Randomness in a ‘House of Order’

Behold, mine house is a house of order, saith the Lord God, and not a house of confusion. (D&C 132:8)

Sometimes bad things happen to people:

  • A young man dies in a car accident, leaving his wife and kids without a husband and a father
  • A young woman develops a rare form of cancer, ending her life before the age of 30.
  • A baby is born with a serious birth defect, and doesn’t survive the year.

You can add various other diseases, accidents, or natural disasters to the list…

The common response when hearing about such things is usually one of the following:

  1. Their death is a direct result of their unrighteous behavior, and is God’s way of punishing them.
  2. Their death was God’s will, not because of unrighteousness, but because He wanted to call him/her home for important work on the other side, and/or wanted his/her family to face particular challenges in order for them to grow spiritually
  3. Their death just ‘happened’–and had nothing to do with God’s will.

There’s little evidence to suggest (1) is true as an explanation for fatal accidents and diseases in general. (Good people get ‘struck down’ all the time, while bad people do not…)

Most people, then, tend to be divided between (2) and (3), depending on their religious beliefs. Those that believe in an all-knowing, and all-powerful God lean toward (2), saying that God meant for things to happen for some wise purpose–even though it’s often hard to comprehend what that would be. Most non-religious types lean toward (3), saying the randomness of the universe precludes the existence of any God, and things that happen, just happen–there’s no higher meaning behind it.

Is there another option, though–one that lies in between (2) and (3)? Is there a place for the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful God and random events that really have no higher meaning?

First, let’s discuss what ‘random’ means–in this context, we’re not talking about spontaneous and arbitrary happenings, but rather ‘chaotic’ things that aren’t under direct control of a higher intelligence. When a person driving a car suddenly gets a flat tire, spins out of control, flips and dies in the resulting car wreck–this isn’t a ‘random’ event. There a number of factors that come into play when trying to determine why the tire happened to pop at just that moment–the material from which the tire was made, its wear and tear over all the previous times the car had been driven, the condition of the road at the time, the speed the driver was going, etc. The idea of “God’s will” playing a part (as in #2 above) seems to imply that God for His own purpose happened to cause the tire to pop right at that moment (with a spiritual BB gun, or something) Suppose He didn’t cause it, but rather it was caused by the interplay of all the factors mentioned above…without divine mandate?

Likewise, at its root, a serious birth defect in a new born baby is probably caused by the combination of a large number of interconnected factors: genes, the mother’s nutritional intake, flawed chromosomal material, etc. There may be 1000 different things that had to happen in order for that defect to arise (but which can’t, perhaps, be isolated by science). Earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters also can have 1000 different small things that happen in terms of geology and weather in order for them to occur–when they do happen it’s because of a combination of pre-existing conditions, not God pulling a switch in a laboratory that says “Earthquake –> Indonesia”

The idea here is that, even with an all-knowing, all powerful God–random things occur, not because He ‘made’ them happen, but because He created a complete system of life on the Earth composed of a billion different variables that interact with each other every day, and every once in a while, 10000 of them coincide in a certain way which causes tragic events in people’s lives. Not because He purposefully planned for it to happen, but because that’s the way the system was created. (God foreseeing the events happening, and allowing them to happen are separate issues, and not discussed here…)

In other words, my theory is: sometimes things just happen–and God’s will really has nothing to do with it.

God is said to be ‘in control’, and that His house is a house of order. What does this mean? Well, He’s ‘in control’ because:

  • All His spirit children are known and cared for–and He doesn’t miss anything that happens to us
  • All His spirit children are a part of the plan of salvation, and no matter what happens during our time on Earth, our spirits won’t ‘fall through the cracks’ and be lost after we die.

(Of course, no promise is given that we’ll be shielded from pain and struggle–nor early death, even…)

Oftentimes a person will ask ‘Why did God take my husband/wife/brother/child away?’ and will struggle to find some ‘meaning’ behind it. Perhaps there isn’t…it was something that ‘just happened’ due to a random confluence of material factors–and not because God ‘decided’ to take him/her away because He had some great work that needed to be done in the spirit world, or because He wanted to give you a particular experience to help you grow. The system itself provides the experiences for all of us to grow, even though the experiences that happen to each individual person can be entirely different. Perhaps the ultimate motive of God is not for us to ask, “Why did this happen?”, but rather “So…this happened. What am I going to do now?”

6 thoughts on “Randomness in a ‘House of Order’

  1. I fully agree. I think the tendency of some to seek not just meaning, but a plan in every event tend to “Calvinize” Mormonism. i.e. make God as ultimately responsible for everything. (Well the Calvinists might dispute that characterization – but you get the point) It seems to me that, regardless of the state of God’s foreknowledge, he isn’t directly responsible of every event that happens. Some events are the results of millions of free choices (whatever free means) and something are just things that happen.

  2. I find great comfort in the LDS doctrine of the Plan of Salvation. God is in control overall, but he cannot override our agency. Bad things happen, and lives are cut short, but God has provided ways around every mistake it seems. As someone who has lost many loved ones this is comforting. My father, for instance, I am sure was called back to work on the other side, however, my grandfather died because he was old and had cancer. My half brother died because of choices he made, he chose to use drugs, and they killed him. Am I bitter at God? Absolutely not! I see the beauty of His plan and know they will each have an equal chance at salvation.

  3. Why can’t it be all three? I don’t think there needs to be a single explanation that covers all events. I tend to think that #3 is by far the most common, with an occasional #2 and a rare #1. I also think a possible #4 could be a hazy combination of two of the above or even all three at once.

    I think I’m saying something like what Clark said. Basically, I think the reasons for death are complicated and involve an intricate interplay of god’s will, our agency, and sheer accident – some of which sometimes hold a lot of weight and some of which, sometimes, hold no weight at all.

  4. I tend to think of the universe as a great spinning top, A gyroscope with hundreds of thousands of interlocking clogs and gears. God engineered the world and all its physical laws. His is a house of order. However, for various reasons God also set in motion the spinning top. Things that occur in this world, both bad and good, are typically a result of one of two things.

    1) Joy and tragedy are caused by ourselves or other people. Because of His gift of agency God cannot allow himself to interfere in those things we bring on ourselves.

    2) Natural consequences to the seemingly random behavior of the spinning top. Once God has engineered the rules for the universe to operate in, he cannot allow himself to change that engineering mid spin. This would invalidate any prior law and the world would cease to be a house of order but rather chaos.

    God is in control by setting guidelines and like a shepard guiding his children. Should we choose to listen the spirit can help us make descisions that will more likely lead to joy and not tragedy, but when tragic events happen that same spirit can help us meet those challenges in a positive way.

    Spiritually, we are taken care of. Another thing to consider is that for those who suffer, even one who has a decade long illness, their eventual death and suffering is like the tearing off of a bandaid in the eternal timeframe. Much of the real suffering seems to be for those left behind and how the deal with their challenges.

  5. I’m with Aaron, I believe that nothing is random with God, we just don’t understand it yet.

    I was quite bitter for years about my son’s death, I thought I’d had my share of heartache, but as I age, I see everyone around me dealing with various heartaches and I realize that with time, all is equal. We experience what we need to experience to grow. I don’t always like it, but I do believe God is mindful.

    This book I’m reading now makes the point (and he is not LDS) about God ceasing to be God if He doesn’t do things orderly. He also says that it doesn’t matter so much what happens to us as what happens in us. I think he’s right.

  6. The position between (2) and (3) is what John Welch explores in his recent BYU Studies article, John Sutton Welch, “Why Bad Things Happen at All: A Search for Clarity among the Problems of Evil” BYU Studies vol. 42:2:7 (2003). This really is a must read for anyone considering the questions Kevin raises.

    What I really like about John Welch’s article is that it stakes out a place for fully religious Latter-day Saints in the (3) category. This is a very reasonable position, in my opinion, especially considering that, as Kevin’s last question posits (“So…this happened. What am I going to do now?”), we are here to use our agency to choose the good no matter what happens to us. God can sit back and let nature and chaos take their toll, independent of his direction, and that goal is still met (notice how this position of randomness even accounts for things like biological influences in our lives, such as e.g. being born with a birth defect or, if homosexuality really is genetic, being born with such a homosexual gene in our physical bodies). He is there to intervene if it is according to his will or if it complies with his greater plan, to which none of us are privy. In fact, by taking this approach, God allows us to develop into moral creatures, i.e. creatures who choose of their own volition and despite external factors such as misery or suffering or biology to follow the divine, moral law and standards, rather than following such out of mere instinct or programming, which would be an unfulfilling predestination.

Comments are closed.