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.

Do You Want to Get Well?

By Donna Fiser WardProfile Picture

Sermon on John 5: 1-9

Every month or so, the kids in Rainbow Kingdom have a new memory verse to learn from the Bible.  Currently, it is Revelation 3:20:  “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”

During this last segment before the summer break, the folks from the Adult Confirmation Class have been helping out.  I got to teach the lesson last night.  I showed them one of the famous pictures of Jesus knocking at a door and asked them what was missing.  With a little coaxing, they recognized there was no doorknob on this door.  “How is he going to get in?” I asked.

One young girl replied, “He can’t!”

“You are right,” I said to the girl, “He can’t come in without being invited.”

One of the young boys said, “Kick the door in!”

“Jesus would never bust in like that,” I said to the boy. “Jesus is not a robber.  He would only come in if you wanted him to.”

We started talking about where the doorknob is on the picture. There must be a doorknob on the inside of the home. We have to open the door from the inside.

In John 5:1-9, we find a story of a man who has been an invalid for 38 years.  He is a Jewish man sitting next to a pagan pool–that’s how desperate he is.  It is a pagan pool close to the Sheep Gate of Jerusalem, but also close to the Roman Fortress of Antonio.  He is waiting for the pagan priests of Asclepius, the god of medicine, to release the water from the upper pool to stir up the water in the lower pool.

Jesus approaches this crippled man and asks if he wants to get well. The man gives an answer equivalent to, “Is a frog’s bottom waterproof?”  The crippled man wouldn’t be at the pool if he didn’t want to be well.

We find from the passage that no one is present with the man to put him in the water when it stirs. He can’t get there acting alone before the healing water dies down.

I find two things amazing about Jesus in this story.  The first is that Jesus asked for consent. The second is how little Jesus required of the man.

As I told the kids in my story about Jesus knocking at the door of our hearts, Jesus won’t come in uninvited.  As evident in Jesus’ healing stories, he will not heal uninvited either.

Why is this?  Couldn’t God snap fingers and everything would be healed?

Evidently not. Evidently God cannot simply snap divine fingers and heal all things unilaterally. After all, we believe a loving God wants to heal all things, and yet all things are not healed. Apparently, God cannot heal without consent, because love never forces its will on another.

It scares some people to think there are things God cannot do. But the Bible tells us that God cannot lie.  God also cannot show favoritism.  God cannot do anything unloving, because love defines God’s character. Thomas Jay Oord puts it this way: God can no more do anything unloving than a mermaid can run a marathon.  Think about that a second.

What is required if we want to be made well?  Our cooperation.  If we want to get well we must be willing to invest.

What do you need to invest?  Maybe your investing means spending time with those who can help you experience something new.  Maybe it means going ahead with that radiation therapy–an instrument of God’s healing.  Maybe it means beginning to take a medication every day.  Maybe it means joining a support group or getting some counseling.  Maybe it means cutting up those credit cards.  Maybe it means calling a friend.  Maybe it means eating those five green vegetables a day and getting some exercise.  Maybe it means reading a book or taking a class.  All of these can be instruments of God’s healing if we are willing and ready to cooperate.

God desires and is always working for our well-being.  But God will not override our will. Love cannot override our will. We must cooperate if we want to avail ourselves to all God wants to give us.

The New Testament uses a word for cooperating or working with God.  It is sunergeo. The word synergy comes from that word, and it literally means “work with.”  The most quoted scripture where this word is found is Romans 8:28: “God works for good in everything with those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

Some translations say God works for the good of those who love him, but these translations misinterpret the word. They make it seem like God does all the work alone.  God works with us, and if we love him, we will cooperate

We find sunergo in 1 Corinthians 16:16 and 2 Corinthians 6:1. In these instances and others, we are also called to cooperate with those who are cooperating with God.

We also cooperate with God when we receive God’s grace and extend it to others. In fact, we are God’s preferred method of delivering his grace.  John Townsend, in the book Loving People:  How to Love and Be Loved describes one man who had never learned to be emotionally present with his wife. He had never experienced emotional support from his parents or anyone else. Townsend, a counselor, sent him to a men’s group where he received what God had to give him. God used the men from the retreat to bring healing. In turn, the man was able to give his wife what he had received.

“Do you want to get well?” asks Jesus. By asking this question, Jesus puts the ball in our court. The crippled man was not the epitome of faith. At the time it did not matter to the man where he received his healing, but he was willing to pick up his mat and walk without questioning, even after 38 years of being immobile.  God can work wonders with little.

We need not worry about being “good enough” for God. Our performance isn’t the primary issue, but we must cooperate. We must open the door from our side and respond to God’s call.  Are you willing to take a risk?

Do you want to get well?

Rethinking the Phrase “God Allows”

by Mark KarrisHeadshot

I am a pastor and therapist who works with those who have experienced trauma. I have recently come to the conclusion that “God allows,” in regard to evil and suffering, is a terrible theological phrase. I have discovered it often erodes trust in a profoundly loving and trustworthy God.

Deconstructing “God Allows”

The word “allow” is poison to the sensitive, God-seeking, and traumatized soul. It is poison for at least two reasons.

First, saying God “allows evil” makes God out to be a voyeur who arbitrarily jumps into time, willfully intervening in some people’s lives to save them from harm, and willfully not intervening in others.

Imagine, for example, what it must be like for God watching a disturbed psychopath begin to rape a helpless woman. The God most people believe in must say, “I planned this before the foundation of the world. I know I could stop this, but I am going to allow it to happen.” Although all-powerful, this God just watches and does nothing to stop the rape.

In another moment, God watches another psychopath begin to rape another helpless woman. But this time, God says, “I also planned this before the foundation of the world. But in this case, I will intervene and stop this man.” Perhaps God intervened by causing a neighbor to stop by the victim’s house. The perpetrator became startled, frantically running out the door.

I am among many people who are aghast at the God who allows some evil but prevents others. The God most people believe in is 1) in control of everything that happens in the world, 2) powerful enough to stop any evil act from happening but often doesn’t (which is monstrous), and 3) preordains these evils as part of some master plan.

There’s a second, related reason why I don’t think saying “God allows evil” makes much sense. If God “allows” something to occur, this means God could have done otherwise.

Let’s return to the rape example. If God “allows” the rape, God must have also been able to take His big metaphysical index finger and flick the rapist away. Or God could have acted like Quicksilver in X-Men: Days of Future Past by manipulating objects or people at the speed of light to keep the rape victim from harm.

But God doesn’t flex his metaphysical muscles in this way often enough. As we will see shortly, there are problems with this kind of interventionist and unilaterally controlling God.

God Is Not In Control

To say God “allows” evil events to occur means that God could have stopped it. I don’t believe that is so.

Contrary to popular belief, there are things God cannot do. For instance, the Bible tells us that God can’t lie. One thing God cannot do, which is important for this discussion, is unilaterally control people and events.

In his book, The Uncontrolling Love of God, Thomas Jay Oord offers this comparison: “Mermaids cannot run marathons because a mermaid’s nature includes leglessness. [Analogously], God cannot create controllable creatures because God’s nature is uncontrolling love” (p.148).

The idea here is that God cannot unilaterally control events, because God’s loving nature is uncontrolling. God cannot control people and events in the world, and God’s agency competes with other variables, such as randomness, creaturely agency, and law-like regularities.

The point is this: If God’s love is uncontrolling, we should not say God allows evil or horrific events to occur. Instead, we should say it is impossible for God to control people and events. And this uncontrolling influence enables free creatures, randomness, and law-like regularities (e.g. gravity, weather systems, etc.,) that sometimes run amok.

Evil events occur precisely because a loving and uncontrolling God does not control all things.

God Is Controlling (Just Not Like We Think) 

Just because God is not in unilateral control does not mean that God is passive. According to the Oxford dictionary, the word control can mean “the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events.”

I suggest that God can lovingly influence us by inviting, empowering, inspiring, filling, convicting, leading, comforting, healing, and challenging us, toward ever-increasing experiences of shalom. God exerts this kind of “control.”

God is a Spirit, and God is love. God always does the most loving acts possible in every moment, in every nook and cranny of existence. Furthermore, God can be one hundred percent trusted, because God would never purposely or maliciously harm any person, especially for some grand Machiavellian purpose.

What I’m suggesting may seem a grand revelation. But it becomes believable without the cognitive dissonance-producing phrase “God allowed,” so typical of Christian responses to evil.

A Few Words for Moving Forward

Permit me to make a request to my fellow Christians.

Would you please stop saying things like, “God allowed your husband to die in that car accident?” Could you stop attempting to cheer traumatized parents by saying, “God allowed your baby to die as part of a plan?”

I propose we Christians get rid of the phrase “God allows.” If we did, I suspect fewer people would be confused or, worse, blame God for the horrific events that occur. Eliminating “God allows” could remove an unnecessary obstacle that prevents many from having a loving connection with their Creator.

Permit me also to say a word to spiritual seekers.

I get it. I also wouldn’t want to love a God who arbitrarily allows some evils and prevents others. But I hope my comments in this essay will prompt you to rethink what God does.

When you think about the abuse, pain, suffering, or flat out evil in your life, you don’t have to believe God allowed or caused it. Often, other people with free will cause evil. Sometimes evil occurs as an unfortunate random event. Sometimes we suffer because of our own unwise choices.

I hope that after some reflection, you will come to believe in a freedom-giving, uncontrolling God. This loving God seeks only what is good for your life.


Mark Karris is an ordained pastor, author, musician, licensed marriage and family therapist, and all around biophilic.