On Jan. 11, 1983, the American peace activist Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr. lost his 24-year-old son, Alex. While driving in a terrible storm, Alex went off the road and was killed. Just over a week later, Coffin gave a sermon at Riverside Church in New York City reflecting on his son’s death. He recounted how the night after Alex died, he was sitting in the living room of his sister’s house when a woman came in the front door bearing an armful of quiches. When she spotted Coffin, she shook her head and lamented, “I just don’t understand the will of God.”
Coffin followed her into the kitchen. “I’ll say you don’t!” he said. “Do you think it was the will of God that Alex never fixed that lousy windshield wiper of his, that he was probably driving too fast in such a storm, that he probably had had a couple of ‘frosties’ too many? Do you think it is God’s will that there are no streetlights along that stretch of road, and no guard rail separating the road and Boston harbour?”
Coffin’s words betrayed his frustration at the tendency to read a divine, if murky, purpose in human tragedy. In his sermon at Riverside, he observed, “God doesn’t go around this world with his finger on triggers, his fist around knives, his hands on steering wheels.” Still, in times of despair, it may be hard not to feel as if God is sending us a message, testing the limits of our faith and fortitude.
One of the substantive claims of faith that many of us find both intriguing and exasperating is the belief that God has something to do with all the events of life. Like Coffin, there is a side of me that knows better than to believe that. I can’t believe God sends things to test us as if life were some kind of divinely imposed examination that we either pass or fail. Things happen because they happen.
But there is another side of me that wants to see things through the eyes of faith. The biblical record is clear. Virtually every page of Scripture is drenched with the claim that God has much to do with what happens. The wisdom writers saw God as the One who clothes the lilies of the field, feeds the ravens, numbers the very hairs of our heads, and sends the rain upon the just and the unjust. The biblical writers will not let us be free of the notion that God is sovereign over all of life. In their interpretation, the end result of an event becomes its divine purpose from the beginning. However, this is not the way we tend to look at life.
Somewhere I read, “The opposite of a small truth is a lie, but the opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth.” So with one mind to rule God out and another to read God in, I find myself turning to the words of the Apostle Paul.
In a letter to Christians in Rome, Paul asserted that “in everything God works for good with those who love God” (Romans 8:28). That’s a lot different than saying God causes everything to happen. There is no suggestion here that God causes one car to stop in time to save a young person’s life and another after it is too late. Instead, there’s the testimony that while God doesn’t will all the things that happen to us, God wills something through them. Another Paul, theologian Paul Tillich, says it even more pointedly: “Providence means that there is a creative and saving possibility implied in every situation.”
The Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, like Coffin, lost his son. In his case, it was in a mountain-climbing accident. Wolterstorff’s book Lament for a Son is an intensely personal sharing of his own feelings following his son’s death. Near the end, he recognizes that his suffering over the loss has made him a better person. At the same time, however, he clearly rejects “the obscene thought that God jiggled the mountain” to make him better.
Mind you, if Wolterstorff had his wish, he would want to have his son back. But he can’t. Instead, he chooses to discover the good that has resulted from the bad. Observed author Ernest Hemingway, “The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places.”
Troubles do try us, but I don’t believe they are sent to try us. When they do happen, a long line of people who have gone before us testify that a “saving possibility” is present in every situation. Searching for that healing good is our noble quest.
Rev. Wayne Hilliker is minister emeritus at Chalmers United in Kingston, Ont.
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