“God doesn’t make mistakes” has become a popular saying meant as a truism, and at a glance, it may seem obvious and inarguable. Can the Almighty, indeed, make mistakes?
But the popular truism is not kind, understanding, biblically correct, or theologically sound. Rather, its use, as I have heard it, is dismissive of real human beings and their very real situations in life. In short, it is casually self-righteous and downright mean.
It is biblically wrong to declare God the proximate cause (the closest, immediate and direct cause) of everything that happens in this created world. We do make decisions, and we do have experiences we did not earn or deserve, whether those experiences were beneficial or harmful, good or tragic. We go to Paul’s Letter to the Romans and learn from chapter 8 that God has turned the world over to its own futility but with hope. Indeed, the entire creation groans under the weight of its wrongness, its futility, as it yearns with hope for the revealing of the children of God in whose redemption the creation is to share. The creation is to be made new (see Revelation, chapter 21).
“God doesn’t make mistakes” is one more declaration of determinism but an especially simplistic and wrong-headed one. It asserts that everything is just as God intends it to be. Nothing can go wrong. What it really means as used in practice is that the accepted norms are right and proper and should be accepted. It asserts that people are born in conformity with traditionally interpreted biblical norms, specifically the Genesis statement, “Male and female he (God) created them (humans).” So, according to this maxim, the person born with both sets of genitalia doesn’t exist, even though such people do exist and are living persons. Less outwardly obvious but just as real is the transgender person whose selfhood is dismissed by the maxim as false, phony, misguided, or perverse. “You’re wrong about yourself, because God doesn’t make mistakes.”
This kind of easy declaration, “God doesn’t make mistakes,” fits into the general category of determinism which has always been dismissive of people and their fortunes or misfortunes. Determinism avoids personal and social responsibility for other people’s rights and needs; it may also block hope and excuse people from self-discernment. If life is predetermined by forces beyond my control, why strive? If people deserve what they get and get what they deserve, why care about the unfortunate? If my time will be up when my time comes, why take care of myself? If my prosperity comes automatically from the will of God, why question myself about the ways I do business, how I take more than I give, or what responsibilities I have for the common good and for the lack of opportunity for others?
In short, the pious saying serves to excuse cis-gender people from acknowledging the existence of people who do not fall into that category and from respecting their identities. Cis-gender is a term that refers to people whose anatomical gender identity conforms to their personal, sexual gender self-identification. The declaration that God does not make mistakes insists that everyone is cis-gender whether a person knows it or not and disregards people whose anatomical gender is unclear, mixed, or wrong for who they know themselves to be.
Two big faith problems surface here. First, Jesus does not dismiss people as unwelcome by their very existence or by their scorned conditions. He reaches out to the leper, welcomes that treasonous tax collector who will follow him, teaches women the truth of God’s redemptive love, and shares life and hope with sinners. Second, the notion that God is the proximate cause of everything that happens disregards the Bible’s insistence that the whole creation, including what we call the natural world, has fallen from its rightful, created and intended condition in relation with God, with humanity, and with itself. Everything is in need of redemption to become as God wills it to be. Jesus does not engage in or excuse pious meanness. He does not scorn any person as a nobody. He does not disregard people as, by nature or birth, inferior or worthless humans. There is no valid Christian truth that operates as pious cruelty.
Determinism is an excuse, a cop-out, and it is used to blame God for all manner of human strife, shaming, suffering, and injustice. In some forms, determinism condemns us to the social and financial station into which we are born (so why care about the poor or oppressed?). So it falsely justifies the privilege of elites. It declares our accepted norms to be good and right, even if the norm is slavery, exploitation of many for the benefit of the few, or false judgments made by unquestioned custom (read the New Testament’s Letter of James on false judgments about rich or poor people). Determinism promotes false security for some and hopelessness for others. There is much about life and about ourselves we can neither control nor easily change. But determinism’s declaration that what is must be accepted as what should or must be is false.