What’s wrong with saying that God has a “plan” for our lives and world?

December 17, 2015

The other day, I reflected once again on God’s sovereignty in the face of evil. Just today I came across this blog post by a retired United Methodist pastor named Jim Harnish, who takes issue with something that senator and presidential candidate Marco Rubio said in response the question, “Where was God on 9/11? Where was God in Paris?”

For a politician, Rubio answered the question well—judging by the excerpts from Rev. Harnish’s blog post. Harnish disagrees.

He begins by taking issue with Sen. Rubio’s first sentence in response to the question: “I said, ‘Where God always is — on the throne in Heaven.’” Since the Bible depicts God as being on his throne in heaven, and Christ being at his right hand, I’m not sure why this is controversial. By all means, God is also present here through the Holy Spirit, and heaven and earth are very close, but I wouldn’t expect a nuanced theological discussion in the heat of a presidential campaign.

Rubio’s point—the point of the figurative throne imagery—is that God is reigning. God is in charge of the universe. Again, why is this controversial?

Why does Harnish take Rubio so literally when he writes the following?

The most important word the Christian faith offers in the wake of 9/11, Paris or San Bernadino is not that God is “on the throne in Heaven” but that God is down here with us in the face of human suffering, injustice, pain and death.

Nothing I see in Rubio’s response contradicts the idea that God is also (through the Holy Spirit) “down here with us in the face of human suffering, injustice, pain and death.”

Besides, Rubio sees God as at least as active in the world as Harnish. Rubio at least believes that God is directing history according to a plan based on foreknown events. Rubio said:

Senator Rubio compared God’s hidden purpose in hard times with the way a child feels when a parent lets the doctor hurt them to receive a vaccine.

All that child understood at 3 years or 4 years of age is that my father and my mother, who love me, is allowing a stranger to stick a needle in my arm, in this case, some other region of the body, and it hurts, it hurts a lot. “Why are they allowing me to be hurt by this stranger? I don’t understand that?” But I understood. While that needle hurt for 3 or 4 seconds, that needle was going to prevent something much more dangerous and much more painful and much harder later on.

He said God’s promise in these difficult situations is “the peace of being able to handle whatever comes our way…knowing that all this comes from God and is part of his plan, which we don’t fully understand.”  

How is that not a great answer? Regardless, I made the same point in my blog post the other day, except not as well.

In response to these thoughtful words, Harnish writes:

As a pastor, there’s simply no way I could look into the faces of the people who are burying their loved ones in California and tell them that “all this comes from God and is part of his plan.”  

All this comes from God. Indirectly, yes, in the sense that God created this world in which free agents have the power to work evil. In that sense, God is responsible for it. And not only does evil have no power to thwart or derail God’s purposes in the world, God redeems evil events—as he did, most obviously, in the cross of his Son Jesus.

If Harnish is suggesting, however, that Rubio is saying that God therefore caused 9/11 or the Paris attacks, then we should object on the grounds of facts not in evidence. Rubio doesn’t say God caused them, only that he allows them.

Besides, it’s not even clear to me that Harnish disagrees with Rubio, theologically. (I’m guessing Harnish disagrees with him politically, but who cares about politics?) Because get a load of this statement from Harnish:

There is another branch of Christian theology on which I am willing to hang my soul.  It says that while God does not cause everything, God can use anything.

God did not cause the deaths of 14 people on Wednesday afternoon. I don’t believe it was part of God’s plan. People did that. But I do believe that God can redeem these horrendous events to awaken his people to become a part of his redemptive purpose in this world.

God can use anything. Use it? For what reason? If there is a reason, if there is a why, then how is Harnish not saying the same thing as Rubio? Harnish refuses to call this ability and willingness on God’s part to “use” evil events a “plan,” but isn’t that six of one, half-dozen of the other? God doesn’t cause evil events, but uses them for his purposes. Rubio would agree and then add “therefore these events, along with the rest of history, are unfolding according to God’s plan.”

Regardless, I posted the following comment (which is awaiting moderation) on Harnish’s blog:

I don’t see a distinction between what Rubio said and what you say as clearly as others here. Based on your excerpts, Rubio didn’t say that God caused the evil events in Paris or anywhere else. Did he? He talks about God’s “allowing,” which—as far as I can see—is self-evidently true. God allowed 9/11, and the Paris massacre, and the San Bernardino massacre. The question is Why?

If there is a why that isn’t arbitrary, then we are right back to Rubio’s point.

Also, did God not foreknow that these events would take place, or did they take God by surprise? If he foreknew it, as most Christians of all theological stripes would affirm, then if God were going to “use these events for redemptive purposes” as you say, how is it untrue or unhelpful to say that this is part of God’s plan?

8 Responses to “What’s wrong with saying that God has a “plan” for our lives and world?”

  1. brendt Says:

    Not to contradict or argue, but if the question is “Where was God on 9/11?” and the response is “on His throne”, it comes off as Clockmaker theology, which is pretty much as bad as no theology. It is, to be frank, a “Sunday School answer” that is meaningless to the unbeliever. Rubio’s further statements were probably unheard after that.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I disagree. This doesn’t mean “on his throne” in the sense that Queen Elizabeth is on her throne as a figurehead. From Rubio’s perspective, he means actively reigning, which is crystal clear from the context.

      • brendt Says:

        I’m not talking about what he meant; I’m talking about how it was perceived. My point is that you and I know what he meant, but unbelievers (for the most part) don’t. And they tuned him out after three words that were, to them, vacuous.

      • brentwhite Says:

        O.K., but Rev. Harnish wasn’t talking about how Rubio’s words were perceived. He was saying that Rubio was wrong.

        Again, you have to admit that for a layperson, Rubio’s answer was pretty good!

      • brendt Says:

        Oh, I agree that Harnish is wrong. That’s why I started this with “not to contradict or argue”. My point was the larger issue of how it sounded to those outside the faith (probably everyone on the moderator panel and a decent chunk of the viewership).

        To be honest, my first thought was, “Why is a question like this even in a presidential debate?” But it’s the candidates’ fault. Whether or not you want to call it pandering, they say a lot of spiritual-sounding stuff, especially in venues where this is a commonality of faith. Most politicians only speak in sound-bites, and so most of what they say in such events boils down to “Christianese” or “Sunday School answers” (or a horrible conflation of Christianity and politics). And in such venues, the candidates know what they mean, and most of those in attendance know what is meant, too. But everything is public (especially in the life of a political candidate), and so the actual audience is much larger than the intended audience. And so all that the unbeliever hears is “this faith thing is dang important to me”, and so the subject becomes fair game for any and every environment.

        Then we take it into a debate and it gets worse, as the candidate is (1) having to respond to something s/he didn’t know was coming and (2) is on the clock. And so everything becomes even more sound-bite-y. And unbelievers come away with the idea that Christianity is little more than a bumper sticker. This is why I am actually disinclined toward candidates who claim Christianity. Go screw up somebody else’s religion.

        That said, Rubio *did* do a pretty good job with his expansion (using the needle illustration). But as I said before, most folks probably tuned him out before he got to that point.

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    I understand folks like Harnish. They get tired of platitudes like, “everything happens for a reason”, and “it’s all a part of God’s plan”. These sentiments are not particularly comforting to the mom and dad who have lost a daughter, or the child who has lost a parent. In the throws of anger and anguish we are not looking for rational explanations. We are looking for comfort and healing. So, I cut him some slack here.

    It is very hard to put all of one’s faith in God at those times. To be “Job-Like” and say, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord”. That’s what it all boils down to, if I understand God’s explanation to us. “Trust and Obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, than to Trust and Obey!” I love the simplicity, but I too struggle with the actualization of the command.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I hear you. You have to “pick your spots” and use discretion about sharing this message of God’s sovereignty. I’m not going to tell grieving parents who’ve just lost their child, “This is all happening according to God’s plan.” That probably won’t be helpful to them in that moment. Although, if they bring it up (as I’ve heard some parents do), I won’t disagree with them, either! But that’s why we need to think things through in advance of the tragedy, so that when it comes, we’ll be prepared. Harnish isn’t a grieving parent, regardless. He’s a United Methodist pastor who has received a theological education. He ought to have already thought it through.

      If I had to guess, I’d say that Harnish disagrees with Rubio politically, which is what causes him to judge cast Rubio’s words in such an uncharitable light.

      • Grant Essex Says:

        It’s all about Faith. If you are truly born again, by faith, in Jesus Christ, then hard times will always eventually draw you closer to God.

        I have no idea how much “politics” are effecting Harnish’s opinion of Rubio’s comment. If they are, then he is doing his blog a disservice.

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