In the last few tragic days, I received the following comment in my twitter feed from an Australian journalist.
AIDS researchers and a Catholic nun among #MH17 victims. If you believe in a god, this would seriously be testing your faith.
Well, most of all, and sadly, it tests your faith in humanity who do these things to each other.
The journalist was kind enough to ‘favourite’ my tweet as her reply.
I think she recognised that before we rush to blame God, we should direct our blame on those directly responsible for such evil: the terrorist who fired the rocket launcher; the persons who supplied the hardware and training to fire it.
More broadly in recent days, it is not God who burned down Mosul’s church, but the ISIS militants. It is not God who butchered a hundred villagers in Damboa, Nigeria, with RPGs and machine guns, but Boko Haram.
That’s where the clear and immediate moral responsibility lies: with the human evildoers.
However, once we’ve got that clear, there is still a legitimate question to ask. A church member’s Facebook friend asked where “divine intervention” was when the Malaysian flight got shot down.
Intervention is a good word. If it doesn’t blame God for the actions of evildoers, it does observe that he’s perfectly capable of intervening dramatically to prevent evil.
Biblical religion is built on the premise that God not only upholds the world he made, but also sometimes actively intervenes for his own good purposes: the parting of the Red Sea in Israel’s exodus from her Egyptian slavery, through to Jesus’ raising the synagogue ruler’s daughter from death (Mark 5:35-43).
We believe that God can do miracles. After all, he raised Jesus from the dead.
So why doesn’t God intervene to knock the insurgent’s missile off course? Even more dramatically, why not just strike the terrorists of Boko Haram or ISIS dead, as he did the Assyrians when Sennacherib attacked and besieged Jerusalem (2 Kings 19:35)?
My initial response is to ask what the results would be like for humans if God intervened and directly over-ruled every time we did something wrong or evil.
Putting it most brutally, people would be struck dead left, right and centre.
If God has to immediately stop all the evil in the world, then he’d have to stop me! Because, though I like to consider myself better than others, I am a contributor to the sum total of that evil. (If you don’t agree with me, then you don’t know me, or perhaps yourself, very well, but that’s an argument for another day.)
But surely, people suppose, God is wise enough to intervene in other ways, to prevent the evil, without striking the intending perpetrator dead?
Well, if you are so wise, exactly how do you think he is going to do this?
If he exercised some form of mind-control over us whenever we begin to plan evil, then we’d be reduced to little more than automatons. If he hedged us around with barriers to prevent us hurting and being hurt by each other, then our human freedoms (real, though never, of course, unlimited) would be lost and our responsibility reduced.
There’s a good argument to say that under such conditions, our love – such as it would be – would be coerced and corralled from us, certainly not freely given. So our humanity would be drastically diminished.
Wrapped in cotton wool, immunized against hardship, we’d lose our ability to learn from our mistakes, and we’d have no opportunity to grow. Yet surprising though many find it, often our best growth comes in the valleys, in the midst of hardship, whether caused by others or our own misdeeds. The psalm-writer says,
Before I was afflicted I went astray,
but now I obey your word. [Psalm 119:67]
But why only intervene sometimes?
The answer is that we don’t know why God intervenes in one situation and not in another. But if God is God, then he is far wiser than us.
Romans 11:33-35 says…
33 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
34 “Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
35 “Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay him?”
God does not owe us. He does not even owe us an explanation.
And even if he provided in-depth justification for each decision to intervene or not, they’d be way beyond our ability to assess. The variables are just so great.
Of course, from a Christian point of view, all of us have sinned, fall short of God’s glory, and rightly deserve his wrath at our sin. Speaking of God’s choice to show mercy to some (and not others), Paul writes in Romans 9:14-15
14 What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
So for any of us to receive mercy is more than we deserve. I thank God for the death of Jesus, where his love for sinners was demonstrated decisively (Romans 5:6-8).
I cling to the cross.
What else to do in the present distresses in Ukraine, Iraq, Gaza, Nigeria…?
Well God has made us to be responsible creatures, so…
Pray for peace
Beg God to be merciful on us all…
God of the nations, whose kingdom rules over all, have mercy on our broken and divided world. Shed abroad your peace in the hearts of all men and banish from them the spirit that makes for war; that all races and people may learn to live as members of one family and in obedience to your laws; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. [An Australian Prayer Book, p96]
Live at peace
Reject personal vengefulness. Romans 12:12-19 says,
12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
Ask your leaders to speak for peace
For example, it might be good for people to write to your local federal Member of Parliament to ask them to ensure Australia’s voice is raised internationally against the persecution of Christians in places like Mosul and northern Nigeria. In addition, you could urge the Government to be proactively generous to Christian refugees from these areas seeking protection visas in countries like ours.
Of course, we should also be concerned for all people of any religion or none facing persecution or suffering under civil war.