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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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