The will of God and the sovereignty of God, those things that come under the doctrinal category of Providence, are mysteries eminently worth pondering—and yes, I’ve been pondering them a little bit more intensely than usual of late, given what’s going on in my life. Christians pray “thy will be done” virtually every time we pray publicly at all. Jesus himself taught us that petition. What do we mean by it? If it is indeed a petition at all, then there is an implied element of uncertainty; that is, it’s possible that God’s will may be thwarted. That points to a trajectory with an unsettling conclusion, one in which God is manifestly weak. But perhaps it’s not so much a petition as an statement of expectation, an affirmation of faith. Of course God’s will will be done. He’s God! If so, however, the trajectory is equally unsettling. It leads to simplistic fatalism—“whatever will be will be”—and silly nostrums like the one that attributes the death of a child to “God needing another little angel in Heaven.”
There are two essential theological rudders, I think, that enable us to navigate the narrow territory between the rock and the hard place. One is the Doctrine of the Fall. This is a bit of dogma that I’m finding lots of people don’t like to take seriously these days, which is a pity, because it really is quite essential. The biblical underpinning, of course, lies in Genesis 3, with the narrative of our primordial ancestors yielding to the Serpent’s temptation in the Garden of Eden, and the Lord’s subsequent pronouncement of consequences that affect all their progeny, which is to say, us. In his epistle to the Romans, St Paul takes this story and teases out its universal implications, not only for humankind, but for the entire created order, with “all creation groaning” (Rom. 8:22) under its weight. St Augustine took up the same baton in the fifth century and left it lying around for John Calvin to find and gild even further in the sixteenth.
But even if one is averse (as I certainly am) to embracing the whole Calvinist project (total depravity and double predestination, etc.), or even the Augustinian one (as the Eastern Orthodox are), there is broad agreement in Christian thought that human beings are congenitally predisposed toward egocentrism, enthroning ourselves where God alone should be, which is the very root of all Sin. We are, then, both victims of Sin—we didn’t ask to be born this way, after all—and perpetrators of Sin; “the Devil made me do it” may be true at some level, but that doesn’t let us off the hook of personal responsibility for the nasty things we do and say and the good things we fail to do or say. A great deal of human suffering—arguably the majority of it—is attributable to the fact that we are not sinners simply because we commit sins; we commit sins because we are sinners. We were born that way. Ultimately, 20 million people perished under the Third Reich because Adolf Hitler was born a sinner. He was a major perpetrator, but he was also a victim. Each of us is both of those things as well, though probably in differing proportions.
This is all what we refer to as our “fallenness.” It both infects and affects us at a personal level. This is why some act of confession or contrition is a regular part of our public worship. In the parlance of the ‘79 BCP baptismal liturgy, we’re talking about the “sinful desires that draw us from the love of God.” It also infects and affects us at a social (one might dare to say, political) level. Poverty, for example, is a social evil. Except in the rarest cases, however, it is not attributable to the malevolent actions of any individual, or even any single group of individuals. It is a systemic feature of the way we organize ourselves economically, particularly if we participate in an economy that relies on market forces. On one level, I’m not personally responsible for making anyone else poor. On another level, I am, simply because I benefit from our (relatively) free market economy. In our baptismal renunciations, these are the “evil forces of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” (Please note: I am not an enemy of free market capitalism; I believe firmly that it’s the worst possible economic system, except for all the others.) But, as St Paul is at pains to point out, the Fall affects not only humankind, but all of creation. It’s not just people that are fallen; the world is fallen. When the earth shook under Port au Prince last year, when Katrina blew into the gulf coast five years ago, we witnessed the tragic consequences of the Fall of creation. (Not human wickedness, mind you--I carry no brief for Pat Robertson!--but the brokenness of creation at a "meta-structural" level.) Those things did not happen only as a result of tectonic plate shifting or a low pressure system feeding off itself in exponential fury. There was a deeper cause, one that is beyond the ken of geologists or meteorologists. We’re talking here about “the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God.” These, too, we renounce when we stand at the font.
Clearly, it is not God’s will that death entered the world “through one man’s sin” (per Paul to the Romans). There may be a host of reasons behind a tornado forming and wiping out a trailer park, or cancer cells metastasizing inside a human body, but “because it was God’s will” is not one of them. Poverty and war and racism and gang violence and bad hair days are not God’s will. God’s will can never be righteously invoked as a justification for lying, cheating, stealing, or breaking any of the other Ten Commandments. By endowing us with the ability to not obey him, God took an audacious calculated risk. It can be plausibly argued that he lost his bet in the Garden of Eden, and has been losing it over and over again ever since. Not everything that happens is God’s will. “Que sera sera” may be a great song for Doris Day to sing, but it’s lousy theology. Human sinfulness, fueled by the “elementary principles of the world” (per Paul in Galatians and Colossians), can and does sometimes thwart the will of God.
The problem, of course, is that this leaves God in what looks like an indefinitely weakened and vulnerable position. So what do we do? I would suggest that this is where the second of my two essential theological rudders gets put into the water, which is the doctrine of Ubiquitous Grace. OK, there isn’t, so far as I know, actually a formal doctrine by that name—I made it up (the name, that is; the idea is hardly original)—but I’m fairly certain it’s consistent with both scripture and tradition. To say that God’s grace is “ubiquitous” is to say that it’s everywhere—places we expect to find it (like sacraments) and places we would never think to look for it, sometimes even smuggled in with the very sinful behavior that is trying to separate us from God’s love. God is the consummate opportunist, and is not above using even our sinful acts as “mules” for his redeeming grace. Should we then sin the more so that grace may abound the more? Well, Paul has already answered that question in the negative. But grace abounds nonetheless. It abounds everywhere, in the unlikeliest of places, whether we’re looking for it or not.
Sometimes what we experience in the wake of our prayers looks obviously like our petitions have been granted, and for that we give great thanks. It is an occasion of praise. At other times, not so much, and we have that "prayers hitting the ceiling" feeling. So, from our time-bound human perspective, then, we might say that God is indeed the “blessed controller of all things,” but that his “control” is exercised retrospectively, not prospectively. God is the master of Plan B. God is never above acting tactically when human sinfulness, to say nothing of the “elementary principles of the world,” frustrates his acting strategically. God comes in right behind the messes we make, or the messes made by tectonic plates or low pressure systems or cell growth run amok, and begins gathering the debris and weaving it back together in the grand tapestry of what theologians call Redemption. And redemptive weaving is an improvisatory art. It morphs constantly as Ubiquitous Grace responds to the attempts of the Evil One to blind us to our identity and destiny. Most of the time, we’re too close to the tapestry to get a sense of the evolving picture. But once in a while, we actually get to see a glimpse of suffering redeemed, of vessels made stronger precisely where they had been broken. I have seen broken hearts and I have seen mended hearts, and it’s joy to behold.
“Thy will be done.” It will, in the end. But getting there is, for God, a matter of art, not architecture. It’s not anything that looks all that “controlling” while it’s in process. But it is, indeed, blessed.