God Can’t: How to Believe in God and Love After Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils by Thomas Jay Oord [Book Review]
There’s nothing like the words “God Can’t” to stir apoplectic fits among many Christians. The idea of God as omnipotent and sovereign is possibly the most firmly held belief about God in the enlightenment constructed West. God’s absolute power gives a sense of safety and comfort in an unpredictable and dangerous world. After all, when people fly airplanes into buildings or shoot up schools we want a God who is not only on our side but who is also a kind of Terminator. Then of course, we speak of God’s love, which is also a comfort. But if we’re honest, in difficult and scary times love often takes a back seat to sovereignty and power.
So there is the set up—if God is so powerful, how can so much evil happen? If God allows evil that he could have stopped, how can such a God be loving? And author Tom Oord raises the stakes even higher: “If God can control evildoers, we should blame God for allowing the atrocities they commit. The God who fails to prevent preventable genuine evil is morally reprehensible. The God capable of control is at least partly to blame for the evils we’ve endured, because He could have stopped them singlehandedly. The God who allows evil is guilty.”[i]
Theodicies such as these have created a great many atheists. Our responses and platitudes often do little to assuage these painful questions.
Rather than argue these thoughts anew, Oord subverts our presumptions of what God’s power is and therefore, what God can and should do. God is love, he asserts, and love is inherently non-controlling. As Paul writes, “Love does not overrule or override; love does not force itself on others” (1 Cor. 13:5). This does not mean that God is weak or limited, but that the constraints on God do not come from without; they come from within. It is God’s nature of love that directs what God does. Oord adds, “Because God’s love self gives and others-empowers, and because God loves all creatures from the most complex to the least, God cannot control. God loves everyone and everything, so God cannot control anyone or anything. This means a God of uncontrolling love cannot control evildoers to prevent their dastardly deeds.”[ii]This is what Oord call “essential kenosis,” which is explored more theologically in his 2015 book, The Uncontrolling Love of God.
God Can’t is not a theological treatise, but a pastoral balm. Oord does not offer platitudes, demand that we swallow dissonant beliefs, or fall back into “mystery.” Rather, he draws us toward the God of uncontrolling love who is present with us in our suffering, not as a disinterested bystander but as one who suffers with and alongside us. The author enters gently into real stories of human suffering, and the experience of knowing God’s loving presence within it. I wish he had spent even more time on this, because it is deeply comforting for both my psychotherapy and spiritual direction clients who have felt abandoned or even judged by God because of the trauma in their lives.
Ultimately, Oord says, God does indeed act upon evil, but God in God’s kenotic nature cannot do this alone. God invites us—we who are God’s physical Body— into this battle with evil. We, with physical bodies, are also agents of love and can act with God for the sake of love in the world. Isn’t this what Christianity is really meant to be about? We are being formed into one Body—and it takes a lot of love to truly become one— and this Body is able to act in love and on behalf of those who are hurting and harmed. We can act to thwart evil. More importantly, we can learn to follow in the same way that God does this, by learning what it means to pour ourselves out in love rather than by grasping power that overrides and overrules and likewise does harm. In this way, Oord says, the lives of each one of us can make a healing difference in this world. Should not the normal Christian life be in imitation of Christ, that is, the outpouring of sacrificial love?
The church has much to gain from learning that essential kenosis is God’s power and omnipotence. Our limited sight knows from experience that might makes right, and the country with the biggest bombs or the person with the loudest voice or most money wins the day. And because we believe this, we also participate in doing grave harm to others. But God’s ways are not our ways. God’s way is uncontrolling love, and we are invited to participate in God’s loving re-creation of this world that God loves.
Oord sums it up beautifully: “In some moments, the loving best to which God calls us may be profound. Other times the best we can muster is small: simply choosing to live another moment as best we are able. God seeks our love, not unattainable perfection. And our positive responses lead to flourishing. When we cooperate with the possibilities of love—no matter how big or small—we partner with the God of the entire universe. Everyone—in fact, every creature— makes a difference to God.”[iii]
This book is definitely worthy of your time.
[i]Thomas Jay Oord, God Can’t: How to Believe in God and Love After Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils, 21-22.
[ii]Oord, God Can’t, 28.
[iii]Oord, God Can’t, 176.
Oord, Thomas Jay. God Can’t: How to Believe in God and Love After Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils. Grasmere, ID: SacraSage Press, 2019. 202 pages
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