THE POWER AND PROVIDENCE OF GOD
Every time we begin a service of Holy Communion, we say together the words, ‘Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open,’ or, if we want to be more colloquial in our address, we say, ‘Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open;’ but whether we are traditionally minded and old fashioned or up-to-date and chatty, we all address him as ‘Almighty God’. Why? He doesn’t stop the bombing or the shooting in those parts of those world, in which people are engaged in killing each other - and they are always killing each other somewhere; nor does he prevent murderous thugs raping and strangling girls on their innocent way home from work, or stop the rich and the powerful employing the poor and the powerless in appalling conditions and working them to death in squalor and misery. If he is almighty, why does he not do so? Just to say, ‘He has given us free will,’ merely puts the question one stage further back, for why has he given us free will? And if you answer that by saying - quite correctly - that we would not be human beings, if we did not have free will, we would be automata, that still does not solve the problem of God’s alleged almightiness. for if we can rape, murder, bomb, ‘Cry havoc, and let loose the dogs of war,’ as we can and do, and God not only does not do anything about it, but cannot do so, because he has created us free to do what we like, what on earth do we think we are doing addressing him as ‘Almighty God’?
Well, of course, it is as old a question as religion itself - or, anyway, as theology itself - and men of every religion have struggled with it. The Greeks wrestled with it - Euripides faced it in his play Oedipus Rex - and a world away at about the same time, so did the author of the book, Job, whose answer at the end of the day, was that there was no answer. For when Job was at last confronted by the majesty of God himself, all he could do was abase himself. “Who is he that hides counsel without knowledge?” he cried. “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now that my eye sees thee, I despite myself and repent in dust and ashes.” The majesty of God was too great for him.
While many would regard this reaction of Job’s as deeply godly, advocating, as it does, a humble unquestioning obedience to the will of God as the one and only true way of discipleship, accepting everything that comes as sent by him, it does not get us any nearer to understanding why God seems to have abrogated his power in favour of allowing both homicidal individuals and murderous nations to do unspeakably evil things with apparent impunity. Those who follow Job’s advice - and that includes all good Muslim,s who believe that submission to the will of Allah is the whole duty of a God-fearing man - will probably tell us that all attempt to understand the mystery of God or unravel the workings of his providence is blasphemous arrogance; we will never intellectually encompass the mystery of God; it is not man’s place to question the ways of God, but to accept, obey, worship, and adore. But while I should like to agree with that, for my reading persuades me that such is the way of the saints, I find it difficult to believe that God endowed us with a mind and a rational intellect, but did not mean us to use it in order to know him better. Moreover, my reading also persuades me that those who wish to stifle all attempts to explore the majesty and the mystery of God have sometimes been motivated more by a desire to enforce a kind of sacred obscurantism, within which they have been able to preserve their own authority from awkward questions, than by any genuine dedication to the way of the saints.
Moreover, if the only godly path is that of saintly ignorance of the ways of God and obedience to whatever comes as manifesting his will - why did God bother to become man in Christ? He could have left us to live our lives in Job’s state of self-abhorrence and intellectual bankruptcy, or he could have decided to wait until someone like Muhammad, came along and taught people to follow the Islamic path of total submission to whatever comes as the will of God. But he didn’t. Between the time of Job and that of the Prophet Muhammad, Jesus was born, lived, died, and rose again from the dead; or, to put that another way, God became man in Christ and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory: or to put that in yet another way still, we got to know God in Christ better than we had ever known him before, rubbing shoulders with him in daily life, seeing the way in which he worked, including seeing his power at work, and it was so different from what the world calls power that Paul was able to say that the weakness of God was stronger than what men call power, and that the power of God was made perfect in weakness.
And now we are getting somewhere, for it is in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that Christians have been given the clue to the age-old problem of the almighty power of God and the apparent freedom of man to make nonsense of it…or so they believe. For the heart of the Christian faith is that, in the Crucifixion of Christ, the battle between the freedom of man to do evil and the power of God came to its climax; and although it was evil which appeared to triumph, in fact it was evil which was utterly defeated. For those who tried to achieve their own ends by killing Jesus were instrumental in furthering God’s purpose of redemption and salvation. They thought that they had got rid of Jesus once and for all, whereas in fact they had done the one thing, which was destined to enthrone him in the hearts of men and women for ever; they thought that death on the cross - the fate reserved for the worst kind of criminals - would be his final humiliation and defeat, whereas the cross was the throne prepared for him by God from the beginning, and his death defeated death and opened the way for all men to eternal life. The power and providence of God mopped up the sin and evil of man as a sponge mops up a pool of dirty water, and we have been shown that nothing, however evil and apparently triumphant it may look at the time, can ultimately triumph over the will and power of God, whose providence overrules all things, even though at the time we never know just how it will do so.