The Will of God
(Why Bad Things Happen)
Isaiah 53; Psalm 23; Revelation 21:1-5; 22:5
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want (Psalm 23:1).
God never accepted a job description that dictates that God should always shelter us and make us healthy and safe from the perils of the world; but that God would be with us to see us safely through. God does not manipulate life on this planet, and so we need not be surprised when evil strikes. Many years ago C.S. Lewis estimated that 4/5ths of humanity’s suffering is inflicted by our fellow human beings (probably more than that now). Human nature, left free by God to love God and be magnificent, but also to ignore God and be downright ugly, is the cause of unspeakable suffering and evil in this world. Wars, terrorist attacks, extramarital affairs, crime, feelings of being unloved—we do all this to each other. We need not blame God. Instead of asking: Why do bad things happen to good people? We might ask: Why do God’s children sin so much? Or: Why do bad Christians happen to good people? Think about it—are you a good Christian or a bad Christian?
Even good things people do wreak havoc. When we invented the automobile, we signed an unwitting contract with death, because it’s just dangerous to hurl tonnages of metal down the highway at high speeds in proximity to other vehicles; driver error, mechanical failure… and you have suffering. And flying five miles high in an aluminum tube at five hundred miles per hour. God does not cause car and airplane accidents. How many human inventions unwittingly cause harm?
The march of science has postponed death, and lengthened life. Although at times we prolong life, understandably, but you wonder if it might be more merciful to let death take its natural course more often than we do, and allow the dying to say goodbye. In that way the dying blesses the living, one last time. How interesting: it is only in modern times, when medicine has advanced astronomically, have we come to think of death as a reason to reject God. In ancient times, nobody doubted God if a young person died. Life expectancy was around thirty years; half your children routinely died at birth, as did one-fifth of the mothers. A century ago, infections were dumbfounding, and people died from simple cuts. Smart people devised antibiotics, and now we don’t think twice about infections. One day we will understand why cancer happens, and some medicine will fix it. No one will question God about cancer, any more than we do about infections today. But there will still be new diseases, new causes of our old nemesis, death.
When suffering or evil strikes, isn’t it cruel to chalk it up to God’s will? You say to someone who is reeling from shattering news, God did this. You isolate the person from God! Perhaps there is comfort in the notion that evil is God’s will, that God has it under control. But there is a better way to think of God’s presence and power in the hour of suffering…
In the hour of suffering many will ask: Where was God? Where was God when my son was killed in the Gulf War? I have answered: The same place God was when they nailed God’s son to the cross.
Surely he has borne our grieves (Isaiah 53:4).
After his son died when his car plummeted into Boston Harbor, William Sloane Coffin preached a sermon in which he declared: When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and at least one thing that should never be said. The night after Alex died a woman came by carrying quiches. She shook her head, saying sadly, ‘I just don’t understand the will of God.’ Instantly I swarmed all over her. ‘I’ll say you don’t, lady! Do you think it was the will of God that Alex never fixed that lousy windshield wiper; that he was probably driving too fast in a storm? Do you think it is God’s will that there are no streetlights along that stretch of road?’ Nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around with his finger on triggers, his fist around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is, ‘It is the will of God.’ My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.
Where was God in 9/11? People wondered how that could be God’s will. Was it divine punishment on New York or America? No, clearly it was not God’s will, or we should have given Osama bin Laden a medal for doing holy work. But where was God? God was in the towers as they fell; God was crushed, just as Jesus was crushed by the evil machinations of history on the Cross. God took care of those suffering souls in the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and on those airliners. God removed them from their final suffering, taking them to a place where there is never again suffering.
God is not removed from suffering. It is not that if I am suffering I’d better get away and get back close to God where all is smooth. God is wherever suffering happens. God showed God’s self most clearly, profoundly, and tenderly, not in a lovely beachside resort where a tan Jesus sips a daiquiri comfortably with his friends. God showed God’s self on the cross, a gruesome death for someone entirely too young. That was God’s circumstantial will! so that we would never face evil or suffering alone, that we would take comfort in a God who did not remain aloof in heaven, but came down, bore the worst the world could dole out, endured that kind of pain and agony we all endure eventually.
And even better, God did not merely take our suffering into the body of his own Son. A God who merely sympathized with us, who got down into the lowest depths with us would be a kindhearted God, but we need a powerful God, a God who can take those who suffer horrifically and raise them up at the final resurrection, a God who can judge and even bend the powers of this world who unleash suffering to the eventual good of God’s purpose. What God ultimately does with evil, what God finally wills for the universe and you and me, is good.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. The psalmist expresses his unwavering trust in God in a fallen world. In the Israel of the psalmist, the term shepherd was a metaphor for king. The king provides his subjects with all they need to prosper, including companionship within the dangers of a fallen world. God’s sovereignty surrounds all our living: in green pastures, right paths, and in the darkness of valleys—the valley of the shadow of death. God’s guidance will finally lead us home to the house of the Lord forever.
When God’s will is done: Night shall be no more, for the Lord God will be their light (Revelation 22:5).
Is God in control? Is God’s will done? We pray: Thy will be done, and this is the one prayer we know (with utterly absolute certainty) will be perfectly answered. In the end, evil will be no more. God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death will be no more (Revelation 21:4). All will be glory, everything will shimmer with holiness; every person and the entire universe will mirror the brightness of God’s glory.
But until then, in the meantime, there will be evil. The world will persist as a vale of tragedy, sin and darkness in the thick of beauty, goodness and wonder. Until that final glory, the world remains divided… Life and death grow up together and await the harvest. In such a world, our portion is charity, and our sustenance is faith (David Bentley Hart). The Lord is my shepherd!
Charity and faith—Charity: we love, we care, and we anticipate that final glory to the degree we are able. When we pray: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, we seek not just a future, but a presence in which I make up my mind that I will be about heaven down here on earth. If country, social class, race, or background means nothing in heaven, they will mean nothing to me now. If tears are wiped away then, I will wipe a few away today. If anger and decadence will vanish in eternity, then I will be gentle and holy today. I will love, not merely because God wills me to love, but because God has loved me, and I recognize the other person as somebody God loves.
Faith: belief is defined in Hebrews 11:1 as the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. We live today but with our hearts resident in God’s future—and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. We are invested, not in the things of this place, but in the dawning of God’s eventual victory.
Yes, evil and suffering are having their day. But God is greater, and even now we see God exhibiting the stunning ability to bring good out of evil. Not that all evil must somehow be good! But God does ultimately bring good out of evil. When Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, God used their misdeed to bring life out of death; to read Genesis 45 and 50 is to explore the grace of God that doesn’t give sinful human beings a second chance, but that transforms evil into something useful, into God’s glory. The world breaks everyone, but then some become strong in the broken places (Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms).
Evil will finally be the occasion for God’s glory. Suffering will be the theater for God’s grace. Easter, after all, happened in a cemetery, and as Jesus’ tomb was transformed into a chorus of praise by the angels, so the entire universe will no longer be subject to decay and despair and will be a magnificent opera of music, dance, grand costumes, and artistry extolling God, whose will most certainly will have been done.
Charles Lee Hutchens, D. Min.
Main Street United Methodist Church
Reidsville, NC, March 2, 2007
I preached this sermon again at Bethlehem United Methodist Church, Climax, NC on March 30, 2014.