the incredible shrinking god

by Zach Kincaid

The moon rests just the same over New Orleans and Indonesia. The gutters of Japan bucket out the last of their dead onto a radio active ocean. The tsunami heaps onto its record - a prized fighter finding punching his opponents down for count after count. Africa is baked in tyranny as children are fatherless due to years of civil war and bombs burst all over the air. "This is my Father's world and to my listening ear..." it's all messed up and you and I are... well, you add the rhyme. 

Who holds the reigns on the world?

“God created structures of nature like water because it is necessary, but it can also drown us,” says John Sanders in my conversation with him some time ago. He is now professor of religion at Hendrix College and author of The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence. “My approach, then, is a structural one,” he says. “Is disease the hand of God? It probably has more to do with pesticides and other chemicals. God can use these things once they happen, but he did not make them happen.

"If God created the world in which air currents and water vapor bring needed rain but these same elements sometimes form hurricanes, then God takes the risk that people will suffer from them,” John states in a recent article titled “Open Theism and Natural Evil.”

In other words, God knows we need water vapor and rain as much as he knows we need freewill to be part of life, but both cases might bring great strife and brewing storms. “God cannot simply remove the possible harm those orders can bring without removing the very determinate order that makes life possible,” John says.

Why not? It may be that in the world we know now, the necessary forces are greased with the possibility of harm. That's just the way it works in the present. So, beware little feet where you roam because the earth might open its battered fault lines and take you under... despite the truth that the Lord of love is watching from above.

Another scenario places royal blame on Satan for all bad things in the world. Does God have “the whole world in his hands,” as the children’s song indicates or is their work being done by the mysterious beasts that hide inside shadows? Perhaps these demons are the cause of birth defects and some weather patterns as Gregory Boyd indicates. John Sanders would say that Satan might very well be a presence in those woes doled out, but he's of the opinion that we don't really know from the base of biblical knowledge we have.

Maybe in the same seed of vulnerability there blooms a tree that simply gives itself away as Shel Silverstein so appropriately wrote. It is in this space – trapped between the susceptible and the faithful – where the impression of God can be seen as one who we collaborate with against evil, and not only one who ordains and directs. This is what relieves a great burden, John says, because God did not ordain "their cancer or the death of a daughter for some unknown, and difficult-to-grasp, good."

Does this promote an incredible shrinking God? If God is not the sole force behind every situation, bewilderment may set in. Sanders says bewilderment promotes lament. When truly awful things occur, natural or otherwise, we don’t need to necessarily answer why it happened, as if a hurricane escaped from God’s house like David did with a piece of Saul’s robe. Instead, we can grieve and love. We can hold out and hold onto hope that is set high and nurtured in who God is according to Scripture.

No matter our conclusions, we only understand pieces of God, and we know only his activity in part. The truth of Christ crucified and his miraculous resurrection is sure. It’s “our sign of hope that the future will bring a transformation,” says John. And there is the Holy Spirit who comforts and “works to redeem evil situations.”

One example of this essence of working toward redemption is Jesus’ actions in the healing of a blind man and the questions posed as to who sinned and why was this man born blind. Jesus flipped it around when he healed the man and responded that his ailments became God’s glory. “Jesus turned it into a miracle,” says John. “God has the power to determine specific miracles.”

The idea that we are to be dealers in the causes that bring about God's glory is a central element in the Gospel narrative, and it hands over the burden of demonstration upon us. We too can suspend the natural order and introduce slivers of the divine as we work with the miraculous God who fashioned this place and continues to interact in, what is now, a fallen, rotten world.