A couple of days ago a friend posted a status update on Facebook about his personal experience of searching for God working on that particular day. His final sentence ended as follows: “Even if we do not see God working we need to have faith that he is still working in us Even if we do not see God working we need to have faith that he is still working in us.” That status update raised a few personal questions for me regarding how we perceive God to be working in the world, and some deeper issues associated with that.
The core of the issue, really, comes down to this question: “When we look for evidence of God ‘working’ in the world, what criteria do we use to judge whether God is actually working in the world?” While there may be some objective truth about whether God is working in the world around us, the way we interpret events around us as either being part of God’s plan or not seems to be much more subjective and open to personal interpretation. Our tendency, I suspect, is to judge what God is doing in the world based on our perception about the relative success of particular things we think God should be doing in the world – in other words our perception of how God is working in the world is intimately colored by our own values and agenda, and in a very subtle way, we’ve changed the question from, “How is God working in the world?” to, “How is God working in the world around me to increase my wealth/happiness/satisfaction?”
It may seem like a narrow distinction, but there is a huge gulf between believing that God is working toward my happiness, wealth, and satisfaction and simply believing that God is working. Even though most people say they don’t believe in a prosperity Gospel, most of us have an implicit assumption in our theological foundation that God should reward those who are good and punish those who are evil. As someone who is good, then, I should be able to see evidence of God working around me to make my life better – I should get the new job, or the raise at work, and my kids should never act up, always get good grades in school, and be the star of their respective soccer teams. We wouldn’t be so naive as to publicly say we believe this, of course, but let’s examine the core question again: what criteria do we use to determine whether God is working in the world? Do we really believe that God is working (at the time) when our 401k takes a 40% hit, or we suddenly have termites eating up our house? Insurance companies and lawyers seem to find God working in tragedy (always nice to see they aren’t liable for “acts of God”), but we seldom take that view ourselves when the ball comes up double zero. No, if God is working, he must be working *for* me.
The danger then, as I see it, is this: if God is in the business of looking out for my personal interests (as I define them), then everything is fine, so long as things are going the way I want them to. But when your father dies of cancer, or you lose a child to a miscarriage, or your husband leaves you after three months of marriage, it becomes rather difficult to write those events into the narrative “God is working for good” if by “God is working for good” we really mean “God is working to improve the personal satisfaction, happiness, and wealth of all those who are called according to his purpose.”
If God is ultimately, primarily interested in improving the lives of those who are faithful to Him, then the conclusion one is forced to draw in the above situations is that a) God isn’t doing a very good job of “working for the good” or b) the people in the above situations more or less deserve what they got. It’s also possible to conclude that c) the situations above really aren’t that bad, and that the people in them stood to suffer far more unless these situations happened, but I think this argument cheapens the very real pain and suffering people go through in times of crisis. If we accept conclusion a), then God is impotent or tyrannical, and if we accept conclusion b) we move quickly to a place of pride and arrogance or guilt and shame, depending on which side of the crisis we’re on.
One of the major underlying issues in this process is our common practice of using analogies that point from man to God, as opposed to the other way around. In the ensuing discussion, my friend compared how his father treated him (not letting him steal candy from a store) to how God treats and sometimes disciplines us. Both my friend’s analogy and our tendency to apply our personal thought process to God fall under this category of analogy. The problem is that the analogy between God and man turns out to be rather tenuous.
Let’s consider the example of comparing God the Father to an earthly father. When we invoke this analogy in the incorrect direction, we are saying that we can infer how God the Father treats us by observing how earthly father’s treat their children. Thus just as earthly fathers may know much better than their young children which actions are beneficial and which ones are not, God the Father knows better than us and influences things around us so that we will make better choices. The problem with applying this logic is that we are in some sense creating God in our image, rather than the other way around. Furthermore, every analogy breaks down at some point – so exactly how far do we carry this particular one? Can we also infer that God the Father abandons his children, as earthly fathers often do? Does he disappoint them with no good reason, as earthly fathers often do? What of fathers who treat their children with indifference or neglect? Are these qualities we can ascribe to God as well? Just how strong is this analogy?
Obviously I think there is something to the analogy – we do not call the first person of the Trinity “God the Father” for no reason, and the Bible itself clearly speaks in these terms (see also Matthew 7). But I believe the analogy should generally run from God to man, rather than the other way around. In other words, we should infer how to treat our children based on how God treats us, rather than inferring how God treats us (especially on a topic as diverse and intricate as theodicy) based on how we treat our children. When we start to run the analogy backward, there are some pretty serious issues that come up.
These issues seem small, but they manifest themselves in devious ways when we make inferences about how God thinks/acts based on how we think/act. It shows up when we superimpose our will on God’s will, when we take our interests and judge God’s actions on how well he promotes them, while ignoring or overlooking the possibility that God might be interested in, or doing, something else in the world (think Isaiah 55). It happens when we write our stories in such a way that God is on “our side” to the exclusion of other people. Do we really think that God chooses sides?
The functional upshot of all of this is that we don’t always know what God is doing, and we have to accept the idea that he isn’t always doing what we think he should be. As God promises to usher in “a new heaven and a new earth”, we need to be aware of the fact that God’s work might mean we lose the privileged position we occupy in the current world. Unfortunately, we often find it easy to write our view of God’s agenda as if it is pretty much identical to our own, limited, personal agenda. When we do this, we begin to measure God’s faithfulness in terms of whether or not he is serving our own interests, rather than by looking at events in the world and engaging in the process of discerning what God is doing, and how we can participate in that.
The first view prays for God to “bless us”, while the second view asks for God to reveal to us where is working, believing that God’s work is blessed already.
So in a practical sense, we return to the question, “What criteria do I use to judge whether God is working?” If my standard amounts to me getting a raise at work, the kids doing great in school, my 401k not losing value, attendance at my church generally trending upward, and Republican candidates winning political races, I would suggest that I’m thinking in terms of the first view rather than the second, and that I’m making “God’s agenda” into my agenda, rather than the other way around.