The last two blogs introduced some of the ideas from Adam Hamilton’s book, When Christians Get it Wrong. Hamilton studied why young people have rejected Christianity. Most were turned off Christianity because of beliefs, attitudes and actions of Christians they encountered. Their criticism was based on one or more of the following five elements:
- The unchristian ways some Christians act
- The anti-intellectual, anti-science stance of some Christians
- Christianity’s views of other world religions
- Questions related to the role of God in human suffering
- The way Christians view homosexuality
The first three issues have been covered in the last two blogs. The fourth criticism is concerned with Christian attitudes or responses “When Bad Things Happen.” The greatest challenge to faith in God for many people is reconciling a loving God with the suffering and pain they see in the world around them. This is a serious theological question – how can a good and loving God allow, or perhaps even cause, the suffering that happens in our world? Every theologian and every Christian will wrestle with this question. The long and commonly held assumptions that God’s involvement in the affairs of our world – the things Christians say in the face of suffering, and even in the face of blessing – may be both wrong and actually serve to push people away from God.
When a young woman lost her six-week old baby, well-meaning Christians, seeking to offer comfort to her, had the opposite impact. They implied that God was responsible for the death of her baby. Most people would find it difficulty to worship, love, serve, and trust a God who brings about the death of six-week-old children.
Christians often say things like “It must be the will of God” or “Everything has a reason.” The former assumes that everything happens because God wills it to happen. The latter assumes that God has a plan in place – a predetermined script for our planet and everyone on it – and that everything that happens is written in the script and serves a purpose that we simply cannot see right now. Most people accept these assumptions without question.
The young woman’s friends tried to console her by saying that the death of her child was part of God’s plan. Their intention was not to associate her suffering with God’s punishment or judgment, although that is often what we tend to do in regard to the suffering of another. Individuals going through adversity may also believe that God is punishing them. Christians really get it wrong when they tell others that their suffering is God’s judgment.
In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast of the United States causing the death of more than eighteen hundred people and tens of thousands to lose their homes. Following the hurricane, Hamilton read one man’s blog about the destruction. He wrote that, man is not in control, God is! There was the burgeoning Gulf Coast gambling industry, with a new casino that was to open on Labour Day weekend …. And then there was the 34th Annual gay, lesbian and transgender Labour Day Gala … Furthermore, there is the well-known corruption, drugs, and immoral playground of the French Quarter. This Christian was very clear – God sent the hurricane as an act of judgment upon the sin prevalent on the Gulf Coast. Never mind that the “immoral playground of the French Quarter” was actually spared by Katrina! Never mind that the casinos reported their best year ever the year after they reopened. And never mind that there were thousands of Christians who lost their homes and some their lives in the destruction. This Christian was certain that God had brought Katrina to punish the heathens of the Gulf Coast.
People of faith have struggled with viewing suffering as God’s judgment since biblical times. This is how much of the Old Testament views suffering, If you suffer, it is because you have sinned. But in the Old Testament is a book that was written to counter this idea. The book of Job is the story of a man who is righteous and yet he suffers greatly. Job’s friends tell him that his suffering must be his fault, that is the judgment of God, and that he should repent. Job maintains his innocence. The book ends with God chastising Job’s friends and blessing Job. There is little explanation of Job’s suffering except to make the point that it was not punishment for something he had done wrong.
Everything changes in the New Testament, where we find Jesus suffering for the sins of the world. When Christians begin to suggest that suffering is God’s punishment for sin, they may be in some sense negating the cross of Christ. Sometimes there is a connection between sin and suffering. But the connection is not God handing down punishment. Our punishment was taken by Jesus on the cross. The consequences of sin (turning away from God’s intention for our lives or missing the mark) are not punishments from God; they are the natural result of doing the wrong thing. When we cheat on our spouses, pain results. When we are caught in a lie, we lose trust or experience shame. These are natural consequences of doing wrong. But Christians who evaluate the suffering of others and pronounce that it is a result of the other’s sin are getting it wrong. In fact, to do so is a sin.
Christians who believe that God is controlling everything often speak of God’s sovereignty. This term means that God is the highest authority, there is no one to whom God reports and no one to whom God answers. God is the Supreme Ruler. The universe is the rightful property of God, who created it. Most Christians would agree that God is sovereign – the highest authority and not dependent upon anyone else. In an attempt to glorify God, some people go too far. They claim that God is not only the highest authority but also the “Supreme Micromanager.” They suggest that God is actually controlling every dimension of creation. This is sometimes referred to as “determinism.” The logical outcome of this line of reasoning makes God a monster.
What would it mean to assume that God controls every dimension of creation? There are approximately 75 to 100 trillion cells in your body. Does God control each cell, all the time, in every one of the earth’s six billion people? Does God determine at any given moment that a particular cell in this person should die or that this cell should become cancerous? Does God determine every electrical impulse in the body and every thought in every human brain at every moment in order to control every detail of human existence? Does God control the properties of every molecule, atom, and electron of everything in creation at all times, dictating how each one should act? This is the only way that God could exert complete control over all things at all times in order to ensure that every event happens according to God’s will. What about all the galaxies and stars? On each of these and everything in between, God would control every subatomic particle at all times.
This seems like a tall order, even for God. All creation is sustained by God and draws its existence from God. But if God does exercise this kind of control, it raises a host of questions. The first is simply, why? Why would God create a universe that requires constant, moment-by-moment control? Why would God create human beings with the appearance of freedom and a longing for freedom if God is going to control every thought, every word, and every action behind the scenes? And if God controls everything we do, which implies that God also determines the outcome of all things, what is the point of exerting any effort?
This leads to the assumption that history unfolds according to God’s predetermined plan. We have the illusion of making our own choices, but in fact we do no such thing because God has predetermined exactly what will happen, and we cannot change it. God controls all of the variables so that each person’s story proceeds exactly as God intends. Whatever you do you are supposed to do – any choice you make, good or evil must be the choice God wants you to make. Human responsibility seems to disappear if everything we do is really ultimately what God predetermined before we were born.
Most people are deeply troubled by this picture of God controlling everything when they encounter horrible evil. Two drug addicts went on a rampage, videotaping their rape and murder of a number of women. They kidnapped and brutally tortured a young woman who survived the ordeal. If God has a predetermined plan for each person, and if God controls all things so that everything happens according to God’s plan, then these two persons were simply doing what God foreordained. How could a loving, just, merciful, and compassionate God plan and will this kind of evil? Some might argue that some great good will come of such evil. Some day it will be obvious. God IS able to redeem suffering and bring good from evil; but to say that God planned, willed, and prompted the hearts of those who committed such a heinous crime in order to accomplish some greater good is the worst kind of blasphemy. No ends could justify such terrible means. To claim such an act is the will of God is to say that God is neither loving nor just.
God is not a micromanager nor does everything happen because God wills it. Much of what happens in the world is not God’s will. From the Bible’s opening story of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit to its closing story of the forces of darkness waging war against God, human beings are repeatedly guilty of doing the opposite of what God commands.
So, if God is not responsible for the bad things that happen, why give God credit for the good things that happen? How can Christians credit God for good things while saying that God is not also responsible for the bad? What does it mean for a sports team when the winning team credits God for the win? Does God help one team or another win? Wouldn’t we call that cheating?
A popular television preacher suggested that God had blessed him with a parking space in the front row of the mall parking lot. He thanked God for freeing up the space on such a busy day. To him this was a sign of God’s blessing. Does God provide front row parking spaces for some, while thousands of others die each day in car accidents?
A man escapes unharmed from a building felled in Port-au-Prince in the 2010 earthquake. He stands before a reporter in front of the building and declares his gratitude that God saved him. Behind him stands a man looking over the rubble. His young daughter is buried and presumed dead. If God delivered the man, why did God not deliver the little girl?
God works in our lives in ordinary ways for which we give thanks. Consider thanksgiving for a meal. What are we actually thanking God for? We thank God for a world that supplies wonderful food, for the blessing of taste and the joy of eating, for farmers and truckers and grocery store stockers, and for life itself – all of these are the results of God’s creative and sustaining work. It is in this sense that Christians rightly give thanks for everything; not because God is the immediate cause of all good, but because God is the ultimate cause of these blessings. God doesn’t drop a meal at our front door, but God provides the means for acquiring what we need.
God does have a plan for our lives, but no one written in stone that God forces us to follow. Much of God’s plan is fairly simple to understand. We read the Scriptures particularly the teachings of Jesus, and we seek to follow them. In every situation, in every encounter, in every relationship, and in every decision, we seek to express the love of God, the love of neighbours, and what is just.
Each of us has unique gifts and abilities and perhaps places of influence, and God’s will is that we use these to do God’s work. At times God places on our hearts a special call or particular opportunity. We need to listen and say yes. But even when we have not heard or discerned a particular call, we know the teachings of Jesus about God’s will and plan for our lives.
Each day God leads us, if we are paying attention and listening. We may bump into someone who has been struggling and needs care. We speak of these things, not as mere coincidences, but as “God-incidents.” The challenge and task are to pay attention and to listen to the whisper of God.
Many people have asked, “Where was God when the earthquake in Haiti occurred? God wasn’t shaking the earth in order to kill innocent people. But God was seen in the medical teams from various parts of North America, with doctors and rescue workers, with the people in the caravan of semi trucks and planes loaded with food and supplies. God was the source, not of the earthquake but of the comfort and hope people found as they buried their dead. A few days after the first earthquake, another followed, and from the makeshift tents cries of fear could be heard. But then the people quickly broke into the singing of hymns. God was their comfort and strength. For those who lost loved ones, God is the only hope that they will see their children or parents or friends again. God was seen in the generosity of people from around the world who gave millions to aid the victims.
If you were to take God out of the equation in Haiti, you still have an earthquake with 200,000 people dead, but you will have removed the single most important source of comfort and hope.
Christians get it wrong when they attribute tragedy to the will, plan, and hand of God. They get it wrong when they blame victims as the cause of their own suffering. But they get it right when they walk with those undergoing suffering, and when they selflessly serve their neighbour in need. In this way they become the hands and feet and voice of God, caring for God’s children in their moment of need.