Chance is one of those words we use a lot without thinking much about its meaning. In general use it seems to mean unpredictability. A chance event is one that could not have been predicted. No doubt some statistician would be happy to predict a certain chance happening as a probability of once in so many thousands of events, which is an essentially useless prediction of any practical value.
English translations of the Bible use the word sparingly. The Philistines who had captured the ark of the Lord wondered if their tumors were simply a matter of chance, and not the Lord’s doing. The writer of Ecclesiastes suspected that a good deal of what happens to us in life is simply a matter of chance. The meeting between the Good Samaritan and the beaten man was by chance. During Paul’s final voyage, his ship set sail for Phoenix on the chance that they might make it before winter set in. There are certainly other references to unpredictability, particularly in moments of offering up prayer while wondering whether God might change his mind about this or that, but the English word chance is not used to describe them.
Still, it seems to me that one of the wonders of creation is the role of chance. High possibility with very low probability and no means of predictability leads in so many directions of creative potentiality, so many adventures in life, and so much opportunity for unlimited fecundity. It also reveals some small part of the enormous room for God to do what God wills to do in and amongst the ebb and flow of chance events.
But living in a world of chance is hard. It’s scary not knowing exactly what will happen to us and those we love. The news is quick to report public outrage when those in authority fail to predict the exact moment of high probability events. It always seems that someone must be to blame, and that if it wasn’t for them the whole mess could have been avoided. We are even quick to blame God for not being a good enough or caring enough God when things go wrong. We do our best to arrange things to our liking and try our best to surround ourselves with ordered predictability, and it can work for a while. In the blink of an eye it can all come tumbling down – and it does. Robert Burns famous poem about the accidental unearthing of a field mouse’s winter home ends with these familiar words (in standard English):
But Mouse, you are not alone, In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men Go often askew,
And leaves us nothing but grief and pain, For promised joy!
Still you are blest, compared with me!
The present only touches you:
But oh! I backward cast my eye, On prospects dreary!
And forward, though I cannot see, I guess and fear!
Paul seemed to come to that place where he could take the chances of life in stride without complaint, and without blaming God for everything. To the contrary, he rejoiced that in all things God was his constant companion and the ultimate ruler of what was to be. What was unshakably certain to Paul was the absolute possibility and probability of his eternal life, but to say that it made his earthly life irrelevant would be a big mistake. What he came to learn was that, in following Christ, some part of living in the eternal kingdom of God could be his now, and the sheer delight and wonder of that could be shared with others who could also begin living into that kingdom. Unlike the closing lines of Burns’ poem, we need not look backward only in regret, nor forward only to guess and fear. In following Christ we are able to look backward at a life redeemed and forward with delight into a world of exciting chance with new adventure lying ahead, and also with the sure and certain faith that, whatever happens, we are already safely in God’s hands for all of eternity. It is that which gives us both the strength and courage to do what we can to bring the kingdom of God into this life, leaving it with a little higher probability that God’s goodness will be more defining in the lives of others, and a lower probability that evil and injustice will prevail.