God’s Limitations

But, “Why?” isn’t going to go away completely, is it?  We are, again, irrevocably human and are going to keep asking this question whether it is the most pertinent or not.

And in my experience, one of the reasons we do this is because we believe God can stop or change anything He wants to.  We believe God can do this because we believe God can do anything, that there is nothing God can’t do.  Since there is nothing God can’t do, so God can (we thing) stop or change anything He wants to stop or change.  He can prevent all the bad things that happen to us and thus at least indirectly if not directly responsible for everything that happens to us.

I believe this is how we think.  I know it is how I think and I imagine that it might be how you think, so I believe this is how at least some of us think and thus the reason many of us continue to ask the question, “Why?”

And what we don’t realize is that this is completely wrong.

The fact of the matter is that God cannot do anything.  The fact of the matter is that there are things God can’t do.  Masie Sparks identified this fact in a little book called 101 Things God Can’t Do.  I read this book when I was fresh out of Bible college.  I found out this week it is has been updated to 151 Things God Can’t Do.

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And strange though it sounds, the premise of this book is true.  There are things the almighty, omnipotent God can’t do.

There are things He can’t do if He is to achieve His goal, that is.  There are things He can’t do if He is going to bring His art to its grand conclusion.  I think of God as an artist; I style myself as an artist (an author; I write or at least try to write novels and stories) and I accordingly think of God as an artist as well.  I think of Him operating as an artist.  I think of the universe He made an not only His art project but His unfinished art project, His work in progress.

And one thing I know about art is that it has limitations.  Art is about choices, and once certain choices are made, they by default eliminate other choices.  Say an artist decides he’s going to make a sculpture, going to sculpt a figure from clay or stone.  That’s great.  Notice what he has immediately done, though.  He has immediately eliminated the possibility of his art being in color. He has also eliminated the possibility of his art moving.  He has opened the possibility of his art having three-dimensions and being touchable, but he has eliminated the other things.

Say he decides to paint.  Now he gets color, but he loses three dimensions.

Say he decides to make a movie.  Now he gets color and motion and sound, but again loses three dimensions as well as touch.

Say he decides to write.  Now he loses touch and sound and color and image altogether, but gains the ability to directly communicate thought.

And on and on it goes.  Once an artist makes one decision, he limits himself from the ability to make other decisions.  And you find that not just in art but in other fields as well.  You find the same phenomena in engineering, by the way; once you decide to make a diesel truck you lose the ability to run it in the Indy 500.

We find these same limitations in God’s artwork, God’s engineering, God’s creation.  Once He chose to make us a certain way, He was naturally limited from doing certain things.  He can’t make a square circle (to use a childish example) because in the medium He chose things have definite shapes.  Maybe He could do that in a different medium, but He can’t do that in this medium.  He also can’t “break the fourth wall”.  If He does that, the work is ruined.  Nobody likes to see the artists in his work.  We wouldn’t like it if Van Gogh painted his thumbs into one of his paintings.  We hate it when we see a boom mike in a movie shot.

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It is the same with God.  There are things He can but can’t do, things He has the ability to do but is kept from doing by the nature of His art.  He talks about this Himself in one of Jesus’ well-known parables:

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“I can’t destroy the tares,” God says here.  “I could, but I’d destroy the wheat in the process.  So I could but I can’t.”

For some of us, this is a disappointment.  For others, it is an argument against God’s existence or goodness:

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Come on, guys.  There are way to many variables here.

The reality, though, is that this is just the nature of art (or engineering or any other creative feat).  And the best thing for us to do is to understand and accept that.  The best thing for us to do is submit to the artist in the knowledge and faith that He is making something wonderful.

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How vs Why

It seems I’ve been hearing the question, “Why?” a lot lately.  Bad things have been happening to people, and they have been asking me why those bad things have been happening to them.

And I understand that question.  I understand the tendency to ask that question.  I have asked it myself.  I still ask it myself.  Often.

Lately, though, I’ve come to understand something about this question, something that makes me in turn question it.  That something is somewhat summed up in the words of The Architect from The Matrix Reloaded:

Like Neo, we are irrevocably human, and thus irrelevant questions are going to be (or at least seem) pertinent to us, more pertinent than they actually are.  The irrelevancy of these questions is going to be far less obvious than it actually is.

And in many ways, the question, “Why?” is irrelevant.  A simple analogy will reveal this.  Say you have a knife wound in your shoulder; you have literally been stabbed in the back.  You might wonder why that happened.  Was it an accident?  Was it intentional?  Did a friend mistake you for someone else and strike you in error?  Or did a friend purposefully turn on you and try to take you down?  Pertinent questions, to be sure.  But not as pressing as the fact that you now have a knife sticking out of your back that needs to be removed, that you now have blood flow that needs to be stopped and a puncture that needs to be stitched.  The “how” in that situation (the removal of the knife, the stopping of the blood, the stitching of the puncture, the saving of your life and healing of your body) is obviously far more pertinent than the why.  Less emotionally pressing, maybe, but far more pertinent.

I believe it is the same in the life of faith.  How, that is, how we react to bad things, how we survive them, how we heal from them, how we overcome them, is far more pertinent to the life of faith than why they happened.  Perhaps no book of the Bible reveals this more than Job.  The first two chapters of Job give us a behind-the-scenes look at what was happening to that man; we know why bad things happened to Job perhaps better than we know why bad things happened to anybody else.  Yet when God finally appears to speak with Job about the matter, He does not give that why to Job.  He does not tell Job why these bad things happened to him, even though He and we know that why very well.  Instead, He just gives Job a lecture on how great He is, a lecture which is probably intended to teach Job to trust in Him.  Job (who as far as we know never discovered the why of the bad thing that happened to him) indeed learned the lesson of trust from that lecture, responding to it in this way:

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I wasn’t as accepting of that lesson at my first couple readings of Job.  I felt rather cheated by than answer in fact.  I thought it was a “no-answer”.  I wanted a better answer than that.  What I’ve realized in the decades since those first couple readings is that this answer is the best answer.  It is the only answer we’re likely to understand.  It is also the only answer we’re likely to accept.

Understanding is one thing.  I know we all think we’re very smart, but the fact of the matter is that we aren’t.  We aren’t able to order the universe as God has, to maintain all the parts that have to work together for life to continue.  We don’t even know what all the parts are.  Even if we did, we wouldn’t be able to conceive of them all in a working way.  And even if we did that, we wouldn’t appreciate them all.  We see a quick example of this every time we watch a science fiction/space-faring movie.  If I understand the universe correctly, most of space is full of radiation that will kill humans quite quickly.  I’ve never seen a space-faring show cover this aspect of space-faring, though, never seen one explain how the characters are faring through and sometimes living in lethal space.  I’ve rarely seen one explain how they have earth-like gravity on their spaceships, either.  The creators of these movies and shows routine miss facts like that.  They are apparently oblivious to them, or, if they aren’t oblivious to them, they can’t figure out who to tell an engaging story around them.  If we can’t do that, which is comparatively simple, how are we going to understand the far more complex matter of why bad things happen?  Even if God told us directly, we wouldn’t get.

We also wouldn’t accept it.  Understanding is one thing.  Acceptance is quite another.  And I don’t think we would accept most whys.  I don’t think we would accept most explanations of why bad things happened, even if they came from God Himself.  Imagine if God had told Job, “Hey Job, you’re about to go through several traumatic events in order to prove that people will love me even when they aren’t blessed.  In the process, you’ll become an icon of faithfulness that will inspire millennia after millennia.”  When you put it like that (which is an accurate way to put it), you can clearly seen that goodness came out of Job’s tremendous suffering.  Great and tremendous goodness, in fact.  Would Job have seen it that way, though?  I wonder.  He might have, but he might also have said, “God, are you sure there isn’t another way?”  I know one guy who said such a thing: singer Chris Isaak.  I saw Chris Isaak on The Today Show (I think) around 2001 (again, I think).  During his time there, Katie Couric (yet again, I think) mentioned that he had suffered during his lifetime.  He said he had indeed suffered.  She then said something to the affect of, “But it made you such a great songwriter.”  To this, Isaak replied, “Yeah, but sometimes I wish I was a mediocre artist and had a swinging life.”  I can’t document that exchange (I have been trying for years, but it was the pre-YouTube era and if it exists out there I can’t find it).  Nonetheless, I heard him say it.  I understand the choice he thinks about there, and I imagine most of us would think about that choice or even make that choice ourselves.  If God said to us, “This suffering will produces this good”, we would most likely answer, “Can’t we suffer less and have less good?”

That being the case, we just aren’t able to handle the answers to the question of why, and God, knowing that, doesn’t try to give that answer to us all that often.  And now that I’ve been dealing with that question via the lives of various people for a couple weeks, I’ve come to the conclusion that we would be better off if we just didn’t ask.  I have come to the conclusion that we would be better off trusting God no matter what we experience.  I have come to the conclusion that we will do far better if we focus on the pragmatic question of how or even what (i.e., “How does God want me to respond to this?  What does God want me to do here?”) rather than the philosophical question of why.  I have come to the conclusion that the best response to this situations is that we find from Habakkuk who, when struggling with the question of why himself, eventually came to this answer:

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