Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Springs for the Wagon

Why does God permit it?  The question is stark, simple, honest, and usually anguished.  We see things that trouble us deeply: the death of a loved one, the pain of a sick or injured child, the apparently random nature of accidents or natural disaster, the toll of war and other conflict.

The question is a big one; it is complex and has given rise to whole libraries of books.  At that level it is way beyond the scope of a simple blog posting.  Yet it is not utterly unanswerable, even on so modest a scale. 

Christians believe God has created a world that, as far as we can see, runs largely on its own.  Humans are equipped with intelligence and the ability to choose between right and wrong, wise and unwise, smart and stupid.  Our choices affect us directly, and they also affect others. 

Because our choices include the manipulation of the world, our decisions do not merely affect ourselves.  The pride of a dictator can plunge nations into war.  Corporate shareholders’ desire for profits can lead to decisions that spread cancer, or cause unemployment.  A person’s decision to maintain unhealthy habits can deprive a family of a member.  A few drinks too many before driving can kill innocent people.

We can imagine a world in which bad things did not happen, or if they did, only bad people would be affected.  At first glance, such a world sounds appealing, but I’m not sure we’d like it as much as we think we would.

For one thing, it would be a highly unpredictable world.  Events would be changing all the time, as God intervened to prevent this consequence, or head off that problem.  Cars would come to unexplained momentary halts, while others speeded up.  Business decisions with unforeseen long-range effects would be mysteriously set aside.  Family plans would be forever up in the air.  At a purely practical day-to-day level, you couldn’t count on anything, because God would be forever tinkering with everything.

There would be other, less obvious consequences.  We would never learn the laws of cause-and-effect, because the effects of our actions would always be subject to God’s changes.  Without learning cause-and-effect, we would never learn wise judgment.  With our decisions always backstopped by God, we would never learn responsibility.  Morality and character would be meaningless concepts, because we would have no choice but to do the right thing, and the world would never hand us the kinds of serious problems that build wisdom and character.  We would, in short, remain like very young children all our days.  Even our capacity to love would be more a reflex to conditioning than the gift of a full and grateful heart.

And yet, there come times when we feel buffeted by life, and though we understand that God’s wisdom is to let the world run itself, we ask, “What difference does God make?”  And this is a productive question.

Looking for God to prevent our troubles, we are frustrated when they come, and miss the promises God actually makes.

The fact of trouble in this life is presented honestly by Jesus.  “I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace.  In the world you have tribulation.”  (John 16:33)  That’s about as blunt as you can get, and it’s not an isolated proof-text.  The warning that the world is a tough place runs through all four gospels.

Also running through the gospels is the offer of what God, through Jesus, can and will do about it.  Immediately after the line quoted above, Jesus continues, “But be of good cheer, I have overcome the world."

Jesus offers companionship in the midst of the world’s troubles, something he is uniquely able to offer, because in giving himself for all the world’s sin and brokenness, he has experienced the worst the world can inflict and risen in triumph.  He is, therefore, able to guide us, and that is precisely what he offers.  As the old Quakers put it, not a smooth road, but springs for the wagon.

The promises are as direct as the warnings: “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.” (John 14:18)  “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

How important is this?  When I was 20 my mother was sick with a fatal cancer.  A mentor and friend made himself available to me on an as-needed basis.  If I needed to sound off about the unfairness of the situation, he was there; if I needed to wonder about what it all meant, he was there; if I needed someone to just sit and have a cup of coffee, he was there.  He also helped me remember how to pray, and whom to pray to.

My friend’s companionship helped me through an experience that could have left me bitter, emotionally wrecked and without the little faith I had at the time.  He could do nothing to change the course or outcome of my mother’s disease, but his presence became for me a sign of God’s presence, a literal reminder that as solid as his friendship was, it was a mere shadow of God’s friendship.  Springs for the wagon on that impossibly rutted road.

This is our calling as God’s people.  Why does God permit the troubles that have been so common in our midst this year?  It’s the wrong question. 

What does God offer when the circumstances of the world bring us to times of trial?  The love of the Risen Christ, offered through those who are our companions in faith and, as we grow able to receive it, in the direct relationship with Jesus that gives strength where there is none, faith where it is dimmed, hope and love where they are struggling.  This is the calling we have from God, and this needs to be our clear mission as God’s people.

Howard MacMullen
© April, 2013

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