Thus far in our series engaging Thomas Oord’s helpful concepts from his book, God Can’t, about the nature of God and how it intersects with the real world we live in, we have learned that God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly (because God is Spirit and not a physical being and God’s love is uncontrolling), that God feels our pain (and we can feel God feeling our pain with us), and that God works to heal everything as much as possible (given physical limitations and varying levels of cooperation with the breadth of creation). We focus now on another question that many faithful people struggle with when they face really challenging situations: how do we make sense of the awful things that sometimes happen to human beings – is God behind them in any way for some grand purpose?
In the Spring of 2001 I rolled by brand new little red sportscar heading down into Pope Valley beyond Angwin. The car was totaled, and I walked away with a bunch of staples in my head after my scalp got ripped open from dragging on the pavement after my sunroof blew out. I was a bit out of it for a few days afterward. I led a service later in the week on Maundy Thursday, where I shared the experience with the crowd. One well-meaning person came up to me at the close of the service and said, “God must have really been trying to tell you something to go so far to get your attention!” I felt so comforted by her kind empathetic words. It reminded me of the words of Jesus, “Greater love has no man than this, than to cause his friends great harm in order to make a point.” Good luck finding that verse in the Bible!
I would not be surprised if you have received similar feedback from well-meaning friends and not-so-well-meaning enemies alike. Or perhaps you’ve made a similar statement to someone when it hit the fan for them. Or maybe you’ve asked yourself that question after going through something awful. Perhaps you really wanted good feedback and posed the question to Facebook? We lose a job. We get in a wreck. We get a bad medical diagnosis. We lose our investment due to a crooked investor. We lose a loved one. We have a string of bad luck. We get rejected by a loved one. Earthquakes, tsunamis, wild fires, hurricanes, tornados ravage the earth, wiping out peoples lives. Diseases like HIV/AIDS devastate and threaten some parts of the population more than others. Could God be pulling some strings to make these things happen to communicate with us?
Oord recalls the work of Joni Eareckson Tada, who experienced a tragic diving accident that left her paralyzed from the neck down. Her story is well known in the Evangelical world, where she has become a popular author, speaker, and artist. Her theological construct explains her accident as God’s will for some greater purpose. She further came to believe that God was punishing her for her sin with lifelong paralysis that then led to her extraordinary life of ministry. She was 17 years old when the accident occurred. She was pretty sure she would have become involved in even more sinful behavior in her college years, and thus this cleansing (of sorts) prevented her from damaging herself and others further. She refers to a couple of verse to make her case:
And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. – Ephesians 5:20 (NLT)
“My child, don’t make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and don’t give up when he corrects you.
For the Lord disciplines those he loves,
and he punishes each one he accepts as his child.” – Hebrews 12:5b-6 (NLT)
It appears from these two texts that we are to be thankful for even the horrific things that happen to us and humanity in general (since it must surely be God’s will), and that we should interpret the hard things as loving punishment from our Heavenly Father. In an earlier chapter, Oord noted that God’s love has to be at least as good as human love, that there has to be some level of congruency between the two. It does not make sense for a young woman to be thankful for being sold into prostitution by her extremely impoverished parents who need the money to put food on the table. It does not make sense to thank God for widespread starvation, for terrible natural and man-made events that take scores of human life. Oord offers a nuanced understanding of the meaning we can get behind:
“If God doesn’t want, cause, or allow evil, we are not obligated to thank God for it. Evil is not part of a divine conspiracy. Making sense of gratitude requires that we believe God cannot prevent evil singlehandedly… Victims needn’t say, ‘thank you, God,’ because evil occurred. It wasn’t God’s will. But they can believe God works in every situation, trying to squeeze good from the bad God didn’t want in the first place. They say, “In spite of pain and tragedy, I’m grateful for the good that is in my life, good that has God as its source” (Oord, God Can’t, 81-82).
As for the idea of “punishing discipline as truly loving”, I mean, come on. Will that logic hold up in our court of law? Why would we imagine it would hold up in God’s court? Oord:
“Good discipline does not mistreat, abuse, or humiliate. Helpful discipline uses nonviolent measures. Healthy discipline of children involves teaching them the negative consequences that come from unhealthy behavior. Good disciplinarians warn of the harm that comes from wrongdoing… If the discipline mentioned in Hebrews is like instruction from a fitness trainer, life coach, or tutor, we understand discipline as positive. Positive discipline isn’t imposed. It’s non-coercive instruction, correction, or training… A loving God disciplines us in non-coercive ways for our good. God’s discipline isn’t punitive; it’s instructive and encouraging. Good discipline promotes well-being by training us in ways that help us live well” (85-86).
Recall that the Bible is not one book but rather a collection of 66 books with a variety of authors from a wide range of life experiences, education levels, living in different times and cultural contexts, writing in multiple genres. There is not one theology expressed in the pages of the Bible, but several, with differing views on the character and nature of God. While the general theme of God’s love, grace, and faithfulness is very evident, the particulars of how that plays out are considered differently depending who you are reading.
One story that seems to validate Joni’s claim is that of Joseph in the book of Genesis. His father, Jacob, made it clear to his ten brothers by his actions that Joseph was the favorite. Joseph likely flaunted it a bit which didn’t help. After awhile, the brothers had had enough. They sold him into Egypt’s slave trade, thinking they’d never see him again. Good riddance. Joseph went through some incredible trials while a slave. He was falsely accused of attempted rape, which landed him in prison. He put his leadership skills to use while there, and was gracious to some fellow prisoners he hoped would return the favor on their release. But it took forever and a day until it panned out. Eventually, Joseph won the trust of Pharaoh who gave him nearly unlimited power and authority to rule with his wisdom, which ended up saving Egypt and much of the world from global famine. His brothers caravanned to Egypt to buy food, and ended up coming face to face with their brother, who they did not recognize. Joseph eventually revealed his identity to them and said, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen 50:20).
When we read Joseph’s statement, it is easy to agree with him, isn’t it? And it seems as if Joseph was convinced this whole thing was God’s plan: brothers selling their sibling, false imprisonment, all for future good. What do you think?
Thomas Oord offers insight here:
“A better translation of this passage overcomes this misunderstanding. That translation supports the view that Joseph’s brothers wanted him to suffer. But it does not imply his suffering was God’s will. This translation says God uses evil to bring about good.
‘You wanted to harm me, but God used it for good,’ Joseph said to his brothers.
God took what God didn’t want and squeezed good from it. God brought good from bad, positive from negative, health from hate. God redeemed” (79).
What a very different rendering of the passage! This, of course, jibes with Oord’s construct of God’s uncontrolling love. Oord continues with alternative thoughts on how to get our head around the terrible things we sometimes experience in life:
“I believe God uses suffering to mature us. And God responds to evil by helping us and others in positive ways. But I don’t think God causes or allows suffering and evil for this purpose. After all, evil doesn’t always produce a mature character. Pain and suffering sometimes bring positive results, but sometimes they don’t. Adversity may lead to maturity, but not always. Enduring and persisting can but don’t necessarily form resiliency.
“This is a better way to think about God and evil. It stands between, on the one hand, believing God is either uninvolved or doesn’t exist and, on the other hand, believing God causes or permits horrors with some purpose in mind. This better way rejects Joni’s view that God punishes. It opposes her view that God allows what He hates or hurts those He loves. It denies that God designs evil with some goal in mind.
“This better way accounts for the good that sometimes comes after evil by saying God works with creation to wring right from wrong. God does not singly decide whether to protect us from pain and destruction. Instead, there are natural negative consequences to sin, evil, and some accidental events” (91-93).
As I think about all of the things Oord is encouraging us to consider, I remember my car wreck. I never thought that God caused it – I knew it was my oversteering to avoid a deer that led to the accident. Therefore, I never entertained the idea that God was trying to tell me something by totaling my car. However, I do recall laying on the side of the road while an off duty EMT put pressure on my wound while we awaited the arrival of an ambulance. I remember not having any fear of death whatsoever through the entire experience. Most clearly, I remember coming to grips with how close a call the wreck was, how much worse it could have been, and it gave me pause. Laying there, I was reassessing my life priorities. I made the wreck a meaningful experience in the process.
Instead of wondering what the meaning of your particular crisis might be, as if it were divinely appointed, how about a better question: how are you going to make your pain a meaningful part of your life? Richard Rohr, in his book, Everything Belongs, encourages us to allow all the parts of our lives – especially those painful parts we usually avoid or reject, and allow them to speak to us, to help us grow. All the parts of our personal stories are, after all, part of our story. All provide fodder for growth and understanding, even integration, which serves to free us to be grateful – not for the trauma, but for the growth we have experienced in our meaning-making process.
How are you going to cooperate with God to squeeze good from your bad experiences? How are you going to cooperate with God so that you might grow and create meaningfulness from your painful past?
Questions to Process…
When has suffering produced mature character in your life or others? When has it not?
What’s the problem with saying “everything happens for a reason?”
Why might some think discipline should be abusive?
Why should we say an uncontrolling God does not punish?
Why does it matter to think there are natural negative consequences to sin and evil rather than seeing negative consequences as God-caused or allowed?
Why do some people think natural disasters, accidents, or illnesses are God’s punishment?
Why is it important to be thankful not because of evil but in spite of it?