In his new book, economist Robert Frank describes a frightening experience he had a few years ago. While playing tennis with a colleague, Frank collapsed due to what doctors typically refer to as “sudden cardiac death.” But Frank didn’t die, primarily because an extra ambulance just happened to be a few hundred yards away. In reflecting on this incident, Frank says:
If an extra ambulance hadn’t happened to be nearby, I would not have survived. Some friends have suggested that I was the beneficiary of divine intervention, and I have no quarrel with those who see things that way. But that’s never been a comfortable view for me. I believe I’m alive today because of pure dumb luck.
Some believers might think Frank is being ungrateful, but his perspective makes sense to me. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a part of me that would like to think that God intervened to save him. It’s comforting to think that God will protect us from terrible things. But as soon as I allow myself to go down that path of thinking, numerous examples come to mind where God hasn’t intervened to prevent terrible things from happening. If God intervened to save a middle-aged economics professor, why didn’t God save this nine-year-old girl when a strong gust of wind sent the trampoline she was sitting on flying more than 150 feet? Why didn’t God save this five-year-old boy when a tree fell on him while he was on a walk with his mother? Why didn’t God save this woman when a large limb snapped off a tree and fell on her head while she was jogging? Why didn’t God save this man when a thirteen-hundred-pound bale of hay rolled down a steep hillside and landed on top of his van, crushing him to death?
I could ask these kinds of questions all day, which is why it’s just easier for me to attribute all of these experiences — including ones like Frank’s — to pure dumb luck. I don’t believe that God decides who will be saved from sudden cardiac death and who will be struck dead by a falling tree branch. Life is unfair and often random, and I believe that luck, both good and bad, plays a greater role in our lives than we care to admit.
That doesn’t make me an atheist, though (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). Even though I don’t believe that God is in control of everything that happens to us, I do believe — or at least I want to believe — that God gives us strength and determination to cope with life’s inevitable problems, even the seemingly unbearable ones. Rabbi Harold Kushner’s perspective resonates with me:
God does not send the problem; genetics, chance, and bad luck do that. And God cannot [or at least usually does not, whichever you prefer] make the problem go away, no matter how many prayers and good deeds we offer. What God does is promise us, I will be with you; you will feel burdened but you will never feel abandoned. … God is to be found not in the crisis but in our response to the crisis.
I came across an example of this the other night when I read about Jenny Bess, a 36-year old mother of five young children, who was recently diagnosed with stage four colon cancer.
What a tragic story — and what horrible luck! Colon cancer is rare in someone so young. It’s also curable when discovered early, but Jenny had no symptoms. By the time she was diagnosed, the cancer had spread to her lungs and liver. Her prognosis is grim.
I don’t believe for one second that God caused Jenny’s cancer, and it seems unlikely that God will cure it (although I certainly hope I’m wrong about that). Still, I do see God’s hand in Jenny’s response to this tragedy. I would expect someone in Jenny’s situation to be filled with anger and despair. But instead, Jenny says she has faith in a greater plan and wants others who are suffering to know they’re not alone. “Don’t give up hope,” she says. “Believe there is a God and a purpose and that we have a Savior who suffered so we wouldn’t have to alone.”
To be completely honest, there is a part of me that questions whether Jenny is just deluding herself, embracing comforting but baseless ideas in a desperate attempt to cope with unspeakable tragedy.
Perhaps. But when I find myself thinking such things, I try to remember that all of us — believers and non-believers alike — are in the same boat when it comes to accessing ultimate reality. At some point everyone must trust in something or someone beyond logic and evidence. One option is to declare that there is nothing beyond what we see. Another option is to be like Jenny and humbly yet hopefully profess faith in “a God and a purpose and … a Savior who suffered so we wouldn’t have to alone.” I understand why many choose the former option, and I don’t blame them at all. But I aspire to be like Jenny.