I heard a really superb homily a number of years ago at a retreat, and it was on the mystery of suffering and evil as seen through the lens of faith in Christ. That’s a rare homily to hear anywhere, but it’s undoubtedly true that people of faith long to hear the “Gospel of Suffering,” as Bl. John Paul II dubbed it in his own post-assassination-attempt meditations published as an apostolic letter, Salvifici Doloris.
[As this post will not be a comprehensive exploration of suffering-evil's "mystery," let me recommend four readings if you want more: A. Nichols' chapter on the philosophical-theological issues at stake; R. Shaw's theological-existential reflections; Peter Kreeft's concise summary of an apology on suffering; and D. Hart's challenging musings on the deep structures of the theological problem of evil-suffering.]
It was the kind of homily that makes one search through their wallet for a piece of paper to write notes on. The quotes from the homilist I include here are all “glossed,” meaning I wrote them as an interpolation mixed with my own simultaneous insights. So it’s a hybrid homily.
The homilist made several excellent points, but I will only comment on two of them here (I’ll hit a third tomorrow).
Divine Providence, not Fate
First, he addressed the way Christians view divine Providence, or God’s wise governance of history. “Divine Providence,” he said, “is the key to finding meaning in life and history.” He noted that the Christian tradition (drawing from its Jewish heritage) rejected a pagan worldview which asserted that history, and even the gods, are governed by a universal and impersonal force called Fate, which is itself essentially blind to justice, terrifyingly capricious and ultimately unconcerned with humanity’s temporal or eternal well-being. Rather, he argued, Christianity proposed a radical Jewish view that all things and all history and under the sway of one Creator-God who is all-wise, all-powerful and all-good, and that the ultimate defining power that stands as judge and ruler over the cosmos is divine hesed-emet, “steadfast mercy.” And even more specifically for Christians, steadfast-mercy as it is revealed fully in Jesus crucified, dead and risen from the grave.
This, he said, was arguably among the greatest thought-revolutions of the ancient world, and one that, as a church history professor of mine once felicitously worded it, “elicited from pagan converts a collective sigh of relief,” i.e. so that’s what stands behind this worn and weary world. Deo gratias!
The homilist continued, saying that though the exact nature of how God governs a history marked by oscillations of good and evil without overriding creatures’ own natural freedoms is largely shrouded in mystery, there are some things we can affirm. One of them, he said, was powerfully stated by John Paul II in his superb book, Memory and Identity, where the pontiff said,
It could be said that human history is marked from the very beginning by the limit God the Creator places upon evil.
God’s Providence, therefore, guides history by limiting the progress of evil, which only advances as far as God permits. The space of this divinely limited permission is, he contended, a “safe space” where we can “hide,” as the psalmist says in Psalm 91, under God’s sheltering wings in absolute trust. This is really, he said, what the sixth and seventh petitions in the Lord’s prayer are about (“lead us not…deliver us”), and is what St. Paul has in mind when he says in 1 Corinthians 10:13,
God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.
The idea really runs through the entire biblical narrative and stands at the epicenter of the Paschal Mystery: the Passion, death, burial and descent into hell is evil’s farthest boundary, the edge of God’s No, while the resurrection, God’s Yes, is the sealing of that boundary’s Gate by which redeemed humanity passes into the Paradise of eternal well-being.
Permitted in view of…
Then he noted, briefly but succinctly, that within those limits God permits evil and suffering only in view of the “greater good” he draws from it (again, think here Paschal Mystery as the interpretive lens). But he added an important qualifier:
We should not think of God’s permitting evil in view of some greater good as God somehow positively desiring evil things to happen to make even better things happen through them. No! Rather, God permits evil only inasmuch as He foresees greater goods can be drawn out of them by His Providential plan. While you might say God’s permission for evil is the “space” required for the evolution of finite freedom toward infinite perfection, you should not say that God wills evils in the same sense that he wills goods, or even in the same sense as He wills the goods drawn out of the permitted evils.
This is important because it means that God’s ordained will (i.e. what He directly and positively wills) and His permissive will (i.e. what He allows but does not directly/positively will) are both defined by His good-will, i.e. His love. He always and in all things desires and wills the ultimate and final good for all. That’s really important to remember if you’re going to have a place to drop your anchor in the storms of suffering; it’s where hope finds a sure hold, the rock of God’s good-will that’s backed up by an infinite power and wisdom by which He is able and willing to accomplish that good-will.
This, he said, is the rock-bottom foundation of our absolute trust in God’s provident care for us, and is what St. Paul meant when he said in Romans 8:28,
We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
And it’s for those “who love God” not because God is some sycophant who benefits only His devotees, but because such “lovers” alone are able to pattern their lives in harmonious accord with the patterns of Providence, which are the patterns of love. And that love looks like Christ, who is “the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully [revealing] man to man himself and [making] his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes 22).
Divine Providence, I.N.R.I.
I’ll try to keep this short for fear of excessive length). The second point he made (alluded to above) flowed from the first, and that is that God’s Providence, the divine care we entrust ourselves to unconditionally, is to be understood only through the lens of the Paschal Mystery, the death and resurrection of Jesus. God’s Providence is a “paschal providence.”
He quoted the Latin dictum, per cucem ad lucem, “through the cross to the light,” and said that we simply cannot comprehend the divine-human meaning of evil and suffering as a Christian unless we saturate our own “linguistic universe” with the “word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18) refracted through Christ’s traditional seven last words. This was a wonderfully new thought for me! He said,
The Seven Last Words of Jesus sum up, you might say, a Christian grammar of faith in the night of suffering; a faith that engages both a sinful, fallen world and a silent God in a very specific manner. This vision of faith is only intelligible, you might say, from the vantage of a dying God who, though struck down, looks up in trust and dies in the hope of “the joy that was set before him.” But the fact is that this language, these 7 words, apart from faith, are folly, absurdity, madness, scandalous. Those who make that language their native tongue will be seen as fools, even as they become capable of a hope and a love that are truly otherworldly; supra-human.
In case you are not familiar with the tradition list of those seven last words, let me share them in summary for here:
- Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
- Luke 23:43: Truly, I say to you, this day you will be with me in Paradise.
- John 19:26–27: Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother.
- Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34 My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
- John 19:28: I thirst.
- John 19:29-30: It is finished.
- Luke 23:46: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.
For me, those insights were earth-shaking, horizon-stretching ones that pulled together things I knew already in one way or another, but joined them into a new and fresh portrait. Seeing my whole life, my own (weak and fitful!) personal trust in God’s provision for my welfare through the translucent icon of a Crucified Christ through whom all of history finds its meaning, judgment and fulfillment, was, let’s say unsettlingly comforting. It also gave me a new theological lens through which to read a saying my very first spiritual director shared with me when I would fret about the twists and turns of my life,
Trusting God only means something when you’re suspended naked above Golgotha. No need for trust when you’re building tents on Tabor.
[These references, if they are not clear, are to the sites of Jesus' crucifixion (Golgotha) and transfiguration (Tabor).]
When Divine Providence becomes our vision
I will end this unwieldy reflection with a quote I have shared before. It’s by the Russian saint-martyr, the eldest daughter of Czar Nicholas II, Grand Duchess St. Olga. Shortly before her murder by the Bolsheviks in 1917, she penned a prayer that reflects this brash trust in God’s “paschal providence,” and bears within it the refracted grammar of the dying Christ:
Send us, Lord, the patience, in this year of stormy, gloom-filled days, to suffer popular oppression, and the tortures of our hangmen. Give us strength, oh Lord of justice, our neighbor’s evil to forgive; and the Cross so heavy and bloody, with Your humility to meet. In days when enemies rob us: to bear the shame and humiliation, O Christ our Savior, help us. Ruler of the world, God of the universe, bless us with prayer and give our humble souls rest in this unbearable, dreadful hour. At the threshold of the grave, breathe into the lips of Your slaves inhuman strength — to pray meekly for our enemies.