As a part of my New Years Resolution, I’m reading The Bible this year. And, each Sunday, I’m reflecting on what I’ve read, which often coincides — funny how The Bible works like that — with something happening in my life. This isn’t meant to proselytize or to thump The Bible. Writing just helps me understand what I’ve read, so that’s what I’m doing.
It was on Christmas Eve when I saw a book with a peculiar title, asking a question with infinite theories and no definitive answers: How Can a Good God Let Bad Things Happen?
I can’t pretend to know the answer to that question. I’d look sideways at anybody who believes they do have a definitive answer, for it involves God, which involves faith, which, by definition, asks for a leap, however big, between knowledge and belief. But I do have a small theory, begat both from frequent conversations with The Lovely Delaney and her family, my friends, and my most recent reading in 1 Samuel.
Most are more familiar with the third protagonist in the Book of Samuel, about a handsome runt named David who takes his slingshot and snipes a 9-foot-tall Philistine named Goliath, the Original Mountain. Prior to flipping through the Old Testament, I hadn’t heard much of Saul, the king that preceded David.
Perhaps this is because Saul wasn’t supposed to be a king at all.
“But when they said, ‘Give us a king to lead us,’ this displeased Samuel,” reads 1 Samuel, 8:6, Samuel being the leader of the Israelites at the time. “So [Samuel] prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: ‘Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do.”
So God tells Samuel to issue a not-so-pleasant warning, detailing the consequences of what will happen if they do, indeed, elect a king, including: “He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants… He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you, yourselves, will become his slaves.”
In spite of that – and that only includes a few of the consequences of which God warns – the Israelites still ask for a king, for “Then we will be like all the other nations,” they say, “with a king to lead us and go out before us and fight our battles.”
God knows better. Of course He does. He’s God. He could easily change their minds, sway them to choose otherwise, but He doesn’t. Instead, He lets it happen.
“Listen to them,” he tells Samuel, “and give them their king.”
It is my tenuous and still malleable belief – one that I came to with the help of reading The Bible and talking of these matters with The Lovely Delaney and my good friends Joel Blocksom, Graeme Cowgill and Jordan Cheng about their beliefs as well – that our time on Earth is a test. We were blessed with two decidedly human attributes: A sense of morality, of what is right and what is wrong; and the agency to choose to act one way or the other. When we act towards what we know is right, God does a little fist pump. When we consciously choose to act in a way we know, in our gut, is wrong, God sighs and says “Ok, go learn from your mistakes.”
“Go elect your king.”
And it’s our job to learn, to make a change for the better – or, in other words, to repent – and to continue making those small changes over a day, a week, a month, a year, a lifetime. When we do that, when we maximize who we are and grow closer to God by doing so, we pass our Earthly test, so to speak.
The people of Israel knew it was wrong to request a king. God told them so. But they did it anyway, and God let it happen. If you don’t want to read 1 Samuel – it’s actually a great read, and I’d recommend it – I’ll fast forward you seven chapters later, after everything goes awry for Saul, who really does try to be a good king for the first half of the book: “And the Lord was grieved that [Samuel] had made Saul king over Israel.”
God, it seems, is genuinely sad when we make the wrong choices. But it’s in those wrongs that growth and development, the truly monumental events in our lives, can happen. I don’t find it coincidental that just a few chapters later comes arguably the most well-known story in the Old Testament, of David and Goliath.
It is out of our worst moments that our best performances are frequently derived. So perhaps it’s not that God is allowing bad things to happen; maybe He’s making room to us to reach our highest potential, both as individuals and a society.
Do I think, for example, that God told the Tsarnaev brothers to set off the Boston Bombing? No. I’m sure He probably tried to nudge them out of it, but to meddle entirely with human nature, to divinely intervene every time something awful is about to happen, is, in my not-so-qualified opinion, to miss the point of allowing us to be human at all. So they set off the bombs, and legitimate tragedy occurred.
Yet it was through those cracks that the best of the human spirit was able to shine, similar to how we reacted in the wake of 9/11.
“Today, our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature,” President George W. Bush said after the Twin Towers fell, “and we responded with the best of America, with the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for strangers and neighbors who came to give blood and help in any way they could.”
You can scale this any way you’d like. In sports, our coaches will tell us that we learn more from losses than wins, and it’s true. Business executives look at a rough financial year not as a total disruption, but as an opportunity to see where they can improve, or “pivot,” as is the vogue term of 2019.
Faith, to me, isn’t any different. When we ignore that gut instinct and choose the wrong side of the agency of choice we were blessed with, sure, God might do a facepalm, an exasperated “Why must you insist on stealing Coke when you only asked for a cup of water again??”
But then we can look at those consequences, however big or small, make a change for the better, feel the delight that comes from making that change, then do it again. That’s called being human. Being flawed. God, beginning with Adam and his little snack in the Garden of Eden, made us flawed for a reason. And though He may grieve when we ignore His advice, as He did in 1 Samuel 17, He knows that it’s why we’re here.
There’s a story in The Guardian by Jessica Lahey titled Why we should let our children fail in which she writes: “We’ve ended up teaching our kids to fear failure – and, in doing so, we have blocked the surest path to their success. Out of love and a desire to protect our children’s self-esteem, we have bulldozed every uncomfortable bump and obstacle out of their way, depriving our children of the most important lesson of childhood: that setbacks, mistakes and failures are the very experiences that will teach them how to be resourceful, persistent, innovative and resilient.”
If we are all, indeed, God’s children, as The Bible tells us, He is no different than any other parent. He can’t bulldoze every uncomfortable bump and obstacle out of the way, for it would deprive us of our ability to reach our full potential as individuals.
So He’s going to allow us to make mistakes, to elect kings, so to speak.
He’s going to give us room to learn and grow on our own. As humans do.