We were hearing reports about a recent theological college mission to a parish church. Part of the mission planning was a Saturday festival event on the church grounds. You know the kind of thing: jumping castle, face painting, music, stalls of second- hand stuff. Lots of evangelistic opportunities. It had been a huge effort to put it on and get it ready.
But then, black clouds started to loom with menacing intent; and various members of the team started gazing at the satellite pictures on their phones. This wasn’t just a few scattered showers. This looked like it was going to be one of those Sydney thunderstorms.
The evening before, the team had prayed for clear weather so that they could do God’s work, and introduce people to Christ.
But now, a few fat drops were falling from the sky. There was the unique smell of a Sydney storm, and the atmosphere changed. Was the whole event going to be washed away in the coming deluge? Would the petting zoo pack up and go home, and the man with the coffee cart decide that it was all hopeless and leave?
But the plump drops that fell onto the asphalt were not followed by any more. The black clouds rolled over the suburb where the church was, and dumped themselves on another spot closer to the city. Everything continued as planned, and a great time was had by all. People talked about Jesus Christ late into the afternoon.
And the person telling the story looked at us and said: “God was really kind.”
But the question that entered my head was this: what if it had rained, no hailed, on the festival? What if it had simply pelted down all day long, and the day had been completely disastrous? Would you then say “God was really kind”? Or was the rain evidence that God had forgotten to be kind that day, that he was really rather annoyed? Or perhaps: he was being kind to the gardeners of the area that day but not to the evangelists at the parish church?
This story is just one illustration of a theological problem with the way we Christians talk about God acting in the world. We have what I would call a doctrine of “selective providence”. That is to say: we praise the name of God when the sick are healed, or when we succeed in our endeavours, when our church budget grows, or when the rain stays off our festival; but when things don’t go so well, we are mute. God appears to be in control of things when we like them, not so much when we don’t.
And secular journalists have noticed this, and it drives them crazy. Fairfax’s Peter Fitzsimons, for example, cannot contain himself when a Christian sportsman or woman thanks God for victory. First of all: is God really that concerned with golf or tennis? And secondly: what about the other athletes who competed, some of whom also call upon the same God? Did they somehow do something to offend the Almighty?
The late Sam de Brito wrote a piece in September about the San Francisco 49ers Aussie star Jarryd Hayne and other American football players and their God-talk. He referenced an episode in which the Detroit Lions safety Glover Quin said that God had intended for another player, Jordy Nelson, to tear his ligament.
Quin said: “I hated Jordy got hurt, but in my beliefs, and the way I believe, it was – God meant for Jordy to get hurt.” Jordy Nelson is himself a Christian, and presumably praying to God as well.
I recognise that a lot of this sloppy theological language comes from a combination of good intentions, from half-remembered Bible passages, and from the way Christians in general try to do God-talk. It is true that when we succeed at something or when something good happens to us, God is to be praised and thanked. He is the good God, and the giver of good things. The intention, I think, is to communicate humility – not “I am so special because God has given me this success” but rather “the glory for my success doesn’t belong to me but to the one who gives it.” But it easily comes across as ugly triumphalism.
So how can we think better, and talk better, about the good and gracious God and his work in our lives?
We could do worse than turn to the book of Job, and begin with Job’s response to his suffering:
Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.
This verse forms part of the funeral service in the Book of Common Prayer. We stand alongside the coffin of our friend or family member, and we recognise that not only is God to be praised in the midst of times of blessing and joy and plenty; but that he is also to be praised when there is loss, and grief, and sorrow.
One of the best contemporary songs, Blessed be Your Name by Beth and Matt Redman, takes us right into the middle of this thought from Job. It was written after the couple had experienced several miscarriages. I confess that I sometimes find this very hard to sing:
Blessed be Your name
When the sun’s shining down on me
When the world’s all as it should be
Blessed be Your name
Blessed be Your name
On the road marked with suffering
Though there’s pain in the offering
Blessed be Your name.
Can we really sing that second verse, in the midst of whatever life may bring us? Isn’t that just a kind of fatalism, where we encounter God as sometimes open-hearted and generous and sometimes … well, not so much? This could sound like defeated resignation. Why should God’s name be blessed when he takes away even life itself?
The book of Job edges us closer to a way of thinking about this. In the midst of his agony, Job says:
I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God.
Even in the midst of trials, God’s name is to be blessed because he is the living God who does not abandon his people. The world of trials and troubles is not the final state of things. We stand at the graveside and proclaim not just the power of almighty God but also the resurrection of the dead.
It is not just that God is in control, in other words, or “sovereign” to use theological terminology, but what he has done with this control.
And that’s where we should be zeroing in on the story of Jesus Christ. For that’s the Christian claim: not that we can see what God thinks of football matches or weather events, but that we know that God is gracious and compassionate, abounding in steadfast love and merciful beyond our imagining. We’ve seen the extent of that love in Jesus Christ, and we know that, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself. Whatever happens on the earth, then, we praise God, not because we are resigned to our fate, or because we are scared that if we don’t praise him something worse will happen, but because the God of Jesus Christ is one in whom we can have real hope.
The condition of this world is broken. That things go badly for us in our time here is not surprising. If we do enjoy the blessings of this life, then, yes, God be praised!
But if and when we do not, then, God is also to be praised, for there is a mending to this brokenness.
Is God to be called kind if the sun shines on your church festival? Yes indeed! But it is misleading, I think, to call him kind as if he isn’t always to be known as the kind God. Should we thank him for our success? Of course. But we should not forget also to thank him in our failures.
Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican church in Sydney and the author of several books.