THE CHALLENGE: A friend of mine recently wrote me,
"I'd like to challenge you to take on my biggest peeve about... Well I
guess every religion. I view it as a cop out when people say phrases
such as "It is God's plan", or "God works in mysterious ways." I find
this annoying for two reasons. One is that it doesn't explain anything,
and, in my opinion, that is why we have religion. Two is that whole
pesky freewill thing that we atheists like to point out. (Mind you, I'm
not a rabble-rouser. Just want to hear your response). If God has a
plan, why bother giving us the option to choose? What's going to
happen is going to happen regardless."
So, the task is set before me to attempt to detail in short-enough space that readers will stay with me, yet long enough to provide a thoughtful answer.
THE SCENARIOS: Many well-intending Christians like to throw a few statements around at some very difficult times. "Lightning just struck my house and it burned to the ground," might be the scenario. And a Christian is likely to respond, "Well, you know, God works in mysterious ways. Everything happens for a reason." Or maybe next to your dying parent's hospital bed you hear, "This is God's plan for her that..."
What on earth is that all about, anyway?! What is well-intended to be comforting words only comes across as naive, simplistic, and hurtful. "Do you mean it's God's plan for my mother to die a slow, painful death from breast cancer? Get out of this room, jerk!" And if he's nice, at least then he may ONLY call you a jerk.
THE BACKGROUND: Here are two bits of insight I think may provide some explanation why many believers use these trite-sounding phrases. The second (and longer) point stems from a personal experience I had with this issue.
1) First, we Christians believe that God is the creator of all that we see, and that He is in complete control. After all, it's His universe and He likely knows what He's doing. This thought process speaks to our understanding (albeit limited) of God's omniscience (His knowledge of everything) and omnipotence (His power). These two beliefs are underscored by his omnibenevolence (His perfect love). In other words, we believe that God performs certain events -- or allows them -- as an outflow of His perfect love. He's not doing/permitting (insert atrocity here) because He is spiteful, angry, mean, cruel, etc. Instead, He does/permits happenings out of His love -- and even sometimes corrective love -- for His creation. The long-short of the point is this: if God is all three of those "omni's", and if we are obviously not any of those "omni's", then maybe we might actually be willing and able to chalk this particular trial or atrocity up to our notion that God knows what He's doing better than we do.
2) Second, the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to Christians in Rome (Romans 8:28) that, "God works all things together for the good of those who love him." It is my humble opinion that this is one of THE most oft-quoted verses by Christians that is potentially more damaging to people who are hurting than it is helpful. One caveat in this particular passage that cannot be ignored is that Christians believe even bad things that happen today will be for my good BECAUSE I love God. Believing it and living it are two different things...but I digress.
Sadly, however, those who do not consider Christ as Lord do not share this same hope. I wish it said, "God works ALL things together for good for everybody." Period. But it doesn't. While God works ALL things together for His ultimate glory, he works all things together for the good of those who love Him. Those who love Him also trust Him; and those who trust Him, also believe He has our frail lives in His hands. On the other hand, those who do not love Him also do not trust Him; and those who do not trust Him are without hope that the atrocity ends hopefully.
One of the problems inherent in the "God works all things..." passage is not so much with the passage itself, but with the Christians who flippantly fling it out there at your dying mother's bedside, or when (fill in atrocity) occurs. Hearing this passage quoted doesn't have the same effect on me when I'm hurting as does a loving arm wrapped around my shoulder and a simple, "I'm so sorry."
I experienced this very situation when my wife and I discovered my son was diagnosed with permanent blindness in one of his eyes (you can read more here, here, and here, if you wish) due to a congenital defect. I was never so scared in all my adult life. Learning of my son's blindness was the worst news my ears have ever beheld. A small handful of well-meaning Christians quoted this verse at differing times during my "dark night of the soul" struggle of faith, and I can honestly say it bothered me more than it comforted.
While in the midst of suffering and grieving, our minds tend not to think rationally; we tend to forget those things we firmly believe, as our minds are clouded by emotions. So when I heard that phrase -- even as a Christian -- I thought to myself, "Great, then let ME take control of this. I apparently know better than God what my son needs." I cried many nights; I punched my pillows; I pounded on my steering wheel through tear-filled eyes. "WHY GOD?!! WHY WON'T YOU ANSWER?!!"
That was a year ago now. Of all the words people said to me during the past year, the most helpful came from a beloved friend and saint who I'll call Doug. "Mike, I'm so sorry", he said. And he simply cried by my side. It was quite powerful. In all, it was his love and care for me in the midst of my hurt that reminded me of God's faithfulness, as described in the Bible, "I am here with you always. I will never leave you nor forsake you." Because of my friend Doug, I was reminded -- when my emotions clouded my reasoning -- that God cares. Where was God during that grieving process? Right there, crying with me during warm-ups at a softball game.
WHY BOTHER CHOOSING: So, if all of this pain and suffering is going to take place anyway, then why bother choosing? No matter what I choose, I'm doomed for suffering on earth, aren't I? What free will do I have to love or to hate?
I still -- even as a believer -- find it difficult to pray, asking God to fix or change something, when in the back of my mind I know God is going to do what God is going to do anyway. While my prayers (as in the case of my son's eye) for healing and intervention from God are sincere, I know that it is often the case that prayer changes ME, and not necessarily God. It changes MY perspective and outlook on those rather bleak circumstances. So getting back to the "choosing" issue, I think THIS is precisely what moves God's heart -- He loves to see us choose to trust Him, in spite of not knowing what lies ahead.
WHY WE HOPE: I am unashamed that I take great hope in the words of my loving Creator. At the end of the day, when my mind can think clearly about a particular atrocity, I know God indeed works in ways that I will likely never understand. And I know that God indeed is working things through some crazy webbing to do me good. How do I know? He has proven Himself faithful to His people since the beginning of time, and He has proven Himself faithful to me and many of my friends and family. As I reflect on how His hand has been upon my past, I trust that my present days are also still in His hands -- in spite of the tragedies I face.
CONCLUSION: So there you have it: a rather brief summary (longer volumes have been written more eloquently on the subject) on why Christians might say or hold dearly some of the seemingly odd things we do. I hope that I and my brothers and sisters in Christ will extend grace, mercy, and loving-kindness to you when you are grieving, rather than provide you with flippant Bible-speak. In exchange, I hope you, too, are able to extend to us even a small bit of grace -- because NONE of us has it all figured out, and we will continue to make mistakes. Prayerfully, God will continue to change us to have a heart very much like His.