Thursday, April 03, 2008

Does God Control Everything?

Watch this clip from the movie "Bruce Almighty," and then read my thoughts:

The most consistent and credible challenge to belief in God is the problem of evil and human suffering. The beliefs Christians hold about the nature of God seem incompatible with the evil that is so prevalent in the world. We believe that God is good, all knowing, and powerful. If God is all-powerful, is it not reasonable to expect Him to deliver people from suffering? But what can God accomplish by allowing suffering? Human survival is one answer. For example, pain exists as a biological warning system. If I place my hand into a fire, I will recoil, but imagine the horrific result if my hand felt no pain! Pain and suffering often lead to growth in knowledge and power. Athletes know that temporary pain will lead to a stronger body. The world needs a system of ordered regularities, what we call the “laws of nature.” Pain is the price of an ordered universe and human free will.

And so we finally arrive at my point. I believe in free will, but I get the impression that many members of Churches of Christ now do “low calorie Calvinism.” I constantly hear the language of God controlling what we do in every situation, and it bothers me – a lot! Here are some questions. Can God be in control of some things without constantly being in control of everything? Do humans have free will in a created order governed by God? What is the nature of divine sovereignty? Can we make deals with God? This question is not often asked as bluntly, but it is asked implicitly. The belief that good people should not suffer because of their own righteousness is rampant in both Jewish and Christian life. Many people of faith believe that they should be able to avoid the calamities that afflict the less pious. This, in essence, is attempting to make a “deal” with God – “I’ll do what you want so that you will do what I want.” Believers, as well as non-believers, seek to reconcile the existence of God with the fact that good people suffer. But an equally appropriate question is, “Why shouldn’t good people suffer?” Rabbi Harold Kushner once asked, in this regard, “Should a pious person be able to go out on a freezing night without a jacket and not get sick?” And yet many Jews and Christians believe that if one observes God’s laws it is therefore unjust for the righteous to suffer. This attitude may help to explain why unjust suffering can be so devastating to people’s faith. For many religious people, the problem of how a just, loving, and powerful Creator can allow terrible injustices is compounded by their belief that if they suffer while doing good, God has reneged on a “deal” with them. But the purpose of religion is to change the behavior of the believer, not God’s behavior. If God always rewards the righteous, then the opposite must also be true – suffering is punishment from God. This belief is as prevalent as it is wrongheaded and cruel. I have heard Christians tell people who are suffering that if they prayed more and got closer to God, their suffering would be alleviated! This belief renders the question, “Why do good people suffer?” self-contradictory. Those who believe that being righteous will protect them from suffering have already answered the question – if you suffer, you’re not a good person!

The answer is not to make deals or believe that God controls everything, but to understand God’s providence. Divine providence is rooted in the character of God, particularly His love. God’s desire to love and to be loved caused Him to create, and His continual desire to love causes Him to interact with that creation. Out of His love, God created humans as moral free agents because virtue cannot be coerced. Divine providence does not imply a tyrannical God who controls the universe at every level. In His great love, God has granted to humanity the power to choose its own destiny through choices. For me, a “puppet master” God negates the concept of love. Love is central to the nature and character of God, and love implies risk since refusal to control another being is a demonstration of love for that being. The outcome of God’s work in the world is not a foregone conclusion since God’s actions are predicated on human decisions. Even His plan for the redemption of humanity had the potential for failure because it depended on choice. In a Christian sense, providence means that God is more concerned with the eternal state of humanity than our temporal level of comfort.

This understanding of divine providence is inextricably intertwined with the theology of creation. If God refuses to act as a universal tyrant, determining through foreknowledge, the course of every event, then the world He created necessarily has the potential to evolve freely. In such a system, humans have the intrinsic capacity to commit evil. The dialectic of good and evil is built into creation from the beginning. In a sense, God’s great love makes Him subject to His own creation. He is grieved when evil is committed, He changes His mind when pressed, and He is moved to act when we approach Him in prayer. Determinism also tends to negate the love of God. In a word, I believe in free will because of love.


Kerrie said...

These are some hard questions but I'm really glad you wrote this. The idea that we suffer because we are not good enough makes no sense neither does the concept that those who are more righteous will be spared. I don’t see that in the Bible with Job, the disciples or apostles who obviously loved God, the children of the Israelites who were forced to wander in the dessert through no sins of their own, young Isaac who was tied to an alter by his father, or God’s reference to allowing us to “go through the fire” to be purified. It appears that suffering is a natural effect of free will and sometimes God’s discipline and maybe as with Lazarus, to prove his power over this world. Making deals with God to avoid pain reeks of arrogance and or a lack of faith on our part to trust the one we worship.

When I look back on my own life I have wrestled with these questions a lot. In fact the answers to them were the hinge points on whether I would trust God as an adult or give up and follow Satan’s directives. I asked how he could let me as a child go through abuse. What did I do to deserve this? How could he just turn his head and allow me to suffer during those ceremonies alone? How??? What if I had died as a child then what? How could he have justified that as a loving fair God?

What I came to realize, many may not understand or believe. As I was remembering the abuse as an adult I was also made acutely aware by God that Jesus had been with me during the abuse. I was not alone and abandoned and he, in a very real sense, experienced the pain with me. Yes even if I had died he was right there to ease my suffering and bring me on into heaven for my ultimate deliverance. Over and over I saw, felt and knew that this was true. There may be those who say impossible but when you look at Jesus’ exposure to our sins on the cross, the active role he played in the disciples lives and the gift of the Holy Spirit, it is compatible with what I know is true in my own life. I did not suffer alone. He was beside me in the presence of all that evil and he saw me through. Recently I have again felt his undeniable presence in the middle of family crisis and been given firm reassurance by the Spirit that he would see me through.

There are no easy answers for why we suffer in this life. We will never as humans understand all that God is and how he ultimately works. We have to come to grips with the effects of free will, the consequences of sin, and make a choice to believe that God will provide in some form to see us through even if in death. Maybe we as Christians need to quit focusing on the fairness of our life, the whys of suffering, and a means of escaping it and direct our attention to the hope we have in Jesus?

Charles North said...

Thanks Kerrie. I hope I didn't come across as the guy with all the answers. I really struggle with this on a personal level - how much control does God have over my daily life? I just hope that my belief in free will is not a mask to cover up my need to be in control!!

Kerrie said...

Charles you don't come across as thinking you have all the answers, just lots of questions and I fight with those questions a lot lately. I don't know how much control he has or chooses to take in our lives on a daily basis except to give us what we need to deal with the negative results of our free will. Its so hard to see his presence though when life hits hard. And my last question about refocusing off of our suffering and onto his hope was really directed at myself.

What is low calorie Calvinism and the "language of God"?

Charles North said...

I think I meant the blending of free will and determinism in a way that's more convenient than well thought out. People sometimes come across as if they believe God controls every move we make.

Kerrie said...

So by your comment about low calorie Calvinism being a convenient blend of determinism and free will that implies what? Is that all or nothing? Either he controls everything about our lives or he turns us loose and controls nothing? A “convenient blend” sounds like you’re saying he doesn’t do both and that modern day Christians just made this up to suit our own philosophy.

How do we know how he works really, other than what we read in the scriptures and what we have in our own lives? If we can’t go by his examples in the Bible then I don’t know what we would base our opinions on other than someone else’s biased writings. It seems that there was a “blend” of involvement in how God interacted with his people from the beginning. He let them make choices and then interacted with them whether in anger to punish or love to reconcile. He allowed the Israelites to make their own choices in how they responded to the trip out of Egypt. But he intervened in response to prayers for help as he cared for them in the dessert with their food and he punished them for turning to idols in their hopelessness. Is that not a blend of involvement in people’s lives?

He repeatedly spoke directly to those in the Old and New Testament, those who had great faith and depended on him, to give direction. We were given the Holy Spirit and scriptures as a replacement in a sense for the physical presence of Jesus after he left, so then I would have to say that he still speaks, works, interacts with us now but through the Spirit. I just can’t believe that somewhere between the Bible times and now, that he severed the lines of communication and involvement in our lives. Maybe WE have set up the walls and don’t hear or see Him as some of those earliest followers did because of our modern day lifestyle.

For years it was taboo to speak of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It was as though we no longer needed, wanted or acknowledged God's gift to us. Our fears of being out of control and not having a tangible practical, logical explanation to the Spirit's work made some just ignore it. It is sad that some still don’t really believe that he works intimately in our lives today.

I don’t think it is contradictory to say that he allows for choices AND interacts as our faith allows. It may even be true that those that have more faith in His willingness/ability to effect change in our lives and pray for that interaction, actually see more involvement. And by involement, no I don't mean lack of suffering. If He has truly given us free will then it would follow then He wouldn’t force himself on those Christians that don’t acknowledge his willingness to intercede for us.

Charles North said...

I think we can learn a lot from the ancient Hebrew's comfort with tension. For them it didn't have to be either/or. We like things to be clear and neatly packaged. I think that's my own struggle - I know God is active in our lives, but also gives us free will. So where is the line? I know that it is something of a "blend."

That's not what I meant by the tongue in cheek, "low calorie Calvinism" comment. My post was meant to address our attitude toward suffering. What I am critical of is lack of clear thinking about this - remember that Churches of Christ were born about 200 years ago because some Presbyterian ministers rejected their church's Calvinism. I get very nervous when someone begins a sentence with, "God told me . . ." It implies that if I disagree with them, I'm disagreeing with God. That drives me nuts!

fessdo said...

I enjoyed your message. I was one of those who used faith and MY goodness like a pry bar trying to get God to move on my behalf. I believed when I released what was in my hand God would release what was in his. Well after giving and giving and not receiving in return I then got bitter because God didn't do His part. Then one day I was reading Mark 10 about the one running up to Jesus asking what good thing should he do to inherit eternal life, addressing Jesus as GOOD master. Jesus answered him by saying there is none GOOD,.... so then it hit me I was trying to be something that is not possible to be. There is none GOOD but God and I'm not God. We have all sinned, we don't stand a chance alone it's only thru Jesus and His sinless, perfect life that enable us to come before God. We don't have to work and work, it's that's unmerited gift from God. G R A C E