I’m not sure if that title is entirely theologically correct and I’m happy to engage in conversation with anyone who disagrees with me.
It was prompted by a typo in a caption my friend gave to a photo of his boys dressed as waiters. They had just made their mum Sunday lunch for Mother’s Day and under the photo John had written, “we can hire them out at God’s rates”!
Obviously he meant “at good rates” but it made me reflect that God’s rates and good rates are two very different things.
People very often seem to think that as a church minister, I am somehow on preferential terms with God (‘mates rates’). They expressed surprise when I experience difficulties or when I tell them that my prayers are sometimes not answered, even in ways which cause me great pain or disappointment.
Currently I am having to accept that my hopes and plans (and long held dream) of filling my sabbatical with long distance cycle rides may not be achievable because of an excruciatingly frozen shoulder which has persisted in getting worse and worse every time I or others have prayed about it.
It’s not only scuppering future plans but it is currently disabling me and keeping me from sleep.
So “why do bad things happen to good people”? I use the word ‘good’ advisedly as I’m not claiming any great saintliness for myself. But it’s a broad question which I often hear expressed as “I don’t understand how God could allow this to happen to such a good person”, it’s a question which causes people to lose their faith to drift away from church and I completely ‘get’ why that is. For what it’s worth, so did one of the psalmist’s who looked at people who were indifferent to God and said their lives were much easier (Psalm 73).
I’m not so sure that it is much easier to go through life without any faith or any hope in any higher power. But being a person of faith, believing in a God of love, does present a uniquely difficult dilemma when we suffer. Why indeed, does this God who claims to love us so much allow us to experience so much pain and difficulty? The pain and difficulty often feels hard enough to bear on its own, without this added layer of disappointment with God.
So for myself and for anyone else out there grappling with this question I’m going to briefly have one more go at seeing if I can give an albeit inadequate answer. I am putting into my own words teaching from Sam Wells’ book Learning to Live Again, as this has really resonated with me in my current situation.
The problem often arises because we approach our relationship with God in the same way we approach our relationship with the many other organisations or people in our lives from whom we expect something.
We expect something from the company that provides our mobile phone …. We have a contract.
We expect something from the people who installed the boiler in our house…. We have a contract
We expect something from our employer at the end of a month’s work… We have a contract.
We expect something from the teacher in our child’s classroom, that our child will be safe and learn something. We expect something from the doctor when we go to visit, that they will do us no harm and possibly even help us. We expect something from the cook in our favourite restaurant, that we will not be sick as a result of eating the food. In these three situations we may not hold a contract in our hand but the laws of the land give us the security we need. In other words, if it all goes horribly wrong, we know we can sue, we can claim compensation, we can take someone to court.
Now here’s the thing: God does not do contracts. God is not limited or bounded by laws and conventions. We cannot sue God in court, we cannot claim compensation, although goodness knows, many of us have wanted to.
You see contracts are enacted between equals. Contracts imply rights and responsibilities. Contracts are boring and dull but make you feel safe. Contracts are there for solving disputes. With a contract you know where you are. But God does not do contracts, which is what I mean when I said that there are no T’s and C’s with God.
If you choose to enter into a relationship with God… let me phrase that differently… If you choose to accept God’s gracious offer of entering into a relationship with you, you have to acknowledge that you are in relationship with a being far greater and far wiser than you. Which is why the Isaiah wrote “your thoughts are not my thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55).
Now this might cause you to despair and think ‘well what’s the point of having a relationship with God then? What’s in it for me?’
What’s in it for you is a covenant.
Whilst God doesn’t do contracts, he does do covenants. This is utterly extraordinary. Why would an infinite all powerful God choose to be so painfully and deeply committed to fickle, puny, but hugely opinionated beings such as we are?
And yet it is a covenant that we are offered. An unconditional commitment of love.
Contracts concern themselves with limited and mundane areas of our lives. They are not bad things in themselves and we must not despise them. A marriage is a contract “in sickness and in health, for richer for poorer, forsaking all others” and so on, it all matters. If that contract is broken by infidelity there are very clear grounds for divorce.
But the strongest marriages are those which have a solid contract as a base layer, as the foundation. But which build on top of that foundation, a covenant of love.
We are not familiar with the word “covenant” but we do all have them: covenants are those agreements around powers we cannot hope to control. Which is why, marriage in particular is a contract enhanced by a covenant.
The most precious things in our lives are run by covenants not contracts. Think about it, if you were blessed with having loving parents, the reason they were there for you was not because they signed a contract on the day you arrived promising to love you unconditionally, they love you unconditionally because that is the covenant of parenthood.
Covenants of love and friendship are those things that answer the questions ‘who will hold my hand when I die?’ ‘Who in my life gives me a sense of being loved, trusted and of unconditional belonging?’
A contract is a means to a useful end but a covenant is a commitment to love without end and without conditions.
God’s covenant with you is that you are loved, welcomed, received and accepted no matter how many times you rebel, no matter how many times you’ve stuck two fingers up at him/her, no matter how far away you’ve wandered.
And of all the things in our life’s experience, pain does cause us to wander… and wonder: ‘is God really there? Am I really safe? Is anyone hearing me when I pray?’
It’s only when you give up your contractual arrangement with God (which is something you have constructed in your head not something you were offered) that you can begin to experience “the peace that passes understanding”, the joy and delight that doesn’t make any sense at all given your current situation.
You see, we never ‘made a deal with God’. God owes us nothing, we are not God’s equal. There is no court of arbitration to go to if we get it into our head that God is not keeping God’s side of the bargain.
But all contractual arrangements will eventually pass away. God’s covenant with us is for ever.
During this particular time of pain through which I’m passing, I am being sustained by two wise sisters in the faith: St Teresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich. One of them whispers to me on my right hand side “all things pass” reminding me of an eternal perspective, that in 50 years time when I’m dead and gone no one will remember me except the Creator who gave me life and to whom I have returned. On my left hand side, Mother Julian whispers “all will be well… And all manner of things shall be well” reminding me that I’m not relying on a contract with an indifferent deity. I am relying on the character of God as revealed by the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit: my heavenly parent, my older brother who has gone to great lengths to seek me out and bring me home, and the beautiful yet often underwhelming presence of the Holy Spirit who guides me with her wise words and soft hints of hope.
Is this all good enough for me? Is it good enough for you?
Only you can answer the second question for yourself.
It’s good enough for me. It’s been good enough for those who I have seen remain faithful and in peaceful confidence of God through their final months. And I am currently watching it be ‘good enough’ for another precious friend who knows that journey has come round far earlier than any of us would want for her.
This is not resignation. This is hope.
None of us will face life without suffering and all of us will face death eventually. You don’t ‘cut a deal’ with God, you acknowledge he gave you life, you thank him/her for all the moments that life has brought you that have made you feel alive – even though not all of them have been sweet or pleasant. And when life is over, you, like Jesus, trust that life you were given back into God’s hands.
To read Sam Well’s original reflection on this see Chapter 2 of this book