“Everything happens according to God’s will.” If I hear one more person spouting this platitude in the face of tragedy, I might just scream from the depths of my being. We are no long a tribal people needing to appease punitive gods. While I understand where this sentiment comes from, it is not longer helpful in a global world where we can see so much simultaneous evil. It is not God’s will for young people to shoot up schools or join gangs. It is not God’s will for loved ones to die suddenly of accident or illness. It is not God’s will for war and violence to disrupt and damage so many lives. It is not God’s will for countries to fall into the hands of despots or be conquered and colonized. It is not God’s will for me or you to have to contend with the limitations disease puts on our bodies. God does not will any of the horrific things that happen as punishment for sin, to test our faith, or any other reason. It’s time we let go of this ancient platitudinous banality and replace it with a theology that brings hope, healing, and wholeness.
To say that God wills all things is to say that tragedy, pain, and suffering is the will of God and that human beings bear no responsibility for what happens on this planet. Surely, this is not what we want to say. Most of the time bad things happen because human beings have stopped considering the will and way of God. War and violence occur when we forget that all people are God’s beloved and ought to be treated accordingly. Yet, greed and fear and hunger for power fool us into thinking that force is the only way to resolve differences. Fatal accidents are often the result of human error, not purposeful or intentional action, but human nonetheless. Why blame God when a drunk driver kills an innocent or when someone falls asleep at the wheel and kills someone else? Why blame God for a fatal heart attack or stroke? Why blame God for disease? No, we can’t always say how these things happen, but attributing them to “God’s will” seems foolish. Why blame God for hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, and floods when humans have ravished the planet? Why blame God when pain happens at all? Bad things happen when we forget God’s ways but not because God is punishing us. Mostly bad things happen as a consequence of our actions (or inactions).
We put the responsibility on God because, on the surface, it’s comforting; if this circumstance is God’s will for me, then I don’t have to look at anyone else’s behavior, including my own. Below that, though, God gets the blame for a whole lot of painful and/or evil stuff. It just doesn’t make sense. Yes, I believe that God has a plan for each of us. However, it is not a plan that includes suffering. God’s plan is for all of us to be who we were created to be and to bring Love into the world. The problem is that much gets in the way of God’s plan for us . This doesn’t mean that God wills it. Think about it. Why would God will death, destruction, disease, or disaster? Why would a God who loves us do such a thing?
Yes, I know the Bible contains story after story of God punishing sinners and smiting opposing armies, but that’s not really what it all means. In ancient days, there was no other way to explain the workings of the world than to attribute it all to God – the good and the bad. The early peoples recognized that when they were faithful to God’s ways, they were prosperous. So, too, when they forgot God’s ways, bad things happened to them. These days, we should not interpret these events the same way the ancient ones did. We know more about how the world works. We also know more about the nature of God, don’t we?
We know germs, genes, environment, and behavior contribute to health or lack thereof. God doesn’t zap people with illness or addictions to punish them for sin. We know apathy, ambivalence, and oppression contribute to the rise of dictatorships. God doesn’t appoint the Herods of the world to teach those under their rule lessons in humility or poverty. We know that generations of uncontrolled consumption and convenience-oriented products and services have damaged the planet. Why say that God punishes the sins of certain peoples with superstorms or wildfires? The list goes on and on. We know that human behavior contributes to much of what is ugly in the world. The rest may not be explainable yet. But if it results in pain and suffering, God didn’t do it.
On the other hand, God’s steadfast love for human beings is unending. Nothing we can do will separate us from the love of God. God sits with us in grief, in tragedy, in trauma, in illness, in addiction. Whatever despairing, hopeless place we find ourselves, God is with us there. God yearns for us to find hope and wholeness in the abiding presence of God. Deep within us is a power and presence that is nothing but Love.
Think of the man convulsing with the unclean spirit in the synagogue in Capernaum that long-ago day. Jesus saw his suffering. He didn’t say, “I gave you this unclean spirit because you are a sinner who needed to recognize my authority.” What he did was call the spirit out of the man to demonstrate that Jesus seeks our wholeness and is not interested in causing pain or handing out punishment. Jesus has the authority, the power and the presence, to lead us to wholeness. God does not see our broken places so much as God sees the beauty of our wholeness. We may be known to one another by our faults and flaws, but God sees only our wholeness and yearns for us to see in ourselves and our neighbors’ our holiness.
Life is not a test. God is not some kind of divine punisher. The next time someone tries to offer hope or comfort with “everything happens according to God’s will,” please remember that devastation is not in God’s plan for us; wholeness and holiness are. The miracle that occurred in the synagogue that day wasn’t the calling out of the unclean spirit so much as it was the power of Love to make us whole. Perhaps it is time we take responsibility for failing to seek God’s ways, the ways of Love, and turn toward the grace and forgiveness that will lead us (back?) to wholeness and love.
RCL – Year B – Fourth Sunday after Epiphany – January 28, 2018
1 Corinthians 8:1-13