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when bad things happen

yesterday in church we continued our "when Christians get it wrong" series by talking about how Christians act when bad things happen.  we talked a bit about our theology of suffering and evil, because what we believe about those things will affect how we behave.  and, i believe that how we behave in times of tragedy and suffering and difficulty has often been a formative reason for people rejecting the church and her beliefs.  based on the book by rev. adam hamilton, this series is suggesting that we sometimes get some things very wrong in Christianity, and that this is at least partly responsible for the mass exodus from our churches today.  there are, of course, a myriad of cultural factors that help explain the failure of american mainline churches, but one of the key ones is that we have not lived our faith in ways that truly reflect the Christ whom we follow. 

"i like your Christ," Gandhi once said, "i do not like your Christians.  they are so unlike your Christ."

thank you, Gandhi.  that's what i was trying to say.

so when it comes to what Christians believe about evil and suffering, i simply wanted to challenge people to think about how much God controls all of the details of our lives.  We seem to behave like God is pulling levers and pushing buttons and controlling everything that happens all day long, from the other drivers on the road to the results of whatever sporting event we're watching.  if there is an accident on the road up ahead, Christians have often been heard saying how grateful to God they are that God caused them to leave a few minutes late so that they wouldn't be in the accident.  do we really believe this?  that God loved me enough to save me, but didn't love the other drivers enough to protect them?  i guess i'm more lovable?  if we believe that God is orchestrating every little event, then we have to admit that God is causing many gruesome deaths and terrible accidents.  if this were true, God would be causing diseases and torture and abuse, and saving others from these very things.  do we really believe this?  i think not. 

we also have to get away from the belief that bad things happen because God is trying to punish us.  i am so exhausted from trying to defend Christianity from the lunacy of some Christians who want to turn every tragedy into the acts of a mean and vindictive God who punishes the sin of some by wiping out and hurting many.  some have said that 9/11 happened because God was punishing america for our loose morals, homosexuality, the aclu, and feminism.  and hurricane katrina was a result of gambling and promiscuity.  and, of course, homosexuality.  oh, and the earthquake in haiti?  you may have thought that it was the result of movements in the earth's crust along a fault line but, according to pat robertson, you'd be wrong, you simpleton, you.  actually, that earthquake happened because the haitians had made a deal with the devil to get the french out years ago.  so they are being punished.  so, here's where Christianity gets a bad name and comes off looking ludicrous:  we say things like,
-God is love,
-love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength,
-Jesus loves you,
-God says, "I will never leave you or forsake you,"
and so on. 

but then we talk out of the other side of our mouths and say that God is punishing america for her lack of morals, or punishing the poor in haiti because of something some witch doctor ancestors of theirs did. 


excuse me while i take a second to cool down. 

okay.  i'm back.  i apologize for the delay, but it really infuriates me.  we tell people that they can believe in a loving God, but then we act like that God is anything but loving.  i once counseled a couple who was miscarrying a baby, after having already miscarried numerous others, and while they were grieving for this lost child, they were more scared that God was going to be angry at them.  how much have Christians failed to do their job if people think God is going to be angry at them for miscarrying a baby?  beyond measure, that's how much. 

"by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you condemn sin."  -Jesus. (nope).
"by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you correct sinners."  -Jesus (nope).
"by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you change people's minds."  -Jesus (nope).
"by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."  -Jesus (there it is.).  (john 13:35)

see what i mean?  God is not a good that sits around and thinks of creative and violent ways to punish us, nor does God desire for us to be broken and diseased and nearly killed just to teach some important lesson or make us stronger. 

and yet. 

and yet, that's what we sometimes tell people who are suffering.  we may mean well, but we say, "this is all part of God's plan," or, "God is testing you, or making you stronger."  and that is not helpful.  it only causes people to (understandably) reject this so-called God of love who seems to mostly love pain and suffering. 

instead, Christians should try and get it right.  we get it right by saying things like, "i'm so sorry.  so sorry."  and, even better, "i am here for you.  whatever you need.  i'll be right by your side as you go through this."  that's the best possible witness to someone who is suffering.  it's not to tell them about God's love.  it's not to try and convince them that God still loves them even though they are hurting.  and it certainly isn't to tell them that God is using this to strengthen or punish them.  no, the best possible thing we can do is suffer with them, which is called compassion.  that's what love does.  And God is love. 

let's get it right.


Mrs. Milinovich said…
Amen. I am teaching about The Holocaust right now, and this is a common theme expressed by the survivors. Why did God do this to them? What did they do to deserve this horrible experience. Etc. One quote says, "God must have been on vacation during The Holocaust." It is so difficult to fight against this common belief. I guess it is just a part of our desire to understand "why" about everything that happens. This is a really tough one.
Happy said…
I'm not sure what else to say other than that this truly ministered to me. And that I love it. And that I might put it in my favorites and link to it on facebook. It really really spoke to me.

I do have one question, though. That first part about people viewing God like he's sitting at a control panel pulling levers and pushing buttons and "causing a car accident for one" at the same time as providentially "protecting" another for whom He loves equally? Well, I need a little more specifics there. Sort of like a why does God allow bad things to happen question, but not. Just explain it to me using the car accident scenario. Can you talk more about does He choose who has the car accident and who happens to be three cars back at the right time and misses it? Or are you saying He isn't up there making that particular choice at all? Am I making sense? Probably not.
greg. said…
thanks for reading! i agree, Mom, this is really a tough topic, and not one that i can definitively answer at all, let alone on a singular blog post! and i agree that the "why" question is a big part of this, especially for those suffering. but this post was specifically trying to address those who care for or support those who are suffering, and how we can better love people in the throws of suffering.

@happy, thank you for your kind words! i'm glad it ministered to you. i am equally blessed by your affirmation. as an attempt to answer your thoughtful question, let me just say that i don't believe God is involved in that car accident at all. i don't think God is "pulling levers and pushing buttons." i think it is just a very broken world, and that awful accidents and terrible tragedies occur constantly. God chooses not to control it all (that would be a world where love would be impossible, since, ultimately, it would include no ability for individuals to choose love or hate, freedom or bondage, and so on). instead (again, this is what i believe), God chooses to be present with us in the midst of our suffering. To journey alongside of us. To "never leave or forsake" us. in fact, scripture tells us that God is particularly near to the brokenhearted, has a special heart for the poor, and longs to help us carry our burdens. this seems to me to be a whole different kind of God than the one who arbitrarily intervenes to stop some tragedies while allowing others, simply because this God "knows better" or can see the big picture. God does not cause or even permit evil. Evil is when people choose to exclude, or disobey God. the echoes of those decisions (consequences) can live on for generations and generations.

all that being said, i continue to cling to our radical hope as Christ-followers: that Jesus was actually resurrected from the dead, pointing the way to a day when there will be NO MORE BROKENNESS! all of creation is aching for that day!

does that at least address your question and give you something to think about? if not, send me an email and we'll continue the conversation. thanks again for reading!
Happy said…

I was wondering what you believed in respect to where God is in all the little details...whether or not you believed that He controlled even the smallest details of our lives like, using your example, sparing us from some sort of car accident while allowing someone else to be involved in it instead. I grapple with all of the different ways people see Him. I go to an evangelical assemblies of God church. It seems like I hear (maybe I just pick it up myself, but another person wouldn't, I don't know for sure) but that God uses our pain to draw us closer to Him, yes, but to also make us stronger and to get us where He ultimately wants us to be with Him. And sometimes I think He's going to let something terrible happen to me just to prove a point to me that He feels I'm not quite getting. Do you know what I mean?
greg. said…
@Happy, i absolutely believe that God takes our pain, our suffering, and everything that happens to us and uses it for good (romans 8), and i further believe that trials and tribulations can make us stronger, refine us, or bring us closer to God. so much good can come from what is intended for evil. BUT - and this is a big but - that doesn't mean that God causes, makes, or wills it to happen. evil doesn't happen because God causes it or fails to stop it, in my opinion. it happens because the world is broken. what God does with that brokenness is something altogether different. so, if something terrible were to happen, it wouldn't be God's fault. God wouldn't be trying to teach you a lesson. instead, God would grieve with you; ache with you; and journey with you, even through the valley of the shadow of death, if that's where the road leads. thanks for this lifts my spirit to think on these things!
peggy said…
Why do I still feel like you're speaking directly to me ... thank God that blogs were invented in my lifetime!

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