All things work together?

The author expresses her thoughts as she uses a personal tragedy to explore the will of God.

Cindee Bailey, PhD, is professor of social work and sociology at Walla Walla University, College Place, Washington, United States

Is an accident just an accident when it is caused by an inattentive young driver running head-on into the car in which my husband, Neil, was a passenger? Why is it that no one except my husband was seriously injured? And that four days later he was snatched away from life? From me?

Does death have meaning?

For months, I searched for comfort in the idea that God controls every­thing completely. Whatever happens in life—including this heartbreak of my life—will find its resolution: there must be a plan to make all things right.

I went so far as to discuss on Facebook the concept that there are no accidents. If there are no accidents, there are no coincidences. God must direct events to make “all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28, NKJV). I was incensed when someone disagreed with me because that meant God did not involve Himself with this incident. That meant it was merely an arbitrary event. Somehow that made Neil’s death and my sorrow insignificant. I had to believe otherwise—my faith that God was involved in every little detail was strong.

I was surprised that this tragedy did not send me into an existential whirlwind. I suppose it was because of all the awesome support I got from my community—my church pastors and church family, my colleagues, my kids’ elementary school, our friends, and our family. When I am alone and think God is silent, I remember that His voice comes through His people, and indeed, I have heard His compas­sion loud and clear!

My worldview was also adequately in place to withstand the doubts of why this had to happen, and where God was all along. Eleven years ago, I had to revise my perspective on God when we lost a twin son at birth. Since then I have had to choose each day to believe in a God who is both powerful and benevolent because liv­ing without such a belief is untenable for me. So, I thought I was handling it all as well as could be expected after suddenly losing my comrade in life. But once the immediate agony of grief abated and functioning of sorts found a new balance, my comforting answers seemed to crumble and new questions arose.

Just a part in a broken world?

If God in His omniscience and omnipotence allows tragedies, surely He still must have some authority in how this contest between Him and Satan played out in regard to my hus­band’s death. Is the constant presence of mortality and suffering in this world merely a part of being in a broken world? Or does each cry of despair mean something? Surely, if Satan moved to destroy, God’s countermove would be something that includes some sort of triumph. Is there something for someone, somewhere, to learn from this one death? Is there a greater good in this case? Or is this loss just a random, sad event? Did Satan want me to think that because God allowed this to happen, God must be unjust? Or is this death just one more proof that Satan continues his work on this earth, and that his power remains insidious?

If God is all love and goodness and compassion, then all pain and suffering are evil. Right? Is everything that hap­pens a part of the great controversy? Is every little thing either good or evil? A daisy—good; losing my keys—bad? I imagine what heaven must be like—no bad thing will exist there; so I think that all bad, whether horrific or seemingly insignificant, must come from Satan. “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8, NIV).

Some people said that maybe Neil died to lead others to Christ; or maybe he died because there was something in his future that he could not handle. I cannot accept that a loving God would impose pain or suffering to bring about a greater good. When I think of God working all things together for good, I think that good may come in spite of a tragedy; and that is different from causing it to create good.

All things work together?

Romans 8:28 states, “all things work together.” Now I do not believe that means that there was some sort of Job-type, Satan-and-God scheme in Neil’s death. Nor do I think there was some plot by God to kill Neil. I believe that all of us are living in an impaired and injured world under Satan’s dominion and power (John 12:31; 2 Cor. 4:4), and he looks for ways to destroy. However, in spite of Satan’s activity, God can use Neil’s death for good. That gives his death meaning. There are no such things as accidents. That means in God’s ultimate will, everything fits. Everything may not be the way it should be, but eventually everything will be the way it should be.

I thought that all things would go the way they are supposed to go—even on this earth. Thinking that way stems from the view that God controls every event and action, but such a view takes away free will.1 If there was no free will, why would God allow the driver to look away from the road; or at the furthest extreme, create a Hitler to slaughter millions? Free will allows for human-effected atrocities and human-produced destruction, including accidents; if human free will is taken away, is it not logical to impute that culpability onto God? Some would have all events be under God’s control—total sovereignty. What are the ramifications of thinking this way? Yes, it gives immediate comfort that “it is the will of God,” but after thinking that over, I do not think God can cause evil even for a later good. That would be saying the end justifies the means. Can a blameless, benevolent God function that way?

If I do assign meaning to suffering, does that infer purpose? Purpose would assume cause; but can a good God cause evil? Maybe even ascribing mean­ing takes away free choice, and thus the possibility of randomness exists. I cannot accept the fruit if I do not agree with the roots. Some may believe that God is in total control and that He sends suffering to punish or teach us. I cannot buy into the comfort of everything having meaning and all happenings being in God’s will if I cannot believe in a chastising God who, in His total control, designs events such as child abuse, disease, terrorist attacks, or car accidents.

Can there just be random pain not intended or caused by anyone? Arbitrary evil? How about natural disas­ters? Are they evil, implying an intent to cause misery, or are they merely follow­ing a physical law in which humans get hurt? If God is in charge of everything, has He caused those tragedies? Or has He backed away from us and allowed calamities to run their course, in order to give us the opportunity to make choices or live with the consequences? Is God in charge, but not totally in control (for now)?

Personal anguish and theological angst

My personal anguish intertwines itself with theological angst. How can I find healing from my grief when I cannot understand who God is? If I do not understand God’s nature or goals or involvement, how do I pray? How do I know how much to trust God to act in my life, and how much should I be involved in all the choosing and action? What is the purpose of all this continued existence in suffering? If I believe, as some do, that God controls everything (good and bad) and suffer­ing happens for a greater good, then we are preordained to be saved or lost. So no matter what I do, it does not really matter. My life, Neil’s death, are already determined. God controls meticulously. But, if I believe, as some others do,2 God is sovereign, but self-limiting (by choice rather than by abdication), this allows for free will. Free will for consequences chosen by us or others; free will to experience the sin of this world until—until when?

Even so, I am not comfortable with meaninglessness and randomness—the idea of arbitrary events. This makes me feel insecure and vulnerable. I want God to be all encompassing and in charge of everything. If He knows when the sparrow falls or where the lily grows in the field, surely He continues to be part of what happened on that road. Maybe that should be enough for me. Or does He have some sort of countering checkmate to offset Satan’s check?

Ellen White made this assertion: “God never leads His children other­wise than they would choose to be led, if they could see the end from the beginning, and discern the glory of the purpose which they are fulfilling as co-workers with Him.”3 To me this sounds like concurrent concepts of free will (“choose to be led”) and God’s ultimate control of things or events (“the purpose which they are fulfill­ing”). This quote seems to suggest that there is a plan, though it may be eventually and possibly but not presently understood.

I do not have any problem with the idea that God may self-limit His omnipotence in order to allow sinful humans to exist. If evil is the antithesis of God and we “all have sinned and fall short” of His glory (Rom. 3:23, NKJV), certainly He must constrain Himself in order for us to survive to make choices. So, if God is in charge yet limits Himself in order to give us free will, we find it reasonable to think that bad things can happen that are not His choosing, His ideal will.

Understanding God’s will

Leslie Weatherhead published a series of sermons during World War II titled The Will of God.4 He examines how God can be loving and powerful and still allow suffering. He divides God’s will into three types:

  1. The intentional will of God—God’s ideal plan for (humanity).
  2. The circumstantial will of God—God’s plan within certain circumstances.
  3. The ultimate will of God—God’s final realization of His purposes.

The intentional will of God is what He would have for us if there were no sin or dispute over power of this world—no great controversy—that is, what God wants ideally for us if Satan would not say God was unjust in giv­ing us that perfect life. God intended for Neil to live forever with Him. The circumstantial will is God’s alternate choice when we thwart His plan or choose otherwise than He would intend for us or when Satan imputes disease or disasters or death upon us.5 This incident affirms Romans 8:28. Maybe in God’s circumstantial will, I will change something about myself for the positive or maybe our sons will have something more to give back to others, or people will adjust their lives because of what they saw in Neil but would not have had he not died. Or, maybe I will never see the plan in this lifetime.

God’s ultimate will assures us that no matter what happens on this earth—life, death, suffering, tragedy­ God will eventually make it right. So, maybe no meaning exists in my husband’s death. Maybe losing him is simply a happening in a sinful world, and his death is a waste of a beauti­ful life. I understand, with my head, the concept of circumstantial and ultimate wills, but my heart has not yet caught up with that belief. I have yet to comprehend how God will transform Neil’s death into something good or how, when I get to heaven and see the whole plan, I could say that I would not want it any other way. But (I am glad there is a “but” here) God’s ultimate will gives me hope.

“God does not cause the difficult circumstances that we face in life. God works within those circumstances to bring about something new and beautiful. God works for good in all circumstances, bringing beauty from our pain. God’s circumstantial will is that we would partner with God to bring about the good. God’s desire is that we would have hope in the midst of our circumstances, taking confidence that God’s ultimate will will reign in the end.”6

In writing this article, I have worked through a few of my questions, and for others I will continue to wait on the Lord. I hope to find some peace in the mystery.

“If we can only trust where we cannot see, walking in the light we have—which is often very much like hanging on in the dark—if we do faith­fully that which we see to be the will of God in the circumstances which evil thrusts upon us, we can rest our minds in the assurance that circumstances which God allows, reacted to in faith and trust and courage, can never defeat purposes which God ultimately wills. So doing, we shall wrest from life something big and splendid. We shall find peace in our own hearts. We shall achieve integration in our own minds. We shall be able to serve our fellows with courage and joy.”7

Difficult though that may be, that is how I hope it will all work together.

1 See Edwin H. Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1972).

2 Denis Fortin, “The Place of Seventh-day Adventism in the Calvinist-Arminian Debate: Historical and Theological Perspectives on the Rise of Arminianism.” (paper presentation at the 2010 Arminianism Symposium, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI). Retrieved from -archives/2010-arminianism-symposium-andrews-university-mi.

3 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), 224, 225.

4 Leslie Weatherhead, The Wiof God (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1972).

5 I like the concept of God adjusting His plan because this expresses such love for us that even when we deviate from what He would have for us or when Satan takes control of a situation, God can make good from it, e.g., Joseph’s slavery, Moses being thrown into the Nile, Jesus’ death.

6 Jeff Allen, sermon delivered July 10, 2011, titled “God’s Circumstantial Will,” /clientimages/51598/sermons/god’s%20circumstantial%20 will.pdf, 4.

7 Weatherhead, The Will of God, 46.

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Cindee Bailey, PhD, is professor of social work and sociology at Walla Walla University, College Place, Washington, United States

September 2014

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