Church fires, holocausts, and God's intentions

Church fires, holocausts, and God's intentions April 24, 2011

A recent Associate Press article out of North Carolina reported on wild fires that burned homes and churches.  My local newspaper published a “box” highlighting the following quote by a member of a church that burned: “There is nothing that happens that God does not intend to happen.”

I went to the internet attempting to discover if the church is Reformed and was unable to establish that.  However, I have reason to doubt it.  The church SEEMS to be African-American and Pentecostal.

I grew up in a decidely non-Reformed church and denomination with this contradiction all around me.  When something seemingly bad happened people said what that church member said about his church burning down.  But when they talked about hell they absolutely denied that God wants anyone to go there.

I wonder how that church member, quoted above and in the AP article, would qualify that statement if at all.  What if his child or grandchild (I have no idea of his age) died a horribly painful death of a terrible disease?  Would he then say “There is nothing that happens that God does not intend to happen?”

I remember feeling confused about such pat sayings as a child and young person, but I had the feeling that questioning it was wrong.  My mother died at the age of 32 when I was 2.  My brother was 5.  Her death affected us both very negatively.  She was a God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christian and hundreds of people were praying for her healing.

I heard two explanations for why God “took her” when I was growing up.  One was it was God’s punishment because my mother and father declined God’s call to the mission field.  Well, my father said neither one of them were ever called to the mission field.  That was some crazy old woman’s abusive statement.  But the generally accepted explanation was that my mother had herself said she was willing to die if it would lead to her father’s (my grandfather’s) salvation. 

So, I grew up hearing, but not entirely believing that the God who supposedly loved me and cared about me caused my mother to die in the prime of life leaving behind two small boys who needed her very much.  (As I said, our lives were deeply affected negatively by her death in ways I won’t get into here.)

But what confused me then was that the same people who said “nothing happens that God does not intend to happen” utterly rejected any notiont that God has anything to do with a person rejecting him and going to hell.  This seemed to be the one class of events they would not attribute to God’s intentions.

But then there were events like the holocaust.  Gradually, as my co-religionists became more aware of such events in the world (many of them were poor and didn’t read newspapers or watch news) they qualified “nothing happens…” so that God was not responsible for the horrors of history in which innocent children, for example, died horrible deaths.  That they attributed to sinful people rather than to God.  But, of course, God allowed even these things for some mysterious, unknown and probably unknowable reason.

Personally, I doubt the man whose church burned down really meant what the AP article quoted him as saying in some unqualified way.  And yet I hear such things from the lips of non-Calvinists all the time.  They say “God knows what he’s doing”  or “God is in control” when there’s a car accident and a child dies or when a young mother dies leaving behind little children. 

Many of our non-Reformed churches still hold onto some foreign element of Calvinist theology–meticulous providence–inconsistently.  I meet much opposition when I say “God is in charge but not in control”–even from fellow Arminians!

Well, if they mean “in control” in the sense that nothing can happen without God’s permission, then, we agree.  But common, ordinary language of “control” does not mean merely that.  Most of the time when we use “control” we mean manipulate, micromanage, cause to happen.  Most of the time “control” does not include reluctantly permit.  To the extent that things in one’s context happen against one’s will, he or she is not usually considered “in control.”

I suggest non-Calvinists adjust our language and stop saying things like “There is nothing that happens that God does not intend to happen.”  IF we really mean that, unqualifiedly, then we are really crypto-Calvinists!  I realize I’m talking about turning around the Titanic–not an easy thing to do and it would take a very long time.  But I suggest we non-Calvinists begin to correct our parishioners, students, family members and others who share our aversion to the manipulative, all-determining God of classical Calvinism when they use language more consistent with that than with our own free will theism.

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