Ask Andrew 3 (2018): God the All Powerful and All Good

Question: How can God be all powerful and all good at the same time?

There are some hidden assumptions in this question:

One could be: if God is all powerful and all good, then God would prevent bad things from happening. For example: someone like Hitler could never come to power and commit genocide; there would never be natural disasters that kill innocent people; climate change would be dialed back so small island nations wouldn’t flood and polar bears wouldn’t starve as the ice flows disappear.

Another could be: that God shares the same definition of Good that we do. Hopefully that’s true, since a big part of our faith is to try to align ourselves to God’s values. But we should be honest and admit that our vision of what is “good” is often limited by our own experience. We should be very thoughtful as we consider God’s definition of “good.”

A third assumption could be: that concepts like “All Powerful” and “All Good” are things we can understand. Is that true? Absolutes sound great, and they seem obvious to define, but as soon as absolutes hit real life, everything gets complicated.

I chose Father’s Day to answer this question because when you look in the Bible to address this question the image of God as our Father keeps coming up. That image is not a simple one, no matter how well we think we understand it.

For thousands of years, many societies decided that Fathers had a special role in disciplining children. Some of us are old enough to remember the threat: “just wait until your father gets home.” That wasn’t an empty threat either: Dad spanked harder than Mom did.

And for thousands of years people assumed that natural disasters, including floods, droughts, famines, plagues of locusts, and even personal accidents and disease, were all punishments from God for something people had done wrong.

So today’s question, back then, could have been answered the way our Hebrews lesson says: a good father disciplines his children out of love, so the bad things that happen would be explained as a result of God’s goodness.

We don’t use that kind of logic anymore, do we? We aren’t totally clear on all the aspects of weather (if we understood better we’d have accurate forecasts), but we know that hurricanes don’t happen because God is miffed. Bad storms are part of a big, complex creation that has inter-related systems in which you can use the word “fractal” without embarrassment.

Some weather-related items do have a moral component: climate change is happening because of humanity’s abuse of fossil fuels and other resources. So it’s fair to ask, would it be good of God to take away the consequences of our own bad behaviour? How would we learn? How well are we learning now, even with all the evidence we have?

One of the traditional roles of Fathers has been to prepare children for independence: to protect them when they are small and vulnerable and to “let go of the bicycle” at the right time

knowing that there’s a risk they will crash by themselves. In other words, to encourage them to become responsible adults.

If God were to take control of things enough to eliminate all bad from the world, then we wouldn’t have any choice anymore. It would be worse than being over-protected children: it would be like being robots, where we are programmed only to be good. We wouldn’t be human anymore.

It’s that age-old question: what is the price of free will?

God is not only good: God is loving. Loving someone does not include controlling them. A relationship where one person tries to control everything the other does is the very definition of an abusive relationship.

God gave us the freedom to make choices in life. God let go of our bike, and is watching with concern as we pedal frantically; as we try not to crash into anything.

God is indeed all-powerful, but because of love, God is also self-limiting.

Can you imagine what it would be like if, just before a volcano erupts, a massive divine thumb were to appear and plug the top until everyone could get to safety?

Pretty amazing, true, but as soon as we saw power like that being used, we’d freak out, wondering when that thumb would decide to squash us. We’re already worried enough as Donald Trump changes his mind every 30 seconds and sets the world spinning to nuclear war, then peace, then trade wars, then name-calling competitions; and he’s just a powerful human narcissist.

Would we understand God any better? Would we trust God any more? Would we be happy if every time we came close to making a bad decision, a decision that would cause trouble or hurt, to hear God say: “No, don’t do that!”

We’d never learn good judgement, either as individuals, or as a species. We could never grow up with such an over-protective parent breathing down our necks all the time.

And God, in love, has chosen to let us grow up; to make mistakes; to experience life with both good and bad things happening.

I’m grateful that we’ve grown beyond that idea that an appendix attack is discipline from God. It does make our understanding of life more complex, but it doesn’t have to take away our understanding that God is loving, or good. Nor does it have to challenge the idea of God as all-powerful.

The issue is that we are much less than all-powerful. To deal with us in love, God has chosen not to overpower us so we can learn, and grow, and understand basic lessons: like not building our house on a flood-plain, or the side of a volcano, and not allowing someone like Hitler to get into power.

We get frustrated with ourselves, because we haven’t got everything sorted out NOW. It’s tempting to imagine how much better it would be if God just reached in and fixed it all.

But God is wise, and loving. So God has given us the chance to crash our bikes, or learn to ride.

And God is there, every time, to pick us up and help us try again.

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