Review: God can’t…

25 July 2020

‘God can’t’? To many, that’s an oxymoron. God, they say, is by definition omnipotent; he can do anything!

But Scripture lists several things he can’t do: he can’t lie, be tempted or grow tired. And, most importantly, ‘he cannot deny himself’ (2 Timothy 2:13). That is, he can’t act outside of his essential nature. An important book by Thomas Jay Oord highlights the fact that, fundamental to that nature is love, and love is by definition uncontrolling.

gcThat has huge implications for people who have suffered tragedy, abuse, rape, torture, a serious accident or life-threatening illness. They rightly ask, ‘If God is both loving and all-powerful, why didn’t he prevent this happening?’ It is to such people that this book is primarily addressed. It is:

God Can’t: how to believe in God and love after tragedy, abuse and other evils by Thomas Jay Oord (SacraSage, 2019)

A few years ago, Oord set out its principles in The Uncontrolling Love of God: an open and relational account of providence (2015). It was aimed at a fairly academic readership but the interest it stirred led to his writing this simpler version for the average reader.

It lays out five principles which, together, undergird the understanding of God and his love that this approach puts forward. They are:

  1. God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly.
  2. God feels our pain.
  3. God works to heal.
  4. God works to squeeze good from the evil he didn’t want in the first place.
  5. God needs our cooperation.

This is no weird, heretical set of proposals. The author—who himself knows what major suffering means—grounds his work soundly in Scripture, alongside a sensitive appreciation of our human fragility and the things about God’s activity that, if we are honest, often leave us puzzled or frustrated. I recommend it with enthusiasm, and you will find it very relevant if you are involved in counselling, chaplaincy or pastoral ministry. Below is a selection of quotations, with page numbers.

  • If you want a summary, I have written a synopsis of the book here.
  • My review of Oord’s earlier book, The Uncontrolling Love of God is here.

Taking evil seriously means rethinking conventional ideas about God and the world. (4)

Polls indicate the existence of evil is the number-one reason atheists cite for rejecting belief in God. Who can blame them? (9)

Some assume God’s love is altogether different from ours. The phrase, “God’s ways are not our ways,” is taken to mean, “God’s love isn’t like ours.” What God thinks loving is not what we think. This sleight-of-hand confuses rather than clarifies. It doesn’t help to say God loves us if we have no idea what love is! (11)

It doesn’t make sense to say a loving God permits evil. We don’t need to say, “Your rape happened for a reason,” and mean, “God allowed it.” (13)

Perfect love prevents preventable evil. (18)

If God can control evildoers, we should blame God for allowing the atrocities they commit. The God who fails to prevent preventable genuine evil is morally reprehensible. (19)

The God of uncontrolling love cannot control creatures. (20)

The broad themes of the Bible help us make sense of God and life. But we must resist thinking the Bible is a weapon, medicine bottle, or magic book. And it’s not a systematic theology. While it’s important to drill down to explore the details, it’s more important to grasp the major ideas of the Bible. (24)

Love does not overrule or override. It does “not force itself on others,” to quote the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 13:5).  (26)

If God’s nature is love and love never controls, God would have to deny his love to control others. But God can’t do that. The limits to divine power come from God’s nature of love. I call this view “essential kenosis.” (28)

A bodiless, universal spirit cannot do what embodied creatures sometimes can. Despite having no body, God is present and active in all situations. Divine power is direct but persuasive, widespread but wooing, causal but uncontrolling. God’s loving activity makes a difference without imposing control or using a divine body. (33)

An uncontrolling God neither creates us as robots nor temporarily roboticizes us. (34)

Despite the positive aspects of The Shack, the story offers no believable reason why a good and powerful God fails to prevent genuine evil. The Shack fails to answer the primary question victims ask. (38)

God is always present, always affected, and always loving. Because God’s giving and receiving is universal and because God knows us fully, God empathizes to the utmost. God feels what we feel. God’s sensitivity is unrestricted. (52)

It’s important to believe God suffers with those who suffer. But we must also believe God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly. Without both, we can’t offer a believable explanation for unnecessary suffering, tragedy, abuse, and other evils. A God who could singlehandedly emancipate but chooses only to commiserate is not someone to worship or to emulate! (60)

If God heals, why doesn’t God heal a lot more often? (81)

We need a plausible explanation for why healing sometimes happens but often does not. (84)

Requests for “intervention” don’t make sense. If God is already present and acting for good all the time, we don’t need God to come into our situation. God is already here; an omnipresent God is everywhere. (89)

When we understand that God cannot heal singlehandedly, we solve the problem of selective miracles. If God always works to heal but cannot control anyone or anything, it’s not God’s fault when healing does not occur. (93)

Factors within or outside us can frustrate God’s work to heal. Perhaps my phrase, God is “working to heal to the utmost, given the circumstances” now makes sense. God always works alongside people and creation when healing. “Healing to the utmost, given the circumstances” implies creation may not cooperate. Inanimate entities and conditions may not be aligned for the healing God wants. (95)

God is not a vending machine that automatically kicks out a miracle when we insert a prayer coin. But prayer alters circumstances in our bodies and world. It presents new opportunities for God to heal. Prayer opens up new possibilities for God’s love to make an actual difference. (96)

If good comes from suffering and God wants what’s good, is suffering God’s will? (109)

“Everything happens for a reason” really means, “even evil is God’s will!” (116)

The idea God punishes sinners is mostly absent in the New Testament. (122)

A loving God disciplines us in non-coercive ways for our good. God’s discipline isn’t punitive; it’s instructive and encouraging. (125)

There are natural negative consequences to sin and evil. Rather than believe devastation and heartache are supernatural punishments, we should believe they’re the natural negative consequences of refusing to cooperate with God’s love. (130)

Sometimes nobody causes the suffering we experience. No one sinned. No one’s to blame. We suffer as victims of natural disasters, random sickness, or plain bad luck. Accidents and forces of nature make our lives miserable or kill us. Calamity happens. (131)

I believe God uses suffering to mature us. And God responds to evil by helping us and others in positive ways. But I don’t think God causes or allows suffering and evil for this purpose. (133)

The best reasons for atheism are reactions to conventional ideas about God. (143)

The conventional view says that although God could control us and others, God typically gives free will and invites response. The One capable of control doesn’t need cooperation. Coercion is always an option when the conventional God wants to get a job done. (146)

Believers in the conventional God say we should help the poor. “God is calling us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and free the oppressed,” they say. But the God capable of control allowed that hunger, nakedness, and oppression in the first place. And he can alleviate it with a snap of a finger… if he really wanted to do so. (147)

The God who could singlehandedly determine outcomes but invites contribution is like an authority who pretends his minions matter. A condescending boss does what he wants but pretends to need help. He says the efforts of his underlings make a difference, but it’s a sham. He’s patronizing. (148)

The idea God needs cooperation is more common in the Bible than most realize. Because many readers assume God can accomplish tasks and develop relationships alone, they overlook it. They interpret stories as saying God alone accomplished some goal or task, though the texts don’t explicitly say this. (154)

My own prayer life grows as I pray in light of uncontrolling love. I don’t ask God to control others or situations. I don’t say, “God force them to act differently!” If God always loves and love never controls, asking God to control others or circumstances is fruitless. As I pray, I imagine how I or others might cooperate with God for love to prosper. I ask God to inspire and inform me. (158)

In my view, God doesn’t send anyone to hell singlehandedly. In fact, God can’t. The God whose nature is uncontrolling love also can’t force anyone into heaven. Such force requires control, and God’s love is inherently uncontrolling. (162)

Love is always uncontrolling. Because God’s love is relentless, however, we have good reason to hope all creatures eventually cooperate with God. It’s reasonable to think the God who never gives up and whose love is universal will eventually convince all creatures and redeem all creation. After all, love always hopes and never gives up (1 Cor. 13:7)! (164)

The uncontrolling love of God perspective says what we do — what we all do — matters. The radical truth is our lives count. (171)

 


Bungalow Living: Rejecting dualism

24 January 2018

I’ve come across a disturbing trend: Christians who can’t cope—not with their own circumstances but with other people’s. For instance, someone today said about a chronically sick friend, ‘No, I never go to visit her. I just can’t cope with her condition.’

bungalowLet me tell you about this sick, unvisited friend. She’s an older woman who has spent most of her life in Christian service of one kind or another, including some years on the mission-field. Having developed cancer of the throat that destroyed her vocal cords, she has ended up with an electronic device attached to her throat that enables her to speak. But the sound is whispery, some would say quite sinister-sounding—and at least two of her longstanding Christian friends can’t cope with that.

Here’s another case. A retired couple decided to move house to be nearer their children. But a dead housing market meant that after several years they still hadn’t found a buyer, and they didn’t have the means to move without selling first. A well-meaning Christian brother wrote and advised, ‘You need to do what Jesus said: command the house to sell. That will clear the log-jam right away. You can start packing!’[1] When the couple informed their well-meaning friend that they had been doing this very thing for a long time, with no apparent change, the communication dried up. The friend couldn’t cope with it not working.[2]

And here’s another. When a young couple known to me had their first child, a son, it wasn’t long before routine tests discovered that the little boy had a birth defect: he was profoundly deaf. They prayed about it. They got the whole church praying about it, long and hard, but with no evident change.

Then the medical authorities informed them that a new technique had become available. A small device could be implanted into the child’s head. While it would not enable him to hear in the normal sense, it would move him a tiny step closer to being able to detect certain sounds and so provide a better chance of at least some aural communication. Most of the family’s friends rejoiced at the opportunity. But a few Christians said it would be a mistake to agree to the implant, because that would show a lack of faith in God’s power to heal. So when the implant went ahead, they cut the family off—they couldn’t cope with the situation. One such lady, who had been close to the family, now crossed the street rather than meet the mother and have to face up to the fact that God hadn’t healed the boy.

This is a shameful response, brought about by what I call two-storey living. These people have two distinct living-areas in their lives. There’s the ‘downstairs’ level, where everyday life takes place: going to work, painting the hallway, buying groceries, paying the mortgage, eating dinner. Then there’s the ‘upstairs’, which is ‘spiritual’. Here, you just quote the right healing scripture and healing takes place instantly. If you have a problem, you just ‘take it to the Lord in prayer’ and he solves it for you right away. If you are short of money, you mention it to Jehovah Jireh[3] and, that same night, under cover of darkness, an anonymous person slips an envelope containing £500 through your letterbox. It always works. God says it will, so it must. It can’t not work. So when the going gets a bit rough downstairs, these folk take refuge upstairs where ‘rough’ doesn’t exist. Some in fact stay up there most of the time, reluctantly venturing down only when they need a sandwich from the fridge, or a couple of paracetamol.

This approach is a form of what theologians call dualism: two separate areas of experience, one in the physical world, the other in the metaphysical. Authentic Christianity has no place for it and has traditionally labelled it heresy. True Christian living calls us to abandon such two-storey living and move into a bungalow where there is no spiritual/secular divide, where everyday life and true spirituality co-exist in harmony, where the devil is God’s devil,[4] and where faith is robust enough to cope with anything—even God’s apparent failure to live up to his promises.

How does this apply to the lady who ‘couldn’t cope’ with visiting her one-time friend with the artificial voice-box?

For a start, she should be thoroughly ashamed of herself for her abysmal failure to show the Christian grace of caring. Then she should sort out her confused thinking that says, ‘Hmm. Betty is a good Christian woman. She forsook a lucrative career in the secular world in order to serve the Lord. She even suffered for the gospel while serving in a Muslim country. God must love her very much—certainly enough to reward her by preserving her health. But, oh dear, God hasn’t done it! I can’t square that with God’s love, so I’ll just stick my head in the sand and pretend the problem isn’t there. Unfortunately I won’t be able to visit the poor old girl, because that would be to yank my head out of the sand and see the grotesque problem yet again—and I can’t cope with that!’

You can apply the same approach to the person who can’t cope with the house-sale mountain not jumping into the sea as commanded, and to the pathetic woman who crossed the street rather than face the reality that the child of a Christian couple was profoundly deaf.

Fundamentally, these people all have a problem with God. They have him all neatly sewn up into a system whereby, provided they press the right faith-buttons and quote the Bible’s allegedly absolute promises with enough vigour and volume, God is somehow obliged to spring into action without delay and address the issue. Upstairs, he always does. But they can’t face the fact that in the real world of downstairs living sometimes—if we’re honest, often—God doesn’t do it. Of course, they have an escape clause to cover such eventualities: lack of faith on the part of the person who needs his help. It can’t possibly be God’s problem, so it must be a human one.

Now you shouldn’t kick a person when he’s down, yet that’s exactly what these mixed-up Christians do. Not only do they desert the poor woman with the voice-box when she needs Christian company most, they also tell her it’s her own fault entirely that she’s in that condition: ‘If you’d had faith, sister, you wouldn’t have got into this state in the first place.’ That’s going to make her depressed as well as sick. It is seriously unchristian.

Bungalow living means saying goodbye to all that unsanctified behaviour. It means admitting that we still live in an imperfect world, that there’s a ‘not yet’ aspect of the kingdom as well as an ‘already’, and that it can get messy downstairs.

Bungalow living means adjusting our view of God instead of turning our back on sufferers. Is God loving, good and kind? Most certainly; he has revealed himself plainly as such. Does that mean he is obliged to make our life a bed of roses? Absolutely not. He is working to a higher agenda than our personal comfort. Indeed, in the present age he often chooses to use suffering as a tool for maturing us and shaping us into a closer likeness to our Elder Brother. Facing up to these things is what real faith is about.[5]

At the great Messianic Banquet in the age to come we shall be able to feast to our hearts’ content on the goodness of God. There will be no delayed house-moves, no aural implants, no artificial voice-boxes there. There will be fulfilment, food and shalom for us all. But what about here and now? Happily, not everything is reserved for the future. From time to time the Lord, in his goodness, may grant us—as a privilege, not a right—a sample from his banquet-table, a tiny taste of the powers of the coming age—and no more.[6] Savour it when it comes, and stay real when it doesn’t.

And, oh yes—the dining room is downstairs.

Footnotes

  1. A reference to Mark 11:23.
  2. This was, at the time of writing, the situation my wife and I were in. There are some Christian people who avoided us because they couldn’t cope with the fact that God hadn’t yet opened the way for our relocation.
  3. This Hebrew name means ‘The Lord will provide’. It occurs in Genesis 22:14.
  4. An expression I first heard from the Canadian Bible teacher Ern Baxter. He meant that the devil, far from being God’s equal, is a created being under his control.
  5. Linguistic studies show that the New Testament word for ‘faith’ (Greek pistis) often means something more like the English ‘faithfulness’. So the notion of ‘having faith for something’—finance, health or whatever—needs at the very least to be balanced by that of ‘remaining faithful to God’ even when we can’t understand why he is allowing certain unpleasant things to happen to us and to our friends, and being honest about it.
  6. Hebrews 6:5

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