Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Silly Things to Say..."If it doesn't work out, then God must have something better."

I heard someone say this recently. In fact, I hear things like it pretty often:

"I guess it wasn't meant to be."

"When God closes one door, He opens another."

It works in the reverse too:

"I guess God was looking out for me."

"That must have been the Lord."

I could go on, but you get the idea. These sorts of things are usually said either after a disappointment or after a success. It doesn't really matter how big or small the event is; people see God's activity pretty much everywhere.

And usually, people say these things as though they're particularly spiritual or astute. The problem is, there's usually not much reason to think they're true. And sometimes, there's good reason to think they're not.

What all of these slogans have in common--aside from being overly simplistic--is that they assume that God is a micro-manager. And it's not just that He micro-manages the present either; usually these statements imply that He has an extensive control of the future.

Another interesting thing about these statements is that they always seem to reinforce God's involvement in given circumstances. Whether the circumstances are for the better or not, our tendency is to attribute their occurrence to God. It is much less common to hear someone say, "God had nothing to do with that."

And to me, that is a scary thought.

Now, fair warning: I'm showing my theological cards a bit here. There are theological systems that can incorporate these statements pretty easily. In fact, they might even entail them. I've heard theologians that I respect a great deal express that they feel comfort in knowing that whatever happens, God is always in control.

If you're one of those people, and you're confident that you can use these statements and justify them within your system, then this post is not really for you. I love you, and I'm not trying to change your mind. But that just ain't me.

I find it a bit odd, though, that people who otherwise wouldn't associate themselves with one of the theological systems just mentioned still say these sorts of things. And that tells me that they're probably not aware of the assumptions they're making. If you're one of those people, then this post is for you.

The easiest way to see that attributing this level of control to God is a problem is with examples. Here's a scenario:

I really wanted that job. I prayed for it for a long time. I sought counsel about it. I had a great interview. It fit in with my 'calling.' I had peace about it. All the factors seemed to point toward me getting it. And then I didn't.

The slogan response here would be, "It must not have been God's will (even if it really seemed like it was). He'll give you something better."

Or imagine it ending a different way:

I did get the job. It was great for a week and then the boss decided to embezzle everybody's money. Now I'm unemployed again and in worse shape than before.

The response here would be essentially the same: "God doesn't like that you lost your job, but it must not have been His will in the first place. He'll give you something better."

Or what if it ended like this:

I got the job. I love it. It's exactly what I wanted.

Any guesses as to what the response would be this time? Probably something like, "Great! Praying really paid off. God is good."

Do you see the problem? No matter what the outcome, the answer is the same. God is in control. And the way that we tell whether He is on board with something or not is how well the circumstance corresponds to what we expect Him to do. If it goes well for us, it was His will. If it doesn't, then it wasn't. If we thought it was, then we were mistaken. You heard God more clearly than ever before, you say? Well, apparently you misunderstood.

The point is, these statements leave no room for free will. They also leave no room for God to change His mind in response to free will. Maybe you didn't get that job because there was a better applicant and the employer chose them. This need not imply anything about God's will. Sometimes, maybe He leaves things up to people.

Or maybe it was His will for you to get that job but not for your boss to hurt you like that. But He loves your boss too; He can't revoke his freedom just so your life will be easier. Circumstances change and we adapt to them. Why can't God?

Or maybe you got the job and it's great. This doesn't imply God intended for this to be so. Maybe He did. Maybe He didn't. Maybe He has no feelings on it either way.

All these sorts of statements imply that God has a very specific and well-defined 'will' for everyone that can be discovered with enough effort. But why do we think this? Maybe His 'will' is actually pretty simple. General things, like faith, hope, and love. Community. Creativity. Using our abilities as we see fit. If that's right, then expecting Him to direct every little thing is actually against His will.

Let's apply the God-must-have-something-better assumption to another kind of case:

My uncle molested me when I was a kid.

Do you see where the micro-managing view of God could go very wrong? Did He just shut the door on your sexual fulfillment so He could open another one somewhere else? The theology that would rejoice in God's complete control can't say much here. Only that we can't know why He allows some things. But maybe our whole assumption is wrong to start with. Maybe He hates that this happened as much as you do. Maybe He had nothing to do with it. Maybe He leaves things up to us.

Now before you accuse me of being a deist, I do think that God is as intimately involved in our lives as we want Him to be. But it's the sort of involvement you would expect from a deep friendship. He nurtures, gives advice, pushes toward the good. But He doesn't control. He interacts.

So the next time you're tempted to attribute some occurrence to God, stop and ask yourself, "Have I really thought this through?" Because it might just be silly.


  1. Love this. Desperately needed in this day and age. Agree 110% and retweeting.

  2. The only caveat I would personally throw in, is I think the Scripture does make a strong case for God controlling SOME things behind the scenes in our individual lives & circumstances - apart from our asking, knowing, initiation or agreement. I believe He does this because of our ignorance, and for our betterment. However, I completely reject the idea that's His sole or even primary motivation, or that every little event that does or doesn't work out is a response to His sovereign Hand

    He has all control, but He doesn't always exercise that. He invites us to invite Him. In fact, He's even delegated some of His authority to us. It's why Psalmist writes, "the highest heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth He has given to man." Also, why Jesus taught so much on prayer. Prayer is a useless, religious exercise; vain babbling apart from a God who hears and often intervenes on behalf of OUR requests.

    God could have created puppets, but He didn't. He created us for relationship with respect to His Lordship.

    Great post, man!

  3. This is a great post on a subject that rarely receives honest, thoughtful discourse. I think our views on this issue, whether held consciously or subconsciously, affect the way we understand and share our faith in our everyday lives. I personally seem to waiver back and forth with it.

    I agree with the above post that holding a "rigid" view of God's sovereignty seems to render prayer useless, but there are many Christian pastors and theologians who I know and agree with in other issues who hold to this view. They must have at least a plausible way to reconcile this dilemma. My question is this: Playing devil's advocate (sorry I couldn't resist the pun), how does someone who "feel[s] comfort in knowing that whatever happens, God is always in control," view prayer? What is its purpose? I apologize in advance since this topic probably deserves more than just a comment.


  4. Great question. Probably better posed to someone of that persuasion, but I'll give it a shot. I don't think I actually mentioned prayer in the post, as it wasn't really my aim to apply that kind of view of God to particular cases. But since you asked, I'm actually not sure how much differently a Calvinist and an adherent of some other system would view prayer. I suspect that regardless of your position on providence, prayer will still seem futile a lot of the time. I'm not Calvinist, and I still deal with that. I've often said that prayer might have more to do with the person praying than with God. He doesn't need us to tell him what's going on; he just wants us to involve him. I don't think I would view this differently if I were Calvinist. What would be different, however, is how much work I take my prayer to actually be doing. On a 'no risk' view like Calvinism, it really doesn't have much (any) causal efficacy. On a 'risk' view, however, like Molinism or Open Theism, our decisions actually change things. In one view, God causes; in the other he reacts (interacts). Hope that helps a little.