As I write this column I am on Renewal Leave, which has given me some time and perspective to reflect on some of the recent, tragic events in Indiana and around the country. The past few weeks have included: the collapse of the stage rigging at the Indiana State Fair, which has to date resulted in the deaths of seven people; the recent Hurricane Irene, which swept up the coast of the eastern United States and has resulted in more than 40 deaths across seven states and an estimated $7 billion in damages; and the sudden and unexpected death of one of our clergy in the Indiana Conference, David Patrick, who died suddenly at age 46.
While I was only directly involved in the latter situation, I have been watching and listening to the coverage of the other tragic events. My heartfelt prayers go out to everyone who was impacted by those events, and I know that all of you join me in praying for the families of those who have lost loved ones.
As always with such tragedies, it seems we have to endure casual comments from the secular media and other observers about these tragedies being “God’s will” or “an act of God” or some other statement, which seems to name God as the cause of these tragic events. Sometimes those comments are offered in an attempt to be helpful or comforting, as when people come through the visitation line at a funeral and say something like, “God has taken him or her home to a better place.”
Every time I hear such comments about a tragedy, I struggle to understand why we are so quick to blame God – even when that “blame” is intended to be comforting. I especially recoil against the typical commentary of newspapers and TV reporters about traumatic weather being “an act of God.” I know that even insurance companies use that phrase as a category for coverage. But don’t we need to reflect more seriously and theologically before we casually say that something is God’s will?
From my perspective, the best book and thinking about this subject is still the classic book by Leslie Weatherhead titled The Will of God. He wrote that book in 1944 in the midst of the terrible events of World War II, and wrote in response to a casual comment by a friend that the death of a loved one was “God’s will.” Weatherhead explores the subject by noting that perhaps there are different levels of understanding, which can help us. He defines these as: God’s intentional will, God’s circumstantial will and God’s ultimate will.
Weatherhead says that God’s intentional will is always for our good, our best, but we rebel against God’s design and will for our lives. This leads to God’s circumstantial will, in which God allows us the freedom in various circumstances to make our own choices, but even then God is always working to bring good out of the worst of our choices and circumstances. Finally, he says, God’s ultimate will is made known to us in the Resurrection and the ultimate promises of God. Nothing can thwart God’s ultimate will, which is reassuring while we live in the midst of evil, tragic events and various circumstances, which result from God allowing us to have freedom.
This classic book by Weatherhead is worth reading anew and studying in Sunday school classes or other adult groups. He may not have all of the answers, but he certainly gives us an alternative to the glib statements by so many about the will of God.
In the meantime, I will keep praying for those who suffer from these tragic events and will trust that God’s ultimate will shall be done.
Bishop Michael J. Coyner
Indiana Conference of
The United Methodist Church
“Making a Difference in Indiana and around the world”
Nothing can thwart God’s ultimate will…