Some Personal Thoughts on God's Providence and Our Suffering
Suffering and God's Providence
In Aristotle's Physics he attempts to pioneer a way by which we can understand the nature of a thing. The Pre-Socratics, Socrates, and Plato had begun a discussion on the nature of nature. How do we understand what things are made of and why they do what they do? Aristotle adds a new level of sophistication to the discussion in his treatment of the "four causes." We will always have an incomplete picture of the nature of something unless we can understand it from these four different perspectives. We must know the components that it is made up of, its material cause. We must know the inner form or design which makes the parts to take on their new identity, its formal cause. We must know the the cause by which the thing came into being, the efficient cause, and the ultimate purpose for which the thing is meant, the final cause.
When dealing with the question of suffering, tragedy, and God's providence in our lives, it is essential to understand the idea of final cause especially. Only with the perspective of the ultimate reason for why God creates us at all can we begin to understand the things that take place in our lives. Some atheists like John Stuart Mill, and many others today, criticize God because they say that if he were all knowing, all powerful, and all good that there could not be suffering in the world, and this world is clearly flawed. The problem with this argument is that it is based on a faulty assumption of the ultimate purpose or final cause of creation. They assume that the ultimate purpose has to be the immediate cessation of earthly pain, but this is not what Christian theology says at all. For the Christian, the whole point of this life is that of a temporary testing before an eternal reality.
If God is love, and to love is to be in relationship of good will with another person, then love requires the free-will choice of both parties to participate in the relationship. One cannot force another into a relationship, nor can one force someone to love them. Part of the essential definition of love is that it be a free choice for the good of another. And thus, if God is love and he desires to share his love with us, a necessary condition for this to take place is to provide the beloved (us) with the opportunity to reject him. Only in making a free choice can we enter into relationship with God. The problem that God has is that he is so perfect that a direct experience of his infinite goodness cannot elicit any other response than total devotion, as all creatures are ordered to seek what they perceive as good and God is goodness itself. Thus to provide us with an actually free choice to love him is to put distance between him and us.
This is exactly what this life is. It is that temporary distance from God in which we are presented with an invitation, an offering, to be drawn up into God's love, but also power to reject him. Once we have freely chosen then God can give us the fullness of Heavenly love. And so the Christian tradition has rightly called this life "a valley of tears." We are faced with suffering, existential disorientation, tragedy, and pain ... but also are given grace, love, success, purpose, and forgiveness.
All this being said, what we consider to be a "good" life certainly would not be good if it did not value this ultimate choice that we are faced with, a point that Pascal pointed out so famously with his Wager. And so we must be careful with what we define as "good" for us. When we take this ultimate perspective on God's work, we begin to realize that suffering is the pathway to authentic love. We all know this... For example, a couple who has been through the ringer and yet continues to choose and will the other's good has a love deeper than potentially a couple who has never faced adversity. Gold can only be purified by being melted in the fire. A plant can only grow to its full potential when the dead and diseased branches are pruned off. We cannot appreciate rest without hard work, good food without fasting, pleasure without pain, etc.
And so God is often called in Christian tradition "The Divine Weaver." He takes the threads of our life, both good and bad, dark and light, and weaves them together into the image of what we are to become for eternity. This mixture of suffering and goodness provides us the opportunity to love at a level not otherwise possible. For example, take this poem which was found in the pocket of a Civil War soldier.
"My life is but a weaving between my Lord and me. I cannot choose the colors. He worketh steadily. Oft-times He chooses sadness and I, in foolish pride, forget He sees the upper, and I, the underside. Not 'til the looms are silent, and the shuttles cease to fly shall God unroll the canvas and explain the reason why, the dark threads are as needful in the Weaver's skillful hand as the threads of gold and silver in the pattern He has planned. He knows; He loves; He cares; nothing this truth can dim. He gives the very best to those who leave the choice with Him."
Now some may object that certain people suffer to such an extent that it is not justified. But take for a moment the dichotomy between earth and Heaven. Earth is temporary, in fact short. Heaven is eternal. There is no suffering or death in Heaven, only pure love with one another and an unending search into the being of God. What temporary suffering could not be overshadowed by such an ending? Those who reject this do so because they categorically discount the existence of the afterlife based on their Materialist worldview. If you take as an assumption that there is no afterlife, then the situation does become absurd. But they have not proven that there is no afterlife, only assumed it based on their preferred view of the world.
"…the souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them. They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction and their going forth from us, utter destruction. But they are in peace. For if before men, indeed, they be punished, yet is their hope full of immortality; Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of himself. As gold in the furnace, he proved them, and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself." (Wisdom 3: 1-7).
And so to return to Mill's critique, is this world flawed? Maybe we could say that it is flawed perfectly. Those who are parents know that giving your child a "perfect" life, in which every desire and whim is immediately gratified, is not perfect by any means. Rather, that child must go through adversity and mature in multi-dimensional ways. For us, too, with God. This world is perfect because suffering is the only path to true love with God, our highest form of existence, but it is flawed in some lower sense in that our earthly life must include suffering to get there, as there is no other way to achieve this outcome.
To conclude I will leave you with a Chinese proverb that I ran across recently that expresses a similar idea as to the Golden Thread poem. When we are faced with the ups and downs of life we should remember to consider all things from the perspective of eternity, not this temporary life.
"A farmer and his son had a beloved stallion who helped the family earn a living. One day, the horse ran away and their neighbors exclaimed, “Your horse ran away, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”
A few days later, the horse returned home, leading a few wild mares back to the farm as well. The neighbors shouted out, “Your horse has returned, and brought several horses home with him. What great luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”
Later that week, the farmer’s son was trying to break one of the mares and she threw him to the ground, breaking his leg. The villagers cried, “Your son broke his leg, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”
A few weeks later, soldiers from the national army marched through town, recruiting all the able-bodied boys for the army. They did not take the farmer’s son, still recovering from his injury. Friends shouted, “Your boy is spared, what tremendous luck!” To which the farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”