I’ve just finished Episode 11 of series 3 of the Handmaid’s Tale, and we are still no closer to the ‘good guys’ winning. Surely they have to come out on top in the end? June is going to get the kids out of Gilead… isn’t she?
It’s how we believe life should work. The good guys win, order is restored and we all live happily ever after.
But – even outside of ‘Gilead’, bad things happen to good people – often – and there is no happy ending. In fact some good people suffer terribly and more frequently than bad folks. That’s not fair at all we reason (and its not.)
And of course ‘bad’ people often get away with evil and often seem to live life untouched.
It’s the question we are always wanting an answer to, as we seek to make meaning of the good and bad that goes on around us apparently randomly.
Surely the good should be rewarded and the bad punished?… We intuitively sense the injustice of this world and when we understand God to be in the mix somewhere, we inevitably want (need?) a way to make sense of it – maybe it’s a way to make sense of God.
Of course then we have to ask, are our lives ‘pre-scripted’ by God and is he intentionally ‘allowing’ (causing?) the bad to happen for some greater purpose? Seems like it happened with Joseph way back in the book of Genesis. When his brothers are gathered before him he reveals who he is then says:
Gen 50:20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.
Hmmph… So God scripted Joseph’s abandonment, mistreatment and jailing all for this purpose? Does God do that? I’m not convinced. The ‘pre-scripted’ life just doesn’t make any real sense if we have a genuine capacity to exert free will.
We definitely have a tendency to look on circumstances and read meaning into them. ‘Clearly God allowed X to happen so that Y could learn to trust/develop perseverance etc etc… ‘ But I doubt we ever know what God is up to and if he is actually at work then I would suggest the best time to reflect on what went down is long after the event – when we have perspective.
I had the rather awful misfortune of a broken engagement when I was 22 years old. I was head over heels in love and as devastated as I have ever been. I tried to read all sorts of meaning into the situation when it happened, but reality was I had no clue what was going on. I was heart broken and coming apart at the seams, so I was hardly in a place to be making ‘God is clearly doing X’ kind of statements.
Thirty years on my reflections are completely different. If God was at work – and I am really not sure he was – then the woman I was engaged to just made a very good decision not to give her life to an arrogant, selfish and controlling man. She saved herself a life of pain by calling it off. I see that now.
Maybe God was teaching me faith – to hang on when things get tough… maybe he was testing my devotion to him… but it seems kind of a harsh test. Maybe he was just pushing me to grow up and stop being a jerk. Or maybe I was actually living with the product of dumb choices.
In the end it felt like my choice was to lean on God or blame God. ( And I just made that sound a lot more binary than it actually is.) I chose to come closer and believe that he would give me strength to get thru.
And he did – but I didn’t always stay close and I also made a lot of bad choices that hurt other people in the 3 years that followed – it took me that long to get my life back on track.
I look back on all of that now and I actually don’t think God was manipulating circumstances to cause me to trust him more or to learn a lesson. I feel like I was a young man growing up with some glaring faults and I needed to sort myself out. Along the way I chose to keep a relationship with God – sometimes a healthy one – sometimes a conflicted one.
I was writing this in the bedroom and came upstairs to continue it. As I sat down, out of the blue Sam declared that he thought it nonsense that ‘everything happens for a reason’. His statement has a context as we are currently thinking of a nephew who is just 2 weeks old and on life support. Do we know what’s going on there? Of course not. Why would one so completely innocent suffer?
As Sam was articulating his point of view, I said ‘hey I’m writing on this right now!’ and then Ellie jumped in with ‘wanna know what I wrote this week?’ I did… You’re wondering too right?
So Ellie wrote:
I don’t believe everything happens for a reason but I do believe we have the choice to make the most of everything and situation we encounter. It’s up to us to make everything count and find purpose for it. That is how we might reach a feeling of fulfilment in the more confusing situations
Smart kids hey? I think so.
Actually I do think everything happens for ‘a’ reason, but not the reason Ellie was alluding to. Sometimes the reason is that ‘we are dumb and make bad decisions’. Sometimes the reason is that other people made bad decisions… Is my aching back a sign from God to give up my retic business – or is it just an inevitable result of 10 years back-breaking work? Ummm… one of those answers is obvious.
It’s too convenient and too easy to say ‘everything happens for a reason’ – be it God – karma or whatever you like to believe in. And that’s not to say I disbelieve in divine intervention in this world. Right now that’s what we are praying for with our nephew – for a gracious God to miraculously overturn the inevitable and bring healing where it looks unlikely – for his kingdom to come on earth as in heaven. I guess you could call it a miracle.
So what about Joseph’s statement?
Could it be that what we hear is Joseph reading meaning back into his circumstances rather than declaring what had actually happened? Is his speech to his brothers one we should form theology around? I’m hesitant to do that. I have done that in the past – explained to people that the bad they were experiencing could be like that of Joseph. God was actually going to use it for good. As I read those words today I tend to think Joseph was reflecting at the end of the process and at the end of staying the course with God.
Not everyone chooses to trust God in difficult times and even when they do trust it doesn’t end up roses. Some people trust God and get killed. I haven’t seen the movie made about missionary Graham Stains and his family, who were burnt alive in their car by an Indian gang, but that does seem like a case in point.
Its’ when something good comes out of evil that we get tempted to form a theology around it. Jim Elliot and his mates got killed by the Huaorani tribe way back in the 1950’s and (I have heard anecdotally) that there are now thriving churches where they were martyred. Does this mean their deaths had greater purpose? Or did they knowingly risk their lives for a faith they believed in – knowing that the consequences could be fatal – that their God who was leading them might not protect them.
I have always liked the approach of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego when they were on trial for failing to worship Nebuchadnezzar:
Daniel 3: 16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
For many years now the bedrock of my own theology has been the premise that God is good. From there I begin to form other conclusions, but if where I land negates the belief that God is good then I will go back and start again.
I absolutely believe that God intervenes from time to time in the world – the stuff we might call miracles. I also believe he allows life to happen – choices to have consequences and he allows babies to suffer when he could intervene.
If you want me to create a narrative around that of why God allowed it then I think we are on very sketchy ground.
Yep – everything happens for a reason – but chances are it isn’t the reason you think.