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Think Less of God Intervening, Think More of God Participating

I suggest that we think less often about God intervening in our lives and think less highly of it. It is better to think of God as participating. It doesn’t hurt to think about divine intervention now and then, perhaps when we are thinking about the Big Bang and other very unusual things. But we should probably limit it to that.

The idea of “divine intervention” is that God totally determines some events. By “divine participation” we mean that God partially determines all of them. Shifting from the first of these to the second is a sign that we are becoming adults, I believe. This isn’t always easy, but growing up is often difficult.

We can illustrate the difference by drawing a line of circles which are shaded in varying amounts to symbolize how God acts in our lives. The circle on the far left, which is not shaded at all, suggests that God never does this, either because God doesn’t exist or because God doesn’t care.

The circle on the far right is totally colored. It suggests that everything that happens takes place precisely as it does because God unilaterally causes it to occur that way and no other. At one end, there is nothing for God to do; on the other there is nothing left for us.

Most reject both of these extremes in favor of options that fall somewhere between them. We can illustrate one of these moderating positions by drawing a string of circles where most of them are empty, or virtually so, while a few are totally colored. This is the idea of divine intervention. It holds that now and then, probably in response to our urgent requests, God steps in and totally takes over while we stand back and do nothing.

We can illustrate a second moderating position by partially coloring each circle, leaving every one of somewhat shaded and somewhat empty, even though the proportions vary. This is what we mean by divine participation.

According to this view, God is a positive influence in every moment of every life. How we respond to God’s ongoing influence partly determines what happens. This means that we can rarely say “God did this, but I did that.” Neither can we usually say, “This part of what the prophet wrote comes from her, but that part comes from God.” Almost always the result is a more or less flawed result of [faultless] divine and [faulty] human cooperation, plus many other things that God could not change without unraveling the whole system.

The idea of divine intervention can distort our pictures of God. It implies that God is somewhere, but not here; therefore, we must plead for God to enter our lives and if we are successful God will show up. God might even perform a miracle for us that will heal this illness, pay that bill or transform some relationship without us doing a thing other than to ask and believe.

At Mount Carmel, the prophet Elijah mocked the prophets of Baal, who apparently believed something like this. “Cry aloud!” he declared. “Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27 NRSV).

The idea of divine intervention can distort our pictures of ourselves. Few things are more common in clinical contexts than our tendency to blame ourselves or others if we or our loved ones are not miraculously healed. Apparently, when we are suffering from disease, old age, or some trauma, it is difficult for us to keep in mind that those who pray for miracles, when they are understood in this way, are no more likely to receive them than are those who don’t. These are the statistical facts, as best as the specialists can determine them. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to take them seriously?

Paul’s struggle with the ongoing “thorn in his flesh” is worth keeping in mind. Whatever it was, it bothered him and he prayed at least three times that God would deliver him of it. He also believed that he suffered from it so that his importance in his eyes and in those of others would not be exaggerated.

As far as I can tell, God neither removed Paul’s thorn nor confirmed his understanding of why he suffered from it. “My grace is sufficient for you,” was the response. “For power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9 NRSV). This is the answer most of us get most of the time. It is enough.

The idea of divine intervention can distort our pictures of the natural and supernatural too. Both the skeptic David Hume and the Christian apologist C. S. Lewis followed a long line of thought in defining miracles as events that violate the laws of nature, even though there are many problems with this way of thinking. One of the most important of them is that it pits the God the super-naturalist against God the naturalist. How much more adequate it is to join Ellen White and the theological legacy from which she came in thinking that even in miracles God does not violate the laws of nature but works in, through, and with them.

I may be one of the few people on earth who see this issue surfacing in the story of the Second Trial of Jesus. The tempter took him to a pinnacle and suggested that he jump and depend upon God’s angels to rescue him from the law of gravity, one of the basic constants along with the strong, weak, and electromagnetic forces. The response of Jesus is worth pondering: “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Matt. 4:7 NRSV). In my words, “Don’t put God on a silly trial by demanding that the supernatural contradict the natural!”

Sooner or later, the idea of divine intervention fails all of us. At that point,we often give up on the idea of God altogether. But before taking that drastic step, we might want to consider the possibility that we did not understand how God usually interacts with us in the first place. As Elijah learned the hard way, almost always this is as “a still small voice.”

David Larson teaches in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.

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