Let's talk about three possible human responses to life events.
1. Atheism posits that events are just the work of nature or the doings of people. It is up to individuals to face an event the best way they can, using whatever skills and knowledge they have to control the event and possibly benefit from it, grudgingly acknowledging that they cannot in any way influence - let alone control - it. Hope comes from waiting for the further development of new scientific technology that may help in the future. Ultimately, human beings alone in a hostile universe can only rely on themselves. God is not taken into account - He does not even exist. Existentialism is the philosophy that undergirds the concept.
EVENT > HUMAN BEINGS
2. Religion, on the other hand, posits that events are fully under God’s control because he causes or allows them. He is in the events, which always serve his love and justice. They serve as rewards, as agents for teaching and correcting, and as tools of punishment. The believers humbly accept the events because they know that events always serve some ultimate divine purpose.
GOD > EVENT > HUMAN BEINGS
Taken at face value the concept sounds correct, but closer scrutiny raises some hard questions about God’s love, justice, and purpose. For example, how do extreme natural catastrophes demonstrate love, justice or purpose? Maybe they are a punishment? But this raises more questions. What does one say to the people of Haiti hit by three destructive hurricanes within a month three years ago? These were certainly not rewards; were they therefore trials or punishments? For what collective sin, one might ask? Or were the hurricanes tools designed to teach some lessons badly needed by the already impoverished nation? What about the 250,000 deaths, and the widespread destruction, caused by the 2004 tsunami? What was God’s purpose?
The Bible decrees that it is criminal not to stop or prevent suffering if one can do so. Does that not apply to God as well? What about people with chronic diseases who live with excruciating pain; are they being punished for some secret sins? The disciples thought so when they encountered a blind man: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind”? The characters in the book of Job believed likewise.
Furthermore, it would seem that the people on the lower socio-economic level of society experience harder situations than the educated and well-to-do. Are the latter morally better and therefore rewarded and the former bad, therefore in need of correction or punishment?
What about the emotional ups and downs of the believers who at one time are blessed and another time seemingly punished or sent a trial? Where is hope in all this? Ultimately does not the concept create fear that impacts negatively on any relationship with God? The concept also creates spiritual smugness and a judgmental attitude in the minds of those Christians whom the events spare.
Of the two concepts, the first is more appealing. It respects human dignity and freedom, and calls upon individuals to use their personal abilities and life experience. Sometimes they face events successfully sometimes not. But this is life.
The second option sounds religious but it circumscribes human freedom and responsibility. More importantly, it reduces prayer to just a shopping list interspersed with some thanks and praises. It turns the Christian life into a litany of dos and dont's, whose aim is to obtain favors or escape hardship. Is not God being manipulated? The concept reduces human beings to putty in the hands of a deity who at times seems to be terribly capricious. However, the majority of Christians swear by the second concept.
3. There is a third option: that of genuine faith, which views events from a different perspective. Like atheism, faith acknowledges that events are the works of nature or the actions of human beings; and like religion, faith includes God in the equation. But God plays an altogether different role. Faith does not place God in the event, designing it to fulfill some divine plan (possibly except in some very specific situations). God stands close to the believers, gives them wisdom and strength to face the event - but at the same time God respects the believers’ freedom to confront the event with their skills, talents, and spiritual gifts in ways that are meaningful and promote growth and maturity.
GOD > HUMAN BEINGS
WHO > EVENTS
I would posit that the third option is the true one. It is about finding the Lord and rejoicing in the relationship, and being strengthened by it. The rain may fall, the flood may come, and the winds may blow, but the house on the Rock stands firm. Notice that God did not send the storm, neither did he prevent it from occurring. The believers whose faith is profoundly anchored in the Lord find resilience to face the harsh realities and not succumb. They do not incriminate God. Daniel’s friends could say: “Our Lord is able to deliver us, but if he does not we still will trust him”.
How are the believers to understand that God is close when terrible events confront?
The third concept sheds light on the understanding of Luke 12:22-31 as the answer. It provides an altogether different reading. “Consider the lilies of the fields and the birds of the air. . .” This is not an invitation to passivity because divine Providence is in the event. “Do not worry because you are a child of God, and He will not let you down.” Indeed God will never let his children down, but is it in that sense?
First, it must be recognized that birds and lilies work to live and survive. Lilies must grow roots that spread out in search of nutrients and water. The birds must fly around, sometimes covering long distances, in search of food. The context is not one of easy disengagement but one of daily struggle to make a living. The text, then, is certainly not an invitation to a passive or fatalistic waiting on God. When teaching this lesson, Jesus was addressing a crowd mostly composed of poor people who had to work very hard to make a scanty living at best. They were small farmers, shepherds, fishermen, or had a trade. Most of them confronted anxiety-producing events on a daily basis. Jesus wished to relieve the anxiety, but he did not do so by promising a carefree life where God miraculously intervenes. Nor did Jesus say that the anxieties were God-sent for a purpose. What did Jesus mean then?
The context sheds some light. Jesus did not offer a formula for mindlessness. What he did talk about was the Kingdom of God, a space of life and joy beyond the events simple or complex that confront the believers. In verse 13 Jesus said that whether one was wealthy or poor, the ultimate unavoidable event is death, which strikes at any time. The only space that provides security and peace of mind beyond the ongoing struggle for life and the fear of death is God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom is the space where people can establish and nurture a life-giving relationship with God in spite of events that come and go, and in spite of the always-present threat of death.
To be like lilies and birds is an invitation to acknowledge that indeed life is much hardship and some joy, but at the same time an invitation for the believers to look beyond their fear because it is the Father’s good pleasure to give them the kingdom. And it does not stop there. What of the reality of poverty and hunger, of pain and suffering - events that believers and everyone faces? Verse 33 answers: “Sell what you have and provide for the less fortunate, for in doing so you will accumulate a treasure in heaven that no event can destroy.”
God, who is close to the believers when the event strikes, works to turn their attention away from their own predicament, however difficult, to that of the less fortunate. The believers become conduits through which God can pour his blessings to a world in need. God’s comforting and enabling presence when events strike sets the believers free to focus their attention and energies on the many who have been dragged down by the events. In so doing the believers experience the glorious and joyful reality of beings sons and daughters of God, because they are peace providers: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons and daughters of God.” The supreme example is of course that of Christ, who for the joy set before him endured the cross…and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12, 2).
Seen in this light, events can change from filling the hearts of the believers with dread to be seen as opportunities to share the love and peace of God at a time when people faint from terror and are apprehensive of what might come next.
"We all rage at God, demanding he do more than he is doing. He remains quietly unthreatened, saddened beyond words that we think him cruel or indifferent, but unswervingly committed to the course he has set. He refuses to redesign the plot of the book, having already written the last chapter and knowing that the ending is very, very good, and every thread in our story is necessary to that conclusion" (Finding God by Larry Crabb, page 187).
We discover God's infinite goodness so that we can rest joyfully in our relationship with Him, even when events keep assailing, knowing that soon He will move us into the better place that He is preparing for those that love Him.
Pastor Eddy Johnson is the director of ADRA Blacktown and pastors two churches in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia.
Author's Note: Some of the ideas shared are those of the Swiss Catholic Theologian François Varone.
Image: Jen Norton Art Studio
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5560