My daughter sent me a link to this heartbreaking op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times. The author, Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School, has Stage IV cancer. Her area of expertise is the prosperity gospel in America, and in this article she relates the promises of that movement’s theology to her terminal disease. Proponents of the prosperity gospel, she said, want to have control over their lives: they believe there’s no problem they can’t solve by reciting the right words and believing the right doctrines. In so many words, it’s always within their power to persuade God to do their bidding.
I’m sure she’s right, and you’ll get no defense of the prosperity gospel here. But there was one part of the article that bothered me. Her words are familiar from my own experience at a United Methodist-affiliated seminary like Duke Divinity, Emory’s Candler School of Theology. She writes:
If Oprah could eliminate a single word, it would be “luck.” “Nothing about my life is lucky,” she argued on her cable show. “Nothing. A lot of grace. A lot of blessings. A lot of divine order. But I don’t believe in luck. For me luck is preparation meeting the moment of opportunity.”This is America, where there are no setbacks, just setups. Tragedies are simply tests of character.
It is the reason a neighbor knocked on our door to tell my husband that everything happens for a reason.
“I’d love to hear it,” my husband said.
“Pardon?” she said, startled.
“I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying,” he said, in that sweet and sour way he has.
My neighbor wasn’t trying to sell him a spiritual guarantee. But there was a reason she wanted to fill that silence around why some people die young and others grow old and fussy about their lawns. She wanted some kind of order behind this chaos. Because the opposite of #blessed is leaving a husband and a toddler behind, and people can’t quite let themselves say it: “Wow. That’s awful.” There has to be a reason, because without one we are left as helpless and possibly as unlucky as everyone else.
While I’m also not defending Oprah’s theology, does Dr. Bowler, a Christian, really believe that her well-intentioned neighbor is wrong, and there really is no kind of “order behind the chaos” of her illness? Is it really true that the “opposite of #blessed” is “leaving a husband and a toddler behind”? Are we blessed only to the extent that we don’t suffer and die—and the moment these things enter the picture, we are left with no reason to “rejoice in the Lord always”?
Where does she believe God fits into all this?
If I were to ask her, she would probably say that God is “suffering” alongside her, but is that all God is doing? I’ve offered the following argument several times on this blog and elsewhere, and even those Christians who disagree with me that “everything happens for a reason” haven’t answered my argument. If I’m wrong about this, would someone please tell me how I’m wrong?
So here it is, in a nutshell: my defense of a thoroughgoing and, I believe, biblical understanding of God’s providence:
First, in Arminian theology there is an understanding of God’s “antecedent will” (what God would want in a world without sin, before the Fall) and God’s “consequent will” (what God wants, given that we live in this fallen world of sin, suffering, and death). Events that happen in this world represent God’s consequent will.
Consider this thought experiment: If we believe that God can answer prayer—more accurately, that God will, even occasionally, grant our prayer petitions—then what are we to make of those times when God doesn’t grant our petitions?
There are three alternatives, as far as I can see:
1) God heard our request but never has the power or desire to grant our petitions.
2) God heard our request and has the power to do so, but whether he does or doesn’t is completely arbitrary. In other words, God is capricious.
3) God heard our request, but chose not to grant our petition for good reasons, most or all of which may only be known to him. After all, God has foreknowledge. Only God can foresee all possible, even eternal, consequences of granting one petition and not another.
Is there another alternative for those of us who believe in the Christian God? I can’t think of one. Clearly, #3 is the only one that makes sense—at least if we grant that God can and sometimes does give us what we pray for.
And if that’s the case, then it’s no exaggeration to say that “everything happens for a reason”—even when that reason is to prevent something worse from happening in the future, which we can’t foresee.
Christians who disagree with my robust view of God’s providence often draw sharp distinctions between what God “allows” and what God “causes”—often in a well-intentioned effort to “let God off the hook for suffering”—but is this distinction really so great? Surely Job would disagree, among others!
Or what about Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians? He describes it as both a messenger from Satan and something that comes from God, to be used for his own spiritual growth. This is not a contradiction. As Joseph said in Genesis, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good.” (By the way, in any discussion of theodicy, it helps greatly to believe in the devil—and that God has granted to Satan the same creaturely freedom that he has to us human beings.)
Besides, in our own experience, haven’t we found suffering to be good for us? This is why a (mostly secular) book like psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning has proven so helpful for 50 years. Frankl was literally a Dachau and Auschwitz survivor. No modern person has stood on higher moral high ground when he says that when we suffer, we always have a choice: to let suffering harm or destroy our souls or to use it as an opportunity for spiritual growth. By all means, in his experience, he usually saw suffering destroy people’s souls, but not always. And he argues that it never needs to—for anyone.
In one moving scene in the book, he talks about a particularly difficult season of suffering and death in the concentration camp. Suicides among the prisoners were very common (they could easily run into the electrified fence and die instantly). He huddles his fellow prisoners together and says, “I know many of you want to kill yourselves because you no longer expect anything out of life. But life still expects something from you!”—even if, he says, it’s only to walk into the gas chamber with your head held high. He quotes Dostoyevsky, who said his biggest fear wasn’t suffering; it was that he wouldn’t prove worthy of his suffering.
Frankl, a Jew, isn’t speaking from a Christian perspective (interestingly, while his wife died in a separate concentration camp, he married a Catholic woman after the war), but his words are very consistent with Paul’s words, for instance, when Paul tells us to rejoice in the Lord always—words written when Paul himself was languishing under a very harsh imprisonment, yet seeing God’s providential hand at work all around him.
On a related note, the original draft of yesterday’s sermon on John 4:1-18 included the following reflection on v. 5 and Jesus’ travel itinerary from Judea to Galilee: “And he had to pass through Samaria.” I said that Jesus “had to,” not because he, like most orthodox Jews, couldn’t have gone northeast to Jericho, crossed the Jordan river, and then gone north from there (in order to avoid Samaria), but because he had a “divine appointment” to keep:
Do you live your life thinking that you are “under appointment”? Do you believe that you are where you are, you’re doing what you’re doing, you’re going where you’re going, you’re experiencing what you’re experiencing because Jesus wants you to?
If you don’t, consider the Apostle Paul’s experience in Acts chapter 16. Paul is on a missionary journey, doing the work that God called him to do. Luke writes: “And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.”
So twice we’re told that the Holy Spirit prevents Paul and his fellow missionaries from going the route that they wanted to go. How do you think the Holy Spirit “prevented” them? We’re not told, but the most likely answer is that he prevented them through circumstances beyond their control…
My point is, like Paul, we may want to go one place, to do one thing; we have may have one particular set of plans. And lo and behold, circumstances beyond our control prevent us from doing that. Do we throw up our hands and imagine that our lives are ruined? No! We say, “Lord Jesus, I guess you have a different plan for me. I guess you have an appointment for me somewhere else.”
In the scientific realm of chaos theory, there’s something called the “butterfly effect,” which says that a butterfly flapping its wings in China “would be magnified through a ripple effect so as to determine the path of a hurricane in the South Pacific. Yet no one would be able to calculate and predict the actual effects of the butterfly’s flight.” Should it be any easier to figure out God, and why God is doing or allowing something to happen?
Pastor Tim Keller reflects on this and writes: “If an all-powerful and all-wise God were directing all of history with its infinite number of interactive events toward good ends, it would be folly to think we could look at any particular occurrence and understand a millionth of what it will bring about.” Yet often when things don’t go our way, we’re the first ones to think, “That’s not fair! If I were God, I would run the universe differently.” But as you can imagine, we’re not really in a position to judge.
So we let God be God and trust that it will be O.K.
Or we don’t… Because we believe God has no purpose behind things that happen to us in life. When things don’t go our way, it’s just bad luck. There’s no order behind the chaos.
Have I presented this alternative too starkly? If Dr. Bowler is right, I’m unaware of any other alternative.
For me, I find it immensely comforting to believe that God has a reason for whatever I’m going through. I like being able to pray, “God, what are you trying to show me? How are you using this? Why is this happening now?”
What are your thoughts?
1. Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 100.
2. Ibid., 101.