This is the third post in a series about relying on God in a messy world.
God runs a tight ship. At least, that’s what the opening scenes of “The Adjustment Bureau” suggest.
We never get to see God (or the Chairman, as he’s called in the movie). But we do get to watch his angels at work.
Dressed like characters from AMC’s series “Madmen,” they busy themselves with keeping God’s plan on track. They make minor adjustments in our lives when chance or a wayward choice threatens to send God’s infinitely intricate plan off the rails.
These midlevel angelic executives don’t turn to major catastrophes or eye-popping miracles to steer events along the divine path.
They make small adjustments that produce cosmic ripple effects. Spilled cups of coffee and dropped cell phone calls serve to nudge events back on track.
The plot turns on a love story.
David Norris (played by Matt Damon) and Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) are irresistibly drawn to each other.
Unfortunately for them, their relationship is contrary to God’s plan. The story that unfolds pits the freedom of the lovers to choose to spend their lives together against God’s plan (and influence) to keep them apart.
No spoilers here. If you want to know how it turns out, go see the movie.
But for those of us looking to rely on God in our daily lives, the question these filmmakers pose is one we should consider carefully.
Does God plan to break your heart?
In previous posts I’ve already said that God has a plan for his creation as a whole and for each of us. That plan is best understood as a dream or a vision. Metaphors like blueprints and chessboards fail us.
In those same posts I’ve stressed that we are free. God created us to love him and our neighbor. Without freedom, we could not give our love as a gift.
So, does God plan to break your heart? Does God’s design involve causing suffering and sorrow?
Yes and no. The answer depends on what we’re really asking here. So let’s ask some different versions of that question.
Does God press earthquake, volcano or tsunami buttons to punish us or to teach us a lesson? He could, but I suspect he doesn’t.
That’s because freedom requires an orderly, predictable universe. Freedom wouldn’t mean much of anything if we couldn’t foresee the consequences of our actions with any degree of confidence.
Imagine a world in which jumping from the roof would one time cause a broken ankle and another time teleport us to Mars. Same roof. Same leap. Wildly differing results.
I could forever say, “It’s not my fault.” For that matter, I might begin to wonder what difference my choices and my actions made at all.
Natural law gives us a world within which we can make choices reasonably and can hold each other accountable for what we do and what we leave undone.
Suffering does sometimes result from natural processes. So why doesn’t God just suspend the law of nature?
If God made a habit of suspending the natural law every time suffering or disappointment or sorrow resulted from the law, there would simply be no natural law.
Now this is not to say that the natural universe is completely closed to God’s influence. This is one of the intriguing bits about “The Adjustment Bureau.” God nudges things in a way that does not tear the fabric of his Creation.
The Bible contains many miraculous interventions in the ordinary course of things. God stops the sun in the sky and parts the Red Sea. Jesus raises the dead, heals lepers with a word and touch, restores sight to the blind, and walks on water.
But miracles are of necessity rare exceptions to the general rule of order. Nudging… Well that’s a different question.
God nudges us, along with the many other influences in our lives.
Sometimes he allows us to suffer pain or sorrow to help us avoid calamity in the future.
We unaccountably feel like picking up the phone and calling an old friend, only to discover that he’s gotten a rotten diagnosis.
Somebody says just the right word to help you see the solution to a marital problem, even though she’s talking about something completely differing. How could she know that the ingredients of a recipe would remind you why you really love your spouse?
God doesn’t nudge us toward suffering and sorrow. He nudges us toward reconciliation, mercy, joy, patience, peace and justice.
Framing the question this way, we can say that God does not plan to break your heart.
Let’s ask the question in a different way. Can we really be what God dreams that we can be if our hearts are never broken?
This way of asking the question uncovers one of our basic misconceptions.
Suffering, sickness, disappointment, and the like seem unfair to us. It’s as if we believe that God should have created us to be comfortable and to be entertained. Any departure from this program seems uncaring, even cruel.
Comfort and entertainment are good in their place. They are not, however, the highest good for us. Love occupies that place. And love grows and matures by stretching and even breaking our hearts.
C. S. Lewis said this brilliantly in this oft-quoted passage:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless–it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.
When your child’s favorite toy breaks, your friend loses her husband, your parent can’t remember how to find her way home, your heart is rent.
When you say goodbye to a beloved pet, leave your hometown for the last time, send your daughter off to college, your heart stretches and tears a bit.
That’s what love is. Heartbreak of this sort makes us more, not less.
And God does not merely observe our heartbreak from a distance, giving us the medicine that he knows is good for us. He is right there in the midst of it with us.
The Cross reveals God’s broken heart for love of us. The empty tomb and the risen Christ teach us that our broken heart, in God’s hands, leads to love and life eternal.
God plans to break our hearts. Not to cause meaningless suffering or to mar what would otherwise be a wonderful life. God loves us enough to share his own capacity to love and his eternal life. The two are inseparable.
In the next post, we’ll turn to spiritual nudging of the friendly and not so friendly sort. The tentative title: Angels and Demons.