Readers will know that as well as reading and occasionally reviewing longer and more technical books of theology, I’m also passionate about books that make good theology accessible to more people. One series that I think does that really well are the ‘Questions Christians ask’ from the Good Book Company. Usually clocking in at around 100 small pages, I’ve appreciated the ones I’ve read, including two I’ve reviewed; ‘Is God Anti Gay?‘ by Sam Allberry, ‘Who On Earth is the Holy Spirit?‘ by Tim Chester and ‘Did the Devil Make me Do it?‘ by Mike Mckinley.
Today I’m reviewing Christopher ash’s little blue contribution, ‘where was god when that happened. This is perhaps one of the most pastoral of these little books I’ve read yet, dealing as it does with the questions of suffering and sovereignty, distilling Ashs decades of ministry and study into a little book of biblical guidance.
I was struck at the outset by Ash’s willingness to face the problem. This is, as he notes, not a question for armchair theologians but for everyone, no matter what kind of chair they find themselves in. He offers six models of how people have historically understood the problem of suffering and God’s interaction with the world, which I think serves as a helpful frame for the rest of the book. It was interesting to me that he fairly quickly condemned meticulous sovereignty or fatalism, though ultimately he is more nuanced than this. Throughout, Ash tries to explain and echo a biblical view. As he writes early on, “We need to try to get hold of what it means for God to be God“, and that “Behind what we experience as randomness, there is the hidden hand of the sovereign God“. I am well aware that this can be problematic, or difficult for some people to accept. And I was thus grateful for Ash’s careful, pastoral way of framing it: “Far from being a distant God who either sets the universe in motion and leaves it or occasionally blows his referee’s whistle to interfere, God is intimately involved in the universe, atom by atom, nanosecond by nanosecond“. Of course, nowhere do we see this more than in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Without becoming either too speculative or avoiding the question, Ash engages with the thorny how of God’s activity. In his second chapter there is a strong, Jesus-centred affirmation of the way that God runs things: “Speaking of God sustaining the universe 24/7/365, Jesus said “My Father is always at his work…” (John 5v17). The Bible says of Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, that… “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1v17)“. My one criticism here would be around perhaps also mentioning the role of the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. I wonder whether in particular John’s Gospel (with reference to 3:6, 5:24, 6:63 in particular) and some key Old Testament texts could round this out, particularly answering the where of the question in the book’s title. This is then engaged with, perhaps subconsciously, rather beautifully by the author as he considers the story of Esther. Noting God’s intimate concern for his people in the big story, Ash writes: “Behind every event, each conversation, every choice of timing, each sleepless night, there lies the purposeful hand of God. Men, women, angels and demons intend all sorts of things; and God weaves their intentions and actions together into a big story in which his intentions are fulfilled…“. A helpful discussion of notions of justice in relation to natural disasters is also welcome here, before Ash pivots away from the big picture and towards the identity of us and God.
As you can probably tell, a key part of Ash’s answer to the question his book is titled with can be found in the recognition of the identity of God and the identity of humanity. I love the way Ash beautifully weaves together themes of identity and sanctification here:
“From the moment he began to knit me together in my mother’s womb (Psalm 39:13), he has been the loving heavenly Father, who has shaped me physically, psychologically, temperamentally, in ever way to be the person I am. I am not who I ought to be, nor who I will one day be, for God is determined to change me and make me like Jesus; and yet, with all my struggles, the person I am now is the person a loving heavenly Father has shaped me to be at this point in time. I may trust him“.
From this micro-recognition of our personal identity we move outwards, heading towards the way that God is gradually drawing history. Our response is rooted in the primacy of seeking the kingdom of God, “which means this rule of God in human hearts and lives“. A primary way that this happens, which Ash discusses brilliantly, is in prayer. Wrapped up in, and linked to, the discussion of prayer here is a beautiful, painful, beckoning discussion of patience; “The great patience of God is a wonderful thing. To understand it and embrace it will make some very great differences to our lives“.
At the start of my review I commented that this was a very pastoral book. It is, but not always in the way that we might find easy. Real pastoral work takes the bible seriously, digs in for the long haul, and allows brutal honesty and painful vulnerability. This biblical little book of guidance on a big question does that. Not all of it is easily palatable. But, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, our God is not tame, but he is good. I would recommend this little book to anyone in pastoral ministry, and to those wondering how Gods goodnesss and sovereignty might be