Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Letting God be God in Light of Sandy Hook

                Originally I was going to stay silent on the blogosphere concerning the tragedy in Connecticut.  The last thing I thought we needed was a bunch of pastors and wannabe theologians (like myself) theoretically waxing on why God would allow such a tragedy to happen.  As the days progressed though explanations began to surface that to me seemed contradictory, unbiblical, and even cruel.
First, there was the “free will” argument that goes something like this:
God will not force us to love and follow him.  We are not his puppets therefore he allows things like Sandy Hook to happen.  Although this is the case it breaks God heart or as Rob Bell says, “God Cries.”
The problem with this argument is ultimately the buck still stops with God.  In refusing to intervene during tragedies like Sandy Hook he’s still making a choice.  If it were in my power to stop someone from killing my loved one, what would you think of me if I chose to let the homicide happen?  The same could be said about catastrophes like Sandy Hook.  According to the “free will” argument it was in God’s power to stop it and he made the choice not to.  So God is still carries some degree of blame.  More than this it ignores rough Scripture passages like Isaiah 45:7 which says, “ 7 I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.”
                The other explanations that floated around the web throws the responsibility back on us.  Here’s a classic variation of this argument:
            Dear God,
Why do you allow so much violence in our schools?
A Concerned Student
Dear Concerned Student,
I’m not allowed in schools.
As if God is some angry bullied middle school kid going “I’ll show you.  You’ll miss me when I’m gone…”  Although pundits like MikeHucakbee offer a somewhat more “refined” version of this argument with some grains of truth, they still paint an inaccurate picture of God.  In her insightful post, blogger Rachel Evans writes:
God can be wherever God wants to be. God needs no formal invitation. We couldn’t “systematically remove” God if we tried.  If the incarnation teaches us anything, it’s that God can be found everywhere: in a cattle trough, on a throne, among the poor, with the sick, on a donkey, in a fishing boat, with the junkie, with the prostitute, with the hypocrite, with the forgotten, in places of power, in places of oppression, in poverty, in wealth, where God’s name is known, where it is unknown, with our friends, with our enemies, in our convictions, in our doubts, in life, in death, at the table, on the cross, and in every kindergarten classroom from Sandy Hook to Shanghai.
I couldn’t agree more.  In the words of the Psalmist, “Psalm 139:7-8  7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?  8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”   
   The worst thing though about the “we’ve systematically removed God” explanation is its cruelty.  Imagine if you were a parent of one of the slain, grieving over the corpse of your child.  Here’s what this argument says, “Your child died because God wasn’t given a formal invitation to his kindergarten classroom.”  What would you think of such a God in that moment?
             Ultimately, all these explanations boil down to one thing: we feel the need to make excuses for God.  Instead of letting God be God, we feel the need to be his publicists and make him in our own image.  Like Job’s friends in the Bible, we think we can peer behind the curtain and ascertain God’s divine plan forgetting that, “Isaiah 55:9  As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts…” and “Romans 11:33-34  How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!  34 "For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”   The reasons we do this are many, but the outcome is the same: we make excuses for God when he never asked us to.
            This being the case, how do we let God be God in the face of tragedies such as Sandy Hook?  We start by both acknowledging the terrifying, mysterious, and oddly comforting sovereignty of God while at the same time focusing on those places where God has made himself clearly known.  Let me explain.  One does not have to read Scripture long to be confronted with God’s sovereignty.  The word sovereignty points to the reality that his dominion is total: “he wills as he chooses and carries out all that he wills, and none can stay his hand or thwart his plans.[i]” One does not have to search Scripture real long to see this reality affirmed again and again.  Here’s a sampling:
            Proverbs 16:9   9 In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.
Proverbs 19:21   21 Many are the plans in a man's heart, but it is the LORD's purpose that prevails.
Proverbs 21:30   30 There is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the LORD.
Lamentations 3:37   37 Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it?
Ecclesiastes 7:14  14 When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other.
Isaiah 45:7  7 I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.
Lamentations 3:38  38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?[ii]
In these Scriptures we are confronted with the terrifying and oddly comforting fact that nothing occurs outside God’s decree.  It’s terrifying because when we’re faced with tragedies like Sandy Hook we’re left with the question, “If nothing occurs outside of God’s sovereignty, then is he really good?”  It’s comforting because at least we know that Sandy Hook didn’t take him by surprise.
                Martin Luther referred to this aspect of God’s sovereignty as the hiddenness of God.  In his classic, “The Bondage of the Will,” he writes:
We must discuss God, or the will of God, preached, revealed, offered to us, and worshiped by us, in one way, and God not preached, nor revealed, nor offered to us, nor worshiped by us, in another way.  Wherever God hides himself, and wills to be unknown to us, there we have no concern.[iii]   
What Luther means is that when we talk about God in his sovereignty we must be careful how we speak.  We acknowledge his sovereign dominion over everything, while at the same time recognizing our limitations in understanding of how and why calamities like Sandy Hook occur.  In the simplest sense, it means we stop being God’s publicists.  We stop making excuses for God which remake him in our own image.  We stop trying to make up reasons as to why it occurred.  Instead we let God be God and allow him to speak where he has spoken.  When it comes to tragedies like Sandy Hook and the countless troubles in our own lives we are often not given a reason.  It is at these points that we must be very careful not to try and peer behind the curtain to ascertain the mind of God, because unless he chooses to reveal himself, our explanations will be wrong. 
                It is here that we point to where God has made himself known: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Tullian Tchividjian writes:
The most vile, treasonous, darkest moment in the history of the world—the very event that appeared to be the most brutal defeat and failure—turned out to be the most gloriously life-giving event in all eternity.  The salvation of the world taking place under the auspices of the most grotesque and tragic crime in human history.[iv]
Simply put, if God’s plan for salvation culminated in the death of Christ on the cross, then he is surely present and working out his salvation even in the midst of something as heinous as Sandy Hook.  Gerhard Forde writes:
Since the cross story alone is their story, they are not driven by the attempt to see through it, but are drawn into the story…   So theologians of the cross look on all things ‘through suffering and the cross.’  They, in other words, are led by the cross to look at the trails, the sufferings, the pangs of conscience, the troubles—and joys—of daily life as God’s doing and do not try to see through them as mere accidental problems to be solved by metaphysical adjustment.[v]
In the terms of our current crisis this simply means that we stop trying to look behind Sandy Hook to discover the reasons why, but rather understand and believe that even in something as unthinkable as this tragedy God is still present working his promises to completion.  Because of this, when someone asks, “How could God still be good and allow Sandy Hook to happen?” or “Why did this happen?” you can say, “I don’t know.  Ultimately God has chosen not to reveal that to us, but let me tell you what I do know.  God showed his love for us in that while we were his enemies Christ died for us.  Therefore, we can cling to that goodness even in the midst of this tragedy.  I know it hurts, but trust me, God is moving.  He showed that on the cross.”
                This approach to calamities like Sandy Hook is best expressed by a poem/hymn written by the ever depressed William Cowper.  In it he holds God’s sovereignty and goodness together in beautiful tension.  I can think of no better example to finish this post off with.  He writes:

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.

[i] Packer, J.I. “Concise Theology” pg 33
[ii] Scriptures compliments of Jerry Bridges “Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts” pgs 36 & 51
[iii] Luther, Martin. “The Bondage of the Will” pg 170
[iv] Tchividjian, Tullian “Glorious Ruin: how suffering sets you free” pgs 150-151
[v] Forde, Gehard “On Being a Theologian of the Cross” pg 13

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