Review: When tragedy strikes

2 April 2021

Most Christians are weak in theology. They just jog along happily with their received tradition—until some personal tragedy strikes. Then they start asking questions like ‘Why did God let this happen?’ and, suddenly, firming up their theological convictions become strikingly relevant. Here is where this book pitches in. It is:

Is God To Blame?: Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Suffering by Gregory A. Boyd (IVP, 2003).

Our mental picture of God determines our attitude towards him, and that picture is, in much evangelical tradition, a skewed one. We need to realign it with Jesus, the Word and image of God, and his unique revelation of what God is like, says Boyd. Then we need to question the notion that everything that happens is part of God’s great plan, an element of his giant blueprint. It isn’t. Instead, we live in a complex world that is a spiritual war-zone, where God’s desires for us are sometimes frustrated.

Particularly frustrating can be the seemingly arbitrary nature of what sometimes happens. The author opens up the Book of Job in a masterly way to shed light on this key topic. On the way, he tackles related issues like how God determines what he will do, and how our prayers fit into it all.

This is a highly practical book, and it can be such because of the robust biblical theology that undergirds Boyd’s arguments. If you have been stressed out by serious ‘why’ questions in the wake of some personal tragedy, or are called to pastor and counsel others in that situation, you will find this book truly helpful.

It doesn’t toe the typical evangelical party line in many respects. Towards the end, Boyd therefore tackles some of the ‘But doesn’t the Bible teach…?’ reactions that you might raise, including a detailed look at Romans chapter 9, and other NT passages leant on by many for their ‘blueprint’ convictions.

This is no easy afternoon devotional read. It’s a book that will require your full engagement, and the use of your God-given brain. But you will find it immensely satisfying. And it will put you in a more confident position to address this messed-up world. Is it perhaps time to rise to a challenge? This book will provide it.

Here’s the usual sample of quotations to whet your appetite.

[I read the book in Kindle format, so the numbers are Location, not Page, numbers]

‘Melanie, do you really believe that God kills babies to teach parents a lesson? And do you really think that God is now refusing to give you any more children until you learn this lesson—though he won’t tell you what the lesson is?’  (56)

When things went wrong in people’s lives, whether it was about their physical or spiritual condition or some tragedy that happened to them, I don’t recall Jesus ever looking for the hand of God in it. Instead, he had compassion on suffering people and treated them like casualties of war. He expressed God’s heart by bringing relief to people’s suffering.  (71)

…the why questions. These questions are almost always unanswerable. But they are not unanswerable because God is so mysterious—his character and purposes are unambiguously revealed in Jesus Christ—rather, they are unanswerable because creation is incomprehensibly complex.  (97)

A creation which includes free agents capable of love cannot be one in which God can guarantee his will is always done.  (119)

To the extent that the God we envision is less than all-loving, gracious, kind and altogether on our side, we can’t trust him with our whole being. (189)

Whenever and wherever people experience true life and true light, it is Jesus Christ, whether they know it or not (Jn 1:4, 9).  (209)

Our (fallen) tendency, operating out of our illegitimately seized knowledge of good and evil, is to project onto God every ‘good’ we think God ought to have. For example, in classical Western philosophical tradition, emotional vulnerability is a weakness, so we have projected onto God the attribute of ‘impassability’ (above suffering). All variability is thought to be an imperfection, so God must be ‘immutable’ (above any sort of change). Lack of control is also an imperfection, so God meticulously controls everything. But we get a vastly different picture of God when we simply allow God to define himself in Christ!  (316)

The [mistaken] ‘blueprint worldview’…asserts that directly or indirectly everything in world history follows a meticulous divine blueprint. This view is succinctly expressed in the maxim ‘There is a reason for everything.’ The ultimate reason why anything happens is that God decided it was better to have it happen than not…  Christian theologians who espouse the blueprint worldview find various passages in the Bible to support their view. But their reading of the Bible is rather selective and is strongly influenced by a Hellenistic preconception of what God and his relationship to the world must be like.  (377)

The cross refutes the traditional notion that omnipotence means God always gets his way. Rather, the cross reveals God’s omnipotence as a power that empowers others—to the point of giving others the ability, if they so choose, to nail him to the cross. The cross reveals that God’s omnipotence is displayed in self-sacrificial love, not sheer might.  (467)

How can we hold that God is unchanging when in Christ we see that the second person of the Trinity became a man?  (477)

To question God’s experience of time by postulating that God really experiences all of history in a timeless fashion is to question the authenticity of the incarnation.  (482)

God is not ‘above’ suffering or being affected and responsive. God is God precisely in his willingness to be affected, to be responsive, and to suffer for the sake of love.  (492)

The New Testament depicts evil forces and human agents as having a good deal of ‘say’ in what transpires. And tragic afflictions are understood to arise from these wills, not Gods.  (518)

One of the chief problems in the Western philosophical tradition is reconciling the presence of evil with an all-good and all-powerful God. The problem, in a nutshell, is that if God is all-powerful, it seems he must have the ability to stop evil if he wants to. And if God is all-good, it seems he would want to. Yet evil persists… While blueprint theologians offer sophisticated responses in an attempt to avoid this conclusion, their position seems to implicate God in the very evil it attempts to explain. If God deemed the suffering of the Holocaust worth the good that would result from it, how is his thinking any different than the Nazis’?  (541)

The belief that God is all-powerful does not mean that God exercises all power. It only means that God is the ultimate source of all power… God empowers others to act on their own, against his own wishes if they so choose.  (572)

The kingdom of darkness has been dealt a decisive deathblow, and it is now just a matter of time before it is utterly vanquished. But this truth doesn’t negate the claim that to some extent human and spiritual agents can continue to thwart Gods will.  (605)

The church fathers repeatedly stressed that love and virtue require morally responsible choice. Thus they taught that God’s mode of operation in running the world is not coercion but persuasion.  (630)

Acknowledging that humans have free will explains much, but not all, of the evil in the world. To fully account for the war-torn nature of this creation we need to understand that God created angels as free agents as well.  (713)

Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. It’s among the smallest of all seeds when planted, but it eventually grows to become the largest shrub in the garden (Mt 13:31-32). The point is that though Jesus defeated Satan in principle and re-established the kingdom of God on the earth, the earth doesn’t automatically revert back to the way God intended it to be. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the seed has been planted, but it needs to grow. The ‘strong man’ has been tied up, and now God’s troops need to ‘pillage the house.’ God could do all this himself, of course. But because God is a social being and his goal is love, he chooses to work through mediators (humans and angels) who lovingly choose to cooperate with his plans. How they use their freedom genuinely affects the extent to which God’s will is done ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’  (737)

When people believe that everything is already part of God’s ‘secret plan,’ they won’t work with passion and urgency to establish God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. Rather, as much popular Christian piety reveals, they resign themselves to all that happens as coming ‘from a Father’s hand.’ They pray for the ability to accept things more than the ability to change things. They seek the power to comfort more than the power to deliver.  (762)

Because of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, we can be confident of our knowledge about God’s character and general purposes for our life. What we can hardly begin to fathom, however, is the vast complexity of creation, a creation that includes an untold number of human and spiritual free agents whose decisions affect much that comes to pass.  (814)

We ordinarily can’t know why particular individuals suffer the way they do. But in the light of God’s revelation in Christ, our assumption should be that their suffering is something we should oppose in the name of God rather than accepting it as coming from God.  (872)

[Re the Book of Job]  Eliphaz’s statements illustrate the remarkable capacity some people have to ignore reality for the sake of preserving a formulaic theology.  (912)

People often quote Job’s words, ‘The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away’ (Job 1:21)… The irony is that though these words are spoken from an honest and upright heart, they are part of a theology job repents of.  (980)

We aren’t omniscient, but having eaten from the forbidden tree, we have a misguided impulse to judge matters as though we were. We have difficulty accepting our finitude and the massive ignorance and ambiguity attached to it.  (1099)

The perennial question ‘Why me?’ is no different than the question ‘Why did this duck land in this pond at just this moment?’ It is strictly unanswerable from a finite human perspective.  (1127)

Life is arbitrary because of the way the decisions made by an unfathomably vast multitude of free agents intersect with each other. It is not a function of God’s will or character.  (1137)

Taking Jesus Christ as our starting point, we can’t avoid concluding that God intervenes in the world. Indeed, Jesus is the supreme instance of God intervening in human affairs.  (1144)

The same miracle-working power that gives hope to the believer also raises a multitude of questions. Chief among these is, Why does God’s intervention in the world seem so arbitrary? Yes, God can heal blindness. But why does God heal one blind person and not another?  (1153)

If God decided to create a world where love is possible, he thereby ruled out a world in which his will is always done. If he chooses to create this kind of world, he can’t guarantee that his will is always done, not because he lacks power but because of the kind of world he created. Just as a triangle can’t be round, so too a world that includes love can’t guarantee that God’s will always comes to pass.  (1187)

If God wants a world in which agents can relate to one another, he must create a world that is very stable and thus quite predictable. In deciding to create this kind of world, God ruled out a world in which the laws of nature could be altered every time someone was going to be harmed.  (1209)

The regularity of the world doesn’t have to be absolutely uniform. As Creator, God certainly has the power and the right to ‘suspend’ the regularity of the world at any time. But he can’t do this all the time, or even most of the time, if he wants us to have stable, nonchaotic lives. Because of the kind of world God decided to create, he can intervene on occasion, but not at all times.  (1213)

God has always anticipated that agents will use their freedom the way they do, for he is infinitely intelligent and thus foresees every possibility as though it were a certainty. So he has a strategy to bring good out of any decision by influencing the situation to minimize its harmful effects. But this doesn’t qualify the truth that God nevertheless has to tolerate free decisions and their effects.  (1241)

We have no more reason to hold God morally responsible for the evil his creatures bring about than we do to hold parents morally responsible for the evil behaviour of their adult children.  (1251)

Though we have every reason to accept that God is not morally culpable for creating a world where evil occurs, we must remember that God nevertheless takes responsibility for evil. This is what the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ are all about.  (1261)

…the fine line between God influencing an agent as opposed to coercing an agent.  (1279)

The constraints God placed on himself by the necessity of a stable world order and by irrevocable freedom are strong enough to prevent God from always unilaterally intervening to prevent evil. But they aren’t so strong that they prevent God from sometimes intervening. They are strong enough to allow agents to relate to one another and have morally responsible say-so. But they aren’t so strong that the only thing that decides matters is the say-so of these agents.  (1298)

Along with the necessary order of the world and the freedom of agents, Scripture consistently depicts prayer as significantly influencing God’s interaction with us.  (1346)

Scripture encourages us to believe that prayer really changes what God does. Indeed, it sometimes changes what God can do in particular situations… God created a world in which he has significantly bound himself to the prayers of his people.  (1352)

Since we can spend only so much time in intercessory prayer, and since there is virtually an infinite number of things we could pray for, praying for direction on how we should spend our say-so in prayer is extremely important.  (1435)

On the authority of Jesus Christ and the biblical witness we can be assured that prayer always furthers God’s purpose in the world. Yet prayer is not the only variable that influences what God can and can’t do in any particular situation within this complex war zone. Among other things, God must respect the necessary stability of the world and the irrevocable revocable freedom of vast multitudes of free agents. Prayer makes a difference, but so do the necessary regularity of the world and every free choice humans and angels make. We have no way of knowing how the power of prayer intersects with these and other variables.  (1445)

Our awareness of the complex mechanics of prayer helps us locate the mystery of unanswered prayer in the unknowable complexity of creation rather than in the will of God.  (1460)

Those who place their trust in God are called to work with him to bring redemptive meaning out of every event, however tragic it may be.  (1701)

We aren’t called to accept everything as God’s will; instead, we are called to transform everything to bring it into conformity with God’s will. Only when we live with this mindset can we claim to be doing God’s will.  (1736)

Understanding that life is unfathomably complex encourages us—indeed, forces us—to listen to God on a moment by moment basis.  (1760)

The view that God unilaterally determines some humans to be forever outside his saving grace contradicts the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.  (1831)

The point of the potter-clay analogy is not God’s unilateral control, but God’s willingness and right to change his plans in response to changed hearts.  (1902)

For all their erudite distinctions between primary and secondary causes, necessary and contingent effects, and so on, no blueprint theologian has ever adequately explained how God can infallibly bring about evil while remaining all good, and while holding other agents morally responsible for the evil he ultimately brings about.  (1968)


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