THE STATE OF THINGS
There is a hidden fatalism in the way many of us see God.
A loved one dies, and sympathetic grievers come around the bereaved. With compassion they say, “I know it hurts now, but God has a plan.”
A man looses his job, and well-meaning supporters come to his house. In support they say, “Don’t worry. God works every thing out for the good of those he loves, who are called according to his purpose.”
A natural disaster occurs, and people die. Preachers wanting to give assurance to their congregations rise to the pulpit and say, “I know we ask, ‘Where is God in this?’ But God’s ways are not our ways. Sometimes we just can understand.”
THE PROBLEM WITH THE STATE OF THINGS
Behind all these assertions is a well intended desire to make sense of tragedy. We want to bring order to the chaos of agony, so we attribute the terrible source of the pain to God’s mysterious plan. We claim we can hope in the midst of tragedy because the source of our pain is “God’s plan.”
We are comfortable with laying our suffering at the feet of “God’s plan” because it is passive. We aren’t directly accusing God of causing tragedy. By putting the suffering on “God’s plan”, we feel like we are avoiding placing it on God himself. Most people who use these same phrases would never think of saying, “God made you suffer because he’s focused on the big picture.” This “ends justifies the means” thinking troubles us, so we soften it. It isn’t, “God made you suffer.” Rather its, “God’s plan.” This all has to do with “God’s plan.”
In the silence behind our words, we are left with a frustrating choice. Maybe God is building a highway and we are ants in his path, destine to be sacrificed for the progress of things larger than us.
“Yes. I can see that he knocked down your house, but you don’t understand? He’s building a glorious highway and you are an ant.”
The problem with this choice is it grates against our belief that God is concerned with the happenings of our lives and with us as individuals. The construction mogul cares nothing for the ant hills he knocks over in the pursuit of his project.
Or maybe, it is God’s nature we don’t understand? We claim he is loving, but maybe we simply don’t understand his love. Maybe God’s love is simply different than ours. In a loving relationship with another person, we would never allow the ends to the justify the means.
“I punched you in the face and broke your nose. I know that was wrong and your nose will never be the same, but when you get punched in the face again, you’ll thank me because you won’t have to worry about your nose being broken.”
The problem with this choice is that only flawed heroes live by an “ends justifies the means” code, because the end rarely, almost never justifies the means. This statement, in fact, is only used when we know we are justifying the unjustifiable. We only say it when we are doing something horrible because we can think of no other way to accomplish our goal.
Surely God is not a flawed hero out of options?
Frustrated by our two choices, we leave explanations silent. We continue to passively place suffering at the feet of God by accrediting it to his plan, and try not to think about the theological consequences of that positioning.
A THIRD CHOICE
I argue that there is a third choice. A third choice that is routinely laid out in the Bible, but rarely discussed because we find it terrifying. For a short example of this choice, let’s look at the prophet Isaiah.
First, some context to the passage. At the beginning of the Bible, God sets out on a mission to rebuild his relationship with humanity. He grabs a guy named Abraham and says, “The world is going to come to know me through my relationship with you. You live in the reality that I am the only God. And I will make your descendants as numerous as the sand.” God loves and provides for them. They act as priests to the world. The world comes to know God.
Unfortunately, the story of the Bible tells us that Abraham’s clan struggled to hold up their end of the deal because they are human and that is what we do. They rarely live as if God is the only God. When they aren’t creating other gods to worship that they can control and manipulate, they are pretending like there is no God at all.
For generations, God encourages them to keep their end of the deal. He warns them, “If you pretend I don’t exist, I’m going to act like I don’t exist. I’m going to stop protecting you and other nations will come in and destroy you.”
Finally, after multiple prophets warn the people, this happens. It’s called “The Exile.” The descendants of Abraham are ripped from their home and forced to live scattered around the world.
The interesting aspect of this punishment is that God goes with them into the world. Imagine a father joining his disobedient child in the time-out-corner.
“You disobeyed Billy. Now we both have to sit here on this mat for thirty-minutes and think about what you did.”
A THIRD WAY PASSAGE
Starting in Isaiah 40, God invites Abraham’s clan to leave the time-out-corner and come home. In the midst of that call to return home, we find this passage:
This is what the Lord says – your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go. If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your righteousness like the waves of the sea. Your descendants would have been like the sand, your children like its numberless grains; their name would never be cut off nor destroyed from before me.” Isaiah 48:17-18
Notice first that God lays out exactly who he is. He is their teacher. He has provided them a way to live. He is giving direction.
I know some of you are jumping up and down right now yelling, “See Jeff! God’s plan is right there! He has a plan!”
I think we can agree that the presence of a plan does not mean said plan will be followed. I have five children. I routinely make plans for them. Rarely are my plans accomplished.
Notice what comes next. After God explains that, yes, he does have plans, he then complains about their disobedience. “If you had just done what I told you to do, we would have been there already.”
Look at the language. It is the same language God uses with Abraham when God first makes promises to him. In essence, God is saying that if they had held up their end of the bargain by living out the radical reality of monotheism (the truth that there is only one God and he is alive and active), then the promise would be fulfilled.
Did you catch that?
God is saying that, while he has a plan, he has given people the ability to ignore it. When they ignore it, they misdirect the future. They through things out of whack.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
When I read the Bible, I don’t see God crushing ants for the sake of his plan.
I also don’t see a God whose love is, at its foundation, different than ours. It is deeper. It is stronger. It is without selfish restraints. But it is not different.
What I see is a deity in conversation with his creation. Like all conversations, it is a give and take. Both parties have to participate. If it is one sided, it’s not a conversation. It’s a lecture. God and humanity, in conversation together, leaving history in their wake.
And this is terrifying.
There is security in being an ant. A simple ant, acting alone, can’t do much damage in the world of men. When we see the world being directed by “God’s plan”, we don’t have to take responsibility when things fall apart.
If we understand that we are in conversation with the Eternal Almighty and that he has given us power to shape and change things, then we have to take ownership of our end.
At the same time, it is a great statement of respect that God would give us the freedom to operate outside his command. The power to effect the world around us is a beautiful expression of trust.
Because he is love, he has made us his partners in writing history. This is a responsibility we must approach with fear, trembling, and appreciation.