Have you had a theoclasm yet? Don’t worry, if you haven’t had such an experience, it’ll happen to you at some point. In fact, if you identify in any way with Christianity—maybe you’ve called yourself a Christian for years—then you’ve probably already had them in your past. According to the article defining theoclasm by Gary Hayes, it’s about breaking down our received, or traditional understanding of God. According to Gary, “a theoclasm involves the notion of ‘disrupting, questioning and breaking down perceptions, beliefs and practices relating to God.’”
In other words, in experiential terms, it’s when our views of God, our beliefs about him, his nature and his ways, no longer fits our experience. We can experience a theoclasm, for example, in times of hideous suffering. We all know what I’m describing: when a loved one suddenly dies of a heart attack or brain aneurism in their sleep; when a family member or close friend develops a terminal illness; when horrible suffering is visited upon you personally, and you begin to question how a supposedly loving and faithful God could allow these terrible things to happen to you.
Oh, we’re fine when it comes to doling out sage, practical “biblical wisdom” (like Romans 8:28) when others are going through appalling suffering. Putting that paternal arm around the suffering friend’s shoulder, we sagely state: “Just remember, brother, that the Bible says that all things are going to work out for the good—for those who love God.” And that’ll make it all better—a nice, pat, slick, biblical answer.
Theoclasm in the Book of Job
When you start to look for it, theoclasms are all over the Bible. Virtually any time that someone encounters God in the narrative, their preconceived notions and concepts of him end up undergoing a radical revision. Gary and I talk about a few theoclasms in our podcast on this subject. Take Job, for example. He had a classic “reward-and-punishment” theological understanding of God (and I suspect many Christians today have much the same views).
From Job’s point of view, he was absolutely correct in his argument: he did not deserve the suffering visited upon him (which was actually the result of a cosmic bet between God and Satan, about which Job is never informed, by the way). Why could Job make such a claim? Because, the narrator of the book informs the reader on multiple occasions, Job was truly a rare person—a righteous man who did nothing wrong.
And in case he might do something wrong, and his children too, Job would regularly offer sort of a “pre-emptive strike sacrifice” to cover any eventualities in the sin category. Just in case somebody may have sinned inadvertently, Job had already done a sacrifice for that. So he went far and above out of his way to cover all the bases.
Therefore, when the horrible suffering happened to Job and his wife, his case was clear: there’s been a cosmic mistake! God must be asleep at the switch. I’ve done nothing wrong, nothing to deserve any of this! And, as I say, from his theological point of view, he was absolutely correct—that is, if the reward-and-punishment system were in fact true. If our relationship with God is formulated on the basis of earning brownie points for how good of a person we are, and thus being blessed by God on that basis, then yes it is in fact true—suffering and evil shouldn’t befall us. We’re well in the clear, and life should be just great from here on out.
When we examine the perspective of his advisers (his so-called “friends” or counsellors), their theological argument was basically similar to that of Job’s. The reward-and-punishment basis was there: good and righteous people don’t deserve to have calamity fall upon them, or experience suffering at the hand of God. So they agreed on that point with Job. The difference, of course, was that they spend chapters in the book arguing over this issue: Job, you must have sinned, else why is this suffering happening to you? The solution is straightforward also: first, figure out exactly what it is that you’ve done wrong to offend God and experience this suffering; second, repent of it and get right with God again; and third, the blessings will start to flow once again from the hand of God. It’s just that simple.
Job, of course, stubbornly maintained that he hadn’t sinned, that he hadn’t done anything wrong to cause such hideous suffering. If he could just get an audience with God; if he could just plead his case, and prove that he’d been wronged on a cosmic level, then God would surely, and quickly too, right all the wrongs that had been visited upon poor righteous Job. But Job experienced a theoclasm when he finally got what he’d been begging for—that audience with God.
Did God come clean, and finally admit that the whole experiment was nothing more than a cosmic bet between he and Satan, to see whether Job would renounce God and die? Once the blessing tap was turned off, argued Satan, and some suffering came his way, Job would be out of that relationship with God so fast he’d be smoking. God maintained the opposite, and so the experiment began, with poor clueless Job the hapless victim of what surely seems like a fairly cruel, and seemingly pointless, trial.
But as I say, when Job finally received his chance to argue his case with God, there was no cosmic justice to be had. In fact, God’s response is very puzzling, if not shocking; he seems to slap Job down, cutting him down to size by almost belittling him and reinforcing Job’s worm-like status. Job’s reply, at the end of God’s tirade toward the end of the book, is to cover his mouth with his hand, as he had apparently nothing more to say by way of a response.
Conclusion: A Strange Ending?
The truly bizarre thing about the ending of the book is how, after this strange encounter with a seemingly angry God, Job ends up getting everything back—the blessings come back, times two. So does the book, in the end, reinforce that reward-and-punishment theology to which Job and his friends held so closely? On one level, it would seem that it does; but on other levels, it clearly doesn’t. In other words, if the system were in fact the way our relationship with God is framed, then Job would have never experienced all that suffering, because he was a righteous man, and didn’t deserve it.
The book of Job therefore leaves the reader grappling with tension regarding these conflicting views of God, and how we define our relationship with him. On the one hand, it’s easy to fall into that performance trap like Job and his friends did, and calculate our relationship with God in terms of earning his favour, and ultimately his blessings. But the problem with that position is the same one Job had: when suffering does occur in our lives, our theology no longer works, and we are—in our viewpoint—rightly angry with God, since we don’t deserve it. Didn’t he see how many times I cleaned the church building? Mowed the lawn every Saturday in front of the building? Read my Bible every day, and prayed with my spouse and children? Witnessed to my non-saved friends, neighbours, co-workers, etc.? If I’m suffering, then I’m getting screwed over by God, as Job argued.
But rather than being angry with God because your theology no longer fits, look at it differently—it’s a theoclasm. Time to tear down your incomplete, flawed and faulty views of God, because they don’t work any more. Besides, it’s frankly exhausting to conceive of our entire lives spent earning God’s favour by performing. How much is enough? The fact is, it’s never going to be enough—and we end up comparing ourselves to other, more “spiritual” people anyway, who have it all together. No matter how good, and how far along, you think you are, there’s always somebody else who’s ahead of you; who is more disciplined, who reads their Bibles more, who “does more for God” than you’ll ever do. So you’ll never measure up anyway, if you go down that road at least.
Having an experience of a theoclasm need not be the worst thing in the world. As Richard Rohr describes it, “necessary suffering” is often the very experiences that propel us into the “second half of life”—into areas of greater personal growth, spiritual maturity, and becoming the person we truly were meant to be. Although we curse it at the time, when we’re in the midst of the suffering, when we look back on it from the perspective of time, it’s oftentimes those periods of our lives when we grew the most, learned to rely on others for help and support, and became a better, and stronger, person in the long run.