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Half Truths: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves and Other Things the Bible Doesn't Say
by Adam Hamilton
Learn More | Meet Adam Hamilton
IntroductionMost of us as Christians have things we believe, and tell others, and even count on, that we’ve not carefully examined. Some of the things we accept and repeat to others sound so true, and we’ve believed them for so long, that they become what some call “sacred cows”—things above question or criticism. When these beliefs are questioned we become defensive or irritated. We may even worry that if the beliefs aren’t true, the rest of our faith may crumble.
I don’t think this book will make your faith crumble. But to the degree that I’m questioning something you’ve held deeply and repeated often, it might unnerve or irritate you. It’s okay to say: I think the author gets it wrong in this chapter. Maybe I did. Go on to the next chapter and see what you think. Hopefully I got it right in at least one of the chapters. And remember, I’m not suggesting that these statements are entirely untrue, merely that they are half true. (Okay, some may be less than half true, but certainly there is some truth in each of them.)
Here’s why it’s important to examine these particular half truths: I think they can sometimes hurt people. I think they can lead people to conclusions about God that not only are untrue but that may push some people away from God. Some of these half truths are used to avoid careful thinking about complex issues. Some are used to justify our own biases or prejudices. Some, when spoken to others, can bring pain.
All of us occasionally use half truths. In fact, the subtitle of this book may be a half truth! My publisher and I discussed several subtitles and finally settled on this one: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves and Other Things the Bible Doesn’t Say. But the truth is that you can find Bible passages to support nearly every one of the half truths we’ll discuss. For that matter, you can find Bible passages to support all kinds of things. People who beat their children can support their practice from Scripture: “Those who withhold the rod hate their children” (Proverbs 13:24).
I was taught as a teen that Christians were not to drink wine, for “Wine is a mocker; beer a carouser” (Proverbs 20:1). When a young woman is repeatedly abused by her husband, her parents can urge her to stay with him because “I hate divorce, says the Lord” (Malachi 2:16 NRSV).
Scriptures must be interpreted. Sometimes their meanings seem to conflict, or a particular message given in one context appears to be contradicted in another context. It is important to read any Scripture in the light of its context and the Bible’s broader message and themes. It is not enough to find a passage or two or six to support a particular view. We interpret all Scripture in the light of Jesus’ life and teachings, as well as with the help of the Spirit’s witness, the wisdom of scholars, and our intellect and life experience.
Because Scriptures must be interpreted, you and I may sometimes disagree about our interpretations and other issues of faith. This was brought home to me recently when I spoke at a conference on one of the topics in this book, “Everything Happens for a Reason.” I was approached by a lifelong Christian, a man who for years had served on the staff of his church. He said, “Your talk tonight really unnerved me at first.
I’ve always believed that everything happens for a reason. I always tell people this to comfort them when things go wrong.” I was expecting him to say, “But now that I’ve heard your talk on this, I understand that this may not be entirely true. I’m going to be more careful in what I say to people enduring suffering.” Of course, that’s not what he told me. He said, “Well, I don’t know about all that stuff you talked about tonight. But I do know one thing: everything happens for a reason.” So much for the compelling case I had presented!
I’ll end this short introduction with another experience I had this week as I was ministering with an individual. Her little sister, a teenager, had just died tragically. I stopped by to offer comfort and care. Through her tears the young woman told me, “I know it was her time, but I don’t understand why God would take my little sister now. She was just a kid.”
The young woman had grown up learning that whatever happened, it must be the will of God. God must have predetermined that it was her sister’s time to die. Though I may have disagreed, it would not have been helpful to question her assumptions at that moment. I simply hugged her, prayed for her, and offered to talk further in the days ahead. But my hope in writing this book is to invite you to question assumptions such as the young woman’s before you find yourself in a situation like hers, when those assumptions might raise questions that challenge your faith.
Yes, there is some truth to be found in the “truths” we’ll explore in the pages that follow. I invite you, though, to consider whether these truths are as Christian or as true as you may suppose. And, if I’m right, I hope you might think twice before you say them again.
More than that, I hope that examining these and other half truths will lead you to the greater truths we find in Jesus Christ.
Chapter 1Everything Happens for a Reason
[Then Moses said to the Israelites,] I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days. —Deuteronomy 30:19-20a NRSV
Has anyone ever said to you, “Everything happens for a reason”? Most of us have heard that statement from someone at some point. Many of us have said it to someone else.
The statement is true if, in saying it, we mean that we live in a world of cause and effect. Actions create consequences. Our own choices produce results.
A result of choosing to text while driving may be a collision in which someone is injured. In the Scripture at the beginning of this chapter, Moses is preaching to the Israelites about cause and effect. Choosing to live under God’s law of love for God and neighbor leads to life and peace for the community.
Usually, however, when we say “Everything happens for a reason” we’re not talking about cause and effect. Most often, we’re speaking in response to suffering. When something bad has happened and we’re trying to help someone through a difficult time, we say “It was meant to be.” When someone dies unexpectedly, we hear “It must have been their time” or “It was part of the plan” or “It must have been God’s will.” We seek to console—and others seek to console us—by saying that God has a particular purpose for bringing about (or at least allowing) situations in which people suffer.
We may assume that while we don’t yet understand why it had to happen, all events in our lives unfold according to God’s predetermined and immutable plan. Since God is in charge of everything, whatever happens—a personal setback, an untimely death, a natural disaster—reflects the will and purposes of God.
If we extend this logic, we can arrive at some extremes that seem silly:
- “God meant for my team to win (or lose) the World Series.”
- “Honey, I’m sorry I forgot your birthday. It must have been the will of God.”
- “Why would God will millions of Jews to die in the Holocaust?”
- “Does God really want little children to die in a school shooting?”
The Problem of Personal Responsibility
If we examine the notion that everything happens for a reason, the first problem is that it eliminates the concept of personal responsibility for our actions. If everything happens according to God’s immutable plan, then whatever I do must have been God’s will.
* Much of what I’ve written in this chapter I’ve covered in more detail in my book, Why? Making Sense of God’s Will (Abingdon Press, 2011). In that book I also address the questions of intercessory prayer and the specificity of God’s will for our lives.
God isn’t going to change it. In fact, God must have needed and wanted me to do it; otherwise, God would not have let it happen.
If I cheat on my wife, it must have been part of God’s plan. If my wife and children suffer because of my cheating, that must have been God’s will for them, even if they can’t fathom why God ordained it to happen. If I drink and drive and someone is killed as a result, it must have been the victim’s “time.” Yes, I did a terrible thing, but the devil didn’t make me do it. Instead, God used me to accomplish some greater purpose. I cannot be held responsible for my actions; I was only doing what God willed me to do.
The Problem of God’s Responsibility
A second problem with the notion that everything happens for a reason is that it makes God responsible for everyone’s actions. If God actually intended for everything to happen, then God is responsible for every terrible thing that happens in our world. It would mean that tragedies do not happen in spite of God’s will but because of it.
Consider how this idea plays out by taking as examples some news stories I saw the week before I prepared a sermon on this topic.
- A two-year-old unzipped his mother’s purse in a Walmart, pulled out a handgun, thought it was a toy, pointed it at his mother, and pulled the trigger. It must have been God’s plan for her to die and for the toddler to grow up and go through life carrying the emotional burden of having killed his mother.
- Air Asia Flight 8501 crashed in bad weather, leaving 162 people dead. It must have been each of the passengers’ “time.” God caused the disaster, and the deaths of everyone on board were a part of God’s plan. The grieving of loved ones left behind, too, was meant to fulfill some part of God’s plan. There was no point in searching for the airplane’s black box. There was nothing to learn from the flight data recorders, because the crash was orchestrated by God. Any improvements in airline safety that might have resulted from learning and applying lessons from this crash would have been pointless, because the next crash would also be God’s will, no matter what safeguards human beings might design.
The Problem of Fatalism and Indifference
A third problem with the notion that everything happens for a reason, and that whatever happens is part of God’s plan, is that it leads to fatalism and indifference. A fatalist thinks, “Whatever is going to happen, will happen. Whatever will be, will be. We are powerless to change it.”
If you’re a committed fatalist, there is no reason ever to wear a seat belt; if you are meant to die in a car accident, you will. If you are not meant to die, you won’t. If you take a fatalistic view, why work out, eat healthy foods, or take care of your body? After all, when it’s your time, it’s your time. It won’t matter how much you exercise, or whether you eat bacon three times a day. Diagnosed with cancer? If you’re a fatalist, don’t waste time seeing an oncologist. To seek treatment would be to resist God’s will; it was God, after all, who gave you the cancer in the first place. In fact, the entire medical profession, far from being God’s instruments of healing, would seem to be working against God’s plans. (Perhaps it is worth noting here the relationship between the words fatal and fatalism.)
Consider how this way of thinking plays out when it comes to politics. Many who believe that whatever happens must have been the will of God suddenly lose this perspective when it comes to politics. Republicans struggle to believe a Democratic president’s election was “the will of God.” Democrats, likewise, struggle with the idea that a Republican president was God’s choice for the office. Do we really believe that everything that happens is God’s will?
Or think of sports. Does God really “fix” the outcome of the Super Bowl, the World Series, and the Olympics?
Is this really how things work? Is God calling us to be fatalists?
God’s Providence and Sovereignty
Theologians speak of God’s purposes and way of working in the world as the doctrine of divine providence. Providence is a noun that is closely related to the verb provide. The term typically refers to God’s governance of the cosmos, including our world and everything in it. Christians believe that God superintends the universe and oversees what happens on our planet.
Closely linked to providence is another attribute of God: divine sovereignty. The word sovereignty typically expresses the idea of authority or rule. In any given place, a sovereign is the highest authority. A sovereign depends on no one else for the power to rule. Christians affirm that God’s authority encompasses all creation. As our Jewish brothers and sisters say regularly in their prayers, God is “King of the universe.” Because God is the ultimate authority, all power and honor, glory and dominion ultimately belong to God.
Though Christians share a belief in God’s providence and sovereignty, they often interpret these concepts in very different ways.
Though Christians share a belief in God’s providence and sovereignty, they often interpret these concepts in very different ways. Some tend toward a view of God as micromanager, involved intimately each day in every detail of the world’s operation. Others believe that God follows a hands-off approach, like an absentee landlord who created everything and then stepped away to let the world run itself. Still others believe the truth is somewhere between the two positions.
As a result of these varying interpretations, it’s worth taking some time here to look at the contrasting views of how God’s rule is carried out.
Calvinism and Theological Determinism
John Calvin (1509–1564) was a brilliant lawyer, theologian, and pastor. He was one of the most important figures in the Protestant Reformation. At age twenty-seven he wrote his book Institutes of the Christian Religion, which not only was an influential book in his day, but shaped much of Protestant thinking long after his lifetime. Writing in opposition to Catholicism, he outlined Protestant theology as he conceived it.
One of the defining emphases of Calvin’s theology involved his understanding of God’s sovereignty.
Calvin seemed to believe that for God to be sovereign—that is, to be the highest authority and to have dominion over the universe—then God must will and, in some ultimate sense, cause everything that happens. If something happens that is not God’s will, Calvin argued, then God does not in fact have dominion over everything. This view is sometimes referred to as theological determinism.
Absolutely everything, Calvin believed, happens by God’s will and command. Had science in Calvin’s time known about human cells and atoms, he would have said that God was directing creation down to the smallest particles. As Calvin wrote in the Institutes, “No wind ever rises or rages without [God’s] special command.” Every aspect of the daily weather, from thunderstorms to gentle rain and from gales to soft breezes, is decreed by a God who manages everything to the nth degree.
It was natural for Calvin to profess that whatever happens in people’s lives reflects God’s desire and purpose, and in fact there is some scriptural basis for this view. In a time before humans understood weather patterns, people believed that God withheld the rain or gave it. So, for example, we read in Scripture about the punishing drought in Israel during Elijah’s time. To someone like Elijah, the weather was not about atmospheric conditions but about God’s reaction to the behavior of human beings.
I’m not denying the fact that God could cause the rain or bring storms. In the case of Elijah’s drought, this was a direct act of God. Yet this particular episode in Scripture is not meant to teach us about how the weather works, but rather, God’s particular judgment on the sins of the Israelites in the ninth century before Christ. Today I believe we’re right to question whether the rain, snow, and sunshine are really God’s doing, or the result of the complex forces guiding our weather patterns. Our forecasters are not prophets testifying to God’s plans for the weather; instead, they examine satellite images and monitor weather patterns to tell us—most of the time, with a decent degree of accuracy—what our weather will be like tomorrow, the next day, and the next.
Consider another example. Calvin believed that a woman’s ability to conceive a child was the result of God’s will. This clearly was the view of infertility held by many in Scripture. They frequently noted that God “closed up” or “opened” a woman’s womb.
Just as Calvin and the Old Testament writers didn’t understand the natural forces causing the weather, they didn’t understand human fertility or the unseen physiological and biochemical factors that affect pregnancy. Yet for Calvin, even if he had understood these factors they may have made no difference to him. He believed that God’s sovereignty requires that everything, including the minute details of physiology and biochemistry, is under God’s daily direction.
According to this view, even our thoughts and feelings are governed by God. You might think you’ve had an original idea, but in Calvin’s reality God placed that idea in your mind. You didn’t decide to take that job offer or even take out the garbage; God, guiding your thoughts, decided those things for you. Thus for Calvin, everything that happens, for good or bad, is “fixed by [God’s] decree.”
One corollary to this view, and the one for which Calvin is especially known, is a particular focus of theological determinism called predestination. Predestination means that God has predetermined everything that happens—that life unfolds according to a script God has written before any of us are born. But one of the implications of this belief is that God has predetermined, before we are born, whether we will accept his salvation or be among the damned.
According to this view, we have no choice about whether or not we will accept the grace of God. Before you were born, you were predestined to be either among the elect or, by not being chosen for election, among the damned. If you are among the elect, God’s grace is irresistible to you. No matter how hard you might try to reject Christ, you will be saved. If you are not one of the elect, hell is your certain fate, regardless of how you live your life or how much you desire salvation.
Many Christians struggle with the idea of predestination. The view seems capricious and unjust to many of us. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, taught that God wills all humanity to be saved. Through what Wesley called prevenient grace, God works in human beings to make it possible for us to respond to God’s love and mercy. Some choose to accept God’s saving grace while others reject it, but at least this salvation was offered by God to all, and it was God’s will that all would receive it.
Through what Wesley called prevenient grace, God works in human beings to make it possible for us to respond to God’s love and mercy.
Theological determinism—the idea that all things happen according to God’s plan and will and that God is directing everything—is very appealing to some. In a world where there is much uncertainty, where doubt and questioning are such a prominent part of life, one reaction is a retreat toward absolute certainty. And in a world that seems so out of control, some find it comforting to imagine every detail of life being controlled by the plan and will of God.
As noted, Calvin could claim some scriptural support for his position, and a number of biblical authors clearly saw God’s sovereignty in these terms. Often cited in this connection is Matthew 10:29 where Jesus states, “Aren’t two sparrows sold for a small coin? But not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father knowing about it already.” But God’s knowledge of something is different from God’s command that this or that event happen. The overarching message of the Bible does not seem to make God a micromanager directing everything according to his will. Instead, God is more like a parent who invites his children to make their own choices, even knowing they will sometimes make the wrong ones. We see this picture of God from the opening story of the Bible.
God Gives Humanity Dominion
In the story of Adam and Eve, God tells them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, and everything crawling on the ground” (Genesis 1:28). God creates the cosmos, sets the laws in motion by which the universe operates, and then gives humanity dominion, or authority. In other words, God puts people in charge of what happens on earth. Does this mean that God is not still ultimately in charge? Of course not! God remains sovereign but has given us the responsibility to rule over this planet on his behalf.
We see this same theme in the story of the garden of Eden. God places a tree in the midst of the garden and yet forbids the humans to eat from it. Have you ever wondered why God put the tree there to begin with? My own view is that this story is archetypal, and it is meant to teach us that part of being human is having to make choices between doing good and following God’s path or turning away from it.
In the Bible, the very word sin means to miss the mark or turn from the right path. The tree illustrates the idea that being human means having the freedom to choose either the right path—God’s way—or the wrong path. God doesn’t determine which choice we will make. Much of the biblical story is about human beings misusing their freedom and turning away from God, and about God’s work to clean up the mess.
God has given us freedom to make choices, for better or worse. So when we do something wrong, we can’t blame God. We can’t excuse a poor choice by saying it was always part of God’s master plan. As the Creation story tells us, we are the ones who exercise dominion on God’s behalf.
God has given us freedom to make choices, for better or worse. So when we do something wrong, we can’t blame God.
Jesus told a parable that illustrates this point. The story involves tenants who lease a vineyard and operate it in a careless way. When the owner sends his servants to remind the wicked tenants of the owner’s sovereignty and ask them to stop abusing the owner’s interests, the tenants respond violently. It’s clear what Jesus was talking about: human beings are the tenants farming God’s earth. We are tending God’s creation. God is the owner; the earth belongs to him. We are free as stewards to make choices, and we are responsible for those choices.
The idea of choice is so very important to our theology. Throughout Scripture, God shows human beings the right path and warns against pursuing the wrong path. The passage from Deuteronomy that begins this chapter is an excellent illustration. Through his servant, Moses, God has led the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. As they prepare to enter the Promised Land, Moses, now an old man nearing death, has just recited the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Law. It’s not the first time the Israelites have heard these commandments. But in his sermon to them, Moses reminds them one more time of what God expects of his people.
Then notice what Moses says next. He implores the Israelites, I call heaven and earth as my witnesses against you right now: I have set life and death, blessing and curse before you. Now choose life—so that you and your descendants will live—by loving the Lord your God, by obeying his voice, and by clinging to him. That’s how you will survive and live long on the fertile land. (Deuteronomy 30:19-20a)
Speaking on God’s behalf, Moses is showing the Israelites two paths into the Promised Land. One path leads to life; the other leads to death. One path involves a choice to obey and love God, which also means loving the neighbors made in God’s image and seeking to do God’s will in the world; the other path involves a choice to live for ourselves, without regard for God or anybody else.
Think about how this message relates to God’s sovereignty and human freedom. If people are simply bound to do whatever God puts on their heart to do, what is the point of Moses’ powerful and compelling challenge? The Israelites face a very real choice. They can obey God, hold fast to God, love God, and find life; or they can turn away and find death. Why call them to choose if, in reality, they have no choice in the matter?
We have been given the gift of dominion. Sometimes we use that dominion to make moral choices. Sometimes we make immoral choices that hurt ourselves or other people or that bring shame to us. And sometimes we make amoral choices. Deciding where to go to lunch today is usually not a moral decision; it’s simply a choice.
Even amoral decisions, however, may involve consequences. During the summertime, my wife and I like to ride motorcycles. When the weather is warm and sunny, LaVon and I go out on our bikes. She likes to ride back roads about thirty-five miles per hour. When I’m on my own I prefer to ride on the highway. I like to ride fast. There’s something exhilarating about going seventy miles per hour with the wind in your face and the concrete six inches beneath your feet.
But I know that every time I get on my motorcycle, it may be the last time. I understand that I am taking a risk. My donor card on the back of my driver’s license is signed. If I’m hurt or killed, is that God’s will? Or was it a decision I made?
I also like to ski, and I like to get downhill fast. When I go to Colorado and pick up my skis, a big sign warns me that I agree to hold the owners of the property harmless in case of an accident on the slopes. I acknowledge that I’m about to engage in an activity with inherent risk. If I make a mistake and lose control and end up hurt, that’s not the fault of the ski resort. It’s not the fault of the outfitter who rented me the equipment. In the same way that I agree to hold the ski resort harmless, I cannot blame God for my choices.
Few activities are completely without risk. The only way to truly minimize risk is to lock yourself in your room and have someone serve you sanitized food under the door every day. But I don’t want to live that way, and I imagine you don’t either. Part of the joy of living includes the risks that come with it. Shall I blame God for the consequences of my actions? Should I say they were the will of God or happened according to God’s plan?
Of course, I am not the only person with dominion. You have it too. So does the woman who doesn’t think she has a drinking problem and drives while intoxicated. So does the CEO who makes decisions that enrich him personally but eventually lead to the company’s bankruptcy—and the loss of jobs for thousands of people who work there. People who hurt children have dominion, as do religious extremists who teach that God condones religious violence.
God gave us a brain, a heart, a conscience, his Spirit, the Scriptures, and the ability to interpret them as guides to help us select the right path.
I do not believe that God dictates our choices, as if we are mere puppets. Instead, God gave us a brain, a heart, a conscience, his Spirit, the Scriptures, and the ability to interpret them as guides to help us select the right path.
Deism and the Hands-Off God
If humans have dominion over the earth, you might rightly ask, “Is it all up to us? Doesn’t God have a hand in the affairs of this world?”
On the opposite end of the spectrum from Calvinism is a theological philosophy called Deism. It was popular in eighteenth-century America, particularly among some of our nation’s founders. In its popular form, Deism held that God created all things, set the laws of nature in motion, gave humanity dominion over the earth, then stepped away and put the whole machine on autopilot. It is almost diametrically opposed to Calvinism or theological determinism.
Deism avoids the theological problem of condemning certain people to hell before they are born.
It eludes the problem that accidents and human suffering are all part of God’s plan. The problem with Deism is that it makes no room for God to be at work in our world at all. If Deism is true, then God did not liberate the Israelite slaves from Egypt. God did not speak through the prophets. God did not send Jesus to show us the way or to save us from ourselves. God’s Spirit does not dwell within us. For God, creation is not an ongoing act. God is not involved in any way in our lives. In a sense, Deism does solve the problem of suffering, but it negates so much of what Christianity teaches.
Christianity asserts that God does seek to influence us. God does work in us and through us. God did send Jesus to save and deliver us. And God does, on some occasions and for reasons we may never fully understand, intervene in the world’s affairs in miraculous ways.
When I think about what it means for God to work in us and through us, I consider what routinely happens in my life. I begin each day praying, “Lord, here I am. Please use me to do what you want with me. Help me to honor you and live for you today.”
And then I feel that my mission is to pay attention as I go through the day, to see where God might need me. I seek to be alert to those who are sorrowful or someone who needs help or a situation in which I might make a difference. When I approach the day that way, I have found that God speaks to me, not through some audible voice but through a gentle nudge. And because sometimes I am spiritually hard of hearing, I’m never quite sure whether it’s God who is nudging me or just a random thought that came into my mind. But over time I have come to trust that when I feel that nudge to do something, I should pay attention.
I recently purchased a smartwatch. One of the reasons I bought it was for the fitness features. Every hour, it vibrates on my wrist telling me to get up and walk around. It vibrates again at various times throughout the day encouraging me to exercise. The watch, of course, doesn’t force me to do anything, but it nudges, reminds, or calls me to action. That’s how I experience God working in my life: I feel nudges from time to time. For me, that is how God governs and superintends.
One evening not long ago, my wife, LaVon, was out of town, so I decided to go out to dinner. As I was headed toward a particular restaurant I felt a strong urge to turn around and go to a different restaurant instead. I didn’t know if it was just a random thought that came into my mind or if it was the nudging of God, but I decided to turn around and go to another restaurant. When I walked into that restaurant, a woman sitting at the front table looked at me, and her jaw dropped. “Pastor Adam,” she said, “I can’t believe you’re here. I’ve been going through a really tough time. Not ten minutes ago I had been praying, ‘God, can you show me some kind of sign that you still remember I’m here?’ And then you walked in.”
Was it just coincidence? Maybe. Or was it a “God-incidence,” a situation where God led me to be in the right place at the right time? I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, but sometimes there is a reason that things happen when we are attentive to God’s mission. I think God uses us and works through us as we exercise our dominion in the world. When we engage ourselves in God’s rule, as we are meant to, we find joy. I experienced joy when I found myself in the middle of this God-incidence at the restaurant. And somehow a person who had been praying through a difficult time felt encouraged, strengthened, and blessed. I think this is how God most often works.
God is neither the micromanager that determinism suggests nor the absentee landlord of the Deists. These ideas are both half truths. The deeper truth, I believe, lies somewhere in between.
God Is Sovereign, Gives Freedom, and Works Through People
A member of our congregation sent me a Facebook meme that said: “Everything happens for a reason, but sometimes the reason is that you’re stupid and you make bad decisions.” The statement might be a little harsh, but it’s a bit humorous as well. It also gets at the deeper truth between determinism and Deism.
It captures far more truth than saying the results of our bad decisions—harm to ourselves and others— were really God’s plan all along. The reason most things happen is not because God willed them, but because of the decisions we make or the laws that govern nature and our interaction with them.
Yet God superintends. God wrote the laws of nature. God has a will and plan for humanity. God guides us by the Spirit through the Scriptures, in church, as we pray, and through other Christians. God strengthens and walks with us. We are called and empowered to be God’s hands and voice in the world, but God does not force us. God has shown us what is good and what is required of us, but he also gives us freedom to walk in his path or away from it, and that choice is what makes us human.
The Apostle Paul, on the way to Rome for his trial before the emperor, writes to the Christian community there: “We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Many Christians know that passage by heart. But let’s look at what Paul doesn’t say. He doesn’t say that God makes everything happen for a reason, or that whatever happens was part of God’s will and plan. Rather, he says that no matter what happens, however bad it may be, God will somehow bring good out of the situation for those who love him. God will force evil to accomplish good.
I don’t believe God gives his children cancer. I don’t believe God causes people to commit murder. I don’t believe God’s will is for someone to die in a car crash. But even in all these terrible occurrences, God has a way of forcing good to come from tragedy when we trust him with it. As I look back on the most painful experiences in my life, I can see how God used them to bring about something good and beautiful.
In fact, the person I am today is largely the product of my most painful experiences and what God did with them through me.
As Christians, we recognize that sometimes horrible things happen. They are part of life. But we also recognize that horrible things will never have the final word. Ultimately they become part of our journey that finally reaches its end in God’s eternal kingdom. That’s what Jesus’ resurrection shows us. Death is not the end. Love outlasts it all. God has the final word.
At our church’s Leawood campus, we have a small chapel named for a retired pastor named Ray Firestone. Ray was a part of our congregation for its first fifteen years, during which he volunteered in various ways. He once shared a quotation with me, which he said he found helpful in dealing with suffering, particularly after the death of his wife in a car accident. I have found it helpful too:
Suffering is not God’s desire for us, but it occurs in the process of life. Suffering is not given to teach us something, but through it we may learn. Suffering is not given to punish us, but sometimes it is the consequence of our sin or poor judgment. Suffering does not occur because our faith is weak, but through it our faith may be strengthened. God does not depend on human suffering to achieve his purposes, but sometimes through suffering his purposes are achieved. Suffering can either destroy us, or it can add meaning to our life.
The Bible is largely the story of human beings doing what God doesn’t want them to do, of tragedies that sometimes happen in life, and of God working to comfort, heal, and redeem the human race following our missteps. God does not generally cause our suffering, but he carries us through it and brings something good from it. Some will ask about God’s discipline, since the Scriptures note that “The Lord disciplines those he loves” (Proverbs 3:12 NIV). Yes, but what form does that discipline take? I tend to think it most often comes in the natural consequences of our actions. At times it is in the awareness that our actions have erected a wall between God and us. Whatever discipline God brings our way will be consistent with his justice, mercy, and love. The New Testament authors taught that on the cross, Christ himself bore the punishment that our sins deserve.* As a rule I think we should be very, very careful about attributing to God the tragedies and pain that happen in our lives.
* I can think of a couple of exceptions in the New Testament. Paul was temporarily struck blind, but this seems to have been a way for God to gain Paul’s attention. We might hope the same was true when Elymas was struck blind in Acts 13. More perplexing, however, is the story in Acts 5 of Ananias and Sapphira, who were struck dead after lying to the apostles about money. Few assert that what happened to Ananias and Sapphira is something we can expect in today’s church, though if it did it might have a dramatic impact on church giving!
One day about twenty years ago, I was in a meeting at church when I received an urgent phone call from the police. They asked if I could come right away to the hospital. A three-year-old boy named Austin had been struck by a car. I left the meeting and drove as fast as I safely could to the emergency room. When I arrived, the police officer and the chaplain met me.
They told me that Austin had just passed away. I walked into the emergency room, where I found doctors and nurses, tears in their eyes, standing around the family. And then I saw Austin’s parents holding their son. One of them asked me, “Pastor Adam, would you please baptize Austin? He was never baptized.” So the nurses filled a stainless steel basin with water, and I took Austin in my arms and baptized him in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit—not because he wouldn’t go to heaven otherwise but because his parents needed to know that God’s covenant covered him and that he was safe in God’s loving arms.
In the two decades since that awful day, Austin’s parents, Todd and Kathy, have continued to be an active part of our congregation. As I watched this family, who so easily could have turned away from God after the loss of their three-year-old, I saw them instead turn closer toward God and grow deeper and more committed in their faith. Several years ago I asked Kathy if she or Todd would tell me how Austin’s death had affected their faith. Here is what Kathy wrote to me by way of reply:
At the time I had had people tell me that it was Austin’s “time,” and I was having a hard time believing in a God who would plan to take my child at age three. I learned that tragedies weren’t necessarily part of God’s plan, but that God gave us free will, and that bad things sometimes happen. Understanding this helped me to turn to God instead of away from Him. . . . Since Austin’s death, I believe that my faith has grown and continues to grow. His death changed the way I view God and my faith. I no longer have a naive, childlike faith where God protects you from all harm and makes everything OK. It’s a deeper faith that has been tested through tragedy. I know that God doesn’t promise me a pain-free life, but He does promise to always be there to love me, comfort me, and guide me. My faith gives me something that people without faith don’t have—HOPE. I have hope for the future and the knowledge that I will see Austin again in heaven.
Between the micromanaging God who causes everything to happen and the absentee landlord God who is not involved in our lives is a picture of God who grants human beings freedom and allows them to take risks. It is a picture of God who does not cause tragedy but uses it, of God who can directly and supernaturally intervene but usually works indirectly through people. It is a picture of God who, through the power of Jesus’ resurrection, gives us assurance that in the end “death has been swallowed up by a victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54).
A Prayer of Surrender
In 1755 John Wesley first led the Methodists in what became known as the Covenant Prayer. In British Methodism this prayer was used in a covenant service on the first weekend of the New Year. It is a prayer of surrender. Though God does not cause suffering, in the Covenant Prayer we yield ourselves, our entire lives, to be used by God, even if the way leads to suffering. Like many Christians, I pray some variation of the Covenant Prayer each morning. I invite you to make it your prayer.
I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it. And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
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