Day’s Verse:
So, what do you think? With God on our side like this, how can we lose? If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us? […] Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture […] None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.
Romans 8:31-39

This post has been percolating in my brain for a long time, and now it’s finally coming out. No one specific thing has precipitated these thoughts. I’m finally ready to talk about what I’ve been thinking about.

One of my favorite Bible stories comes from the Old Testament, in Daniel 3 (Note: all Bible verses are from The Message). In the story, three young men get in trouble for praying to God rather than a statue the king, Nebuchadnezzar, set up. Nebbie hears about it and is pissed off; he decides to toss these three guys into a humongous furnace to punish them. He says, “Who is the god who can rescue you from my power?” The reason I love this Bible story is the reply that the three guys give:

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered King Nebuchadnezzar, “Your threat means nothing to us. If you throw us in the fire, the God we serve can rescue us from your roaring furnace and anything else you might cook up, O king. But even if he doesn’t, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference, O king. We still wouldn’t serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up.” (verses 16-18)

The king tosses them into the furnace, which is so hot it kills the unfortunate guards who have to get close to toss the three guys in. But amazingly, the three victims don’t burn up — God rescues them by sending an angel to protect them from the fire. The king, seeing these guys walking around in the fire, calls them back out. He’s understandably astonished that they survived the mega-fire, and he decides to worship God instead of the statue.

What I really like about this story is not the outcome, but the three guys’ response. They essentially say, “God can do anything, and we trust that He’ll save us. But even if He doesn’t, we’re still not giving up on God.” That “even if He doesn’t” speaks volumes to me. I admire the faith that these three guys had, faith that gave them calm and confidence even when they were propelled into disaster. They didn’t throw up their hands and say, “Gee, you’re right, we’re afraid God won’t save us, so we give up.” Of course they were afraid — who wouldn’t be, when faced with certain death? But that fear didn’t weaken their faith. These three guys knew God’s character. They trusted that, whether God chose to save them or not, God would work good from the situation. That doesn’t mean their personal good; they could be ashes, and that would have been sad. But they knew that even if they were toasted to a crisp, that wouldn’t stop God from orchestrating good from that evil.

This story throws us right into the question of tragedy that haunts…well…pretty much everybody who has thought about God and the world. The question, of course, is: “If God is so good, and He can control everything, why does He let bad things happen?” I continue to struggle with this, because there’s no trite answer. So many times I have prayed and seemingly seen no response from God. So many terrible things have happened in the lives of people I know, in the country, in the world, with God seeming to stand by watching — helplessly, some people would say, or perhaps uncaringly. The “why, God?” question comes from deep inside and reflects our sense that these things aren’t fair, they aren’t right, they aren’t what God should want if He was really love.

But I think the Daniel story points at an important thing to remember when tragedies happen: Bad things may hurt or kill people, but they cannot separate believers from God’s love (also discussed in Romans 8:38-39, another passage close to my heart). God didn’t act as a big puppeteer pulling Nebbie’s strings to get him to toss the three guys into the fire. Nebbie, having free will, made that choice on his own. But God’s intention is always to twist evil into good. More generally, God doesn’t orchestrate the bad things that happen in life, from cancer to malnutrition to pollution. These are part of living in a world that isn’t perfect, part of an outcome that God deplores, and which He’s always working to mitigate.

If God deplores these things, why doesn’t He do something? In the case of these three guys, He did intervene. Generally, though, all sorts of evil things happen every day. People die of cancer, starvation, preventable diseases, a million things; creation is despoiled, ecosystems destroyed, animals and plants killed without our even knowing they existed; billions of people live in poverty and squalor with little hope for the future.

Ultimately it’s a question of what kind of world we want to live in. Do we want to exercise free will? Do we want to have our choices matter? If God constantly intervened, rescuing us from this and that, we’d live in a world of chaos and confusion, in which our choices didn’t have a predictable impact on the result. By letting our choices have consequences, God makes our free will meaningful.

But what about things we can’t control or choose? No way am I saying that innocent people somehow deserve or are being punished for some wrong they did when struck seemingly out of the blue with tragedy. Why did the earthquake in Haiti happen? Time to look at the geology of the region. Why did a child die of cancer? Time to look at the child’s DNA mutations. Could God stop those things? Yes, but those things are part of living in an imperfect world (incidentally, the outcome of the choice a couple people made a long time ago). Until we get a restart, these things will keep happening, and God will keep redeeming the situation to move it towards his perfect intent. (“Intent” being something that’s in progress, an ongoing goal to be worked towards, as opposed to “will,” something that is already decided and done.)

Jesus was in a situation one time where He and His followers saw a blind guy. The blind guy hadn’t done anything to deserve it. He was just born that way. The disciples asked Jesus why he was blind, and Jesus said, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines.” (John 9:1-5)

The three guys getting tossed into the furnace understood this idea. They accepted that whether they lived or died, God would be able to make something good from the situation. It’s not that they wanted to die, but they trusted enough to let go of their own lives and desires, knowing that however bad things got, ultimate victory would be God’s. They:

  • Knew God’s character.
  • Trusted God’s wisdom, that He was already working His glory out of their bad situation.
  • Knew God would win no matter what.

Doesn’t make the prospect of living with bad things desirable, but it does make it bearable.

PS – Thanks to Journey Church for thoughts on this topic.

One thought on “Tragedy, God, and a Big Furnace

  1. Good thoughts. The free will issue is huge in regard to this topic. God could have made creation without the possiblity of sin but then it would also have been without the ability to choose to worship Him. It would have made us different creatures entirely. There are other facets of this as well. It’s an interesting topic for sure!

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