How God works in the world

August 19, 2010

bible / theology

I don’t spend a whole lot of time around mainstream evangelicals or Pentecostals these days. Because of this, when I do spend some time with them some things that I was once accustomed to easily surprise me a bit, or take me off guard. One of these things that I heard recently is a phrase that folks think is in the Bible and that they find to be really encouraging, though it turns out that it isn’t really there.

The phrase is this: “God will not give you more than you can bear.” This sounds really nice in certain parts of the world. We get stressed, or we have a difficult situation, or some other thing that we don’t like and we comfort ourselves by saying that God will limit the extent of it before it becomes something we can’t handle. The problem, though, is that it isn’t true.

The phrase is derived from this passage:

These things [things in the Hebrew Scriptures] happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

1 Corinthians 10:11-13

So you can probably see how such a thing can be retold and mistold to say something that it doesn’t say, but clearly this is specifically about temptations to things from which we should flee; the idea is that there is always a way out of such things, whether we take that way or not.

Now, the reason that this misunderstanding prevails in much of America is that we have a warped understanding of how God works in the world in general and in our lives specifically. I’m beginning to think that all of us who find ourselves in relative comfort in America do this, whether we are on the liberal side of things or the conservative. This has deep implications for how we pray, how we respond to events, and how we deal with people who don’t live in the same kind of context that we do.

So while this post is about something broader than whether or not God will give us more than we can bear, it’s important that we establish firmly that this is not the case. Paul is believed to have written this. Paul was beheaded. Folks can’t “bear” being beheaded. They’re dead. Far beyond the life of Paul, though, the statement is a slap to the face of people, many of whom have suffered in unimaginable ways that have nothing to do with their faith or lack of faith, across the years and across the miles from the safe American lives of people who quote this.

That is a fairly extreme conservative position of God’s activity in the world. Many conservatives are not like this, but this kind of thought and similar ones (that God always protects certain people, for example) have deep implications for how people in our context think they see God moving in the world. The flip side is, of course, that God doesn’t do anything. Whether this is because of an entrenchment in anti-supernatural modernism like the Jesus Seminar kind of folks, or because of an inability to see anything divine in the arbitrary ways that the world often works and the people it often favors.

There are many people I’ve known that prefer instead of either of these to see God simply identifying with those who suffer and expecting people to do something about it (and this is indeed a powerful thing that we cannot afford to ignore and cannot fail to share with people). But these thoughts have been running deeply through my mind, as I’m convinced that all of the above views fall short of what is healthy for us in thinking about God’s involvement with us and our involvement with God.

I’m of the opinion that the Bible doesn’t give us an answer to this. I think it clearly indicates that God does work in the world, but it also indicates that God doesn’t always work in the world and it refuses to give us answers to why that is the case. From there, it gets murkier as various authors of Scripture bring their own perspectives and questions and desires to events, just as we do. I think we can learn much more about how to respond to events (in both good and bad ways) in light of the responses taken by various authors than we can about what God’s involvement in these events might be.

If that is the case, where can we, as spoiled Americans with small worlds who want God to give us parking spaces, or as spoiled Americans with bigger worlds who feel guilty that we have cars in which to park while thousands of people die of hunger everyday, view the activity of God and our involvement in it?

I don’t have hard answers for this, but I think I’ve begun to gain some insight that is worthy of sharing. Many of us in Emergent have learned that we need to get beyond typical contexts when we think theologically. We’ve learned that liberation theology in its various types has deep things to say to us, that we’ve learned how the bad parts of American theology have been exported and caused great damage to folks around the world, and we’ve thus tried to think in broader ways. This is a beautiful and essential thing that I hope to see continue.

But it occurs to me that we have not done this with our attempts to think about whether and how God supernaturally works in the world, especially in the poor and oppressed that we seek to empower. If you’ve ever been around or listened to such folks, from the various streams of church that they have created, you’ll know that they see God working in their own lives and the lives of people around them. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they are more likely to experience things that are obviously miraculous than we are, but in a broader sense they understand something that we miss.

The objection that some try to make to this is that such worldviews keep people in oppression, or they lead to dangerous theologies like the American prosperity people have. These are both valid points that need to be and are being addressed, but they do not stand up against the lives of those working for justice for the oppressed and living supernatural lives in these contexts. These are the people I want to learn from.