This occasional series explores what we don’t believe — and why — in order to help us understand what we do believe, and why we do.
In my pastoral ministry, there is one question I dread more than almost any other: “Why did God do this?” This cancer, this death, this child born with a genetic disorder, this hurricane, this mental illness: Why did God do this?
I hate this question for a couple of reasons. Selfishly, because I am not (more than any other person) privy to the mind of God. I do not know why things happen. I often have trouble discerning the will of God in my own life, never mind knowing what God wants for and from others, or how God runs the world. (None of this ignorance, of course, prevents me from offering God advice on all of the above, with embarrassing frequency.) Nonetheless, I remain stubbornly mortal and limited, and these questions bring me face-to-face with my own helplessness.
Primarily, however, I hate the question because I do not believe that God “makes” many things happen. I think God allows them to happen, which is often not much better, but the distinction is a key one: the first question (why did God do this?) makes God the author of evil; the second framing allows space for the laws of nature and for human freedom.
Freedom is key to the vision of God: without it, we would simply be marionettes going through a set of pre-ordained moves, conversations, and decisions. Without it, there could be no possibility of genuine love: the powerful act of choosing to care for someone with everything that is in you, even when it costs you to do it. There could not even be genuine worship of God: I can buy a statue of someone bowing down to me, if I want one, but that statue is inert, and its posture does not mean that it gives me real reverence.
The Bible tells us that, at the beginning of time, God placed man and woman in a garden and gave them authority to till it and to keep it, and to till and to keep one another. They knew what God hoped of them, but they also (all too clearly) had the capacity to disobey if they chose (and they did choose). That freedom was built into the design of the world from the beginning, and it apparently mattered to God so much that God was willing to risk all the terrible consequences of disobedience (including the death of his own Son) in order to give it to us. St. Paul underlines the point: “For freedom Christ has set us free.” (Gal 5:1)
This week, I saw a video which moved me deeply; I’d like to share it with you. (It’s only a minute and a half.) It shows Jane Goodall, the woman who has lived among and advocated for chimpanzees her whole adult life, releasing a chimp into the wild. The chimp had been brought to her because it was sick and likely to die. Once she nursed it into health, this is what happened:
What did you see in that video?
The thing that made me weep when I saw this was that embrace. Jane and chimp had clearly come to care for one another, and so this freedom thing was not easy. It was difficult: it meant that they would not see one another every day, and maybe not ever again. But Goodall had saved the chimp for just this purpose: so that it could be free. And the chimp seems to know that, however, much it loves Goodall, its place is not to stay with her forever.
Jesus loves us enough to set us free: to find us when we were in bondage to sin, to nurse us back to health, to tend us and care for us, and then to let us go, so that we could make of our lives what we will. And yet, we go from that healing changed: we know, for the rest of our lives, that we have been greatly loved — and still are.
There’s a longer version of that video that shows the aftermath of the release, Goodall and her companion following quietly behind while the chimp enters the wood, finds food, and begins to eat. It does not see them, but they are side by side, smiling. Their work is bearing fruit, and this creature will live.
By the grace of God, so will we.