Christians have a lot of phrases we like to use to try to explain how God works. There may be some truth to some of the phrases. I’m sure we’ve all used them to try to make sense of what is going on in our lives or to help a friend understand what God may be doing in their lives. Some of them are okay. I hate most of them…because most of them aren’t universally true.
I did a Facebook poll of some of our favorite Christian sayings:
God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. I had someone once tell me that they wished God didn’t believe they were so strong to handle so much.
Be patient as God isn’t done with you yet. I heard it once said this way – if it isn’t alright then it’s not over. I can get behind that. Usually everything is alright in the end. I’ll come back to that.
If God brought you to it, He’ll get you through it. I have a friend who says God doesn’t bring us to anything but gives us the strength to face our trials.
God helps those who help themselves. I think this might be a little true. Life is about a partnership with God in which we are meant to act in God’s will and God helps us with strength and blessings.
There are a couple phrases regarding death. She is in a better place now. Or, only the good die young. Or, God needed another angel. All those are awful. Death is a part of being a mortal being. No phrase like that can bring us comfort when we’ve lost a loved one. Yes, they are in a better place, because they are with God. But, they have always been with God. They’re just in a different place in a different way with God. I’ll come back to that too.
If it’s meant to be, it will be. My mom uses this one a lot. I think we both assume it has something to do with God’s will somehow being providential. But, we live in a crazy messed up world where God’s will is not always the rule of the day. I think this can be coupled with everything happens for a reason, or, let go and let God or if you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans. I’ll come back to these too.
The problem with all of these phrases is that they are not universally true. We can’t truly believe that God brought us to some horrible situations. We can’t believe that God really did something to us in order to teach us a lesson. We can’t truly believe that God does stuff to us to test our strength.
I told the Challenger’s Sunday School class a story about a woman I recently met at the post office. She is a young mother with cancer. And, she’s trying to make sense of it. She had cancer a few years ago and it’s back. She thinks her family is a mess; now, she has to deal with this. She’s trying to understand why God gave her cancer. She’s been taught by her church that everything happens for a reason, so she assumes that there is a lesson in this. She told me she believes that she was given the cancer to humble her…AND so that her husband and kids would learn to appreciate all she does for them when she is undergoing treatments and isn’t able to do all those things for them.
That scares me. Because, what parent would give their child cancer in order to teach her or her family something. That’s what we’re saying when we say God gave us something in order to teach us a lesson. That’s what we’re saying when we say everything happens for a reason. That’s what we’re saying when we say it’s all part of God’s plan.
I think it’s normal to ask God why anything happens to us. We can ask God why bad things happen to us. We can ask God why good things happen to us. The writer of Psalm 8 asks who am I that God, the creator of heaven and earth, is mindful of me, that made me a little lesser than angels? Who am I that God cares for me? We all want to know why things happen and we try to make sense of the randomness of life by saying everything happens for a reason then search diligently for answers. But, if we stop and really think about it, consider what we’d do if in God’s Divine shoes, would we do any of these things to our children to teach them any of the lessons we think God teaches us through death, cancer, illness, injury, loss or all the bad stuff?
There is a movie called The Last Holiday with Queen Latifah and LL Cool J. In the movie, Queen Latifah plays Georgia Byrd who is a straight laced young woman who eats very healthy, saves every penny she has, and goes to church every Sunday. If we were to think of someone who is good and “lives by the book”, we’d think of someone like Georgia. Then, she finds out she has a rare brain cancer. Her HMO won’t cover that surgery and she only has a few weeks to live.
The next Sunday at church, the diagnosis and prognosis weigh heavy on her heart. She’s singing in a choir in an African-American church which is very extemporaneous, meaning very attune with the leading of the Spirit in the moment. The choir is singing softly behind the preacher as he leads the congregation in prayer. And, the choir responds softly with amen or yes, Lord after each petition. Then, Georgia begins with a soft “Why?” She sings again, “Why, Lord?” She continues, “Why me, Lord? Why me?” Now, the rest of the choir and congregation join in a call and response singing, of crying out to God asking “Why?” This goes on for a few minutes of the whole congregation singing, “Why? Why me, Lord? Why, Lord?” The scene of the movie reminds us that we all want to know why. We all want to ask God why. We all cry out to God when we don’t understand why.
All of this started with a 17th century theologian John Calvin who preached and taught a theology of predestination. He was a pastor around the time that Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation splitting from the Catholic Church over theological differences. John Calvin’s theology of predestination was not a belief widely held by the Church for centuries past. It was a new belief that has somehow permeated the Protestant church, like Lutherans, Baptists, Disciples, Presbyterians, Spirit churches and all the non-Catholic churches.
Predestination can be defined in 2 ways. First is the predestination of salvation or limited atonement. Calvin believed that some, not all, were predestined for salvation, meaning that some of us were fated to be saved by the message of Jesus Christ and some were not; Jesus died for some but not all. To me, that means, God created some people knowing they would not be saved and so not inherit eternal life.
The second definition of predestination has to do with God’s providence. Calvin meant to say that everything is set in order, everything happens according to God’s will, and God knows everything that is going to happen before it happens because God causes it to happen. That would mean that God’s will supersedes our free will. Genesis teaches us that we have free will to do or not do what God wills. So, our world is under the complete providence of God and our free will is of no consequence; which begs the question, if you believe predestination, do we really have free will?
Setting aside all our favorite Christian phrases, what I believe is true about what God does is found in this text from Romans 8. Yes, there’s something about predestination, but I don’t really want to get into the nitty gritty of Paul’s one sentence, 22 words, when what he meant doesn’t support Calvin’s theology of predestination and Paul has so much to say about what God does for those who love God.
Here’s what I think is most important for us to take away from Paul’s words that are far more comforting that anything anyone could say to us to try to help us understand what God is doing in the midst of bad times. Paul says, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
All that bad stuff doesn’t have to happen for a reason. This world is unpredictable because we live here with 7.4 billion other sinners with the free will to do whatever we all please. And, because of that, we sometimes suffer the consequences of our sin, the consequences of others sinning against us, and other bad stuff that is just part of the randomness of a world that is not as God had intended. Just because bad stuff happens doesn’t mean we have to blame God or look for meaning or the lesson.
In all the bad stuff, there can come good. Paul says the Spirit helps us when we are weak and the Spirit prays for us when we don’t know what to pray. Paul also says, “in all things, God works for the good of those who love him.” Someone recently told me that God is not hard to figure out. He created us to glorify Him and in all things we should glorify Him. So, in all things, good and bad, God will give us the opportunity to glorify Him, to work out for our good and His glory. We may battle any number of things, not because God wills it, but, we fight because God gives us the strength to so that we can glorify Him. To God be the glory. Amen.