As I was growing up Adventist, several verses became the watchword repeated by various preachers that explained what life was all about: "I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread." (Ps. 37:25, NIV). Another key verse was: "The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them." (Ps. 34:7, NIV). Then, there was the verse, "And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus." (Phil. 4:19, NIV). These verses (and many others) were used to provide comfort and the certainty that God will provide food, safety and our real, as opposed to only desired, needs. Later sermons introduced from Jeremiah 1:4-5 the idea that all are born with a purpose.
The idea of the purpose driven life was succinctly summarized by Rick Warren in his 2002 book, The Purpose Driven Life, when he declares, "Because God made you for a reason, he also decided when you would be born and how long you would live. He planned the days of your life in advance, choosing the exact time of your birth and death" (pg. 23). Many an Adventist church set aside 40 days to review and discuss Warren's book in an effort to determine their purposes in life.
Living in Southern California can provide an idyllic environment and narrow variance in most metrics that permit assigning to God one's status in life. There is a different reality in war-ravaged sections of the world where life expectancy is less than 50 years, where hunger is a constant companion and where the brutality of rape leads to unplanned and unwanted children. Is this what is meant by God deciding when we would be born, how long we will live and what our destiny becomes? What are we to make of the concept that every birth is planned for God's purpose?
The narrative of an omniscient God who micro-manages our lives, who protects us from harm (most of the time) and ensures that we do not go without need fits very well into the idea of being a "peculiar" people. A protected people, who avoid many of the catastrophes of life because of that special relationship. With prayer, the odds of a good outcome in matters of health, accidents or even marriage are shifted toward the Christian, especially the Adventist Christian. When suffering does occur, there is the pivot toward God's role in that suffering, either though His acquiescence to that suffering or by extraordinary intervention, to relieve that suffering. At the very least, so the narrative continues, suffering is justified and explained because God permitted the suffering of His Son.
An understanding of what happens to us typically centers on what God knows or does. It is not about us. The idea of God's role in suffering, theodicy, has engendered theological arguments through the centuries to explain what it means. Subsumed under theodicy is the matter of our status in life, the issue of God's micro-management of the individual and what we should make of all this. For many, it is believed that God in His divine will is the only factor that matters in what happens to us in life. Comfort to those who are suffering comes in the form of relating the suffering to the theodicy arguments on why suffering occurs: 1) God allows suffering for His honor, 2) as the result of evil in the world, 3) in order to help us grow spiritually, 4) in order to salvage someone else's salvation, 5) because of a cosmic dispute between God and Satan, 6) God's sovereign will, 7) to be grateful when the suffering ends; and for numerous other reasons.
Sermons are frequently laced with references to one of these reasons as a means of providing comfort. An oft repeated phrase to the low-income church where I was raised was "God keeps you poor to keep you humble." Conversely, when good fortune smiles, it was almost always attributed to God's favor on us. We were urged to be careful not to attribute such outcomes to anything other than divine intervention, lest we become "puffed up."
But suffering, like good outcomes, should incorporate these four factors: 1) individual Choice, 2) the randomness that we call Chance, 3) the physical, social and economic Environment (and all that it entails), and 4) the spiritual realm that we identify as God. These factors operate in a manner that circumscribes how we suffer, what our status of life is at a moment and are contributory to how we respond to those circumstances. Inconvenient data show wide divergences across location, racial and gender lines in family life, health and wealth. These persistent differences are not consistent with a God who chooses my time of birth, my location and purpose in life, and the degree that I should suffer.
Instead, what we observe is the working out of Choice, Chance, Environment and God. While we believe that in the overarching scheme of things, God's will is sovereign and His ultimate purpose will prevail, in the micro world in which we live these four factors can define where we are and who we become. On one level, our choices and even the working out of God's will are constrained by environment and random factors over which we have little or no control. Indeed, God does not micro-manage our lives.
An overreliance on "God alone" subjects us to reject the reality of an existence where we make choices that affect where we are, that random forces can cause suffering in ways that are not predictable on the basis of our spirituality; and the physical, cultural and time environment can profoundly impact our lives. On the other hand, an overreliance on Choice, Chance and Environment, does not allow for God's intervening to alter the trajectory of our lives.
How does this affect how we pray or what we are to make of sermons that seem to defy the surrounding reality? To what degree should we pray that God would overcome the circumstances that confine us? As we lay dying from disease, are we to recognize the potential for miraculous healing and pray accordingly? In a winter storm, will only the righteous be saved, or will they have greater odds of survival because of the spiritual emphasis?
Suffering on the micro level is not something that we embrace, nor should it be confined to abstract theories on why or how God is intervening in the world. Choice, Chance and Environment do matter in why we prosper or suffer and even how we respond. God enters the equation as another, but not the exclusive explanation of why that suffering or good fortune occurs.
Henry E. Felder, PhD, is a retired economist and Adventist Forum Board, which publishes Spectrum.
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