A short while ago, I posted on social media about writing blog posts based on your experiences of bad theology, and I was thrilled to receive stories from you and ideas of things I could cover. Most were interesting to research and write about, but one topic was offered, which came from someone’s experience that hit quite close to home.
Does God cause the death of people we love?
If you’ve read my book ‘Stuck in the Mud’ you’ll know that my mother died when I was very young. The experience is a very distant story to me, and I have never really been able to quantify the loss. There’s a genuine bereavement for my older siblings who had a relationship with our mother, but that’s not something I experienced for myself until our father died.
When it comes to coping with death, those of us who have faith in God often take comfort in the knowledge that God has some sort of plan. It’s something we tend to say, and if you’re a Christian, you’re likely to accept God’s knows everything anyway.
For example, in the book of Job, we read that ‘A person’s days are determined…(by God)”, and in Psalm 139:16, it says: “…all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”
I’ve said it already, but this aspect of God can give us a great deal of comfort. He sees everything, and from a distant vantage point, has everything set in place in His grand plan. It’s funny; even though it’s such an alien concept, we tend to be able to let how crazy it sounds wash over us. It’s almost like magic. It’s massive, warm, awe-inspiring and so mysterious. Crucially, it’s so ‘other’ that it’s also unlikely ever to cause us any pain.
Unfortunately, other aspects of God are a bit more problematic, and this is where we can get a bit lost.
God’s death count
There are many brutal stories in the Bible where God is deliberately allowing or straight up causing death. Sodom and Gomorrah being destroyed is a pretty great example, and that’s only 19 chapters into the Bible. Then there are stories like one in Leviticus 10 where God kills two guys with fire from His presence just for disobeying Him.
That’s two examples but imagine for a moment that someone like me might enjoy listing all the times God killed for various reasons in the Bible. Suppose I recorded the kills, the reasons God allowed them and then I drew a few conclusions.
One conclusion may well be that God is not able to be fair. God is good, that’s right, but the law of holiness also binds God into a rhythm of justice that God cannot break from; otherwise, He simply wouldn’t be God.
And now, if you’re still with me, you may have just sensed the issue. You see, once we touch on deep, theological arguments, someone like me, who’s likely to study, could easily fall foul of almost instantly losing empathy. In the three paragraphs above this one, I managed to go from talking about comfort to discussing God’s holiness and need for justice. If I had pushed a little further, I could have quickly concluded that God plans death and wants death to happen.
If you pardon the metaphor, It’s as if we go on a journey to see Oz. On the way, we’re compassionate, but then we come before Oz, the great and powerful, pull back the curtain and find (unlike in the film) that he is everything we hoped and feared. In that situation, someone like me might find myself stunned, with nothing to do but marvel in the spectacle. I might rationalise him and get so caught up in the glory that I forget the point of the journey altogether.
The pain of loss?
The person who asked me to write this blog had a similar experience to my siblings and I. Sadly; she also experienced a Christian leader who spoke to her as if he’d seen God the great and powerful before his very eyes. I gather that he explained the will of God to her and unpacked God’s capacity to take people when he felt like it. He rationalised the loss, celebrated the spectacle and wholeheartedly missed the point for the person experiencing the pain.
In chapter 11 of the gospel of John, Jesus (who is God in human form) lost his friend. When he found out, the Bible records the shortest verse in the whole of scripture. It’s to the point, and perfectly expresses the heart of God in the face of loss. It says, “Jesus wept.”
And this is where I’m going to end.
In my experience of nearly twenty-five years in Christian ministry, I’ve met a great many different types of leaders and teachers. Some have been exceptionally clever, able to marvel in the mystery of God. Sometimes these leaders fall foul of being emotionally dry, missing the needs of those around them. Others I’ve met have been less theologically knowledgeable but have been more humble with a greater capacity for empathy.
What’s strange is that there are times in scripture when we find God mocking cleverness. I don’t know why, but God loves to encourage the humble over the clever. Could it be that the humble leader has a more natural capacity for grace? Maybe greater wisdom and empathy?
Anyway, to the one who asked the question, I hope this has been helpful, and to everyone else, a word of caution.
If you ever come before God the great and powerful, and you find out that He’s everything you hoped. Don’t forget that the person next to you might be hurting; that they may have only made the journey with you to find a way to peace. They won’t necessarily care about how much you can explain about the experience; They may only need your compassion.
If you’re enjoying this series, do consider buying my book ‘Stuck in the Mud: Stories of hope for when you’re stuck.’ It’s available from all Christian bookshops, Amazon, Waterstones and bookshop.org.