Does God Cause the Bad to Test Us?

11391360_10206940643177170_3239510362494633209_nEverything happens for a reason…God needed her more than you do…God is testing your faith…God has a plan. Have you heard these before?

***

After snacks, the lights on the plane dimmed and a hush descended. I was left with my emotions. Rather than excitement about going to see family, I felt angst.

Worry and grief gradually superseded the guilt of abandoning my students for a week. Mom was not well.

I was hopeful that I could provide some respite for my father, and especially my sister, who cared for Mom full-time. In a scenario which remains unclear to this day, my mother had a stroke while driving.

She crashed her white Corolla into another car, left the scene, and ran off the side of the highway before being rushed to the hospital. Now that she was home again following the hospitalization, I made my third trip since her initial episode.

It was a challenging year for our family. My mother was ill. My mother-in-law’s health was also failing.

Maggie was in seminary, traveling three-hours each way from our home in upstate New York to Boston for classes and serving a difficult congregation near us.

As for me, I overworked to make the financial pieces of our life fit together while trying to hold the kids as a priority.

As we traveled multiple times to the midwest to care for our mothers — sometimes just one of us, sometimes all of us — the children struggled with the fear of losing their grandmothers and the normal challenges of adolescence and with stressed out parents.

And then it got worse.

***

“Noooooo,” was followed by Isaac’s wild sobs and squeals of pain that will forever pierce me. My cell phone to his ear, Maggie had just told him of her mother’s death.

Everything happens for a reason…God needed her more than you do…God is testing your faith…God has a plan. Have you heard these before?

***

“I can’t go through this again,” our daughter Jessie cried. Sitting on the bed in the Motel 6 debriefing my mother-in-law’s funeral, the topic turned to my mother.

Jessie knew Grandma Graves’ health was precarious at best. She knew that she might lose another grandmother soon.

Everything happens for a reason…God needed her more than you do…God is testing your faith…God has a plan. Have you heard these before?

***

Back home, the phone rang. While we were away at the funeral, Todd killed himself. The young gay man – my daughter’s friend – could no longer bear it. Death was preferable to life. And so, in less than a week was another funeral.

Everything happens for a reason…God needed him more than you do…God is testing your faith…God has a plan. Have you heard these before?

***

The whole family scrambled to find Isaac’s cat. Nope, not upstairs. Nope, not in Dexter’s doghouse where she liked to hang out.

[pause]

It didn’t take very long. We found Trio far too easily; her lifeless body lay in the rural road in front of our house.

Everything happens for a reason…God needed her more than you do…God is testing your faith…God has a plan. Have you heard these before?

***

“Don’t I recognize you?” the smiling rental car clerk said, “Welcome back to St. Louis!” His smile faded when he learned we were back for the third funeral (fourth if you count the cat) in eleven days. My mom had died.

Everything happens for a reason…God needed her more than you do…God is testing your faith…God has a plan. Have you heard these before?

***

What did I do wrong? What did my children and Maggie do wrong?

Our human urge for a pattern to the randomness of life is strong. We want an explanation. Brain researchers even suggest that we have an innate, biological predisposition to find patterns sometimes where none exists.

From a survival of the species vantage point, seeing patterns helps us to avoid making life-threatening mistakes. But sometimes patterns are simply of our own making. Life can be random and inexplicable.

When science fails us in life’s deepest questions, if we believe in a Divine presence, we turn to God for that explanation.

Everything happens for a reason…God needed her more than you do…God is testing your faith…God has a plan. Have you heard these before?

***

If we perceive God as all-powerful, capricious, and unreliable, we may believe that God punishes us for small or large misdeeds. It is easy to fall into this trap.

Some of the early writers of the Elder Testament (the Old Testament) experienced their god in this way. If I believed this, I would be wracking my brain trying to figure out what I did wrong that caused God to kill my mother-in-law, my mother, an 18-year-old boy, and my son’s cat.

That is one harsh image of God!

That is one harsh image of God! Still, it is not a hard perception to find.

Many ancients explained their misfortunes this way. The theology of many of the writers in the Elder Testament reflects a reward and punishment mindset. Even in the twenty-first century there are those who picture a capricious and angry god in natural events.

The prosperity gospel, in which those who please God become wealthy, is the flip side of this theology. I even had a conversation with someone here in town following my surgery. She believed that God was rewarding me with recovery because I’m a pastor.

The troublesome theology of some of our ancient kindred, those without even basic understanding of science, those who didn’t even realize we live on a round planet, is still with us today.

Everything happens for a reason…God needed her more than you do…God is testing your faith…God has a plan. Have you heard these before?

But this is just one theology found in the Elder Testament (the Old Testament). The Book of Job, for example, raises many questions about the nature of God. In the narrative, Job is a good man, righteous in God’s sight. Yet, tragic things happen to him.

His friends admit that he’s done good things  and seemed righteous but they cannot let go of their flawed understanding of God.

Think! [he’s told by his friends,] What innocent person has ever perished?

    When have those who do the right thing been destroyed? As I’ve observed, those who plow sin and sow trouble will harvest it. When God breathes deeply, they perish; by a breath of his nostril they are annihilated. Job 4:7-9 CEB

In other words,

Everything happens for a reason…God needed her more than you do…God is testing your faith…God has a plan. Have you heard these before?

Was God testing me?

How could God allow the trauma of four deaths in eleven days? To explain the challenges of life, many see God as a testing deity. The problem with this explanation is that it characterizes God as a bully and a taskmaster. We are just pawns of a harsh teacher.

United Methodist Pastor Cori Crypet says it this way:

At best, it makes God the author of suffering and the perpetrator of evil. At worst, it makes God out to be a sadist, enjoying the pain and suffering of others, taking pleasure in causing pain. http://coopersvilleumc.org/1/post/2014/02/biblical-mythbusters-myth-1-everything-happens-for-a-reason.html

If we accept this explanation, God tested my then teenage daughter’s worthiness by pushing her friend to kill himself. In this view, my son whose maternal grandmother just died, needed to pass another examination. So, God killed his cat!

Many Christians — many of us in this room — find the metaphor of Father helpful in thinking about God. But a good father doesn’t “test” his children by making their lives a living hell! An actively testing god is intertwined with the idea of an all-powerful deity who chooses not to help God’s people.

This image of divinity is far from loving. This image is contrary to the biblical witness!

In the elder testament, the narrative tells us that despite their repeated evil actions, God honors covenant with the Israelites. In the Book of Judges, God is rightfully angry with God’s people.

The loving God sets hostility aside, honors covenant, and offers undeserved grace because God “could no longer bear to see Israel suffer” (Judges 10: 16b NRSV).

A testing god is an abusive father who contradicts the message of Easter. The Easter narrative emphasizes the same undeserved grace reflected in the the book of Judges and other places in our holy text.

Though we don’t deserve it, the Divine offers all of humanity grace.

In our scripture reading today, the Apostle Paul says,

We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.  Romans 8:28 CEB

Those who begin from the standpoint that everything happens for a reason — not in the Bible by the way — misinterpret this passage and twist it to mean that God is all powerful and God has a plan, and that our free will means little if anything.

But what if, like you and I, God doesn’t know the future. God doesn’t know what we will use our free will to do and to say.

Consider, God knows all the possibilities, all the choices we might make, but until we make that choice…Until we use our God-given free will, God doesn’t know what we will do.

If we are created in the image of God, we have to have free will.

As Robert Mesle says,

God knows everything there is to know. But the future does not exist yet, except as a range of possibilities that have not yet been chosen. (Robert Mesle in Process Theology: An Introduction)

Does this mean that God is an inactive God? Absolutely not!

Allowing us our free will, having created it within us, God seeks to encourage us, to lure us, to point for us to the most loving response in every millisecond of our lives.

God wants us to be more loving. God wants us to care for our neighbor as ourselves. God desires the best for us, the good for us.

Our job is to respond to the divine beckoning and make that choice in every millisecond of our lives.

Writes UCC scholar and pastor Bruce Epperly,

God does not unilaterally cause all things, even good fortune, for persons of faith. In each moment, God has a dream for us and presents us with the energy to achieve it. But, God always acts relationally, receiving as well as giving, responding as well as calling.

Our love of God and others, prayerfully expressed, opens the door for God to bring forth new possibilities of healing and for us to claim our role as God’s partners in healing the earth.

Bruce Epperly in Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed

***

Though life is challenging and even traumatic at times, the extravagant love of the One, works through all that happens. The Divine lures us to reflect the Imago Dei (image of God) by responding lovingly in each moment. When we love, we are God in the world.

Less than satisfying to our culturally-ingrained sensibilities, bad things happen to good people. Three human and one feline death in eleven days was a lot for my family to handle a decade and a half ago. I still sometimes weep over my loss.

As the Apostle Paul reminds us, We know that God works all things together for good…Romans 8:28a CEB

God uses all that is — the good and the bad — to bring about God’s loving realm. God doesn’t cause the bad but lures us to dream beyond ourselves, to be the most loving version of ourselves possible.

***

A few weeks back, I found myself spontaneously sobbing. It was my mother’s birthday. I was sad and missed her, yes, but I also felt joy in that moment. I felt God’s presence.

In that moment, I again felt the abundant love of God when friends showed up unexpectedly at my mother’s memorial service. I sat on that curb grieving with my brother again; the loving One perched between us. And I recognized my mother within me: the good and the annoying.

God was present then and now. God is here with us. Does God cause the bad to test us? No.

Instead God beckons us to dream beyond ourselves, to be the most loving version of ourselves possible in every millisecond.

Amen.

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Tim strives to share God’s extravagant love for all–no matter what & without strings. Seeking to follow the lure of the Spirit, Tim writes about what it means to be a follower of Jesus in an era where Christianity has come to be associated with hatred and political wedge issues. “Heinous things have been said & done (& still are) in the name of the One who breathed in the Divine,” notes Tim, “but Jesus shows us that God loves extravagantly.” Following the teachings and life of Jesus is about inclusion not exclusion. It is about compassion, grace, and admitting no one has all the answers. It is about responding lovingly to the best of our human ability. It is about people not institutions. It is about social justice. It is about caring for creation. It is about being who we were each created to be. Tim is a former early childhood educator, a runner, a hiker, a devoted husband, father of two adult children and their spouses, and a grandfather of two perfect babies. The former pastor of the Condon United Church of Christ, Tim recently began serving the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Albany, Oregon. He writes from home, from the coffee shop, and wherever the trail leads him.

Posted in New Testament, Romans, Romans 8, Romans 8:18-39, Sermon

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Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/

All materials by Tim Graves unless otherwise noted. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/

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