May 7, 2009

Love Is Not Blind - Part I: Divine Intervention

This is the first post in a series I wished to do based on a talk called Love Is Not Blind, given by Bruce C. Hafen at BYU in 1979.

The talk is long, but it's full of great discussion material and so that is why I have decided to "dissect" it here in a series of posts.

First of all, I should tell you all how I even came across this talk.

Recently we had a very special missionary serving in my branch. He wasn't just special because he was the first non-American serving in my branch, at least since I've been here -- he is German -- but because he was an excellent missionary. To me, that does not necessarily mean one that has had any great success in conversion statistics, but rather one who seems to sincerely care about the people around him and seems to be genuinely interested in service and friendship -- not simply baptisms. Many missionaries focus so much on leading people to the waters of baptism or "saving" everyone around them, that they forget to be a friend and thereby miss the opportunity to plant "seeds" -- ones that may never sprout in this lifetime, but may in the next. So, if missionary success is to be measured by seeds of friendship rather than baptisms, I would say that Elder W was about as successful as a missionary can hope to be.

Since Germany is special to my husband and me (it's where we met, and German was our main language of communication for several years), we quickly made a connection with Elder W. He had a good sense of humour, was a good sport with all our German jokes, and always honoured my request to not pressure my husband into further investigation of the Church, but rather just be our friend.

Before Elder W's mission ended, he said that he wanted to give me a talk on mp3 to listen to. So I transferred it onto my mp3 player and listened to it for the first time while flying home to Canada for a visit. I wasn't really sure what the talk was about, but expected it to be just another General Conference talk. It soon became evident that this was not the type of talk that we hear in in conference.

This talk is remarkable for several reasons and it was one that I needed to hear. As I listened to it, I had many thoughts and hope that I can capture just a few of them in this series of posts. I'm sure I'm not the only one who can benefit from it and therefore I wish to share it with all of my readers and hear their thoughts.

The first themes Elder Hafen touches on are prayer, God's involvement in ours lives, and the challenges to spirituality that come with intellectual maturity, as we read in the following excerpt:

"One Sunday morning, the Elders Quorum in our ward held a special testimony meeting characterized by spiritual warmth and personal openness. During that meeting, a fellow law student related a boyhood experience that had occurred just after he had been ordained a deacon. He lived on a farm and had been promised that a calf about to be born would be his very own to raise. One summer morning when his parents were away, he was working in the barn when the expectant cow began to calve prematurely. He watched in great amazement as the little calf was born; and then, without warning, the mother suddenly rolled over the little calf. He could see that she was trying to kill it. In his heart he cried out to the Lord for help. Not thinking about how much more the cow weighed than he did, he pushed on her with all his strength and somehow moved her away. He picked up the lifeless body of the calf in his arms and, brokenhearted, the tears running down his cheeks, he looked at it, wondering what had happened and what he could do. Then he remembered, he told us, that he now held the Priesthood and had every right to pray for additional help. And so he prayed from the depths of his boyish, believing heart. Before long the little animal began breathing again, and he knew that his prayer had been heard.

After relating the story, the tears welled up in his eyes and he said to us, "Brethren, I tell you that story because I don't know that I would do now what I did then. I think I might not expect the Lord's help in that kind of situation. I am not sure that I would believe now, even if I relived that experience, that the calf's survival was anything more than a coincidence. I don't understand what has happened to me since that incident, but I sense that something has gone a little bit wrong."

My friend in the Elders Quorum was not saying that he had lost faith in the Lord; rather, he was simply being very honest with us, I think, in sharing both the childlike and the sophisticated dimensions of his experience. This story reflects the thoughts and feelings that many of us experience, in our own way, during the college years. These thoughts and feelings are an important part of growing toward spiritual and intellectual maturity, as well as an important part of understanding both the strengths and the limitations of a college education."

Most of us probably have wondered if or how much God is really involved in our individual lives. Personally, I have more trouble believing that God hears the pleas of others than my own. I wonder why God will grant me the trivialities of my life -- yes, trivialities like fresh produce or a washing machine -- and yet literally leave others out in the cold without the bare necessities of life. We often say that God doesn't intervene much because he must allow us our free agency. In other words, He couldn't save all those in the depths of Auschwitz's gas chambers and He cannot save the people in Darfur from starvation because the free agency of the perpetrators overrides His ability to intervene, no matter how much the victims plead with God to save them.

So if God allows certain humans to have so much power over others -- on the grounds of free agency -- then why even ask Him to protect us from anything? If a knife-wielding lunatic on the street exercises his free agency and decides he is going to get me, can God do anything about it? If so, then why not at least throw suffering people a bone?

And yet I continue to pray for a blessing of safety upon me and my loved ones. A habit of hope and fear, I suppose. Hope that it will make a difference. Fear that it won't or even can't, because life is really just a big series of one coincidence after another. An intellectual maturity does not necessarily cause us to lose our faith in the Lord's existence. But I think that if we're honest with ourselves, a more sophisticated style of thinking makes us question just how big of a role He plays in our lives, which thereby challenges our spirituality.

What do you think? Was the calf's survival a coincidence? Is the very fact that you are living, breathing and reading right now a coincidence or divine intervention? Is it coincidence or divine intervention that separates your reality from that of the orphan with a shrapnel wound in Pakistan's Swat region?

To be honest, I'm not sure which alternative makes me feel better.

12 comments:

Mormon Heretic said...

FD,

Wow. Those are tough, hard questions. I too struggle with these issues, and it is within the struggle that I feel spiritual strength. Unfortunately, I don't have any meaningful answers. Yet I too pray for safety, and feel it is not appropriate to not ask for the Lord's help.

P.S. I like the new blog look, your new "about", and you're quite daring with your new photo, aren't you?

Papa D said...

I believe God is much more aware of our present and our future than we tend to realize. I've had too many experiences, especially in the last couple of years, to doubt that.

I believe in agency and do not believe in predestination despite my experiences that tell me he knows of the future.

I understand the apparent conflict between those two beliefs - and have no problem believing both. I don't know why I can accept both without any cognitive dissonance, but I do. It might not make sense, but it feels right and is something I believe I "know" - for myself.

The Faithful Dissident said...

Thanks, MH. I felt it was time for a new look, so I think I will try to update the main photo as the seasons change. This latest one was taken just before 11 pm a few days ago. And everyone gets my shadowed profile as a bonus. :)

You're right, these are tough questions that I don't really expect to ever get an answer to. Like Papa D, I've had too any experiences to really doubt that the Lord has intervened. One instance that comes to mind is when my younger brother was born in 1983. Early on in my mother's pregnancy, an ultrasound showed that the baby's stomach was filled up with fluid. It looked like a balloon. Anyways, the doctors were not optimistic and pretty much told my parents to start planning for either a funeral or handicapped child. There was nothing they could do and even on the night before he was born, the fluid was still there. The next morning my mom was induced and the last ultrasound showed -- miraculously -- that all the fluid had disappeared. He was born normal and healthy, though with quite a bit of loose skin from his distended stomach. (Now he has a six-pack, lucky boy. :) The doctors were baffled and had no explanation. Stuff like this doesn't just "go away." So that's our family miracle that will never be forgotten.

I think, though, that the conflict between the law of free agency and His ability to intervene is more worrisome. Particularly for those who are truly being oppressed and even exterminated.

When it comes to our existence and life circumstances being due to coincidence or divine intervention, although I like to speculate and theorize, I realize that doing so can be a dangerous thing because it can lead some to think that they're "special." Our church knows all too well the damage that comes from assuming that those who were born into either good or bad circumstances somehow earned their fate in the pre-existence. And you all know how much I love those old teachings (*huge sarcasm*). :)

At the same time, though, I can see what led Church leaders to draw those awful conclusions. It's hard to believe that we're all where we are simply because of coincidence. But that's easy for me to say. I'd like to hear what a Holocaust victim or someone in Pakistan's Swat Valley would have had to say in the matter.

Papa D said...

"I think, though, that the conflict between the law of free agency and His ability to intervene is more worrisome. Particularly for those who are truly being oppressed and even exterminated."

That is the main reason I reject all ideas that equate all mortal circumstances with righteousness - pre-mortal or current. It's easy ("natural") to take that view, but it's incredibly insensitive to those who suffer greatly through no fault of their own. Saying, "We don't know, but we believe God will work it out in the end" seems like a cop-out, but it's better than any other alternative I've ever heard - even, "Those with extreme difficulties chose them." That, to me, seems like the ultimate cop-out and way to avoid having to help them in their suffering. ("It's ok; it was their choice.")

I am open to a limited version of reincarnation (what some call multiple mortal probation), but I'm not tied to it by any stretch. With this issue, my answer really is nothing more than, "I don't know, but I believe God will work it out in the end."

The Faithful Dissident said...

Yeah, it's a pretty sticky thing to speculate on. And yet, I can see the appeal.

For instance, I have an uncle with pretty severe schizophrenia. His illness and some of his impulses -- which are perhaps at least somewhat influenced by the illness -- have caused a lot of grief, hurt, and resentment in my immediate and extended family. This caused a very strained relationship especially with my grandparents, who protected their son at all costs and felt he was unable to take responsibility for any of his actions because he was ill. I still don't know whether I believe that, but I remember a time when I felt a lot of anger towards him and was humbled by something I read somewhere (I think it was an Ensign article) about how some chose to be born into this life with handicaps, illnesses, that these people took upon themselves a certain burden in the pre-existence so that the rest of us "happy and healthy" people wouldn't have to. To be honest, reading that made me look at my uncle in a different light and I was able to feel more compassion towards him, as well as my grandparents who were probably only doing what they thought was best.

However, this philosophy becomes problematic when it's used to make excuses for people, or when we go around assuming that everyone who was born into less than favourable circumstances was more valiant or Christlike than the rest of us. Then it has the opposite effect of what the Church's teachings on blacks being less valiant in the pre-existence had on our perceptions of all those with African blood.

Andee said...

Tough questions, indeed. For my part, I think that my survival thus far must be a combination of both intervention and coincidence. I can point to specific times when I followed a prompting and had the opportunity to see what might have happened had I not listened. There are a least a handful of times that my life has been spared because I or people around me listened.
I can not explain why I have been spared while others suffer, and that is what haunts me. Why does the lord spare my life, but not the lives of others who are more innocent and needing of his intervention?

The Faithful Dissident said...

It almost seems that there are some who end up in a situation that is so hopeless, that not even God can/will save them. I'm thinking specifically of those who are trapped under the power of other human beings, like refugees in Africa and the Middle East, or the young girl who was just hanged by Iranian authorities last week, despite the prayers and petitions of many of us from around the world. Sometimes I hear people say, "It was God's will," or "It wasn't God's will." But I don't buy it. I don't believe that God didn't want that young girl to die. I don't think that was His will for her to die. But for some reason, which we will probably never understand, He lets such things happen and no amount of prayer can make a difference. And yet to many of us, our prayers have seemingly been answered and we have received something, even though it usually seems trivial in comparison.

ScottyDoo said...

I have never believed in an interventionist God. My wife says that's because I've never had any of those unexplainable experiences happen to me. She works in labor & delivery at the local hospital and she said that you can't work that job and not know that God intervenes because of some of the experiences they have on a weekly basis.

I don't have an answer, and can in no way explain these situations, which is why I'm agnostic. I just don't know...but I doubt he intervenes. I just don't think it works like that.

What do I know though?

I'd say the calf was complete coincidence personally, but maybe not. Maybe it was the ghost of calves past that came to his aid and told him to hold on, who knows?

If a knife-wielding lunatic came at me with the intention of taking my life or atleast causing serious harm, would I pray for intervention? Nope, I'd just get my a** out of the way of that knife and do whatever I can to prevent harm to myself or the attacker. If I get stabbed and lose my life, well, it wasn't because God failed to intervene, it's because a knife-wielding lunatic stabbed me.

Many say that's just a sad way of looking at life, and I say it's just looking at reality.

derekstaff said...

As is probably not surprising given my comment about spirits and my "deist" Mormonism, I tend to believe God is much less interventionist that most in the Church. There is a boy (we'll call him Greg) from our ward who died in a car accident when I was in college, and I personally got very tired of hearing how he died because God had called him home. Really? It had nothing to do with the fact that the driver had only been driving for two months, and they were driving at 2:00 in the morning, and everyone was dozing off? It wasn't because Greg was riding in the storage area of the SUV, without a seatbelt, so that he was thrown a couple dozen yards when they ran off the road and rolled? It isn't because the father decided to keep him in the local hospital for the last few days of his life, rather than allowing him to be transferred to the regional trauma center with more equipment and training for the sorts of injuries that Greg had sustained? No, it was all because God wanted Greg right then and there.

To me, the idea of God's active involvement opens up all sorts of logical conundrums involving free will. Had God made Greg decide to sit in an unsafe position, or had made the driver go to sleep and swerve off the road?

I suppose it's possible. I can't prove otherwise. I'll even grant that God probably takes a hand at crucial points in history, with certain people integral to the larger scheme. But I don't buy it that he deliberately chose to take Greg. I'm sure it's a comforting notion to Greg's family, but that doesn't make it true. I don't believe that God specifically chose to which mission I was called, or led me to my "one true love" either. No, I believe most of our lives are are a combination of happenstance and mortal decisions (us and others). To me, this makes life no less miraculous or no less divine. The fact that the Lord could help me grow in whatever mission he called me is just as special as the idea that he micromanaged the path of my life. The fact that he can communicate and guide me without necessarily writing the script of my life and setting the stage makes him no less intimate on all the important levels.

The idea of God as watchmaker and our lives as "coincidence" is perhaps less romantic and less comforting, but I believe it makes a lot more sense.

Chris said...

What a tough topic. I believe that God is bound by eternal laws just as we are and that one of these laws is agency. I can frankly understand why Satan's plan was so attractive. The concept of having no suffering or sorrow and of guaranteed salvation for everyone is very appealing, and convinced one-third of Father's children. (I sometimes wonder why I didn't choose it myself.) Sometimes I depise agency since I hate to see people suffer, including myself. I do not understand the meaning of all things, but I do know that God loves us.

Many suffer so intensely, cruelly, and needlessly. Some even celebrate the idea of creating suffering, including torture. I am appalled at this!

We may not understand why some suffer so greatly and others do not until we pass through the veil. I like the story of Job, who was described as a perfect man and who endured such great suffering with faith and courage. Suffering can sanctify but it can also destroy.

I do believe that suffering can teach us one thing: not to judge, criticize and condemn others who suffer. Although we can speak up loudly against those who willfully inflict suffering on others, we can learn to endure the unavoidable suffering that we experience, and in the process, we can become kinder and more humble.

The Faithful Dissident said...

I'm very attracted to ration and logic (which is why I can appreciate what Scotty is getting at -- I think his view is also very proactive because it makes us take responsibility for ourselves and do all we can to stay out of danger or trouble, without assuming that God will always come and rescue us), but I also acknowledge that some things just cannot be explained, which is why I also appreciate what Chris said. I especially like Chris' last paragraph.

I think, though, that I identify most with Derek. On one hand, I'd like to believe that God really is involved in all aspects of our life. It sounds comforting, right? But on the other hand, if He really is as much an interventionist as most in the Church seem to believe, then it's very troubling to me how he only seems to intervene with certain people. And that's not really comforting to me. In fact, it tastes too much for me of Calvinism and predestination -- that He chooses to only help/save certain people and lets others be butchered at the hands of others.

"Suffering can sanctify but it can also destroy."Very true, Chris. We learn that God will never give us more than we can bear, but I'm not sure this is true. Some simply can't bear it and either lose their faith or take their own lives. Yet God is supposed to know us better than we know ourselves. Does He not know our limits, or how we will react when tested? If He does, then why give some people a test or trial that He knows will destroy them instead of sanctify them?

I acknowledge that certain things in my life have been more than a coincidence. I had an experience a couple of years ago where my stake president gave me a "message" in a talk that he hadn't planned to give and didn't know why he had to give it. He just knew it was for me and so did I. As well, the story of where I come from and how my parents got together is more than just coincidence to me.

But, like Derek said, everything that we go around claiming is "God's will" or "God calling us home" is, in my opinion, probably mostly coincidence or the result of physical laws, such as if you smoke you will likely get cancer, if you speed around without a seat belt then you probably won't survive a crash, and if you have the breast cancer gene then you are likely going to get breast cancer.

ardelorme said...

This is just a thought that is quite sad b/c I prefer to believe that God has more to do with our personal lives than I'm about to imply. I remember the devestation around 9/11 and the comments that people made on t.v. news reports/interviews. People attributed their survival as being God's will and that God had a special purpose for them. I wonder if those comments were attempts at finding meaning in what they had just been through and about why they had survived while many friends and/or colleagues did not. Like the song, "Who Am I...that He might live and breathe and die for...", those survivors would have felt such humility and asked a similar question; Who am I that I survived the tragedy of 9/11 while this or that person sadly died? Sometimes I think that we attribute our survival and/or well being to it being God's will in an effort to make sense of the chaos in our lives and/or the world; To make sense of our good fortune vs the pain and tragedy of others around us. I hope that such attributions are not simply because of a human need to make sense of things but are instead truths about God and His plan for us.

Here's where I try to be more positive; Maybe believing in God's will in the face of tragedy and saying prayers (which may have little significance to the outcome), is enough to invite God's grace in helping people heal from the most tragic and seemingly hopeless situations. God, being the creator of all things is also the creator of the mind. Therefore, accepting life's events as God's will and voicing prayers that are not repetitive may be God's tools to help us in the healing of our minds and hearts and emotional wounds. In that sense, while we may not have much input into God's will regarding our circumstances we do have control and input over our faith and our own road to personal healing.