God’s Plan Or Personal Responsibility?

No doubt overshadowed by the shooting in Colorado was something that caused a bit of a stir earlier in the week.  George Zimmerman, who now infamously shot and killed Trayvon Martin, gave an interview to Sean Hannity.  When asked how things would be now if he had responded differently, Zimmerman answered this way:

I feel it was all God’s plan and for me to second guess it or judge it …

He then trailed off, not finishing the sentence.  Martin’s parents were understandably upset by that statement.

Now I am not writing to judge Zimmerman’s much scrutinized intent in the shooting.  I’ll leave that to his due process.  But I too was frustrated by the implication of Zimmerman’s statement – the implication being that the shooting death of Trayvon Martin was part of God’s plan.

Unfortunately, it is a belief that is expressed all-to-often in religious circles.  The logic goes something like this: if God is all-knowing and in control of all that happens, then everything that happens must be part of God’s plan.  And the extrapolated extension of this logic implies that if something bad happens or I make a make an ill-advised choice, not to worry – it is all part of God’s will.  Taken to its full extent, this logic essentially relieves me of any personally responsibility for the choices I make.  It is all God’s will.

I wonder if the misuse of God’s plan or God’s will isn’t the result of some confusion around two scriptural ideas.

  • The first stems from a familiar passage from the book of Romans: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  I have heard people basically take this verse to mean that if my intentions are good, then everything that happens, happens for my good and must have been part of God’s plan.  But that isn’t the truth being express in this verse.  What is being expressed is that no matter what is happening – whether good or bad, whether good intent or royal blunder – God can use that event to shape me for the better.  There is a difference between God using a bad/negative/evil event to shape us for the better and God being the cause of that bad/negative/evil event.
  • The second emerges from a much deeper theological issue.  It is often expressed as a theological dilemma by both the believer and the sceptic: if God is all good and all powerful, then why is there evil in the world?  Why do bad things happen?  Many believers, holding that God is all good and powerful, simply presume then that everything that happens is part of God’s plan.  I would hold, however, that in order for free will to exist, God allows for actions to have consequences and as a result, bad things do happen in the world.  There is a difference between God allowing something to happen and God willing something to happen.  Entire books have been written on this important difference.

Granted when pressed, many people of faith may stop short of holding to the fullest extent of that logic.  Which is why I believe it is important for people of faith to be careful how the language of “God’s will” is utilized.  I do believe that God can take this tragic shooting and make George Zimmerman a better person for it, which is perhaps what he was trying to express.  But I do not believe that the shooting of Martin was part of God’s plan.  The same can be said for the shooting in Colorado.  And that difference is important.

Worldviews, Greek Mythology, and Job

I always enjoy when two or three ideas converge to reveal a perspective I had not previously considered.  It is why I tend to read a couple books at a time, often on very different topics.  I just finished reading a book – The Powers That Be – on which I previously shared my thoughts.  One of the ideas that I enjoyed the most was Wink’s breakdown of worldviews.  To summarize:

  • The Ancient Worldview held that everything earthly has its heavenly counterpart and every spiritual reality has physical consequenses.
  • The Materialist Worldview claims that there is no spiritual world, only reason and what can be known through the five senses.
  • The Spiritualist Worldview simply holds that spirit is good and matter is evil.  Gnosticism arises out of this worldview.
  • The Theological Worldview acknowledges both a spiritual world and a material world, but compartmentalize the two, allowing only minimal interaction between them.

From here Wink argues for an Integral Worldview, where it is acknowledged that the spiritual and the material realm interact and what happens in one can affect the other.  Ironically, it seems to me that many Christians unwittingly still hold to the Ancient (fatalistic pre determinism), Spiritualist (the material world doesn’t matter), or Theological (there is a heaven, but it has little bearing on what is happening on earth) worldview.

This brief summary of worldviews helped me greatly as I picked up a book on Greek mythology.  I am only moderately aware of the more well-known Greek gods and the stories behind them.  But reading these stories armed with a better understanding of the ancient worldview has placed Greek mythology in an entirely new setting for me.  These stories are an attempt to make sense of what was happening in the material realm by positing what must have been taking place in the spiritual realm, since the spiritual realm was the real impetus behind temporal events.  Thus when a battle was won or lost, or an empire or individual rose to power, this was only a manifestation of what was happening among the gods.  It was fate!

All this brings me to my reading of the biblical book of Job.  I have read Job many times and it is always a challenge to know where this book fits theologically.  Is it fiction?  Is it a parable?  Is it describing actual events?  Any commentary on Job will wrestle with these questions.  But armed with a fresh perspective on worldviews, I am now convinced that Job falls in the genre of ancient mythology.  Now before anyone gets too fired up, please understand: mythology does not mean that the story being told is a fictional story.  It was long held that the stories of the Trojan wars never really took place until discoveries confirmed that they were actually grounded in real events.  So it can be said that Job took actual events and, through the lens of the ancient worldview, tried to make sense of what must have been driving these events in the spiritual realm.

Which makes the person of Job all the more remarkable.  It is often pointed out that Job was challenging the predominant perspective of his day that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.  This is why Job’s friends throughout the book insist that, given the calamities that befall Job, he must have done something wrong.  But I believe that Job was also challenging a much deeper held belief grounded in the ancient worldview: that what was happening to him was being driven by events in the spiritual realm and that it was pointless for him to fight them.  It was fate!  It is at this point that Job does the unthinkable.  Job not only believes that he can argue his case before God, upending the notion that bad things happen to bad people, but that in doing so he can actually intervene in the spiritual realm, bucking the notion of fate.  And it is here that his friends are utterly incensed at Job’s words.

It could be read that in the end God condemns Job for asking for his day in court, but I don’t believe that is what takes place.  In the end it is Job’s friends that are soundly rebuked, while Job is the one interacting with the Almighty.  And in the end, he is rewarded for it.

What I’m Reading: The Powers That Be

I picked up this book because another author referenced a concept I wanted to learn more
about.  The concept was what author Walter Wink labelled as the Ancient Domination System.  The Ancient Domination System describes the institutions and economies that most ancient cultures employed: power was held in the hands of a few at the expense of the masses.  Many today mistakenly believe that this domination system is essentially the same thing modern Western economies employ.  Lumping today’s Western economies together with that of ancient Rome or even ancient Israel can lead to many a flawed conclusion regarding what the Bible teaches about economics, though there are some similarities and overarching principles.  But I digress.

As I read the first couple of chapters, I was intrigued by Wink’s description of these domination systems.  These systems rely primarily on coercion to keep people under their power.  Yet, these systems were not inherently evil.  Being part of God’s creation, the powers and the institutions that support them were originally created as good, but they are also fallen, and stand in need of being reclaimed and redeemed. It is these institutions that the Bible identifies as principalities and powers.  Part of what we are called to do is to identify the fallenness of these power structures and redeem them as part of God’s kingdom, as opposed to casting the people within these power structures as our enemy or dismissing these institutions as inherently evil.

As much as I was enjoying the author’s description of the fallenness and redemption of power structures and institutions, I was equally disappointed in the author’s underlying theology upholding his main premise.  The author is a strong advocate of non-violent resistance, which is fine.  However, in my estimation, he makes the mistake of interpreting the whole of scripture to support his agenda, rather than submitting his agenda to the whole of scripture.  Because of this, the author makes Jesus’ primary aim to spread the gospel of non-violence.  The Old Testament, and even the writings of the apostles John and Paul are often contrasted to the teachings of Jesus.  His interpretation of some of the teachings of Jesus, such as turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile, are interpretations that I have not encountered elsewhere.

Overall, I have enjoyed some of the ideas Wink talks about in the book.  I even enjoy reading different perspectives that challenge my own thinking.  I can affirm much of what the author is trying to convey.  But I am also reminded of the danger of using God and the Bible to affirm my beliefs, rather than using God and the Bible to shape them.

The End Of The World As We Know It

Yesterday, December 21st, was the Winter Solstice. The Winter Solstice marks the shortest day of the year, in terms of daylight. Which means that from now until the Summer Solstice, the days will be getting longer, and that’s a good thing! Yesterday also marked one year out until the Mayan prediction that the world will end on the Winter Solstice of 2012. No doubt we can look forward to many doomsday movements and predictions in the year to come. Mayan ruins are quickly becoming a tourist destination for next year and Mexico’s tourism agency is already selling the hype.

But some Mayan researchers are now insisting that the prophecy has been misunderstood. Instead of the world ending, they say that the Mayans actually recorded that date as being the end of an era, and that 2012 and beyond should be seen as a time of renewal, not destruction. “The world will not end. It is an era. For us, it is a message of hope,” says Yeanet Zaldo.

That word renewal caught my attention, as I had just run across that same idea earlier in the day. In an article I was reading, the author mentioned that the word translated as “new” in the Bible, is often actually the word “renew.” It has been this mistranslation of Scripture that has led to the belief that God will create a new heaven and a new earth.  In other words, if God is going to create a new earth, then this current earth doesn’t matter much.

But if that word actually denotes renewal, then that changes things.  The world won’t end in apocalyptic destruction.  On the contrary, it will be renewed!

In fact, when you read the New Testament, it is evident that God is currently in the midst of renewing all creation. We can’t always see it clearly, and there are plenty of examples that would seem to support the opposite view, but it is happening.  And God has granted us the privilege of being partners in this renewal.

So if the Mayan predictions are correct – that 2012 marks some end of an era and the beginning of a time of renewal – maybe they aren’t that far off from what Scripture is saying as well. So here is to hoping that 2012 is a time of renewal!  After all, that is what God has been up to for quite some time now.

Sacred Work

Part of my role as a pastor for several years was to encourage people who worked in the “secular realm” all week long that their work was sacred and their job, no matter how seemingly menial, had meaning.  I had a sense that people were coming to church on Sundays, at least in part because they wanted to know that the rest of their week was somehow connected to the sacred.  I took this role seriously and tried to tear down barriers between the sacred and secular.

I write this because now my job title does not say “pastor”, rather it says “business analyst.”  I must admit that I now find myself on the other side of the issue: Struggling to find meaning in my work, and searching for the sacred among the secular.  Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that I don’t enjoy my job.  Rather, I am reminded how elusive that deeper meaning can be for most people, myself included.  Lyrics to a song have been running through my head lately, “One more dime to show for my day; One more dollar and I’m on my way.”  Surely there is something more to all this.

Yet it is during this struggle that I have met a couple of guys at work who model what it looks like to bridge this sacred/secular divide (a divide that admittedly may be of our own construct).  One sees his job as a means to support his role at his local church.  Another mentors the unemployed and leads other men in a book study at work.  It is one thing to know something intellectually, but I am grateful for the real-life examples of sacred work, no matter what a job title may read.

My week ended with a long phone conversation with a friend, who admitted that he felt many pastors had little to offer him in his own search to infuse the sacred into his job.  He concluded by saying, “Dave, you may have more to say now to people than you did in your role as a pastor.” The journey continues!

What I’m Reading: Dead Aid

While in Uganda, I noticed something that I wanted to look further into.  In one of the more avant garde bookstores in Kampala, I saw a number of books by Africans questioning the value of all the international aid pouring into the continent every year.  It was an intriguing idea: the recipients of so much aid were beginning to ask difficult questions as to the effectiveness of it all.  As mentioned in a follow-up post, on my way back to the States passing through the Amsterdam airport, I saw a book that summarized this restlessness and ordered it upon arriving home.

In her book, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa, Dambisa Moyo, who is from Zambia and a former consultant for the World Bank, tackles these questions head on.  The implications of her conclusions are controversial; for some they are a breath of fresh air, while for others they are outright rejected.  But the facts cannot be avoided.  Consider just a few:

  • Since 1970, sub-Saharan Africa has received over $300 billion in development assistance, yet remains the poorest region in the world.
  • The poverty rate in Africa has actually risen during the periods of peak aid flows.
  • A World Bank study found that as much as 85 percent of aid flows were used for purposes other than that for which they were initially intended.
  • Many of the civil wars and conflicts on the African continent in recent decades can be tied to who controls the large aid disbursements made to African countries.

This only scratches the surface of the problems associated with the large amount of aid flowing to Africa on an ongoing basis.  However, one of Moyo’s biggest points that jumped out at me has little to do with quantifiable data.  It has to do with the voices behind the cries for even more aid:

This very important responsibility has, for all intents and purposes, and to the bewilderment and chagrin of many an African, been left to musicians who reside outside Africa.  One disastrous consequence of this has been that honest, critical and serious dialogue and debate on the merits and demerits of aid have atrophied.  As one critic of the aid model remarked, ‘my voice can’t compete with an electric guitar’.

We are so busy figuring out how to help Africa that we forgot to include Africans in on the conversation!  Much more could be said, but rather than go through the entire book, I’ll simply encourage you to read it – or something similar – on your own.

While most of us will not find ourselves on the front line of shaping aid policy, we are faced with choices everyday regarding charity, whether donating time to a cause, serving on a church missions board, or sparing some change for the guy on the corner.  Regardless of scope, a key issue is that of intentions versus outcomes.  Good intentions are no guarantee of good outcomes.  There is a line of thinking that I have seen in the church, which essentially holds that good intentions are what God wants from us; leave the outcome in God’s hands.  While this may sound spiritual, I believe God wants wise stewardship as well.  Are the causes we are promoting actually solving problems or might they actually be contributing to the problem?  After my time in Uganda and reading this book, I continue to wrestle through this issue.  I believe we are in need of fresh theology on the subject of missions and social action.  Maybe I’ll be bold enough one day to collect my thoughts on the subject and post them!

What I’m Reading: God According To God

Gerald Schroeder

This is actually the second book by Gerald Schroeder I have read recently.  Schroeder is perhaps best known for his book The Science of God.  He is a physicist, who attempts to reconcile Genesis with what science is discovering about the big bang and the origins of the universe.  Actually, he doesn’t so much try to reconcile the two, with a forced agenda as many have tried to do.  His understanding of the Hebrew language has led him to uncover many misunderstandings of Genesis on the part of the religious, and to lay bare many of the shortcomings of science.  He maintains that the two are not that far apart when all of the misunderstandings are stripped away.  I didn’t agree with everything Schroeder put forth in The Science Of God, and there were many areas where I had to confess my own lack of knowledge when it came to areas, such as quantum physics and astronomy.  But he did have some very insightful points that call for a fresh understanding of both science and Genesis.  And it lead me to read another one of his books, God According To God.

In God According To God, Schroeder touches on the origins of the universe, but this time from the perspective of a deeper understanding of God.  He examines many ways in which our notions of God do not match up with the Hebrew Bible.  Two chapters in particular intrigued me.

In the seventh chapter, Schroeder examines the nuances in the stories of Abraham and Job.  From God’s interactions with these two biblical figures, he draws some conclusions about God that I imagine would begin to make some uncomfortable.  We have attributed such a high view of sovereignty to God, that there is scarcely room for pain, misfortune, or suffering.  Many today would teach that these things are “God’s will” because God is in control of everything.  But God can still be sovereign and mourn with us when bad things happen, without being the One who willed it to happen.  We are afraid to let God be God.

God has not designed a mechanical ‘vending machine’ world where you put in two good deeds, pull a lever, and out pops the commensurate comfort of a material reward.

Unfortunately, this is what is too often being taught in churches today.  Rather than being a god whose hands are always on the chess board, moving every piece, God just might be more “hands off” than we would like to imagine. But this does not mean God is neither distant nor powerless.  Like Job, God wants us to argue, to protest, and to wrestle.  And at times God will intervene, as it is always in God’s power to do.

Schroeder summarizes his observations in chapter twelve: “There’s no hint of a constant microengineering by God either in the world or in the Bible.”  True, God can intervene when needed.  But often that intervention falls far short of our expectations.  When God promises Israel victory in battle, God also excuses those who are newly married lest they die in battle.  If God promised victory, why the chance people are going to die?  Because God is not a micromanager.  The implication is that we are partners with God in restoring creation toward its intended purpose.

It is interesting that Schroeder closes with the statement, “The God that most skeptics reject, a God with unceasing hands-on control, is simply not the God of the Bible.”  My own observation is that the god the skeptics reject, which is not the God of the Bible,  is also the god that many Christians want to embrace.  The more we are able to attribute to “the will of God”, the less personal responsibility we have to accept for ourselves.  While some may be uncomfortable with the picture of God that God According To God constructs, I found it refreshing, challenging some of my own constructs.