‘It Must be God’s Will’…Really?

Sermon by Bill Chadwick | February 9, 2020

Psalm 27: 1-5 and Matthew 11: 28-30

A couple weeks ago we looked at the question of discerning God’s will and I asserted that we can look to three different sources of authority. Anyone remember what they are? Bible. Gut. Christian friends.

Today I’d like to look at a different side of God’s will. What do we mean when we say that some tragedy is “God’s will”? Is it? If not, then what?

My basic assertion this morning is that sometimes we are a bit untidy in our choice of words and phrases. Let me look at a couple others and then circle back to “God’s will.”

First. “Everything Happens for a Reason.” I’ve said that…but I don’t anymore. There is a wonderful, and I mean wonderful book that came out a couple of years ago. It was written by a young theology professor who was diagnosed with stage four cancer. The prognosis was grim. She had a husband and a young child. And in her journey with this horrid disease she was the recipient of many words meant as encouragement and comfort and some of them were encouraging and comforting. But certainly not that phrase: “Everything happens for a reason.” Really? What is the reason a young wife and mother is dying from cancer. How would you answer her question?

I submit that God does not give young mothers cancer. Not to make her or her husband stronger. Not to make her appreciate life more. Not to teach her or her family or us a lesson.

I submit that God does not give people cancer. If God does, I’m out of here. I’m not serving that God.

The young woman, Kate Bowler by name, was so incensed and hurt by these inane phrases that she wrote an entire book about her experience entitled, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. I can’t recommend it too much.

Here’s another that I have used but no longer do: “There but for the grace of God go I.” If you don’t examine it too closely it’s a self-effacing comment, saying we are in no position to judge this other person who has huge challenges in life. But look closely, “There but for the grace of God…” So I received God’s grace, but this poor soul did not evidently. Really?

Nowadays if I say anything at all I say, “Wow! What good luck I’ve had in life, unlike this poor soul.” Luck, not God’s choice.

Notice I said, “IF I say anything at all…”

I find the book of Job to be rather impenetrable and utterly unsatisfying as an explanation of evil in the world. But there is one section of it that I think is brilliant. Here’s the scene: Job was a wealthy man, with oxen and donkeys and sheep and camels and servants, and ten children and a loving wife. (Job 1:1-3) Thus begins the parable of Job. Job had it made. Family, health, wealth, respect.

Soon Job’s donkeys and oxen were stolen by the Sabeans, then fire from the sky burned up the sheep and servants, the Chaldeans formed three raiding parties and swept down on his camels and carried them off, and then a mighty wind swept in from the desert and killed all of Job’s children. Finally, Job’s very body was afflicted with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head. Then Job took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes.

Job went from king of the world to an object of pity.

When Job’s three friends…heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was. (Job 2:11-13)

Job’s friends responded so beautifully to his tragedy. First, they came to his side. Then they sat with him in silence.

A wonderful example for us.

They got off to a great start. But then they started telling Job their opinions as to why these bad things happened to him.

They said that God was punishing Job for some wrongdoing. Oops. Wrong. That was not what was going on.

Just over ten years ago Haiti was devastated by an earthquake. A few days later televangelist Pat Robertson had this to say about the earthquake: And you know,… something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French, you know Napoleon the 3rd and whatever, and they got together and swore a pact to the Devil.

They said, “We will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French.” True story. And so the Devil said, “Okay, it’s a deal.”

And, uh, they kicked the French out, you know, Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by, by one thing after another, desperately poor. That island of Hispaniola is one island. It’s cut down the middle. On the one side is Haiti on the other side is the Dominican Republican. Dominican Republic is, is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, etcetera. Haiti is in desperate poverty. Same island. They need to have and we need to pray for them a great turning to God and out of this tragedy I’m optimistic something good may come. But right now, we’re helping the suffering people and the suffering is unimaginable.

Did God cause the earthquake? (long pause)


In one sense. Perhaps the best theological treatment I have found on the subject of suffering and God’s will is in a little book by Leslie Weatherhead, (slide) entitled The Will of God. A copy is in our church library. Weatherhead was the pastor of City Temple in London during World War II. During the blitz he performed as many as ten funerals a day, so he was well-acquainted with evil and suffering. In 1944 he preached a series of five sermons, which were then published as a book. In the sermons he divides the “will of God” into three categories: the intentional will of God, the circumstantial will of God and the ultimate will of God. He uses the example of Jesus going to the cross to illustrate the differences among them.

  1. Was it God’s intention from the beginning that Jesus should go to the Cross? I think the answer to that question must be No. I don’t think Jesus thought that at the beginning of his ministry. He came with the intention that (people) should follow him, not kill him. The discipleship of (people) not the death of Christ, was the intentional will of God, or, if you like, God’s ideal purpose—and I sometimes wish that in common language we could keep the phrase “the will of God” for the intentional will of God.
  2. But when circumstances wrought by (human) evil set up such a dilemma that Christ was compelled either to die or to run away, then in those circumstances the Cross was the will of God, but only in those circumstances which were themselves the fruit of evil. In those circumstances any other way was unworthy and impossible, and it was in this sense that our Lord said, “Nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt.”…
  3. Then there is a third sense in which we use the phrase “the will of God,” when we mean God’s ultimate goal—the purposefulness of God which, in spite of evil and, as we shall see, even through evil, arrives, with nothing of value lost, at the same goal as would have been reached if the intentional will of God could have been carried through without frustration. (p. 12)

Another example. Imagine a three year-old child. Surely it is God’s intentional will that that child should live a long and full life. But God gave humans free will. Sometimes we mess up. In a moment of parental inattention, that three year-old child gets free and races into the street in front of a garbage truck. In those circumstances, because of the laws of nature, it is God’s circumstantial will that the child’s body dies. But we believe that the child is embraced into the eternal love of God in heaven, so God’s ultimate will is still accomplished.

A parishioner told me how helpful she has found Weatherhead’s book to be in her own life, and how she remembers the three aspects of the will of God through their initials, which form ICU, like Intensive Care Unit, when she needs some clear thinking about God’s will.

So, did God cause the earthquake because of the sins of the people of Haiti? The First Testament is filled with that idea: Act righteously and you will be blessed; ignore God, mistreat your neighbor and God will punish you.

This idea is behind the exchange between Jesus and some questioners in Luke chapter 13: Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. (That is, while they were in the Temple offering their sacrifices Pilate had them cut down by his soldiers and their blood joined the blood of the sacrificial animals.) 2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no!” Luke 13:1-4

We all are sinners.

Did God cause the earthquake in Haiti because of some pact with the devil or because of the practice of voodoo? Then what about the Christians who died, are they merely “collateral damage”? (Haiti slides of damaged churches, with crosses still standing).

Well, could God have stopped the earthquake?

Most of us would say, Yes.

But God didn’t.

And we are driven back to silence.

There is no good answer. My faith and my hope is that God is with the suffering people of Haiti and everywhere people are suffering. It has been said that God’s heart is the first to break.

As William Sloane Coffin has said, “God is short on protection and long on companionship.”

May we be like Job’s friends in coming alongside those who are suffering, and not offer easy platitudes, just our presence. Amen.

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