Stuff Happens

Owen Authorby Dr. Dyton Owen

Countless times my wife, Tammy, and I have talked about a statement we often hear. We hear the statement – or a variation of it – frequently after some tragedy. Usually it is spoken by well-meaning people – often Christians – who feel as though they must say something in the face of another person’s pain or grief. For them, silence is not an option.

“Everything happens for a reason,” they say. “This must have been God’s will.” Both statements imply God causes – or wills – everything that happens.

At first blush, this statement seems encouraging. Think about it. You or your family have just endured the news of the loss of a loved one. Word quickly spreads to your friends, community, church and neighbors. As any good person would do, many flock to your side to shower you and your family with love and support.

During the rush of people coming and going, offering to help in whatever way they can – perhaps by providing meals, watching your children, taking care of household things – someone sits next to you on your couch, puts an arm around your shoulders and, as you weep at trying to take in all you have just heard, says, “Everything happens for a reason. It’s all a part of God’s plan. You may not know what the plan is, but God never does anything without a purpose.”

The person means well. He or she is trying to offer comfort in what is the most painful time of your life. The individual may actually believe everything does happen for some reason we may not be able to see or understand in the moment, but will become clearer as time passes.

Such a sentiment is often offered as comfort. The truth is, it often comforts the one saying it more than the one receiving it. In other words, it is spoken so the one saying it is comforted because he or she was able to“say something.”

It would be better to say nothing at all.

Such an idea portrays God as uncaring, distant, aloof. It implies God willfully brings about tragedy. It is as if God’s hand is literally guiding a person toward misfortune.

When I was nine years old, my family moved to Tulsa where my father would serve as the senior pastor of an up-and-coming church. Three days after we moved in – boxes still unpacked – Dad walked in the front door and called for my mother who was in the kitchen making a grilled cheese sandwich lunch for my brother and me. He announced their oldest son – our brother – had been killed in an accident while serving in the Army. At that moment the world stopped. I was too young to comprehend what dad had just told us. My mother collapsed on the floor; Dad sat next to her. My older brother and I just stood there, not knowing what to do or say.

Somehow, word had gotten out in the church. Within minutes, leaders of the church were at our door. They had come to express their sorrow and offer any help they could. One of them was a physician. He had come to offer his condolences and, thankfully, administer a mild sedative to my mother. As my brother and I stood there, trying to take it all in, not knowing a single person who came into our house, I saw one of those people sit on the couch next to my mother and heard her say, “You may never know what God’s will is in all this….”

It was the first time I remember thinking to myself, “Did God really cause my brother’s death? Was the accident really not an accident, but something planned…by God?”

In his book, The Uncontrolling Love of God, Thomas Jay Oord helps clarify why this is poor theology. In the chapter entitled, “Randomness and Regularities of Life,” Oord addresses the misguided and harmful notion that God’s hand guides every incident of every day in every person’s life. In other words, the chapter suggests it is erroneous to believe there are no accidents, only “incidents in God’s plan;” and to reject randomness, therefore, to presume “everything happens for a reason.”

At the same time, Oord reminds us there are regularities we cannot deny. If the regularities of nature were dominant, nothing new would ever appear. On the other hand, if randomness ruled creation, chaos would ensue (p. 43).

Oord’s idea, God is “essentially kenotic” opens a wide door and allows a fresh wind of understanding to blow on how God acts in relation to creation. If God’s nature is uncontolling love – i.e., because God is love, God provides creatures freedom to do as they choose – then God cannot control every action of God’s creation. Controlling love is not love.

Oord goes on to show, because God is essentially love, all the regularities of creation stem from God’s loving nature. Because of God’s essential love, God never controls creatures or creation. Randomness happens; however, God is always calling creation on to love, beauty and health even in the midst of tragedy.

The accidents we experience in life – the accident which took my brother’s life – are just that: random events. Because of God’s uncontrolling nature of love, God could not intervene to prevent it.

It was not part of God’s plan.

It was not a case of “everything happens for a reason.”

It was not God’s will.

It just happened.

There is more to it, as Oord reminds us. Simply because a random tragic event occurs – as devastating as it may be – does not mean good cannot come from it. The death of my brother serves as an example. Because of his death, my family was better able to minister to families who have found themselves in similar situations. We know what it is like to lose a loved one to random events with tragic endings.

God’s uncontrolling love means God does not will everything that happens, but in everything that happens, God wills good to come from it.

When tragedy strikes, perhaps knowing this will move us closer to the love, beauty and wholeness toward which God is constantly calling us.

Dr. Dyton L. Owen is a United Methodist pastor, author, church consultant and clergy coach.  He is also a family system theorist which he utilizes in his ministry.

Is Time of Death Preordained?

By Rev. John W. Dally

Ordained Elder and Hospice Chaplain, Church of the Nazarene

What is God waiting for?”

What have I done to deserve this?”John Dally

He/she will die when it is her time.”

It must have been his/her time.”

It was not his/her time.”

God had his hand on him/her.”

I guess God was not ready to receive him/her yet.”

These statements reveal the belief that someone’s time of death is somehow dependent upon God’s action or will. Is time of death preordained and unchangeable?

To begin with let us look at death caused by others. We have all heard of people dying of tainted food which was not processed properly. People have died of listeria, E. Coli, Salmonella, Staph Bacteria, and Hepatitis A. Each of these are from either problems in the processing or in the criminal neglect by producers cutting corners. If God is using these situations to meet his predetermined time of death, then the people involved are not culpable. Why would God risk the exposure of an entire population to reach the specific individuals whose time had come to die?

Another cause of death is automobile accidents. Such accidents are responsible for over 30,000 deaths in the US every year. The causes of these accidents can be the result of negligence, poor road conditions, refusal of the driver or passengers to use seatbelts, or driving under the influence. In each case some die and some do not. It is unreasonable to assign the blame for these deaths to God. Why would God use something like a “chain reaction accident” to get at the few whose lives he intended to end?

Lately we have read of too many instances of a person going into a public place and shooting up a crowd, be it at a theater or a school. From Columbine to Sandy Hook some died and some did not. It does not make sense that God would use scattering bullets to kill only those God has preordained to die while missing those whose time is not up. To assign the blame to God one would have to accept that God instilled in the mind of these mass murderers the need to kill innocent men, women, and children. This makes such murderers instruments of God so God’s timing can be fulfilled; it makes God the murderer.

Add to this abortion, genocide, war, pestilence, and starvation and we have a God who is using means that we consider inhumane and evil to fulfill a time table. This is not the God we find in Scripture.

The Bible tells us that “God is Love.” The very idea of Love would negate the extreme and inhuman ways that those above met their time of death. To assign the responsibility for such deaths to God’s intervention is totally unacceptable. A loving God would not put a person through such suffering just to fulfill a predetermined time of death.

Before we come to any conclusion we need to look at the other side of the coin: surviving.

Joan was under hospice care because she had three fistulas. A fistula is a passage from an internal organ to the outside surface of the skin. She had to have ostomy bags attached over the fistulas to catch to fluid leaking from her intestine. The leaking was so bad that without the aid of saline infusion she would dehydrate and suffer excruciating pain in her joints and limbs. She asked me what God was waiting for. I asked her what would have happened if she had not had that first surgery. “I would have died.” It was the same for the second and third blockage. Her choices have kept her alive; it was not an act of God that was keeping her alive. The next visit she told me she had set a date, after Christmas, when she would discontinue the infusions and “let things run their course.”

The conclusion that I have arrived at is that our time of death is not preordained. Our time of death can be shortened at the hands of people or extended by the use of modern medicine. In either case our time of death is subject to the free will of others or by our own free will actions. Even the Bible attests to this give and take.

Abraham bartered with the Angel of the Lord over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses changed God’s mind about destroying the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. Hezekiah was given fifteen more years to live. Jonah was disappointed that God changed his mind about destroying Nineveh because the people repented.

This is an example of kenosis. God cannot intervene and still allow free will. This means our interaction with God is based on a loving relationship without coercion. While this has its downside as with the deaths cited above, and the suffering of living longer with medical intervention, it has a big upside. We are in a loving relationship with God and God will not forcefully intervene to meet his predetermined design, even if it means we will suffer.

This also leads to another important observation. If humans can affect their actual time of death, the results can be an unlimited possibility of futures. While God knows all possibilities of the future, they are uncertain and open to the choices of humans.

From this overview of time of death we can conclude:

1. Time of death is not preordained but is determined by an interaction, based in God’s love, between the person and God.

2. God is a loving God and does not preordain but through kenosis allows humanity to determine its fate.

3. The future is open because humanity can make decisions that can shorten or extend life which can have far reaching implications.

Is time of death preordained? I conclude that it is not.