How does God interact with the world? Does God directly manage and determine the course of global and human events? Many Christians think so.
Several years ago a parishioner who was dying of cancer and had only days left said to me, “I know there must be a reason for this.” She was not asking me what I thought. She was telling me how she made sense of her suffering and impending death. It was not the time to engage her theology. I simply tried to be a pastoral presence in her final days.
Not long ago I inquired about another friend fighting cancer. She informed me it was in remission, which she attributed to the power of prayer. She spoke of a song that meant a lot to her, which she had been listening to and “affirming in her heart.” The song is by Twila Paris and proclaims,
God is in control
We believe that his children will not be forsaken
God is in control
We will choose to remember and never be shaken
There is no power above or beside him, we know
Oh, God is in control, oh God is in control
I beg to differ.
I can affirm that God’s children (which includes all of us) will never be forsaken, but I cannot affirm that God is in control. God is clearly not controlling much of anything. Terrible, tragic things happen every few seconds in our world and God does nothing about them.
Theologians debate the question of theodicy: if God is all-powerful and God is good, then why is there is so much horrible evil and tragedy in the world?
Process theologians question God’s omnipotence and some even postulate the possibility that God may be evolving with the creation. Others argue that for the love of freedom and for the necessity of creation developing on its own God self-limits and self-restricts God’s power. Who knows? What seems to be obvious though is that God micromanages nothing.
In C.S. Lewis’s classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the children upon entering Narnia have a conversation with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver about Aslan, the great lion who is the Christ figure. Lucy asks if Aslan is safe. Mr. Beaver says,
Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.
According to Lewis, the Christ figure, who embodies the character of God, is good, but he is not safe.
I beg to differ.
The image of God that rings true for me that I trace right back to Jesus is that God is both good and safe. If there is any safe place at all it is surely in the presence of the Divine. I offer this: God is good and God is safe. Life is sometimes good and sometimes bad, but it sure as hell isn’t safe.
William Sloan Coffin’s son, Alex, was killed in a car wreck at age 21 when he drove off a bridge into Boston harbor and drowned. Coffin could not contain his frustration with a parishioner who assumed this was God’s will. After arguing that God had nothing to do with his son’s death he concluded by saying,
My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not God’s will that Alex died – but that when the waves closed in over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all hearts to break.
The Apostle Paul, who has been described by some as a Jewish Christian mystic, frequently refers to disciples as being “in Christ” and Christ being “in” them. In his letter to the Romans Paul says that because God’s children, along with the rest of the creation, are subject to suffering and death, we “groan” for liberation.
Paul then says that while we don’t even know how to pray, the Spirit “helps us in our weakness” and “intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). Paul seems to be suggesting that the Spirit (God, Christ, the Divine) groans with us and participates with us in some inexplicable way in our suffering. Paul goes on to proclaim that no matter what happens — now or later, in this world or the next — nothing can sever us from God’s love,
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword [the bad stuff of life that God does not control]? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord?” (Rom. 8:35-39)
I think Paul and Coffin get this right.
God is a good, safe Presence who in ways that we cannot fully understand or articulate participates with us in the tragic, harmful events and experiences of life, which God cannot control.
Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister and the author of Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. Chuck blogs at A Fresh Perspective, and is also a contributor to the blog Faith Forward and Baptist News Global.