All a Part of the Plan

by Graden Kirksey

We’ve all heard the sayings before: “There’s no way to understand because God’s ways areKirksey Author just higher than our ways,” “Everything happens for a reason,” and “It’s all just a part of God’s plan.”

These statements say a great deal about how we view God and God’s activity in the world. I do not deny God’s ways are higher than our ways; however, I would contend, what we do with this scripture is not its intended purpose.

These sayings paint a picture of God which says God literally has everything under complete control. Nothing goes contrary to God’s desires or “plan.” When something difficult or painful happens, we are expected to accept, even though we can’t see it now, God has preordained the event to happen to achieve His purposes.

The problem lies in what happens when we take this understanding of God and apply it to our lives. If everything is all a part of the “plan,” then my life does not make sense, nor do the other countless horrors occurring around the world each day.

Thomas Oord calls the experiences in question “genuine evils.” These are events with no redeeming qualities. He says, “some evils are character destroying rather than character building.”

Our challenge as Christians is not to tell a story existing on the pages of a book, no matter how holy the book may be. Our call is to spread the word given for our everyday lives; therefore, any belief we have in God must be able to live in agreement with the lives we lead and share together.

In the case of genuine evil, we don’t have the luxury of adjusting our lives. No one wants to experience hurt or pain or loss. Instead, we have to find a view of God which can live in agreement with what we experience day in and day out.

For me, it all started some eight years ago in 2008 while I was in seminary. This was the year we lost our son, Josiah, to a rare genetic condition. He was our miracle, our child of promise, and he was gone. In an instant, I was forced to reestablish my relationship with God and my theology.

The God I thought I understood vaporized and I wasn’t left with much. I knew facts and could quote verses; however, none of my understandings of God lined up with the very painful reality I had to face.

I would never suggest God wanted such a thing to take place, any more than I would suggest God desired the Holocaust. The Bible tells us, God is love, and there are countless events throughout history which simply cannot be attributed to God, if that is true.

Saying God is love is not a comment on how God has treated someone. It is a statement about His very being. God cannot choose when He loves and when He does not love. God always acts the way perfect love would act. Oord rightly states, “a perfectly loving individual would do whatever possible to prevent—not just fail to cause—genuine evil.” For a perfectly loving God, “even one instance of genuine evil is one too many.”

I’m convinced the root of all of God’s actions is love. How do we deal with the all-loving, all-powerful, omnipresent God who fails to deliver us from evil? That is the question resting on the lips of all who have walked the dark and lonely path of inexplicable pain or loss.

Church is not always the most inviting place when we question long standing beliefs, especially beliefs concerning topics as uncomfortable as this. The default reaction is to tread water as long as possible, hoping the barrage of doubts and questions will cease.

Fortunately for the church, the questions generally do cease, but at great cost. The hurt and damaged many times find themselves without a home, let down and dismayed. Many leave the church altogether. Others eventually fade into the background.

What if I were to say God is all-loving and all-powerful and all-knowing and omnipresent and He doesn’t have to control “everything?” It may sound scary to consider at first, but I believe it is the only way to reconcile our view of God with what we all readily know to be the common human experience.

In the church, we often fear anything other than complete control will in some way weaken God. We prioritize power because it is what impresses us and, in our extensive attempts to maintain everything is going according to “plan,” our brothers and sisters are plagued by the thought that God’s desire was for them to experience their nightmare.

Consider trying to explain the divine plan behind the loss of an infant. I can tell you from experience this endeavor does not end well. Try telling a young girl her rape was God’s desired path for her. The emotional and physical baggage she must carry with her the rest of her life is simply her lot as prescribed by God Almighty. Such things are unthinkable, but they are exactly the corner where we put ourselves when we hold to this traditional view of providence.

True love does not force itself on the beloved, nor does it force the beloved to do what it desires. That is what selfishness and hate look like. “A controlling God of love is fictional.”

Accountability and responsibility are real. How we live and the decisions we make affect us and those around us. We aren’t more important than God, but God, out of His unending love, has seen fit for us to live in such a way that matters, a way where we have the privilege to return and share His love or choose to oppose and possibly even stand in His way. A lesser god would shove us aside and show us who’s boss, but not our God. Instead, He is willing to risk the hurt and the likelihood what He desires will at times not be what transpires.

We need to understand God is not up in the clouds or on His throne with popcorn in hand awaiting His favorite parts of history to occur. He is here. He is with us. He is Emmanuel.
It is not impressive to consider God controls His creation. Anyone can do that; however, it is amazing to see the Creator being counted among and suffering alongside His creation. Truly, “Greater love has no one than this.”


The End of the World as We Know It

By Chris BakerDSC_0263

“What happens in the end?” It is one of the “big questions” people have been wondering about from time immemorial. Many answers have been offered through the years. Some say in the end there is nothing. We live, we die and then we cease to exist. Others say in the end everyone goes to be with God. Still others say in the end earth will be destroyed and humanity will be judged. There are other possibilities and multiple combinations of those listed.

There is an interesting trend, however, among the various answers. Those involving God can usually be summed up in three words, “God takes control.” God takes control and brings everyone to live with him. God takes control, destroys the evil creation and brings everyone else to live with him. God takes control and issues out judgment. God takes control and fixes what was wrong with creation. Even those who believe in free will tend to believe free will eventually has a stopping point, at which time God takes control.  In other words, although there are multiple answers which include God they usually involve God taking control.

In  The Uncontrolling Love of God, Thomas Oord makes the argument that God’s nature is uncontrolling love.  Because it goes against God’s very nature to unilaterally take control of a situation and coercively guarantee an outcome, Dr. Oord says God works through humans who cooperate with his influence and will.

If Dr. Oord is right about God’s nature, we need to find different answers to the question “What happens in the end?” If God’s nature is uncontrolling love, God cannot “take control” and do anything. Could there be an answer to the question, “What happens in the end?” which reflects God’s nature of uncontrolling love? How would such an answer look?

In Romans 8:19 & 21, Paul says, “Creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed…in hope that creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

In light of the usual answers to our question, this is an interesting passage. According to them, Paul should have written, “Creation waits in eager expectation for God,” but Paul says something different. Paul says creation is waiting for God’s children, hoping creation itself will be freed from its bondage to decay and it, too, might share in the freedom of God’s children.

Paul directly links creation’s freedom with the freedom of God’s children. When God’s children are revealed as God’s children, then creation will be freed. Could Paul be saying, in the end creation will be set free as a result of humans cooperating with God? Perhaps when humans cooperate with God, or, as Paul says, when they actually become “children of God,” creation will be set free.

For those of us who are used to the more traditional answers to our question, initially this idea might seem tenuous, but I think it is supported by this passage in Romans. Sandwiched between the idea of creation waiting for the children of God (vs. 19) and the concept of creation hoping to join in the freedom of the children of God (vs. 21), Paul says this in verse 20: “Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it.” In other words, Paul is saying the whole reason creation is in bondage is because of human sin. To use Dr. Oord’s language, creation is in bondage because humans chose not to cooperate with God.

The original task God gave to humanity in Genesis 1 before sin entered creation was twofold – be fruitful and multiply, and take care of creation. Humans chose not to cooperate with God’s call. Because we chose not to take care of creation, it makes sense creation would be messed up. If we, as caretakers of creation, chose not to cooperate with that call, it also makes sense creation would be in bondage. Following this line of thinking, the way to fix creation’s bondage is for humanity to cooperate with God’s original call to take care of creation.

The flow of Paul’s thought in Romans 8:19-21 goes something like this: Creation waits for God’s children to actually act like God’s children. Because humanity’s lack of cooperation with God is the reason creation is in bondage in the first place, creation longs for God’s children to cooperate with God in the hope of creation itself being released to share in the freedom of God’s children.

What happens in the end? In the end, all of creation will be set free from its bondage when humans cooperate with God. The question left for us today is, will we live into that future now?

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?