I’VE GROUSED BEFORE ABOUT DUMB THINGS WE SAY AT FUNERALS:
• “Be happy your loved one didn’t suffer like my Uncle Charlie . . .”
• “Don’t worry, time heals all.”
• “She’s better off.”
• And my all-time least-favorite: “It’s God’s will, dear.”
It’s bad enough to lose a loved one; now we’re told God wants to tear up our lives! These comforters intend to reassure but make God the ultimate Meanie. If they’d only stick with that silent, tearful hug.
In his helpful article on divine providence (God’s ongoing care over us and our world, p. 38), George Mavrodes outlines a range of ways in which we deal with that mystery. Does our all-powerful, always-loving God cause bad stuff or only allow it? Either way, does God want it to happen?
I’m not sure where I fit on Mavrodes’s spectrum. But from my observations in hospitals, jails, and cemeteries, I conclude that God wills lots of stuff he doesn’t want.
I have no answers, only images that help me live with this mystery.
Here’s one. The Bible consistently uses parent-child language to describe our relationship with God even though that’s risky in a world rife with lousy parenting and rebellious children.
Theologian Helmut Thielicke observes that, according to Genesis 1, God didn’t hesitate to speak critters of all kinds into being. But before the creation of humankind, the narrative takes a pregnant pause. God did some careful reflecting. “Let us make humankind in our image . . .”
Why this hesitation? Because God was poised to create children—children who could spoil everything and cost him his only Son. That’s the price for ending up with imagebearers who love God not because they have to but because they freely want to. To get what he wanted God had to will what he certainly didn’t want.
God has sin and evil under control but never actively wills them. He allows them so we’ll be children, not slaves. But parenting free-willed creatures means that he often wills what he doesn’t want: painful stuff to accomplish our greater good. Years ago when I took my 1-year-old for a measles inoculation and the doctor poked him, my muppet shot me that accusing look—how could I let this happen? I couldn’t explain. I could only hope that he loved and trusted me enough to know it was for his own good.
Another helpful image is that of a surgeon. Does she want to slice me open? Was it her fault I clogged up my arteries with my fast-food addiction?
T.S. Eliot plays poignantly with this image:
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
Who is this “wounded surgeon”?
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
(Four Quartets 2: East Coker)
It’s in Gethsemane that we learn the mystery of God’s divine love—enabling us to whisper with Jesus: “Father . . . not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). n
Rev. Bob De Moor is editor of The Banner and pastor of preaching and administration at West End CRC, Edmonton, Alberta.