How Christmas addresses the Newtown murders

The discussion about the Newtown shootings on December 14 has raised important questions about God. Where was he? Why didn't he prevent the shootings? As my cousin put it, 
After the shooting in CT today, I feel I have fallen further away as a Christian. I can't wrap my mind around a father who doesn't protect the innocent. I hate feeling this way, but nothing lately makes sense. Anyway, just hoping for a little guidance.
I addressed the issue in church on December 16, and I'll include the gist of my thoughts below. Here's the position I have heard some Christians take. I find it unhelpful and wouldn't consider it real guidance.
In his sovereignty, God controls everything that happens in our world, and only he can understand why he ordained the Newtown shootings to take place.
There are atheists who have commented that if this is the Christian answer to Newtown, then they have even more reason not to be Christians. I believe God rules over all things, but "God's sovereignty is a mystery" isn't a helpful answer at a time like this.

I want to make two points, and I hope they are both biblical and helpful. First is a theme so consistent in Scripture that I would count it as a spiritual law: When God wants something done in the world, he (almost invariably) does it through human beings. This theme runs throughout the Bible. God creates the world and wants it governed, so he gives the responsibility to Adam and Eve and their descendants. Humanity becomes disconnected from God, and God chooses a nation to be a light to the world. Later on, the nation of Israel needs liberation from Egypt, so God calls Moses to lead them. The nation fails to be faithful to God, so God calls prophets to be his mouthpieces to provide a course correction. Ultimately humanity needs an answer to sin and self-destruction. How will God solve the problem? He becomes one of us. Salvation comes from outside the human race, because we proved incapable of doing it on our own. But God will only work humanity's salvation from within humanity, so he chooses to become one of us. That is the story of Jesus.

God works through human beings in the context of the free will he has chosen to give us. God teaches through Scripture about the kinds of things he wants done (love, compassion, mercy, justice, reconciliation, and so on). He also provides his Spirit to guide and strengthen us. As the Book of Common Prayer puts it, God wants people to "delight in his will and walk in his ways, to the glory of his name." We do this when we say and act out a "yes" to God.

God knows we will carry out his will imperfectly. He knows some of us will even decide to do the opposite of what he wants done. There is something within us that wants to choose our will over God's will, even if it harms us or others.

If you have an active relationship with God, you probably know some area of life where God wants to do something in or through you. You know your level of cooperation, and you are aware of how diligent you must be if you want to be a co-laborer with God. You might know of some area of life where you have said no to him, even when it harms you and others.

God doesn't control us. He never wanted us to be his puppets. Governing the world while also giving us free will requires incredible talent and patience on God's part. For God to create automatons and get things done would require very little divine talent. If we had the power, any of us could do that. Frankly, I find the God of total control not to be great enough.

The Newtown murders are a horrific example of someone doing the opposite of what God wants.  Each of the killings is a deep and true tragedy. But the reason God didn't control Adam Lanza and prevent him from murdering people is that mind control isn't God's way. When we cry out for a more just and caring world, God says, "Yes! Let me show you how to do this and help you get it done." Why? Because when God wants to do something in the world, he does it through humans -- free humans. That puts a lot of responsibility on us to cooperate with God and do justice in the world. When things go badly wrong, we grieve, pray, and roll up our sleeves to renew our cooperation with God. Further, we pray that people the world over will cooperate with God, whether they know him or not.

That's my first point. My second point is that God often works quietly, and to us it can look like he isn't here at all. The story of Jesus' birth is a prime example of this. During the Christmas season, I read a little book by John Blase entitled Touching Wonder. Blase writes short chapters, each of which tells an aspect of the Christmas story from the point of view of one of the characters. One of the chapters is written from the Father's point of view:
Humans have been shouting their question for millenia: Why in God's name won't you show up? They say it when the moment seems to demand a force to do good: If you are God, then do something. But to show up in those moments would be to come in your name, not Mine. My ways are not your ways.
It was no different on the night [of the first Christmas]. The weary world pleaded for power. I chose weakness. (p. 73)
As soon as I read these paragraphs, I thought of Newtown and my cousin's question. When a tragedy strikes us, we immediately want God to do something. But to us, "do something" usually means "control the situation." Getting fixated on why God didn't control things can cause us to miss what God is actually doing. As someone said, when disasters happen, look for the helpers. Those people are co-laboring with God. The good and great God has the incredible talent to bring good out of every act of evil.

God shows up in his own way, and most often quietly. You can't get more quiet than a baby in a manger. In Jesus' day, it would have been easy to feel that God wasn't there at all. But he showed up, quiet and meek... not to control the situation but to open up the way for people to co-labor with God to build a better world.


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