As a minister I’m expected to know what God is up to.
Is God punishing me?
How do you know when God is speaking?
Why did God let this happen?
If I don’t have the answers to these questions what use am I as a minister? I used to wonder when I was younger and demanded answers to everything. Which probably explains why I chose to become a scholar instead of a pastor.
“This is not a course on what God said,” is how I’d open my lecture the first day of class when I taught the Old Testament survey class. “This is a course on what Israel said God said.” Always good to start off with a disclaimer. Whether God actually commanded Joshua and his followers to annihilate the Canaanites and to seize their land, I don’t know. But I can come up with a few pretty plausible reasons why Joshua and his followers would say that God told them that.
I understand what makes people appeal to God to explain why they do the things they do and why things turn out the way they do. I’ve done it a few times myself. But I always do so looking back over my shoulders. I’ve been known to be wrong.
When you’re reared Christian (of a particular sort) and raised believing in a sacramental universe, it’s natural to want to point to God to explain stuff you don’t understand. In a sacramental world in everything that happens, God is trying to communicate something. Especially helpful is the trove of proverbs hurting people pass along to comfort other hurting people beginning with, “God never puts more on you than you can bear.” No one talks about the times God has miscalculated.
Did God cause the bridge in Minneapolis to collapse sending 13 people to plunge to their death in the Mississippi River?
Did God cause the levees to break two years ago in New Orleans causing thousands of people to lose lives, home, and nearly their sanity?
Why didn’t God bring those Utah miners out alive?
Why did God allow the Virginia Tech massacre to happen?
If God didn’t ordain slavery, why didn’t God prevent it?
It’s hard giving up on this way of thinking even when you know better. Listening to the rationalizations folks in pulpits, on CNN, and across the dinner table come up with to explain everything from the 9/11 terrorist attacks to the unexpected death of a child makes you shake your head and wonder if we’ve all gone mad from trying to make sense of our world. Humans demand an accounting. Tragedy is easier to survive if it can be explained, we think. The book of Job was supposed to be a masterpiece. But folks couldn’t resist asking Jesus centuries later, “Who sinned, the mother or the father, that this boy was born blind?” (John 9:1-3).
Why, oh why, must it be always about divine punishment –especially when the “punishment” is obscenely excessive given the crime, and especially since so many innocent lives end up perishing along with the guilty? It’s easier to blame God than it is genetics, capitalism, racism, violence, fate, human error, etc.?
Here’s what I believe, or think I believe, until the next time I’m knocked to my knees with grief.