But people usually fall more on one side than the other. I lie somewhere on the Arminian side of things. I was raised in a church movement that is Arminian in doctrine and by parents who view the world through an Arminian lens. I didn’t think this was much of a big deal for most of my life, but I’ve since learned that it kind of is. You see, once you adopt a leaning toward Calvinism or Arminianism, it tends to color more of your worldview than just the question of how a person becomes saved.
This has never been highlighted so clearly for me as when people talk about “God’s plan” in light of tragedy. When someone undergoes pain, many Christians try to offer comfort by saying “it’s all part of God’s plan” or “God has something better planned for you.” I understand why they’re saying it; they believe it offers comfort in the guise of hope. Surely, there must be a reason for God allowing this tragedy, and since we know God is good, it must be part of a bigger plan that will ultimately bless you.
The problem with this is: it’s wrong. Very wrong. To offer comfort by explaining the pain as “part of God’s plan” is to place the responsibility for the pain squarely at God’s feet. But God is not the cause of pain. We experience pain because of free will. I am hurting not because it was God’s desire, but because of a person’s poor choice.
Now, does God allow us to experience pain? Yes. Otherwise there is no free will. God doesn’t want zombie followers, but rather rational disciples who have chosen Him. That means that humans are free to make their own choices. Unfortunately, people mess up and sometimes our choices cause people pain. Can God use our pain to help us grow? Certainly, and He often does. But it is imperative to remember that in our view of the world, we should never veer into a fatalistic mentality that, taken to its logical conclusion, blames God for brokenness. If He really did orchestrate everything to the extent that some people think, He would be responsible for cancer, child abuse, and the Holocaust. But God’s not a puppet master, controlling every little thing that happens as part of some elaborate plan.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a Deist. God does have a plan for us. He is a personal God who is invested in our lives and wants what’s best for us. But beyond our salvation and discipleship, I’m not convinced we can always know what that plan is (or that there is much of one beyond that). Yes, some people feel “called” to a particular profession, for example. But that doesn’t happen for everyone. I honestly don’t believe God has one and only one specific job lined up for each of His followers and that we’ve failed if we don’t enter that field. I’ve run into people who think that way; these are people who would say that because I have such a beautiful singing voice, that I’m wasting my God-given talent by not moving to Nashville and recording gospel albums. And I don’t believe that He has one and only one “soul mate” picked out for each believer. That belief is so prevalent and nefarious that it cripples people, and they end up on a never ending quest for “The One,” rejecting good candidates in search of a perfect candidate, always thinking, ‘but is there someone even better?’
So, while God is actively involved in our lives, it’s bad theology (and emotionally dangerous) to forget the role free will plays. In fact, I would say the majority of what goes on in our lives is a result of our free will. Did I choose the parents I have? No, but I chose to respect and obey them. Did WMU’s offer of the Medallion Scholarship make it easier for me to choose WMU? Yes, but I still could have chosen another school. Did I choose Turkmenistan as my Peace Corps assignment? No, but I chose to accept it when I could have turned it down and continued teaching stateside. I chose to continue in my Peace Corps assignment even when things got really dark, I chose to move to D.C., I chose to love the people I have loved (see “A Treatise on Love”). I choose how to deal with my depression. I use the logic and reasoning God gave me to make the choices He allows me to make. Do I mess up sometimes? Sure, and that’s why, along with granting us free will, God also grants us mercy and grace.
Calvinism taken to the extreme not only blames God for tragedy, it takes away personal responsibility. If God has already predestined everything, it doesn’t matter whether we behave in accordance to His precepts (if we’re the elect, we’re in regardless. This is known as Perseverance of the Saints.). Or whether we evangelize for that matter. Now, to be clear, this is Calvinism in the extreme. Theology on this matter is more nuanced. But I’m speaking to a phenomenon that I believe stems from Calvinist theology and has become pervasive in our society. It is almost trite at this point to respond to someone’s pain with the God version of “everything happens for a reason.”
I don’t hold it against someone when they try to comfort me by talking about God’s plan, because I know that they mean well. It’s just that, for someone who thinks theologically like me, it’s not an effective comfort because I recognize that my pain is a result of human beings making bad decisions. Sometimes it is my bad decision; sometimes it is someone else’s, but it is never God’s.
*I really want to stress that this post is not meant to be an attack on Calvinism as a whole or to drudge up a debate over Calvinism vs. Arminianism. As I said in the first paragraph, I think that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I’m just blogging my personal feelings as an Arminian (for lack of a better descriptor) and how that view affects my experience with pain, because I am currently undergoing heartache.