When tragedy strikes, when suffering occurs, we are forced to come face-to-face with our own theology, to determine what it is we do, in fact, believe.
It isn’t as though we don’t consider various theodicies at other times, of course, as though the questions of why evil exists and why bad things happen don’t cross our minds when life is good. We all see the fallen state of this world, a world where corruption reigns and people starve and lunatic gunmen mow down third-grade children as they sit in their classrooms, and we know that something has gone terribly wrong. If we are to have any kind of consistency to our faith, any kind of intellectual honesty, those of us who believe in the tenets of Christianity must reconcile the seemingly endless darkness surrounding us with the idea of an omnipotent, benevolent, just Creator God, even when our own lives are easy and blessed.
But when suffering comes, in our own lives or in the lives of those we love, it becomes personal. It is no longer an intellectual or philosophical question, but an intensely emotional and intimate one.
And I have realized that, for me, anyway, it is not enough to say that God’s ways are not our own. It is not enough to state that I cannot see the entire picture. It is not enough to say that He is in control and somehow, I just have to accept what comes as His will for my life. I have wrestled with such things – cried and yelled and clenched my fists as I have tried to accept these ideas that Christians love to tell those who are hurting. And I cannot do it.
It is not a small thing, I know, this tension between divine will, divine omnipotence, and human free will. Great thinkers have pondered this question for centuries and so I do not expect that I will suddenly stumble across some wonderful insight which solves this very thorny issue. But try as I might, I cannot shake this one conviction:
It was not God’s will that my daughter be taken from me. He did not plan for her to grow up in an unstable situation, with two teenage parents who have no clue what they are doing. He did not desire that she be wrenched from a loving, two-parent home and an incredible, supportive, caring community of godly men and women. This result was in no way good, or desirable, or what was best for anyone involved. Though He can and does redeem ugly situations in general, and has brought good things out of this circumstance in particular, God did not will this.
I know I must be careful here, for I am most definitely a fallible human being who only sees through a mirror dimly, and I do not want to presume to claim that I have the wisdom or knowledge of God. I cannot see the end of this story, and I do not know what may come of this particular chain of events in the life of my family nor in the life of my daughter. I know that the image of God has been corrupted within me, that my heart deceives and my mind does not understand. And yet, that image of God is there, present within me, a part of who I am, and He has given me a Spirit to discern wrong from right, a Spirit which cries out at the injustices of the world and recoils in horror at the thought of a God who wills and ordains such things, rather than just allowing them – a small but oh-so-crucial difference.
And so, what I come down to is this: God has given us the gift – the awesome and terrible gift – of free will. Unimaginably, He cedes some of His omnipotent power to fallible, broken human beings. He allows us the power and the agency to make what choices we will, for good or for evil, and all too often, we choose the latter. He may stir our hearts toward good, He might place influences in our lives to push us in the right direction (and this, I believe, is often how He answers our prayers for change, for intervention), but ultimately, He leaves the decision up to us. Ultimately, He does not violate human free will, and, as a result, the world suffers.
So, when I am told that God has a plan or that God is in control, I must admit that I cringe a bit inside, that my heart and mind cannot accept the idea that so much pain, so much suffering is a part of God’s grand plan. Can He use pain and suffering to bring good? Absolutely. I believe this with all my heart: the God I serve is a Redeemer, who takes horrendously ugly things and somehow makes them beautiful. Does He have a grand, sweeping, overarching plan for the salvation of humanity, a plan that results in ultimate triumph of love and truth and justice over evil? There’s no doubt. One day, we will see the fulfillment of His kingdom, and what is wrong will be made right. Does He have the last word, final control over this universe He created? Yes, yes, yes. At any given moment, He could exert His will and all of the created order would have no choice but to obey. One day, that divine will will be brought to bear upon a rebellious humanity, and, as the prophet tells us, it will be a great and terrible day. But does all of this mean that everything that happens on this earth is planned and ordained by Him, that every human action is a direct result of His will? I look at the world around me and, no matter how much I remind myself that I cannot see the full story, I must respond with an emphatic no.
Note: After posting this, I realized that I am not familiar enough with either Calvin’s writings or with modern Reformed theology to say for sure that what I’ve argued against here is, in fact, a Calvinist position. I think most Calvinists would argue that the sovereignty of God requires that He will every action of man, but I cannot be certain on that point. That said, I like my title too much to change it, so I will let it stand.