One of the toughest portions of life to digest that we encounter in this existence is what to make of it when tragic things happen to us or to those we know and perhaps love. It might be a horrible diagnosis of a terminal condition or disease. It might be word of an accident, a physical or emotional trauma. It could be the news of a crime, that person we know could be a victim...or a perpetrator. The horror might be intensely local, or stunningly global. In all these things, the bad things that happen to people, we try to find a reason, a justification for WHY this thing happened.
If you compound that struggle with a dose of faith, then the intensity of the agitation increases. We are not only dealing with what happened, we are also struggling to figure out how God is present in this current aggrieved state of being. What is God's role? What is God's part in the WHY.
Many people choose this path, and it is a precipitous one at that: When bad things happen, then it is "all part of God's plan." We need a justification for why there is suffering, pain, loss and grief. Moreover, we need a God who is in charge. When things slip beyond reason, then God is expected to take over as reason fails...and to have some sort of unrevealed (at least at this point) plan in place. At some point, we tell ourselves, this craziness will all make sense.
Perhaps it is all a matter of perspective?
I don't think so. I think this current trend in supposing that God has a plan is a present-day manifestation of an old, old dilemma we face as people who are seeking to exercise the Christian faith. That dilemma wears a particular face, and we call it "predestination."
I grew up amongst people, those of a hyper-Protestant theology, who articulated this as being a doctrine offered up by St. Paul (you can hear it in this Sunday's reading) in which he states that SOME are predestined for conformation into Christ, and those are called. If they are called, then they are justified; and if justified, they are then glorified. In other words, there are those who are saved because God set out to save them from before the outset of creation. St. Augustine propagated that position. John Calvin (egged on by Martin Luther) moved the bar up even further and posited a theology of double predestination: some are destined to be saved, while others are destined for perdition.
There were others....click HERE for more information. The idea is complex, but truly worth some of your time, particularly if you struggle with the question of the "divine plan" versus "free will paradox."
Where it leaves us is mired in a deep and profound conflict. How do we make sense of our current experiences and situations, particularly when they seem too great, to awful to justify and/or let God off the hook? This is the place where the really hard work of a life in faith takes us from time to time. REAL suffering and REAL challenges go beyond simple reasoning. They require a lot of hard work on our part. They require a great deal of forbearance and patience as well.
Check out this Sunday's readings here:
- The reading from I Kings shows us Solomon placing his life in God's hands, and the blessing/curse of being named king of Israel after his father, David's death. His is the ultimate leader's prayer...or rather the ultimate prayer of a person who is mature in faith and person. "What I have is because of your love, God, for my father (for those who have gone before me). The people I am called to lead are not my people, but Yours. What I need? I need wisdom, and a discerning mind, to be able to lead them AS YOU WOULD HAVE THEM LED." Solomon is giving us an example of how to deal with the present moment by avowing that it is not about us, but about others...and that we are not the masters of our choices but are being given free will to choose to embrace God's will and intent that the world be healed and made whole.
- Paul's letter to the Romans points out that while there is a predestined (meaning, from before time) intention on God's part to bring about the glorification of the Church (and Paul enumerates a process for getting there), we are also to remember that there is another, deeper assertion that unseats our anxieties arising from not knowing WHY. It is this: that there is NOTHING that can separate us from the love of God. No external force can break God's love for us. There is nothing we can do to engender God's ultimate rejection. We ARE challenged to embrace God's love, but that is not conditional to God's radical and universal extension of grace to all.
- Finally, Jesus reminds us in a cascade of parables that the kingdom of God is manifested not in simple human terms, for if it were it would border on the paradoxical. The kingdom is like a mustard seed, from which grows a plant that is so abundant that nearly all creation can be found active, in and around it. The kingdom is like a pinch of leavening that, when worked by loving hands can leaven a mountain of flour into yeasty dough. The kingdom of heaven is like a perfect pearl, for which a person who whole life has been made trading pearls finds it worth selling out in order to buy it, and to buy out of the game. The kingdom is an abundance of being, and discovery, that results in us being overwhelmed with the reality of it all. We find it in grief as well as in joy. We find it in death as well as in life.
But here is the kicker....it's not a plan. We are not marionettes, dancing and cavorting on the end of strings that the Almighty then pulls and releases to make us dance. We are not puppets, nor are we playthings. We are living beings, with free will, made into the image of a loving God. We are free agents....and we can choose. God uses ALL of that to effect the kingdom coming into the world. So, it turns out, all that freedom only comes with one, true price....that the one thing we are NOT entitled to by the grace of God's love is passivity.
Look, seek and discern. God is doing something in you and around you in the world. It might be a profound and deep challenge. It might be a summons to rest and peace. It might feel like an impossible undertaking....but in all things God is with us. NOTHING an separate us from that abundance of love and care.
God doesn't have a plan....but all things are used by God to effect God's purpose: the healing of the world and the restoration of us all to union and communion with our Creator.