Individual success or failure and God’s will.

***Dave of ***Dave Does the Blog fame provides what is probably the first decent answer to a question many atheists, myself included, have been asking for years: Why do some Christians attribute good fortune to an intervention on their behalf by God, but not their bad fortune? ***Dave was prompted to offer his thoughts after reading David Bernstein’s blog entry posing pretty much the same question. Bernstein phrased his take on the question as follows:

I’ve noticed that Americans have a tendency to publicly attribute any success they have had—anything ranging from winning a Little League playoff game to winning the lottery—to God’s intervention on their behalf. But I haven’t noticed a countervailing tendency to blame God when things go wrong, an especially annoying defect in the sports world, where victories are freely attributed to Jesus’s blessings. If God wanted the Marlins to win the World Series, doesn’t that mean he wanted the Yankees to lose?

***Dave’s response is the first I’ve seen that proposes some possible reasons for this that made sense to me:

  • It’s prideful to attribute success to one’s own merits. It comes across as bragging. That said, there are plenty of people who say, “Yeah, we really all played hard today, and that’s why we won.”
  • It’s nice to think that God is blessing you materially and with success. It’s scary to think that God is punishing you materially or with failure. On the other hand, while I’ve found folks who thank Jesus (etc.) for the good things in their life to often be pleasant and, well, thankful, folks who attribute their failures to God’s displeasure usually react by becoming puritanical and fundamentalist (very OT), which is often not all that good a thing.
  • Blaming God, especially over something like a football game or the lottery, seems improper and/or asking for further trouble. If we are going to lament, Job-like, we tend to do so in private, in the dark of night.
  • Some folks do say things like, “I guess it just wasn’t meant to be,” or, “I guess God had other plans in mind.” But, particularly in the arena of sports, that sort of attitude would sound fatalistic; sports is a “can-do” field, and while it’s nice to appreciate God doing something nice for you, “God helps he who makes TDs himself,” so to speak.

While not being willing to discount by any means divine intervention in human affairs, reading it into fortune (or failure) is an iffy proposition at best. It gets into a very tangled thicket of free will vs predestination, why God lets bad things happen to good people, and other thorny conundra that are uncomfortable to examine, let alone assert.

My own theory on the topic is based on the observation that some factions of Christianity seem to emphasize the approach that mankind is unworthy to draw breath let alone expect any good fortune to come his or her way and so even the slightest bit of good fortune must certainly be a sign of God smiling upon us when all we really deserve is to be bitch-slapped and tossed into Hell for the sins we’ve committed.

This attitude reminds me of scenes from black comedy films where the really evil tyrant of a king in a moment of confusion from some startling news orders that the peasant cowering before him for some offense such as stealing food merely lose his hands rather than be put to death in some horrible fashion whereupon the peasant immediately begins thanking and praising the king’s immense kindness and mercy. That’s probably not how these people really view their situation, but that’s the sort of thing it reminds me of.

A particularly annoying form of this behavior are the various forwarded emails extolling stories of how a faithful believer avoids some terrible harm lying in wait for them after prayer while other’s fall victim to it such as the one about the young woman who avoids being raped in an alley. As ***Dave points out himself it’s likely the folks who promote this viewpoint don’t consider the implied message these sorts of statements contain.

Back when I was inclined to believe in the concept of god(s) I tended to think he/she/it had better things to do with his/her/its time than micromanage every event that happens in every person’s life. Then again, he is supposed to have some grand plan for every single person according to most Christian teachings so perhaps he just likes some people more than others.

My, that line of thinking does open a rather messy can of worms…

15 thoughts on “Individual success or failure and God’s will.

  1. From “The Meaning of Life” by good old Monty Python:

    “O Lord, please don’t burn us.
    Don’t grill or toast Your flock.
    Don’t put us on the barbecue
    Or simmer us in stock.
    Don’t braise or bake or boil us
    Or stir-fry us in a wok.
    Oh, please don’t lightly poach us
    Or baste us with hot fat.
    Don’t fricassee or roast us
    Or boil us in a vat,
    And please don’t stick Thy servants, Lord,
    In a Rotissomat.”

    I’ve always wondered the same thing about pro sports folks.  Why come, bloody and ravaged, from a heavyweight bout where you have just pounded your opponents forehead into his hindbrain, and then thank Jesus?

    It would be refreshing to hear “well, we would have won the game, but that bastard Jesus smote our quarterback in the first quarter, then obviously blinded the field judge on that 3rd quarter touchdown dispute”

    D

  2. i am an athiest but if i was a football coach desperate for a win, i would rally up the boys and say “jesus is behind us and will grant us victory tonight.”  It’s amazing how countless generals and rulers have used the belief in help from the divine to stir up some spirit in their men.  in greek mythology, athena supposedly intervened in bloodbaths to help her favorites slay the enemy.  some of the most successful professional teams attribute their success to a false belief that “god is helping us” promoted by the coach. the mental belief that the divine is behind you is a very powerful tool.  hell, i’m only 5’9 140 pounds but if some guy convinced me that some all-knowing all-powerful spirit had my back, i’d blindly run into a fight against mike tyson and he’d kick my little ass.

  3. Humans have always taken the spiritual messages in the Bible and tried to apply them to the physical world.  Example: Mark’s gospel has a passage in the last chapter which says that believers will be able to handle serpents without suffering any harm.  People read that, and decide they can handle poisonous snakes because their faith will protect them.  Only problem: rattlesnakes don’t read the Bible.  In fact, anyone with knowledge of Hebreisms knows that “serpents” are symbolic of spiritual corruption, going all the way back to the third chapter of Genesis.  Goes to show the dangers of reading the Bible literally, I suppose.

    Bottom line, the Bible is a guide to living a noble and spiritual life.  It’s a book about God’s relationship with Man, and Man’s relationship with God.  If you want magic spells that let you catch a football or hit a home run, go visit a psychic.  It will do just as much good.

    Slate had a good article on this a while back.

  4. The first person I heard bring this up was George Carlin in the seventies. “Yeah, we were doing great until Jesus made me fumble.” -GC

  5. The Skeptics Annotated Bible can be found here.  Someone put some major hours and hard work into this - - but it’s excellent reading.

    Great post!

  6. Well, pleased to have provided a “decent answer.” 

    As it’s pointed out, it’s easy to turn the idea of an omniscient and omnipoent God into a whip to get your followers enthused (“See, God is blessing us!  Go, us!”), a whip to get your followers to toe your line (“See, God is punishing you!  Follow me!”), etc.  It’s also seductively easy to see all misfortunes as proof of someone’s else’s unworthiness (and thus unworthiness to be helped).

    And, yes, there is a real sense of unworthiness emphasized in certain threads of Christianity.  In small doses, that’s useful, but, again, it’s a slippery slope into feeling one deserves random acts of badness to occur to one (or that folks deserve their misfortune).

    In my view, debating over Why God Lets Bad Things Happen To People is a useless endeavor.  What happens to us is, usually, a lot less important than what we do with what happens to us.  Which is an easy and glib thing to say when something bad isn’t happening to you, of course.

  7. Axilrod,

    Your negativism about fighting Mike Tyson means that you clearly did not understand the wisdom and advice given to David when he fought Goliath.

    “Against larger opponents at a distance, use ranged weapons.”

    Hope you are enlightened.

    -JO

  8. That whole doG helps some people idea is a true annoyance. A Second cousin of mine, who I barely know, sent me a World Trade Center slide show about “WHERE GOD WANTS YOU TO BE” and it’s nauseating! The gist of it was, all the people who were late for work on Sept. 11 for one reason or another, even though they may have been frustrated at the time, were just where doG wanted them to be.  Holy crap!  Does that really mean that all the people who died horribly on that day were also just where the doG wanted them to be - or did he just have trouble getting around to making everyone late???  That anyone thinks like this is horrifying. You’d need big blinders on to actually buy this load of poo for any length of time.

  9. JethricOne, boxing mike tyson actually would be done in a not so long ranged boxing ring and with no weapons that would give me any advantage. i would get severely injured and possibly killed.  my negativism is justified

  10. I do know one thing for sure, The Supreme Being, be it God, Allah, Gnesh, Earth Mother, Hank Sr., whoever; I know they hate the Buffalo Bills.

  11. I cringe everytime I see a baseball player or other athlete point to the sky after getting a hit.  It is the individual that has made the accomplishment.  If they should thanking anybody, it should be themselves or the people around them that have supported them.  If I were to teach somebody how to do something and then they went off and thanked god for succeeding, I would be pissed of.

  12. Guess a lot of what you point out is true…damn, you’d be so dead if you tried to fight Tyson, by the way.

    I agree with you on personal achievements such as those in sports. I mean, come on,you worked hard (or your opponents did not work so hard) you won…leave it at that.

    Still, if someone believes that God had something to do with it, leave them be..really…it must make sense to them somehow so, well, you know, that’s cool too.

    But, really, half the time, people are just too caught up in religion to think straight.

  13. As I see it Religion is all to confusing so I looked to the numbers behind the religions.

    Initally it doesn’t help to have the name Gregory

    Ie Gregory of David is G.0.D.

    Iesous is Jesus name in Greek and has a value of 888 this doesn’t help either because I was born 41763 so 17 would be a special number?!?

    888b in base 17 converts to 41763 in base 10

    random convergence right … I wish

    888 in base 17 is 314 or Pi yea random
    4171963 in the sum of squares

    3
    1415
    1473——-
    5888
    4171963=3^2+1415^2+1473^2

    Hungry for more have a piece of pi

    using the root of 17 4.1231 a 17 4 so use 1231

    3 14 159 3 (1 2 3 1)
    3 + 14 17
    17 + 159 is 176

    3 14 159 3
        176   and now the first and last to the 159
      41763
    lets check
    3 14+15 93
    in 3 of 93 someone born 41763 would be 14+15 or 29
    it gets worse
    1993 in base 14 converted to base 17 is the number
    G0D but it doesn’t stop there in 3 14,15 of 1993 there was the storm of the century which 105 years earlier a similar storm guess the year
    yep 1888
    when it comes to Grey Matter im in it deep
    Now when you think you have the world on your shoulders and its a heavy load think of me and what I am supose to achive - Balance

    Love Greg
    my code for this note forward89 got ta love it

  14. It is a lot easier if you are a buddhist:
    Be grateful for existence.
    Have compassion for all sentient beings.
    Sit and pay attention, it’ll eventually make sense.

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