John W. Lipphardt: Man, not God, to blame for horrific acts like Boston bombing
No, it is not part of God's plan.
No, it is not God's will.
No, God did not need another angel.
No, everything does not happen for a reason.
I'm hearing these statements again, thankfully not from my congregation, after the Boston bombing. These statements may be well intended, but they are not helpful. They are sometimes harmful. And they are always theologically bankrupt.
We have all heard these kinds of statements -- and may have said them -- when horrible things happen or when tragedies strike our lives. The attempt, no doubt, is to offer a kind word or comfort. In an attempt to make sense of something senseless, we fumble for the right words and often come up with things that blame God.
Eight years ago, our son Curt died. In a particularly raw and emotional moment, a woman at the church in Lancaster said to me, "God must have needed another angel."
"Why not yours?" I retorted before I had the chance to collect my emotions and compose my demeanor.
She meant well, I know. I later had the chance to apologize to her for the outburst, and she was kind in accepting the apology.
There is no doubt in my mind that Curt is in heaven serving God, but there is also no doubt in my mind that God did not need another angel and therefore caused the illness and series of events that led to his death.
Implicit in all these kinds of statements is the notion that God has some grand screenplay as life unfolds for us and that illnesses, horrible events and tragedies are part of the action called for by the Author. NO! The killing of 20 children in Newtown and the bombing along the route of the Boston Marathon are not part of God's plan.
This is NOT the nature of God. This is NOT who God is. Terrible, awful things happen, yes. But God is not to blame. Rather than being a part of God's plan, they are a frustration of God's hopes for all creation.
If it were part of God's plan, how could we hold accountable anyone who causes harm to others? They would be merely stooges, wouldn't they, to a malevolent deity? How could we prosecute Timothy McVeigh or James Holmes or Adam Lanza or any perpetrator of evil if they were simply fulfilling God's plan? We are really hard-pressed to validate this kind of malevolence. Nowhere in our scriptures can we find justification to blame God with a result of holding responsible parties blameless.
But a thoroughgoing theme through the scriptures of Old and New Testaments is the presence of a loving God, even when the mountains shake and the foundations crumble. God is our refuge and strength.
As God does not cause these things, neither does God stop them any more than God stops me from my human freedom to be overweight, threathening my own health. Neither does God stop folks from being unfaithful or from abusing the poor.
These choices are results of human freedom and free will; the freedom to make choices -- including bad ones -- is how God created us to be human. To have this free will means that we can misuse it.
Terror was part of the life of Jesus. His birth was marred by the horror and terror of a decree of Herod, resulting from Herod's fears and delusions, that every baby boy in the region around Bethlehem under the age of 2 should be killed. Imagine the terror felt by families trying to make their way in the world.
Did God cause this? NO. Jesus was tortured and hanged on a cross to die there in agony. But this Easter season offers the declaration that death and hate and evil will never have the final word.
Even now, we are seeing acts of kindness and bravery and goodness that push back the darkness. While some misuse their freedom to perpetrate evil, millions respond by feeling compelled to use their freedom to do good. "Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light," says the Christmas poetry of Bethlehem. God assures us that evil will not prevail and that light will always, and ultimately, overcome the darkness. If we follow God's lead, our work is to push back the darkness.
So, when you hear someone say this is part of God's plan or that God needed another angel, find your own polite words to counter that theological bankruptcy with a word that defines God not with such malevolence but with grace and love, an ever present help in time of trouble.
For the refuge of your arms, for your love that we adore,
For your strength through fear's alarms, for your comfort evermore:
Lord of all to you we raise faithful trust and grateful praise.
Rev. John W. "Jack" Lipphardt is senior pastor at Johnson Memorial United Methodist Church in Huntington.
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