It is interesting that Christians who “don’t believe in luck” still take out insurance against ‘acts of God’.
Many Christians would hold that there is no such a thing as luck or chance – it is all divine providence and sovereignty. Some even say that wishing someone “good luck” is pagan/worldly / <insert favourite Christianese term here>. When can we attribute some event to God, and when is it just chance, or luck? Does the Bible comment on this?
I once attended a talk by a Christian Science practitioner. I could see that he was a good man – intelligent, sincere, well-spoken – the kind you hope would marry your someday daughter. He explained the basic tenets of their beliefs, and then he told a story of how he broke his ankle while fishing. Since Christian Science practitioners believe that pain and the physical world is an evil illusion that must be overcome, he didn’t go to the doctor. He simply ‘thought himself better’, he said. He concluded triumphantly by saying that with mind over (illusory) matter, he could walk again – six weeks later. In my own mind over matter triumph, I succeeded in keeping a straight face. But my head spinned as I realised that this must be what we Christians sound like to atheists when we attribute certain events to God. Like the cheese had finally slid off our crackers.
That is an extreme example of the kind of stories we can tell ourselves to make reality fit our preconceived notions. The problem is this: part of belief in God (theism, at least), is believing that he is involved in this world somehow. But as we said before, we have a good mix of predictable physical laws and free humans interacting in this complex system. So can we really say that when we had that near-miss it was God’s hand or blessing, but when some criminal wins the lottery, it was the luck of the draw? Note that this is a fundamentally different question to ones about God’s existence. In the first case we are asking, Given that the world looks the way it does, what can we infer about God? In the second, we are asking given what I know about God, how sure can I be that this event was his doing? How do we attribute (or ‘infer’) causation? Up to now in this series, we tried to look at miracles from God’s perspective – a top-down approach. Now we are looking at it from our perspective, bottom-up.
The two recent bestsellers about randomness affirm that chance plays a much larger part in our lives than we realise. Things that we usually attribute to skill or the agency of a person (yourself or the Almighty) may be the luck of the draw. Their titles do strike me as ironic, though: The Drunkard’s Walk: How randomness rules our lives by Leonard Mlodinow, and Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Taleb. Randomness rules? Randomness fools? It seems that they have merely replaced the original Agent with a different god.
Luck in the Bible
Did the Bible writers have anything to say on the subject? There are many Bible verses that affirm God’s sovereignty over all creation, with some uncomfortable ones such as Ex. 4:11 thrown in for good measure: Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? (which dovetails beautifully with John 9, but that’s a story for another day).
The ancient Jews certainly did have a strong view of divine sovereignty, and made frequent use of casting lots for divination. The high priest carried the Thummin and Urim (probably two coloured stones) with him in his robe, and consulted them frequently in order to ascertain God’s will. There are also passages where things seem to be just too coincidental. Even passages which seem to Western readers as coincidence, may not be intended that way. In 2 Chron. 18, Micaiah prophesies against King Ahab, saying that he would die in battle. Micaiah gets beaten locked up for this, and Ahab goes to battle in disguise, dressing someone else up as king. “But a certain man drew his bow at random and struck the king of Israel between the scale armour and the breastplate.” A Hebraism avoiding naming the Almighty, perhaps? Probably; we find this tactic all the way through Esther. And yet not all coincidences are so ‘happy’. In 2 Sam. 1, the Israelites lost a battle during which one young man happened to come across king Saul “by chance”. Saul was wounded and ordered the young man to kill him, as the enemy was closing in. He complied, and arrived at David’s camp with clothes torn and dirt on his head (signs of mourning). After relating what happened to David, David promptly had him killed for daring to lay a hand on the king. To our Western minds, Hebraic chance seems to be a fickle friend. But then again, can we really say that the young man had a raw deal? We cannot. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
There is also a second set of Bible verses, where God “shows no partiality”, “For, as Jesus said, “He makes His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust”, “the same for all”. The whole of Ecclesiastes 9 is worth reading at length again. Here is an excerpt:
I saw that under the sun:
the race is not to the swift,
nor the battle to the strong,
nor bread to the wise,
nor riches to the intelligent,
nor favour to those with knowledge,
but time and chance happen to them all.
For man does not know his time.
Like fish that are taken in an evil net,
and like birds that are caught in a snare,
so the children of man are snared at an evil time,
when it suddenly falls upon them.
If your goal in life is material success, or if you think that this is how God “blesses” those with “faith”, then this passage is not good news. But contrary to Arthur C. Clarke’s belief (in the opening quote of this series), Christians aren’t exempt from ‘bad luck’. Your faith isn’t a lucky charm, and as much as God wants to “bless” you materially, failure is often a bigger “blessing” than a Ferrari. This is the divine alchemy: that good may be brought from evil.
There’s a plane in the sky
Both in my Afrikaans primary school and English high school, we had a war cry we would do at rugby matches. (This was done in the spirit of cartoon violence, so please bear with me.) Replete with gestures and a coloured cane, the cheerleader would shout, “Thereeee’s a plaaane in the sky”, and 800 boys would cheer “Yaaay!” “But it’s got a <rival school> boy in it…” “Aaah”. “The plane is going to craaash!” “Yaay!” “But he’s got a parachute.” “Aaaah”. “The parachute won’t open!” “Yaaay!” “But there’s a haystack.” “Aaah.” “Theeeere’s aaa fooork in the haystack!” “Yay!” “But he misses the fork.” “Aaaah…” “… Aaand the haystaaack!” The crowd goes wild. The djembe drums join in. Silly schadenfreude, maybe. But behind the story (or the more serious version with Solon and Croesus), lies the great truth that it aint over ‘till the fat lady sings. In our own lives, we think it’s God’s plane, then when that crashes, God’s parachute, God’s haystack, and on and on. Telling blessings from curses in our mad tumble through time is near-impossible. We “don’t know our time”, and thanking God for one thing but blaming him for the next is always premature. I would not be surprised at all if James was right that every good gift comes down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variation or shadow of turning.
The levels of luck
It seems to me that the luck thing operates on two levels. From God’s perspective, not everything that happens to you may not be ‘part of the plan’. But that may be part of the plan. He still has it covered. From our perspective we can’t tell ‘the plan’ from dumb luck. Sometimes the ball bounces in your favour, and sometimes it doesn’t. Assigning cosmic significance to every bounce will drive you mad, but gratefully accepting it certainly won’t. So how do you navigate this world of chance? Mlodinow agrees that the writer of Ecclesiastes nailed it in chapter 9:
Whatever your hand finds to do, do with all your strength.