Last month my wife and I saw the Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman,” a rude reminder of what awaits those who are driven by delusion. I received another such reminder upon returning from New York and finding an email from an old friend.
Her child was diagnosed with an especially virulent disease. The prognosis is troubling. Our relationship is close. I know she felt odd asking me for spiritual advice. But she wanted to know. Does God test us? If so, why? How do we know whether we pass the test? Why do we pray?
A professor at the seminary I attended warned, “Be careful of what you tell people. Some of them might just believe you!” My friend, like most of us, has been told over our lifetime that God does test us, gives us burdens God knows we can bear. Is that true? She wanted to know as she watches her daughter struggle. Is this a time for guessing?
Starting with the question about whether God even exists, we are all guessing. We point to the creation as evidence of the Creator. That’s what lawyers call circumstantial evidence. It’s true, you can win a case with circumstantial evidence but you are still asking the jury to make its best guess.
Circumstantial evidence differs from “direct” evidence. It creates an inference from which a fact may be deduced. Circumstantial evidence isn’t first-hand eyewitness accounts. It consists of things like fingerprints at the crime scene, or the presence of the accused in the vicinity.
Direct evidence, such as eyewitness testimony, is generally considered more powerful, but successful lawyers often rely on circumstantial evidence. When circumstantial evidence is cumulative, the weakness of such evidence is strengthened.
It’s persuasive to suggest the beauty of the mountains, the sky, lakes, and oceans demonstrate the existence of God. There’s no reasonable doubt when you consider the complexities of our DNA, genetics and anatomy. Just look at the chemical and organic properties of life and the way in which it has all evolved over millions of years. It’s easy to see the hand of God in all of that. Easy, but still circumstantial.
Circumstantial evidence leaves the jury wondering. Yeah, they are persuaded but they wish they had some direct evidence. They’re asked to make life and death decisions. Didn’t anyone actually see something, someone, hear a voice?
Is there an eyewitness to the existence of God? No. There are reports in the Bible of those who have seen God. Moses, Abraham, the prophets. Those reports don’t differ much from compelling claims of those who saw Babe the Ox and Paul Bunyan. Someone saw George Washington toss a silver dollar across the Potomac; another saw Abe Lincoln study by candlelight. Those stories gave us a reason to be patriotic Americans. The Bible stories give us reasons to be faithful. But all they give us is circumstantial reasons.
When someone about whom you care is suffering and asks for the evidence, can you simply guess? As a pastor, I find the answer in proclaiming the mystery of God. If God wanted the answers to be so easy they’d grace a bumper sticker, God could have created that world. God chose to create a world infinitely more complex, one filled with ambiguities rather than answers.
So I offer prayers to God for her and her daughter and the rest of us, trusting that the God I trust, the God of grace and love will be there for all of us in God’s own mysterious ways.