Imagine with me, for a minute, that a tornado was coming down your street. The path of the tornado destroyed the three houses next to yours, but then–for some unknown reason–the tornado’s path crossed the road and destroyed the houses across the street. There was a little bit of damage, but for the most part, your house went pretty unscathed. Now. There are two sorts of folks out there… 1) There are the folks who chalk this whole event up to chance, and 2) There are the folks who look at this occurrence as proof of the Almighty’s miraculous and sovereign hand in the world. And inevitably, when something like this DOES happens, in come the declarations of how God was somehow behind these events. The family in the “spared” house proclaims how grateful they are to God for protecting their house… Their friends and family get on Facebook and make comments like “Thank God you’re all safe!” It’s everywhere. Even the insurance companies refer to situations like this as “an Act of ____?” That’s right: God.
This way of thinking about God has been around for a very long time, but it is alive and well today… From Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson‘s belief that 9/11 was God’s punishment for abortion, the ACLU, the feminists, and the LGBT community… All the way to a pastor who got shot in the head by a stray bullet a few days ago while she was in a beauty parlor, who credited God with “sparing her life” (though she seems to have no problem with a God who shoots her in the head just to show how he can save her life). It’s a very simplistic formula. It goes like this: It Happened + God Is In Control = God Must Have Allowed/Ordained It. In the Old Testament, if the Israelites were fighting against some other group, they believed their victory or defeat was up to God. If they lost, they would explain it as being their fault for not being holy enough… And in victory, they would say, “God was with us, and that’s why we won the battle.” When it didn’t rain, this same God was sending the drought because of their sinfulness. It is a very archaic, very pagan picture of God… The sort of God that throws lightning bolts from the heavens when he’s angry. It is the God of 20/20 hindsight… The kind of creator where we can find out if God was with “OUR SIDE” by asking whether or not we won–Yes? With us. No? Obviously NOT with us.
But there are a few of problems with this way of thinking about God. One problem comes when you are part of the group that was destroyed by the troops. The Israelites dealt with his problem quite a bit: “Wait, if we’re God’s ‘chosen’ people, why in the world are we enslaved?” And, like a lot of folks still do today, they decided God must be punishing them. Or removing them from his protection (six of one, half dozen of another). Another problem comes when people you love dearly are living in one of those houses across the street. When the tornado misses your house and destroys your neighbor’s house, how much you care depends on how much you love your neighbor. But the biggest problem to this way of thinking about God comes when you start believing that God loves the people across the street every bit as much as God loves you. The people across the street… The people across the border… The people across the oceans… All the people.
A family I know lives in Houston, and a last week a deranged man took a pistol and an assault rifle, and–for whatever reason–decided to start shooting people. His rampage happened in the neighborhood where they were attending church over Memorial Day weekend. They didn’t even figure out that they had been on lockdown until later in the day, but when they found out, my friend posted something about it on Facebook. And–as often happens in situations like these–in came a flood of comments proclaiming thankfulness to God for this family’s safety. Comments like “Praise the Lord y’all are safe!” and “Thank you Jesus for your protection.” Even in the local news, a city official said (speaking about the police officers who responded), “By the grace of God, none of them were injured seriously…” And that’s great if you’re on “Team Police.” And it’s great news if you’re on “Team Family I Know.” But one of the people who was shot that day DID die. His name was Eugene Linscomb, but his friends called him “Gene.” He was 56 years old, and he has friends and a family who love him. He was a veteran of the Navy. He has a wife. He has a daughter (You can read his obituary and see pictures of him and his family HERE). So I imagine if someone from “Team Gene” heard you thanking God for this situation, they might be thinking, “Wait… God’s behind all this?”
But another person died in the Houston shooting. He was a veteran as well–a veteran of two tours in Afghanistan… A person with friends and a family who loved him. His name was Dionisio Garza III, and he was the shooter. His life was ended by a SWAT sniper’s bullet. His mom, Cathy, said, “I think he was haunted by everything that he saw there and he experienced there. I think it changes you. I don’t know how you can go through what he went through and see what he saw and not have it change you or have it affect you.” His father, Dionisio Garza Jr., told the news, “Just in the last two weeks it progressively got worse… It was not the same boy that we raised. Not the loving uncle, the loving brother. Something snapped. It wasn’t him anymore. I’m not making excuses. No excuses. I know he did this, but it wasn’t him anymore. My son was broken.“ We want a clear-cut, good and evil in situations like this, but as we mature, we find that things are rarely as simple as we want them to be…Listen–If someone shoots a bullet at you and misses, it’s easy to “thank God” for that bullet missing the mark. If it zings past you and finds someone else’s chest, how much God was involved depends on how much you care about that person. If it lands in your enemy’s chest, God “surely” had a hand in things. A stranger’s chest? Tragic, but at least you’re still here. But if it flies past you and finds the chest of your chid, it’s not so easy to credit God with guiding the bullet’s path. People always look for a simple solution to a complex and tragic situation. It is not easy to live in that uncertain place, where there are no clear answers… So people find comfort in the God who “needed another angel in Heaven.” They look for the “reason” people get cancer. They look for “God’s will” in all this, and sometimes I just want to grab them by the shirt and say, “GOD HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THIS!”
The more we care about the people in the other tribes, the harder it is to hold onto this idea of a God who is for US and against THEM. And believing in the God who loves the person in your sights every bit as much as God loves you makes it way harder to pull the trigger… especially when you’re trying to follow the one who died LOVING his enemies. And said, “When you’ve seen me, you’ve seen God.” But for many people, the picture of a God who is good enough to love everyone–even our enemies–is as hard to swallow now as it was for people to swallow a few thousand years ago. People who believe that God is in control of every little thing are often the same people who are terrified of God. And why wouldn’t you be terrified of that God?
For a lot of people, the only God they’ve ever known is the God of “Us versus Them.” They can’t even IMAGINE a God who is on everyone’s side, because–without even being able to put words to it–that would mean a God who isn’t in control of everything. They would rather have an all-powerful God who “wills” the evil and pain in the world, than have the complexity and mystery of a God who enters into the pain WITH US. Letting go of the God who controls everything feels like giving up on God altogether… But the God who is in control of every little thing quickly becomes a monster. And this is the reason so many people give up on the idea of God altogether: Because that archaic, pagan, all-powerful God becomes easy to fear, but impossible to love. And I get why a lot of people are atheists… If that old God was the only picture of God I had available to me, I’d be an atheist too. Ironically, the simplicity that much of the Church clings to is what is driving so many people away from Church. But God is complex. And mysterious. And loving. That simplistic, black & white, “We’re good, they’re evil” tribal deity was what the people in the Old Testament THOUGHT God was like… But this was the messed up idea of God Jesus came to correct. And thank God for that.
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Good grief, as a Christian, this is something that I’ve never been able to put into words and explain to fellow Christians and non-Christians. The example of a bullet flying past me and into my child is a great illustration of why it doesn’t make any sense to credit God with the outcome of tragic events, even if the tragedy personally passed me up. I’ll be using that example in my future discussions, so thank you for yet another thoughtful and thought-provoking post!
I’m so happy to help, Alana. I’ve been thinking about this issue for a while now. It’s a tough one to articulate.
Having reached my limit of those “God healed my [blank]” posts after my father died of cancer, I really think this is a form of the prosperity gospel. It implies favoritism, and when the lucky ones declare “Well, God’s ways are mysterious” my first thought is, how convenient. This line of thinking is extremely triggering for people like me who were left behind after a tragedy.
It certainly is troubling, Beth. I don’t get it either.
So sorry about your father. I lost my dad too.
The arbitrariness of life — the bullet misses one person and hits another — offends a lot of people who expect life, who expect God, to fit their notions of what’s fair. God is behind everything, but he doesn’t owe us an explanation for anything. I think that’s the biggest lesson of the book of Job.
Yeah… I disagree, Larry. The book of Job was a theological mess… with God and Satan betting on how good a human was, all while they tortured him and killed his family to see how he’d respond. It’s so pagan it reminds me of a scene from Clash of the Titans. It was a story that was passed down, and it has value for us, but it was never meant to be a constitutional text about right theology.
There is more to God’d goodness than the fact that he is supposedly “All-Powerful.” Goodness is more than power… And a Being who agrees to have a good person tortured while bragging to the Devil could never be considered “good.” Mighty? Yes. Fearful? Certainly. But if we even have a SHRED of a notion of what goodness is, then we can know that a Being who does this could never be called good. And if we have even a HINT of what love is, we could never say that this Being “loved” the creation he agreed to have tortured. What kind of parent would do this to their child? And yet Jesus describes God as a “Good Father.” And Jesus asks the question–If we know how to love our kids, how much more does God?
The book of Job is no more a proof for God’s sovereignty in all matters than the book of Genesis is a proof for a 6000 year old planet. But regardless of our disagreement on this issue, I sure love you Larry, and I truly value every time you have shown up to comment. You are always caring and thoughtful, and you always make me think. 🙂
What about free will and the laws of nature? Physics and gravity don’t have anything to do with the trajectory of a bullet?
Yep! I can rarely refer to “luck” without my mom correcting me to an equivalent form of “blessing.” According to her, luck is the pagan concept; I understand why she believes that, but sometimes things are down to chance and the law of averages. I don’t have any problem with God existing, but that all-intentional version apparently has no real interest in us.
Thank you, Chris. As a veteran, I have often tried explaining to people that by saying “God was looking out for you” when I returned from Iraq was implicitly saying that God was not looking out for those that did not return alive. Never in the moment, of course, as I am tactful enough to understand that this is not something most people have thought through. It is kind of like saying “God bless you” after someone sneezes. More customary than actual theological statements. This is a difficult subject and I am grateful for your well-thought and kind words on a topic that can turn ugly very quickly.
Thank you Chris. You’ve helped me tremendously. My only child, 35, died suddenly in 2011. He was a Christian, a good man with a kind heart. One of the things that is hard to let go of is that when someone’s child lives, God did it and it’s all over Facebook. But when my child died, He didn’t? God wasn’t there? He didn’t answer my prayers. Why didn’t He answer my prayers? Again, thank you for this thought provoking article.
I’ m a mother of an extremely disabled child ( OK, she’s 36 now) & was told all the time that God entrusted me to this special child, that God gives these special children to special people & of course God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. That was real helpful when I was seriously considering killing myself. I learned I had to take God out of the equation a long time ago. God didn’t stop me from killing myself. Having to have to kill her so she wouldn’t be alone saved my life.
My theology is that shit happens. God has given human beings independent free will, but doesn’t interfere with every little thing that goes on in the universe, because obviously that would interfere just a bit with free will! As far as I’m aware, prayer has much more effect on me than anywhere else, but God doesn’t seem to be supernatural, as far as I can tell, as much as totally present in all things (immanent) yet more than any of them. Chris, your blog was excellent as usual. Becky and Karen, you have my deepest sympathies for your loss. Mothers like you are heroines, hang in there, please, especially Karen.
I would “like” this a thousand times if I could 🙂
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In my humble opinion your belief in god is a like a placebo.
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