The God of Coincidence

It seems to me that church folk talk a lot about God doing this or that in our lives, and rightly so I guess. “God told me this or has been telling me that”, is a common utterance, but I’ve been avoiding that terminology for some time now. I guess I am uncomfortable with this assertion at times. Please don’t get me wrong, it is not my intent to discourage anyone who uses these expressions or to imply that they are wrong to do so. Nor am I calling God’s existence or presence into question. I am only expressing my own doubt or lack of understanding in the matter. My questions are of free will, and Divine orchestration. Good stuff happens to bad people and bad stuff happens too good people and vice versa and none of us can predict it consistently. After all, Jesus, when questioned whether a man’s blindness was a manifestation of God’s judgment, challenged the disciples’ notion of cause and effect. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (According to John 9:3, NIV). In Matthew’s account of the “Sermon on the Mount” (specifically, Matthew 5:45), Jesus said, “[God] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (cf. Job 25:3).

I watched the movie V for Vendetta recently and remember the protagonist “V” saying, “I, like God, do not play with dice and do not believe in coincidence.” It stood out to me because it’s something I’ve pondered a lot over the years. How much of our lives, how much of the universe is minutely managed by the Creator? Were the Bengals praying harder (and therefore playing better) than the Ravens last Thursday night? (Sorry, though I watch occasionally, I’m really not that into the NFL.) Or when my Dad got his hay in before the rain and the neighboring farmer’s got soaked (rain is not good for hay quality), was that just a matter of luck (or in a more Menno-correct term, fortune) or was there some Divine intervention? Perhaps it was just because of my Dad’s skill and good sense as a farmer or because we didn’t bale much hay, but chopped most of it to make haylage and didn’t have to wait as long for it to dry.

The impetus for this post came this afternoon as I was leaving school, headed to get my bike and ride home. It was about 1:15 and as I walked down the long hall towards the exit, I kept telling myself that it wouldn’t happen again, but sure enough, near the end of the hall, Dr. B appeared from around the corner. “What’s so odd about that?” you ask. Well, it all started Monday, when in the same hallway sometime between 2 and 3pm, in search of a bathroom that was not being cleaned, I passed Dr. B twice. Barely a few minutes later I bumped into him outside on my way to where I park my bike. We both laughed at the coincidence of running into each other three times in a matter of five minutes, though neither of us had ever officially made the other’s acquaintance. Tuesday I left school around 1:30 and there was Dr. B, walking in the door I was walking out of. Again we chuckled remarking that we weren’t surprised, but each thinking, “Okay, this has been weird, but I’m sure this is the last time”. It wasn’t to be. On Wednesday I stayed until after 3 p.m. to help with psychiatry interviews that my classmates are learning to do and of course, there was Dr. B, walking in where I was walking out. I told him jokingly that I had been waiting there all afternoon for him. So now you can understand why I thought it highly improbable for a sixth encounter to happen on the fourth day in a row at no particular time in the day. I introduced myself this time offering my hand and he did likewise and we went on our way.

Now, I’ve always been a fan of coincidences, and would say they’re not too uncommon in my life, but I think this one tops those most recent in my memory. What significance this particular set of coincidences (or any of them for that matter) has for my life, I do not know and might never. But, if I believe like V, and much of Christendom, that God does not play with dice, then what?

I am curious to hear your thoughts on this matter. What is your working model for how God interacts with the world? Are we puppets? Is there a script? Is God aloof and ‘hands offish‘? What role does prayer play? Is there something in-between or a more appropriate question to ask? I doubt if we’ll arrive at any any definitive conclusions from this discussion, but perhaps we’ll find something helpful and thought provoking as we look through a glass darkly.

Comments (7)

  1. AngieLederach

    A Coincidence that you wrote about coincidence?
    I have also been thinking about these questions a bit more than usual the past few weeks due to a few really bizarre, yet challenging interactions.

    Here is what I think:

    1. We are afraid to talk about the operative spiritual realm. My capacity to engage a discussion of the “world” outside of the physical reality first began when I encountered Walter Wink in high school and the whole notion of the “powers and principalities,” but has since expanded immensely, mostly due to really cutting edge ethnographies coming mostly out of Africa. This summer I was in West Africa and there is _no_ separation between the physical and spiritual realms. It sort of threw me upside-down and as I struggled to walk on the ceiling, my own worldview began to shift. It is arrogant to ignore the power of the literal work of God in the world.

    2. For me, this has also meant a shift in how I understand God. Do I think that a touchdown is the result of the Big, white, bearded man in the sky intervening with His strong hands? No. I think if we start to understand the Divine presence in the world, not separate, but integrally part of us, the operative spritual realm makes a lot more sense. When God becomes that which is within me and that which is within you and within the trees and the air and the birds, then the intensity of our interconnectedness comes to the forefront. Pneumatic epistemology is severely missing, yet absolutely essential for Christian theology in the West. Our profound interconnectedness provides deep challenges to the notion of coincidence.
    3. Since I’m still really grappling with this, and I’m not really sure what I think about it all (and to be honest, it sort of freaks me out) I would highly recommend watching “What the Bleep Do We Know? ” It is an incredible documentary about the power of our minds, quantum theory and the absolutely profound interconnectedness of this world. It’s in science language (dumbed down), but should definitely be applied to theology and God-talk.

    Reply
  2. Amy

    JD

    Coincidentally (or not?), I’ve been thinking about this lately. Truthfully, this topic has been a current in my life for 15 years or so.

    On my 18th birthday, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. So, for the first several years of my adult life, I watched this woman of faith suffer through chemo, remission, more cancer, chemo, etc… Until, after four years of this, she died (at the age of 46). I was pretty pissed at God for a while. How could God do this to someone who was the best example of love and faithfulness that I knew?

    After a lot of years of being angry, I began to see God, not as a diety that strikes people at will, but as a diety that walks with us in all the good and bad stuff.

    Now, that’s a boiling down of years of thoughts on this, so I hope it doesn’t sound too trite.

    On the other hand, I do wonder about all those strange coincidences in life. How is it that I can be thinking about someone, and they call me on the phone, just as I”m thinking about them?

    Oh, one more thing–there’s no denying that the view I have of God has a down side. If God doesn’t strike us down, does that mean She doesn’t offer us good things too? So, does that make God a diety that just sits on the sidelines and watches things happen? Does this God have no control?

    It’s a very tricky thing. I don’t know if I ever will totally know the answer, and honestly, I don’t know if I do want to know. There’s something exciting about trying to figure it out but still not having the answers.

    Reply
  3. Lora

    I guess I’m the third person to think it’s quite interesting that you posted on this topic this week. I have a story somewhat along the lines of Amy’s: when I was high school, in a period of sixteen months, my grandfather and two of my cousins died and my dad and younger sister underwent serious hospitalizations back-to-back for completely unrelated reasons. For years, I met strangers who told me they had been praying for my family during that time, and to this day I’m convinced that there really is something powerful about intercessory prayer, although I can’t articulate it beyond that. As for coincidence, I have a friend who says that there is nothing coincidental in the lives of those who are filled with the spirit, but my experience has been much more along the lines of Meister Eckhart, who once said that nothing describes God as much as silence.

    This past week, though, I got an email from a friend who had been traveling through South America and had returned home early. He had been really strongly on my mind earlier that week, and I didn’t know why, but I told him this and joked that I had read enough back issues of Guideposts magazine to know that one should pray in such instances, expecting that it was purely coincidental. It turned out that was the day he was deciding whether or not to cross through Colombia on land, something he decided not to do. Coincidence? I have no idea.

    Reply
  4. Amy

    Still thinking about this conversation–here’s a thought (that might prove how liberal I am):

    Should we even try to figure out how God is in the world? Does it even matter? Because, in the end, we’re going to be wrong. Our little pea brains will not be able to comprehend all that God is.

    I’ve been asking fewer questions lately, and listen to hear and feel God near me. When I’m a little more zen about things, I beleive I learn so much more about God. The questions only piss me off and aggravate me.

    I’m going to have to prepare myself for some of these questions in seminary, but I don’t care too much about the answers–despite what I THINK about it, God is. Despite the answers I’ve logically determined, God is.

    Reply
  5. Florian

    Hi,
    I found your blog via google by accident and have to admit that youve a really interesting blog :-)
    Just saved your feed in my reader, have a nice day :)

    Reply
  6. Paul

    Did you know that not so long ago, it was a commonly held belief that God was the cause of everything? Did you know the bible says to thank God for everything? The ancient Egyptians and Greeks taught about many gods who caused this and that. But the real God told us in Isaiah 45:7 that He created light and darkness, good and evil. It is all over the bible where God is taking credit for everything that happens. Philippians 2:13 goes so far to suggest that even our desires and works are caused by God. The problem most people have with believing God is controlling us is that we have been told so many different false beliefs so much and often, that we never stop to question the validity of those false doctrines. We just naturally accept it and read our beliefs into scripture. This is commonly called brainwashing. But the biblical truth has always been that God does CAUSE all things, and He has a plan for everyone. He sent His Son to be the savior of the world which He will reveal in His time. Bottom line, there is no coincidence. God controls everything. And His will is being done on earth as it is in Heaven. Have the courage to start believing it.

    Reply
  7. mennomom

    Sorry – Paul – but your interpretation of Scripture is, in my opinion, unsustainable. If “God does CAUSE all things”, as you say, we are off the hook as far as living responsibly, doing right, loving God and neighbour and all that entails, etc. So why bother then? If I screw up, your statement that “God controls everything” means that I am not responsible, God is. Or, when one contemplates all the horrible things humans have done to each other over the centuries, we can just shrug it off as God’s doing? We will never understand God completely. Mystery will always remain, as it should. But I do know that God is in the redeeming business, bringing order out of chaos, light to darkness, good out of evil, and restoring all things. I just can’t wrap my head around or put my faith in a God who causes evil, as you claim, to fulfill some cosmic plan in which we are just puppets pulled by strings. Now that is a false doctrine if there ever was one!

    Reply

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