As a Christian writer, I get to spend a lot of time studying and reading and thinking about God. It's my job to write about the things I learn. That sometimes makes me feel like The Answer Girl.
Last week, I got a reality check.
I was having lunch with my friend Rosie, who's husband recently died from cancer. Losing a loved one causes a person to think about life and death and God. A lot. That day, Rosie gave me a lot to think about.
Rosie had deeply believed God would heal her husband, Gordon. She prayed confidently for healing and never doubted it would come, which concerned some of her friends. "What if Gordon isn't healed? Will Rosie hate God or lose her faith?" people wondered.
Rosie told me her love for God and her faith were stronger than ever. Yet she still struggled with one question: "I wonder if it was God's perfect will for Gordon to die," she shared.
Ever equipped with a "helpful" theological response, I unhesitatingly responded, "Rosie, I think you know the answer to that question. Yes, it was God's will. And God's will is good and perfect. I think your real question is: Why was it God's will for Gordon to die right now?"
"No, my question really is: Was it God's perfect will for Gordon to die," she repeated. "Because I don't believe it was."
Though I'm a woman of many words, I was, oddly, speechless at that moment. I can only guess God shut my mouth.
For days, I mentally chewed on Rosie's words, as if they were a piece of tough meat I couldn't quite digest. Rosie has to be wrong, I thought, because if she's right, would that mean God isn't fully in control? Isn't everything that happens part of God's good and perfect will for our lives--pieces of the grand, master plan? I wanted to spit out the thought, to dismiss it as emotional words from a distressed widow. I thought about seeking out some of our church leaders so they could set me straight. I thought about getting a book or searching for a scholarly article on the subject. But God made it pretty clear I needed to struggle with this alone--this was something between me and him.
Not long ago, I read an interesting quote on God's intentions, related to the biblical book of Job. It was spoken by one of my former college instructors; I'll call him "Professor Bigbrain." But first, I feel the need to paint a little picture to put this in context.
Professor Bigbrain earned his undergrad degree from Princeton, and his master's and Ph.D from Harvard. In the world of literature, he is The Man. He's kept company with literati from Nobel Prize laureates like Seamus Heaney to pop phenoms like the late Ken Kesey, author of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."
Students were intimidated by Professor Bigbrain, probably because his tremendous genius was only exceeded by his tremendous ego. I vividly remember his complete disdain for our puny, undergraduate brains. Irritated by our lack of enthusiasm for his lecture one day, he kicked out our entire class, proclaiming, "You are not students! And I don't believe you are sapiens, either! GET OUT, GET OUT, GET OUT!" With each "get out," he'd flung his finger toward the door, his face turning from pink to crimson to hellfire red.
Now, back to that quote about Job. A student asked Professor Bigbrain why God had punished Job. (We won't get into a theological debate about whether God "punished" Job or merely allowed his suffering--just stick with me here for a moment.)
Professor Bigbrain replied, "You want me to tell you what God was thinking? I’m arrogant, but I’m not that arrogant."
It shocked me Professor Bigbrain acknowledged he, too, didn't have a clue about God's intentions. So who was I (remember, according to Professor Bigbrain, I'm neither student nor sapiens) to be telling Rosie it was indeed God's perfect plan for her husband to painfully deteriorate and lose his life from cancer?
By the end of the week, I'd managed to mostly push Rosie's comment out of my head. Then that Friday, I got called for jury duty. Being stuck in a courthouse waiting room with 150 strangers gives a person a lot of time to think. I didn't want to think about Rosie, so I pulled out my copy of Brian McLaren's book about evangelism, "More Ready Than You Realize." I'd previously read halfway through the book but hadn't looked at it for more than a year. I knew God was sending a message when I read:
... a Christian belief is that God is all-powerful ... but that doesn't mean that God "makes" everything happen or "controls" everything that happens. I think it's safe to say that the universe is never "out of control" ([that] God can't stop it [or can't] intervene ... ) but that doesn't mean that everything that happens in it is controlled.
McLaren goes on to say perhaps our all-powerful God has created an "interactive universe ... in which we all interact with one another and with him." Say someone commits a murder. McLaren's theory asserts God isn't surprised at the murder--God is infinitely wise and intelligent enough that it's like watching a movie with an obvious plot--but God didn't necessarily want or plan for that murder to happen. Since he saw it coming, he could have prevented it. For whatever reason, God chose to allow the murder to occur. Still, does that make it God's doing? As Rosie might say, the murder wasn't God's good and perfect will.
Is Rosie right? Is Brian McLaren--an admired pastor who Time magazine named as one of The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America--right? Or are those who say everything is part of God's plan right?
How much does God control? It's a question Christians have been chewing on for ages. Folks on all sides of the discussion will quote Romans 8:28. They all have some good arguments and all back their theories about God with scripture. But can any human claim to definitively know the will or the way of God?
It's important for all of us to share our thoughts about God, and to try to piece together ideas about him. It's also important to distinguish fiction (such as The Da Vinci Code) from fact.
But, I've learned, it's not helpful to define God for others. No one can grasp God in his totality, and I suspect he shows us small parts of himself according to our needs. So God personally will make himself known to a hurting widow. And to a celebrity pastor. And to an arrogant professor.
And this week, he used all of those people to teach a talkative little writer a thing or two about him.
1) Are there things you wonder about God and faith, but are afraid to say out loud? What keeps you from sharing your thoughts (eg. feeling like you won't be taken seriously, thinking you'll sound silly, assuming you're wrong)?
2) Throughout our lives, all of us are sometimes teachers and sometimes students. Try to think of a time you unexpectedly taught someone (maybe you saw them as smarter or more powerful, or maybe they were older or in a leadership position over you). Try to think of a time when you unexpectedly learned from someone.
3) Consider how you interact with different people in your life: your parents, individual friends, spouse, children. How is your personality distinct with each person? Do you sometimes change the way you act based on your loved one's needs? Now, apply this idea to God's character. Think of the ways God has interacted with you throughout your life: as a Father, friend, comforter, provider, protector, etc.
4) If it seems hard for you to know God, consider your own relationships. Are you open with close friends, or do you keep things on a strictly need-to-know basis? Do people know the real you?
Think about why you keep people at a distance, then start telling God these things. (Some examples: "God, I have a hard time talking because my parents never talked to me." "God, I don't trust easily because my friend let me down." "God, I can't allow myself to be loved because I've had my heart broken.")