A week ago Thursday, I was driving home to Seattle after a brief teaching stint in Vancouver, B. C. As I drove south, I heard news alerts about the collapse of a bridge on I-5. Then I got to thinking: Not only did I cross that bridge, but I crossed it within fifteen minutes — or maybe five — of the time it went down.
This kind of thing gives one pause. You think about “almosts” and “what ifs.”
You may think to yourself, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
But is that true? Yes, no and maybe.
Yes. because gratitude is always good. I’m certainly grateful I wasn’t right behind that over-sized truck. I’m thankful no one — amazingly — was killed. I’m grateful that I wasn’t caught in what must have been one hell of a traffic jam on the north side of the bridge.
But no, I don’t believe in a God who plays favorites or micromanages reality. Did God intend that I get through customs quickly enough that I was ahead of the bridge collapse and not a part of it? Did God nudge me ahead on I-5 so that the too-large truck that smashed into one of the bridge’s girders was behind me and not in front of me?
Though I believe in God and trust in some sense, in God’s providential care, I don’t think that’s how it works. I don’t think God, by whatever name, was pulling strings or levers to insure that I didn’t find myself in the Skagit River’s cold, dark waters that Thursday evening.
Because if I did believe that, the corollary is that God intended for others to go down with the bridge. Or worse, that God put the tornado in the path of an elementary school in Moore, Oklahoma or placed children in harm’s way in Newtown, Connecticut. And that is to make God into a monster.
I don’t believe in a God who provides special protection for those who are (or think they are) on God’s good side. That sounds less like faith and trust than selfishness. Faith, for me, has more to do with life’s meaning and purpose and with my trust in a grace and mercy that abide, mysteriously, in spite of human failure or evil.
Shortly after his son Alex was killed in a car wreck, onetime Yale Chaplain William Sloan Coffin tried to make sense of the tragedy in a sermon. At one point, he mentioned a “nice-looking, middle-aged woman who arrived at their home with eighteen quiches in hand.” As she passed by Coffin, she said, over her shoulder, “I just don’t understand the will of God” — implying that somehow it was God’s will that Alex die.
“Instantly I was in hot pursuit,” said Coffin, “swarming all over her. ‘I’ll say you don’t [understand God’s will] lady! 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 ‘frosties’ too many? Do you think it was God’s will that there are no streetlights along that stretch of road, and no guard rail separating the road and Boston Harbor?”
“For some reason,” concluded Coffin, “nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his finger on triggers, his fist around knives, his hands on steering wheels.”
While I agree with Coffin’s response to a theology that too quickly or easily specifies God’s will (and overlooks human responsibility), I also find I can’t fully buy the view that boils it all down to just us.
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