God Is Arbitrary, and That Is Terrifying [Questions That Haunt]

God Is Arbitrary, and That Is Terrifying [Questions That Haunt] October 26, 2012

Lisa Mamula posed the challenge this week for Questions That Haunt Christianity. She asked,

I’m a Christian, but I have lately been struggling with a question: Do I believe God is Good, or do I believe God is just good to me? I see my life as having been blessed and guided by God into many good things (great husband, amazing kids, food to eat, etc.), but I struggle to reconcile all these gifts with the lives of those in extreme suffering and poverty. I’m not sure how to trust God with my everyday, (relatively) minor needs like relief for sick kids or financial problems. Why would I be rescued, when God didn’t rescue Holocaust mothers who watched their babies used as target practice? I believe in God. I believe he is Good. But I don’t know why I believe that.

Lots of you left many interesting and thought-provoking comments, and Lisa chimed in as well. It’s been a great discussion to watch.

At the core of your question, Lisa, is how arbitrary are God’s actions of beneficence (or tragedy)? This is a question I’ve been wrestling with a lot lately, for it sits at the heart of the book I’m now writing, Why Pray?

It seems that we have a choice: God is either arbitrary and therefore terrifying, or God is predictable and impotent. Here’s what I mean:

I look around and see just what you see: I’ve got it pretty good, and a lot of other people have it pretty bad. In fact, at the beginning of my book on prayer, you’ll read the story of someone who has it really, really bad. In comparison, my life is smooth sailing.

I continue to be a Christian and theologian who is guided by the biblical narrative, and that narrative unequivocally attests to a God who is involved with creation. There is no Deism in the Bible; there is no “divine watchmaker.” God is involved, to the point of showing himself to some of the pre-Christian prophets and speaking with an audible voice to those at the baptism of Jesus and the transfiguration.

Thus, I reject deism as an answer to your haunting question. The answer is not that God is uninvolved with our lives. (I also reject the related doctrine of cessationism, that the gifts of the Holy Spirit ended with the Apostolic Age. Although I have repeatedly written about my skepticism of the supernatural, on principle I cannot accept that there was dramatic break in the activity of the Holy Spirit at a certain time. That is inconsistent with the biblical narrative. (You might guess that I wholeheartedly reject preterism as well.))

So if we agree that God is involved, we have to then come to terms with the activity of God, and that activity seems completely arbitrary. A healthy person gets cancer; a life-long smoker lives to 92. A preemie baby “miraculously” survives; a healthy, full-term infant dies in his crib of SIDS. You and I are born into the wealthiest, healthiest country in the history of human civilization; others are born into poverty and terror in war-torn cities.

You’ve put a fine point on it when you ask, Why am I able to raise my children in peace when God did not rescue the children of the Holocaust as their mothers watched them being used for target practice?

So, God is involved, and God’s involvement seems arbitrary.

Some Christians tackle this dilemma by saying, in essence, “God’s ways are not our ways.” In other words, we cannot understand why God does what God does. And, as Job was told by his friends, we really have no right to question God’s ways. God is all-powerful, these Christians attest, and our understanding is limited. Deal with it.

This is the Reformed answer. It’s what leads John Piper to tell his young daughter that bridges fall because God wants to teach us a lesson.

Others respond that God is not all-powerful. This is the position of my process theology friends. Their way of saying it is that God is non-coercive. That seems to be the position that Rob Bell took is his controversial book, Love Wins.

My position is similar, though slightly different. God’s first act, the act of creation, was an act of self-limitation. It was an act of humility. I come to this from the assumption that prior to the material creation, God was all there was. God subsumed all. But God made a creation that is not God — I am not God; you are not God; that tree is not God.

The only way for God to fashion a creation that is other than God is an act of withdrawal, or self-limitation. (I realize that this gets into tricky metaphysical territory, but I mean this metaphorically, not metaphysically.)

Thus, the very nature of the relationship between God and creation hinges upon God’s self-limitation. Many other acts of God that we read about in the biblical narrative bespeak a similar self-limitation: Abraham and Moses each negotiate with God, and God changes his mind; God becomes incarnate in a Jewish peasant/carpenter/rabbi; and, of course, the crucifixion. There are many other examples as well.

So the question is, how much is God involved in human history in the midst of this self-limitation? Unlike my process buddies, and others like Rabbi Kushner, I don’t think that we have to forswear God’s omnipotence in the face of God’s self-limitation.

Try this on for size instead. The human experience is undeniably this: God’s engagement with human history, and with our own lives, is arbitrary. This is independent of God; it’s our experience — it is, more pointedly, our interpretation of our experience.

God’s solidarity with us is so important to God that God entered into human history to experience this arbitrariness. The experience of Jesus was moments of closeness to God (baptism, transfiguration) and moments of the absence of God (Garden of Gethsemene, Golgotha).

Linda, you claim, “I believe in God. I believe that he is Good.” I’m with you on part one, but I’m not sure about part two. “Goodness” is in the eye of the beholder.

Here’s what I know: Based on what I have experienced, God’s activity in human history is arbitrary and unpredictable, which means it’s terrifying. This, I think, is the “fear of the Lord” that is throughout scripture.

And here’s what I believe: In Jesus, God experienced this terror. And that’s what causes me to love Christ in the midst of God’s silence.

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  • Craig

    Why does God’s self-limitation require him to act arbitrarily? I am limited in the things I can do; this doesn’t mean that I must do things arbitrarily.

    • I’m not sure he is saying God’s self-limitation requires him to act arbitrarily, but that in so doing our view of the actions in an arbitrary world make his actions appear as though they are arbitrary.

      The line, “This is independent of God; it’s our experience — it is, more pointedly, our interpretation of our experience,” is what draws me to this conclusion.

      • Craig

        Jay, then the idea is that God’s acts aren’t arbitrary, but they only appear arbitrary from our limited perspective. In other words, God has good reasons for allowing everything to happen as it does, but “we just cannot understand why God does what God does.” And that’s the answer we stick to when we realize, for example, that in this world children and animals experience prolonged suffering and death, and often privately. So we join those who take it on pure faith: this is the best of all possible worlds.

        • No, that is the worst world, the one of ignorance that we lived in for thousands of years. The one where, we can’t figure it out, so we accept an arbitrary explanation. Then we put people into powerful positions who claim to understand it just a little more than we do and we let them run our lives. We let them appoint the King, run the universities, be judge jury and executioner. No thank you.

  • Jim Armstrong

    This seems to be to a bit counter-intuitive and speculative.
    “The only way for God to fashion a creation that is other than God is an act of withdrawal, or self-limitation.” Every creation experience I can think of in our existence means the creation of something less than fully ourselves, …with the sole possible exception of the propagation of our kind.
    However, I will grant you that your position would allow for the creation of a heavenly entity that can in fact contend inconclusively (? so far?) with God.

  • Craig

    Let’s pursue these ideas further. Suppose that I feed one of my children regularly and let the other suffer malnutrition. Suppose that my behavior isn’t to be explained in terms of my lack of power (I could easily feed both children). Suppose also that it isn’t because I’m not intimately involved in the goings on in my house, or that I am really wise and good, but that I just “work in mysterious ways.” Although my behavior confuses my neighbors, they are strangely unwilling to infer from the evidence that I am just a crappy, immoral father. Instead, a wise and respected neighbor suggests this: “When Craig decided to become a father of two, he intentionally also decided to limit himself. This is why he acts as he does towards his children.” A naive neighbor then asks, “But why doesn’t Craig rather limit himself in some other way? For example, why doesn’t he just limit himself to feeding both of his kids from a vegetarian menu?” The wise neighbor answers: “Craig’s limits himself as he does so as to be arbitrary, and therefore terrifying to his children. He is a truly wondrous father. And so that we don’t question his wondrousness, know that he has also inflicted malnutrition upon himself.”

    • Ric Shewell

      There’s this tension when we are responding to ridiculously ignorant posts: “This post is so dumb that it doesn’t warrant a response” vs. “This post is so dumb that I can’t stand to let it go unchecked.”

      • Nick Gotts

        I notice you have no actual answer to the point made. The OP really is the most intellectually vacuous and morally rotten piffle. If “God” is omnipotent, but sits by twiddling the celestial thumbs while people are raped, tortured and murdered, then God is evil. Simple as that.

  • Thanks, Tony. As I would have said as a young charismatic, this “spoke to me.” Testify! (no sarcasm here…)

  • Kien

    One way to think about this is that our capacity to tell whether something is ‘arbitrary’ is itself a gift from God. God created a dynamic world. From the Big Bang, the world has changed and evolved, and as part of that evolution, the human species have developed a capacity to imagine a world better than it currently is, and motivated to improve the world. Concepts like evil, suffering, joy, hope, etc are part of the rich arsenal of moral sensibility that God has endowed the human species with. We are part of God’s work in an evolving, dynamic world.

  • LMC

    I have had similar questions and have followed various theologians and views that seem to openly engage this type of conversation. I went back and forth for years framing much of this within the intent to first justify God or try to make it seem right by God. Lately I tend to ask from a different perspective, not necessarily rejecting God or what God is (Love) but more as the question of what occurs within the dynamics of people, society, and constant flow of change within our vulnerable state of existence that is very needy and fragile and why when we seem to collectively desire the basics; food, temperature moderation, etc can we not figure out how this can be done among nations. It is not as though there has not been enough provided or the means to provide for more but that the lack of actual relations among one another prevents it from happening – people prevent this from being able to take place and we tend to perpetuate it from being able to change – and then what occurs within are these ways in which we begin to take on identities that seem strongly attached to then continuing in enforcing this strife – as though it becomes more of who we learn to be. But as I pondered this idea it did tend to begin to potentially justify God in that it seems that even within being given enough to prevent atrocity – suggesting the table is full, the provisions are present (here, now) why can’t it break through? Perhaps the question is why can’t God break through? What prevents the breakthrough – this then began to reframe the biblical story for me in that it became this way in which love is constantly knocking at the door to encourage giving, to encourage the increase of love among one another and that it is not always answered or that the layers and layers of entanglement through which we see others always gives place to excuse. The challenge seems to be – can we be brutally honest with ourselves and then act upon our heart stirrings and see if love shows up and increases. Maybe we make God the excuse for our own inability to be honest, “terrifyingly” honest.

  • Tony, I found this post deeply meaningful in the aftermath of the Mourdock comments. (I’m assuming the timing is a coincidence?) Whatever I think of his comments from a political/philosophical perspective (and *cough* it’s not too complementary), I think this theological question is also at the heart of them.

    Personally, I find the reformed answer you mention strangely alluring. I say strangely because I usually am not a big fan of Reformed theology. I would leave off the “deal with it” and perhaps change that to “live with it.” Meaning: it’s a reminder that there are things that do not conform to our neat categories and while we shouldn’t just “accept” it as if there’s no problem, we should embrace this lack in our understanding as evidence that there is more to reality than what we can know and understand.

  • Lee P.

    My church, St. Bartholomew’s in Nashville, is not a church for freaks but I’m a freak and they have welcomed me. There are a few freak-friendly churches out there.

  • Jason

    Tony – I’m not sure i understand from your answer. Do you believe god chooses to intervene in this world on a personal level? For example, he stops one accident from happening, but chooses not to stop another?

  • I love this post, Tony, not because it is an answer necessarily, but because it feels like a good launching point from which to continue this conversation.

    My wife and I struggled with this question after our bus brakes went out while we traveled down the Teton Pass. We were fortunate in that there was an emergency truck ramp where we needed it. A few weeks ago, a truck driver died on that same pass after losing his brakes further down the hill. How do we explain such random outcomes? I think your post successfully begins that conversation.

    • Brian Barforth

      His post is nonsense. Stop trying to rationalize the quantum physical processes of the world with theological babble. The reason you have a brain is to navigate and perceive reality, yet you betray yourselves by ignoring fact and instead speculate a blanket hypothesis with zero empirical foundation so that you don’t have to try so hard.

      Your religion makes you weak and fragile.

  • My favorite answer to this very old and painful question is found in Swedenborg’s theology. He wrote a whole work outlining the laws of Divine providence, but here are two quotations in particular:

    “Divine providence focuses on eternal matters and focuses on temporal matters only as they coincide with eternal ones.” (Divine Providence 214, Swedenborg)

    “All things are blessings when a person is in the order of Heaven.” (Arcana Coelestia 9184, Swedenborg).

  • Jerry

    The question ‘Why do good things happen to bad people?’ is one of the key reasons that agnostics and atheists can exist in perpetual disbelief. It’s also the key to the faith of believers. The answer has been attempted by many from theologians and mystics to everyday Christians and non-believers alike.

    An adequate response to this question is necessary for a functional ‘personal cosmology’.

    My response is that we’re all very much like the five blind men and the elephant, i.e. seeing different parts of God’s involvement in creation and making assumptions as if we have all the information we need to draw conclusions. I think the truth lies beyond our intellect and beyond our consciousness. Sort of like trying to put on the mind of God and not having enough cosmic awareness to get the full message.

    However, I have found that viewing our time on Earth as a purposeful and surrendered servantship to God’s plan, in full faith that it is a good plan based on what we have personally experienced, keeps the doubt at bay. I believe God has given us the opportunity to help Him as He lifts up the the needy, poor, and those in extreme suffering through our growing commitment to Love.

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  • God cannot be arbitrary or self-contradicting (which is really what you mean when you say “self-limiting”) and still be God. If God is perfect then God cannot create and engage man on the pretext of being less than God. This is rationally and metaphysically impossible.

    God IS and always is the perfect I AM. God cannot demand that we have no other Gods before Him if we are not able to relate to Him in His fullness. A God who is only part God to us cannot demand the fullness of our adoration.

    Try again. This time, stop preceding from theoretical/abstract assumptions about what God’s sovereignty and power and perfection mean. You’ll get there, but your problem is more physics than metaphysics, to start with. And don’t abandon reason as the root of your faith. That is, to be cliche, the path to the “dark side”.