In common with other academics and many thinking Christians, I suffer from the problem that my mind is insufficiently challenged or engaged by attendance of typical church services! I therefore supplement my worship by reading what many regard as as heavy-going theological books. Some of those books contain what traditional evangelicals might think of as somewhat radical thinking. I process these ideas, jettisoning some and embracing others, as I strive to know God better. Most of this happens in the privacy of my own mind, but the day eventually comes when these ideas spill out casually in conversation with others, as if they are quite normal. Ideas like: “I do not believe that it was part of God’s plan for my wife Anne to die from cancer.” Or, “I do not believe that God always gets God’s own way.”
One day, my supportive minister, Mary—out of concern as to how friends and congregants might react—challenged me to take the time to seriously think through whether or not I really believed these ‘new’ ideas. Or was I simply being provocative in order to stimulate lively discussion. “If you really believed these ideas are true,” she continued, “then help us understand God and relate to God more meaningfully.” It was a fair challenge and request, particularly as my desire was—and is—to deepen faith, not to undermine it. So I took time to write down a concise personal statement of belief, or credo. It was intense and emotionally draining exercise to do, especially as this occurred only a matter of months following Anne’s death. Here is what I wrote then; the rest of this book unpacks and develops these ideas.
I do not believe that God is the author of evil.
I do not believe that God caused Anne to have cancer.
I do not believe that it was part of God’s plan for Anne to have cancer; including any “secret plan,” or that somehow Anne’s cancer and death was necessary—and beneficial—for the “greater good”. Incidentally, Anne did not believe that either. Rather, Anne strongly identified with a compassionate God, one who worked, walked, and suffered with us.
A key question is simply: Does God always get what he wants? If the answer to that is “yes” then clearly God is in meticulous control of the cosmos and the fact that Anne got cancer is what God wanted, and the fact that she died is also what God wanted. If the answer to the question is “no”, does this automatically mean that God is weak? I think that is jumping to conclusions. It all depends on the nature of God’s activity in the world; what he can and cannot do, not merely what he wants and does not want to do.
We end up thinking that if God is a micro-manager, then the reason why Anne died young is located firmly in the mind of God. He is responsible. He was capable of healing her, but did not want to. We don’t know why he is doing what he is doing, but we simply have to the trust that he knows what he is doing! This “mystery” is often articulated as being part of God’s unfathomable wisdom. Some people are happy to accept that “God is in control,” and so find comfort. But when it comes to the close personal experience, like the death of a young wife from cancer, a brutal murder of a child, a rape, and moving on to bigger scale things—like war, famine, genocide, and natural disasters—then it is increasingly hard to maintain this acquiescence and simply close your eyes and trust God. If God is in absolute control, then since God’s activity is a manifestation of his character, my response would not be to worship him, but to be afraid of him. Others will, understandably, get angry with such a God in the face of their suffering.
If, on the other hand, if we see the character of God as imaged in Jesus Christ—as portrayed in the gospels—then God does not always get what he wants and we need to identify reasons, or at least establish a mental framework, however tentative and loosely bound, as to why he doesn’t always get what he wants. For instance, that framework would include the shear complexity of the created order (to which God has endowed a strong degree of independence), and human free will. Certainly, much evil abounds because of our “sins of commission and omission”—both what we do and what we fail to do. So here we have two categories (human free will and the complexity of intermingling physical processes) that are ‘other’ than God and in which we could locate the ‘mystery’ of suffering. This scenario, together with Biblical evidence, can lead us to a different image of God’s activity, one where God is continuing to establish his kingdom and he invites us to become his partners. In this image, God is totally good and not the author of evil, but it also implies that once God has given the necessary freedom required to create the kind of world in which love and faith are genuinely possible, then God cannot revoke that decision without ruining the whole creation project. What we see now is that the world has somehow gone ‘wrong’, but God nevertheless did not abandon the project, although the thought crossed his mind (Gen 6:5-7). Rather, God rolled up his sleeves, so to speak, and got involved in rescuing his creation. God does all that he can, within the constraints that he sovereignly setup at the beginning, to achieve his initial goals and the end he desires.
Consequently, I believe that God does not always get his own way. I believe the present state of the world is not how God intended or wants it to be.
I believe God is love, good, all wise, omni-competent, and resourceful without limit.
I believe God knows all that is knowable.
I believe God desires a genuine give-and-take relationship with us, he responds, he has compassion; that he is vulnerable because love entails vulnerability.
I believe the creation project that God is embarked upon is not risk-free for God, because he sovereignly chose it to be that way. Yet God is not reckless, but is prepared to take risks for the sake of love.
I believe God is not unchanging (immutable) or unfeeling (impassive). This is evident throughout scripture and is most graphically demonstrated in the incarnation. If ‘the Word became flesh’ (John 1:14) then God is not immutable. If ‘God so loved the world that he sent his son’ (John 3:16), he is not impassive but is relational.
I believe that God, before the cosmos began, was literally omnipotent—as traditionally understood and proclaimed. But He did not want to use that power to coerce responsible beings—with genuine free will—to love him. Thus in sovereignly and freely choosing to create this kind of world, he willingly let go of certain aspects of his power. This self-limitation means that, if God is to remain consistent to his character and true to his purposes, there are certain things he cannot do, even if he wants to. This does not make God weak, but his consistency to his character and purposes makes him trustworthy. God still has enormous power, but prefers to work by persuasion—and through us—rather than by brute force.
I believe that God did all that was possible for him to do for Anne. I believe that our prayers, including our attitude to ask of God, rather than demand from him, helped God to achieve all that he could do in an open world and in our given situation. Prayer was not a waste of time. God responded. Naturally, we initially asked for complete healing. However, once the cancer had spread, it became clear that any healing would either be even more dramatic, or it was somehow not possible for Anne. That last clause is problematic for some because they assume an almighty God of absolute control. However, the way I see it is that it was “not possible” not because that was what God wanted for Anne, but because of the kind of creation he made. In other words, this situation was not deliberately planned by God, or a manifestation of God’s character. Rather, it is encapsulated in the complex framework that addresses why God does not always get what God wants. I am not overly concerned with precisely locating the root cause of Anne’s specific cancer, i.e., pursuing the question “Why?” I do not believe Anne’s untimely death was due to lack of faith or prayer; it could have been simply due to the vast complexity of Anne’s specific cancer and her specific body make-up.
I believe that God answered our prayers for peace and protection. We also prayed continually that God would multiply the effectiveness of the chemo- and radio-therapies Anne was receiving, and for God to microscopically target those treatments to the cancerous cells. We prayed for the maximum benefits with the minimum of side-effects. I believe God answered those prayers and this allowed Anne to live at least one more year with a very good quality of life. I believe that God actualized that possibility.
Once complete healing was evidently not going to happen, I began praying that her dying would be full of mercy and grace. I believed that this was still a real possible outcome and, looking back, I believe that God actualized that possibility. Anne had no seizures and the aroma of God’s love was evident in the hospital room in her last days.
I believe that God was continually by our sides, walking with us. We were not abandoned by him. His Spirit was with us, and still continues to be a daily reality. Our family, friends and church were also with us. No one (I hope!) interpreted Anne’s cancer as a sign of God’s judgment or displeasure, and hence shunned us.
I believe that God is not the author of evil; rather God actively works to bring good out of evil.
 These ideas are not particularly novel, but they are rarely articulated within most churches.
 You might ask: “Would any Christian say God caused Anne to die from cancer?” Strong Calvinists, for example, with their strict view of deterministic predestination, seem to have backed themselves into an uncomfortable corner on this issue. To avoid the troublesome word “caused,” Olsen rephrases the Calvinist’s position and says “God rendered certain that Anne would die from cancer.” It is an argument over semantics; it is means the same thing! See Roger E. Olson Against Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 70-101.
 This also raises the issue: “What, then, is the point of praying?” and can lead us to what can be thought of as Christian fatalism. This means, in effect, “what will be, will be,” not because of some impersonal “fate” but because whatever God “wills” will inexorably happen.
 Some authors, like Gregory Boyd, would add a third possibility, namely the free will of other created agents, such as angels and demons. This dualistic worldview is not uncommon in those Christian traditions that emphasize spiritual warfare with the principalities and powers. Such a perspective is also closely linked with Gustaf Aulen’s Christus Victor atonement metaphor/model. I am not eager to invoke spiritual warfare with physical consequences, but no one cannot rule out this possibility.