I read a novel recently in which one of the characters, a man in his twenties, was rightly imprisoned for sexually abusing his thirteen year old sister. Taking revenge, he used his prison connections and his wealth to have his sister kidnapped, drugged, and sold into sexual slavery where she died after a few years.
This was troubling to me because it caused me to think about the seemingly lucky or unlucky circumstances of our lives. There are real-life children sold into sexual slavery. Some people have lost family and homes to war. Natural disasters disrupt lives and cause widespread death and destruction. Children are born with mental and physical disabilities. Random accidents maim and take lives. Some people are born into poverty, others into great health and wealth.
Life certainly doesn’t seem fair. So, I find myself wondering what should I, as a Christian, think about the role of luck and God in my life.
Luck, in its most common definition, is the description we use for the things that happen to us that seem to be beyond our control. Philosophers and ethicists speak about the concept of luck. There is no agreement among them whether luck exists, and if it does, to what degree are we each accountable for the events of our lives.
Authors such as scholar C.S. Lewis and sociologist Max Weber have written about how the modern world has become “disenchanted.” In the ancient world there was once room for “enchantment”: people believed in gods, spirits, demons, fairies, elves, dragons, and such. When seemingly unexplainable things happened around people and to people, they created explanations for the mysteries they experienced. For example, if you make one of the god’s mad and you may experience a fire or an earthquake. Over the centuries, Christianity vanquished “the gods” and now modern scientism has vanquished the Christian God. So, in our modern world there is now little room for an enchanted world in the minds of “serious” people; they exclude the possibility of mysterious things “beyond the veil” of the natural world, including God, angels, and miracles.
It seems to me, then, in a disenchanted world, luck is all we have to account for disparities and tragedies of life: Born into or encounter bad things in life? Bad luck. Born as a “healthy, well adjusted, hard working” person and into a good life? Good luck. The examples of good and bad “luck” are manifold as there are lives.
However, the Christian knows that all of reality is indeed enchanted: there is a God, angels, demons, and the souls of the departed. So, what about the role of God, luck, and my own free will in my life?
Christians usually avoid reliance on luck. To explain the events around us, we generally appeal to God’s plan (providence), that usually say that everything comes from God. Tragedies can occur, we may say, as punishment for the wicked. Or, sometimes we offer that suffering is given to us because it is good for our soul. We may appeal to God’s love by saying that God wanted a dead loved one more than the family did. Other times we may appeal to God’s predestination, that these are the events God has for our lives. We may claim to know the intent of God, that this world is the best He could do given our free will. We may try to excuse God, claiming that, while He knows how it will end, He doesn’t know how we will get there, again, due to our free will. Unfortunately, each of these explanations in some way holds God responsible for the tragedy.
God’s plan seems simple: He created humans to enter into a union with Him, for us to participate in His life. Here is what is in store for those who chose God:
Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,
Nor have entered into the heart of man
The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.
It does seem that God’s plan requires that we have free will to choose Him, and His plan for us is so extraordinary that apparently He is willing to risk that we choose otherwise and bring about terrible tragedy and the fall of the cosmos itself.
The hard thing for us is the accepting the paradox that God does have a plan that will not be thwarted and that we do have free will to act. The problem for us is that exactly how it works itself out in our lives is a mystery. And herein is an important point: with our western mindset, we want to turn this into a problem we can solve. We modern people do not like mysteries because they take away our control. You see, a problem implies a solution that brings the problem under our control. Mysteries, however, cannot be brought under our control; rather, they must simply be inhabited. Said differently, an enchanted world contains mystery.
While God’s plan mixed with our free will is a mystery, we can know some things about it.
First, God doesn’t need us at all. Nor does He need evil and tragedy to bring about His plan. Unfortunately, the first humans, Adam and Eve, exercised their free will poorly; we and all of creations now live in the aftermath of that first decision. And, through our own actions, we each, too, often reaffirm that fateful decision by also choosing other than God and turning toward the Prince of this world. The consequences of our choices is death: the continued sin perpetuated by humans and the natural disasters evident in the world.
Because of our free will, not all events in our lives is willed by God: we make choices and all of the cosmos is fallen, which include the weather, earthquakes, fires, etc. While it may give us some comfort to believe that God wills all things, the cost of that belief is that we must then also believe God wills all of the tragedy around us from the death of a child to the slaughter of millions.
So, while God does permit good and bad to occur as a result of our free will choices, this does not mean that He simply sits back and watches as history unfolds. The Christian God is not the god of life and death we see in the natural world; rather, He is the God of love and life found only in true reality, the enchanted world of all of creation. As such, God does not leave us alone to meaninglessly suffer and death in this natural world, He acts always for our salvation. Jesus, the innocent God-man, died to defeat the death that enslaves us and to transform the otherwise meaningless suffering and death of those who choose to turn to Him. Christ on the cross is the ultimate act of love and life: His death also was not a necessary part of God’s plan; rather, it was a completely free, self-less act of love to save us from our free will choice to bind ourselves and the world to someone other than God—to Satan.
In Jesus’ own words, He came—
To preach the gospel to the poor;
[God the Father] has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed.
Perhaps it comes down to this. While we can argue about the role of God’s plan, our free will, and luck, God has created humankind and willed that we freely choose to be in a loving relationship with Him. He permits us to choose poorly and Christ has given His life to redeem that choice. God has something extraordinary in store for us that was worth the risk of the fall of all creation and the horrific tragedies around us. That brings us to another choice: either we embrace that reality or we decide we cannot turn to that God because we believe that certainly there is a better way to run the universe.
Christians need not feel we must defend God or justify His actions in tragedy. The radical good news of Christianity is that death is not something to be explained by religion; rather, it is an enemy that has been defeated by Christ. So, when we look into the lifeless eyes of “the old, the young, the needy, the orphans and the widows, and on all that are in sickness and sorrow, in distress and affliction, in oppression and captivity, in prison and confinement,” or even the dead, we should not see “bad luck” or God’s hand; rather, we must see only the defeated enemy. Then we must turn our minds and hearts toward God, the God of salvation Who has rescued us from death and Who redeems our suffering and, giving Him thanks, offer to others the love Christ has first shown us.
I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live…—Moses (Deuteronomy 30:19)
For more on this, I recommend The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? by David Bentley Hart.