When a hurricane hits Haiti or ravages the east coast, I wish a Christian leader would quote Jesus, “He makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous” (Mt 5:45). I assume this would also apply to earthquakes and lightning strikes. And I don’t think this verse refers so much to God’s personal agency as much as it does to the fact that God’s creation is no respecter of persons. And so this might also apply to cancer or a genetic predisposition to baldness. God makes both the evil and the good bald (though I’ve often taken my full head of hair at age 52 to be a sign of God’s favor. It is certainly a sign of the goodness of God’s creation).
I also think its important for Christians to remember the immediate context of Jesus’ saying. In the verse before he urges his followers to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them, “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Jesus’ understanding of the world begins with an assumption that loving enemies is central to how God runs things. That blessing those on the “unrighteous” side of the ledger is how God rolls, and so his followers should as well.
A less well known verse that reveals a similar kind of view of the world is found in Luke 13. When confronted with two cases of human suffering, Jesus responds by asking if his listeners think those who suffered did so because they were worse sinners, a view Jesus rejects. In these cases, we are given no explanation of causation. Stuff happens.
Now Jesus clearly lives in a spiritually animated world. God does things. The Spirit does things. Satan does things. Evil spirits do things. They all have agency. But I bring these texts up first to show that even in a spiritually active world, Jesus does not think about these things in a simplistic way and perhaps even to suggest that sometimes those we suspect less experience the loving blessings of God more.
Nothing I’ve written is a theological warrant to this point. I’ve only noticed some of Jesus’ responses when confronted with cases where some might want to find causation and he resisted the impulse to do so. That’s not nothing and at the very least should satisfy the “what would Jesus do” impulse.
I’m more interested, however, in a view of the world that would allow Jesus to say these things–an understanding of the relationship between God and world. And while I don’t claim to have a full account of this, I do have three or four ideas that guide my understanding. These ideas are less a way of being able to say what it is that God is doing or causing in any given situation, and more cautions against straight-line reasoning with respect to causation.