In Vinebranch yesterday, I showed this short video of the Kenyan worship service from the previous week. One part of the worship service, as you can see from the video, featured testimonies. One pastor described a recent experience in which thieves broke into his house while he and his wife were gone. They were relieved to discover that the only thing missing was the mandazi that his wife had cooked the night before. (Mandazi is a puffy fried bread similar to beignets, but without the powdered sugar. Kenyans often eat it with tea.) He concluded his testimony by saying how thankful to God he is that God is “taking care of us pastors.”
One person I talked to objected to this testimony. She didn’t believe that God had intervened in the manner implied by his testimony. In other words, she didn’t believe that God prevented the thieves from stealing more valuable possessions—or even doing much worse harm. After all, it’s easy to imagine all the evil that God allows to happen every day. Why should he intervene in one instance and not another?
It’s a good question that every thoughtful believer must deal with. I remember listening to a Christian radio station back in 1989, the morning after an earthquake struck San Francisco (during the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s). The DJ, when discussing the earthquake, said that he had some friends in the Bay area, and he was relieved that they were unharmed by the quake. He said, “I just thank God that they’re all right!”
Even as a 19 year old Christian, I had a theological problem with this response. If you thank God for sparing the lives of your friends, then it follows logically that you blame God (or, in some perverse Calvinist way, “thank” God) for allowing people to die—or for killing people. (Same difference, I guess.) A more Christian response to such a natural disaster would be to thank God for giving you these friendships and, possibly, for reminding you through this disaster that life is fragile, and we shouldn’t take it for granted.
Getting back to the objection at hand, my friend asked, “What if the thieves didn’t only steal the mandazi. What if something much worse happened? Would the pastor be offering a testimony thanking God for that?”
My first response is that this is a hypothetical that didn’t happen. By all means, if something much worse had happened to this pastor, then his testimony would be different. I suspect, given the man’s faith, that he would see God’s hand in it somewhere—not (I hope) in causing the evil, but in bringing something good out of it. As with the San Francisco earthquake, it’s helpful that God uses bad things to remind us of how precious life is. Even in this more trivial case of robbery, I’m sure that God used the experience to teach this pastor something. The pastor’s gratitude to God is probably related to this.
What’s at stake in my friend’s objection, however, is the question of God’s providence and the extent to which God is active in our world. We post-Enlightenment Westerners easily fall victim to a kind of Deism that severely limits God’s involvement in our universe. God winds up the universe like a clock and lets it run on its own—maybe occasionally intervening with a miracle here and there, but those occasions are rare.
This Deism is far removed from the biblical and Christian understanding of providence. As Paul tells the Athenians in Acts 17, God is the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.” God sustains the universe, including every life within it, at every moment, by the power of the Holy Spirit. If God removed his Spirit from us, we would cease to exist. In this sense, every moment of life we enjoy—every heartbeat, every breath—is a ongoing gift from a God who is closer to us than we are to ourselves.
It’s also clear from scripture (as in Romans 8:28, for example) that God directs the universe toward the good, while at the same time respecting human freedom. He isn’t sitting on the sidelines, helpless to do anything about evil. We pray, “deliver us from evil,” believing that God actually has the power to do so. Although this doesn’t mean that God delivers us from all evil, we still have hope: through the cross of his Son Jesus, he has defeated the forces of evil—a victory that will be made manifest on the other side of resurrection.
From my perspective, then, miracles are not exceptional events; they happen all the time—even if they don’t break the laws of physics.
So, did God intervene to limit the harm caused by these thieves? I have no theological reason to doubt it.
The fact is that God blesses us. As scripture and common sense show us, he doesn’t distribute his blessings impartially or equitably. We human beings don’t like this. Didn’t Cain murder Abel because he perceived the “unfairness” of God’s blessings? As I preached yesterday, however, we’re not meant to horde our blessings; we’re meant to share them with others. (We obviously don’t like that, either!)
Getting back to our hypothetical situation: Suppose the pastor’s house had been completely ransacked. His most valuable possessions were stolen. He lost everything. Further suppose that his friends, neighbors, and fellow church members gathered their resources together to support and provide for him and his family in the aftermath of the crisis. Through their efforts, this crime—as evil as it was—didn’t bring him to ruin. Instead, it reminded him in a powerful way of God’s love and grace.
By all means, had this happened, his testimony would have been different. But he would have had as much reason to be thankful. He could still thank God that “God is taking care of us pastors.”