Does God give and take away?

January 30, 2012

Dr. Ben Witherington, a New Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, is currently writing a profoundly beautiful series of Christian meditations on the unexpected death of his 32-year-old daughter. He is a Wesleyan Christian, so we should not be surprised when he writes the following:

The first point that was immediately confirmed in my heart was theological: God did not do this to my baby. God is not the author of evil. God does not terminate sweet children’s lives with pulmonary embolisms. Pulmonary embolisms are a result of human fallenness and the bent nature of this world.

One of the primary reasons I am not a Calvinist and do not believe in such predestinings from the hand of God is (1) because I find it impossible to believe that I am more merciful or compassionate than God. Also, (2) the Biblical portrait of God is that God is pure light and holy love; in him there is no darkness, nothing other than light and love. (3) The words “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away,” from the lips of Job, are not good theology. They’re bad theology. According to Job 1, it was not God, but the Devil who took away Job’s children, health and wealth. God allowed it to happen, but when Job said these words, as the rest of the story shows, he was not yet enlightened about the true nature of where his calamity came from and what God’s will actually was for his life — which was for good, and not for harm.

I say a hearty Amen to nearly all of this. I have blogged in the past about the horrible theology expressed in the aphorism, “Everything happens for a reason.” It absolutely doesn’t. God doesn’t cause evil, nor does he require evil (as many Calvinists argue) in order for his good purposes to be accomplished. What we ought to loudly affirm, as Dr. Witherington does, is the promise of Romans 8:28, that no evil can overwhelm God’s goodness or God’s ability to bring good out of it.

Still, I’m not quite satisfied with this reflection. It feels too easy. It doesn’t do justice to the biblical portrait of God’s sovereignty—a concept that, while much abused by our Calvinist friends, is still one that we Wesleyan Christians affirm. (Wesley often attributed natural disasters and illnesses to God’s direct interventions!)

Obviously Witherington can’t adequately cope with the problem of theodicy in a few paragraphs (and I’m sure he deals with these issues more thoroughly elsewhere), but I wish he weren’t so quick to let God off the hook. In a recent sermon, I described a parishioner I counseled with who got a life-threatening diagnosis. I asked him where he saw God in all of this, and he said, “Well, I don’t believe that God gave me this disease.” And of course that’s good theology for the reasons described by Witherington.

But I wondered aloud if my parishioner wanted to say, “God didn’t give me this disease… but he certainly didn’t prevent me from having it, either.” If he had said that, what choice would I have except to say another Amen?

The sad fact of living in this sinful and fallen world is that God often doesn’t prevent bad things from happening.

And yet we believe that God answers prayers, right? We believe that God has the power to intervene in our lives. And we say “thank you” when God answers our prayers. Granted, the problem of suffering would be easier if we didn’t; if we were Deists who believed that a hands-off God bore no responsibility for the outcomes of our lives. But we’re not. We make petitions to God, and we await God’s actions.

“The Lord gives and the Lord takes away” may not be great theology, but how different is it—in a painful moment of grief—from “the Lord gives and the Lord willingly allows things to be taken away”? My point is, I’d rather pray for God to prevent evil and be disappointed (a healthy emotion—read the Psalms) than to pray as if God had no power to stop it.

What do you think? Even in Vinebranch we sing that praise chorus, “Blessed Be the Name of the Lord,” which includes a reference to Job: “You give and take away.” Should we not sing it?

2 Responses to “Does God give and take away?”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I primarily disagree with Witherington. I am no Calvinist–by which I mean that I do not believe God arbitrarily chooses who will and won’t be saved. I believe God sees mens’ hearts (whether before time or at the time really makes little difference), and deals with them accordingly. Cf.: “Perceiving that he had faith to be healed ….”

    However, I do believe God is the ULTIMATE cause of events, even though he often is not the IMMEDIATE cause. Thus, in the account of Job, God explicitly gave Satan permission to do as Satan did to Job. (However, God did not make Satan do something Satan did not already want to do–sovereignty does not overcome free will.). I don’t think Job mistakenly attributed God’s actions to Satan; rather, he had the understanding that we may not to see God’s “hand” in what happened. Therefore, his “God gave and God took away” is correct. In fact, your note of, God could have stopped it, is actually just another side of the same coin. God is “behind” everything that happens, whether “actively or passively.”

    Not that it makes no difference between the active and passive–as I say, God allows his sentient beings to make their own choices. However, God arranged the “master plan” around what he foresaw those free choices would be–including the free choices to pray.

    There is plenty of other scriptural evidence besides Job’s statement. Consider that Joseph said to his brothers, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good, to save many people alive, as it is this day.” God told Moses that Pharaoh would harden his heart, so that God would perform miracles for God’s glory’s sake (and to persuade the Egyptians who would consider such matters that God alone was the true God). (As to God hardening Pharaoh’s heart, I don’t believe he “flipped any switches”–I believe he arranged the circumstances which would lead Pharaoh to harden his own heart. Therefore, once again, God was “behind” what happened, his plan was being fulfilled, but without God’s overruling Pharaoh’s “heart” from what God knew it was.) Again, whether prior to time or at the time makes no difference when we are considering God. God “called the end from the beginning.” In fact, when God called Moses to begin his message, he said, “Who made man’s mouth? Who made man to be mute?”

    Consider also the account of the fallen angel who said he would put a lying spirit in the mouths of the false prophets to bring Ahab to his death. (No overriding, but arranging the circumstances whereby each free chooser would accomplish God’s–foreknown–plan.)

    If God did not “control” (whether as the actor or “guiding” the free actors), he could not have had the prophets prophesy the coming events–which he did easily a hundred times and more.

    Finally in this vein, consider the gospel account that “The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, to be tempted by the Devil.”

    Also, what would we rather? That God has no control as to what events happen to us? I would be in a constant state of panic if I believed that to be the case. Instead, I am “comfortable” in his guiding all events, even if sometimes I am pretty UNcomfortable going through them. Also, though God knows, I don’t, so there is no reason for me to not do my best, and also to pray. I recognize such “interaction” between God and man is difficult to comprehend or “work through”–for me as much as anyone else. But, paraphrasing what someone has said, “Work and pray as if it depended on you, but have the peace and faith that comes as though it depended on God.”

    Anyway, that is my best understanding of the matter.

  2. Brian Says:

    Amen.


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