First Words

Does God cause our suffering?

God works in mysterious ways, not sadistic ones.

I  was visiting a historic church some years ago and picked up a short history of the congregation. I learned that its first sanctuary had burned to the ground on December 3, 1903. “No doubt, to train his people for greater things,” the account read, “it pleased the Lord to reduce this splendid edifice of worship to a gutted, smoldering ruin by a disastrous fire.” Who would have guessed that God delights in burning churches down? The familiar spiritual catchphrase of our day, that “God has a plan for everything,” may have been absent from the narrative. But the idea was there all the same.

Pious clichés often use God to explain away difficult or tragic circumstances. My sense is that language of “God’s plan” brings a measure of comfort to many who feel a loss of control in a universe that is not always safe, predictable, or friendly. Assigning blame or credit to God for outlandish things can make hard or inexplicable situations suddenly seem reasonable.

Two weeks ago, a helicopter lifted a 19-year-old in our congregation to a regional hospital after a hit-and-run driver skipped a stop sign and plowed into his motorcycle. When a family friend learned that Pete’s right leg had to be amputated, she phoned Pete’s mother to reassure her that this hardship was part of God’s plan for Pete. The mother was aghast. As she explained to me later, this bit of folk wisdom falsified her own experience and faith. Wasn’t there more reason to fear rather than love a God this morally ambivalent or malevolent?