For many years, I have taught courses in seminary and church on the healings of Jesus. At some point in the courses, the question of suffering and God’s limits to respond to pain and death arises. Often my students, including sophisticated pastors and seminarians, stumble over the issue of divine power. For some, the idea that God cannot cure cancer or heart disease is an anathema. I am bounding on heresy when I speak about multi-factorial causes that appear to place a limit on God’s power. Yet, just as disturbing to other students is the belief that God causes cancer or AIDS or could have saved a loved one but chose not to in order to achieve an apparently greater good. They recognize that while suffering may lead to maturity, self-transcendence, and spiritual growth, the notion that God chooses to hurt us for our own good is reprehensible to them.
Wesleyan theologian and leader in the open and relational theism movement, Thomas Oord struggles with these issues in his latest book, God Can’t! The title itself is controversial. How dare Oord make such a statement! You can’t limit God. Our hope is in a good who does what “he” wants when “he” wants and for whom “he” wants. If “God can’t,” then some problems are unsolvable, we cannot ensure a happy ending, and the planet may just self-destruct due to human waywardness. But, is such a vision of God’s unlimited power all that helpful, Oord asks. Doesn’t the God who can but doesn’t or can and does raise serious theological and spiritual issues? Don’t our attempts to justify the goodness of God while equally asserting that God either causes death and destruction, lets it occur, or has some greater good in mind create even more theology and spiritual problems?
Oord writes as a “believer,” with a pastoral as well as theological intent. This is obvious in his subtitle, “How to Believe in God and Love after Tragedy, Abuse, or Other Suffering.” Oord believes that an uncritical “God can” theology exacerbates the pain, guilt, isolation, and anger we feel in times of random and unexpected suffering. By taking God off the hook, such theologies place the blame on us or render God’s intentionality ambiguous and arbitrary at best. Can we truly trust a god who stands on the sidelines when action can be done or hurts to help?
In this gently theological text, indeed one of the best presentations on God and suffering for laypersons and theologians alike, Oord presents an alternative vision, grounded in the affirmation of the “uncontrolling love of God,” a love that is constant, universal, health-seeking, and supportive, while yet not coercive and limited in nature. God’s unlimited and infinite love cannot square the circle, do evil, stop an incoming nuclear weapon, or always defeat a cancer cell. God is present in all these things, aiming at abundant life, goodness, and health for all, but God’s power is cooperative and relational not dictatorial and unilateral. God truly needs us to be God’s companions in “tikkun,” in healing the world, part and whole.
In dialogical fashion, Oord presents his case for God’s uncontrolling and unlimited love in five statements, each of which is worked out through exploring life experiences, presenting alternative approaches focusing on God’s ability to all God wants in any giving situation, providing a vision of God’s uncontrollable love, and concluding with a summary and questions. Oord’s asserts the following theses for conversation:
• God Can’t Prevent Evil
• God Feels Our Pain
• God Works to Heal
• God Squeezes Good from Bad
• God Needs our Cooperation
Each one of these is controversial, but also invitational. In working through these, you may discover a God who cannot always ensure a happy ending, but who is on your side, seeks healing, loves without limit, and is constantly calling us to mature adulthood and partnership. This is a vision for those who want to roll up their sleeves and join God in creating a better world. It also comforts the afflicted, reminding them that God loves them, seeks their well-being, and intimately feels their pain. This is truly the fellow sufferer who understands and the companion celebrant who rejoices.
Beyond the “can’t” is the greater “can” – the uncontrolling love of God, something that heals and transforms. Oord’s book is a theological and pastoral gem, good solid theology for preachers and caregivers, a text for group discussion, and a comfort and encouragement in times of trial.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, theologian, professor, and author of over 45 books, including “Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims,” “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God,” and “The Mystic in You: Finding a God-filled World.”