When I hung up I cried.
The numbers weren’t down as much as I had hoped.
“What does it mean?” I didn’t know, I couldn’t tell — and the doctors didn’t seem to want to say.
It’s multiple myeloma, cancer, and I’m not sure what to make of it; neither is my brother. He has it, and there seems to be no puppeteer above his stage, pulling on his strings, jerking him away from it.
There are a lot of variables at play in his disease, and the numbers don’t tell the whole story. The doctors say that the course of this disease is not predictable, that every patient responds differently to treatment, that they will have to try things to see if they work, and so my brother and I and everyone else who cares for him are left with the unknown.
At time like these, life can appear to us a unsettlingly uncertain, confusing, as random. Its events may not have discernible causes, patterns or solutions.
An accident, a sudden disease, a family member who dies and suddenly we experience the shock of the unexpected, the chill of the unknown, the unwelcome, surreal face the random.
With my brothers cancer, for us, there are more questions than there are answers. Why did he get cancer? When did it begin? Was there a roll of the dice in it? And what about God? My brother is a pastor. Despite my brother’s allegiance to God, God clearly didn’t stop him from getting cancer. And God clearly hasn’t healed it, despite many requests to do just that.
Is randomness playing a part in my brother’s life? Does it play a part in the realities we all experience?
Let’s consider it. Say we happen to be driving through an intersection when a car is also crossing the same intersection perpendicular to us, and the light fails and is green in both directions and the other car hits us. Under such circumstances it is common for someone to say, “That was horrible luck! I guess I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” and everyone understands what is being said.
There are many variables at work in the crash, the failure of the light, just at that moment, the presence of the two cars at exactly the same time, the drivers choices to drive out that day, the speed of the cars — it’s complicated — and so we are right in seeing chance as playing a role in bringing all these elements into play, placing us and someone else at a scene at just that second on that day at that speed when the light failed and involving us in the crash.
It feels like this with my brother’s cancer. It’s a car crash we didn’t see coming, couldn’t prevent, with a result we can’t predict. There are so many variables in my brother’s situation — our family medical history, his genetic makeup, his age in life, the aggressiveness of the cancer, the drugs that are available at this time, his doctor’s choices of treatments, his body’s unique responses to the treatments. Indeed, there are so many factors at play here that we are left with little ability to make accurate projections, draw conclusions or make stable plans.
Life with cancer — for us it has a kind of surreal randomness, at the very least because of our vast ignorance, and quite possibly, because there are elements of it that are random at it’s very core.
This awareness of randomness is real, and it can be observed everywhere. We experience the rather common randomness of life when we take up dice. When we roll dice, the outcome is uncertain. For instance, on any given roll of five dice, we may get a pair of dice that will match or we may not. Anyone who has played dice knows this. We cannot say for certain, before we roll, if we will get a pair or not, nor can we discover a formula by which to accurately predict each roll.
However, the roll results may be calculated as a probabilities. For example, when we roll five dice one time, there is a 70% chance that we will get one pair that match. So from this we can see that the frequency of some outcomes can be calculated even when the outcome of a certain roll cannot be known.
This seems similar to my brother’s treatment plan. The outcome of this is unknown. When he is taking treatment, he is rolling dice.
Some scientists would argue against randomness. They would argue that everything is explainable, if we dig deep enough. There is one problem with this; it has not been proven yet. There are many things scientists do not understand. In fact, for all of us, there is more we don’t understand than we do.
Some of the very spiritual would argue that there is no chance or luck in life because the hand of God is in the world, because the power of God is present to control our affairs, and that because of God’s sovereignty, and his omniscience, nothing is random.
That is not what the Bible says.
I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.
The wise Solomon observed chance, just have we have, and not just in the dice. He spotted it by looking at gifted people and seeing that they fall prey to random forces — the swift, strong, wise, smart and educated fall into trouble by chance. A great athlete is ruined by a chance injury. A strong, young person dies of chance contact with a disease.
We see this kind of thing in the New Testament. In Acts 12, King Herod Agrippa began to persecute some believers in the church. He had the apostle James (John’s brother) killed. He arrested Peter and threw him in prison. It’s odd; Peter was miraculously delivered from prison by an angel, while James was brutally killed.
Why was James killed and Peter saved? We don’t know. It must have seemed random, perhaps even unfair, to those who loved James.
Did James’ death have any element of chance in it, the car at the wrong place and the wrong time, and if so, why would God allow chance as part of his universe, particularly for his useful, chosen ones?
Perhaps this is because God has not chosen to be the great puppeteer, pulling the strings on all the events of his universe.
The Bible reveals a God who lets go of some of his control. In the command of Genesis 1:28, we humans we given the power to create, to make choices, and to steward the earth. And then we were held responsible for our decisions.
God gave us choice, and so he has let us decide many things in our lives, and these choices are consequential and he holds us accountable, just as he did with Adam and Eve. We can see in this that God has in this way taken his hands off the wheel a bit, and he has let us drive. Apparently, he wanted to let go of control.
Just in this same way, as noted by Solomon, it appears that God has decided not to dictate every dice throw, or every moment of nature. It looks very much like he decided that he did not want to run the whole show. He has allowed the dice to roll random, he has set up the game this way, because he choose to let go of the wheel. He apparently wanted us to experience choice and chance, and to let himself experience our choices and the universe’s chances because that would make for the world he wanted. We can’t be certain why he did this, but we can note that the alternative would put him in a very bizarre position.
For God to to dictate every dice roll, to superintend every event, to manage every accident, to dispense all diseases, to hand out all sufferings — this would nullify all choice, remove all human responsibility, take away consequence, delete the sow and reap principal that now operates, and present instead a world totally controlled and dominated by the creator. In this scenario God himself would become the world’s great unrelenting, hyper-attentive, over-active, mad, mad, mad tyrant of phenomena. This is not God.
God is not a crazed puppeteer, frantically working all the stings, making every thing move. God is not the crooked casino manager, loading all the dice. God is not the over-controlling boss, the mad micromanager of life, nor is he the horrific, disease-breathing monster of the universe. God is not the Pandora’s box of the world, unleashing every ill at every turn, in every case. He has certainly allowed the possibility for disease, and in his great power he can certainly can allow a disease to overtake a person or a nation, (we see this in the Old Testament) but he isn’t the horrible disease dispensing, disease mongering dictator of all of life.
Here is the deal. God obviously didn’t want it that way, a totally controlled creation. And yet we must also insist that according to Christian orthodoxy, God does retain ultimate control of life, that he does intervene, that he does sometimes fix things, help us. Christian history and theology include the belief in the incarnation, Christ bringing salvation to earth, God intervening, God fixing human kind, God is far more than a Divine Watchmaker, winding up the world, stepping back to let it tick along on its own.
How do we square all this up? Well, perhaps in this way. God is actively involved in the universe, God does care, does step in, but chance still operates. Why? Perhaps God has allowed chance in the world, just as he has allowed free will, because he saw what he could do with it.
What could he do with chance? Chance has its uses. By chance, by the presence of the random, we transient humans live blinded to the future. Because of randomness, we see the roll of the dice dimly, as through a glass darkly. Perhaps in this way, chance was allowed to confound us, to humble us, to lead us to depend on God. Chance is perhaps an antidote to pride. We can’t figure it all out, we don’t have all the answers, we can’t predict the future, we are not ultimately in control. Also, by means of chance, or randomness, we are sometimes pleasantly surprised. Good things fall to chance, not merely bad things. By chance we may get a full-house! By chance we see beautiful wild animal. By chance we win one of the many games of life.
And there is perhaps one more virtue in chance. By means of chance, mystery is maintained, and mystery is a deep part of God himself.
Let’s bring up one more problem. Open theism, as presented by proponent Gregory A. Boyd, is the view that the future is in part, a set of possibilities and known by God as possibilities. This has caused tremendous debate from the traditionalists who insist that this limits God’s knowing and determining power in a heretical way. Open theism is not what I am arguing here. The Bible seems to make it clear that God knows everything, past, present and future. God does not, not know what will happen yet. He knows ahead what possibilities and probabilities will become realities. He knows which “might happen” will become a “did happen.” And we might even say that what seems random to us, a possibility, or a probability, may have a very clear explanation to him. And yet this need not make us abandon the doctrine of free will or the possibility of chance.
God, if he is God, that is omniscient and omnipotent, is never surprised, nor is he limited. He sees the way all the dice will roll before they roll and yet, seeing ahead or knowing ahead is not the same as causing, and giving choice is not controlling, and letting chance work in the world does not mean he cannot intervene at any point he chooses. Apparently, God is big enough to allow other forces than himself to be at work in his creation. God has gifted the creation with power.
We may maintain our affirmation that God is omniscient, and yet agree that it is still clear from the Bible and our experiences, that there is human free will and a random element in life. In trying to make sense of this, David Bartholomew puts it this way, apparently “God can have it both ways” – randomness and order.
What to conclude? How do we comfort the family who loses James? What do we tell the Christian with cancer? What do we celebrate as God’s intervention, what do we accept as his will, what do we take responsibility for?
I’m still not always completely sure, but I am sure that God is wise and responsible and makes good choices and handles the random well and that so should I.
My brother told me recently that he has experienced God walking with him through his personal car wreck, walking with him through his unwanted, seemingly random numbers, through his suffering, with him through the apparent randomness of his experience, with him not as a magician who chants the abracadabra and the disease is gone, but with him as a God of beauty, a divine beauty maker, offering bits and pieces of respite and wonder that refresh, in the middle of the news that shatters.
Note: For my modern proverbs on randomness, visit http://www.modernproverbs.net