From a mathematical and practical standpoint, it seems that randomness and probabilities undergird the foundations of our universe. (See here for an intro. ). Even for those things which are not TRULY random (like the outcome of a flip of the coin, which is really determined by a whole set of variables), the amount of complexity involved in seemingly random occurrences (such as the chance of a thunderstorm on a specific place and date a decade from now) is so overwhelming that these things are best described in terms of chaos theory and its probabilities and fractals. (Our inability to exactly calculate Pi even after finding trillions of digits is an example of this complexity.)
RANDOMNESS and PRAYER
As a believer in Christ, one of the things I noticed when I was younger and just beginning to really pray about things was that most often, answers to prayer just seemed like a string of really good “luck.” Most of the time when we pray, nothing occurs that actually seems to break any natural laws (like limbs growing out, or objects materializing out of thin air.). Most of the time, it just ends up seeming like things went better than we could have expected them to go, with a line-up of freak coincidences and really impossible-to-conjecture happy occurrences just line up in.a way that leaves us in awe and praising God for how our prayers were heard.
Sometimes the string of “good luck” borders on the edge of ridiculous. I’ll never forget the time in my teens that I decided I wanted to SEE an angel and locked myself in my room for hours doing nothing but tarrying in prayer over this, holding to Jesus’s promise that if we asked for ANYTHING in His name, it would be done for us. While praying for so long, I had my eyes open and was staring into my aquarium as something to absent-mindedly look at while praying. Hours into this prayer marathon, with not a soul in the world including my family having any idea what I was focused on that day and no previous discussions about it with anyone, my mom who had been gone all day long while I was doing this, uncharacteristically had a random thought to go to the pet store and buy me two new fish — angel fish — for my aquarium.
It interrupted my prayers when she got home so I took a break to help her unload groceries and then put the bag floating in my tank to let the fish acclimate to the tank water, and ultimately shut my door and resumed my prayer, staring once again into my fish tank absently, until about 10 minutes in I realized I was looking right at “angels” that hadn’t been there when I started praying. Ok, well, I certainly wasn’t expecting ANGELfish, while begging the Lord to let me see an angel. Honestly, I was amused and angry at the same time, as I realized that for whatever reason, the joke was on me, as God demonstrated that He heard my prayer AND pretty much played with the semantics of my request to pull a joke on me which I was shocked to find out He might do.
Again, when prayer seems to result in a ridiculous string of “good luck” – another time much later on, my husband went for a couple weeks without work and our finances were stretched, and for various reasons we also couldn’t use our kitchen so we were having to eat out. While we prayed for the Lord to please bring him calls for work to provide for our bills, during that week our seeming “good luck” left us rejoicing in awe of the Lord’s kindness in the “ether” of the universe — a malfunctioning coupon code at one restaurant gave us our entire meal for free; at another restaurant, they mistakingly put mustard on something we asked for no mustard on, so they decided to fix the order AND give us 50% our entire meal. And on and on, until it was literally ridiculous and happy.
These are the types of occurrences that could never be used in an apologetics debate to prove God to someone who doesn’t believe, but for those who already believe, the seeming “good fortune” that occurs when praying about stuff can be pretty amazing. And yet accusations of “confirmation bias” might rightly be applied; which really only further underscores the point I wish to make – that overall, much of the time, God’s observed interactions with the physical universe are so subtle that they really look no different at all than the general randomness in the midst of overwhelming complexity that surrounds our existences. And yet, answered prayer seems to put us on the “good luck” side of that incalculable, immeasurable, randomness.
It should be mentioned that Curses, spiritual opposition, and general spiritual negativity seem to work like that too, though. For instance, people are often aware that when they try to step out in some direction in life for the purpose of bringing freedom to people long held in some sort of oppressive bondage, that often they experience a string of “bad luck” and everything going wrong — as if some invisible force was pushing back at them for trying to see others get set free from things.
The apostle Paul said in 1 Thess 2:17-18:
“Brothers, although we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in heart), our desire to see you face to face was even more intense. For we wanted to come to you—indeed I, Paul, tried again and again—but Satan obstructed us….”
This of course leaves open all sorts of room for interpretation — while one person might see a string of negative occurrences as “satan obstructing them” from a course of action, another person might see the same type of circumstance as God trying to show them to make a different decision about what they are doing. (The whole, “Open doors you want me to go through, God, and shut the ones you don’t,” sort of prayers that people sometimes pray, usually mean those people will take resistance not as a sign that satan is resisting them, but that God has “shut a door.” I personally usually don’t lean towards assuming everything that happens is from God.)
How can one know what is truly going on, whether general “flack” kicking up from the universe is just truly random, or perhaps a warning from God, or even a sign that one is headed in a right direction that evil forces don’t like? That’s a long discussion for a different blog post — one about divine guidance, discernment of spirits, and hearing God. But the short answer is that in my opinion, one can never make a decision based on circumstances alone; but must listen to the Holy Spirit to get His perspective, as different spirits (both God or evil spirits) can be responsible for things going on around us. We can learn though that we are supposed to have some role though in making such decisions from the apostle Paul who confidently asked other believers to join with him to “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful, as you pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word [notice no prayers here for closed doors], so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may declare it clearly, as I should.…” (Colossians 4:3)
THE UNIVERSE ON AUTOMATIC
All that aside, what about the kid who gets cancer, or the family killed in a freak car accident? What about when prayer doesn’t “work” at all, and instead of a string of good luck, everything goes terribly wrong, or nothing much happens at all? Is God (or satan) always to blame for the effects of seeming randomness?
As I learned about probability and chaos theory and brought some of those ideas into my faith, one time I felt God was inviting me to go to a casino with Him. (I seldom go to casinos but all things are permissible — in moderation. 😃 ). From that experience and multiple other “experiments” with randomness and probability, my opinion at the moment is this:
Most of the time, the universe just runs on automatic, albeit with Christ holding all things together. Most of the time, randomness is really just pretty random, with no One or ones specifically interacting with it.
BUT — It seems as if randomness is a place that God can hide yet emerge, when He wants to exert His influence, yet in a seemingly inconspicuous way. Most often, God’s exertion of His power is in conjunction with prayer, as God generally acts in conjunction with His human representatives, His kingdom of “kings and priests” on the Earth. Those of us who are in the midst of developing intimacy and friendship with Him can ask and watch for these emergings, and participate with Him in seeing them happen as we dialogue with Him about His will and desires. But most of the time even when God does do something unusual, He cloaks Himself with plausible deniability, so that only those with “eyes to see” really know that He has done something, and those whose eyes are still closed to Him can go on dismissing Him.
Why He does that, I don’t know if anyone can be sure; we all would love every moment to be like Elijiah before the prophets of Baal, putting God on full display with fire falling from Heaven in impossible ways, in plain view of those who don’t believe so that their coming to believe would be easy. But God doesn’t usually go for the full out, “breaking the laws of nature” power display….
(Although, sometimes, sometimes, He cracks right through the fabric of our mundane random reality with something completely out of this world, and undeniably freakish stuff happens. Or does He? Maybe in those cases He just operates within really, really, really good probabilities, so good that trillions of particles in the probability of quantum physics just “happen” to line up with creating a new organ or something…But whether it breaks the laws of physics or is just freakishly quantumly normal, this is really rare compared to what we’d often want it to be.).
My sense of this is just that God is Spirit, and He desires people to know Him in Spirit, so He hides Himself much of the time so that the only way He can truly be perceived is Spirit to Spirit. Because even if someone comes to believe in Him because of experiencing something material of Him directly with the eyes of their flesh, somehow then they still have a hurdle of getting past what they experienced in outward terms to really still apprehending Him with the gaze of their inner Spirit. (2 Corinthians 5:16)
RANDOMNESS AND THEISTIC EVOLUTION
There are considerations involving these topics when it comes to God using the randomness inherent to evolution to create all life on Earth. While evolution is not completely truly random but is a stochastic process operating under many filters and constraints, nevertheless there is enough randomness for one to refer to it as relying on probability and chance and be fairly correct. Often young-earth creationists will take this as a basis to object to a belief in evolutionary creation/theistic evolution, which because of randomness is in their mind being synonymous with a view that “God isn’t a Creator” or that miracles don’t happen.
But, as discussed above, God lives inside randomness and probability, and it is one of His favorite means of interacting with the material realm. If we are happy with answers to prayer that seem like nothing more than “good luck” while we indeed perceive that the “good luck” came from Heaven, while is it so unthinkable to concede that the mechanism of God’s direct action as Creator might involve Him breathing on probabilities and chances, even creating the fabric of probability and randomness itself?
When we speak of God “sending the rain” upon a place in response to prayer, do we think the rain came deliberately through some supernatural storehouse of precipitation, or can we speak of God sending precipitation knowing that He uses the same general random and chaotic occurrences that direct the weather on any other given day? I’d like to submit that the well-known “butterfly effect” — that a butterfly flapping its wings one day one one continent could be the tiny variable that when mixed with all the others ends up producing a hurricane in some other place — could just as easily be seen any tiny intervention from God, resulting in Homo sapiens and all other life on Earth.
God working from the hidden places of randomness is no less an act of creation than anything construed from a literal historical reading of Genesis 1 and 2; and in fact serves only to demonstrate His indescribable wisdom and power in being able to use incredibly complex and long-running processes towards His desired ends. For this, we praise the God of all life and all Creation, of all rain and all snow, and Creator of all the beautiful fractal patterns and outliers of this universe with all its probabilities and randomness.