Tuesday, May 11, 2010

God's Will vs. Your Plans

Hey everyone, I'm back in action in Denver, with my first Mountain Time counter-apologetic. From JustBetweenUs.org, yet another Christian womens magazine, we've got an article on "God's Will vs. Your Plans." (I love how their sales pitch for buying a friends subscription says, "Give the gift of encouragement." The audicity of Christian vendors who promise spiritual gifts in the form of merchandise brings to mind the money changers Jesus was so peeved at.) This particular article appears to have been written by a man, unless Stuart Briscoe is an unfortunately named woman.

Stuff happens. We all know that. Sometimes it’s good, other times it’s horrible. When it’s good we don’t spend too much time analyzing it – we just enjoy it! But when it’s bad we ask questions, we want answers. “Why did this happen?” Or more likely, “Why did this happen to me?”
We've come across this assumption in apologetics before - the idea that we are only aware of or concerned with our own pain. Speaking for myself (the only person I can freely & with some accuracy speak for) this simply isn't true. For as long as I can remember, I have ached for those who are homeless or overcome with illness (mental or physical) or for those who do not have enough food. There has never been a time in my life when I was not concerned about the fate of others - not just my own friends and family, but also relative and complete strangers. It does not take a tragedy in my own life for me to be aware that life is often unfair.
If we’re of a philosophical frame of mind, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Some people shrug their shoulders and say, “Stuff happens and that’s all there is to it.” Others say, “You make your own life; you’re responsible for your own happenings.”
Others sound like victim-blaming jerks, don't they? When people take the "bootstrap" approach to life (the idea that, given sufficient effort, will, and determination, anyone can work their way to success) I believe they do it out of ignorance, and unnoticed privelige. I am white and live in the United States. There are certain things which are automatically granted to me - a certain degree of intelligence is assumed by professors, before I've opened my mouth. (In contrast, friends of color have told me they are often intially treated as less able than their white peers, until they have demonstrated otherwise.) I am a woman in America - there are certain automatic privileges I am not given because of this. I will likely make less money than men in the same field of work, at the same ability level. I will be villainized for enjoying sex, for speaking my mind, and for having opinions not in line with the majority. But all these *are* "bootstrap" situations to some degree. But when we look at people born into poverty, born HIV infected, born with no work available, no education, no proper medicine - we have a very different situation indeed. Some odds cannot be overcome. When we tell people their lives are of their own making, we ignore everything that impacts and informs their lives.
And then there are those who say “everything is determined.” Some say environment and genes are the determining factors while others say “God is sovereign and He dictates what happens.”
I'm not sure anyone says genes and environment "determine" things to the extent many Christians believe their god does. My genes and environment led to my mental illnesses. But how I respond to them has been affected by my choices - you know, that free will stuff Christians are so fond of. Yes, I think the kinds of choices, my ability for decision making, and my thought processes were all impacted by my genes and craptastic childhood environment. I often wonder who I could have been had I been born into a different family - not in a cult, maybe just mainstream Christian, or even in an atheist home. Who would I be? Whoever that theoretical person might be, I don't believe she'd be me in any important sense of the word. I don't believe in destiny.
It seems to me that the Bible is clear that God is in charge. If He isn’t, He isn’t God! But there is lots of biblical evidence that people are responsible for their actions, too. So I believe that God has chosen sovereignly to give us choice and related responsibility. Ultimately He is in control; but within the context of that control, He has granted us freedom to act. He is sovereign, we are responsible.
Wow, God's got a great set up - for him. Imagine getting to be the boss - be in control and sovereign over everything - but not having to take responsibility. Where do I sign up for that deal? On a pertinent note, Briscoe has stated clearly where he falls on the problem of evil (God won't fix it, rather than can't.) Clearly his god is an able one, and one who reigns supreme. However, Briscoe still tries to lay the blame on humanity. We'll see in the following to what lengths he'll go to maintain that an all-powerful, totally in control deity bears no responbility for the consequences of his actions and inactions.
But more. The environment in which He has chosen we should live is less than perfect. It is “fallen” and we are not exempt from its ills and its woes. So stuff happens in our lives under the sovereign control of the Lord who has intentionally given us free will and placed us in a difficult and dangerous environment.
Okay, so our author agrees that his god knowingly chose for us to live in a flawed or "fallen" environment, where natural disasters, disease, and human suffering are sure to follow. He's sovereign, yet we're responsible? Free will obviously plays no part in our environment, if God has willed it so. It's clearly his will, not ours. (Seriously, would you choose this world among all possible worlds, if you were really given such a choice? I think I'd pick a world without crib death and starvation, personally.)
Things come our way sometimes because we made them come our way.
Let's blame the victim! Christianity's favorite gameshow, fun for the whole family!
Sometimes they happen because of the fallen circumstances in which we live and from which we are made.
God's will, in other words.
Other times they happen because of the actions of others, but always under the ultimate oversight of God who rules in the affairs of men and women. God’s will rules!
So again, how are we responsible?
When Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane contemplating His imminent crucifixion, He asked if there was another way He could accomplish His mission, but then immediately told the Father, “Not My will, but Thine be done.” There was, in that moment, the most remarkable acceptance of the divine will in human history.
I've always wondered how it was that Jesus and God the Father could have such different wills at that moment. Aren't God and Jesus one in the same? And for that matter, if Jesus is divine, how on earth is his moment of self-sacrifice credited to human history? Either he's god (in which case, shouldn't he have the same will?) or he's human, and is therefore not god. You really can't have it both ways, Christians. The Trinity makes no sense, and this is just one passage that suggests why.
And it was not going to be pleasant. Jesus was willingly agreeing with the Father that His will was, as Paul would later say, “Good, acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12: 2). But it was a most horrendous will, a most excruciating plan.
Horrendous and excrutiating sound about right, but how can you recognize that while simultaneously calling it "good, acceptable, and perfect?" The idea that the Biblical god is the most loving father figure ever imagined or described is positively sickening. I grew up without my dad, and was adamant in not wanting my mother to remarry. We worshiped the god, mind you, who "tests" Abraham by asking him to slaughter his only child, the same god who supposedly sent his own son to be tortured and executed, the same god who flooded the whole earth, killing untold numbers of humans and animals because he got pissed off. Is it any wonder, when the primary image of a father I held was Yawhew, that I so strongly did not want one?
The question that then comes to mind is, “How can something so horrendous be good, acceptable and perfect?” This is not simply a theoretical question. Millions of believers have been faced with a similar one as they have confronted the difficult dimensions of life at the same time they were trying desperately to hold on to the belief that God’s will is best.
Well yes that question did come to mind, but for a different reason than the one supposed. I wondered at the logical consistency of god having a different will from himself.
When a young husband dies leaving a widow and three small children, how can that be part of a good, acceptable and perfect will? When a young couple desperately anxious to have children encounter infertility, how do they fit that into a good divine plan?
I was so upset when my godmother died. How could God be so selfish? She did so much for this world, and for all the people around her. How would her husband, her kids, and her grandkids (not to mention the rest of the community) be better off without her? She passed away four years ago, and I miss her still, but at least now I don't have to worship the being I believed was also responsible for subjecting her to three rounds of breast cancer, surgery, and chemotherapy.
Perhaps the only way we can hold firmly to a good will and confront unpleasant issues is to recognize that the only person who can ultimately determine the “goodness” or the “badness” of something is the person who has all the facts at his or her disposal. And none of us has that capability.
What he is essentially saying is that we have no basis from which to make value judgments, and that is absolute bollocks. Most of us, whether believers or nonbelievers, judge something which causes unnecessary suffering as being less desired than something which does not, all other points being equal. I realize this is a very simplistic way of stating basic morality, but we can and do make value judgments all day long. The idea that we shouldn't make such judgments is inherent to Christianity; after all, Adam and Eve were rousted from the garden for just learning right from wrong. Apparently Briscoe's god would rather we just blindly obey than analyze a situation ethically and rationally. "Don't question the leader," he tells us, in subtler prose.
There are certain things to which God has introduced us, and there are others that are hidden in the inscrutable depths of His divine plan. As Moses said, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deut. 29:29).
Is this why so many faithful feel threatened by science's continued encroachment on the mysterious? These things should be left to god?
We don’t know all He knows. We will never know this side of eternity what He doesn’t reveal; but we do know what He has told us, and we must tenaciously hold on to that.
I wonder if our author's tenancious hold on what "He has told us" means that Briscoe has never gotten a haircut, or eaten at Red Lobster. Somehow, I am skeptical (and not just because the Cheddar Bay biscuits are buttery yummy goodness.)
So suppose we can arrive at that position, how do we handle life’s unpleasantnesses or worse? Let me make a few suggestions:
Wait, the position that "sometimes things happen" or "life isn't fair?" Easy - become a nihilist, or a realist, or an atheist. (Note, only nihilism and Christianity require accepting things as they are without seeking to change them. Humanitarians know about the crises in our world, yet they don't accept that things must always be as they are.
1. Recognize that there is nothing fundamentally surprising about being exposed to bad things. Jesus was, and He warned His disciples they would be, too. He intentionally left us in a world that had rejected Him and He warned that we would be treated no differently.
And isn't that a strange thing for an all-knowing, all-powerful god to do? A warning seems like a rather paltry help from a god who's supposed to be in charge of absolutely everything.
Peter certainly got the message and later wrote, “Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Pet. 4:12). This is what life in this sad world is like – even for believers!
Well, I can agree that this is what the world is like, right now. But I don't buy into any sort of fatalism that the world will always be like this, or must. Furthermore, the kinds of trials and sufferings I might face are drastically different from what another person will. Being a teenaged American girl with anorexia is not the same as being a malnourished starving child in a third world country. We are not all created equal, nor are we born into equal conditions.
2. Remember that what God permits in your life will never outstrip the grace He makes available to enable you to live well in it. He doesn’t promise escape from difficulties, but He does guarantee grace to live well in them.
You wanna tell that to my friend whose two baby girls were born with rare, incurable forms of brain cancer?
Paul told the Corinthians, “God is faithful: He will not let you be tempted (or tested) beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so you can stand up under it” (1 Cor. 10:13).
Gee, well it's nice to know every Christian drug addict out there hasn't been given more than they can handle! Too bad there's no evidence of such a thing, but it is awfully nice to just sit back and wait for people to bootstrap themselves (with the aid of God, of course) out of their troubles. I mean, who needs charity when God doesn't give people more than they can handle on their own?
3. Reflect on the way that difficulties and stresses are often the means to development and growth.
Oooh, we're getting to one of my least favorite Christian Excuses for God's Negligence ever!
In the same way that an athlete is conditioned for better performance through carefully monitored training, so the believer is granted the chance to mature through the difficult dimensions of the divine will. Paul wrote, “we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Rom. 5:4).
First of all, Yoda has a better illogical run than Paul, and that was in Episode One which *sucked*. Second, I wonder what on earth was the maturation and training my son received by having severe infant GERD (an incredibly painful recurrance of heartburn and difficulty digesting food) that left scars in his esophagous by the time he was 3 months old. How exactly was that a good thing for my son to go through? It brought him intense pain and did harm to his infant body, yet he experienced that as an infant, long before he could hold onto the memory or gain any kind of insight or benefit from that pain. Also, the twisted idea that suffering leads to hope is founded on ridiculous logic. Hope is found in the alleviation of suffering, in joy, in happiness, in love, in a beautiful sunrise at the start of a new day. Watching someone you love suffer does not bring hope, but it brings sadness and pain and often a feeling of impotence. Tell me, does your god find hope in watching all this suffering, despite his omnipotence?

The reason it really pisses me off, though, is because it lets god off the hook. Not only that, but it gives him credit for human achievements of will. How dare a Christian tell me my pain was all part of some god's plan, and that my own tenacity and refusal to be a victim is somehow evidence of HIS hand in my life? Whether your god exists or not, he did nothing to save me from the mental, emotional, sexual, and physical abuse I suffered at the hands of Christian folk for decades. He does not get credit for my survival; I do.
4. Refuse to be intimidated by the forces that oppose you in your life, and recognize that the way you conduct yourself in the hard times is evidence of God being truly at work in your life.
No! How you conduct yourself is evidence of YOU - your own actions, decisions, choices, stress techniques, addictions, predilictions, and ideas. I will hold my head up high in the face of adversity because of who I am, whether your god exists or not. He plays no role in my life.
It is also a reminder to those who may be the cause of your difficulties that they will not escape the consequences of their actions. Paul told the Philippians in no uncertain terms not to be “frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved – and that by God” (Phil. 1: 28).
Fright is a perfectly natural human response. The labeling of some emotions or impulses as black-and-white BAD is not helpful. I was forbidden to be afraid as a child; this didn't stop the fear, although it did make it impossible for me to work through my scared feelings with a reasonable, loving adult who could accept my full range of human emotions. And this isn't really helpful for the kinds of suffering and pain caused by natural disasters or disease. You know, the stuff God is totally in control of.
5. Resist the temptation to resent the hard edges of God’s will by acknowledging the fact that people “suffer according to God’s will” (1 Pet. 4:19) as surely as they are blessed by His gracious provision.
Don't resent it, because He doesn't want you to? The fact that it's all part of God's plan does not automatically yield that it would be a good plan, or one that would not be deserving of resentment.
In fact, in some way that is almost too difficult for us to grasp, if we are to know “the power of His resurrection” in our lives, it will be related to our experience of “the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings” (Phil. 3:10).
Ah yes, "the last shall be first" and all that. See, it's okay if children starve to death, or baby girls are raped by HIV positive men in sub-Saharran Africa, because (as long as our missionaries convert them during their short, ill lives filled with suffering and pain) they'll get the biggest mansions in heaven! (/sarcasm)
The Christians who lived in the difficult early days of the church grasped this perhaps better than modern-day Christians in the western world. They actually rejoiced after they were publicly flogged because they “had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41).
And how many Muslim suicide-bombers have shouted, "Allah u'akbar!" (Allah is great!) moments before detonating themselves and all the people around them? Conviction of faith does not say anything of truth claims. Whether or not some early Christians got off on martyrdom has nothing to do with God's inaction in the face of natural disasters, rape, genocide, and all manner of human suffering.
When Jesus said in the Garden, “Not My will, but Thine be done,” He was not entering into a passive mode of resignation to inevitable circumstances. He was actively consenting to glad participation in the divine will.
I don't remember picking up "glad" in any of my readings of the Passion. Regardless, Jesus accepting the will of his father (who is himself) says nothing about whether or not God's plans are good.
We need to be careful at this point. For sometimes when we are exhorted, as in this article, to look positively at the difficult aspects of the divine will, we settle into an attitude rather like that of a rebellious teenager who chafes under parental discipline, and can’t do anything about it except project a constant attitude of disapproval of what she has to endure, and plays this one possibility to the hilt – technically submitting to the parental will, but realistically living in open, although muted, resistance to it and resentment of it.
Well it sounds like someone doesn't like teenagers a whole lot. I actively tell my son (who is a preschooler, and so falling into an earlier stage of separation from mommy's will) "You don't have to be happy about X" (going home from the playground, bathtime, whatever) "but you do have to hold mommy's hand and do this." I leave his emotions his own, and do not punish him for them. He is allowed to be angry, resentful, or disappointed in me. And because he has that freedom, when he does experience those emotions, he can tell me. We can talk about it, and work through it, and then he can begin to feel better. Just saying, "Don't resent pain you experience" denies someone the opportunity to work through that resentment, and reach something healthy beyond it. Short-circuitry in emotional health rarely yields the best results.
So try this. Next time God’s will and yours don’t see eye to eye, and before you get horribly bent out of shape, remind yourself that you don’t know all the circumstances so you can’t make a definitive assessment of the situation as to whether it is ultimately good or bad.
This is such bad advice. This is saying, "Don't fight the tide of your life." Don't get out of that abusive marriage; don't move so you can put your kids in a better school; don't look for the better job, certainly not after several unsuccessful interviews! It removes the impetus for human action; it is the opposite of the bootstrap. Try nothing, and call it God's will.
Then remember that God claims His will is “good, acceptable and perfect.” Give Him the benefit of the doubt and concentrate on the positive things that you know can come out of glad acceptance of His plan.
There are undoubtedly benefits to focusing on the positive aspects of life in tough situations; I do a lot of it. I suffer from depression and PTSD, as well as a few other mental illnesses. It's not a lot of fun, but I definitely try to make the most of it. That doesn't mean that it's better for me to have 5 mental illnesses than not. I think I'd personally prefer not to have these, as well as the assorted symptoms they carry. (Do night terrors sound like fun to you?) And as for giving God "the benefit of the doubt" it's really the benefit of belief Briscoe is specially pleading for. "Just trust that God is good and that everything will be okay." It is a lie, and I happen to believe that the vast majority of the time, the truth is preferable to a lie.
You may be surprised at the way life becomes less of a struggle and God’s will becomes less of a problem.
"Don't fight it, baby," said the rapist? I cannot see how the Christian god varies from such a beast in his totalitarian control and assumption of rights to everyone else's bodies and wills.

Why are all apologists so horribly victim-blaming? Because if they cannot blame us for our own suffering, they would have to blame their god, and they cannot do that. At least this one didn't spend all his time on Satan.