There are few areas in Christian life that demand responsible theological response more than the experience of evil and tragedy. In my experience, both as a pastor and trauma survivor, those same situations act as a magnet to harmful, faith-killing responses based on theology that places responsibility for trauma or tragedy firmly in the hands of God.
I was happily surprised and deeply moved by the perspective offered in Dr. Thomas Jay Oord’s newest book “God Can’t: How to Believe in God and Love After Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils”. Oord’s theology on God’s character and the reality of evil is laid out in five compassionate, articulately written and universally accessible chapters, each one concluding with reflective questions that will help groups and individuals process what they have just read.
From the beginning, Oord makes clear that the individual doctrine outlined in each chapter is interdependent on the other four. The most central of these doctrines is, in my view, the first: God Can’t Prevent Evil. It is based on the theological assumption that the love of God is inherently uncontrolling, a statement expounded on more fully in Oord’s previous works. If we believe, as Oord argues, that a love that controls is not really love, than control even in cases of evil becomes impossible because it is against the nature of the God who is love.
Oord’s insistence that God CAN’T control will (as he himself admits) be incredibly unsettling to many readers. I think many Christians have seasons when we need desperately to relax into the arms of a God who tells the waves when to crest and the birds when to fly. But framing the impossibility of control in terms of God’s loving nature makes it, for me, a persuasive argument. Oord reviews more traditional perspectives based on a belief in God’s omnipotence (God controls everything, God chooses to control some people/situations but not others, etc.) and is honest about their strengths and weaknesses. The alternative he offers is striking: asking how far the love of God goes, and whether a love that could act to prevent evil and doesn’t is really love at all.
(The answer is a resounding no).
The remaining four chapters lay out four theological statements that strengthen or refine the first: God Feels Our Pain, God Works to Heal, God Squeezes Good from Bad, and God Needs Our Cooperation. In addition to providing Scriptural and theological support for each statement, Oord includes the stories of individuals who have experienced trauma and tragedy and found conventional theological explanations unhelpful or even harmful.
As both a pastor and parishioner, I’ve heard myriad ways in which people make sense of tragedy. Many do so by attributing it to the will of God, focusing on the mystery of His ways to manage more troubling thoughts about the divine choice to harm. While I would not presume to tell a survivor how to make their peace with God, I think many would benefit from the opportunity to consider another option: one in which God neither sent the harm nor stood by and allowed it to take place when He could have done otherwise.
While “God Can’t” is of special value to those currently wrestling with questions of God’s goodness, I believe it’s an equally valuable addition to the shelves of all who profess faith in Christ. What we believe about God’s intervention--or lack thereof--in the circumstances of our lives impacts what we say and how we respond to our friends, our family, and our communities at large when tragedy strikes.
I am still questioning and processing several statements in the book, and likely will for some time. There are a few points of biblical interpretation that I question; stories in the Old and New Testament that, in my view, beg particular assumptions of the book. But the overarching perspective has succeeded in gathering the fragments of my heart, the wounded parts that view God with mistrust. I think that is why I found myself brought to tears as I read. The doctrine of the omnipotence of God, however loosely I held it, has nonetheless wielded great power over me as I have processed trauma and tragedy in my own life. To be given the glimpse of an alternative--one that keeps the Trinitarian Father, Son, and Spirit but refuses to put a whip in that God’s hands--has been powerful and healing in and of itself.