Why did God do that?

November 18, 2021 in Bill Toner SJ

BILL TONER SJ :: Some months ago, I was walking through a car park on my way to a birthday lunch, when I tripped on a kerb and fell on my face. When I struggled to my feet my mangled glasses were lying on the ground, which was spattered with blood. My first thought, almost a reflex, was, why did God do that? Here I was on my way to an innocent celebration of an elderly person’s birthday. Why would God make me spend the day instead in a local clinic? This kind of thinking came instinctively from the spirituality of my childhood.

Christians can look at misfortunes in a variety of ways. They may be influenced by some Bible verses that they have come across or a sermon they heard.

Some people try to fit the events of life into a framework where God is constantly looking after us and guiding every step of our way. Jesus offers consoling thoughts such as, “Every hair if your hair is numbered”, or “not a sparrow falls to the earth without my heavenly father knowing it”. And there is a lovely psalm in the Old Testament which speaks of God guiding our steps: “Your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me…”. The difficulty with this view of life is that the believer spends a lot of time trying to fit the many knocks of life into the framework. For instance, I could have imagined that maybe God made me fall because somebody at the birthday lunch would have pressed drink on me and I would have killed somebody on the way home! And so on. But many people who take this approach can end up struggling to find meaning in tragic events, or even losing their faith when something really awful happens to someone they love. Some are able to find solace in the thought that they are sharing in the sufferings of Christ. Others, unfortunately, interpret misfortunes as a punishment from God for some imagined sin.

A second approach could be inspired by the story of Job in the Old Testament. In this story, God does not harm Job directly, but he gives the devil permission to test Job’s faith, and terrible things befall poor Job. He loses all his family and possessions and ends up sitting on a dunghill scratching his sores. In this way, God does not actually make bad things happen, but he allows them to happen. But the question still arises, why did God allow this to happen? Why did God give the devil almost full rein against Job? This approach distances the bad event from God, but does not seem to remove completely God’s responsibility for it.

A third approach is one that has emerged with the development of modern science, particularly Darwin’s theory of evolution, and, parallel with that, the development of quantum physics. These two discoveries drew attention to the sheer unpredictability and randomness of creation. A number of theologians accept that evolution was a random process, although they still leave room for an over-riding divine plan. Jesus sometimes mentioned random events. He asked his hearers if those who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them were greater sinners than all the others living in Jerusalem. And he also spoke of the Father sending his rain on the just and on the unjust.

But if evolution is largely a random event, with God perhaps guiding the process with a very light touch, does it not follow that our human lives are also largely random, though with God not completely absent? This randomness is occasionally punctured by grace, by free will, and by answers to prayer. Is the best model for life not to see God accompanying us every step of the way, through all our random trips and falls? Of course, this does not answer the question why God allows randomness in his creation, but can we question God’s right to make use of it in creation if he so wishes?