Providence and Our Response to Evil
by Father Paul K. Raftery, O.P.
One of the most
Powerful Images to come from the Tragedy of the Twin Towers attack was the Giant Cross of Metal Beams
found standing upright in the Midst of the Immense Pile of Rubble. The Cross was Blessed in a Service televised throughout the World.
There was something of Great Importance in this Cross, something not to be Overlooked. At a Moment of Profound
Anguish, People usually having little to do with Religion, were being Deeply-moved by the Presence of this Cross so unexpectedly
found by Rescue Workers. Nor should it be Callously said that this was mere Superstition at Work. The Good
Lord had left a Sign that He was Accompanying all of us in this Trial, and People were
deeply Stirred by its Presence. The Cross there in the Aftermath of the Attack was doing what it
always does—offering Hope that comes from the Redeeming
Sufferings of Christ. It is a Hope
that Resonates Instinctively within even Secularized Hearts.
In the Next Three (3) Articles we will be looking at the Cross as
a Source of Hope. To set the Scene, we will First of all look very Broadly at the Presence of
Evil in Creation and the Way it is used by Divine Providence. The
Mystery of Human Suffering is part of this larger
Mystery of Evil. Particularly at-Issue here are the Origin of
Evil, and its Continued Presence in Light-of God's Infinite Goodness.
Is God to Blame for Evil?
In our own Time, we find an answer to this Question frequently given in the 'Affirmative'. People place the Blame for Human
Suffering, Ultimately with God. Often many Reject Belief in
God because they assume, if He exists,
He must be the Underlying Cause of all the Misfortune in Life. The Infant who
Dies of Crib-Death, the Devastation
Caused by an Earthquake, the Capacity of Man for Great Acts of Destruction—
these are Signs for many that there is either a Cruel God running the
World, or there is no God at-all. From their Point-of-View, there certainly could not
be a Good God Who Created and Sustains a World where Evil and
Suffering are found.
This Mentality of some Today is not New to the Human Scene. Throughout the World's Ancient Religions there has been a Recurring Theme
of 'Blaming' God for Evil. At the beginning of the Christian Era, we
find a Sect with origins in the Ancient Regions of Eastern Asia known as the Manicheans. For them, not only was there a 'God' who
directly Causes Good, there was also a 'Divinity' from whom all
Evil originates. There were Two (2) 'Supreme Principles' of all
that exists, Two (2) Gods, Equal in Power. All Suffering, as well as all
Corruptible Matter comes from the God-of-Evil. All that is
Good, which for them meant all that is Spirit, is from the God of
Good. Our very Human Nature is divided between our Bodies, produced by
the God-of-Evil, and our Spirits created by the God-of-
Good. The Struggle that goes on within us between the Flesh
and the Spirit, Problems we have with
Inordinate Desires leading us to Sin are, the Manicheans taught, the result of
Evil Matter Fighting against Good
Spirit. The World will one day End in a Complete Separation of the Material World from the World of
Spirit. Souls who belong to the God-of-Good through a
Strict Rejection of Material Creation, will go on to an Eternal Spiritual State of Bliss. Those, they taught,
who have Cherished and Clung to anything Material, will live Eternally joined to Matter, living forever in a State of
Darkness and Suffering because of that Union. What the
Manicheans had proposed, in fact, was a Horrible Assault on the Goodness and
Beauty of Creation.
Saint Augustine (b. 354), in his Rebellious Youth, was a Member of this Sect. During this
time he was deeply Troubled over the Problem of why Man does
Evil. The Manichean answer, for the time being, Satisfied his Probing
Mind. But there were too many Profound Contradictions with the Bizarre Sect for his
Mind to Rest Content. Shortly after his Rejection of Manichean Teaching, he rejoined the Christian
Fold and Devoted himself to the Teaching of a Philosopher named Plotinus. With Plotinus, the Approach to the
Problem of Evil was indeed Different, but not entirely so. There was only
One (1) God, from whom all things have flowed in a Descending Fashion, with each Descent,
things becoming Progressively more Imperfect. From the All-perfect God comes an Outpouring of Creatures that,
as they Descend and become more-and-more Distance from their Source, become less-and-less filled with His
Goodness. At the End of this Flow is the most Basic Form of Matter, having none of the Goodness
of the all-Perfect Source. This matter, Plotinus taught, is the Root of all Evil and the
Cause of Corruption and Decay in
Creatures; it is the Source of all Suffering and Tribulation in the
World. Augustine had come across a Philosophy that upheld the Unity (1) of
God. But still the Problem remained: God is the
Cause of Evil; it came forth from Him.
Things go Awry, not God
Augustine’s Experience, however, with both the Manicheans and Plotinus proved Invaluable for the Emergence of a
True and Enduring Doctrine on the Problem of Suffering and
Evil in the World. Years of Working his Way through the Errors
inherent in both Systems-of-Thought, assisted all the while by Grace, resulted in a Formulation of
the Problem of Evil that Christianity has turned-to ever since.
Christians from the beginning, as well as their Jewish Forbears and some Pagan Philosophers, implicitly Understood the
Problem. But it was Augustine who expressed it in its most Timeless and Clear Way. In a Work called the
Enchiridion, a "Handbook" of Christian Teaching, written in 423, he offered the
Solution to the Problem of Evil that has become 'Classic'. There
he explains that Evil is no 'Thing' or 'Quality' subsisting in itself. It is the result of the
Absence of Goodness (chapt. 11). Evil
is a Privation. He uses Sickness as an Illustration, a condition that
arises because of Lack-of-Health in the Body. One might say that a Cold Virus is a Substance, something
that indeed exists, which is true enough. But what the Virus Causes in the
Body, the Sore Throat, the Congestion, the
Coughing are all the Result of Bodily Functions trying to return
to the Perfection they are meant to Possess. When one is speaking of Ill Health, one is not
Speaking of something 'There', but of something Missing. In the same way, all
Evil results from an Absence of some Goodness that
should be Present in a Creature. It can be a Physical Privation like a
Failure in the Stability of the Earth, resulting in an Earthquake, or, as we have seen, a Body
Weakened by Disease. Or, in Rational creatures, Angelic and Human, it can
also be a Moral-defect: Sin. Here the Will makes
Flawed Decisions that lead one away from the Ultimate Goal for which we have been Created:
Union with God. Whatever the case may be,
Evil is nothing more than a Void in the Total Perfection of a Creature.
We can now see where Augustine is going with the Presence of Evil in the World. The
Problem is found not in God, but in Creatures. What
God Creates is entirely Good. He
is the Supreme Good, and is Incapable of producing something Defective. Anything coming from
His Hands will have all the Goodness He intends it to have. There
will be nothing Lacking, that is, no Evil. But once these Creatures begin to exist, then comes
the Falling-away from Goodness we call
Evil. Why does God Allow this to happen? Why does He
Allow the decline to Evil to take place at all? Augustine’s formulation of the
Problem would be Repeatedly Quoted by Theologians throughout the Centuries:
"God, since He is the Highest Good, would in no way Allow any Evil in His Works, unless He were so
Omnipotent and so Good that He could turn Evil to Good" (chapter 11). Saint Thomas was one of those to frequently use
this wonderfully Simple and yet Profound expression of the Problem of
Evil. God, says Thomas in his own very concise way, "does
not permit Evil except for some greater Good".
Creatures as Causes
There is a Background to this Problem of Evil we have not yet
touched upon. Basically, what is at issue is God's not being a
Tyrant in Running the Affairs of His Creatures. He
allows them to Function on their Own, according to the Natures He has given them.
He Permits his Creatures to Act-upon one another, to have their Effects on one another, to leave their Mark for
Good or for Ill on their Fellow Creatures. Saint Thomas
speaks of this in terms of things being “Causes” for some Effect on another. The Lightning Bolt
Causing a Fire in the Tree, or the Sun Illumining and Warming the
Earth are examples. God, as the Creator of all things, is the
Primary Cause of Creation. But, in His Great Goodness,
He had no wish to Monopolize the Role of Cause among Creatures.
So He shared Causality with His
Creatures. He made them Causes in their own right, able in their
own way to Contribute to the Functioning of the Universe. All Creatures, says Thomas, have a Secondary
Causality, given by the Creator. God has made the
Stars-to-shine. Although He is Sustaining them each moment with His Power,
they are the ones that are doing the Shining. The Oak Tree has its own Powers of Growth within itself. Mankind has an Innate Capacity to
Think and Love. And for all this Creaturely Independence to be
more than just a Sham, God must-be-open to the Possibility of
Failure in his Creatures.
This means God Tolerates Evil out of Respect for
His Creatures. He wants the Tree to Grow under its own Powers, and Lighting to burst-forth from the
Clouds, even if from time-to-time the Bursting of the Lightning will shatter the Magnificent Tree. The Tree wouldn’t be a Tree without its
Vulnerability to Lightning. The Lightning wouldn’t be Lightning without its Explosive and Fiery Nature. How
great each thing is in its own Nature! How Tragic it would be for the
Creator to interrupt His Creatures every time one is the Cause
of some Evil coming upon another! It is only Illusion to imagine that it would be a better Universe were
God to do so.
Why Illusion? First of all, Saint Thomas says, "If Evil were completely Eliminated from things, they would not be
Governed by Divine Providence in accord with their Nature [i.e., the Normal Activity of a thing would be Suppressed while
God prevented the Evil]; and this would be a
greater Defect than the particular Defects Eradicated” (Compendium of Theology, 142). Nothing, in effect, would be operating as True
Secondary Causes. The proper Nature of Creatures would be repeatedly subverted as the
Divine Nature again-and-again would be required to Intervene.
In Human Affairs we can especially see how much of a Problem this would be. Freedom to make Choices between
One (1) Course of Action and Another is part of the way we work. This is,
in fact, our great God-Given Dignity as Creatures.
He has Shared with us the Divine Trait of Free Will. What
preventing Evil from taking place in Human Affairs amounts to is Stripping us of our Freedom. Here it is
clear that "this would be a greater Defect than the Particular Defects [i.e. of
Sin and Suffering] Eradicated". The
Gift of Divine Likeness through Free Will Infinitely
(∞) Outweighs the Trouble of Enduring the Pain and
Suffering that Life offers. Having the Gift of Thought and the
Capacity-to-Choose that reflect the very working of the Divine Mind and
Will—our Existence even with its Trials and Tribulations,
is a Marvel not to be missed!
But in our Consideration so far of God’s Opening the Door to the Possibility of
Evil in His Creation, we have yet to remember that the Success of
Good is always foremost in His Infinitely
(∞) Good Mind. Actually we should say it is the
Only Thing on His Mind. He is Incapable of Directly
Willing anything that is not Good. As Father Vincent McNabb,
the great English Dominican Preacher of the early 1900's once so exuberantly observed,
"God can never Rest in any Evil as such—not even a Physical Evil. It can’t be done. God has His Impossibilities,
you know!". (The Craft of Suffering, 11).
So Saint Thomas will say that He is always Arranging for an Evil
to be at the Service of some Good. The Decay of Plants in the Forest provide for the Nourishment of New Plants
to come along. A Magnificent Creature like a Lion, continues to Live through taking the Life of an Animal Lower-down on the Food-chain. The
Endurance of the Saints and the Shining Light of their Virtue arises through
Persecution by the Wicked. How True it is that "if Evil were completely
Excluded from things, much Good would be rendered Impossible" (Compendium, 142). Rather than Protect all Creatures from
Evil, God puts that Evil to work for
Perpetuating and Enhancing the Goodness of the Universe as a Whole, and Individual Creatures within it.
The Divine Perspective
Suffering in all it forms, thus has become, through God’s Wise and
Loving Manipulation, the Sculptor’s Chisel to produce a Work of Supreme
Beauty. And God’s Greatest Work of Beauty in this
World is Man. For working with this Particular Creature, God uses the
Unfortunate, but especially Goodness-enhancing Evil
of Physical Pain. Here especially we have to take on the Divine
The Great Trial caused us by Physical Pain will be completely
meaningless without Acknowledging that the Goal of Humanity is Eternal Life. The
Evil of Earthly Pain must be seen in the Context of the Unlimited
Good of Heaven. The Blessings of an
Eternal Existence, Freedom from all Suffering, being lifted to a State of
Joy that is beyond words, are the Background in which we must View whatever Suffering
comes along in this Life. This is Foundation for a Life of Patient Endurance. Without this Perspective,
Pain’s only Fruit will be Despair. In all our
Trials, Saint Paul’s rousing words should be the Standard we Strive for: "I regard everything
as Loss because of the Surpassing Value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have Suffered the Loss of all things, and I regard them
as Rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him" (Philippians 3:8-9). There is nothing to compare with
Eternal Life in Christ! All Trials
God sends into the Lives of Men are Planned with the Utmost Care to bring this about.
What is at-stake Ultimately is the Attachment of the Soul to God.
There will be no Eternal Life unless the Soul Consciously-decides
to Cling to God as her Highest Good. As we find happening in Saint
Paul’s Statement above, the Love of God must surpass our
Love for any other Created Thing. And this is where Physical Suffering,
through the Mercy of God, comes to our Aid. Quite rightly we hate Physical
Suffering in itself. It is, after all, an Evil, something that
God hates Infinitely (∞) more
than we could ever do! But how Valuable are the Fruits it brings. Fr. McNabb, in Sage Words,
tells us why: "In point of fact, it is very hard for us to bring out our Love of God to the utmost except under
Suffering. It is very Hard for us to Exert our Will to the utmost, except under Opposition . . . . If we could get across the room by using only
10 per cent of our power, we should only bring out 10 per cent of our power, if there were no opposition. That is a very important Spiritual Thing.
We should beware of trying to prepare a state where we are free from all Anxieties" (Craft, 12-13).
We can Imagine, if we are Honest, what would happen to our Love for God
if we were Free from all Anxieties and Afflictions. We are so Prone to
Love 'Things' more than God. Since the
Fall of Adam this has been the case. An Excessive Love for the Good Things of Earth is an
ongoing Threat to our Love for God. Abandoned to this Tendency,
what would stop us from Forgetting Him all together? How well our Comfort-saturated and Faithless Culture
illustrates the Problem. Again and again it shows us how surrounding ourselves with every possible Pleasure
and Ease goes very well with Forgetfulness of God. But is it not Equally True that the Saints show us the
contrary--how wonderfully Affliction and Ardent-clinging to God
accompany one another? Through these Holy Ones we can see God's Masterful
Hand at work in all our Suffering, bringing us to a Perfection
we could never have without it.
Prayer to Divine Providence
O Sweet and Tender Providence of God, into Thy Hands I commend my Spirit, to Thee I
abandon myself, my Hopes, my Fears, my Desires, my Repugnance's, my Temporal and Eternal Prospects. To Thee I commit the Wants of my
Perishable Body, to Thee I commit the far more Precious Interests of my Immortal Soul, for whose interests I have Nothing to Fear while
I withdraw it not from Thy Bosom. Though my Faults are many, my Misery Great, my Spiritual Poverty Extreme, my Hope in Thee surpasses all.
It is Greater than my Difficulties, Stronger than Death. Though Temptations should Assail me, I will Hope in Thee, though I should Sink
beneath my Weakness, I will Hope in Thee still, though I should Break my Resolutions a Thousand Times, I will look to Thee Confidently
for Grace to keep them at last; though Thou shouldst Slay me, even then will I Trust Thee, for Thou art my God, my Father and my Friend.
Thou art my Kind, my Tender, my Indulgent Parent, and I am Thy Loving Child, who cast myself into Thy Arms and beg Thy Blessing, who put
my Trust in Thee, and so Trusting, shall Never be Confounded.
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