In an effort to help our family grieve the loss of our beloved Vickie Lee Jones, a preacher told us that it was God’s will that a white man named Gregory Alan Bush shot her to death in the parking lot of a Kroger grocery store outside of Louisville, Ky. because, as a witnesses implied, she was black.
It was not.
Will, by definition, speaks to an intended outcome. Was God aware of what was going to happen? For those of us who believe in the omniscience of the divine, the answer is, yes. Was that the way God intended her life to end? No. And I realize that even the concept of that is hard to swallow.
I think the preacher who said my cousin’s murder was the will of God was well intentioned. He was trying to deliver hope to a service full of hurting hearts. He was trying to help us wrap our minds around this awful thing that had happened. His aim was to help us hold on to the mystery and sovereignty of God that allows us to accept things we don’t understand. Unfortunately, his approach missed the true message of the gospel that was needed in that moment. It’s in the heart-wrenching moments of grief that we don’t need nebulous messages of God’s “out there-ness.” In those moments, we need to understand that God is near.
I wish the pastor had taken inspiration from Psalm 34:18 which says, "The Lord is close to the brokenhearted.”
What would it mean for more of our churches to teach that having emotions like anger and deep sadness and frustration after a tragedy or loss is OK? That to demand justice is a righteous act?
Our hope should lie in the truth that, despite our pain, God will never abandon us (Hebrews 13:5). Emmanuel, God with us, has come and unlike the myriad of Old Testament demonstrations of war and violence and other horrors, we now have a savior who commands us to love and is intimately “acquainted with our grief” (Isaiah 53:3). The image of God sitting on the kitchen floor with me as I wailed upon finding out what had happened to Vickie, is more comforting and more in alignment with who I recognize Jesus to be in scripture.
It was the knowledge that God is love, the spiritual embodiment of empathy, that began my healing journey. Not the idea that there was some grand purpose or even some greater good that was going to come from some hateful person exercising their free will.
The nature of free will is that we get to choose between a destiny of our own making and the one God has in mind for us. The side effect of free will is that sometimes those choices, especially the former, intersect with the everyday lives of others. If we want to understand why our nation and world looks the way it does, and why there is so much inaction from the church when it comes to so many of these issues, we can start with our belief that somehow these horrific tragedies are God’s will. They’re not. While God certainly has dibs on the supernatural, on the impossible, God has also equipped us to intervene and intercede.
God is just as grieved at the choices of humans as other humans are. God is grieved by the choices that we, or those who represent us, make to value the privilege of some over the lives and needs of others. None of these things are God’s perfect and precious vision for our reconciled lives. None of these things were the destiny of Eden.
The fact is that bad theology wrapped in good and loving intentions is still bad theology. As Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil states in her book, Roadmap to Reconciliation, “Our theology matters! What we believe about God will tell us what we believe about people; and what we believe about people will tell us what kinds of communities and societies we believe we should strive to create.”
My belief that God is ever present in my sorrow sustains me when pain makes me want to rage to an extent beyond what is healthy or useful. It equips me to be a comfort to those in my community wrestling with their own grief—grief that’s been met with false teachings that leave them feeling hopeless and hollow. Grace holds us all together. It is grace that will create a world where maybe, just maybe, violence such as what family experienced will not survive.