Yesterday, I started a three-part series on posts based on my sermon last Sunday.
The first post is here. In it, I shared three ways to understand why things happen in the world.
First, deism, which believes in a god who created the universe and laws to govern it, but does not intervene. Second, determinism, which believes that everything that happens has been predetermined. For atheists, there is scientific determinism, which is rooted in physics and chemistry. For Christians (and other religious persons who believe this way), everything has been predetermined by God. God orchestrates events to occur as they do without exception.
Each of these is not without an important insight. But each of these has problems that lead me not to accept it.
A Third Way
The third way is that God allows evil and injustice, as well as natural tragedies—and the pain and grief associated with them. But he does not cause or orchestrate them. The biblical witness shows that God hates evil and injustice, therefore it is problematic to suggest that he causes those sorts of acts.
To say that God allows evil or injustice or pain is still troubling, however. It is a belief that acknowledges that God values something as good enough to justify refraining from intervention as much as we would like. Those two somethings are human free will and predictability in the natural world (including our physical bodies).
Those are two good things. We might take exception with their worth when someone’s free will is misused or when natural laws and processes run their course in a way that brings harm and pain close to us. That is a natural response.
Yet, love isn’t love if it isn’t given freely. Obedience doesn’t involved self-surrender and sacrifice doesn’t involve self-giving unless we have free will.
And the same natural laws that have the potential to take life also sustain it. Gravity keeps us from flying into the atmosphere, but it will also pull us to the ground no matter the distance from which we fall. Water is life-giving and deadly. But their predictability allows for scientific discovery as we know it. An obvious example is medical research, which allows for treatments and cures to be discovered and implemented in ways that bless many.
I heard an explanation several years ago that has helped me put this together. Perhaps it can help you. At least it will give you food for thought as you work through your own thinking on these matters.
Imagine three dials. Each goes from one to ten. The first is labeled “physical reality.” The second is labeled “human resiliency,” and the third is labeled “mystery.”
For any event that occurs, all three of these are in play. There are physical realities, that is, the laws and properties of the natural world. There is human resiliency, which is an incredible capacity that cannot be underestimated. And there is mystery. I’m labeling it “mystery” for everyone’s sake. People of faith would speak about God or prayer or faith or the like. Secular persons might speak of it as luck, chance, or fortune. But almost everyone seems to account for some element of mystery. For Christians, even though we acknowledge God, most of us would still admit that how God works is quite often mysterious.
Sometimes bad things happen because of our bad choices, or the bad choices of others that happen to have consequences for us and those near to us. But sometimes bad things happen simply because the dial labeled “physical reality” is turned up to high and/or too fast for any human resiliency to kick in and mitigate its effects. Yes, God could intervene (or “luck” could have occurred), but that didn’t happen, at least not in a way that prevents the outcome we really wanted.
This doesn’t sound very spiritual. I understand that. But I believe that this is how much of what we experience in life is best explained. I do believe that miracles sometimes happen (in that mystery/God category), but a miracle by definition is relatively rare. Plus, sometimes we are too quick to assign divine providence to our own delivery from tragedy while neglecting thoughtfulness and empathy concerning someone whose life is not spared the grief or pain that ours was.
Yes, this means that I don’t believe that “everything happens for a reason” that God has orchestrated. However, while I don’t believe everything that happens is God’s will, I do believe (to paraphrase Leslie Weatherhead) that there is a will of God within every circumstance. That is, God doesn’t cause everything to happen, but he does have a will for how we are to respond (caring for those who are hurting, supporting those who are grieving, working on behalf of those who are downtrodden). And I believe that God takes evil, injustice, pain, and suffering and commandeers them to advance his will for the human race and for his creation.
So, what is the Christian hope? Where is God in the midst of pain? I’ve given one of my answers in the last paragraph—that God commandeers evil and pain and ultimately uses them for the cause of good. But I’ve got two more thoughts to add to that in the next post.
Some recommended resources (more tomorrow):
The Problem of Pain, by CS Lewis
A Grief Observed, by CS Lewis
Disappointment with God, by Philip Yancey
Why?, by Adam Hamilton
The Will of God, by Leslie Weatherhead