8 Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”
9 “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. 10 “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. 11 But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”
12 The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”
Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
I was watching the television the other day while I was at the YMCA, sitting on an exercise bike, not able to get up and change the station. I was stuck watching whatever was on that tv. But I was not the only person stuck that day. On the news was a story about a woman in Portland, Oregon who had fallen between two walls, each wall belonging to two different buildings. Eye witnesses say that she had been walking around the second story of these buildings at about 3:30 am when she slipped and became wedged between the two walls. Why she was up there, I can’t say. But perhaps my mother was correct when she used to say that nothing good happens after midnight.
Rescue workers attempted to pull the woman out from above with a rope, but that did not work. They lowered a ladder down and got nowhere. I think that there was only about 8” between the two buildings. So the next option was to cut a hole in the cinder block wall next to the woman and try to move her sideways and out through the hole.
So when I plopped down on that exercise bike they had cut the hole in the wall, lubed up the woman, and started moving her sideways. She had been in between those two walls for almost four hours. And because they were so close to getting her out, the news station did not want to cut away from the action and miss the heroic rescue. So I sat there and I watched. I watched as they pulled and twisted the woman ever so gently. I watched as they expanded an airbag between the two walls to try to gain a few precious inches.
All that was visible was her left arm and leg, but she was squirming, pushing, and trying to get out like you would expect a woman stuck between two walls to do. Then I saw something that I could not have expected. As she was struggling to get out, she elbowed the rescue worker right in the nose, causing him to recoil in pain.
It hit me right then (pun intended) that this is how we often treat God in times of distress. On one hand we look to him as our only help in such a dire situation. The other hand we use to bop him in the nose. Like the woman caught between the walls, we don’t intentionally bop God in the nose, but in our efforts to get out, to make sense of it all, we end up hurting the one who is on our side. I believe we hurt God by saying things about God that don’t accurately reflect who he is.
For instance, January 12th marked the three-year anniversary of the earthquake that hit Haiti, devastating some of the most poverty-stricken people in the world all the more. While these people tried to dig out of the rubble, some church leaders tried to make sense of the situation by making public statements. Some of these statements seemed helpful; some of them seemed like a bop to the nose of God.
I know that God can take a bop in the nose every now and then. The health of the creator of heaven and earth’s ego is not contingent upon our full understanding of his being. What I am concerned with today is how we understand God. I am concerned with the picture that some people paint of God because I believe that can turn people away from God. It can turn away non-believers and it can turn away people that have believed in God their entire lives.
This is why I am doing a sermon series on Apophatic Theology, or theology in the negative. We are going to try to better understand God by looking at what God is not. But I can’t just leave it at what God is not because there would then be a large vacuum. So we will end each sermon in this series with some Kataphatic Theology, theology in the positive. But first, a story that illustrates why I like Apophatic Theology.
When I was a seminary student, one of my professors shared about his time serving with a mission organization in Croatia. He was ministering to Marxist atheists and he was connecting well with these gentlemen. One of them told my professor that he seemed like a pretty sharp guy, but this Marxist atheist couldn’t understand how this seminary professor could believe in God. So my professor, always thinking on his feet, invited the Marxist atheist to tell him about the god he didn’t believe in.
The Marxist atheist then checked off a number of issues that he took with the god that he had been introduced to by missionaries, televangelists and newspapers. After hearing the observations of this Marxist atheist, my professor said, “I don’t believe in that god either. Let me tell you about the God I do believe in.” That’s what we are doing in this series.
Without further ado, today’s apophatic statement: God is not a god who plans everything that happens.
In the midst of tragedy we have all heard someone say, “God has a plan for everything.” On one level I agree with this statement 100%. But on another level, I can’t endorse that at all. If it helps you in the middle of your suffering to say things like this, I have no problem with that. But if you are implying that God caused a natural disaster or an accident as a part of his divine plan, I can’t get on board with that and I can’t worship that god. Yes, I think God has a plan, but I also think that God gave us free will. We can choose to follow God’s plan or we can choose to go another route with our lives. Another way to say this is that God has a plan, but God doesn’t force us to follow that plan. No, I think the things that happen, the natural disasters, the accidents, these things come about because of our choices and in some cases just bad luck.
I grew up in Ohio, a state that is considered to be the eastern border of the Midwest. There is a stretch of Midwestern states from North Dakota down into Texas, spanning as far as western Ohio and into Tennessee and Kentucky known as tornado alley. I am no meteorologist, so I won’t even pretend to know why this area seems to be hit the most frequently by tornadoes. But it is. In school growing up we would practice tornado drills every spring where we would leave our classrooms, head out to the hallways, kneel and cover our heads. Tornados happen in the Midwest at an all-to-frequent rate, so we needed to be ready. I never had to experience a tornado, but if one ever came our way, we knew what to do.
Now there are those who believe that tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters are God’s way of punishing or at least scaring backsliding Christians to repent and change their ways. Some people claim that God causes these things to happen, that everything is a part of God’s good and perfect will. For these pastors and theologians, this God is all powerful, all knowing, and is worthy of our worship. But I cannot worship that god. I don’t believe in that god.
Last March a powerful tornado swept through West Liberty, Kentucky causing damage to private dwellings, schools and churches. People were left without homes; people were left without hope. When churches and humanitarian groups where reaching out to the people of West Liberty, one popular pastor had these words to say:
Why would God reach down his hand and drag his fierce fingers across rural America killing at least 38 people with 90 tornadoes in 12 states, and leaving some small towns with scarcely a building standing, including churches?
We do not ascribe such independent power to Mother Nature or to the devil. God alone has the last say in where and how the wind blows. If a tornado twists at 175 miles an hour and stays on the ground like a massive lawnmower for 50 miles, God gave the command.
At least this pastor did not try to say what the people of West Liberty had done this time to deserve this punishment and correction. But he has in the past. When a tornado hit the city of Minneapolis, he told the victims exactly what they did to anger God so. Tornados, in this pastor’s view, are God’s way of pouring out his wrath upon sinful people.
I want to introduce you all to another way of grouping states and regions of the USA. Sometimes the south-eastern to south-central part of the United States is referred to as the “Bible Belt.” These states and regions include many churches and many Christians. And these Christians have a significant impact on the culture and the governing of these states, cities and towns.
If I were to ask someone which part of the United States was the most Christian, many people would say that the Bible Belt is the most Christian. But then why is it that the map of Tornado Alley and the map of the Bible Belt include so many of the same states? Wouldn’t you think God would be pouring out his wrath on the morally deprived Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.? No, I don’t believe in that god. That god is a god I cannot worship.
In our text from Luke today Jesus is faced with these same questions. He receives word that there were some Galileans that were ruthlessly slaughtered by Pilate, the same Pilate that Jesus came before during his trial. Pilate wasn’t a nice guy. The text tells us that he mixed the blood of these Galilean Jews with animal sacrifices, presumably to the Roman gods. Jesus then asks a rhetorical question and gives the answer in verse two, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no!”
That atrocious act on the part of Pilate was not God’s vengeance working its way out through the hand of Pilate. But he doesn’t stop there. Jesus doesn’t just say that it isn’t this atrocious act at the hand of a man that was not done because God commissioned it. He also lifts out something that seems to be the result of poor architecture and perhaps a natural disaster. There was a tower that fell in Siloam and killed 18 people. Jesus again asks rhetorically if those 18 were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem. Same answer: nope.
Sometimes stuff just happens and I believe that it usually happens because of the choices that we make. Maybe someone made the choice to use a low-quality brick to build that tower. Maybe someone made the decision to badmouth Pilate. Maybe a woman fell and was stuck between two walls for four hours because she tried to step across and slipped. We don’t know. But Jesus is saying that God is not to blame. This is a result of our being given free will.
When we make the claim that God causes everything that happens we make God out to be pretty despicable in my opinion. I’ve even heard that this understanding of God makes him worse than the devil himself. Because if God causes everything, we not only claim that God causes natural disasters but also children to starve to death in Africa. If God causes everything to happen, then God caused the Holocaust. I don’t believe in that god.
There are places in the Bible where God is the actor, the one that causes certain things to happen that we might classify as natural disasters. But these instances are the exception, not the norm. And yes, God has the power and I guess the right to do these things as a way of punishing people. But what we find in Jesus’s words here today is that every bad thing that happens is not the result of God’s will.
I believe that this is the entire point of a book in the Bible. This idea that illness, natural disasters and accidents are not the result of an angry God is why we have the book of Job. In chapter 1, verse 8 we find God saying this about Job: “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”
Blameless, upright, not too shabby. But we know that everything that Job had, his money, his livestock, even his family is taken from Job. I think we can miss the point of this writing if we get caught up in the details of this book, and that is a topic for another Sunday (The Bible I don’t believe in). Job is living as good, godly a life as any man. And when these things are taken from him, his friends start accusing him of all sorts of things. But Job is not guilty of doing them. At the end of the book, Job’s possessions are restored and he is vindicated. And the point of the story is that sometimes the reasons for suffering, pain and loss are not because God does it to us to correct us for our sins. God didn’t cause these things at all in the book of Job. God did remove his protection from Job, but God didn’t cause the bad things to happen.
And there is a huge difference. I believe in a God how allows bad things to happen to us, but I don’t believe in a god that causes these bad things to happen. I wouldn’t want to worship a god who poured out his wrath upon his people over every little thing that they did. We make God out to be some petty little boy who punishes everyone when they don’t play by his rules.
So I want to follow our apophatic statement that God doesn’t cause everything to happen with a kataphatic statement; a statement in the positive. God is the giver of all things that are good.
Just because I do not believe that God causes everything bad that happens does not mean that the inverse is also true. God can still be the actor or the one who causes good things to happen. James 1:17 says it about as clearly as is possible: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”
If you have a good job and a warm place to eat, make sure to give thanks to God. Perhaps you have those things because you have worked hard to get where you are, but you also have those things because God gave you a working mind and body. Do you have good health? It is rare today with all of the cold and flu going around. Make sure to give God the glory. If you have friends and family, don’t forget to thank God for them. (Just a note: what is good is debatable)
No, God does not cause everything that occurs to happen and I sure don’t think that natural disasters, sickness and other things are God trying to show us that we need to repent. But just because God doesn’t cause the bad things to happen doesn’t mean he isn’t the author of the good events in our lives. Praise God, because that is a god I can worship.
Thanks to Greg Boyd for the comparison between Tornado Alley and the Bible Belt