Stories of Divine Intervention

A painful church experience to which I think many people can relate is that of listening to people share stories of divine intervention that didn’t happen in your life. People might talk, for example, about God giving them healthy children. If you don’t have children, or if your children aren’t healthy, this can really sting. Or perhaps God is reported to have intervened to cure a disease—one from which you or someone you love still suffers. Maybe God spared people from accidents, or blessed them financially. Those who weren’t blessed in those ways are inevitably going to wonder why. As a single person,my favorites are the “how God led me to my spouse” stories. (You might think that this would be a different sort of concern for me, given that I’m gay, but actually there are plenty of gay people who will testify that God brought their partners into their lives.) And hardest of all, I suspect, are stories about God saving people’s lives, when he didn’t save the life of the person you loved.

If you have good fortune in your life, it is all too easy to see it as a sort of divine reward for righteousness. The scriptures reinforce this—the Doctrine and Covenants tells us that “when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated” (D&C 130:21). This can lead to a certain smugness, and the comforting idea that if you keep the commandments well enough, bad things won’t happen to you. An alternative is that God is blessing you with things you don’t deserve—and I think many people would in fact say this is true. But for those left out in the cold, it is still hard not to see this as evidence of divine favoritism. Sometimes this really runs amok, as in urban legends like the one that all the Mormons who worked in the World Trade Center miraculously stayed home on 9/11—the underlying theme being that God cares more about protecting his LDS children than his other children. That’s simply obnoxious (and the story is of course false). But in everyday situations, in testimony meetings every month, we encounter this issue: why does God appear to be blessing some people while ignoring others?

I have heard way too many times that everything happens for a reason, and it’s all part of a divine master plan. If God didn’t heal you, it’s because your illness fits into his plan for your life. If God didn’t help you find a job, it’s because you’re supposed to be learning lessons from being unemployed. But this gets ugly really fast, because God is then the mastermind of horrific events. Is it part of God’s plan for children to starve, or be abused, because they’re learning important lessons? I also hate it when people say things like, “God let you have that trial because he knew you could handle it; I never could have managed to deal with it.” It’s a convenient and perhaps comforting way to distance yourself from those in difficult situations, but it isn’t fair. People get trials all the time that they can’t handle, that break them.

I realize that I’m getting into the problem of evil here, and I’m obviously not going to solve that in a blog post. But I want to bring this back to a more practical question. How do we talk about our lives in ways that are sensitive to others? We might say that some things are just dumb luck. But then we have that scripture saying that “in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things in all things” (D&C 59:21). And we’ve also got the reality that many people have a deep testimony that God has intervened in their lives in important ways. I’m of two minds about this precisely because I’ve felt that—but I’ve also felt the sting of the ways that God hasn’t intervened, when people share stories about getting blessings that have passed me by. I don’t want to say, don’t ever express appreciation for your blessings. I think having gratitude is important. But I also know just how much it can hurt to hear about how much God has blessed other people. Perhaps it would help if we didn’t frame our blessings as evidence of divine love, even if we see them as divine in origin. If you say that God gave you x because he loved you so much, you’re raising hard questions about those who didn’t get x. We can also genuinely mourn with those that mourn, rather than distancing ourselves from their pain by saying that it must be for a reason, or that God thinks they’re particularly strong. Still, this is a hard issue, and I’d love to hear how other people have negotiated it.

And in the end, maybe this is one of many reasons that we would do well to focus our testimonies on God’s love (based not on the good things in your life, but on your experiences with him), on Christ, on the atonement—because those are the things that matter the most, and they’re relevant to everyone.

10 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I think there are two problems with talking about blessings in transactional terms: hurting other people by suggesting they are less-than, and setting oneself up for a faith crisis when future blessings don’t come. I have dealt with this by lowering my expectations for divine intervention to almost nil. I believe, as Steven Peck said this week in an interview with Jana Reiss, that God enters the universe through conscienceness. I don’t ask for material things, I say I am grateful, and I say I am undeserving (which is totally true). I think many people have not worked out the language for expressing gratitude without employing causality.

    At the risk of being self-promoting, have you read my essay “Arithmetic Rhetoric” from the last Exponent II issue? It deals with many of the questions you raise.




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  2. I think a lot of the problem stems from the phrase, “I would be ungrateful if I didn’t publicly stand up and thank God for…” that we commonly hear in testimony meetings. It’s easy to think in our culture that only public gratitude counts, but I think several scriptural examples point us towards private prayer, private service, hey, maybe even private gratitude. We can avoid hurting others and still be thankful. We can express our feelings of divine intervention to close friends and family who such a testimony would benefit and bind together, with sensitivity for how sharing that experience with certain people might not be what they need to hear to be strengthened on their way.




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  3. This is so important. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately – about blessings vs privileges vs fortuitous circumstances and what the differences between them are and whether it matters. When we talk about bad things happening to good people, it’s usually explained as God not interfering with others’ agency (unless they did not involve the actions of specific individuals, in which case it’s “all for the best”). And yet, when good things happen, there are never any qualifiers; it is automatically framed as divine intervention, a blessing directly from God, evidence of the love of a Heavenly Father. Why do we acknowledge that bad things happen to good people (or people of indeterminate moral status) because of the actions of humans or chance, not God, but never acknowledge that sometimes good things happen to people because of the actions of humans or chance as well?

    I think a lot of the way we frame things stems from a fear of seeming ungrateful. However, I don’t think that acknowledging that not all good things in our lives are necessarily the result of direct divine intervention has to necessitate ingratitude. Whether a positive thing in our lives is a blessing directly from God, a privilege resulting from societal exploitation of the underprivileged, dumb luck, or a positive consequence of ours or someone else’s choices, I think it is important to be grateful. But gratitude of this nature is, or at least should be, less about dutifully thanking the source of whatever positive thing is in our lives, and more about recognizing that we are really not entitled to anything in this life. And, recognizing our lack of entitlement, we can better understand our responsibility to use whatever resources we happen to have to help others.




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  4. Thanks for raising this issue, Lynnette. I don’t recall who it was I heard say this, but I think this point is so important: Every faith-promoting story is also faith-destorying when it’s relayed to people who it didn’t happen to.

    I’d love it if your approach to framing our experiences became more common. Unfortunately, I think there’s a strong current pushing against your very last point where we talk about our belief in God’s love because of the atonement. Russell M. Nelson in particular seems very concerned that we not think of God as being *too* loving; he definitely wants to think of God’s love as being distributed variably depending on how many commandments we keep.




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  5. I have to be honest that this view of blessings granted according to keeping the commandments has never made any sense to me. I feel like it is more wishful thinking. We really want the world to work in a way where if people act how we think they should, God loves them and will bless them. If they act in a way we think they shouldn’t, God withdraws his love and blessings. How nice and fair and wonderful. There is only one problem: in real life, it absolutely, unequivocally, 100% does not work like that.
    I come from a background of extreme privelege. I am white, straight, and come from an upper middle class family. While I wouldn’t claim that my life has been perfect, I can think of very few things that have really gone wrong. I grew up in a nice neighborhood, had plenty of nice friends, never struggled with school or just about anything, despite the fact that I’ve always been the fat kid, I had no problem getting dates or boyfriends, went to college on a scholarship, went on a mission that my parents paid for, got married, had kids, never struggled to find a job (although I’ve had plenty I didn’t really enjoy). I did absolutely nothing to deserve this life. I’m not a terrible person, but I can think of plenty of people who are way more Christlike who have had much harder lives.
    I was taught to fill my prayers with gratitude, but it always seems disingenuous to do so, when in the back of my mind all I can think is that there are so many people out there who have been given so little and deserve so much more than I do. At the same time, it seems equally wrong not to thank God for all that I have been given. To be honest, it often makes prayer rather difficult when I’m just not sure at what point my gratitude turns into a sort of arrogance and self-righteousness Zoramite style.




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  6. What a thoughtful post.

    I’ve got a couple theories about the stories saints tell that turn God into the ultimate vending machine or a galactic ‘Simon Says’ leader.

    1) They could be leaning on popular narratives as a testimony crutch as they begin their walk with God. We hear about Mary Fielding Smith herding her cattle with prayer on the plains, which has become a narrative- a story form. Fast forward to today and little Timmy (6 yrs old) testifies in church that he prayed to find his favorite fire engine and God obliged and his testimony was strengthened. Did God really help him find it or was it inevitable that he would eventually stumble across it? Who knows, but Timmy was modeling faith. If it helps him to practice using faith- to experiment with it, to experience times of ‘finding’ and ‘failing’, then it’s ok. Some people would cry foul and say that it is deceitful of God to allow faith to grow under false pretenses, but I think God, like my mom, claps when I take wobbly baby steps- even if it isn’t a step at all and I end up plopping on the floor. To get the baby to keep trying, they have to believe they were getting the hang of it, even if they weren’t. Sometimes when I hear these stories and am not edified by the testimony given and think it is false and trivial. Maybe so, but I’m trying these days to step back and see whether I’m observing a developmental stage for the individual that is being supported by the spirit for reasons I don’t understand. It sometimes lets me be more at peace.

    2) Relativism is important to keep in mind. I seriously doubt the God of the universe would care whether a whiney middle-class spoiled kid would find his favorite fire truck toy. But, I don’t know what it meant to the little guy or to God or how God might know what is best to communicate with little Timmy’s unique heart. Who knows, maybe Timmy hadn’t had a spiritual experience in a long time and needed one at that moment and the fire truck was all God had to work with. There’s a strange relativism in God’s works. There are beautiful stories of the widow’s oil, and meal appearing on the trail for handcart pioneers, and manna and quail, crickets and gulls, etc. Again, when I hear these stories and wonder what the significance is of a toy or oil or a cricket or a baby (something I will never have), I leave a little wiggle room for relativism in individualization.

    3) Clumsy storytelling. When the spirit speaks to our hearts, it is another language and we have to translate it into some form- whether it is art or music or language. Something that I think is tricky to translate is the fact that in the spiritual realm, time is warped. Not everything fits into kronos (chronological) time, but slips int kairos and other varieties. People frequently talk about temple work as removed from time, and near death experiences are also scrambled. So, when Timmy begins to describe why he had a testimony of God helping him find his fire truck, it is quite possible that Timmy’s answer to prayer came before or as he was deciding to pray, that is when his little heart was touched. However, he told the story in a familiar chronological narrative which connected the dots for everyone (especially logical types) in a sequential way. The toy became inextricably linked to the action and so forth, when all along it never really mattered. Unfortunately, because the story was sequenced, everyone believed that the finding of the truck was the whole point, which is wasn’t. I’m not a spiritual Geiger-counter, I’ll readily admit I’m the most out-of-tune person I know, but when I’ve felt edified by these illogical stories as a listener, I’ve felt the gist of what they were getting at at the *beginning* of their story, at *something else* underlying the story, not at the happy resolution of the tale. You’ve challenged me to try and bear my testimony of the times that I don’t find the toy truck, but still feel God’s love.




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  7. My take: God’s hand is in my life as I am connected to Him. Sometimes He is there in the rejoicing. Sometimes He is there in the sorrow. Like many others, I’ve experienced both and will, I am sure, face even more extremes of both in the future.

    It is interesting to me that the narratives you cite are ones where what was desired or prayed for was received. Or not received. And there is the sense that that those are, in the human mind, opposites of experience, which opposition creates pain in the experience of the latter when the former is expressed. But my experience is that, with eyes to see, God is present and manifestly there for me, and each of us, in both. His role is not in doling out, but in coaching through, be it joy, abundance and gratitude, or loss, heartbreak and devastation, or anything in between.

    I like what Jason K. said over on his post at By Common Consent on Nov. 29th.

    “Through the Spirit, prayer becomes our gateway into the life of God, [a] mechanism for transforming us both individually and collectively into the instruments of Christ in the world. Prayer, then, is a fundamentally hopeful practice, not because it is a magic wand that we use to make God give us what we want, but because it [brings us] to hope to become as Jesus would have us be: children of God who treat one another as such.”

    So, when I mourn losses, grateful for God’s grace while I sorrow, and a sister in my ward, rejoices in blessings, there is not (in spite of the challenges of language that Mortimer refers to) a real dichotomy. Both experiences are both part of the whole of connection with God.

    And both my sister and I, if we are open to that transformation that Jason referred to, may, if we understand and allow ourselves, come to feel and express deep gratitude to God together.

    So yes, I agree, “we would do well to focus our testimonies on God’s love (based not on the good things in your life, but on your experiences with him)”. But I do not believe that requires us to avoid mentioning the things generally recognized as “good” our lives (or it the tragic ones). We are called to rejoice with those who rejoice as well as sorrow with those who sorrow. When I see God’s hand in both and do that transforming there is no sorrow at another’s reception of a recognized blessing, just further gratitude.

    And that is, I believe, part of becoming one in Christ.




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  8. When my son was 19 he was diagnosed with Leukemia. I prayed non stop for his recovery. The doctors thought he had a chance. He was young, strong and previously healthy. He had three, yes three, priesthood blessings that talked of recovery. I promised God if my son lived I would sing his praises and testify of Him.
    My son died two months later.
    My childlike faith was pretty much destroyed. It’s been 16 years since this happened. I’ve got a different relationship with God now. Not one of entitlement. If I’m worthy and do all the right things I’ll be rewarded. I know that sounds foolish but that was the way I was raised.
    It still slays me though, when I hear testimonies of ” I had a priesthood blessing and lived happily ever after”.




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  9. I think when people say that they couldn’t possibly go through what you are, what they mean is that they aren’t going to let themselves think about what it’s like.

    I feel that it’s this utter lack of empathy that leads to crap like publicly thanking God for saving your child’s life, in front of people who’ve lost their own children. It’s yet another kind of privilege that Mormons are encouraged to be blind to.




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