Providence—the belief that God sees all things, reigns over all things and is concerned for all things, to bring about the ultimate divine purposes of creation—is always at the forefront of discourse and reflection whenever tragedy strikes. The issue of providence for people today, in light of the Sandy Hook school shooting, arises out of the incongruity between the revealed character of a benevolent and omnipotent God and the circumstances or life events one has experienced or is experiencing. As Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book When Bad Things Happen to Good People plainly asks:
“How can a loving and powerful God allow something this awful to happen?”
I’ve been an ordained minister for more than 18 years, the last 12 of which have been in healthcare chaplaincy; and my feeble attempts at a response only serve to raise more questions than answers. However, my experience in providing ministry, even in the most difficult and challenging moments, has taught me many lessons about providence.
Temptations to avoid
I’ve learned that for theological and pastoral reasons some temptations must be avoided. One temptation is to try to turn off the angry accusation of God as unworthy or irreligious. Another is to let the person asking the question take the blame or acquiesce a wicked fallen world without hope. Yet another is to attempt a defense of God by explaining how some natural forces or some evil acts of others have caused the event. And still another is to insist that while God has indeed done this act, it will turn out for good.
Another form of the questioning comes in the opposite situation, when good things happen to bad people. This is the frequent biblical question: “Why do the wicked prosper?” Again, for sound pastoral and theological reasons, I’ve learned to avoid the temptation to explain the evil away or defend God by denying it. More importantly, I’ve learned how vital listening is to pastoral care and how it can open doors to healing.
I’m reminded of a story attributed to Franz Kafka, one that is being passed around lately following the Sandy Hook tragedy. This story is about a little girl who was late arriving home one day. Her mother asked her where she was. The girl said that she saw her friend Ruthie on her way home, and Ruthie’s doll had broken. “Did you help her fix it?” her mother asked. “No,” the girl replied, “I don’t know how to fix it. I stopped to help her cry.”
As chaplain, I believe that what I am called upon to do is to affirm what I can affirm about God. I continue to hold on to the reality that God is at work in the natural order in its regularity. I continue to affirm self-agency—that individuals have independence and responsibility. I continue to acknowledge that God is always opposed to evil and that God shares the suffering and pain of human life.
Providence has proved to be an invaluable resource in my engagement with people as well. Providence affirms the reality of the goodness of God as expressed daily in the world and in the lives of individuals. The natural order is an expression of God’s care. And history is the arena of God’s working to achieve through human beings and for human beings the good fulfillment of God’s purposes for all humankind. The world is not subject to blind necessity or chance, but is in the hands of a just and loving God.
A way forward
Such an understanding sustains me as I live my life and how I offer care, love and justice to the people I minister. Both my experience and faith tells me that providence is just not an archaic teaching that only helps to explain the past. It is rather the basis for a trust about the future. There may be little help in the teachings of providence at the moment of pain for the question, “Why did this happen?” or “Why did my child die?”
But there is very great help for the haunting cry, “I am afraid! How can I face the future?” Providence, drawing from biblical theology, points to a present and a future that are securely in the hand of God.
Finally, providence offers the basis for serious venture into social change. This principle shift’s one’s attention from “What will happen to me or to the world?” to “What is God’s purpose for me and for the world?” It’s heartening to note that out of the ashes of the terrible tragedy in Newtown, there seems to be the beginning of an earnest conversation that can pave the way for advocacy and meaningful action that can address gun violence. Providence leads one to care for others and to take action to change the concrete situations in the world.
Editor’s note: For more posts exploring the Sandy Hook tragedy, please read: