“That’s so random!” The phrase is a common compliment to someone whose mind moves in mysterious ways. Randomness has achieved a certain amount of status in our culture where our jaded senses of humor are always searching for something ever more outrageous to shock us into laughter. True randomness is very difficult to achieve. Most things follow patterns – laws of nature, logic, cause and effect. Computer programmers are always searching for new algorithms to force logical machines to produce illogical randomness. Quantum effects like the spontaneous decay of radionuclides are said to be completely random within a particular bell curve of probabilities. What is randomness? Why is it so hard to achieve? And how does randomness jive with a benevolent sovereign God? Do random things happen to us, or is it all a part of “the plan” or is it both?
“I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” – Jeremiah 29:11
This oft quoted verse is probably found on countless Christian refrigerators, bumper stickers, screen savers, bookmarks, and t-shirts. We love this verse because when life isn’t going our way and seemingly random calamities strike us, this verse tells us that there is still God’s plan behind it all and that in the end, everything will work out for the better. We don’t like the idea that truly random things would happen to us because randomness, being divorced from any chain of logic, seems to carry no purpose and no intent.
Furthermore, randomness means literally anything could happen to us, good or bad; we don’t like that insecurity. When we get in the car and head down to the corner store to buy a lottery ticket, we don’t care to hear the fact that, statistically speaking, we are more likely to die in a wreck on the way to the store than to win that lottery. We would much rather be comforted by the thought that we will not die until God wants to take us, and if God wants to bless us, then regardless of the odds we WILL win that lottery.
Our brains are designed to recognize patterns. They are really good at it too – so good at it that we will find patterns in randomness. We will see cartoons in the clouds, figures in the stars, faces in trees, and catholics are particularly skilled at finding Jesus’ face in just about anything – pieces of wood, moldy stone walls, or burnt pancakes. When we look at our past, we see patterns in a series of random events. “If A hadn’t happened just a certain way, then B wouldn’t have happened producing C and D.” By creating patterns in the randomness, we reinforce our belief that everything is secure and everything is going according to plan. Now some of you fellow believers reading this might be getting really uncomfortable right now as I seem to be trying to convince you to stop believing God has a plan for your lives. That is not it. The idea that I’ve been tossing around lately is: randomness is a part of God’s plan.
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 lot is cast into the lap,
but its every decision is from the LORD.
A debate has raged for centuries about the nature of God’s involvement in this universe. Some have the “watchmaker” view of God – a God who directs every intricate detail of the universe from the exact placement of the atoms that make up your hamburger to the exact second of your death. Others do not like this idea of such an intimate meticulous involvement between God and the creation because, they reason: if God is directing atoms and circumstances to the tiniest detail, then he is also crafting every event of human suffering to the tiniest detail – from the path of the tornado that sucks a mother’s child out of her arms to the path of the bullet that reduces an innocent bystander to a vegetable or the satanic ritual sexual abuse that fragments an innocent child into multiple personalities. “Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both evil and good things come?” (Lamentations 3:37) It seems difficult to believe in the “watchmaker” view of God and also believe that He is benevolent.
To escape this frightening path of logic and remove God’s responsibility for all the horrible things that happen on earth, others have attempted to distance God from the creation by promoting the idea that humanity’s free-will trumps divine-will, and even in the case of “acts of God” like tornadoes, all such curses can be sourced back to the original sin which is said to have mystically altered the laws of nature thereby corrupting all creation. This view of God is less like a watchmaker and more like an old man in the sky who sits on his throne shaking his head “grieved that he made man upon the earth – His heart filled with pain.” (Genesis 6:6)
I believe both the “watchmaker” view of God and the “old man in the sky” view are both imperfect attempts to understand God. They have a certain illustrative value, but they can be equally misleading. Perhaps the secret ingredient both views are missing is randomness.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
As I read this passage again a few weeks ago, the emboldened text really struck me. There is an “order” in place right now that governs our suffering. When the day comes that God dwells with man, this order will be overturned. What laws of the universe make up this “order”? The law of sowing and reaping and randomness are both in operation under this “order” that is passing away. We intuitively understand the law of sowing and reaping or Karma, or whatever you want to call it: you get out what you put in. If you sow corn you get corn; if you sow wheat, you get wheat; if you sow good things, you get good in return, etc. But the law of randomness is also in operation. You may have sowed wheat, but some weeds randomly blew on the wind and mingled their seeds. Or you may have sown corn, but a hailstorm beat down the stalks before you could reap the harvest. Or you may have worked hard at your job only to have medical bills wipe out your savings. Or you may be chilling on well-fare and win the lottery. The law of randomness is also in operation under this present order.
Now in this life things are not fair, and that is an understatement. Some say this alone is enough to prove there is no benevolent God. I say that justice delayed is not justice denied; though few have much and much have few, according to the story of poor Lazarus, there will be a reckoning for all the unfair things we experienced in this life.
So God is going to make it fair in the end, but what about right now? How can he let things go on, or worse, how can he plan them to be this way? I believe part of his plan right now under this present order is randomness. Think about it: if you are about to start a game of monopoly, how do you determine who gets the unfair advantage of going first? You roll the dice. If you are on a task force that requires an unsavory or dangerous job, how does the group pick who gets the job? You draw straws. When there is no way to get around the fact that someone must be treated unfairly, how do we make it fair? We make it random. There is a kind of fairness in randomness. It means no one purposed this to happen to you – it just happened. Perhaps randomness in the plan of God is the only way to see him as both completely sovereign and completely good.
A side benefit of the law of randomness is that it creates an environment in which our will might be differentiated from God’s will – not necessarily “free” but close to it. Randomness provides a blank canvas for us to paint upon. If there was no fundamental underlying law of randomness in operation, then that would mean God’s will would manifest instantly. “He is not willing that any should perish,” so bullets and bombs would explode into rose petals and swords would bend into plowshares. Without randomness there would be no place for any will but God’s.
Now although our lives are presently governed by this “old order”, I believe that interspersed within our partly random lives the Divine Will does manifest, angels may alter the chain of events, prayer may bring the kingdom of heaven to earth. But I wonder if, for the most part, the trials we face and the blessings we receive are not chosen by the Divine Lot rather than the Divine Will? Ultimately it is not about the hand we were dealt, it is about how we played it. Did we do the best with what we were given? Did we overcome? Did we conquer? Did we bring heaven to earth?
Now if randomness is an established law governing the universe and a significant part of “the plan of God”, then what are the implications for the creation/evolution debate? That could be the subject for another blog… 😉