The Puzzle of Providence
Let’s consider this morning one of the most agonizing questions in Christian theology: the matter of “special providence.” Does God intervene directly into human life to rescue or heal some people while others, who seem equally deserving, are left to suffer and die? Not a day passes but that somewhere around us this drama is being played out. When a speeding train hits a school bus in Illinois, seven innocent children die, many more survive. I understand the overwhelming sense of gratitude that makes a mother say of her surviving son, “God took care of him!” But if your son had died, how would you like hearing those words, with their ghastly implication that God, for some reason, plays favorites and did not take care of those seven beloved children who were laughing one moment and mangled the next. Can you imagine how their bereft parents would feel to hear that it was God that morning who chose to protect some and pass over others? Would you like leading a Bible study for them the following week in which you try to explain the doctrine of special providence?
I looked carefully last week at an essay of mine published 17 years ago in a thoughtful religious journal, wondering if more reading and experience had helped me find some way of coming to terms with accidents and illnesses in which — if I am to judge by what some people say — God saves some and rejects others for reasons utterly incomprehensible. Apparently, I have made no progress because the same questions still plague me. It is not that I have no faith in the power of prayer. No day passes in which I do not pray in one of the many ways in which prayer is offered up to God. On Thursday, in fact, as I sat before a screen writing and rewriting this sermon to make it as honest and useful as possible, I paused to look up at a small picture that looks back at me every day as I work. It’s of an indescribably beautiful baby boy dressed in the white gown and cap he wore the day I christened him in Oklahoma City. His eyes are wide and curious as he looks at a man in a robe he does not yet know is his grandfather, and there is a tiny little furrow in one eyebrow as if in his wordless world he is wondering if this unfamiliar business is going to turn out all right. For a moment, loving him, I hope life will be good for him, and that hope is as earnest a prayer as any I have ever composed. I mention him because I remember that some months after his christening, his mother chose a time to take him along with herto the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City to get his Social Security number…..just days before the Ryder truck blew up in front of it. So can I believe, somehow, that God had a hand in that timing? That for some inscrutable reason He spared little Cass but did not intervene to save other children once as beautiful and beloved as he is? I cannot imagine that kind of arbitrary favoritism.
Partly, I must tell you, because I share with Jesus of Nazareth a sense that life is filled with inexplicable accident. Without regard to moral qualities, we have good or bad luck. Luke speaks of a day when people came to tell Jesus about some of his Galilean neighbors who had been massacred by Pilate while they were offering sacrifice in worship. Jesus apparently saw they were trying to make it have some moral meaning, so he said to them: “Do you suppose these Galileans who suffered like that were greater sinners than any other Galileans? They were not. Or those 18 people on whom the tower at Siloam fell and killed them. Do you suppose they were more guilty than all the other people living in Jerusalem? I tell you, they were not.” He does not speak those words of religious comfort one so often hears at such a time: “Don’t worry, those Galileans murdered by Roman troops, those Judeans buried by a collapsing tower, they have all gone to a better world.” He has, when that tragic news is brought to him, no speculation about the inscrutability of providence (“It must have been God’s will”). When he says also in the Sermon on the Mount that the sun rises to bless evil and good alike, and that the rain falls on the just and the unjust, he seems to describe a universe that is religiously nuetral in its obedience to physical laws: the flawed structure collapses, the angry Roman soldiers react, and innocent people die who are in the wrong place at the wrong time. The magnificent poetry of the great Creation Hymn in Genesis 1 praises God for a goodly world made especially for humankind, but neither that author nor any other in Scripture ever asks why it is also a world in which massive tectonic plates shift to cause the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that kill uncounted thousands of men, women and sleeping children. They lacked the evidence that might have challenged their simplistic faith, or, when they had it on a small scale, as when apparent seismic shifts buried Sodom and Gomorrah, explained it as intevening punishment by an angry God — without, by the way, so much as a word about the innocent children who undoubtedly played in the streets of those cities.
We are perhaps too glib about what we call “the will of God.” A thoughtful modern philosopher, Dr. Lin Yutang, writes: “God is certainly not anybody’s private property. Nothing makes me more disgusted than the egotism of people who think they can use God to make it rain, or stop raining, to make crops grow or fail, or especially to spare their own personal lives in a disaster. My family and I were in a train wreck a while ago in France. I had taken two of my children into the dining car ahead for some ice cream and we left just ahead of the wreck with killed a great many people in our car. Some of my so-called Christian friends talked about it as though we had been especially preserved and protected by God. What egotism, to assume that God loves you more than those who were horribly killed. This kind of Christian who thinks God favors him and who looks on religion as a kind of insurance…..is beneath contempt.”
If Lin Yutang is right, he has certainly made little impression on some religious leaders who have influenced millions toward that kind of faith. Pat Robertson, leader of the Christian Coalition, currently the most powerful of all organizers in the Far Right, once prayed before millions on TV that God would redirect the storm out to sea, and was triumphant when Hurricane Gloria missed his neighborhood. Later, along came Hugo, and despite the fervent prayers made as the size of that storm was advertised on TV and radio, it did not veer. It smashed on shore in one of the great catastrophes of recent times. So did God move Gloria but let Hugo alone? And why? What kind of incredible guessing games do we get into if we think like that? No one has to tell you what an angry, chaotic world this would become if individual prayers brought blessed rain to one region but by the same shift of weather patterns brought destructive floods to another. There is a marvelous name for this kind of confidence that God is on our side, that we can know exactly what God is up to in our parade of comic and tragic events. I found it one day when I assigned to my American lit class a short story written 90 years ago by William Dean Howells. I knew the moment my eyes saw it on the page that it is a succinct and beautifully appropriate name for what so often bothers me.
In the short story, called “Editha,” there is a lovely but shallow young woman who is positive that God wants the war her country has just declared. It excites her to think of all the heroism and waving of flags about to take place. The sensitive young man she loves, brought up in the Quaker faith, is not so sure that God would not prefer peace, but all he says to her, gently, is that he wishes he could believe in her “pocket providence,” a way of using God that is like keeping a coin in your pocket which you can pull out to buy comfort or sense you when your faith needs them. “Pocket providence” — let me recite some true examples from my files.
My dear mother, living on a small income, called me one day after she got a $l,000 check for a natural gas lease on her property. Exultantly, she said: “I told the good Lord, ‘Help me with this one, let’s work on it together,’ and sure enough, He came through!” In that very instant, reflecting on the Lord’s keen interest in this small commercial transaction, I remembered two years earlier when her only daughter, my sister, lay dying of cancer as a vivacious and lovely young woman. I knew my mother had petitioned the Lord with far greater urgency to avert this too-young death, but her plea had been to no avail. I marveled at whatever it was in her that led her to believe in special intervention to push through the gas lease, despite her failure in a hope that had meant infinitely more.
One night in another church I served when I first came to Wichita, a young man enthralled a Wednesday night audience with a story of special providence during his brief tour as a missionary in Saigon. He had no transportation, so he prayed fervently that God would provide him with a motorcycle. He did not explain why a bike would not have done, in that city where so many thousands find them adequate. It had to be a motorcycle. So, he said, “I took it up with the Lord one night.” The next morning, as he sat beside a newly-met friend on a park bench, the friend suddenly said, “Jack, would you like to buy my motorcycle?” Jack told us that he looked up at the sky and said, “I didn’t mean to rush you, Lord!” — and most people in the audience laughed. Jack assured us that the offer to sell a $400 machine for $l50, which he just happened to have, was clearly a direct answer to his prayer and a case of God’s intervention in his behalf.
Some of my dear friends in that place nodded their heads happily at this proof that faith paid off, but I was having stomach cramps. Earlier that very day I had looked at a picture-story of Harlem children starved by day and chewed by rats at night in filthy beds, surrounded by dirt and ignorance. Too little to pray, their mothers prayed for them, and pled with God to deliver their children into a world of clean sheets and hope. I am not God, and His ways are higher than ours I am told over and over, but I am confused by a theology in which He intervenes to provide a motorcycle for a young man with powerful legs while he does nothing to help a Harlem child escape from its hell. Statistically, I sat there thinking, there have to be mothers in Harlem who have lived good lives, gone faithfully to church, and say urgently in every night’s prayer, “Save my baby from this sewer of poverty and crime. Send somebody, do anything, God, but get us out.” And the God who, according to Jack, dropped a motorcycle on him, performs no sudden miracle.
One day, not long after I had listened to Jack, I walked out of a my classroom at Wichita State behind a girl with crippling deformities. Before I could reach her to help, she struggled with a heavy door which sprang back against her weak helplessness and spun her around in grotesque stumbles. I helped her open the door, and watched for a moment as other students, who had piled up patiently behind her, spilled out into the sunlight and scattered as quickly as they could from that judgment on their own good luck. She seemed relieved to be alone again, to have found a wider space for her humiliating and awkward dance. I thought of how many times she must have wept in the night because normal love and courtship and marriage would be forever denied through no fault of hers. How often she must have prayed in an anguish as real as Gethsemane, “Please let me look normal someday. Please let me walk without dragging this twisted body along while people try so hard not to look at me.” My mind came back to the motorcycle, and to everything it stands for in simplistic religion. I am asked at an evening prayer meeting to think that God breaks into the natural world to grant a motorcycle to a boy who could run for miles, yet who works no miracle for this heartbroken child whose spirit is savagely wounded every day of her life. I am not able to worship such a God.
But others do, and their delight in special favors stands over against me in judgment. I heard Pat Boone talk on evening of how he prayed that there would be no rain in New York City one summer weekend while he was filming The Cross and the Switchblade, and sure enough, he told us, for the next three days it did not rain. Pat construed that mini-drouth as a direct answer to his prayer, a management of things for his sake by a greater Director than the one on location. I wondered if it disturbed his delight a little, if it even crossed his mind, that there were thousands of people sweltering in the heat, trying to sleep without the air conditioning he could afford, who were praying at that very same time that it would rain and bring some blessed coolness into their sweltering hovels.
Some of you may remember how years ago a giant Eastern Airlines jet crashed in the Everglades, killing some 90 people and leaving an equal number alive in the scattered wreckage. A Coast Guard lieutenant who flew over with one of the rescue helicopters said, “I’m amazed anyone lived in that crash; someone must have been watching over them.” And I thought at the time, “What an odd watcher! How did he pick the 90 to kill, and the 90 to save?” That same day, in a related story on another page, a federal aviation official said: “I can only conclude that in the nature of the terrain, the Everglades environment, with its shallow water, cushioned the impact.” He added that the larger-than-usual aircraft might also have permitted a higher survival rate in such circumstances. I felt more comfortable with his explanation. It did not leave me wondering why God should play favorites.
Am I weak in faith to wonder how often pure good luck is exalted into divine intervention? Am I wrong to remember that what is a most providential happening for one party may be total disaster for another? A famous old limerick makes the point: There was once a young lady of Ryde
Who was carried away by the tide;
A man-eating shark
Was heard to remark,
“I knew that the Lord would provide!”
When you pray for hot sun to hurry your wheat harvest, and I pray for rain to save my truck garden, how does God decide? Pocket providence: if it comforts you, please remember the requirement of love and compassion, and be sensitive about waving that coin in the face of someone whose child died in the crash which yours survived. Naples, Italy, November, 1980: massive earthquake hits southern Italy on a Sunday night, hundreds killed. Over one hundred died in Balvano, crushed when a Catholic church caved in during evening worship. The priest said, “They screamed, O did they scream! It was worse than hell.” But in the American community, mostly service people with the Navy, no casualties. Is it better to stay in the barracks on Sunday night than to go to church? How in the name of God do we make glib judgments about why some survive and some perish? Is it the intervening will of God that kills a child in a worship service and spares a sailor reading Playboy in his bunk? Or should we find answers in proximity to fault lines, weak masonry buildings and accidents of timing? Would it be more in line with the facts of life to say with the author of Ecclesiastes these tough but honest words: “Time and chance happen to all of us.” And having said it, to believe that despite accident and illness, God is mysteriously and powerfully with us, deep in the heart of life, somehow — that even in the tragedy that of itself makes no sense we can learn wisdom, deepen our compassion for others, and move closer to the mystery of love in a world of time and chance.
I believe in the power granted by faith to be gallant in suffering, to face tragic loss with a strength that blesses all who see it. With uplifted heart, and often with tears of supreme admiration, I see such people as the truest of all heroes. But I can make no sense of “pocket providence,” a theology that cheapens life for me rather than elevates it. So I suppose the last thing I should do this morning is confess that no moment in Christian scripture captures my conflicted heart better than when a nameless man brought the bewilderment of his faith-doubt tension to Jesus, saying, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” In my bewilderment before the facts of life, this man is my patron saint!