Often times, when a tragic accident occurs, well intentioned people might say: “God did it for a reason” or “God let this happen to teach us a lesson” and so on. When I hear these expressions, I trust that they come from a place of empathy and an experience of lacking “the right thing to say.” After all, when perils strikes someone’s life we know that our words too often fall flat. And, yet we also want to help, console, and offer words of support. Thus, in an effort to prevent silence from thickening the air, we speak pious words like those mentioned above. In this rather lengthy post, I want to tread lightly, but, at the same time, caution against such sayings. I do not intend to upset anyone reading this who might have used these expressions. Please, do not take this blogpost as a condemnation or judgment against you or anyone else for using those sayings. I want to highlight those words in order to unpack what they can imply and then offer what might be some new thoughts regarding them. It is my hope that we can all speak words of consolation that, at the same time, express a fuller truth about God’s will and purpose in our lives.
When we peel back the layers of those two expressions, we find a harrowing image of God. Someone loses a loved one before their time, perhaps violently, and if our response is “God did it for a reason” it can unwittingly imply that God wanted their loved one to die early, that He caused that death knowing full well the grief it would entail, and that His inscrutable will thinks lightly of the suffering endured. If we respond with “God is teaching us a lesson,” it perhaps implies, again, that God actually caused the evil, like a puppet master pulling strings in space and time, in order to use that horrific pain as an “educational moment” for us below. I want to reiterate that I am not condemning anyone for using these sayings; but, I do want to draw out what they mean rather bluntly in order to highlight a point. Both of those sayings - and their varied mutations - too often paint an image of God as an all-powerful entity who causes car crashes, pandemics, and even twists our ankles on black ice for some “reason” or “lesson”. This image of God attempts to uphold His sovereignty, but it simultaneously elicits a picture of a brooding, touchy, rather apathetic master puppeteer. And, not just any master puppeteer, but one in control of ever aspect of life and yet who continues to pull strings in evil directions that cause outrages, pains, grief, injustices and the like. Of course God offers us wisdom for every season of our life, even in times of extreme loss and pain. And, off course God’s providence carries all things to a good (Rom. 8:28). In moments of suffering, it is often the case that we learn what is most important in life, even painfully so. And, we can also see in experiences of suffering how that pain can brings people together in charity. But, these sayings imply a bit more than this, even if those benign points are the intended meanings. It is here that we need a finer, nuanced theology of God and His relationship with creation, in order to fill the gaps these sayings create in our trust in God’s goodness. After all, to believe that God does evil to bring about good still means that a good God does evil; and, if that is the case, how can we trust Him? How can we call our Heavenly Father good if he seems to want us to suffer, even effecting that suffering, in order to squeeze out of us lessons or obedience?
To go deeper means to complicate things a bit. Those sayings, with their verbal cousins, oversimplify things in an attempt to quell the hurt of evil’s mystery. In going deeper, I might be challenging some notions about God and the world - or perhaps I already have in the paragraphs above - but, it is not in order to intellectualize our experience for the sake of theology. Rather, I want to touch on this theologically for the sake of grappling with our experience in the light of the Good News. To do this, I want to draw from St. Thomas Aquinas’ pondering about providence in his Summa (click the following link for that section from Aquinas: Part One, Question 22, Article 3).
In Aquinas’ thinking about divine providence we see him making a very clear point about the nature of God’s act of creation. When God created the world, He intended creation to participate in a freedom of activity in accord with each creature’s nature. What does that mean? Hopefully, a little example about dogs might help flush this out. When dogs came on the scene, God knew dogs to bark at squirrels, poop on lawns, and wag their tails as we pet them, because that’s the stuff of dog-ness. God does not play the part of organ grinder to our favorite pet dog’s monkeying around. God’s all-present, presence does not move the dogs legs in their running, nor does His almighty hand move their tongues to lick your face. Rather, God allows for the creative play of dogs in their nature as dogs to act just like what they are, dogs. Although God does have a fondness for dogs and cats, He has a fondness for them as creatures capable of living with a properly understood independence from His control. Dogs and cats don’t need to “discern” the will of God about what it means to be a pet; dogs are dogs and cats do whatever it is the cat wants to do. Of course, this is a rather lighthearted example, but I hope it both lightens the mood and helps make the point. God gave to creation a very real independence to act in accord with what each thing is from the speed of light, to hair follicles growing, to aerodynamics.
Aquinas, who is a Doctor of the Church, and who offers us a summary of the Church’s Tradition, wants to make a distinction for us between God’s ultimate purposes and God’s governance of the world. These two are necessarily distinct, otherwise we would have to accuse God of having the neighbor’s hound constantly soiling your manicured lawn! As I offer this quote from Aquinas, I want to make a caution that his language is rather theological, a bit dry, and, if we aren’t used to it, can be very confusing. So, I want to offer the full quote from Article 3 from Question 22 of Part One of his Summa and then break it down:
Two things belong to providence—namely, the type of the order of things foreordained towards an end; and the execution of this order, which is called government. As regards the first of these, God has immediate providence over everything, because He has in His intellect the types of everything, even the smallest; and whatsoever causes He assigns to certain effects, He gives them the power to produce those effects. Whence it must be that He has beforehand the type of those effects in His mind. As to the second [governance], there are certain intermediaries of God's providence; for He governs things inferior by superior, not on account of any defect in His power, but by reason of the abundance of His goodness; so that the dignity of causality is imparted even to creatures.
As stated above, Aquinas clarifies that providence can be broken up into two distinct aspects: (1) the foreordained “end” of all things and (2) the governance of the created world. Let’s take a look at the first distinction.
When Aquinas talks about the “end”, he means this in a more philosophical way rather than how we might describe the end of a movie or the end of this sentence. When Aquinas uses the term “end” he means that for which a thing is made. So, in this sense, the “end” of a movie would, philosophically, be for entertainment or to dialogue about an issue, etc. For what purpose does one make a movie? To draw the viewer into the “world” of the artist who presents a theory, question, or insight into the world; and, this is the “end” for which the film is produced and offered. When Aquinas speaks of the providence that directs all thing to their “end,” he means, to put it simply, that God intends for the new heavens and the new earth and has ordered the world to eventuate to that “goal.” Therefore, Aquinas goes on to say that God’s “immediate providence” is concerned with “causes and effects” according to the power God has given to each creature. Okay. Let’s flush this out with an example of boiling water. God knows what water and heat are on every level. God gave to fire, by its nature, i.e. by the very essence of what it means to be fire, that it gives off heat from a chemical reaction. God also knows water and that the molecules of water, when heated sufficiently, become a gas. God gave to water and fire their proper natures and, because of this, when you put enough heat to water, it boils. Aquinas wants to make the point that God created water and fire, created them good, and gave them their proper makeup that affects them according to what they are in themselves. Water doesn’t boil at room temperature nor do we sit around a fire to cool down. In the order of God’s providence, we can assert that He allows water to have such a structure that it can be a solid, liquid or gas; and, fire to emit heat. This isn’t very exciting stuff. And, one might wonder why Aquinas would go through all the trouble to state that things are what they are by God’s providence. But, it leads into the next point about God’s governance. For those interested in theology and philosophy, Aquinas’ take on God’s governance is a dramatic point worth pondering. For the rest of us, it might not be so scintillating.