“It was not you who sent me here, but God”
“How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”
When good things happen to people is that good fortune, and when bad things happen is that simply bad luck? Or does everything happen according to a divine plan? Was it pure chance that Joseph ended up in Egypt, or was it, as the writer of Genesis says, something brought about by God? St. Paul thought deeply about such matters and concluded that God’s ways are mysterious. “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” he declared. Or as the old hymn put it:
God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.
In the hymnbook on which I was nurtured, this hymn from the 18th century was one of many in a section entitled “God’s Providence,” all of which encouraged us to believe that “behind a frowning providence, God hides a smiling face.”
But like St. Paul and Cowper we know only too well that faith n God’s providence or “smiling face” does not come easy. When we see the devastation caused by hurricanes and earthquakes, witness the horrors of war, read about horrific rapes and senseless violence, about corruption in high places, and are told that yet another friend has cancer, it is difficult to discern God’s “smiling face.” It is easier to believe in the luck of the draw, in mindless fate, than it is to believe in God’s loving care for what goes on in the world and in our own lives. After all, why do some people survive a bomb blast or earthquake and others not? Why are some friends cured of cancer and others not? Does everything happen according to God’s will, or does evil and fate have the upper hand?
This sense that the power of evil and the tragic dimensions of life contradict our faith in God as Almighty Father is nothing new. It is present on virtually every page of the Bible from the story of Adam and Eve to the final struggle between God and Satan in the book of Revelation. Some texts even suggest that because God is Almighty, God can do anything. But we also learn that there are things God cannot do, things which go against God’s nature or the nature of God’s creation. God cannot prevent natural disasters, God cannot act contrary to love, and God is powerless to prevent us from abusing our freedom. If we want to listen to the snake in the grass, if we want to leave home and squander our inheritance, if we want to make war, if we want to stone the prophets and crucify the Son of God, we can. In fact if we want to blow up the whole world, or destroy the planet bit by bit, we can. But one thing we cannot do. We cannot prevent God from loving the world. That is the good news revealed in Christ, the paradox of the cross which reveals the extent of God’s suffering love on our behalf, and the redemptive power of that love in bringing good out of evil.
That God brings good out of evil is the message behind the story of Joseph. His brothers had acted cruelly toward him and sold him into slavery, but in the end, God turned the table on evil and saved the family. But we must not think that God acts alone in bringing good out of evil whether in that story or any other. God depends on human agency. In thinking about this I often turn to words written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer shortly before he was imprisoned by the Gestapo:
I believe that God can and will let good come out of everything, even the greatest evil. For that to happen, God needs human beings who let everything work out for the best… I believe that God is no timeless fate but waits for and responds to sincere prayer and responsible actions.
Looking in from the outside, people might say that the story of Volmoed is one of good fortune and happy coincidences. But looking from the inside, from the perspective of faith, it is a story of surprises in which we discern a divine and loving purpose hidden deeply in what happens. But this is inseparable from prayerful and responsible action. Volmoed is a story of God at work through many people and in response to much prayer. That’s how God acts. When earthquakes strike we do not sit back and wait for miracles to happen, rescuers make miracles happen as they risk their lives to find those trapped beneath the rubble. We pray for those suffering from cancer, but we also depend on those medical scientists working hard to find cures and on the hospice carers who give so much of themselves to their task. God’s love for the world is revealed through such human action, in the smiling face of the nurse who cares, the teacher who encourages the poor student, the aid worker who brings relief to refugees, those who sit beside us in the dark hours and are with us when we mourn the death of those we love. If we believe that God loves and cares for the world in this way, we will discern meaning and purpose behind what happens and, moreover join God in loving and caring for the world in the same way.
Yes, God’s ways are mysterious, but that is because love is mysterious, always beyond our understanding. Yes, God’s ways are unsearchable, too profound for us to grasp fully, but not remote from our experience because they are always embodied, always incarnate in the lives that touch ours for good. For that is how God works. God surprises us in the midst of the everyday when ordinary people do extraordinary things motivated, often unconsciously, by God’s love for the world. So I leave you with some words from Frank Buechner which Carolyn Butler — who lost a son in a terrorist attack and a husband to cancer — shared with me this past week:
if we look with our hearts, if we listen with all our being and imaginations …what we may hear is the first faint sound of a voice somewhere deep within us saying that there is a purpose in this life, in our lives, whether we can understand it completely or not, and that this purpose follows behind us through all the doubting and being afraid, through all our indifference and boredom, to a moment when we suddenly know for sure that everything does make sense because everything is in the hands of God.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 21 September 2017