Bad things happen. No one really expects otherwise. We know that one of these days, the shit is going to hit the fan, and we're going to be covered in it. I'm not sure if I'm like most people, but I always have some vague sense of impending doom, like at any moment the happiness is going to be shattered and everything I've been working to build is going to come caving in around me. ... And I consider myself an optimist.
Whenever bad things happen - the diagnosis, the dreaded phone call, the foreclosure notice, the offended friend - I've observed that people react to God with classic fight or flight tendencies. Some will take the opportunity of bad things happening to run from God, shaking their head and walking away muttering like Robin Williams in Patch Adams, "you're not worth it." Others will argue with God, debate with God, wrestle with God, trying to make sense of what God is up to or to trying to convince God to do what they want him to do.
Either way, most people end up asking the question, "Where is God?"
The idea is that if God were here, this wouldn't have happened. It's another way of saying, "Why would God allow this to happen?" We try to convince ourselves that the famous Footprints poem is correct, that eventually we'll find out that God was walking with us and even carrying us all along. But still we wonder. Where is God?
I don't know if it was intentional or not, but my church background taught me to think of God as standing in the past. God elected, predestined. He chose and willed. We had the idea that everything is settled, that God ordained it, that one day he sat down and decreed all that should come to pass. With this mentality, when we face hard times, we comfort ourselves with phrases like "God is in control" and "God has a wonderful plan for your life."
But this approach, when taken by itself, can lead to some unfortunate side effects. It's easy to develop a rather fatalistic attitude. We're just robots. Everything is settled, so why bother? Or, when things don't turn out OK, we are left searching for the grander purpose and reason in our tragedies. God must have some reason to give us this trial, we tell ourselves. But what happens when we can't figure that reason out? Do we end up blaming God? We end up blaming God, not just for keeping us in the dark, but for preordaining the bad things to happen.
If God is standing in the past, aren't we moving further away from him with every passing day?
In recent years, it has become popular to think of God as being exclusively with us in the present. Some theologians, in an attempt to answer the question, "Why would God allow bad things to happen?" have suggested that God experiences those bad things right along with us. Since he is bound by time, living in the present. He not only hasn't stood in the past and ordained what would come to pass, he's not exactly sure what will happen in the future.
This approach is supposed to comfort us by letting us know that God is as deeply wounded by, disappointed about, and regretful of the bad things that happen in our lives as we are. He feels our pain. He's sorry we're going through what we're going through. But does it leave us with a God who is merely wringing his hands, ultimately helpless, neutered by the infinite options that leave him unable to make a difference in our lives?
If God has no better vantage point than I do, what's the point?
I've come to think of God as residing in the future. This doesn't replace for me what is valid in the other perspectives, but it augments them with a fresh way of thinking. I now think of God as one who has a dream, a vision, of what the world - his kingdom - is to be like. And I think of him as having a dream, a vision, a goal for me. Maybe we could picture an artist with a masterpiece in mind that is presently being pieced together. I think God is there in the future, drawing me toward himself, inviting me to participate, to move toward him with hope for what could be.
This approach reverberates throughout the biblical story. Jesus told us to "follow him," saying that he is going on ahead of us to prepare a place for us. Also, in Ephesians and other places, Paul repeats a theme of fulfillment and fullness, indicating that God is moving things along toward a final destination in which all things are brought to completion in the kingdom of Jesus.
So when bad things happen, I don't need to hunt for all the hidden answers and purpose, nor do I have to either blame him for ordaining this or defy logic by somehow letting him off the hook. When things go wrong, I don't have to put my arm around God and comfort him because he's so upset too. Rather, when tragedy strikes, I need to keep moving toward God. When I'm asking "Where is God?" I need to keep reminding myself that he's up ahead. I need to remember that he is up to something in my life and in this world. I need to keep journeying, to keep taking steps in his direction by responding and reacting as kingdomly as I can. And I need to keep hope.
Wolfhart Pannenberg said, "God is the power of the future." For me, that's the most comforting thing of all.