In a recent article, I wrote about God’s activity in the world. Asserting that God is active in the world implies some level of God’s intervention in the world. Does God act or intervene in the world? If so, how does God choose when and where to intervene? What are God’s criterion for involvement?
Throughout scripture, God intervenes or plays a part in human activity. In Genesis, the Lord chooses Abram, renames him Abraham, and makes a covenant to create a nation from his offspring. The divine promises rarely pause throughout the rest of scripture. God frees the Hebrew people from captivity, working through Moses, starting in Exodus. God spares Elijah when he is starving in 1 Kings 19. Again and again, God intervenes in human affairs.
Does God still intervene today? If so, again, the legitimate question is when and where. How does God choose? Does a loved one succumb to illness because those of us who care did not pray hard enough? What about degenerative diseases? In the Review and Expositor, Tom Graves writes about struggling with Christian discomfort with disability. Graves suffers from multiple sclerosis and mentioned his frustration with the hymn, “It is Well.”
Hymns provide comfort and reflect the gamut of Christian theology. Personally, Horatio Spafford’s testimony after suffering inconceivable tragedy is inspiring. After losing his son, then later losing his four daughters in a shipwreck, he penned the words:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
For people, like Graves, who is in the midst of suffering, hearing the testimony of someone who found God’s peace after the shock of loss faded does not speak to their situation. They still suffer. They still pray for an end to the suffering, but it does not end. Their prayers feel as if they bounce off the ceiling and land like empty shells around them. Taking comfort in Spafford’s testimony is insensitive to those who still suffer. Where is God in the suffering?
Sovereign God beliefs, Calvinism, and reformed traditions ascribe suffering and everything else, both good and bad, to the will of God. Does this mean that God desires to see some of humanity suffer? What is the role of human freedom in good and bad events in the world? When people cause others to suffer (i.e. the Holocaust), seeing people as the cause of suffering is easier than finding the reason for suffering when the cause is a disease, nature, or a random act. Does God cause lightening to strike in the exact spot where it kills a person? Or, are events like lightening strikes attributable to nature and laws of probability?
Paul Fiddes writes about God suffering in The Creative Suffering of God (1986). Being includes suffering. Buddha’s first Noble Truth is about suffering. This was paraphrased by the fictional character Dread Pirate Roberts in The Princess Bride (1987), “Life is pain, highness; anyone who says otherwise is selling something.” So, where is God?
For me, I always return to the notion that God is there; God is present in suffering but not controlling it or causing it. Lightening strikes and other natural phenomena are the result of living in an imperfect world. Anthropogenic suffering is, as the name suggests, caused by people. Thus, we return to the question, does God intervene? People want God to intervene; they want to know that God hears their prayers and might grant their wish. Some religious practices are built on this hope.
In Haiti, many people practice voodoo. There is a saying, The country is 95% Christian and 100% voodoo. Voodoo is a religion about manipulating fate, the future, another person, or any other outcome. Instead of praying or waiting for God to intervene, voodoo practitioners engage in activities to cause their desired outcome. Practitioners are proactive, just as are Christians at a prayer vigil for a sick friend.
Perhaps one of the ways people join God’s activity is to find another Christian who is involved in following God and join that person. In this way, God is not intervening, but the Holy Spirit is leading. Local people follow the leading of the spirit, and when others join them, they are joining God’s activity through committed Christians.
Parsing God’s activity in the world is complicated business. I fear that this will be my activity for a long time to come. As I seek to find what God is doing, I pray that God and anyone who reads what I write will be patient with the process. Like everyone, I am still a work in progress.