26 July 2012

The sovereign God and tragedy

by Dan Phillips

Understandably, whenever there is a terrible tragedy, two equally wrongheaded reactions spring to the fore.

Unbelievers will adduce the tragedy to "prove" the absence of God. Some believers, from a very different motive, will (unintentionally) agree.

The unbeliever, illegitimately robbing concepts of "good" and "evil" from the Bible, sees in tragedy proof that there is no sovereign and loving God. Also horrified by the specific tragedy, some believers will respond by trying to "help" God by making excuses for Him. Without meaning it, they agree with God's haters: God just wasn't there and in charge. That's why it happened.

Candidly, I have no problem understanding that response, on an emotional level. Emotionally, there is comfort in picturing God as doing the best He could, meaning well, but for some reason just not being able to prevent evil. Initially, that is a more comforting view. Initially, any view that says straight up-front that God is God, equally, in boon and bane, and that there is no force that trumps Him, is a harder pill to swallow.

Yet the trade-off in reaching for the quick-fix view of a well-meaning but not-in-charge God is in no way worth it. First, it simply isn't Biblical. Second, there simply is no way to explain why, if this event did not go according to God's plan, any and all subsequent events might not do the same.

On September 11, 2005, I preached a sermon titled God and Our Tragedies, approaching this issue Biblically and pastorally. Have a listen, if you like.

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24 comments:

Tom Chantry said...

The most powerful thing which my recently deceased friend Jim Bublitz (formerly of oldtruth.com) said in his closing days was, "Our theology just works."

He was talking about exactly the point you make here - which is as true of individual calamity as it is of public tragedy. Initially, to assert the absolute and universal sovereignty of God leaves you with a strange feeling that God is somehow not good. Ultimately, though, a theology which denies that absolute and universal sovereignty leaves you with no God and no comfort.

What works (and this is not pragmatism - it is simply the theology of the Bible) is a doctrine which says, "God must have his purpose in this, for He is not only infinitely more powerful than I, He is also infinitely more wise and infinitely more good."

Kerry James Allen said...

"Why, look, sirs; suppose for a moment there were some great performance going on, and you should step in in the middle of it and see one actor upon the stage for a moment, and you should say, "Yes, I understand it," what a simpleton you would be! Do you not know that the great transactions of providence began near six thousand years ago? CHS

Luke Wolford said...

Truly these types of events can test our faith. In the long run, we must have the same attitude as Joseph when he told his brothers that they meant what they did for evil, but God meant it for good. God is ultimately in control and does allow bad things to happen to people. Its hard when it happens to us, but also hard to be the counselor to someone struck by tragedy and wondering how a sovereign, good God would allow this bad thing to happen to them. We can try to defend God and come off like uncaring jerks or rob God of his sovereignty as you mentioned. I would think the best course of action would be to affirm God's sovereignty but plead ignorance to God's reasons since he hasn't told us but try to build trust in his goodness that he allows tragedy for good reason. What do you guys think?

Kerry James Allen said...

To echo Tom's statement about "Our theology just works," is it just me, or do the Arminians become strangely silent for weeks after a major tragedy? Thoughts? Responses? I don't think any Calvinist would claim to have all the answers in these difficult situations, but Arminianism doesn't seem to offer any, does it?

Luke Wolford said...

Kerry, they do sometimes. Pat Robertson comes to mind.

dac said...

Arminians have nothing to say on the tragedy?

May I suggest you should get out of your wading pool into the bigger ocean of thought? If you truly believe that you are not very widely read. I don't read that much and even I know that bloggers such as BWIII and Roger Olson have commented.

DJP said...

Find myself looking for the antonym to "value-added."

Tom Chantry said...

DAC?

Robert said...

Shouldn't the Arminian response be that God provided enough grace for James Holmes to have repented, but he rejected the truth and did his own thing? If the answer is something other than that, doesn't their whole belief about salvation fall apart?

Tawser said...

Personally, I think the only good response to a tragedy like the one in Colorado is the response of Christ in Dostoevsky's Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, namely respectful silence. If you try to find good reasons for God allowing such suffering, you tempt the blasphemous response of Ivan in the same novel, namely, "If building the kingdom of God requires the suffering of a single abused child, then to hell with the kingdom of God." If there was ever a subject that required the profoundest intellectual humility, this is it.

Bill said...

Taw
The thing that I'm hung up on in your post is the use of "requires."
Thanks
Bill

Sir Brass said...

Why be silent, Tawser, when God is not silent on these things. He has stated repeatedly in His revealed Word that He has a purpose in these things. He doesn't always tell us His reasons (okay, he often does NOT outside of them being part of the means by which He will glorify Himself in the salvation of a particular people and the just condemnation of the rest for their sins), but He does tell us that He is sovereign both in the sunshine and the rain; in the calm and in the tornado; in peacetime and in pitched battle.

Dostoevsky did not write inspired scripture.

DJP said...

"Be silent" as opposed to reciting truths in an asinine, unfeeling, uncaring and robotically correct and inhuman way — yes, good advice (Job 6:2; 13:5; Prov 25:20; Rom 12:15).

But "be silent" as opposed to offering Biblical comfort and encouragement in a tender, caring, compassionate manner as we have opportunity (2 Cor. 1:4; Gal. 6:2; 1 Thess. 5:11, 14; Heb. 12:12)?

Surely not.

Kerry James Allen said...

DJP, I think the antonym is "value-addled." Luke, I don't know you, so I'm hoping you were tongue in cheek as they say. Pat Robertson? What did he say? "God told me something bad was going to happen pretty soon." Or was it his, "God told me He is judging America" drum again? And as for Olson what would he say about God? "Well, the future is a pretty unsure thing, so don't blame Me." We offered proof here recently that if Olson isn't an open theist already, by his admission, he doesn't have a big problem with it. There is a difference between commenting and offering solid Biblical answers. And I mean answers that don't denigrate God by either subtly stating He didn't know this would happen, or that He just sits around wringing His anthropomorphic hands wishing He could help. And since I can't swim I'll stay in my wading pool.

Nash Equilibrium said...

Yeah I'm with Dan's distinction on that one, Taw. If we remained silent about Biblical truth every time it might provoke a blasphemous response from unbelievers, we'd never speak up.

Sir Aaron said...

KJA: The armininian response here is always the same. "You don't read and if you did, you'd know what Roger Olson and Charles Wesley said."

@Robert: Essentially, yes. God has decided to stop being God so that man can have free will. Therefore, evil happens because the world is left to it's own devices.

DJP said...

Aaron, I also get the impression that people don't actually come away from Olson, etc., having learned anything. Because they never have much to say, beyond "Boy howdy, you'd better go over and see what ROGER OLSON is saying, yessirree! That man sure said it, yes, he did!"

But when I did for myself, I wasn't all that impressed. As you know.

But that was probably just an "off" day.

Kerry James Allen said...

Aaron: Thank you for summing up the Arminians and now we can all save a lot of time by not having to read their responses since you have responded for all of them and then we can read other things since they say we don't read. Hey, that's a good old fashioned Americanized victim's mentality response: Calvinists don't have time to read because we have been so stalemated by trying to answer the Arminians. It's just not my fault! Don't you judge me for my small wading pool!

Luke Wolford said...

Kerry,

I wasn't really just being tongue in cheek but remembering how he reacted to Katrina, if I'm remembering my history correctly.

Luke Wolford said...

BTW not saying I agree with Pat Robertson. (I feel like I'm digging myself a hole, maybe I should be quiet and stop digging)

Five Solas said...

There is great comfort that comes from the fact that God is good, wise, and sovereign. We can ever rest in His Word which teaches us that He works all things after the wise counsel of His will (Eph 1:11) and that He causes all things to work together for the good of those who are His (Rom 8:28).

We can trust in God and in His Word, believing that what is in His Word is true, without having to know why and how. This side of heaven, we may never know why God in His goodness and wisdom has sovereignly ordained a specific tragedy. But we can simply trust Him. And oh what comfort comes from that!

Kerry James Allen said...

Just read a very interesting anecdote from Spurgeon: "The wind has been behaving most outrageously during the last few days, not only to the world in general, but to us in particular; for, as I had the misfortune to tell you on Sabbath morning, it has most completely and entirely sent to the ground one of our buildings at the Orphanage, of which nothing remains at all except the materials, which will be useful for something else; but the structure itself is demolished as completely as a thousand workman could have done it. The stormy wind, however, though we regret what it has done, must not be viewed by us as a chance agency, or as causing misfortunes and losses which we are to lament; but we are to look upon it as the 'stormy wind fulfilling his word.' Psalm 148:8

Another case of read it dozens of times but never saw it. Ponder that verse as we discuss these issues.

Jim W said...

You guys are missing a sure thing if you don't get dac posting on Mondays.

Marty Summers said...

DJP, while I didn't appreciate your previous interpersonal relationship skills dealing with one who differs with you slightly on a doctrinal point I do applaud your message (per the link) on the subject. Well done. The unbeliever may use evil in the world to deny the existence of God however I believe the sovereign providence of God is the only thing that gives the evil/tragedy meaning, value, and purpose.