Vail Daily column: How does God intersect our lives?

Jack Van Ens
My View
Jack Van Ens

Controversy flares up over how God works in our lives. Three opposing convictions are: God works “hands-on;” God works “hands-off;” and, God is “hands-in” when he intersects life.

Divergent reasons for why rain falls illustrate the three views about how God operates in our lives. Some people are grateful their creator turns on a celestial faucet and “sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). They believe God directly intersects our lives in a “hands-on” way.

Others, who rely on meteorological explanations for precipitation, dismiss as pre-scientific the “hands-on” way of tracing rain’s source. Clouds form. Cold air hits a hot mass. Rain falls in response to these dynamics. These people see God’s role when it comes to producing moisture as “hands-off.”

Still more reject both God’s overstated or understated role in making rain. They thank the creator who functions with “hands-in” when rain falls.

When rain pours, these people picture God acting like a basketball coach. She isn’t “hands-on” so that she suits up to play. Nor does she remain in the locker room, “hands-off” when her team takes the court. A coach directs her team from the bench. She’s hands-in, setting up game strategy.

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Some trust a magical “hands-on” God who sends rain to fix a parched world. Many years ago, a Princeton Seminary classmate’s car failed to start. A man walking his dog offered help. He happened to be a retired mechanic. Filled with gratitude, my seminary classmate retold how God magically sent this mechanic to jumpstart the car.

This seminarian viewed God as an active agent in his life. Philosophers call his “hands-on” God working directly in the world an “enchanted view.” Thomas G. Long, Presbyterian teacher of preachers, describes this ‘hands-on” view of God’s activity that elicits gratitude. “An enchanted world is one in which God (or the gods) is active in the events of everyday life. God is present in the falling rain, the breaking of bread at the dinner table, the kiss of lovers, the birth of a child, the wind in the trees. The skies sing of the glory of God and the firmament proclaims the divine handiwork” (“What Shall We Say: Evil, Suffering and the Crisis of Faith”).


Benjamin Franklin perceived God working from afar rather than actively engaging in daily life. He couldn’t imagine a “supremely perfect” God cares a whit for “such an inconsiderable nothing as man.” Franklin would say a chance encounter between a seminarian with car trouble and a helpful mechanic proved fortuitous. Luck — that’s all.

Franklin believed God works in creation in a Big Bang sort of way. He gave birth to the world and did such an excellent job that now natural laws take over to run it.

Professor Long describes Franklin’s gratitude as “disenchanted.” That is, God sits on creation’s sidelines because the world manages very well on its own. “A disenchanted world, on the other hand,” writes Long, “is one in which the world is a closed system operating according to natural laws. God — if in fact there is a God — is outside the system, and, contrary to Newton’s confidence, there is nothing in the natural order that demonstrates the universe is in fact, a divine creation.”


Thomas Long describes faulty alternative ways of seeing God that prompt thanksgiving. “To the eyes of faith, the blooming of flowers and the spangling of stars in the night sky may be fingerprints of God, but to others these events can be fully described in terms of cellular mitosis and thermo-nuclear fusion.”

Franklin sees God acting in life like a computer whiz who booted up the universe at creation and then “hands-off” lets it run by natural laws. The seminarian is thankful because God acts like a “hands-on” Geek Squad helper. She makes home visits to reboot computers, similar to how God miraculously starts cars and sends rain.

A bumper sticker suggests a third way of looking at how God works in life. Call it a “hands-in” perspective.

Some believers display a car sticker shaped like a fish. First-century Christians posted this sign on doors to alert others to a shared faith in Jesus.

Today, the fish-shaped sticker is modified with legs and a tail. In the middle of the fish is the word “evolve.” The fish sticker shows God working “hands-on.” The “evolve” sticker reminds us of God’s “hands-off” intervention. Evolving forms adapt on their own to new environments.

Some clever drivers combine the two — with the evolve-sticker upside-down and the Jesus-fish sticker atop it. God’s revelation and human reason work hand-in-hand through evolutionary cycles and falling rain.

Thank God that he intersects life in poetic and prosaic ways that complement, rather than contradict, each other. God can’t be pigeon-holed as intrusive or aloof in life. He supports us.

Grateful people recognize this mysterious source in their lives.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries.

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