Stop Trying to Get God Off the Hook

Why we don't have to explain everything God does.

We don’t know why everything happens how it does. The ups and downs and confusing twists and turns don’t always come with divine commentary.

Humans are driven to explain everything, but it’s not easy to craft a seamless picture of what God is doing all the time.

But that doesn’t stop us from trying.

We spend days, months and even years guessing about God’s hand. We find people in the ebb and flow of life and start guessing what God is doing with them. We talk about open doors and closed doors, seasons of joy and seasons of suffering. We create “plug and play” categories for how God orchestrates life “in his timing” and “according to his will.” Admittedly, the line of logic gets subjective, but we work hard to fabricate satisfactory explanations.

Trusting God is not finding security in your overarching explanations of everything he does.

Is this seeking God or just a sense of control?

I have learned the substitute for faith is control. It’s not whether you believe or don’t believe. You always trust something.

The question is: Do you have faith in God or faith in your answers to all your questions? Our hunger for control often transforms faith into quick guesses about what is going on. I wonder how much our theories about what God is doing cripple our ability to trust.

The intentions behind such theories are rarely malicious. Normally people tell me why God put me in a season so I will hope in him. It’s assumed knowing what God is doing helps us trust him. But those good intentions fall apart when you start guessing.

What begins as an effort to make God trustworthy crumbles under the arrogance of boxing him into your best guess. You start pushing theories about God’s invisible purposes and a listener’s faith moves away from God to the most plausible argument for what makes sense out of certain circumstances.

Shut up and be wise

Have you ever read Job 13:5? It's a good reminder any time you start talking a lot. It’s especially poignant when you’re telling people why God is doing what he’s done in their lives.

I know the agonizingly slow dialogue about Job's suffering doesn't provide a real "pick me up." Job loses everything. Every animal he owns is taken. All his kids die. His body is thrashed with boils. He lives on the verge of death, and God doesn’t put him out of his misery. All he gets is bad advice from three argumentative friends and an angry wife.

Depressing as it may be, Job contrasts sharply with another book of dialogue discovered from a similar time period in ancient Babylon called the Dialogue of Pessimism. The Babylonian Dialogue ends with the pessimistic recommendation to commit suicide because life's problems are unbearable. It’s logical but frightening.

Job thankfully comes to a more redemptive conclusion at the end of his dialogue, even though he doesn't get all his questions answered.

When Job’s mysterious suffering begins, he gets some welcome support from three friends who sit in silence with him. But that doesn't last long. Eventually, they all take a crack at explaining exactly why God has made Job's life suck. Their explanations suck even worse.

Do you have faith in God or faith in your answers to all your questions?

When Job senses how worthless his friends' theories are about God's hidden ways, he delivers a priceless one-liner in Job 13:5. "If you guys would be completely silent, it would demonstrate your wisdom."

Ouch. Job does not beat around the bush. For those of us who like to explain everything, he says, “Shut up.” When you are pulling stuff out of thin air to guess at what God is doing behind the scenes in someone's life, you need to hear it.

Explaining away our own irresponsibility

It gets dangerous when we spend more time trying to figure out what God is doing than doing what we have already figured out. I remember sitting with an international student who was getting booted out of the country. He couldn’t believe it. He began theorizing why God was sending him back home. Maybe to brush up on some former vocational skills or take a sabbatical from ministry?

I couldn’t see how it made sense to spend time guessing what God is doing when this young man knew plenty about what God wanted done. God wanted this man’s unhealthy sexual activity stopped. God wanted to grant him freedom from an addiction and to replace his lies with truth-telling. The Bible made it easy enough to figure that out. But this guy didn’t want to act on what he knew. He wanted to theorize about what he might never know. He let the mystery of God’s ways distract him from the clear error of his own.

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Watch out for this temptation. It’s easy to substitute faith for guessing games about God’s plan. We’d rather focus on mystery than obey what we know. We settle for the control found in a well-crafted guestimation of God’s sovereign orchestration. We don’t trust and obey. We explain and maintain.

Faith, or a convincing explanation?

I've fallen victim before to the confusion between faith and explanations. But faith is not an explanation of exactly how God is orchestrating things. That's bogus. That is the opposite of faith in God. It is, in fact, reliance on one's perception and mental grasp of life's variables. Trusting God is not finding security in your overarching explanations of everything he does. Such explanations can actually dismantle faith in those who listen.

So the next time you find yourself wanting to keep explaining why confusing things are happening the way they are, stop. The next time you feel ready to articulate the divine architecture behind someone else’s life, hold on. Shut your mouth and be wise.

“Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is wise” – Proverbs 17:28


David Bocock


David Bocock commented…

I was led to read this post because the title suggested that we don't have to continually explain why God does one thing or another. God's ways are not always our ways and, as the author suggests, there are some things we simply cannot know. I agree and to me, faith is learning to trust in God while life happens.

Unfortunately, as I continued to read, I was thrown a curve ball when the author provides what he feels are the obvious spiritual reasons as to why God is causing his friend's deportation. This just seems like a HUGE disconnect from author's intended point (regardless of how valid/invalid his argument may be). I am thinking an example about how a person misunderstood God's direction might have been more helpful.

Paul Penley


Paul Penley replied to David Bocock's comment

David - sorry the flow of the article made it seem like I (the author) was making conclusions about "why" the guy was being deported. That was not the intent. I had no behind-the-scenes insight about "why" God was deporting him nor did I think he was getting punished for his sins by a denied visa renewal. My concern was his focus on figuring out what God was up to rather than responding to what God has made clear to us. Hope that helps clear things up about "the curve ball." Thanks for reading so intently!

Sungil Paul Hong


Sungil Paul Hong replied to David Bocock's comment

No offense but I think you might have slightly missed the point of the article. Yes, there is the point of 'No, we do not always know God's plan and purpose in seasons of suffering', but I think his main point was in those moments our response should not always necessarily be to explain what God's plan and purpose is. I think Dr. Penley is trying to say that in those moments instead of trying to figure out why God would allow that circumstance to occur, we should be focusing on what we already know God wants: repentance, belief, trusting, obeying, etc etc.

His example of the foreign student showed this. Dr. Penley was not saying that the sin caused him to be deported (because that's what the foreign student was trying to figure out). Dr. Penley was showing an example of what a lot of us do in times of tragedy: we try and explain it away instead of doing what Jesus told his audience in Luke 13:
Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

Paul Penley


Paul Penley replied to Sungil Paul Hong's comment

Sungil - Love the reference to Luke 13:1-5. It's a powerful statement from Jesus to those of us who get lost guessing about God's behind-the-scenes activity when more concrete and clear actions should take priority.

JimKassie Grossman


JimKassie Grossman replied to Paul Penley's comment

Sungil, I'm not sure David missed the point. He got that it isn't about what is happening, the cirumstances, or about guessing destinys. Which is why he was confused. It seemed like to David that Paul was saying there was a clear reason for the foreign student to see problems in his life, which was sin, and guessing about unclear reasons makes no sense. so do what you know. Which could have been confusing if you thought the author(Paul) was saying that we cant know reasons why God does stuff. Until i read David's comment, i glossed over that, i didnt recognize what he mentioned. and I think he has a good point. but for me the example was hard hitting. I think you can know some things. like in the example - you can know to stop unhealthy behavior and act on that - but you cant know God's reasons for things in a special circumstance, unless God has specifically revealed his reason to you for that specific circumstance. I thought it was a good example by the authot to focus on what you can know, and what you can do.

I do think David had a valid point too, if we cant know, then we cant use the example. But i dont think Penley was saying that we cant know anything God does, there is scripture. certain things are knowable. I think he was saying, dont guess. and especially dont base anything you do off of a guess. And as a sidenote - for the love of God, please dont do what Job's friends did after their silence. Please just be silent when you have to geuss at it. After all even a fool who keeps his mouth shut is thought wise.



Kory commented…

Somewhat tangental issue, but your foreign friend connected with some Bible reading I did this morning through a passage I would otherwise never recall. Isa 5:18-21 is about self-justifying moral mud-makers. A legit passage, thought I would share it.

Steve Cornell


Steve Cornell commented…

Perhaps as Christopher Wright suggests, certain evils are simply not supposed to make sense and it's a good thing that they don't (check out a summary of this view here, "Good to be confused by evil?"

Alisha L. Gordon


Alisha L. Gordon commented…

This wrecked me! Great work!

Clayton P. King


Clayton P. King commented…

While I think I understand the intent of the article-certainly the first half, I am unclear as to what unhealthy sexual activity it was clearly God's desire to have stopped. And regardless of what that was exactly, it also seems to me that presuming to know God wanted something places God in a fairly small and predictable box.

Paul Penley


Paul Penley replied to Clayton P. King's comment

When the Bible clearly prohibits sex outside of marriage from start to finish with consistency between covenants, then I do not believe we are "presuming" or putting "God in a fairly small and predictable box." We are simply trusting and obeying what is clear rather than missing it by focusing on the mystery of what God is doing next.

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