Jesus promised the “kingdom of God” experience to those who follow him in a life of radical giving and complete dependence on God. This is God’s gift to us, and only God can make it happen. The experience certainly seems like a miracle. Because most everyone around us does not live the kind of life Jesus taught.
That raises the question of how to interact with those who do not follow Jesus’ way, or who only follow it to some extent. The more extreme the giving and vulnerability, the fewer that practice it. But the path to more giving and more dependence on God is usually a gradual one, so any steps in that direction should be encouraged. Jesus always spoke well of those who gave, who let go of some of their own wealth and self-sufficiency, even if they did not yet give everything. This was a good step. But, at the same time, Jesus was still not “satisfied” with simply giving from our excess. He continued to set the example of radical giving, calling everyone to keep taking the next step.
And Jesus’ life of dependence did not only set the example, but also helped others enter into it by beginning to give. Many who did not leave everything and follow Jesus were inspired to at least begin to give by supporting him and his followers. This offered them the experience of giving, and also brought them closer to Jesus, to know him better. To these, Jesus was thankful and accepted what they chose to give. But he did not direct them to remain as benefactors, to continue to gather wealth so they could share a portion with others, even if it was to his benefit. To all, Jesus said, “Follow me.” Whatever people chose to give was good, a beginning perhaps, that brought them into contact with Jesus’ way of life. But (whatever their particular gifts) everyone was called to be like Jesus in radical giving, in embracing vulnerability, and in complete dependence on God.
From this we can see how others can be drawn in to Jesus’ way. People first see something in the faith of Jesus’ followers and also see their vulnerability and need. So they are inspired to offer some help. This gives them the experience of God’s love, God working through them to support his own children, and also exposes them to Jesus’ way of life. If they then open themselves to this life, they will progressively give more, becoming more vulnerable and dependent themselves. And so they too will become inspirations to encourage giving, both by their example and their need. As people grow in this way, their gifts change. They have less material possessions to share, but their lives become a more valuable gift, both as an inspiration calling others to enter into God’s love and help care for his children and as a model for faith by which we become (and live as) God’s children.
This progression is like a cycle of life which continues to draw others into Jesus’ way.
Jesus promised the “kingdom of God” experience to those who follow him in a life of radical giving and complete dependence on God. This is God’s gift to us, and only God can make it happen. The experience certainly seems like a miracle. Because most everyone around us does not live the kind of life Jesus taught.
This has nothing to do with what I've been writing about. I just enjoyed this cartoon yesterday:
Working without asking anything in return, and giving not only our excess but all—this seems to be a recipe for disaster. It seems certain to result in abject poverty. And it even seems morally irresponsible, since such uncontrolled giving would result in our own dependence and a lack of resources which would hinder any further giving, and severely limit the amount of people we could help.
Jesus readily agreed that following his example would lead to poverty. But he didn’t seem to think this was unfortunate or irresponsible:
He came down on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples… and he lifted up his eyes on his disciples and said, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Lk 6.17, 20)Jesus was not commending all poverty; it is obvious that all poverty is not “blessed.” But he clearly thought that the poverty that came to those who followed him was good, a part of experiencing fullness of life, “the kingdom of God,” here on earth.
Jesus’ poverty was just as real, just as weak and vulnerable, as any poverty. The difference was God’s power that responded to that weakness, because it looked to him in faith. Those who give recklessly face the same needs as others, and are just as helpless as other poor people, but the Father who knows their needs can and does inspire others to meet those needs. And then all the needs are met through gift giving instead of business deals. People are drawn together by gratitude and sharing. Work is freed from self-interest and the demand that it “pay the bills.” And while those who follow Jesus in this are humbled and must accept the role of poor servants, they find a common lowliness with others that is good, in which they are all brothers and sisters cared for by the same Father. Who takes their small gifts and does great things with them.
This “works,” and is very good, only because God makes it so. Our contribution is only our faith, our utter dependence on God in our vulnerability and weakness, which can make nothing happen except lead us into poverty. But God has promised to respond to such faith and give us the experience of his kingdom on earth. And this comes without removing poverty, but in the midst of it, so that we must always remain in faith and never rely on our own strength or wealth. And also so we may continue to be examples of faith to others, showing them the way to God, and continue to provide opportunities for God to demonstrate his power, providing for the helpless and making feasts of our small loaves and fishes.
Jesus taught radical giving, making our work and even our possessions a gift to others, and taking the humble position of a servant, needy among the needy. But such giving is not respected. The ones who are praised are those who give large amounts, and who maintain their positions of wealth and power so they can continue to give. Isn’t that a more prudent way to help others?
Because it is the rich benefactor who can help the most people, not the poor servant—right? This seems to be the obvious conclusion when “helping” is measured in dollars or the number of people fed, clothed, or sheltered. But Jesus seemed to have a different view:
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him, and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.” (Mk 12.41-44)Jesus said the poor widow put in more than all the rich people. And so set her as the example of how we are to give. The important thing is clearly not the monetary size of the gift, but whether or not the gift is all. Because it doesn’t take much faith to make a large contribution when there is plenty more left at home. But it does take great faith to give everything you have left, even if it is a small amount. And Jesus measures the value of our gifts by the faith behind them, not the number of dollars.
The value of the widow’s gift was in her faith and the love that moved her to give. Such faith opens us to God’s love, which is the highest good both for ourselves and as an example and encouragement to others, calling them also to faith. So we can see why Jesus chose the radical giving that demonstrated radical faith. And continued to demonstrate great faith by staying poor and dependent, in the position of a humble servant, continuing to give everything without concern for his own needs. This demonstration of faith makes the gift “more,” even if it is materially small.
It is not the size of the gift, but the faith that matters. Because God responds to faith with a wealth and power much greater than any human power. Like in the miracle of the loaves and fishes, when a small gift offered in faith (it was all the boy had) was many times multiplied by God, to provide all the food the crowd needed with much left over.
So we should not be deterred from radical giving, or embarrassed by the small gifts we can give as poor servants. God is not dependent on our wealth or power. God looks for the one who will give everything, depending completely on him.
Because of Jesus’ radical giving—giving all, and working without asking anything in return—he became and remained poor himself. This set his generosity apart from the generosity of others. He did not give a small portion of his wealth, but gave recklessly. Jesus was not a benefactor who maintained control of his resources, doling them out as he thought reasonable, and being praised for his generosity. He gave all and so became lowly and dependent himself.
Such giving is not praised by others; it is called “irresponsible.” And it is humbling. Because in giving everything we give up control of the situation, give up our position as benefactor and join the vulnerable in their vulnerability and dependence. But this is the way of serving that Jesus modeled and taught:
Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Lk 22.25-27)Jesus did not help people from a position of wealth or political power, but from a position of vulnerability and weakness. He was not independent or self-sufficient. He gave what he had to give and trusted God to inspire others to supply his needs through what they had to give. In this, Jesus demonstrated the difference between being a benefactor and being a servant.
And Jesus taught his followers to be servants as well:
When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (Jn 13. 12-14)This is not just performing “a service,” but actually putting ourselves in the vulnerable position of a servant. The dependent position. In which our own will and needs are set aside to attend to the needs of another. In which the one being helped is not humiliated (as a beggar) but we put ourselves in the humbler position.
The intention is to direct attention to the God we serve, who is the true benefactor for all of us. The desire is not to direct people’s attention to ourselves or encourage them to put their trust in us or become dependent on us. This would do nothing to address the deeper, more important problem of our separation from God. We are to show—in all areas of our lives, just as Jesus did—that we are all dependent on God. And that it is in faith, trusting God in our dependence and weakness, that we find God.
Jesus’ practice and teaching about working (and giving) without asking anything in return has significant implications. For instance, it makes our services more available to the needy. If we are not working for repayment, then our services are not limited to those who can afford our fees. Then need, rather than ability to pay, becomes the decisive factor and the poor and vulnerable are favored rather than the rich. We begin to respond to the vulnerable as God does.
This is further emphasized when we recall that Jesus recommended the same free giving of our possessions as well. Jesus’ ideal was stated clearly to the rich young man: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Mt 19.21) And in other places, the same radical giving is preached more broadly to his followers:
“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.” (Lk 12.32-33)So, in addition to making services equally available, Jesus’ free giving also makes resources available to all. Instead of savings and investments that keep resources in the hands of the wealthy and powerful, Jesus’ giving offers resources to the poor.
This has a leveling effect, reducing the painful separation between the rich and poor, making both resources and services available to the most needy. This is loving and just. But, as was seen in Jesus’ life, this effect is not accomplished by somehow making everyone rich. Instead, we see the expected result of such generous giving: Jesus and his disciples become poor with the poor. As he warned a prospective follower, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Mt 8.20) In this we see Jesus responding to the needs of the most vulnerable, and in doing so becoming equally vulnerable himself.
The result of this is a mutual giving and receiving of gifts. Jesus preached and practiced a radical giving of resources and work freely to those in need, which resulted in his own neediness. Yet Jesus accepts this neediness, trusting God. And happily accepts the gifts of those who choose to follow his example and give freely to him and his disciples. There are many stories of him eating at the tables of others and staying at their houses, and when he sent out his disciples he specifically instructed them to accept gifts (for their needs) in the same way. Needs are met by free giving and receiving, not demanded by deals or contracts or legal rights but motivated by mutual love.
So, through Jesus’ radical giving, work and resources become a way to draw people together rather than a source of contention. And those who follow him are drawn together in mutual vulnerability, in mutual weakness that looks to God in faith and so is content to give all and remain weak.
Jesus seemed to see our physical needs as an opportunity for faith rather than a cause for fear that drives us into hard labor and hoarding. So we don’t see Jesus working hard to provide for himself or his disciples. But this doesn’t mean Jesus didn’t work, or taught others to avoid work. What he did was offer us freedom from anxiety so our work could be given joyfully.
Instead of work being a slavery by which we “pay our own way,” the work Jesus encouraged was to be a free gift of love. Perhaps the best summary of this appears when Jesus sends out his disciples to preach and heal, telling them, “You received without paying, give without pay.” (Mt 10.8) Their needs are met by God (through others) as a gift, God’s love responding to their vulnerability. And their talents and abilities are also gifts from God, along with the energy and motivation of love to use those abilities for the good of others. So they should likewise offer their work as a gift.
This is how Jesus worked. He used the abilities God had given him to serve those around him, and he asked nothing in return (though he did accept the gifts that others chose to give to him). And he taught his followers to do the same, such as in these passages:
He said to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Lk 14.12-14)Together with “Give without pay” and Jesus’ own example, these provide a consistent model for our work. God’s provision for us allows us to give our service freely to others without asking for payment. And this frees our work. No longer do we need to be driven by our own needs or have to do the kind of work “that sells”; we are freed to do the kind of work that God has created us for, motivated only by love for the one we are serving.
“If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great…” (Lk 6.33-35)
Jesus knew the vulnerability of human life, of needing food and shelter to survive. And he knew the anxiety that can overwhelm us in this need. Yet he did not respond in the usual way, by working hard to gather up for ourselves what we need and storing as much as we can for the future. Instead, Jesus responded with faith.
Faith is giving up our own will, our own purposes, to God and depending on him completely for our good. And this is exactly what we see when Jesus talks about our daily needs:
“I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! …Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O men of little faith!” (Lk 12.22-24)Jesus taught that we should set aside concerns for our own physical needs (“O men of little faith!”) and trust God to supply them, because “your Father knows that you need them.” And not only did he assure us that we would have what we needed, but he also described the life of faith as beautiful, like that of the birds that are fed without storehouses and the lilies that are beautifully dressed without toil. Strikingly similar to the happy life of children well cared for.
Jesus also demonstrated such a life of faith. In what we know of his public life, his needs—as well as the needs of his disciples—were met without laboring for their own daily bread. And when Jesus sent out his disciples, he very specifically instructed them not to take provisions but to trust God to provide through those they met. Later, near the end of his ministry, Jesus asked his disciples, “When I sent you out with no purse or bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” They answered, “Nothing.” (Lk 22.35)
Jesus seems to embrace our vulnerability of daily physical needs. Rather than seeing it as a source of anxiety or the driving force for endless work and hoarding, he seems to see it as an opportunity for faith. Our vulnerability, like that of the birds and lilies, is part of God’s creation. And for us it provides the opportunity to freely and joyfully rely on God’s provision rather than struggling to provide for ourselves and fighting to keep what we have gathered. This is the ongoing act of faith. Which God responds to not only by providing for our physical needs, but more importantly by filling us with his presence, in which we experience the fulfillment and joy of total love. Thus our humble physical vulnerability becomes the opportunity to address our deeper problem of separation from God, and experience deeper union with God through our response to the daily needs that arise.
Also, as we see in Jesus’ life, our needs provide an opportunity to encourage others to respond in faith. Our faith (and God’s provision) shows the way to faith for others. That those struggling around us might also know God’s care and presence.
There are two main aspects of our vulnerability: our needs for provision and protection. Provision involves acquiring food and shelter and medical care. Protection has to do with our response to those who would threaten or attack us. These two activities seem to take up the majority of our time and effort, and in both cases that effort is usually focused on reducing our vulnerability, and gaining security and independence. Not surprisingly, Jesus had much to say about both these activities.
I’d like to consider provision first, since this is usually the primary focus of our daily activities. Because our physical needs are so immediate and important, provision tends to dominate our thoughts and work, so that “work” has come to mean the activity we do to provide for ourselves. The assumed solution to our physical needs is “hard work.” And, if possible, we attempt to reduce our vulnerability in this area by gathering up excess provisions for the future.
This gathering and storing of excess provisions or wealth, however, also leads to new problems. Anything stored up must be then constantly protected from decay or damage. And it also becomes a target for theft, especially when we have a great excess and those around us are in need.
Yet despite these problems, continuous work and storing up are the usual response to our physical needs. Jesus, however, seems to challenge this. He challenges the tendency to gather excess provisions in this familiar passage:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Mt 6.19-21)And he even seems to challenge the assumption that providing for ourselves should be the motivation for our work:
“Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you…” (Jn 6.27)Together, these passages suggest that Jesus responded to the need for provision quite differently than we usually do, and also that he had a different idea about the purpose of our work.
“And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind. For all the nations seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek God’s kingdom and these things shall be yours as well.” (Lk 12.27-31)
One unique aspect of human life is our complete helplessness for a long time after birth. Other animals quickly become mobile and independent, but human beings need constant care for several years. Our first, most formative experience is one of complete vulnerability and dependence on others. And we usually end life much the way we began it. As we age, we become more and more dependent and vulnerable. I think there is a powerful meaning in this.
If it is true that the purpose of our lives is to impose our own will, then our human dependency and vulnerability can only be seen as an impediment to be overcome. Childhood would then be seen as something to be quickly grown out of, and old age something to be dreaded. And this does seem to be the view of many people.
On the other hand, if it is true that the real purpose of our lives is union with God, and that this comes not through imposing our own will but by surrendering to God’s will in faith, then the natural human experience looks much different. If our aim is complete dependence on God in faith, then childhood is a very good model for human life. As the child is dependent on the parents for care and protection and, though vulnerable and helpless, lives free and happy under the parents’ care, so we are to live under God’s care. Of course childhood is not voluntary. But as we mature and take control of our free will, we then have the choice whether to continue to follow the way of life we were born into, or leave childlike ways of dependence and pursue independence and power to control our environment. The choice is ours. And what we choose will shape our experience of life and also how we face the vulnerability of old age (if we don’t face it sooner through disease, injury, loss, etc). But it seems to me that childhood dependence reveals something of the meaning and ideal for our lives, and the similar vulnerability that slowly intensifies as we age calls us back to this and tests what we have learned.
Then our natural human vulnerability and dependence becomes, not a curse or impediment, but a gift. It is not meant to be conquered, but embraced. We are not meant to “outgrow” our childhood, but rather mature and see that our true dependence is meant to be directed towards God rather than other human beings. As children we completely trusted our parents, though this trust was sometimes misplaced. But it symbolized the true desire and goal of human life: To be completely dependent and trusting on God for care and protection and live in the joy and freedom of God’s love. And to help others do so as well.
I see in Jesus’ teaching this urge towards this childlike dependence on God as well:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 18. 1-3)And there are many more examples of this in his life and teachings. His voluntary embracing of a childlike weakness, vulnerability, dependence. I want to look more closely at how he lived this practically, and so better understand how to live it myself.
“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Mk 10.15)
Jesus’ laying down his life was the perfect act of love. Yet it was not approved or appreciated by either his friends or his enemies. How could love be so misunderstood?
Those who condemned Jesus didn’t appreciate what he was offering, because he didn’t support their management of society. He strongly challenged it. So they saw his death, not as an act of love, but as what he deserved as a subversive trouble-maker. They saw him as a criminal, executed with two other criminals. But Jesus’ followers also didn’t understand his “laying down his life” as an act of love. They could understand why he would preach and heal and feed people, and appreciated his challenging the problems in their society. But they couldn’t see why he would go to Jerusalem and accept execution without resisting, and they tried to prevent it. They could only see his death as a tragic failure. Neither friends or enemies could see the value in Jesus’ perfect act of love.
This illustrates well the difference between God’s purposes and ours. We are intent on imposing our own will, either to keep things as they are or to change things. Some try to preserve and protect what is important to them, such as possessions, traditions, social structure, etc. But at the same time, there are others who do not like how things are. So they try to change the property distribution or the social traditions and structures. What they all have in common is the need for power to impose their will. Those who are in power seek to maintain it, and those who are not in power seek to gain more of it—more wealth and more political influence.
This pursuit of power makes sense if our purpose is to impose our own will, to shape the world as we think it ought to be. But if our true good is not the exercise of our own will, but the surrender of our own will—faith—then the pursuit of power is not helpful. Because it is not strength that helps us trust God, but weakness.
And this is exactly what I see in Jesus’ way of life. Not the pursuit of power, but intentionally becoming and staying weak. A continual “laying down his life.” Instead of seeking human power like everyone else, Jesus embraces economic and political weakness and preaches it to others. This is seen as subversive by those in power, and as a failure by those who seek power. Yet it is exactly right for helping people towards God through faith. And revealing God's powerful love.
As Jesus said to Paul: “My power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12.9)
The experience of God’s presence, filling me and acting through me, this is love.
This experience is wonderful, the ultimate fulfillment, yet it is not just a feeling. Love is living and active. Love is the will of God in us, directing our heart, motivating our actions. There is no more powerful motivation than this. The love of God in us drives away all fears, satisfies all longings, and moves us to act with a power stronger than death.
Much goes by the name of “love.” Yet the presence of God which comes through faith is unique, the only love worthy of the name, the one love that can satisfy us. And because it is God’s love, it acts like God. Those who love with God’s love seek what God seeks; their purposes are God’s purposes. Such love is not merely “being nice,” or “accepting people as they are.” The love of God in us moves us to act towards others in the same way that God acts everywhere by his Providence: encouraging others towards faith, so that they too might be united with God. This is what love does, both in us and all around us.
Sometimes this is pleasant and sometimes painful. Depending on the hearts of the persons involved and the needs of the moment, love is sometimes gentle and sometimes harsh. Sometimes comforting and sometimes frightening. Just as Jesus sometimes offered healing and soothing words and sometimes shouted “Woe!” and flipped tables—and led his disciples to the cross. All this was love.
The cross was even presented by Jesus as the ideal model for love.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15.12-13)I see God’s love in this “laying down his life” because it is the perfect example of faith. Jesus showed us what it is to trust God with our lives—even through death. And this is exactly what we need: an example of the way to God and then the response of God’s power carrying him through death. We need this much more than physical healing or food or moral teaching. The love of God is perfect in Jesus on the cross because it shows that we find God in faith, in surrender of our lives into God’s hands. And this is the highest good for each of us.
So what am I to do? How should I respond to the problem of our separation from God, to the evil that exists not external to us but in our hearts? How should I respond if it is true that our will is free but everything else is controlled and ordered for our good by God?
It seems clear that my response should be to turn my own heart towards God. Not try to fight some external evil or attempt to control the events around me, but bring my own will into union with God’s and help others do so as well. But how? It’s not enough to simply identify God’s will and agree with it or try to cooperate with it. It’s not enough to figure out what is “good” and do it. This might gain me the approval and admiration of many other people, but it would not unite me with God. If I still stand apart and decide for myself what is good and to what extent I will participate, then I am still separate from God. To approve or cooperate with God is still separation from God. I would have achieved nothing.
What I need is God’s presence, God’s goodness filling me, so that we are not apart but together, not two but one. And God has shown that there is only one path to this union. Faith.
But this faith is not the blind acceptance of religious beliefs without evidence. That is useless. Faith is not an intellectual exercise, or an exertion of the will. Faith is the surrender of the will. It is letting go of my ego and ambition and trusting God to preserve and guide me, accepting God’s will in place of my own. So there is only one will, one intention. Sometimes this is described as “dying to self,” in which we give up the one thing we have to give, our freedom of will, to God. This is faith.
A good example of a moment of faith in Jesus’ life was his prayer in Gethsemene. Jesus struggles with how to respond to the dangers that approach him. He seems unsure about God’s will. But his response is the response of faith: “Not my will, but Yours, be done.” (Lk 22.42)
This surrendering of self doesn’t achieve anything in itself. It doesn’t unite us with God. But God has shown that he will respond to those who set aside their own will in faith. God freely gives himself to the faithful, to the heart that trusts him. When I trust him. For as long as I trust him. At the moment I take up my own will again, God lets me, and I make myself separate again. But when I surrender my will in faith, God fills me with his presence.
God grants human beings freedom of will, but I’ve come to believe that everything besides the human heart is under God’s control. And that all things that happen are allowed and ordered by God for our good.
This is often denied because the things that happen often seen chaotic, without meaning or purpose. Or so painful and destructive that we cannot imagine that God could allow such a thing, or that it could be for the good of anyone. But our idea of “good” is usually defined primarily by physical pleasure. A long, secure, comfortable life is our goal. But if our true good is union with God, then pleasure, security, and long life are not always in our best interest. Often it is not in times of comfort or security that we turn our hearts towards God but in times of pain and confusion, when we feel vulnerable and threatened. Often we are not willing to seek or accept God’s will until our will has been completely frustrated. And it is often painful or “bad” experiences that bring us to this point. So both pleasurable and painful things can be for our good, serving God’s purpose, if they help us turn our free hearts and open ourselves to God.
I cannot know the hearts of others, or what experiences would be most helpful to them at any moment. Even if I could control the events of their lives, I don’t know how those events would impact them. But God knows our hearts. God knows what the experience will be like for us if certain things happen to us or to those we know and love. And God can control what does happen to us. Through the workings of nature and through preventing or allowing others to act out their intentions, God can offer to us the experiences that are most valuable to us at any moment in our lives. God doesn’t control our response to these experiences. I can reject the opportunity of the moment and turn my heart away from God in a painful experience, and I have often. But I have become convinced that there is meaning and purpose in the things that happen to me, and that even the most painful and confusing situations are allowed by God and meant for my good. Every experience is meant to draw me closer to God.
Perhaps the most striking example of this belief in Jesus’ life was at his arrest. This was a situation that horrified his disciples and threw them into a panic. Peter pulled a sword. But Jesus said to him, “Should I not drink the cup that my Father has given me?” (Jn 18.11) These words did not justify the arrest; it was still a horrible injustice. It is easy to see the evil at work in the hearts of those who brought violence against an innocent man. Yet Jesus sees God's hand controlling what was happening. People were acting with evil intentions, but God was allowing the things that would provide the opportunity for good.
Believing and experiencing this is crucial to understanding Jesus' response to the situations he found himself in and being able to respond in similar ways ourselves.
The reason evil is possible, the reason we can turn our hearts away from God, is that we have free will. I find that I can turn my will any way I choose. I can know what is right and do the opposite; I can have a strong desire and yet refuse to act on it; I can even choose to act in a self-destructive way. My will is free.
Yet my ability to will anything I choose does not mean that I can do anything I choose. I am often restrained from actually carrying out what I intend to do. One thing that often limits my action is physical reality: the laws of nature, my limited physical abilities, the resources available to me. I can intend to push my hand through a brick wall but I am not able to actually do so. Another way I am limited is the actions of other people, either because I need their help or because they intentionally try to stop my action. I can intend to rob a bank, but to actually do it I’ll have to also succeed in convincing some people to work with me and I’ll have to struggle against the many people who will try to prevent me from robbing the bank. So I find that while my will is free, I am not free to do everything. What actually happens is limited in many ways.
As human beings, we are in control what we want to happen, what we intend to happen. But we are not in control of what actually happens. What actually happens is influenced and limited by many things, too many for any one person or any group of people to understand and control. Only God can control what actually happens.
And I believe God does. But this doesn’t restrict the freedom of human beings to will whatever they choose. Our will is free, even when we cannot complete what we intend. Being limited or hindered by other people or by physical reality doesn’t prevent us from willing anything and hoping to find a way to do it, and even if what we will is completely impossible we can still stubbornly choose to will it. We can refuse to accept our limitations. We can rebel in our hearts against the way things are, even if there is no hope of achieving what we desire. We always have that freedom.