Throughout my ministry the single most often asked question by congregants is some variation of the theodicy issue: If God is omnipotent and omni-benevolent, then why do horrible things happen? More often than not, this question is generated in response to some personal suffering such as the diagnosis of a serious illness, the loss of a job, a car wreck, or other personal disaster. In my experience, the question is almost never raised with respect to the larger suffering of humanity. Never mind the fact that hundreds of millions of our fellow human beings live in grinding poverty each day and are on the brink of starvation–I want to know why this terrible thing happened TO ME! I thought the Bible told me I was the apple of God’s eye! (Psalm 17:8)
I know a devout, church-going woman who is currently angry with God because her two adult children recently took new jobs out of town and had to move away. This has literally shaken her faith. She has played by the rules–she’s attended church, taught Sunday School, prayed regularly, and yet life didn’t turn out according to her plan. And her response is not unusual. I’ve seen it over and over again throughout my life in the church. For many–perhaps most–Christians the bottom line is “What can God do for me?” Hence the success of the mega-church prosperity preachers who have tapped into this felt-need so effectively.
To be sure, there are some Christians who are other-centered and are making tremendous efforts to alleviate human suffering through the work of church-related NGOs all around the world. And these good folk might indeed claim that their faith is inspiring them to do this work. But there is absolutely no proof of that. Perhaps they simply inherited a genetic propensity for altruistic behavior, and they would have acted on those altruistic impulses with or without religion.