ABC canceled Roseanne after Roseanne Barr posted a racist tweet about former President Obama’s aide Valerie Jarrett. (I will devote tomorrow’s Daily Article to this evolving story.) Shares of Walt Disney Co. declined after box office sales for Solo: A Star Wars Story came in below expectations.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped nearly 400 points yesterday as a political crisis in Italy affected global markets. Oil prices also fell after reports that Saudi Arabia may lead an effort to pump more crude into the market. And the Wall Street Journal warns that Europe’s new privacy rules are thwarting security researchers and police around the world.
What do these stories have in common? They illustrate the fact that we can neither control nor predict the future. I raise this rather obvious point because it is relevant to two of the most moving books I’ve read in a long time.
Two transformative books
I just finished Kate Bowler’s heartbreaking and hopeful Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Dr. Bowler is a graduate of Yale Divinity School and teaches religion at Duke Divinity School. Her new book is transparent, funny, and thoughtful. She is one of the most gifted writers I know.
She is also battling Stage IV cancer.
One simple but profound truth she has learned from her illness is that she is not in control of her life and never was. Some people live to become elderly. Others like Kate, married to her high school sweetheart and the mother of an infant son, get sick at the age of thirty-five.
She describes herself as “addicted to self-rule” and observes that “control is a drug, and we are all hooked.” As a result, she has chosen to stop believing that “everything happens for a reason.”
By contrast, one of the most powerful Holocaust writers I’ve ever read believes just the opposite.
Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic is a poignant novel set primarily in a German concentration camp. We might think that a book about one of the most horrific events in human history would despair of finding reason and meaning in the universe.
But Yolen claims just the opposite.
She has one of her imprisoned characters say of the Holocaust: “God is letting it happen. But there is a reason. We cannot see it yet. Like the binding of Isaac. My father always said that the universe is a great circle and we—we only see a small piece of the arc. God is no monster, whatever you think now. There is a reason.”
God’s will in three categories
I believe that there is a way to reconcile these two perspectives.
It is my firm conviction that God redeems all he allows. In this sense, there is a reason or purpose behind all that happens in this broken world.
At the same time, you and I may not understand the reasons behind our reality until we are in heaven: “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
How, then, are we to discern God’s will for our daily lives?
We can divide all decisions into three categories: what God prescribes, what he prohibits, and what he permits.
Scripture offers many lists of prescribed behavior. Considering just the Ten Commandments, for instance, we are instructed to “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8) and to “honor your father and mother” (v. 12).
The Bible also lists prohibited behavior such as idolatry (v. 4), taking God’s name in vain (v. 7), murder (v. 13), adultery (v. 14), theft (v. 15), lying (v. 16), and coveting (v. 17).
Some decisions fall into the permissive category. For instance, I don’t believe God has a prescriptive or prohibitive will for the clothes I choose to wear to work today (so long as they are appropriate) or the route I take to the office (so long as it is efficient). If he wishes to indicate such a preference for me, he can do so through his word, circumstances, intuition, people, and other means of revealing his will.
“This is the way, walk in it”
Here’s the problem. After forty years of vocational ministry, I have observed that many of us settle for avoiding what God prohibits and live much of our lives within his permissive will.
We are willing to do his prescriptive will so far as we know it, but we typically reserve this category for major decisions such as whom to marry, what job to take, whether to have children, and so on. We approach the rest of the Christian life as a set of prohibitions to avoid. So long as we’re going to church, praying, reading the Bible, and avoiding terrible sins, we think we’re following Jesus.
As my wife puts it in her book, we are “content to be good” when we are “called to be godly.”
But our Father has so much more for us. He has a “good and acceptable and perfect” will for every dimension of our lives (Romans 12:2). His word is intended to be “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” on every road we walk (Psalm 119:105).
He promises his people that “your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left” (Isaiah 30:21). He wants to lead us into the abundant life Jesus intends for each of us (John 10:10).
We should never settle for less than God’s best for us.
“We are loved. It is enough.”
When we face suffering with no apparent reason or purpose, we can know that our Father knows. Nothing about our present circumstances changes his eternal character. We can trust that he is working in ways we cannot see.
And we can choose to rest in his presence when we do not understand his purpose.
Kate Bowler says of our broken world: “The mighty Kingdom of God is not yet here” but “God is here. We are loved. It is enough.”