This is the first post in a series about relying on God in a messy world.
God gets involved. He’s not just a spectator, even a passionate one. God is by our side and has our back.
The Creator of heaven and earth, the author of oceans and galaxies, the mover of tides and tectonic plates knows the number of hairs on your head and grieves when a sparrow falls.
Even more astonishingly, we Christians say that God is out in front of us. He guards us and guides us. He has a vision for our lives that only he can bring to reality when we rely upon him.
Christians sometimes describe God’s involvement in our lives by saying that God has a plan and that his will governs the universe. Theologians call this the Sovereignty of God.
And then rotten things happen. Natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and droughts cause terrible human suffering.
Some interpret these natural disasters as God’s punishments for sin.
God is sovereign, they say. If something happens, God made it happen. On this line of thinking, God can only be good if those who suffer have it coming. Hence, natural disasters must be just punishments.
Holy Scripture is more nuanced. The just Job suffered. His misery had nothing at all to do with any sin he had committed. On the contrary, he was a virtuous man.
To suggest that God offers compassion—that he suffers with us—is a start. But it only goes so far. A sympathetic but ineffectual God is neither comforting nor true to the Biblical narrative.
God has invited us to rely upon him. If we can’t see him responding to our deepest distress, there’s clearly something wrong with this picture.
Large, distant natural disasters raise this question abstractly. Personal loss gets in your face. Among the many stories of loss I’ve shared with people, one stands out.
While I was still a seminarian and spending a summer term as a hospital chaplain, I was called into a birthing room.
The baby had just died in childbirth. That’s all I knew.
An impossibly young woman was sitting up in bed looking shell-shocked. Standing awkwardly next to her bed a young man gazed blankly in her direction.
Family members littered the room, contributing to an already thick silence. When I walked in they stared up at me as if on cue.
Every one of them looked sucker punched.
Their faces didn’t betray grief or anger or even relief that somebody might break this unbearable silence with vaguely comforting words. Incomprehension was etched on every face.
This was years ago. My pastoral experience could be reckoned in weeks. I would surely have remembered this scene just for its misery, but what happened next assured that I couldn’t forget it.
Just as I had quietly expressed my sorrow for the family’s loss and said prayers for the child and the family, another pastor arrived.
This was the family’s preacher. As a hospital chaplain, I greeted him and stepped aside so that he could take his proper place with his people.
In a jarringly upbeat tone, he told us all to remember that this was part of God’s plan. It was God’s will. God had a lesson for the young couple and for the whole family to learn. He instructed everybody to join hands and give thanks and glory to God.
My point is not to criticize a fellow clergyperson.
Stunned as I was, even then I knew that he cared for this family. He believed what he said to them and thought that it would bring comfort.
Maybe you agree with him. I do not.
I believe that God is deeply and intimately involved in even the smallest details of his Creation. And yet, this pastor’s way of understanding how God operates seems contrary to the Christ I know.
His yoke is easy and his burden is light. Life felt a lot heavier after my clergy colleague came onto the scene.
For starters, it’s probably best to take care when we say that God has a plan. It will suffice as shorthand in some situations, but let’s remember that it’s a metaphor for the deeply mysterious way that God works out his will for us.
Every metaphor has its limits. The image of a plan will suggest to some the rigidity of a set of blueprints. In other words, this sort of plan is a design that must be followed in every small detail.
To switch analogies, God’s plan can seem to some like a great chess master’s strategy. God moves each of us according to his ultimate purposes.
Whether we’re thinking in terms of blueprints or chessboards, God expresses his will coercively. He pushes things (and people) from behind toward the position he wants them to occupy.
Set aside 21st Century sensibilities for a moment, and don’t worry about how unacceptably cruel or manipulative Oprah would find such a God.
Think instead of God’s conversation with Abraham about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham bargains with God. So, God, how about if we find 50 righteous people? Would you spare the city then? How about 40? 30?
God sent Jonah to Nineveh (by the less than scenic route) to tell them that God had had it with them. They were toast. When they repented, God changed his mind and spared the city. Jonah pouted, but that’s another story.
Jesus died on the Cross for the very people driving in the nails, and he invites us to take up our cross and follow him.
Blueprints and chessboards do not convey the paradoxical richness of God’s sovereignty and vulnerability, his majesty and his humility, his unbending determination to keep his promises and his responsiveness to soreheads and grumps like us.
In the posts to come we’ll look at what it means for God to have a kingdom, how human freedom intersects with God’s sovereign will, why bad things happen to good people, miracles, and what role if any Satan plays.