UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

The Big Question

Does God test us?

By Wayne Hilliker

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.



Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!

Interviews

Courtesy of Pixabay

Why this woman is leaving the Catholic Church in her 60s

by Angela Mombourquette

After a lifetime devoted to Catholicism, a Nova Scotia teacher is settling in with the United Church of Canada. Here, she explains why.

Promotional Image

Editorials

Jocelyn Bell%

Observations: It’s a long road toward full equality for women

by Jocelyn Bell

'It’s a wonder that we continue to see male ministers as normative and attach shame to female ministers’ biology and sexuality.'

Promotional Image

Video

ObserverDocs: Playing by Heart

by Observer Staff

United Church music director Kara Shaw was born prematurely, became almost totally blind and was later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Today, the 28-year-old showcases her unique musical ability, performing piano on local and national stages.

Promotional Image

Faith

May 2018

Toronto church builds interfaith friendship

by Vivien Fellegi

Faith

May 2018

This parent found no support for her autistic daughter — and decided to change that

by Kieran Delamont

Suzanne Allen talks about raising a daughter on the autism spectrum and bringing all autistic girls together

Faith

May 2018

Church retreat helps first responders with PTSD

by Joe Martelle

Interviews

May 2018

Why this woman is leaving the Catholic Church in her 60s

by Angela Mombourquette

After a lifetime devoted to Catholicism, a Nova Scotia teacher is settling in with the United Church of Canada. Here, she explains why.

Ethics

May 2018

Pregnant in the pulpit

by Trisha Elliott

Ministers who take a maternity leave still face discrimination in their own congregations

Interviews

May 2018

The two words Rev. Cheri DiNovo wants to hear from the United Church

by Alex Mlynek

The Toronto minister talks about her disappointment over the church’s silence when she officiated the country’s first legalized same-sex marriage 17 years ago – and why she wants an apology.

Promotional Image