Recently I've been enjoying the ministry of email. Seems like I've been pulled into a number of significant conversations via email correspondence about ministry, about significant relationship matters, and especially about theology. One example: I recently received some pointed questions in my Inbox from a person who was looking at the world and chewing hard on what he was seeing. My response (below) is not a coherent thought but rather a set of conversational responses that may give you things to ponder today! I've altered what follows only slightly to protect my correspondent's identity:
You ask many great questions here, and I’m not going to try to take them logically, but maybe just ramble a bit. Then if it’s helpful, I would love to continue the conversation, because I’m quite sure that my ramblings will not address all your questions!
I have struggled off an on for years with what you describe, the whole “news junkie” thing. Especially after 9/11/2001 I often have a sense of anxiety — sometimes pretty minor, other times more urgent — about knowing what’s on the news, wondering if something horrible has happened. And I recognize that most often this is an unhealthy obsession. So from time to time I fast from the news, just because I know that bad things will happen, but God is still in charge. So I try to turn off the media and “be still” in order to know him as God in a deeper way.
Having children heightens this fascination, and makes it much more painful. As a father I want to protect my children. There have been many specific instances when they’ve been sick or hurt or endangered, and that’s hard to face. Yet when I step back from my father mentality and think about my own life, or think in more general terms, I realize that if I could protect them perfectly from every danger, it wouldn’t be healthy for me or for them. They need danger, they need pain, they need suffering in order to mature and grow into all they can be. My girls are 17 and 20 now and I can see in each of their lives how my failure to protect them has been used over and over by God to help them grow beyond what I could have imagined.
The specific question of those three children in Wisconsin, of course, goes far beyond this. That’s the kind of news story you read or see and it turns your stomach because there is no justice, no redemption, at least in this life, for those children. The first thought is that I sincerely hope — and believe — that God brings some kind of redemption to situations like this one in the next life. I think there’s some justification for thinking this way as a Christian. For example, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16) Jesus tells a story that seems to imply some measure of recompense for the injustices of this life.
But a more helpful way for me to face horrors like this one is to see how Jesus dealt with gross injustice in Luke 13. There he is asked about some people who were killed by Pontius Pilate as they were offering their sacrifices in the temple — the one safe place, at least in Jewish thought, in the world. Jesus says, “Do you think they deserved that? No.” Then he goes on, not to explain why it happened, but rather to say, “Pay attention — this is your wake up call. Repent and get right with God.” Some commentators say he’s confronting the Jewish hatred for the Roman occupiers and saying, “Follow me and my way of love for neighbors, even for oppressors, instead of hoping for a war that will throw off the Romans.” In any case, Jesus then follows up with another example, this time a seemingly random event in which a tower fell on a bunch of people. Jesus says, in effect, don’t try to make sense of this random tragedy by believing these people deserved what they got. Instead, use this tragedy as an incentive to get your own life right with God.
So Jesus deals with these questions of the justice of God in a fairly unsatisfying way, at least on the surface. He says, yes, tragedies and evil happen. So make sure you’re right with God, because life is dangerous and unpredictable.
Jesus also teaches us to pray. Luke 11 is one good example of where Jesus instructs his followers about prayer. He encourages, even commands, us to ask God for what we need. He promises that God doesn’t give us evil things in answer to our prayers, but rather that God gives good gifts. We are to pray in confidence, not in the fact that our prayers are going to control God, but rather that our prayers align us with the love and mercy of a God who is trustworthy and dependable. Prayer doesn’t guarantee our security, but rather it submits us to God’s sovereignty.
A little over two years ago when a blood vessel burst in my head, I spent about three weeks acutely aware that I could have a recurrence any time, and any secondary bleed would likely be fatal. Several times I thought the counter on my life clock was down to minutes or even seconds. (Some of those stories are pretty funny in retrospect!) One verse I came back to again and again as I prayed — and I prayed a lot, not for my own safety and recovery, but just to know God in the middle of this challenging situation — was Psalm 116:15, which says “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” I took this to mean, not that God wouldn’t allow me to die, but rather that if my death was in his plans, if in his sovereignty he allowed me to die, that he would count my death precious and use it for his good purposes. I’ve been reading a lot lately of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life — the Lutheran pastor who was executed by the Nazis in 1945 for taking part in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer had a deep sense that his life was following exactly the path that God had ordained for him. I believe that Bonhoeffer would have said both that prayer changes our circumstances, as there seem to be certain things God does not do without our prayer (this is an amazing mystery), but also that prayer changes us as we learn more and more to submit ourselves to God.
So I don’t believe we just pray for ourselves to be changed. As a seminary professor of mine said once, sometimes we pray in anger against the way things are, telling God in effect, “Why are you allowing this? I know you better than this!” So we rail against injustice and ask God to change things and pray against the devil and his attempts to destroy God’s good work.
Another Bible passage you might find helpful in all these thoughts is Romans chapter 8. I have gone through this chapter so many times, and it’s so dense and rich and full of a deeper sense of who God is and what he is up to and how we fit into that work.
Like you, I reject the idea of having things “both ways” -- the idea that we claim special rescue for ourselves but don’t take seriously when others go through tragedy. We somehow want to let God off the hook. The Bible doesn’t do this. Isaiah 45, for example, places the responsibility for tragedy squarely on God’s shoulders, and I think we have to take that seriously. There is also the reality that our rebellion against God has consequences not only for ourselves, but for innocent third parties who suffer because of our choices. So we also suffer because of the evil choices of others. God does not will these things, I think, but he does promise to use them to bring about greater good (see Romans 8:28, for example).
My final thought: I wonder if God is using your wrestling with these things to pull you in to a deeper understanding of him, and a deeper relationship with him? That seems like the kind of thing he does.
Thanks again — I hope these ruminations are helpful, and I look forward to any response you have!