Suffering Underneath the Uncontrolling Love of God

by Jesse Thorson

An individual’s first experience of suffering or deep pain often leads to an intense questioning of reality and a loosening of once tightly held convictions. For followers of Jesus, these seasons sometimes serve to pull a loose thread from our perfectly knit, neat understanding of God’s goodness and power. Indeed, a single, loose thread in the fabric of our systematic theology can threaten the efficacy of the entire tapestry, sometimes completely unraveling our understandings of God’s love and sovereignty.

In his book, Lament for a Son, Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff pens a guttural lamentation in response to the death of his 25-year old son Eric in a mountain-climbing accident. He wrestles with the widely held view that, for God, death is a tool used to send p1520807us all to the heavens of the next world at one time or another, a seemingly arbitrary moment when ‘our time is up’ and God decides to ‘take us home.’ Attempting to piece together the role of death and God’s goodness in the great puzzle of reality, Wolterstorff ultimately concludes, “I cannot fit it all together by saying, ‘He did it,’ but neither can I do so by saying, ‘There was nothing he could do about it.’ I cannot fit it together at all. I can only, with Job, endure. I do not know why God did not prevent Eric’s death. To live without the answer is precarious. It’s hard to keep one’s going.”

Thomas Jay Oord, in his work, The Uncontrolling Love of God, goes as far as to offer an answer to this predicament so poignantly problematized by Wolterstorff. Although I must admit that I am one-part skeptical and one-part excited whenever I hear that a theologian has stepped forth to solve the problem of evil, I am very compelled by Oord’s proposed account of theodicy— the essential kenosis model of providence. Most importantly, Oord maintains that “uncontrolling love is the logically preeminent attribute of God’s nature” and that because that is the case, “God’s power is essentially persuasive and vulnerable, not overpowering and aloof.” Oord understands that insofar as God inevitably and necessarily loves his creation, which he does, God necessarily does not exercise coercive, unilateral power over and against this creation. Here, the answer to the problem posed by Wolterstorff is that God did not cause Eric’s death but instead, perhaps surprisingly, did everything within his power to bring flourishing and goodness out of the accident because the nature of God is uncontrolling love. Because “God cannot unilaterally prevent genuine evil,” genuine evil exists in the world even though God does not wish this to be so.

In what has been my first true season of suffering, I also now question the extent to which I can claim that the agency of God is responsible for all that transpires, not only within my experience of the world but also throughout reality at large. Confronted by a mixture of life-goods blurred together with deep pain, I often find myself in a similar situation as Wolterstorff—puzzled and unable to make sense out of any notion of God’s sovereignty.

I am quick to thank God for the blessings of friendship and support during this season, because I can easily recognize these gifts as flowing out of the loving, others-oriented nature of God as demonstrated in the person of Jesus Christ. But now that suffering has entered my life in a new and intense way, the often whispered superficial promise that, “God is in control,” no longer strikes my heartstrings in any kind of positive way. If God is exhaustively ‘in control,’ then my experiences of pain and hurt are necessarily included in his directive will for my life as a part of His creation. However, if God’s sovereign agency is not the primary culprit behind my suffering, how can I make any sense of the praiseworthy, good gifts in my life for which I desire to give thanks? In other words, if God is not to be blamed for my suffering, or at least exhaustively blamed for all types and instances of suffering, is he responsible for any of the blessings and goodness that I encounter in my journey?

In the end, there is no perfect system with which I can analyze and assess the exact degree to which God’s agency is responsible for the diverse events and occurrences that I encounter in this life. Perhaps I ought to trust the idea that James conveys when he explains that God cannot tempt others nor be tempted. In his New Testament epistle, James writes, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” I can thank God for everything good in my life, because everything good is from God. It seems as though James instructs his readers to “not be deceived” in the preceding verse because there actually exist evils and temptations which the recipients of the letter falsely ascribe to God. In other words, that which is not good does not come from God.

I am unable to rest easily with the claim that there are some things which God is simply unable to do, but I ultimately find myself agreeing with Oord: “We can only trust unreservedly the God in whose nature love is essential, eternal and logically primary.” Underneath the uncontrolling love of God, suffering does not and will not have the final word.

Jesse Thorson is a MN native studying Sustainable Development at Columbia University in NYC. He loves to practice theology in community and is passionate about addressing climate change, making music, and eating plenty of pancakes and other breakfast foods.

Love: Reflections for Advent, Week 4

by Lisa Michaels

“We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become. If we love things, we become a thing. If we love nothing, we become nothing. Imitation is not a literal mimicking of Christ, rather it means becoming the image of the beloved, an image disclosed through transformation. This means we are to become vessels of God´s compassionate love for others.”
-St. Clare of Assisi

One candle for hope… another for peace… a third for joy… and then, as is so often the case, a fourth candle shines brightly, bringing this advent season full circle… bLisa Michaels Authorack to the beginning, back to the foundation of all things… love.

God has always had so much hope for humanity—so much faith that we might join in the work of redemption.  In a letter, Paul describes the gospel of God as:

“The gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures…” (Romans 1:2, NIV).

There is great risk involved, because God enters into covenant with a people who may not uphold their end of the deal.  God asks impossible things of God’s people. We don’t need to look much further than, “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son” (Isaiah 7:14, NIV), to know this is true.

Impossible… and yet it happens…

Love, on the whole, is so impossible, beginning with the very way we define it.  We don’t have enough words.

I love my kids… and pizza… and Walt Disney World… and my husband… and books… and a good bubble bath…

I love coffee… and my friends… and drinking coffee with my friends…

I love God.  God is love.  So, I love love.

Do you remember that part when you were in middle school and love was confusing, but you knew it would get easier when you grew up?  Yeah… it doesn’t actually work that way.

I have a great appreciation for the Greek language, which at least gives us somethingmore to work with.

I agape and storge my kids.  As they get older, I philia them, as well.  I eros my husband.  I philia my friends.  The more I consider the definitions available for all of these kinds of love, the more I wonder if we can truly love things, at all.

I think I may need to alter my thinking, because the truth is I probably only likechocolate and the ocean and glitter.  Wow.  Mind blown.

But which love is God?

The temptation is to raise our hands, shouting, “Pick me!  Pick me!  God is agape!”

God is unconditional love.  God is a love of well wishing and benevolence and even a love that remains constant when unrequited.  Yes.  Certainly.  But perhaps we do not give God enough credit for being love in all its various forms.

In the advent story, Jesus, coming as the Messiah in the form of a vulnerable baby, might best embody what it is to love—what it is to be love.  God, as Jesus, is the ultimate example of what it means to love without control, from the first breath. Newborn babies can’t do anything for themselves!  They are completely dependent on the mercy, grace, and love of others.  Completely.  If Mary says no…  If Joseph says no… If the innkeeper or, later, the magi say no…  we have a completely different outcome, friends.

Love is risky.

Because it’s just like God to do things this way.  God calls to God’s people, “Who will participate in the redemption of the world?  Who will join me in bringing the fulfillment of the covenant?”
Matthew 1:22-24, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).  When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him…” (NIV).

Sigh of relief…

May we also wake up.

Do this.  Say yes.  Join the circle of lights shining brightly, bringing close to the world the promised redemption that is so near we might reach out and touch it, if only we will commit to being a part of the salvation narrative.

John 13:35, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (NIV).

Jesus was vulnerable.

Be vulnerable.

Jesus is love.

Be love.

As God’s people, this is the greatest thing to which we are called.  It’s not hard to find people who need love.  They are all around us.  By completing the advent cycle, bringing to fruition the love that is so desperately sought by all, we may envelop the hurting world with the light and life that comes as we await the arrival of Christ just a little longer.

Lisa Michaels is a follower of Jesus, theology student, author, blogger, educator, wife, mom and aspiring peacemaker. You can find more of Lisa’s writing at flipflopsglitterandtheology.com

The Jesus Lens

by Will Albright

Seeing God through Jesus

Much like the ant would struggle to comprehend and explain the existence of humanity, our theorizing upon the divine is often little better than the ant theologians who ponder the wha-picexistence of the gods who trounce above their hilly abode.

It is logically conclusive: finitude struggles to comprehend infinitude. In this vein, God is mystery. Knowable, for God has been made known through God’s own mighty acts, but not wholly explainable. This, then, is why the most prominent of theologians—the writers of Scripture—predominantly employ the use of metaphor to explain God.

Herein lies a conundrum of biblical interpretation: what should be taken literally and what should be taken metaphorically. Swaying too far to either side leaves us off-kilter. The result is not only an unbalanced faith, but one that is unbiblical.

When doing theology, particularly in the Christian tradition, it is imperative that theology be biblical. We must have a canon, a standard of measure by which to rule our theology. It is my assertion that Jesus, particularly the Jesus found in the four canonical gospel accounts, provides us the lens for which we are to do theology and interpret Scripture. For the purposes of this essay we will focus primarily on the theological, that is, theorizing divinity through the biblical narrative of divinity incarnate.

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth … For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained (Greek exegeomai, “to expound or to reveal”) Him.

John 1:14, 16-18

Scripture informs us that God is revealed through the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus, in whom, “the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form,” expounds, or more fittingly exegetes, God’s very nature and essence. Jesus is our hermeneutic principle, the very lens, in which we interpret the Godhead proper. Through the lens of Jesus, we see who God is—God’s character, nature and essence. Therefore, it is imperative to filter any Christian theological discussion through the life and actions of the incarnate God.

The story of Jesus calming the sea is a favorite of preachers and Christians alike. Very often, it is used as a proof text to demonstrate God’s control over God’s creation. Typically, it is taught as follows. Have faith, we are encouraged (or admonished). Look! God is in control! What have we to fear with a God who controls even the wind and the waves? Therefore, do not let the storms of life cause you anxiety. Do not doubt that God is God and God is in control. Certainly there are many who find comfort in this sentiment.

But, for a moment, I would like to rethink this common interpretation. My focus, then, is on the inquiry of the disciples in Mark chapter 4: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” First and foremost, this passage is an indicator of who Jesus is, namely, God in the flesh. The overall purpose of this passage is to reveal Jesus as the incarnate God and the truth of this, to me and many others, is undoubtable and not up for question.

Rather, let us rethink the response of the elements. What is the nature of their obedience? Do the wind and the waves obey because God controls them, forcing them into submission? Or, are the elements fulfilling their creaturely duty of responding harmoniously to the Creator? I would advocate the latter.

At first glance, it may seem that I am splitting hairs or merely playing a game of semantics. But there is a distinction between the two which is significant. Obedience is only obedience if one responds willfully in subjection to the will of the one in authority. If Jesus were controlling the elements, it would be difficult to infer their response as obedience. Here, the same created matter that responded obediently to the God speech of Genesis 1 responds accordingly to the voice of its Creator.

Granted the discussion thus far has been centered upon the response of wind and waves, subjects without volition. One could certainly, and rightfully, ask what does this have to do with us, with people? It seems to me that if God is willing to act this way towards the wind and the waves, how much more so is God inclined to act uncontrolling towards those who bear God’s image?

It would be my assertion that God acts with the influential power of love, and not dictating power of force or control, when dealing with every aspect of creation. God is delicate, graceful, and artful in dealing with creation, not forceful and/or manipulative. For many, a God who does not control is weak. To say that God is not controlling is to somehow make God an invalid. Yet, when we examine those in our lives who are controlling, we often find their controlling tendencies arise out of weakness and insecurity. But our God, the maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible, is not weak.

Very often we view God as a sort of grand puppeteer—making this one to jiggle and that one to dance, all on cue. I wonder, however, if this analogy isn’t all wrong. I wonder, instead, if it wouldn’t be better to analogize God as the master conductor instructing the various sections to respond on God’s signal. This section then the next, rhythmically responding and harmonizing with excellence. I wonder if God isn’t instead this great music maker, teaching all creation to play and sing along to the melody of love. God speaks: “Listen. Do you hear it? Do you know the tune? Join with me. Let us make music in the key of divine love!”

Will serves as the Discipleship Pastor at Hope Fellowship in Chestertown, MD. He and his wife Emily are expecting their first child in March. Will is a licensed minister and an ordination candidate in the Assemblies of God. He has earned a BA in Theological Studies and is finishing and MA in Spiritual Formation.

Infertility and the Uncontrolling Love of God

by Teresa Baker

“I wish you were my mommy. That would be so fun!”

These words, spoken by a seven year old parishioner at a church game night, have become familiar to me over the past two decades. In this case, it was mostly a liter of root beer and a frosted cookie talking, but I have heard these words hundreds of times. In most cases, teresa-2016they come from a kid dreaming about a mother who is a grown-up playmate instead of an authority figure. For years, I found these statements humorous and adorable. But at age 27, things changed when my husband and I began trying to conceive our own child. Not long after the decision to grow our family was made, the words began to hurt.

Month after month went by and there was no pregnancy. We did all of our research and followed all of the right steps. Still nothing happened. We tried for years. Soon, it seemed as though everyone around us was having babies. We were struck by the realization that we did not have as much control of the situation as we thought we did. But if we weren’t in control of our own reproduction, who was? “God” felt like the obvious answer—at least to most of our friends and family.

“God’s timing is perfect.”

“It will be your turn soon.”

I heard these words over and over again. Sometimes it seemed near constant. I was to believe that God timed everything out and apparently let people take turns pro-creating, but I found it hard to believe. Why would a loving God want me to suffer so much heartache while I waited on his perfect timing for my ‘turn’?

As I tried to wrestle with the meaning behind all of the pain, I began to wonder if this meant we were to adopt or foster a child. Was adoption God’s plan for our family? Maybe, but thinking about this theologically began to make less and less sense. If God had planned for us to be infertile so that we would adopt, did he also cause a young woman somewhere to be in a desperate situation for the sake of growing our family? Did God cause a family to fall apart or be unable to care for their kids so that we might find a way to add to our household? Could God really be the author of all that pain?

Although the voices all around insisted that God was in control of every aspect of this situation, I knew deep down it couldn’t be so. Tom Oord’s discussion of essential kenosis has helped me work through the struggle of God’s role in our infertility situation. Our infertility remains medically unexplained. There are numerous factors that all have to line up in order to conceive a child, and most of the entities involved in this process have God’s necessary gift of free agency. God’s divine love allows freedom. That freedom may lead to much heartache.

But the good news of the free agency afforded us by God’s love is that we are free to participate in the redemption and restoration that God has for this fallen creation. I don’t think God caused our infertility any more than he causes parents to be unable or unwilling to raise the children they birthed. But the two situations can collide when people understand that the pain and heartache are not caused by God but by free-agency. That same free-agency invites us to work with God to change the heartache into rejoicing. One day my husband and I may give birth to our own child, or foster or adopt a child, or invest our time and money in the lives of children who need us in some other capacity besides parenting. Whatever happens I am thankful for a God who gives us choices and invites us to participate with him in redemption.

Teresa Baker is a co-pastor at Columbus Community Church of the Nazarene alongside her husband Chris. She previously served as a children’s pastor in Upstate New York. She also enjoys her job as a cook at a local high school.

 

Joy: Reflections for Advent, Week 3

By Lisa Michaels

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.” -St. Francis

First one candle… then another… then a third… Soon we find ourselves realizing that light breaks into darkness with the same kind of intensity that joy breaks into suffering—slowly, steadily, increasing in measure as time passes.  Certainly, we are well aware of the Lisa Michaels Authorcontrast between the two.  Light even serves as a means for producing the shadows that can sometimes overwhelm.  And yet, we are also strangely warmed and comforted.

I am not of the opinion that pain must precede joy, but I know that all too often, it does.

Psalm 63:1, “You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water” (NIV).

The holiday season is often consumed by stress, conflict, and depression.  If you happen to be among the luckiest people in the world, this may come mildly in the form of Great Uncle Arthur who won’t share the remote control or turn down the volume when carolers arrive at the doorstep or Grandma Kay who kisses everyone who walks into the room, even first time family guests.  But that’s not really what I mean.  All around the globe, and even in our backyards, there are people who suffer endlessly, because Christmas is coming and the waiting through Advent that should give way to joy isn’t going to end that way for them.  Of course, this is not what we want.  We do not want to live without water.  We do not want our neighbors to live without water.  None of us can live without water!

I’d like to take a moment to use some creative license with the word parched.  Let’s define it as burnt, gasping, or desperate…

I feel relatively confident that Zechariah and Elizabeth were parched.

I think the general consensus among many Christian traditions is to look at their story and exclaim that God will eventually give us everything we ever hoped for if we will just be faithful.  I think we assume that Zechariah and Elizabeth endured infertility into their old age, just waiting for God to come through, as if this kind of pain was God’s plan all along.  Somehow, though, I don’t think we account for the very real possibility that Elizabeth cried month after month through her late teenage years… 20s… 30s… 40s…  (Gosh, I don’t know, how old were they?) and that Zechariah felt the pain just as deeply.  So when an angel appears to him to tell him about the coming baby, it’s really no wonder he is so stunned he utters words he will later regret and has to shut his mouth for months!  But that’s joy, right?  I mean, we don’t even have to get into the rest of the story where their only child is beheaded, do we?  Is this what they were waiting for?  Could we get a glass of water for Zechariah and Elizabeth, please?

I feel relatively confident that Joseph was parched.

Being ‘betrothed’ in biblical times was not quite the same thing as being in a somewhat monogamous relationship in the 21st century.  Joseph was essentially married to this very young girl, and although they had not consummated that marriage, breaking up was going to require a divorce!  But she’s pregnant?  This is probably pretty close to the greatest scandal ever, and even though Joseph was kind enough to keep it quiet in public, I would venture to guess he hit the nails just a little bit harder in the workshop that night.  Is this what he was waiting for?  Could we get a glass of water for Joseph, please?

The stories of the righteous old man, Simeon, and the lonely and elderly widow, Anna, always baffle me just a bit.  They essentially held on to witness the coming of Jesus, just so they could die!

Joy is peculiar.

At no point do I look at the advent story and think to myself, “God brought all of this pain into the lives of people in order to bring great joy.”  I legitimately do not believe this is the way it works.  I think God mourned with Zechariah and Elizabeth, and I think God was able to absorb every punch Joseph threw.  I think God held Simeon and Anna in God’s very own arms, decade after decade, as they continued to hope.

God does not cause suffering, God does not desire suffering.  God does not needsuffering in order to create joy.  But because we live in the world, in the way in which it exists, suffering is a very real and present occurrence.

These words might best be our prayer:

Isaiah 35: 3-4, 6, 10, “Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way;say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come…’ Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert… everlasting joy will crown their heads.  Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away” (NIV).

This is what God does.  God comes.  And God also uses us to bring comfort and joy to the hurting community around us.

Because it’s just like God to do things this way.  God calls to God’s people, “Who will participate in the redemption of the world?  Who will join me in bringing the fulfillment of the covenant?”

We can provide water to those who are parched.

Do this.  Say yes.  Light another flame and then stand between the shadows and the suffering.  Draw them near.  In his short life, I think John really ‘got it’ when it came to joy:

John 3:29-30, “That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less”(NIV).

Jesus was greater.

Be less.

Jesus is joy.

Be joy.

As God’s people, we can create safe places.  It’s not hard to find people who need joy.  Another candle will increase our ability to envelop the sorrow and hold the suffering close.  Sometimes being present is the most important thing we can do.

 

L Michaels is a follower of Jesus, theology student, author, blogger, educator, wife, mom and aspiring peacemaker. You can find more of Lisa’s writing at flipflopsglitterandtheology.com

Maybe God Does Not Have a Plan For My Life

by Angela Monroe

“Don’t worry, God is in control.”

I’ve heard it over and over. It’s the phrase that is supposed to bring me comfort. I know people mean well. I know they say it to make me feel better. Somehow, though, it doesn’t.

I am young. At 23 years old, I have no idea what I’m doing. In my life, my career, my calling, and my marriage, the possibilities are endless and overwhelming. I could be anywhere in just a year’s time. Life seems to be limitless but also sometimes feels directionless. Plans dsc_2968change daily as doors open and shut, and it can be stressful and confusing. I think many people my age experience the same thing. We’re all just trying to figure it out. It’s the universal feeling of being lost. There are a million places we could go, but the path… to anywhere… isn’t clearly marked. Yet, pictures on social media, devotionals, and council… all avenues… tell me that God has a plan for my life, and that he is in control.

Sometimes it doesn’t feel as if this is true. It feels like the opposite. Sometimes I ask God to take control of my life, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t answer me one way or the other. He is silent. Sometimes, bad things happen. When there is seemingly endless pain and suffering around me, how I am supposed to believe that God is in control? It’s not the easiest thing to do, and it certainly doesn’t bring me comfort when I think about the purposeless pain that, if God were really in control, he could have prevented.

This phrase seems easy to say in times of hardship. It seems like it should be comforting to someone like me, someone who doesn’t feel a clear sense of direction for her life. It ties a nice little bow around our problems and lets us know that whatever we do, God is going to take over, and it won’t really matter in the end.

It may be my youth, or it may just be my stubbornness, but I want to have a part in what goes on in my life. I want to be in control… at least a little bit. I want the choices I make to matter. I want my life to make a difference in the world. But if God is truly in control, then it doesn’t seem to matter what I do.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of taking a class with Dr. Tom Oord. For other students, taking difficult classes means lots of homework and late nights studying. For theology students, it means completely rethinking your worldview and idea of God. This is exactly what Tom’s class challenged me to do. Tom challenged my beliefs with questions that are addressed in The Uncontrolling Love of God. If God is really all powerful, can he be all loving? And, if we say God is love, how could he be in control? I wrestled with these questions over and over throughout the class and have yet to come to a solid conclusion. However, after reading through Tom’s latest book, I find comfort in some of the possible answers.

In Oord’s view of essential kenosis, God does not have the ability to control anything. Rather, his love allows for randomness in the world as well as human responsibility. In this view, God’s uncontrolling love gives humans the ability to control their own lives. Although God walks alongside, loving and wooing people toward him, humans ultimately make their own decisions which, in turn, affect their lives and the lives of others. Maybe God’s love really is all-encompassing. Maybe, because God is love, he is not completely in control.

This idea of essential kenosis is comforting to me. It accounts for the random tragedies that occur as well as the random luck that we experience on a regular basis. It also makes space for an understanding of God’s character as relational love as opposed to power.

In this viewpoint, God does not have a plan for my life. Although that may sound heretical to some, it is comforting to me. God is not sitting above me planning every detail of my life before I even have the chance to make a decision. Rather, he is walking alongside me, wooing and guiding as I take each next step. His love for me is so great, so deep, that I get to participate in it. I get to be in relationship with the all-loving, uncontrolling God, and in that I find comfort.

 

Angela is a recent graduate of Northwest Nazarene University with degrees in Music Theory and Composition and Christian Ministry. She has stayed on campus, working full time in the Admissions office. Angela has been married to her high school sweetheart Todd for just over 2 years. Todd is continuing his education as a Mass Communications major and will graduate in May 2017. In their free time, they love to go on walks, drink vanilla lattes, and watch reruns of The Office.

 

Is Love Enough?

by Simon Hall

I can remember the look on her face. I knew immediately that I had made a terrible, terrible mistake. Words started to pour out of her, telling me that I was on the slippery simonslope to losing my faith. She was visibly emotionally traumatized by what I had said, and despite the conversation now being about my faith, I think everyone in the room knew that I had foolishly said something to undermine hers.

Her husband kindly intervened and tried to steer the conversation into less emotional territory. Despite our being friends for many years since our college days, I haven’t seen her since.

What was it that I had said? After Karen (not her real name) had talked about the heartbreak of losing a baby, she had commented, “All that’s keeping me together is knowing that one day God will tell me why he did it.”

“I really don’t think God killed your baby, Karen,” I replied.

Of course, in retrospect I should have listened to those words, “all that’s keeping me together,” and realized this wasn’t an invitation to a Facebook-style theological debate.

What was I thinking? Some years later, when a friend told me that God had taken his daughter to heaven, “because she was too good for this world,” I knew to keep my mouth shut.

But in the face of terrible news—a death, a car crash, a cancer diagnosis—do we really want to hold God responsible for everything that happens in life? Is the idea that these terrible events have no divine cause or purpose so discomfiting? Of course, the complicating factor in this story is that my friends prayed… fervently. If we pray, and a baby dies, surely that must mean that the death was God’s will, right?

I remember hearing a memorable aphorism as a young Christian. It went, “God only answers prayers three ways: yes, no, or not yet.”

Even as a teenager, I had a feeling that God couldn’t be reduced to such a limited set of options. Within the scriptural record there are other ‘answers’ staring us in the face. In Daniel 10, an angel explains that he was sent to aid Daniel but that he was held up by the ‘Prince of the Kingdom of Persia’ for three weeks. God made an immediate response but was delayed by circumstances. We might say that a fourth answer to an intercessory prayer is, “I’m on my way: it might take a little time.”

A story from Daniel’s dreaming might seem like a poor foundation for pastoral practice (never mind philosophy or theology), so let’s look at a moment in the life of Jesus. In Mark 6, we read that Jesus’ ability to perform miracles was limited by the lack of faith of those present. Another answer to prayer might be, “I’m doing my bit, why aren’t you doing yours?”

But what is God’s ‘bit’? A member of my community has just received a diagnosis of terminal cancer. He might have a few months or a few years, according to the doctors. He has ‘called the elders of the church’ and we will visit and anoint him with oil. It’s unclear what James is promising, but a straight reading of his letter seems to indicate that prayers accompanied by faith and righteousness are somehow more effective. At the very least, James is suggesting that through our faith we are participating in God’s healing work.

Pastorally, I have always found verses such as these deeply problematic. I realized only recently that it was because I was still thinking of God as omnipotent. In effect, I imagined God choosing to heal only those whose faith or righteousness met a satisfactory standard, as a kind of reward. A God who withholds healing from those with weak faith does not sound like the Abba whose son promised that only the tiniest seed of faith could invite the reign of God.

However, if God’s work in the world is in any way like that described in The Uncontrolling Love of God, then our own partnership with God in bringing about the miraculous starts to make sense. It matters that we engage with the world in every way possible. In the case of ill-health, that can mean medicine, community care, healthy eating, and prayer. If God is present in every atom and cell, lovingly presenting the way of life at every moment, perhaps our own voices can add urgency to God’s urging, and we can share in a miracle.

Our prayers matter just as much as our actions. Prayers that attune us to the heart of God. Prayers that lend our voice to God’s voice, calling for God’s loving will to be done in a situation. Prayers that bless those who are living out the gospel of peace. In fact, if God is not a controlling entity, then our persistence in prayer and action are not the icing on the cake of God’s action in the world; they are central to it.

As we anoint this beloved member of our congregation, we can confidently say with James that God wants to raise him up, and that we will join in with God’s desire for his wholeness. We will speak to the cancer in Jesus’ name, calling it to be gone. We will show love, we will enquire after the state of current medical interventions, we will offer help to the household on behalf of the church, and we will no doubt be thinking of children and grandchildren who will someday lose this loved one.

All of these actions will be influenced by God’s uncontrolling love. I will say that death and suffering are not God’s will, but even so we cannot know what the outcome of our prayers will be. I will say that prayer is not a magic spell, but that sometimes it appears to be, because miracles can happen. I will say that Jesus calls us to be faithful and persistent, because the world doesn’t always listen the first time. And I will say that while there is so much that we don’t know, there is one thing we do know: God is love.

Is that enough? It is more than enough for me.

 

Simon Hall is Co-minister of Chapel Allerton Baptist Church in Leeds, UK, and of Revive, ‘A community for people who like Jesus but aren’t too sure about church.’ He studied philosophy and theology at Oxford University before training as a youth worker. He is a compulsive starter-upper of things, including three churches, an arts centre, a family support project and Oasis College in London, where he was founding principal. He has written in the fields of spirituality, youth ministry and applied theology, and edited the UK edition of the NIV Youth Bible. He lives in Leeds with his wife Anna, a TV documentarian, and their three teenage children. And a dog. He enjoys soccer, music, literature, box sets and video games.