the United States Air Force, I was asked to attend a conference where there would be chaplains from many other faiths, but I was going to be the only Christian Science representative. I had been dealing with an ear infection for a while, and I’d asked for help from a Christian Science practitioner. I was not looking forward to this conference, to put it mildly, because I was in quite a lot of discomfort. When I got there, I went to the conference center by taxi, and by then the pain in my ear was so great that I had lost my sense of equilibrium. I remember getting out of the taxi and falling into the gutter. 

I eventually did make my way to check-in, and then I found a quiet corner and called the practitioner who was praying with me. I 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? She listened patiently, and then after a bit, one of the things she said to me was, “There’s nothing there.” 

As I walked to my room after that, I was thinking, “She just doesn’t get it. She doesn’t realize how much pain I’m in, and there is something there.” Then I got into my room and sat down on my bed and thought, “Well, wait a minute now. If I am ever going to heal this through prayer in Christian Science, through my understanding of God, at some point I’m going to have to see that there’s more reality in God’s goodness and the identity God has given me than there is in this infection that’s arguing that all I am is matter.” 

I just kept exploring that question, thinking: “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. What is real is God’s presence in my life and my own identity as God’s child.” I just kept going deeply into that thought until I felt the reality of God’s presence more than I did the problem. And the pain left. It wasn’t just improved; it was gone. According to Christian Science, the disappearance of the pain was evidence of the fact that it never had the authority it claimed to have in the first place. But I had to see it. I had to listen for that voice of Christ assuring me of the reality of good and the emptiness of the claim of evil. And when I did, the error was destroyed. 

Christian Science has a history of people relying on prayer for healing, but I think it’s important to remember that healing isn’t fundamentally about using faith to fix up a material body or to fix material problems. Rather, 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 the material picture, the healing that results is evidence of what Jesus said about the kingdom of heaven—that it’s present and it’s within you. 

So this understanding of God as purely good, as always present, really changes what prayer is often assumed to be. 

Well, prayer can be 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 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 another way to think about prayer is that it’s a very active alignment of thought with God and God’s sense of reality. 

Christian Science turns on its head the idea that the material world has authority and power over us. If you took a poll and asked people what the single most destructive power in the world is, they might come up with interesting answers such as nuclear war, disease, pandemic, climate disaster, economic collapse, hatred, and so forth. But Christian Science helps us realize that actually the single most destructive force in the world is Christ. Because Christ is the only force that has shown it can destroy those things that seem to destroy good. Christ can destroy disease; Christ can destroy death; Christ can destroy distrust and dishonesty, and so forth. 

Christian Science helps us understand the nature and presence of Christ to bring healing in our lives and to get us through those moments when it seems like bad things are happening around us. Mary Baker Eddy, a devoted Christian and the Discoverer of Christian Science, includes a glossary in the Christian Science textbook that gives spiritual definitions of biblical terms. She defines Christ as “The divine manifestation of God, which comes to the flesh to destroy incarnate error” (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, p. 583). 

You see right there the sense of the Christ being the most destructive force. And while Jesus fully manifested the Christ in all he did, the encouraging thing is he made it clear that the power of Christ is always present for us to experience in our own lives. When we stop thinking of Christ as some person in the Bible or some unattainable
presence that’s not part of our experience, but rather as this manifestation of God, which comes to us to destroy incarnate error, we begin to look for more of the presence of Christ in our lives. 

In another place in Science and Health Mrs. Eddy talks about Christ as “the true idea voicing good, the divine message from God to men speaking to the human consciousness” (p. 332). So in any situation, even in horrible situations, we can always listen with a sense of “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.” 

Mrs. Eddy includes that same sense of Christ being destructive in her definition 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). The wonderful thing is 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 “error” in the passages you quoted is really the same thing as evil, whether it’s illness, or harm, or any phenomenon that’s not good, that’s not of God. Can you explain how this kind of praying that you’re talking about works? 

Sure. I’ve found it tremendously encouraging to look at Mrs. Eddy’s own experience in discovering this scientific sense of Christianity that is anchored in an understanding of the allness and goodness of God, and evil’s lack of authority. She didn’t come by that understanding through some rose-petaled life herself. In her spiritual autobiography, Retrospection and Introspection, she writes, “The trend of human life was too eventful to leave me undisturbed in the illusion that this so-called life could be a real and abiding rest.” She talks about life’s lessons becoming both clearer and sterner, and then adds, “Previously the cloud of mortal mind seemed to have a silver lining; but now it was not even fringed with light” (p. 23). 

Here was a woman who had spent most of her young years as a semi-invalid and had experienced the loss of her mother, her brother, and her husband. Later her son was taken away from her when he was a child. So she really went through a lot. And yet she discovered the Science of the Christ, and it changed everything. She realized that the experiences that forced her to lean on God were what opened up to her the reality of God in a way that transformed everything. She couldn’t think or live from a different basis once she saw the allness of God, good. 

I thought of another example when I came across a family photo as I was preparing for our conversation today. 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. My family’s from Germany, and this photo was taken when they were living in Berlin. It was in 1941, and World War II was already going on. But looking at this photo, you would just think it was a happy family occasion. They didn’t realize what was coming. They didn’t know, for instance, that my grandfather, who was a Christian Science practitioner, would very soon be put in prison when the Nazis outlawed Christian Science. 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. 

Evil is not God’s raw material for doing God’s will.

My family’s accounts of that time during the war certainly depict what we’re talking about today, the sense of “Where’s God when bad things happen?” What I find helpful is thinking about the answer that my family experienced. After my grandfather was let out of prison, the Nazis eventually came and grabbed him again and forced him into military service. They placed him as a guard on a bridge in a fairly remote area. So he spent a portion of the war just sitting there, supposedly as a guard of this bridge, but he actually spent that time writing poetry. 

Interestingly, at some point the bridge was overrun, and my grandfather was shot in the leg and was taken to a field hospital, where he asked if he could be left alone to pray for a while. The doctors had told him they were going to have to amputate the leg, but by the time they came back, they realized they didn’t need to. And he eventually had a complete healing through Christian Science treatment. 

Now, it would be easy to look at that account of such a turbulent time and think, “Well, that’s not very reassuring.” Because it could feel like things are going just great, but you don’t know what disaster’s coming. Yet 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 our new Christian Science Hymnal. Here is the second verse of Hymn 476

Longing heart, don’t give up hope
When threats of evil overwhelm.
Love now keeps Her promise true,
God’s 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.

(Friedrich Preller, Christian Science Hymnal: Hymns 430–603,
No. 476, © CSBD)

Of course, he wasn’t talking about victory of one combatant over another. He was talking about the victory over feeling forlorn and without hope—victory over the material sense of existence. So there was a case where my grandfather was faced with great evil, and through what Christian Science had told him about the presence and allness of God, he 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 that brought healing. It brought a stronger realization of good. 

Then we can expect healing—for ourselves and in the wide scope of things. Can you give us an example of how one might pray about, let’s say, the upheaval in Afghanistan? 

What we’re seeing in Afghanistan is a great example of news that can overwhelm our hope, our 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. In my own prayers about the situation, I’ve been realizing that if God is the author of creation, if the true nature of men and women is as spiritual ideas of God, and 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 is animated by good and knows how to love. 

I keep affirming that the only real intelligence is the intelligence coming from God; that the only real power is the power coming from Love; and that every single individual—whether it’s someone trying to find safety, someone trying to help those trying to find safety, or even someone who is trying to prevent people from feeling safe—each one has that capacity to hear Christ speaking to consciousness. Christ lets people think from the basis of intelligence and care and love, rather than fear and darkness and oppression. 

Well, Scott, let me ask you one final question. For some, this may be a totally different idea of God or prayer from what they’ve heard before. Is it out of reach for people who are just hearing about it for the first time? 

Not at all. 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 is true for everyone. 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 it really worth living, and I am not powerless to experience that in my life.” 

So it’s not something foreign to anyone. It’s what’s already there. I mean, if what we’re saying has any validity at all, it’s founded on the 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, and we’ll find new capacities to do and be good. Life will feel like what it’s meant to be. And that’s each of us being an expression of God, an expression of Love and Truth and Spirit.

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