What God Is Up To
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SERMON: What God Is Up To?
On a recent television program, the television personality Star Jones was asked about her response to the tsunami on December 26. Her response was, "I am just so thankful." I was surprised by those words, and she went on to explain, "I was there on one of those coasts at a resort one month ago. I am thankful that God has spared me from that disaster." Did God spare Star Jones, and then choose not to spare the other 140,000 people?
I read another story where they were having a mass burial after the tsunami. There was an eight-year old boy named Anthony Praveen, and suddenly he sat up and was wide awake. Everyone say that God protected this child. He was caught in the storm and was almost buried alive, but he sat up and was well.
But listen to the rest of that story. According to the Washington Times, his father was a day laborer. He had taken his wife and two children on a pilgrimage to a Roman Catholic Church called "Our Lady of Health in Vailankanni, a shrine famed for its healing powers. So this family came to the shrine, made their offering at the church, and went into the sea to bathe, according to their custom. They were swept away. The grandmother said, "They went to offer their hair to [Mother] Vailankanni. In return, they lost their lives to the sea. I don't know why [Mother] gave this rude blow to us. How can I take care of this boy and his education now?"
Did God spare the boy and not the rest of his family? The question a lot of people are asking is, "Why did God do this?"
This is particularly tough question. A lot of people asked a similar question after the September 11, 2001 tragedy. It was a lot easier then because we could lay responsibility at the hands of sinful human beings. Though we were still left with the question, "Why didn't God prevent that disaster?"
With the tsunami, we have a natural disaster that humans had nothing to do with, and such natural disasters are often called "an act of God." Why did God allow or cause this great tsunami to kill 140,000 plus people?
I want to wrestle with this issue in public with you. I don't want to pretend that I have all the answers or that you should agree with what I have determined. I want to share with you how I struggle with this issue. And I will tell you how most classical Christian theologians deal with this kind of issue.
The classic position was probably best expounded by Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a classic Calvinist and believes that God is in control. He said,
"If we are true to the Bible,
we have to believe that God has power and omnipotence;
God can do everything.
And we also believe from the Bible that God is benevolent;
God is a loving God.
God is in control of the entire universe,
and there is not even a single atom outside his sovereignty.
God is in control of everything,
but at the same time I confirm that God's goodness and love
are beyond question."
How does he put these two things together? He says,
"We must speak where the Bible speaks,
and be silent where the Scripture is silent.
Christians must avoid offering explanations
when God has not revealed an explanation."
This is the classic Christian theological statement -- God is in control of everything; God is sovereign over everything, and yet God loves everything. The issue is one called "theodicy" in theological terms, and it deals with the problem of evil? God controls everything. God loves everybody. Why do bad things happen? God should be able to prevent bad things if God loves us. And if God doesn't prevent them, God doesn't love us. Logically, you have to come to one conclusion or the other. Most Christians just say, "It's a mystery; I am going to affirm both sides."
They approach the problem of evil the same way we approach the doctrine of the Trinity, which is an equally difficult issue to discuss. How can God be one and three at the same time? Many theologians have wrestled with that question and finally threw up their hands and said, "I don't know. I just know the Bible affirms the oneness of God and yet God is three."
If you are comfortable with that explanation, I want you to stick with it. Don't change. Just let it be a mystery. You can be like Billy Graham who after the 9-11 tragedy said, "I have never found a fully satisfactory answer to the question of why God permits evil in the world." You too can say, "I don't know why, but that is Okay."
But it bothers me, and I have trouble with that view. Here is what a few commentators said who took us at our word. In Scotland, a newspaper reporter said, "God, if there is a God, should be ashamed of himself. The sheer enormity of the Asian tsunami disaster, the death, destruction, and havoc it has wreaked, the scale of the misery it has caused, must surely test the faith of even the firmest believer." He goes on to say, "I hope I'm right that there is no God. For, if there were, then he'd have to shoulder the blame. In my book, he would be as guilty as sin…"
Another writer wrote, "If we say 'The heavens declare the glory of God,' surely the tidal wave proves his incompetence."
Another writer in Australia said, "Responsibility for the tsunami must be sheeted home to God. The tsunami has highlighted just how unpalatable the idea of an interventionist God ultimately is."
If we say God is in control, we have a problem. The way I like to frame the problem of evil is this, "Does God know everything that is going to happen? Is God really in control?"
Let me put it this way, suppose you knew in advance that this tsunami was going to happen. And suppose there was some way that you could have done something about it, and yet you didn't. Would you be morally guilty? I suspect you would be prosecuted in any court in the land. If you knew it was going to happen, and you did nothing, you are morally guilty. Can we hold God to a lesser standard of justice than we hold ourselves to? If God knew, and God could, but did nothing, then there is a legitimate problem.
There have been many people who have given glib answers to this problem. Some people say, "God is punishing the wicked. They were sinners, and they deserved what they got." Others say, "It's a warning of the end times. The Bible says there will be earthquakes and terrible natural calamities. It's God way of telling us to get ready for the Second Coming of Jesus. Repent and be saved." Some say, "God is trying to tell us something. He is telling us to be more compassionate."
It was interesting to see how other religions responded. A Hindu newspaper in India said God was behind it too, "God was punishing India because this naturally Hindu nation was letting in too many Christian missionaries." For them, the tsunami came because there were too many Christians around. But many Christians say the tsunami hit the Muslim part of the world because it is a false religion.
It was interesting to read how Muslim's responded. Their response is very close to the way Christians respond. The Heartland Muslim Council says, "In the Quran, God is all-knowing and all-aware. There is a reason for this, but we don't know what the reason is. We have to just have to let go of that constant desire to control it and realize we will never know." It sounds a lot like Christian theology.
The Buddhist theology doesn't worry too much about logic. One of their great questions is, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" They said, "We don't know why these things happen. We don't even know why we are here. We just need to love one another."
While I do not pretend that this is an expository sermon, I was interested in reading our Scripture for the day because it hints at this problem. In verses 3 & 4, Isaiah says, "A bruised reed he will not break; a dimly burning wick he will not quench." To me that speaks of the love of God. God is not the kind of God to take a bruised reed and break it or to take people who are poor and humble and wash them away with the tsunami. That is not God's love. God is not in the business of extinguishing a burning wick. He will also bring about justice and will not grow faint until he has established justice. Our men's groups examined this passage and said it contrasts God's love and God's strength, which is exactly the problem of evil or theodicy. The end of verse four surprised me because it says, "The coastlands wait for his teaching." God cares for the coastlands.
I want to suggest several theological answers and tell you where I come down. I encourage you to wrestle with this question, struggle with it and come to your own conclusion.
A lot of people buy into Augustine's theology. He offered the "greater good theology." He could typically explain evil as something that God allowed in order to bring about a greater good from it. God allows some disasters so that people will respond with a great outpouring of help and love for the victims. But is the response of generosity worth 140,000 lives? Is that the kind of God we have?
Another classic theological statement would be that God did not do this, but Satan did. It was the result of sin. When sin came into the world, humans fell and so did all of nature. Nature is not the way God intended it to be because humans brought sin into the world. Everything that happens is not God's action because Satan is loose in the world. Maybe God allows Satan to be at work, but God does not cause these actions.
Another response is merely to look to Jesus. If a person's faith is rooted in the New Testament, as mine is, then the picture of God is rooted in Jesus Christ, and Jesus didn't go around causing natural disasters. Therefore, I have no grounds for assuming that natural disasters are ever God's will.
Now I want to address my own wrestling with this issue. On the one hand we have God's power and on the other God's love. We can cling to both extremes and just conclude that it is a mystery, or we can let go of one or the other in some way. God's justice is on one side and God's foreknowledge is on the other. God's control is on one side, and God's compassion on the other.
For me, if I get to the place where I am pushed to decide, then I will let go of God's power rather than God's love. I cannot let go of the fact that the Bible says, "God is love." Jesus shows us love and compassion in every way.
Personally, I can let go of some of the sovereignty of God. I decided some time ago that the future is unknowable. Therefore, I think there are some things God does not know. And I think there are some things God cannot do.
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There was an old theological question, "Can God make a boulder so big that God cannot lift it?" It is a logical contradiction. In the same way, I personally believe the future does not exist. I can't know it; you can't know it; and God can't know it. It does not exist even in the mind of God.
I believe God is with us in time. I am willing to let go of some of the all-knowing aspect of God so that I can keep God's love supreme. For me, God did not know the tsunami was going to happen, and God didn't cause it to happen. I think it's a part of freedom in the world. God chose to create the world with freedom and for us to have free will. If God did that, then there are a lot of things God doesn't control. I would even suggest that God doesn't know what we are going to decide.
I want you to know that most preachers will tell you that God knows the future, even if God doesn't control it. But for me, I keep coming back to that problem -- if I knew it was going to happen and I didn't do something about it, that would make me a bad person. I am not willing to make God a bad person.
I want God to be all-loving and if I have to give up something, I will give on God's foreknowledge and God's power. God has created the world with freedom. God took his hands off the world and declared that there would be some things that just happen. I think God cannot make a world that is free and still be constantly tweaking the laws of nature a billion times a day to insure everybody's safety, comfort and success. If God did that, science would be impossible.
I think God loves us. There is something about the way God made the world that God could not prevent the tsunami. If God could have, I insist that God should have.
We need to always be gracious in our response. Philip Yancey began his career interviewing people who faced all kinds of tragedy. He interviewed a teenager mauled by a grizzly bear as he tried to rescue his girlfriend. He interviewed a family where the father had died while sheltering his children with his body during a blizzard on Mount Rainier. He said that every person he interviewed confessed that their experience brought them to the wall with God, but every one had a devastating indictment of the church. He said, "Christians always seemed to make matters worse." One day a Christian would come to the hospital and say, "God is punishing you." Another Christian would come to the hospital and say, "No, it's not God; it's Satan." Another would say, "God hand picked you so that you would give God the glory through this experience." Another would say, "It's not God nor Satan; you just happened to get in the way of an angry mother bear." Theories of pain only confuse and do not help. They needed comfort from God and from God's people. In almost every case, Christians brought more pain and little comfort.
I think the role of comfort is to say, "I don't know why but I know God loves! I am going to keep holding to the love of God. God cares. God is there for us. God brings comfort to us."
There was a wonderful poem written after September 11 which reminds us of our unity and how we are tied with those around the world who suffer. It is entitled, "One," and was written by Cheryl Sawyer (Copyright 2001, Cheryl Sawyer. Used by permission):
As the soot and dirt and ash rained down,
We became one color.
As we carried each other down the stairs of the burning building,
We became one class.
As we lit candles of waiting and hope,
We became one generation.
As the firefighters and police officers fought their way into the inferno,
We became one gender.
As we fell to our knees in prayer for strength,
We became one faith.
As we whispered or shouted words of encouragement,
We spoke one language.
As we gave our blood in lines a mile long,
We became one body.
As we mourned together the great loss,
We became one family.
As we cried tears of grief and loss,
We became one soul.
As we retell with pride of the sacrifice of heroes,
We become one people.
We are The power of one.
We are United.
We are America.
And we would add now, "We are the world."
God says that we are here to share our love for those around the world, and we are surely one with those who suffer.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2005, Dr. Mickey Anders. Used by permission.