I have a problem with how many persons, even pastors, even good pastors, deal with the problems that come up in persons lives. Too often we say too much. Too often, as we try to help parishioners come to grips with tragedy or pain, we’ll assume things from God’s perspective that I’m just not comfortable with.
“I’m sorry your little child died, Mrs. Smith. I guess God just wanted to call him home.”
“I’m sorry you lost your job again, Mr. Smith. I guess God has something to teach you from this and this was how he needed to get your attention.”
The underlying assumption from these comments seem to be that whatever happens in the world is just how God intended it to be…a theodicy based in predestination. It leaves no room for “accidents” and no room for that bad stuff that happens in peoples lives to be contrary to what God wants. I know we have an omnipotent, omniscient God. But, I want to hold out out that God, for the sake of free will and the order of creation, allows persons to sin (free will) and allows disasters to strike (creation).
I remember a professor at Duke Divinity School who had been raised by a VERY Presbyterian family and had a VERY conservative Presbyterian grandfather. He said that his grandfather was at his house as he was learning how to ride a bike. And, he said, every time he fell off his bike, his grandfather made it out to be exactly how God had predetermined it should be. God was always telling him something with each fall. Perhaps it was because of some sin in in his life or to teach him a lesson. I remember that professor lamenting that he was never allowed to just “fall off his bike.” Why did every fall have to be part of God’s grand plan for him?
This is not to say that we can’t learn from situations and problems that arise. Suffering, anywhere in the world, is a chance for us to respond with love and grace and service. But, to make an assumption that this is what God intends…well I think that’s putting something into the mind of God that we’re just not in a position to put there. Moreover, I think intentionality is itself a loaded term and I want to say that God grieves that bad things happen to persons…whether they be good or bad.
All of this comes to mind because of the words of a pastor in Sutton, Alaska as he helps a neighbor deal with the loss of his home to the Matanuska River. Rain has swollen the banks of the river and some persons report as much as three feet a day being carved out of the riverbank. The article appears in today’s Anchorage Daily News. The following is section that talks about what the good pastor says:
“I have pneumonia and shouldn’t even be out here,” said [the] Grace Bible Church pastor, as he and another neighbor salvaged what they could for Blubaugh. “Forrest asked me ‘Why is God doing this to me?’ and I just told him that God has his reasons for allowing these things to happen. God can either speak to you like a butterfly landing on a petal or he can hit you with a two-by-four if you’re not paying attention. This is the two-by-four for Forrest.”
I don’t have much trouble with “God has his reasons for allowing these things to happen.” I think that’s vague enough that it doesn’t get into theological trouble. However, to say that this is God’s way to get Forrest’s attention “with a two-by-four” seems to make God into more of a brute than I want my God to be. Also it’s something that just can’t be known on this side of the resurrection.
As we address the problem of theodicy, we need to do so with a good dose of “I don’t know.” We really don’t know why bad things happen. It is however entirely appropriate to ask how it is that we should respond most faithfully to the bad things that have happened. And, from the article, it appears the pastor and his congregation are acting in very loving, and life-giving ways. They are providing a great service and a great witness. I just wish he had left it at that.