Reviews: Two Books on God's Will

April 19th, 2011

Millions of us have been transfixed by the news media coverage coming from Japan following the massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011. We’ve seen images of homes, businesses, and entire communities utterly swept away, reduced to flotsam.  Several thousands of people have been killed or are missing. We’ve seen the pained expressions on the faces of survivors – stunned, uprooted, grieving – suffering both physical pain and emotional anguish. And we’ve felt a tightening in the pit of our stomachs as we have heard daily reports about the damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, spewing radiation into air and water and food supplies.

Faced with such widespread trauma, plaintive, soul-baring cries of “Why?’ escape from our hearts if not from our lips. “Why did God allow this terrible event to happen?” “Was this devastation God’s will, or perhaps even God’s judgment?” “Is God even in the picture at all?”

Believers have been asking such questions for millennia, struggling to find adequate answers. Two recently published books, each written by a seasoned and theologically astute pastor, join the conversation of the ages, exploring the concept of the will of God and its practical implications for the current generation: James C. Howell’s The Will of God: Answering the Hard Questions and J. Ellsworth Kalas’ The Will of God in an Unwilling World. Both books have much to offer.

The authors take pains to make clear that we should not assume that everything that happens is God’s will. We should be extremely wary, they caution, of well-meaning but wrong-headed attempts to comfort those who suffer with glib assurances that some awful loss was God’s will. If fact, convinced by the biblical witness to a God whose only posture toward us is steadfast love, Howell and Kalas insist that God is never the cause of bad things that happen. Rather, God is diametrically opposed to all forms and manifestations of evil. God grieves every act of evil and every occasion of suffering.

Are We to Blame?

So whence does evil come? Much of it can be traced, say Kalas and Howell, to human activity. Because God wants a relationship of love with human beings, God allows us considerable freedom, granting us the ability to make choices for good and for ill. In such a world, Kalas comments, “who needs a devil, when we humans so carelessly go on our way, making disaster possible, sometimes by our support of irresponsible conduct and sometimes by our indifference” (page 27). Human freedom makes sin possible, Howell agrees, and sin – evident in sins of commission and omission – causes unspeakable evil and suffering. Sometimes the consequences are borne by the sinner. But at least as often, the burden of destruction falls upon other human beings or, as we are learning from ecological and environmental studies, the natural world itself. Inarguably, we human beings have a penchant for wreaking havoc. For much that goes wrong in the world, we have ourselves, not God, to blame.

That is as far in the search for the source of evil as Kalas cares to go. His primary concern is how we respond to evil.  Howell pursues the question of the source of evil a bit further, boldly asserting that we actually know for the most part why bad things happen. Such knowledge doesn’t remove the staggering kicked-in-the-gut feeling that accompanies evil. But we can often understand rationally why things go wrong.

Sometimes we encounter, for instance, what theologians and moral philosophers call natural evil, bad consequences that originate independently of human actions. Instead of moral evil caused by human greed, cruelty, selfishness, or injustice, natural evil happens because of the way the world is made. Howell observes that the world God created “has a dangerous edge to it . . . . God made our world full of contingencies.  It’s risky down here” (page 69).  Following the early church father Irenaeus  and contemporary philosopher of religion John Hick (Evil and the God of Love), Howell  accounts for that danger and risk as necessary for the world to be a “vale of soul-making”” – which is God’s real concern.

Informed by the contemporary science-religion dialogue, other Christian thinkers have argued plausibly that natural evil is the inevitable consequence of a world created to support robust life. The earthquake in Japan, for instance, occurred because the tectonic plates slipped. Because that slippage happened under the sea, it generated a tsunami just offshore from a sizeable human population. Is God responsible, or the more pertinent question, is God blameworthy? Should God have arranged for the earth to have a solid crust so that earthquakes couldn’t happen? Scientists tells us that the gaps between tectonic plates make it possible for resources to well up from the deep, replenishing the surface of the earth – without which life could not keep going for long. As physicist-clergyman John Polkinghorne points out, “natural evil is the inescapable shadow side of an evolving fruitful world” that God has created. “The processes of the world are so intertwined that one cannot separate the good from the bad, keeping the one and discarding the other. It is a package deal” (John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale, Questions of Truth: Fifty-one Responses to Questions about God, Science, and Belief [Westminster John Knox, 2009], pages 17, 65).

Sometimes, of course, bad things happen because of the interaction between the complexity of nature and human action. Nature didn’t build a nuclear power plant near a fault line. Surely no one intended to bring about harm by the construction and maintenance of the power plant at Fukushima, or by efforts to control the damage after the fact. But sin wears a variety of guises – political pride, technological arrogance, greed, carelessness, an attitude of domination instead of dominion – any one of which can lead to destructive consequences.

God’s Will for Me

In his book, Howell explicitly deals with two aspects of the will of God. Along with the question “Why do bad things happen?” Howell hears many of his parishioners asking “What is God’s will for me? What does God want me to do?” Like Kalas, Howell finds his primary clues in Scripture, though he says “the Bible simply doesn’t talk [explicitly] about such a thing as ‘God’s plan for my life’” (pages 28-29). Scripture often provides more direction than we are willing to accept. Give to the poor. Care for the weak and vulnerable. Visit the sick and those in prison. Do justice. Love mercy. Forgive others. Work for peace. Much of the will of God is perfectly clear!

But what about our desire for direction in particular circumstances? In those cases, Howell advises, “we have to improvise – but not randomly! We can live out what is unscripted because we know what has been scripted” (page 24). With practice, we learn to discern the patterns of what God is doing and can infer what God wants us to do.

Our chances of discerning the best path to follow are improved, Howell counsels, if we ask not merely “What is God’s will for me?” but “What is God’s will for us?”  and then talk about it in our families and our congregations and among our friends. We guard against our own biases by listening carefully, not just to our Christian friends, but to those who are different from us.

One interesting contrast between these two authors can be seen in their respective views of whether or not “open doors” of opportunity are indicators of God’s leading. Kalas is confident that “. . . if we are seeking to live rightly, by God’s will, we can be confident that doors that open are of God” (page 95). Howell, on the other hand, rejects what he calls the “open door fallacy.” “There are many open doors,” he says, “through which you most certainly should not walk; while sometimes to do God’s will you bang on a closed door repeatedly until you crash through” (page 26).

In any case, what if we do get it wrong? What if we choose poorly? Are we doomed to suffer the consequences forever? No! says Howell, “you need not fear a mistake or two (or a thousand): God’s will isn’t a long railroad track, where if you get derailed you are unsalvageable wreckage” (page 13). No! says Kalas, employing a different metaphor: God’s will for our lives is not an itinerary drawn up by a travel agent such that, if we miss one connection, the entire trip is ruined. God is not discouraged by our mistakes. God adjusts. “If we choose badly . . . this does not defeat God. God not only has a Plan B for our lives . . . there are also Plans C through Z . . . “ (page 98). It’s interesting that both Kalas and Howell quote approvingly one of Thomas Merton’s prayers in which he expressed his trust that the very desire to please God pleases God.

Both Howell and Kalas affirm the importance of prayer in the Christian life. Kalas quotes Karl Barth approvingly that “God does not act in the same way whether we pray or not. Prayer exerts an influence on God’s action” (page 59). Kalas doesn’t comment further on that theological claim, but he does caution that prayer is not a matter of twisting the divine arm. Rather, it’s a matter of cooperating with God’s purposes. Howell underscores the note of caution, lest we suppose “that if we turn up the volume of prayer, or the intensity of prayer, if we pray with some formula . . . or if we pray in massive numbers . . . that God will have no choice but to yield” (page 58). The example of Jesus in Gethsemane is instructive.

Kalas and Howell both read the biblical story of Joseph (Genesis 37—50) as illustrating the principle that God can and does bring good even out of evil circumstances. God doesn’t single out believers for protection from drunken drivers, or from aggressive malignancies, or from violence, or from economic upheavals. But God stays close to us in times of trouble, looking not only to comfort us but to help us move forward. God is always and indefatigably at work in our individual lives and in the larger currents of history, adapting to what has happened, offering a future worth living, finding ways to redeem brokenness.

The crucial part, say our authors, is how we respond, whether we cooperate with what God is doing. Ultimately, it will be God’s will that prevails. But when and how God’s purposes are fulfilled depends to a significant degree upon us.


James C. Howell, The Will of God: Answering the Hard Questions (Westminster John Knox, 2009); ISBN 978-0-664-23290-0.

J. Ellsworth Kalas, The Will of God in an Unwilling World (Westminster John Knox, 2011); ISBN 978-0-664-23398-3.

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