‘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.
That 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:
- God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly.
- God feels our pain.
- God works to heal.
- God works to squeeze good from the evil he didn’t want in the first place.
- 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)