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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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God's plan

Lord may work in mysterious ways, but there’s no evidence of nonsensical ways

What do you say to a friend who tells you that your job loss is part of God’s special plan for your life? Or, if it is stage 3 cervical cancer that is causing you to lie awake worrying at night, how do you respond to that well-intended soul who wants you to believe that God has a reason for everything? 

Pious clichés that use God to explain away difficult or tragic circumstances are on the lips of vast numbers of Christians. Such expressions sound wonderfully holy. They also falsify human experience. They distort the majesty of God by twisting God into a distant and aloof sovereign. “God wanted it to happen, so it happened.” That’s a favorite. If your best friend is mugged and beaten, did God really send this suffering to teach your friend a lesson? If so, what sort of lesson was it? What are the odds that the lesson struck a chord? Most of us would find a lot more reason to fear rather than love God if the Lord of heaven and earth was this morally ambivalent or malevolent. 

While visiting a city church a few years ago, I picked up a history of the congregation. From that booklet I learned that the congregation’s previous sanctuary burned to the ground. “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 on Dec. 3, 1903.” Really? I’ll bet you didn’t know God delights in burning down churches.

From where does this folly come? Several sources. God gets blamed for all kinds of outlandish things, mostly because we don’t like to feel out of control in a chaotic universe. If we position God to assume the blame or credit for an inexplicable situation, suddenly it sounds more reasonable. Many people don’t like the idea of no one being responsible for a perplexing event. Thus, God becomes the handy arranger when one needs a cause for that flat tire in the desert, or for that stillborn child who had been the sparkle in a hope-filled couple’s eyes.

There is another reason why seemingly intelligent people tend to make God responsible for all kinds of ridiculous circumstances. Such theology works extremely well when things turn out to benefit us. An egocentricity permeates a lot of chatter about God having a personal plan for my life. Theological narcissism cleverly places “me” at the center of the universe.


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