Choice, Chance, Environment and God: How We Fare in Life

As I was growing up Adventist, several verses became the watchword repeated by various preachers that explained what life was all about: "I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread." (Ps. 37:25, NIV). Another key verse was: "The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them." (Ps. 34:7, NIV). Then, there was the verse, "And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus." (Phil. 4:19, NIV). These verses (and many others) were used to provide comfort and the certainty that God will provide food, safety and our real, as opposed to only desired, needs. Later sermons introduced from Jeremiah 1:4-5 the idea that all are born with a purpose.

The idea of the purpose driven life was succinctly summarized by Rick Warren in his 2002 book, The Purpose Driven Life, when he declares, "Because God made you for a reason, he also decided when you would be born and how long you would live. He planned the days of your life in advance, choosing the exact time of your birth and death" (pg. 23). Many an Adventist church set aside 40 days to review and discuss Warren's book in an effort to determine their purposes in life.

Living in Southern California can provide an idyllic environment and narrow variance in most metrics that permit assigning to God one's status in life. There is a different reality in war-ravaged sections of the world where life expectancy is less than 50 years, where hunger is a constant companion and where the brutality of rape leads to unplanned and unwanted children. Is this what is meant by God deciding when we would be born, how long we will live and what our destiny becomes? What are we to make of the concept that every birth is planned for God's purpose?

The narrative of an omniscient God who micro-manages our lives, who protects us from harm (most of the time) and ensures that we do not go without need fits very well into the idea of being a "peculiar" people. A protected people, who avoid many of the catastrophes of life because of that special relationship. With prayer, the odds of a good outcome in matters of health, accidents or even marriage are shifted toward the Christian, especially the Adventist Christian. When suffering does occur, there is the pivot toward God's role in that suffering, either though His acquiescence to that suffering or by extraordinary intervention, to relieve that suffering. At the very least, so the narrative continues, suffering is justified and explained because God permitted the suffering of His Son.

An understanding of what happens to us typically centers on what God knows or does. It is not about us. The idea of God's role in suffering, theodicy, has engendered theological arguments through the centuries to explain what it means. Subsumed under theodicy is the matter of our status in life, the issue of God's micro-management of the individual and what we should make of all this. For many, it is believed that God in His divine will is the only factor that matters in what happens to us in life. Comfort to those who are suffering comes in the form of relating the suffering to the theodicy arguments on why suffering occurs: 1) God allows suffering for His honor, 2) as the result of evil in the world, 3) in order to help us grow spiritually, 4) in order to salvage someone else's salvation, 5) because of a cosmic dispute between God and Satan, 6) God's sovereign will, 7) to be grateful when the suffering ends; and for numerous other reasons.

Sermons are frequently laced with references to one of these reasons as a means of providing comfort. An oft repeated phrase to the low-income church where I was raised was "God keeps you poor to keep you humble." Conversely, when good fortune smiles, it was almost always attributed to God's favor on us. We were urged to be careful not to attribute such outcomes to anything other than divine intervention, lest we become "puffed up."

But suffering, like good outcomes, should incorporate these four factors: 1) individual Choice, 2) the randomness that we call Chance, 3) the physical, social and economic Environment (and all that it entails), and 4) the spiritual realm that we identify as God. These factors operate in a manner that circumscribes how we suffer, what our status of life is at a moment and are contributory to how we respond to those circumstances. Inconvenient data show wide divergences across location, racial and gender lines in family life, health and wealth. These persistent differences are not consistent with a God who chooses my time of birth, my location and purpose in life, and the degree that I should suffer.

Instead, what we observe is the working out of Choice, Chance, Environment and God. While we believe that in the overarching scheme of things, God's will is sovereign and His ultimate purpose will prevail, in the micro world in which we live these four factors can define where we are and who we become. On one level, our choices and even the working out of God's will are constrained by environment and random factors over which we have little or no control. Indeed, God does not micro-manage our lives.

An overreliance on "God alone" subjects us to reject the reality of an existence where we make choices that affect where we are, that random forces can cause suffering in ways that are not predictable on the basis of our spirituality; and the physical, cultural and time environment can profoundly impact our lives. On the other hand, an overreliance on Choice, Chance and Environment, does not allow for God's intervening to alter the trajectory of our lives.

How does this affect how we pray or what we are to make of sermons that seem to defy the surrounding reality? To what degree should we pray that God would overcome the circumstances that confine us? As we lay dying from disease, are we to recognize the potential for miraculous healing and pray accordingly? In a winter storm, will only the righteous be saved, or will they have greater odds of survival because of the spiritual emphasis?

Suffering on the micro level is not something that we embrace, nor should it be confined to abstract theories on why or how God is intervening in the world. Choice, Chance and Environment do matter in why we prosper or suffer and even how we respond. God enters the equation as another, but not the exclusive explanation of why that suffering or good fortune occurs.

Henry E. Felder, PhD, is a retired economist and Adventist Forum Board, which publishes Spectrum.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7430

There are billions upon billions that never heard of the Gospel. Christ died for them also. Upon the sea of glass there will be hosts that no man can number…Praise God our Creator, Redeener, Judge, and coming King of Kings. We who have heard the Gospel cannot help but share it. Each must run the race that was set before them. To boast about the number of baptisms is ego centric folly. Timothy Keller ministers to more in New York alone that ever even opened the cover of the paper back HOPE! Branding is not evangelism. Tom Z

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Many here have a lifetime of hearing the assurances that our angels are “covering us with their wings” and we are protected by our prayers; our following healthy lifestyles and avoiding those “worldly pleasures” that shorten lives.

How many have heard that when a prominent and loved Adventist leader has developed terminal cancer, "How could it be? He (or she) was always a vegetarian and didn’t drink and smoke, etc.? Our expectations have been disappointed again.

We have been led “down the garden path” on impossible expectations, leading to disillusionment on religion and prayer in general, and Adventism in particular. Why has this delusion been perpetuated: Depend on the Lord; live a prayerful life, and there will be no major problems that He cannot handle?

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God is not the genie in the bottle. There is no magic formula for living our lives that would guarantee flowers and butterflies. One day the telomers will have grown short and we all succumb to something.

As children, our entire world consisted of our immediate family, and grew as we grew. If our perception of the world had remained within the confines of our personal experiences we would call that “arrested development”.
At some point we had to grow up and face some hard questions. “Religion” for many serves as safety net - a security blanket. The Bible offers legitimate security - one that says, no matter what happens in life, “all things work for good for those that love the Lord”. That takes faith - and therein, lis the struggle.

Right on Elaine! As always your perspective is profound.

I wish the GC would expound and elaborate on our doctrinal view of “ANGELS”.

Do only Adventists have guardian angels? Or are they a special “secret service cadre” that protect only the prestigious 144,000?

If every soul on the planet has a guardian angel, then these angelic protectors are not being very protective of drowning migrant families, Syrians, Yemenis and others being massacred, ISIS victims being beheaded and tortured, Zika virus babies being born with microcephaly – I could go on and on.

Suffering may be a result of a deliberate choice, such as lung cancer afflicting a smoker, but much suffering seems random and meaningless.

The misery of mankind,seems too large a penalty as payback for a naive curious woman ( EVE) , who was pitted against an Angel with “GIANT INTELLECT” ( EGW’s analysis). Seems the result was a foregone conclusion.
Does Eve’s failure to resist a “giant intellect” justify millenia after millenia of abject misery for mankind?

One of my favorite tourist sites are the splendid castles in France’s Loire valley,
belonging to the aristocracy. They actually were drafty and freezing ( hence the wall tapestries to keep out the damp) and they were infested with rodents and vermin, fleas and bed bugs even in the a kings bed! No running water or flush toilets! A MISERABLE EXISTENCE EVEN FOR THE ARISTOCRATS SO HOW DID THE PEASANTS FARE?

That the “universe” could look on unconcerned and compassionless, for century after century of wars, genocides, rapes murders, tortures, plagues, pestilences, famines, defies human reasoning!

As I have said before on this site, there are only three possibilities for the “heavenly host”

ONE: God runs a psychiatric clinic for Angels suffering from PTSD-- (who would not have PTSD, or worse, if they had to witness six million Jews exterminated in the Holocaust)? Or were. . . Ll,l … . . Jews exempt from being protected?

TWO: Angels are robotic automatons without sentiment or feeling.

THREE: God only assigns Angels thirty minutes of guardian duty per century, so they will not bond with their protégés.

Angels are a conundrum, Why are they not vehemently CLAMORING to end the carnage, declaring vociferously, that they LONG AGO validated God and declared Satan evil?

EGW’s pronouncement that we await the. “universe” to arbitrate in this “Great Controversy” leaves me with the conclusion that the “universe” is imbecilic, incompetent or entirely lacking in compassion. Meanwhile mankind’s suffering and misery perpetuate ad infinitum.

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No one knows enough about life to assign accurate WEIGHTS to each of the factors identified . We therefore usually try to improve choice and environment selection, and pray to deity for help in achieving positive results regarding these and esp the perception of chances(supposedly random events) we know not how to influence positively. However , not everyone holds this perspective. Buddhists say the first three are due to our own actions in a previous life(or previous lives) now manifesting as payback(positive or negative) in the current lifetime. Now-a-days knowledge has certainly improved, even in the mental sciences,as some practicing "regression hypnotic psychiatry "claim to be unable to unlock the secrets of the subconscious which records every action ion every lifetime. For example and one can readily consult a “regressionist” such as Dr Bruce Goldberg who will take one back to any previous lifetime to search for a particular one where the reason for blockage in the current life has occurred. In his book THE SEARCH FOR GRACE Goldberg describes how a shy pharmacist he calls IVY came to him with a problem. She could not get along with men. Esp her current boyfriend. Goldberg regressed her , and under hypnosis Ivy revealed that her boyfriend had been extremely jealous of her for many lifetimes and had murdered her several times. The last murder was in mid-20th century and was still listed as unsolved on police blotters. Ivy provided details which implicated Jake her current boyfriend and who had allegedly murdered since he a lower class dancehall musician fell in love with her a classical pianist , centuries ago. She even described how he strangled and stabbed her and flung her body in a High School swimming pool. All these details tallied with the newspaper reports, but when contacted the police could not, of course arrest Jake for murder.However Ivy was probably saved in this lifetime as Jake has already started beating and abusing her. Only now he was under watch by the Police. GOD knows all and I believe prayer can certainly be effective even in such cases.Ask God for forgiveness for our bad deeds(which all have done) make use of the religious discipline which our churches provide and do our best from thereon. We all seem to carry records of all lives in our subconscious in every lifetime and all are guilty of both good and bad. I Think Ivy was responsible for “Jake’s” hanging during the American revolutionary as she, using feminine wiles, recruited him to spy for the British, and both were eventually identified as British spies, and were hanged by the American patriots. (for this amazing story see Chapter 7[(Mysteries of Life and Death) in thebook:The Politics, Science and Mysteries of Creation, amazon]

Robin, I have noticed that you raise this point quite regularly in these discussions. It is a line of thought that has troubled me as well.

I also notice that there are seldom any response to your posts on the subject. I don’t think anyone really knows what to do with it. To pursue alternative lines of thought about the slowness of the universe to see the true nature of evil may be the equivalent of challenging our Great Controversy narrative. Very disquieting for Adventists.

Why didn’t the universe “get it” when the forces of evil killed God on the cross? Was not the contrast between good and evil apparent then? And if it was not apparent then, was the question of God’s nature and governance wide open across the universe at the time ? Is it still today?

I wish someone a lot smarter than I would write a thoughtful article on this subject for these pages .

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Many years ago I was mowing hay in a meadow with a tractor and mower conditioner a machine that cuts the hay down and funnels it between two heavy rollers to break the stems to promote rapid drying.

Any little creature caught up in the forage stream dies or is mortally injured.

As I came to the end of the round I happened to glance down and locked eyes with a little field mouse in its last death throes.At that moment I realized that my relationship with that little mouse was much the same as my relationship with God.

My purpose of mowing in the meadow was to harvest forage for my livestock it was not to maim or kill field mice.But I knew in my heart of hearts that in pursuing my purpose I would cause the hurt and/or death of many little mice who where only living out their lives as they best knew how.

As I thought about it I realized that the mice did not and could not understand my higher purpose and even if they could it would be unlikely they would agree that fodder for my cattle made up for their pain and suffering so perhaps it is better that they did not comprehend my purpose.

Since that day I have viewed my relationship with GOD the same way.I do not understand why I or others suffer but I am confident that God does have a purpose for it

If I could know I probably would not agree that my suffering was worth it but at least I now recognise that just as I did not go into the meadow with the mower to purposedly hurt field mice God does not intentionally harm me.I am just collateral damage it a matter far beyond my comprehension

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This perspective does shed a new light on how I think about this.

Yet I still ask, similar to the thoughts shared earlier, how much suffering is enough? All the typical Christian / Adventist answers are falling short to me as I see suffering overflow all around me.

How much suffering need go on before questions such as these burgeon: Is God really good? If one cannot opt out of existence (i.e. before being born, so as to not incur wrath of another kind), then is that really choice? How many people - young and old alike - have to endure torture, misery and lives filled with one horror or another before the vindication of God is complete? How many lives need be created, only to be extinguished, some apparently for eternity, before the mower stops?

Like Ed, I would love for greater mind(s) than mine to offer some light.

Thoughts from a mouse on the way through the mower…again

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