Updated: Jun 23
This past summer, a young woman named Sheeba did an internship with me. Although I’m a pastor and have sponsored internships with various people looking to explore the ministry, she wanted something very different. Sheeba was interested in learning about videography and film editing. Sheeba had previously worked with me on a video series project I had put together around race and Christianity, so she knew that I was capable of professional quality videography and editing.
As you might expect, in the midst of this internship, Sheeba and I got into a number of discussions about Christianity. Sheeba is like me, a very analytical thinker. She takes nothing at face value. Her immediate response is the desire to understand more about whatever subject she is studying. Christianity is no exception. In me, she found a kindred spirit as my entire ministry has been built around helping people answer the questions that most pastors deem off limits.
I started exposing Sheeba to some of the academic history surrounding the Bible. I explained how the Bible was written and pieced together over time. I walked her through the history of the Jewish people and how archaeological history contradicts much of the biblical narrative. Sheeba took to this new world of information because, in her words, for the first time the Bible actually started to make sense.
After the summer internship was over, Sheeba moved to Arizona where her goal was to start her own videography business. Upon arriving, she began attending various Bible studies. Thanks to her time with me, Sheeba started raising questions and doubts about what the Bible was saying. These questions became a source of tension among the participants, which inspired one of them to create a Bible study specifically for Sheeba. The people who came to this Bible study understood that everything was on the table for debate.
However, after a couple of months of attending this Bible study, it became clear that certain questions were off limits. In fact, Sheeba realized that when she asked really hard questions or doubted fundamental doctrines, the goal of the Bible study was not to explore the nuances of these arguments, but rather to convince Sheeba that she was wrong. They had no interest in exploring questions and doubts. They were simply attempting to make Sheeba think like them.
The conversation that ended the Bible study revolved around a singular problem: Does God exert control over our lives? The members of the Bible study said yes, absolutely God exerts control over their lives. Sheeba disagreed and said, “No, I don’t believe that to be true.” They were aghast. How could Sheeba not believe that God was not exerting control over her life? Well, the genesis of that belief came from a conversation she and I had over the summer. I want to walk you through the logic of that conversation because, as controversial as it might seem, if you believe in a God of unconditional love, like I do, then this way of viewing God is logical and is more consistent with our day-to-day experiences.
Does God Cause Suffering?
Our conversation began with a very basic question: Do you believe that God wants humans to suffer? I explained to Sheeba, you could certainly answer yes to that question because there are biblical stories that would seem to indicate that this is the case. For example, take 2Samuel 21:1-14. This particular passage describes a famine that lasted in the land for three years. Let’s be clear, at this time when there was a famine, people would often die from starvation. Industrialized countries don’t have the same problems today because we utilize modern irrigation techniques, pesticides and fertilizers to sustain our crops.
But those modern techniques didn’t exist thousands of years ago, so if it didn’t rain or their crops were eaten by insects or were destroyed by a fungus, life could quickly become precarious. And because they lacked a scientific understanding of the world, life felt very much out of their control. When their crops failed year after year, the only explanation they could fathom was that God was punishing them and wanted them to suffer.
In the story from 2Samuel, David inquires of God as to why the famine has persisted for three years. What David discovers is that God is causing the famine because King Saul, David’s predecessor, tried to exterminate the Gibeonites. David then approaches the Gibeonites and asks them how he might be able to atone for Saul’s sin. The Gibeonites ask David to hand over seven of Saul’s sons so they can be executed for the crimes of their father, since Saul is no longer alive. David agrees and hands over seven of Saul’s sons. Once they are executed, God removes the famine and everyone is able to eat again.
Let’s just do a quick recap of this story so we’re all on the same page. Because of King Saul, because of one man’s actions, God makes everyone suffer by starving them to death. However, once seven of Saul’s sons are murdered, God is satisfied and stops the suffering. Now I think that any reasonable person reading this today would come to one of two conclusions.
The first conclusion, if we take this at face value, is that God is awful, petty, vengeful and, frankly, unfair. God is willing to make an entire population of people suffer who had nothing to do with Saul’s decision simply because God was angry at one person.
The second conclusion is that the people who wrote this story were trying to make a sense of a world they didn’t understand. Why is there famine? We don’t know, but we believe God is in control of everything and, therefore, God is clearly angry at us, causing this famine for some reason. If we want to get out of the famine, we have to get back into God’s good graces. Will executing seven guys make it rain? Today we know this is illogical, but that connection made sense 3000 years ago.
Resetting Our Assumptions
This text would suggest that God controls a lot of what happens to us and most Christians, like those in Sheeba’s Bible study, take that at face value. If God controls the weather in this story, then God controls the weather in our world as well. Indeed, it’s not just the weather, the authors of the Bible also assume that God controls everything about your life.
Among the Jews and other ancient Middle Eastern cultures, there was a belief that your life circumstances were a reflection of how much God loved or hated your family. For instance, if you had a child with a physical or intellectual handicap, there was a belief that such maladies were the result of God punishing your family for their sins. This type of thinking is clear in John’s gospel: As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Jn. 9:1-2)
Another example of this type of thinking is when a person is born into poverty. Those who struggled to feed their families were thought to be suffering the consequences of the sins their parents or grandparents committed against God. By contrast, those who were wealthy were considered to be loved by God. Their blessing of wealth showed that their family had done well in God’s eyes and, thus, they were favored by God. This type of thinking can be found in the story of Jesus and rich man (Mk. 10:17-31), where the disciples assume that the rich man is essentially perfect in God’s eyes because he has so much money.
Interestingly, in both of these instances, Jesus rejects this type of thinking as antithetical to his movement. In the example with the blind man in the gospel of John, Jesus says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned…” (Jn. 9:3) In the story of the rich man, Jesus levies the famous phrase “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mk. 10:23) and then only a few verses later, “…many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Mk. 10:31) This indicates that just because someone is rich doesn’t mean they are favored by God. Indeed, from Jesus’ perspective, their wealth is an impediment to God accepting them.
Therefore, although this notion that God controls our lives was common 2000 years ago, I do not believe adopting this way of thinking makes sense as Christians living in the modern world. Indeed, I find the concept that God controls every aspect of our lives to be extremely destructive for a variety of reasons. Perhaps most importantly, this belief directly conflicts with a God of unconditional love.
Chance and Choice
If you’re going to believe in a God of unconditional love, which is the kind of God Jesus promotes, then you have to back away from the belief that God controls your life. These two beliefs simply cannot coexist together. If God determines the outcome of our lives and is choosing the suffering you endure, you cannot make the claim that God is loving. It just doesn’t work because there’s so much suffering in the world: poverty, starvation, cancer, illness, abuse, violence, war and genocide.
If you’re going to claim that God is unconditionally loving, the only way you can make sense of the problem of suffering is to remove God’s control of the world, which a lot of Christians don’t like because that means much of what happens to us is the result of two things: random chance and freedom of choice. Why were you born into the family you were born into? Was it because God wanted you there? Was it because God planned for it? No, it was the result of random chance.
This notion is very discomfiting to many Christians because they don’t like the idea that random chance governs their lives. However, science tells us that the universe God created is a place where random chance propagates life. Think about it. There are 200 billion galaxies in the universe, and each individual galaxy has anywhere from hundreds of millions to billions of stars. Spinning around all of those stars are planets and some of those planets are like ours, floating in the habitable zone of the star. With a little bit of luck and lot of time, some of those planets will possess the right ingredients for life to evolve.
All this to say, we are not the only intelligent life in the universe, not by a long shot. If you think life on earth is the only life in the universe, you need to look up. If chance can produce us, then chance can produce lots of other life elsewhere in the universe. However, if chance is part of what allows us to exist, then chance is also part of our daily lives. Sometimes it works in our favor, sometimes it doesn’t.
I knew a guy at one of my churches who was at end stage liver failure. He was on his deathbed and needed a liver transplant. It looked like he was not going to find a donor. Then a teenage boy happened to be crossing the street and was hit by a drunk driver. Being an organ donor, this church member got this teenager’s liver and is still alive to this day. Did God make that drunk driver hit that kid so this church member could get a liver? No, the kid was in the wrong place at the wrong time and this church member was in the right place at the right time.
Which leads to the other reason why we suffer—freedom of choice. Rather than control our decisions, God has given us the ability to make our own choices. Again, many Christians do not like this idea because it means God is very hands off from our world. But I want you to consider something—a God that lets us make our own choices is consistent with a God of unconditional love. God says, “I love you so much that I’m not going to interfere with your lives. I have created this universe for you to figure out your own way through it.”
This is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because we can choose our own path. It is a curse because, by letting us live our own lives and make our own choices, God opens the door to suffering. Why? Because every decision we make has consequences in the world. Sometimes our decisions only impact us. Other times, those decisions ripple out and impact other people. However, by letting us make our own decisions, that is the primary root of suffering.
I’m sure you can think of all kinds of decisions you have made throughout your life that have caused suffering for yourself and others. When you say something you shouldn’t say or do something you shouldn’t do, you bring suffering into the world. However, suffering can also have a positive side. I would assume you have learned from the choices you have made that have caused suffering. Hopefully, that suffering has taught you to make better choices. Suffering has the ability to shape us into amazing people. Some of the best people I’ve met are people who have made many mistakes and endured much suffering. Ironically, it is our suffering that often brings the most meaning to our lives. Suffering makes life both amazingly beautiful and stunningly sad.
The Opiate of the Masses
All of this raises a really important question: If good and learning can come out of suffering, then does God want us to suffer? My answer to that question has always been no. I don’t think a loving God would ever want you to suffer. What I believe is that God had to make a choice. God could either give you a perfect life where you have no freedom or give you an imperfect life with total autonomy. God chose to give you a life where you can make your own decisions.
By giving us freedom of choice, suffering becomes part of the equation and, if you have to suffer, the hope is that you will learn and grow in positive ways from your suffering. In fact, the lessons learned from suffering will hopefully inspire us to want to choose to help other people who are suffering. In my opinion, one of the most precious gifts life has to offer is when you have the ability to create positive, loving ripples in your life and the lives of others. Indeed, with that choice you have the ability to heal and alleviate suffering in the world, which brings me back to Sheeba and her Bible study.
Although I didn’t mention this detail earlier, Sheeba’s Bible study was sponsored through a Black church. When the group found out that Sheeba did not believe that God controlled her life, they didn’t really know how to respond because this belief is so engrained in their Christian faith. Unfortunately, this belief has a number of very negative consequences, particularly for oppressed people groups.
If you subscribe to the belief that God controls your life, then the inherent problem you face when you are suffering is that God intends for you to suffer. Thus, when a person of color faces racial discrimination, there is a sense that such suffering is part of God’s plan. Since God is in control, you, as the victim, are part of much larger plan that God is working out through humanity. Hence, your job is to wait for God to bring justice to your situation, regardless of the suffering you might endure in the present moment.
In other words, this notion that God controls the direction of your life makes you a passive actor on the world stage. You have no real autonomy to make decisions and must endure the circumstances handed to you. From my perspective, this is just another way to keep oppressed people from standing up for themselves to change their situation for the better. In this way, I would argue the belief that God is in control is exactly what Karl Marx meant when he said, “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
The Christian belief in a God who controls everything is an opiate that numbs people to their circumstances and prevents them from using their freedom of choice to invoke real change. Personally, I feel that American Christianity, as it was introduced by White Europeans to African slaves, conveyed God’s control as means of keeping slaves subdued and compliant. Evidence of this can be seen in the Civil Rights Movement when many older Black Christians spoke out against Martin Luther King, Jr.’s desire to create change through non-violent resistance. They had been taught to wait on God’s timing and to accept their circumstances as a necessary evil until the natural order is upended with Jesus’ return.
King believed in free will and the notion that one should never wait for God. You are God’s hands and feet in the world. Change does not happen on its own. Change happens when people use their freedom and autonomy to choose to change the world. If it wasn’t for King divesting himself of the belief that God is in total control of everything, the Civil Rights Movement would not have been nearly as successful as it was.
This brings me to the point of this article. Believing that God is in control of the world not only conflicts with the belief in an unconditionally loving God, but is a truly dangerous and insidious belief that reinforces oppression on many levels of society. On a personal level, it prevents people from believing they have the autonomy and choice to change their lives for the better. On a societal level, it causes people groups to believe their suffering is inevitable and, even worse, part of God’s plan. Finally, I see this belief as a big reason why younger people want nothing to do with the Christian faith. They can intuitively discern that Christianity is disempowering to their sense of self-determination. Why would anyone want to be part of a group where the belief system intentionally negates your freedom of choice?
What I believe is that God gave you freedom of choice. God is not going to interfere in your decisions. God is not going to intervene and change the course of your life. God has no grand plan for you and the people around you. The plan is what we witness in the world every single day: You can make your own decisions and, through your choices, you can alleviate suffering and transform the world into a better place by spreading God’s unconditional love to everyone you meet.
In my next article, we are going to discuss another element of Christianity that I feel is truly degrading to our sense of self-worth and identity—the doctrine of total depravity. This theology, which was developed by the Reformers 500 years ago, promotes the notion that you are incapable of anything good apart from your relationship with God in Jesus. Let’s just say, there’s a lot of problems with this belief that we don’t often talk about that prevents people from moving forward with their lives. Until next time!