The Rev. Peter W. Marty, pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Davenport, Iowa
What do you say to a friend who tells you that your job loss is part of god’s special plan for your life? or, if it is stage three cervical can- cer that is causing you to lie awake worrying at night, how do you respond to that well-intentioned soul who wants you to believe that god has a reason for everything? Pious clichés that use God to explain away difficult or tragic circumstances are on the lips of vast numbers of Christians. Such expressions sound wonderfully holy. They also falsify human experience. They distort the majesty of god by twisting god into a distant and aloof sovereign. “god wanted it to happen, so it happened.” That’s a favorite. if your best friend is mugged and beaten, did God really send that suffering to teach your friend a lesson? if so, what sort of lesson was it? What are the odds that the lesson struck a helpful chord? Most of us would find a lot more reason to fear rather than love God, if the lord of heaven and earth was this morally ambivalent or malevolent. While visiting a city church a few years ago, i picked up a history of the congregation. From that booklet, i learned that the congregation’s previous sanctuary burned to the ground. “no doubt, to train His people for greater things,” the account read, “it pleased the lord to reduce this splendid edifice of worship to a gutted, smoldering ruin by a disas- trous fire on December 3, 1903.” Really? I’ll bet you didn’t know god delights in burning down churches. From where does this folly come? Several sources. god gets blamed for all kinds of outlandish things, mostly because we don’t like to feel out of control in a chaotic universe. if we position god to assume the blame or credit for an inexplicable situation, suddenly it sounds more rea- sonable. Many people don’t like the idea of no one being responsible for a perplexing event. Thus, god becomes the handy arranger when one needs a cause for that flat tire in the desert, or for that stillborn child that had been the
sparkle in a hope-filled couple’s eyes. There is another reason why seemingly intelligent people tend to make god responsible for all kinds of ridiculous circumstances. Such theology works extremely well when things turn out to benefit us. Egocentricity per- meates a lot of chatter about god having “a personal plan for my life.” Theological narcissism cleverly places “me” at the center of the universe. “Somebody was looking out for me. My prayers were answered.” This may offer all kinds of comfort after a frightening tornado just missed my house. But what about my faithful and prayer-inspired neighbors just blocks away? They are standing in the rubble of what was their house. it’s hard to picture them having prayed, “lord please direct the tornado our direction. We need one real bad.” Some believers will resort to language of god allow- ing certain events, even if god did not cause them. But that theological reasoning presents huge problems, usu- ally indicting rather than complimenting god. if my child drowns in a swimming accident, and you try to comfort me by suggesting god allowed the drowning for a reason, that means god failed me. it would be akin to having a strong lifeguard, with all the equipment and rescue skill
in the world, just standing by to watch my child go down. That would be gross dereliction of duty. never once did Jesus of nazareth counsel any person to accept their suffering as the Lord’s will. God may work in mysterious ways, but there is no evidence that god works in nonsensical ways. if god is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-present, let us not forget that god is also — we might say, primarily! — all-loving. There are certain things love will not do, and territory where love will not tread. Unconditional love will not have you quitting on another person. one doesn’t throw in the towel when fidelity and steadfastness constitute the best forms of love. There are zones within friendship where love should not invade. love has no business, for example, intruding on subjects and places that induce unnecessary pain in another person. if god is love, then god responds to us only through means that are loving. The next time a friend of yours wants to suggest that god’s care for you amounts to god arranging the daily particulars of your life, gently remind her that you are not a helpless marionette puppet, or a passive believer. Share with her the biblical word that god’s will in this world is about much greater things than simply pulling different strings to create personal misery or blessing for you. According to the Bible, god’s plan is about great big things, not the little details that organize our daily circum- stances or control our decisions. getting malnourished kids around the world fed, melting AK-47s into a billion garden rakes, constructing preschools on the grounds of nursing homes, and rectifying scores of societal injustices all make the list for god’s holiness plan. Finding a park- ing space for you or me in the next congested city we visit, unfortunately, doesn’t make the cut.
Peter W. Marty serves as senior pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, a 3,500-member congregation in Davenport, Iowa. He is the author of The Anatomy of grace. Since 2010, Marty has been the lead columnist for The Lutheran magazine.