How Does God Work in the World?
In my book, Being a Progressive Christian, I have a piece tilted, "God's Loving Judgment." I argue that God's judgment, whatever it may consist of, is restorative and redemptive, not punitive and retributive. I never speculate on how God judges and what that may involve or look like. A spiritual growth group using my book presented me with the question, "How do we know God is correcting us?" Below is my response:
Your question actually must be addressed in light of a larger question about how God actually works in the world and in our lives. I don’t see God intervening in “judgment” or “blessing” the way the prophets sometimes envisioned. The Jewish view of God tended to see God as the transcendent "Other." Over and separate from the creation. I think when we get to the revelation in Jesus that view of God begins to shift. God is here and now. In God we “live, move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). According to Paul we are indwelt by God. We are in God (Christ, Spirit) and God is in us.
If God is with us and in us – not out there – how does this work? How does God relate to us now? Is God orchestrating events and experiences to bring about the results God wants? Not directly. Not in any kind of coercive way. God suggests, woos, draws, speaks, prompts, lures – but does God intervene in judgment? I don’t think so.
God apparently loves giving the creation freedom, even to destroy itself. Could God intervene in some direct way if God wanted to? And does God intervene occasionally? No one can know, but I have an opinion. And that is all it is – an opinion.
If God could intervene I don’t think God would have utilized the process of evolution to create the universe and life on earth. We are talking billions of years here for the first life forms to emerge. Think of the struggle – the pain and suffering – that is part and parcel to the process of evolving life. If God could have instantly created the universe like the mythic story of creation suggests in Genesis 1 then why wouldn’t God have simply done it that way.
Process theologians believe God is still evolving. I don’t know about that, but I do think God is doing what God can do. I tend to think that evolution was the only way God could bring forth life. I know I am placing limits on God. But is it necessary to imagine a completely unlimited God? We can’t even conceive of that anyway.
I think of God and all material reality incarnationally. The whole universe is an expression of God revealing and expressing God’s self. Maybe it would be helpful to even think of the universe or universes (there could be more than one) as being the body of God. The growing, evolving, becoming body of God. God is looking and finding ways to bring into existence other life forms, not in order to use or manipulate them, but to love and care for them, so they might learn to love and care too. And of course, our (the Christian) definitive expression of what God is like is found in Jesus.
God, I believe, is personal, but God is so much more than that, so we can’t actually say God is a person, because a person is limited to time and space. I don’t believe God is limited by time and space, though God relates to us personally as persons do. God is Spirit and God as Spirit pervades and permeates everything. Everything is connected to God. God fills the empty space between things and is a part of the things themselves. All reality is a web of life deriving its energy from God. So God, I imagine, does not operate outside of us, the way a father or mother is outside of the child imposing discipline and correction. God is inside working from within, guiding in non-coercive ways.
I don’t know how judgment works specifically in this sort of view of God, except to say that I think God is using everything to grow us, develop us, teach us, heal us, redeem us, and transform us. You and I are one with God. A vital part of our growth depends on our capacity to cooperate with the work and actions of God within us. I know that in my best moments, I am doing what the Spirit is leading me to do.
I have said all that to say that I can’t answer the question, for obviously I do not believe God acts from the outside of creation, but from within, and that means God doesn’t get to bring about everything God wants. God needs people to cooperate with God in bringing about God’s will. God can’t say like a mother to her child, “Ok, no computer until you shape up.”
I never ask, “Did God cause this?” There may be multiple reasons why things happen to us, and God may not be involved at all. God may have wanted to prevent it from happening, but given the limitations on God working from the inside of things, God couldn’t. Surely God would prevent massive natural disasters and horrific mass genocides if God could.
I never ask, “Is this a judgment from God?” It’s the wrong question. The question I ask (whether it is something bad or something good that I experience) is, “What can I learn? How can I grow? How can I experience God and draw upon God’s grace and love in this particular moment? I may need God’s strength to get through. Or I may need to listen to God who may be telling me I need to deal with my ego, or my lack of forgiveness, or some other harmful pattern in my life.
God not only speaks in a still small voice, God is active in small, hidden ways that we cannot see, like the yeast in the dough. The creation is the dough. Maybe the very idea of judgment is just an image, a symbol for helping us to relate to God. We are always wanting to literalize these images/symbols. The image of judgment as discipline and correction is a healthy one, because it reflects what is true about God. God wants to use everything that happens in our lives for our ultimate good and transformation.