Responding to my recent ‘Letter to America’, one regular commenter pulled me up quite justifiably on setting too much store by human power. ‘Trust not in princes nor in mortal men…’ (Ps 146:2). Whatever the outcome of the US election, God is still ultimately in control and is our ultimate salvation. That’s absolutely the case.
The point I was trying to make though is that we still have to play our part; we can’t just rely on God’s intervention to stop things going terribly wrong. God has, it would appear, given humans and human nations and leaders great power and real responsibility, which extends to majorly screwing up the planet and the lives of millions of people.
And, faithless as this undeniably sounds, God often just doesn’t seem to intervene in historical events, however much we wish he would – at least not in the ways we’d expect. God allowed both the Holocaust and Hiroshima to happen, not to mention 9/11, 7/7, two bloody world wars and any number of other human atrocities and genocides over the millennia – many of them carried out (blasphemously) in his name.
So human freedom is apparently very real and can have very terrible and far-reaching consequences. It may be that God has even allowed us the power to destroy ourselves and the planet we live on completely. I honestly don’t know if God would intervene to prevent the red button being pushed. I also don’t know if he will intervene to prevent man-made climate change from damaging our environment beyond recognition, but I wouldn’t like to bank on it. We have to both accept and take responsibility for our actions.
But what about the other terrible things that God apparently allows to happen, things which in many cases appear to have nothing to do with human abuse of responsibility? I’m thinking of Hurricane Sandy; of tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, plagues, lightning or meteor strikes – natural, non-man-made disasters. I’ve argued elsewhere that human action – and inaction – often makes these worse, but we can hardly blame people for all the upheavals of this unpredictable planet.
So why on earth doesn’t God intervene in these situations? Is it just a necessary part of allowing even his inanimate/non-sentient creation the operational freedom it needs to develop? I simply don’t know the answer, and I doubt anyone else does either. What I’m not prepared to accept is the answer that all these disasters and evils are somehow enactments of God’s sovereign will and judgement. God’s will is not yet perfectly done on this planet, and I’m pretty sure that neither natural catastrophes nor human genocides are part of his good plan.
The easiest solution to these dilemmas is to opt for the Deist idea of a God who merely winds up the world like a clockmaker and then retires to leave it to its own devices, maybe occasionally stepping in to change a cog or wind the mechanism again. Unfortunately, I find that I just can’t accept this view. Nor can I accept the semi-Deism of a God who merely watches the world ‘from a distance’, in the words of that frankly dire Bette Midler song. I can’t accept these views theologically, nor on the grounds of my own experience.
I’m happy to admit that I believe passionately in a God who is (in some mysterious way) intimately involved in every detail and moment of his creation and of our lives. I am convinced that God is not merely absent or distant, aloof, uninvolved, unconcerned, a mere passive spectator. I am certain about this because of Jesus, and also because I’ve experienced the strong sense of God’s presence, and have at times had prayers answered in ways that defy laws of chance or coincidence.
Yet I also can report many times and periods when God has seemed to be utterly absent or inert. I can’t explain this apparent dichotomy.
Why is that God will apparently sometimes answer our prayers to find us parking spaces, yet he won’t answer prayers to find a missing child like April Jones or Madeleine McCann? Why is it that God will apparently sometimes heal mouth ulcers or toothache but not terminal cancers? Or (more troublingly) why is it that he will heal some people’s cancer but not others’; find some people’s missing child but not others’? If he intervenes sometimes, why not every time? Again, I can’t answer this.
All this ties in with the recent post on the two kinds of reality – the ‘present imperfect’ where all is very much not as it should be, and the ‘future perfect’, the redeemed and renewed world of God’s kingdom where all is set to rights. As I said then, we live in the complex and confusing interface and flux between these two realms; sometimes we see God’s kingdom clearly, and other times it seems a distant dream.
Intervention or involvement?
One suggestion I’d like to put forward is that God does intervene (or at least is involved) more often than we realise – but just not in the ways we expect, or with the outcome we expect. I believe that God was deeply, personally involved in the lives of those who experienced the Holocaust, or 9/11, or the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. But his involvement was not the kind of intervention that overruled the unfolding events of his set-free creation.
Okay, so what was God’s involvement? One suggestion is that it was his transforming presence, a quiet standing in solidarity with the victims – not removing the terrible events but redeeming them, giving them a kind of meaning and bringing new hope. This may sound like a weak cop-out, but I think that if we understand the nature of the coming kingdom it really isn’t. And it would at least mean that God was not absent, aloof or uncaring.
Another (perhaps more palatable) possibility is that God was in fact actively intervening in these events to limit their duration and damage – that they would have been far worse had he merely left them to run unimpeded. However, God’s intervention was necessarily slow and hidden, primarily carried out using human and natural agents; necessarily because God abides by the laws of nature he has set up and respects the freedom of his creation. This is not a fully satisfying answer either, but it does perhaps show that God may sometimes be active when he appears passive.
Perhaps above all, God’s primary method of interaction, intervention and involvement with his creation is – incarnation. He became part of the world to redeem the world; he now incarnates himself in and through us his followers and children, in order to continue and complete the redemption of the world.
Deliver us from evil?
I have my own recent personal story to share on God’s quiet or hidden involvement. As I was walking home from work last week, three black-clad youths approached on a pretext of asking the time, and then demanded I hand over my phone. When I denied having one the ringleader responded, ‘Don’t you lie to me’, and made as if to pull a weapon. Deciding my not-very-valuable old Nokia really wasn’t worth getting stabbed for, I reluctantly handed it over. But as I was walking away, the lad called me back: ‘hey boss! you can have it back’ – clearly he’d come to the same conclusion as to its value. He handed it back, and as they walked off he called over his shoulder, ‘And you remind me of one of my uncles!’
Now, that morning (as almost every morning) I had prayed my usual variation of the Lord’s prayer, asking God’s protection and deliverance from all evil and harm. So did God fail to answer my prayer? At first sight it might seem so. After all, there were all sorts of ways God could have prevented that situation from occurring.
But, given that it did occur, it had about as good an outcome as I could have hoped for. I didn’t get hurt; in the end I effectively didn’t even get robbed. Emotionally it was a horrible experience and that shouldn’t be underplayed. But really it could have been far, far worse. So yes, I feel that I was ‘delivered from evil’. I might have wished not to have been faced with the ‘evil’ in the first place, but I was nonetheless ‘delivered’ safely from it.
Looking back at other situations in my life I can see a similar pattern. When I’ve prayed to be delivered from difficult situations, sometimes the route to deliverance has been painful and hard. But I have been delivered, and often those painful processes have in hindsight been necessary or even part of the healing. That’s not to say that all suffering is good or God-imposed; absolutely, totally, emphatically not. But God can and does redeem pain; it doesn’t have to have the last word. Under God, even the worst catastrophe is not the end.
I admit that I do fear the global repercussions of a Republican presidency. I fear that environmental change may reach a tipping point and human life may change beyond recognition. I fear that we may all destroy each other with nuclear or biological weapons or some other product of our stupid cleverness. I fear the rise of fundamentalism in Islam, Christianity and atheism. The perils are real and the outcomes are far from guaranteed. God may well not intervene to save us from the consequences our own foolishness.
But in the end, and despite all this, yes, my trust is in God. The kingdom is already here in part, and it’s coming in full. Maranatha.
But please vote for Obama 😉