I thought of an analogy tonight while reading “Life Wisdom from Billy Graham,” which was a Christmas gift to me. Regular readers know that I am a great fan of Billy Graham’s. I was reading the section where he writes about the question he most commonly receives, “Why does God allow evil?” I also read the address that he made after September 11, 2001, that I had watched as it was broadcast from the National Cathedral in the memorial service, which also touches on that important and puzzling subject. As I was reading his words I was imagining us in conversation, and what I’d say and the analogy that I would explain to him was what occurred to me. Here it is. Remember, it is an analogy, which is an aid in understanding, not a complete answer in theological terms.
Think about when God created the angels, who are separate from God’s creation of humans and animals. The angels dwell in heaven, which is outside of the material realm of space, time, matter or energy. Thus the angels are created of a uniform spiritual substance that is of God. Upon creation the angels are complete and had only one “decision” to make, which is to serve God or not. This decision is made after their creation. In other words, God did not withhold creating angels that he knew in advance would refuse to serve. God created the entire order of angelic beings, knowing that some, a very few of the uncountable numbers of angels, would refuse to serve.
This is the first example of God as love that one can study in the scripture. God does not play “eugenics,” to use an abhorrent human concept, of culling by suitability. God did not omit creating angels at all, or certain angels, to cull in advance those who would not serve. God loves them, regardless. So God creates the angels, a few refuse to serve him, and they fall, but do not perish or are taken out of existence by God. I can’t speak for God but you can wisely elicit from the fact that God does not destroy the angels that disobey him that God always leaves the door open and loves even the most incorrigible. That is the nature of God, as the source of all love. This does not mean he accepts or enables the angels who disobey. It means he will exile them but not destroy them, nor does he wish he never created them, nor does he cull them out from being created in advance based on his all knowing of which angels he creates will serve and which will not.
Now think about humans and animals. Unlike angels humans and animals live in a universe with physical boundaries and realities of time, space, matter and energy. Thus humans do not spring into being fully grown and able to choose, or not, God. Humans and animals are born as infants and have long times of growing before they are even mature and capable of making worldly decisions, say nothing of consistently choosing God throughout their lives. Further, humans and animals live among each other in the physical universe, not among God’s realm like the angels. Thus humans and animals interact among themselves and other species, and are formed and shaped according to their interactions in the physical world.
So instead of angels all being created out of the spiritual substance that allows eternal life in heaven, humans and animals are each like a hunk of marble that is yet unformed. A sculptor will use that blank stone to create a human, or an animal, in the “finished product.” However, unlike the actual art of sculpting there are two differences. The sculptor is the human him or her self and his or her companion humans who chip away at the stone to reveal the finished product of human within. Also, the process of revealing the finished product within is the entire corporeal lifetime of the human. Angels were made, “Voila!” and then they chose. Humans sculpt themselves and each other as a “work in progress” through their entire lives and the finished product is the human on the threshold of their death and hopeful joining of God in heaven.
So let us use a real example of a person most of the world knew who has died, such as Mother Teresa. Imagine that as she was born she was that rectangle of marble, with her God given soul within. As Mother Teresa was an infant, named Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu, pieces of the rock would be chipped away by herself, as she learned as all babies do that she is alive, an individual, a human, a member of a family, and by her parents and rest of her family and caregivers. Mother Therese herself would “hold the chisel” on herself, her family would use their chisels on her, and society and her environment at large would also use their chisels on her. So what is evil? Evil are events and actions that as they chisel at the marble of the individual do that person harm.
Thus think of typical events in an infant’s life. Being kept warm, fed, safe, and cuddled with love are all loving events that chisel the person out of the marble block in productive ways. But what if someone struck her? That is an evil act because it is harmful use of the “chisel” that forms the person out of their foundational block of marble. As she is fed wholesome and adequate food she grows and thrives and thus the environment and her family provide “good” chiseling. But what if she grew up in a polluted area where she was exposed to a toxic chemical as a child and became sick or deformed? For example in Japan many were stricken with mercury poisoning in their seafood in the 1960’s. That would have been an “evil” act, as the polluters and the environment wielded the chisel on her in a destructive way. But you see, that is the complexity of evil. Slapping an infant is pure evil. However, a polluter is not psychic and does not plan to harm an individual or group of people in the future through their mindless dumping of a toxin. Thus the outcome is evil but the actions are not necessarily that of an evil person. Further, suppose that we continue to think about the example in Japan for a moment. There is a range of outcomes from a mindless act of neglect that range from evil to good. At its worst it truncated the lives of the innocent, killing or maiming them, and thus there were evil outcomes of the pollution actions. However, others who observed what happened and learned from it and, better yet, gained knowledge of the danger of pollution and how to remediate it, obtained “good” chiseling out of the “evil” act.
Thus you must recognize that when people ask “Why does God allow evil?” they are usually referring to an obvious event of evil that has demolished goodness through murder or other evil mayhem. We used the example of slapping a baby. Mostly people ask that question after an act of terror or a heinous crime. But the reality of a corporeal limited life in a physical environment of time, space, matter and energy is that there is a continuum of results generated by people interacting and chiseling themselves and each other as “works in progress” out of the marble. Thus in our example of pollution, one person’s cruel demise or crippling as a result of the pollution, and thus suffering from evil, is another person’s character building and good opportunity, as doctors develop remedies and governments and companies seek to curb dangerous pollution. You now start to see that it is not like evil is a set of independent events that God should purge out of life and then everything would be fine. For example, it is evil if someone burns another person. But it is not evil that fire consumes substances, including humans. If God were to “not allow” evil in such as case where one human burns another, should God have done so by 1) changing fire so that fire does not consume substances and thus it no longer exists, 2) stop the person assaulting the victim with fire by stepping in and holding back his or her hand, 3) do what God did not do with the angels and that is, cull in advance any human who God knows will commit evil at some point in their life (how many people do you think would ever have populated the earth at all then?)
Evil is the chisel that is cruelly used on one’s self, on another person, or on society as a whole. Thus an addict commits an evil when he or she uses and thus abuses the gift of their mind and body from God. An abuser commits an evil when he or she strikes a baby. A tyrant performs an evil when he or she performs genocide in society at large. But the definition of evil is the harmful impact of actions that are otherwise part of life. For God to eliminate evil, God would have to either 1) cull in advance all who will ever commit evil and as I said, I would not bet that there would be many humans at all left or 2) take away from humans much of physical law (fire burns, hands can be used with great force, and humans can order others to do things on a large scale through blind loyalty or fear). How would humans live if fire was no longer fire, if fire no longer burned and thus no one could ever harm someone else by setting them on fire again? But if fire no longer burned and thus did not exist, how would the sun shine and how would humans have ever been warmed? Many plants only germinate after a fire. There would be no life without fire.
So if you turn to God and ask why God allows evil, think about the example that is giving you the heartbreak and frustration, such as the terrorist attacks, and think of the component actions. Which would you wish that God denied to humans? Airplanes? Combustion? Zealotry? Fanaticism? Thus to not permit evil, which physical laws should God change or ban, or which humans or their behaviors should God cull in advance, when he did not even do that for the angels who he knew would, in some small number, refuse to serve? Should God never allow humans who will commit an evil to ever have been born?
It is easy to say, for example, that a murderer of a loved one should never have been born and that your loved one would still be alive today. That is entirely understandable, especially in the pangs of one’s grief. But when you are going to be thoughtful and scholarly about the subject, think about the specifics. Suppose that the terrorist or murderer had been a father or mother before he or she committed evil. Should their children then have never been born since God, knowing in advance the parent’s future evil plans, not allow the future evil doer to be born at all? I wonder how many people would be alive today if God did not allow evil ancestors to live and procreate! All humans have the potential for evil and all commit more evil than they realize. Much evil, such as the example I gave of the toxic pollution, is evil of sin of omission or neglect and not as dramatic as a Hitler or a murderer, or a child abuser. How does not then “extract” “evil” from the condition of being alive?
So look back to the example of Mother Teresa. She received her calling, and her fame, from ministering to those who suffer from the evil of poverty and neglect. Much of the marble that was chiseled from her foundational block of stone that formed her was therefore a chisel that did not harm her personally, but was in reaction to the harmful and often evil chiseling of others. Thus “evil” had a hand in carving out of the stone the goodness of Mother Teresa. “Evil” has a hand in carving out of stone the goodness of every trauma emergency room physician. “Evil” has a hand in carving out of stone each child advocate, each lawmaker, and each parent and each concerned citizen and enforcer of the law who responds to the crisis of child abuse. So as evil seems to target a victim, at the same time that evil is a part of the misuse of natural law (hands can build or hit, fire can warm or scar) and evil is the catalyst for the carving of goodness out of the respondents out of their individual blocks of marble.
Thus when one asks, “Why does God allow evil,” it is a question that God understands that one cries out in anger and hurt, and thus is a valid question, but it is an unbalanced question. It presumes that evil is a separable quality that God could “exile” or “forbid” if only he wanted to. But now with this analogy you can understand that everyone uses the chisel on themselves, on others, and on society and the world at large in ways that can lead to evil even if unintentional. Remember how Nobel invented TNT? Suppose that God, responding to people’s cries about eliminating evil, thought about all the people who would be killed through TNT and thus decided that Nobel should never have been born, or “not permitted” to invent TNT. Yet TNT was essential for much safe construction as it was used for blasting rock and demolition, saving humans from back breaking work and danger. It is easy to point to the obvious examples and say, “Why did God ever allow Hitler to be born?” But first, do not forget that most evil in the world is very small scale and mundane, horrible for the individual child who is abused and that family, for example, but not of the grand scale of the tyrants of history. So recognize that one is selecting what seems like the obvious and fungible example when one uses say a Hitler as an example. But far more evil is done through neglect or love of money or power or spontaneous hysterical hatred. Look at Rwanda where something like 800,000 people were killed in only a few days. Look at the Sudan. These are all the less obvious examples of evil at work.
And here is the second problem with let us say, why did God not stop Hitler from being born? How do you know that “everything would have been fine” otherwise? Humans have all sorts of mischief and it is constantly leading them astray. How do you know that even if there was not a Hitler that a German scientist might have still worked to invent the atomic bomb? Without World War II the Allies would never have developed atomic bombs on their own. Atomic bombs were developed in response to Hitler trying to develop a bomb, which was the ultimate horror scenario. But how do you know that in that “alternate scenario” of Hitler having never been born that some other nut might not have worked in secret for an atomic bomb, and then used it, or sold it to an unscrupulous government? So perhaps there would have been no Hitler and no Holocaust, but instead some mad scientists develop the atomic bomb and test it on Paris and Geneva.
Humans are too singular in their thought processes about evil and they can’t help it, which is one of the problems of the human brain and ego. They think that individual persons and actions are fungible, as in they can be taken “out” of action and then history will trundle along better, having eliminated that “problem.” Only God, however, knows all the “what if’s.” Only God knows what else humans would have done even if there never was a Hitler. If you do not believe me, just look at the evidence in Cambodia during the Pol Pot regime. There is a constancy of temptation of great evil among very average and mundane humans. That temptation does not “go away” if God smites or “doesn’t allow” individual evil doers to be alive and for them and all around them to have freedom of choice. Evil is the doing of very bad things using very good physical law. Does God eliminate the physical laws (such as fire, which is actually necessary for life), entire classes of behavior (thus God treats humans as robots, something he did not do even to the angels who are of his very spiritual substance), or does God eliminate all who would ever do evil (and thus all their offspring) and then, well, how many people would actually be alive on earth at all?
To wrap up this analogy, let’s look again at Mother Teresa. Who was she and what was the completed work of individual sculpture that emerged from her marble stone at the end of her life, the finished work? Her words live on after her in the book “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light.” One of the realities of the human limitations of perspective and vision is that each person does not understand their own completed sculpture. Only God knows who a person really is in total. Mother Teresa received her calling and her goodness by ministering to those who, one can safely argue, suffer from genuine evil of poverty, prejudice, untreated illness, loneliness and neglect. I argue that conditions that allow so many who would need a Mother Teresa in that vocation is an evil, for humans by now should have been much better at sharing the bounty and helping all the poor, the sick and the lonely. So Mother Teresa was in a large part chiseled out of her interaction with that large reservoir of evil in the world which is human deprivation and neglect of their fellow human beings. So on the one hand the evil of deprivation and neglect rubbed and chiseled great goodness out of the marble block that is Mother Teresa.
But interaction with evil and its products can be a two edged sword and cause damage and confusion to the do-gooder him or herself. This is particular true with those of the religious or spiritual persuasions. I’m not a sculptor so excuse my possibly ignorant examples, but let’s assume that sculptors use a range of tools, from blunt ones to remove much stone like a hammer, to finer and finer chisels, and then eventually to sandpaper to rub finished parts smooth. When one is totally melded to unrelenting and total ministering to what is evil and dark, it is like being constantly sculpted with the hammer and never allowing one’s self to be chiseled or smoothed gently. Mother Teresa is the poster child of this problem. All social workers know about “compassion fatigue.” Well, religious or spiritual humans are vulnerable to a compassion fatigue that is much worse, as it is rather than a compassion fatigue a goodness starvation. Social workers who have compassion fatigue have a work crisis, for example, but they still have access to normal parts of life beyond their social work, which is their own families, friends and other pleasures of life. Someone like a Mother Teresa willfully deprive themselves of all that is balancing and good in life, allowing their entire spirit to be subsumed by the evil that they are ministering to. Thus you read very odd and dark lacks of understanding such as the following:
Mother Teresa believed her mission would continue beyond her death. Her mission statement says this plainly: “If I ever become a saint-I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from heaven-to light the light of those in darkness on earth” (p. 338).
I cringe whenever I open that book, by the way, and read those types of thoughts and this incredible inflation, as in this:
Mother is here to help you, guide you, lead you to Jesus. Time is coming closer when Mother also has to go to God. Then Mother will be able to help each one for you more, guide you more and obtain more graces for you (p. 338).
She actually viewed herself as a dark saint, full of drama, able to pop back and forth from heaven to earth, helping others (as obviously no one else can but her, classic signs of inflation) and worst of all “obtain more graces for you.” How can a woman of God, a Christian, become so fundamentally detached from the most basic doctrine and rational balance, where she anticipates being a dark co-mediatrix with Jesus dispensing graces? Good grief, what a mess.
The problem is that she became totally absorbed in the damaging effects of the evil of deprivation and neglect and allowed that to skew her perception of God as being likewise wounded and only of the suffering. The book states that she “always led us to Jesus,” but there are two problems with that. She started assuming that she was actually leading people to Jesus and thus necessary to the process and that simply is not true. All conversion and all grace come from God alone. She started believing that if she was not there that she’d actually have to come back from the dead or “reach down from heaven” in order to ‘bring people to Jesus.’ Whoa, is that a real problem. I guess she figured that God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit were lax on the job and could not do it without her.
I am being blunt but not unkind. I mean, if she’s so essential to bringing people to Jesus, why is India more hostile to their own Christians than ever AND why are countries like China finding their own way to greater belief all without either literally her or an equivalent “Mother Teresa?” Every religious knows that all grace and conversion come from God through the Holy Spirit, not through individuals. Look at what Billy Graham said:
If anything has been accomplished through my life, it has been solely God’s doing, not mine, and He-not I-must get the credit (p. 55).
That is our mission… to be Christ’s ambassadors to the whole world, asking people to be reconciled to God. The primary message that I’ve tried to carry all over the world has been that God loves you. He gave His Son to die for you (p. 59).
I don’t have any supernatural power to do something for you. I am just a man, like you are. I am just a preacher. And my message is that God loves you, He accepts you and forgives you. He is ready to enter your hearts today (pg. 61).
The deepest problems of the human race are spiritual. They are rooted in man’s refusal to seek God’s way for his life. The problem is the human heart, which God alone can change (p. 78).
Jesus must increase, and I must decrease. I sort of cringe when I hear my name called in something I know has been the work of God through these years (p. 96).
All that I have been able to do, I owe to Jesus Christ. I feel I am a spectator watching what God is doing (p. 98).
I feel so undeserving of all the Spirit has done, because the work has been God’s and not man’s. I want no credit or glory. I want the Lord Jesus to have it all (p. 100).
As I look back over the years…I know that my deepest feeling is one of gratitude. I cannot take credit for whatever God has chosen to accomplish through us and our ministry; only God deserves the glory, and we can never thank Him enough for the great things He has done (p. 103).
God measures people by the small dimensions of humility and not by the bigness of their achievements or the size of their capabilities (pg. 17).
Without [Lists people he has worked with]-and all the other people who have served on our board and worked on the crusades-our ministry would be nothing. You would never have heard of me. I give all the credit and glory on this earth to them. And all the glory we give collectively to God, because without His Holy Spirit, we couldn’t have done it (p. 33).
Now, Billy Graham is the evangelist and if anyone could claim to “lead people to Jesus” it would be he. Yet read the constancy through the decades of his ministry of his humility and recognition that it all comes from God through the Holy Spirit, and not through any man or woman. I know that he would cringe at what I am doing but it must be said because without pointing out the corrosive effects of evil on good people, such as Mother Teresa, by comparing to one who uses humility and God’s grace as a protective shield, as does Billy Graham, the errors will continue. Great social work and sacrifice does not a saint make. Worse, a constant view of social work as evangelizing (when one is actually not even evangelizing) leaves harmful scars in one’s personal sculpture and the role model that one sets.
Through embracing her interior darkness, Mother Teresa became a “saint of Darkness.” Jesus’ call “Come-carry me into the holes of the poor.-Come be My light,” urged her “to give [herself]-without any reserve to God in the poor of the slums and the streets.” Disregarding her own suffering, she reached out to others whose suffering seemed greater than her own, bringing the light of God’s love to the hopeless and the helpless, to the poorest of the poor. Though she had carried Jesus into many “dark holes,” there were many more; and even when her strength was notably failing her spirit remained resolute. She carried on (p. 336).
Oh-my-goodness; the entire book makes my hair stand on end. She is “carrying” Jesus into “many dark places?” You mean Jesus is not there unless she brings him there? This is inflation and a martyr complex and not healthy devotion, regardless of the merits of her social work.
One must recognize that evil has strange effects beyond the obvious. It’s like a triple boomerang, if such a thing exists. On the one hand there is the evil of deprivation and extreme poverty and neglect, which harms those who suffer from it, but ennobles those who address it, such as Mother Teresa. So the evil harms the innocent, but the worthy step in and rebuke the evil with their works. But then a certain number of those who constantly immerse themselves in what they think is combating evil or being the only way by which people achieve God now get smacked in the head and soul by the evil in a secondary effect. They succumb to the temptation to believe that they are co-redeeming and co-dispensing of grace along with God; that God is less successful without them!
All of Mother Teresa’s personal writings can be read as a diagnosis of this problem. The boomerang of evil of poverty and deprivation is thrown and hits the innocent. Mother Teresa catches it and throws it back unceasingly through her total devotion to not God where he is, in heaven and among everyone, but “God in the poor.” By only seeing God as being completely in the poor and in fact she takes credit for CARRYING “Jesus into many ‘dark holes’” she then is smacked herself in turn by the evil of deprivation in a way she never recognizes: By being an acolyte of the suffering of deprivation she has now deprived herself of the comfort, the reality and the all glory and power to God and God alone.
I get into this whole tangle to show you that evil is a subtle and multistep process, not simply the obvious example of a great evil deed, and that it is impossible to separate from “good” life. The problem is succumbing to the temptations of evil, which is to study it too closely, to unconsciously or consciously emulate it, or to take credit for that which only God can do.
She was called to share in a distinct way in the mystery of the Cross, to become one with Christ in His Passion and one with the poor she served. Through this sharing she was led to a deep awareness of the “painful thirst” in the Heart of Jesus for the poorest of the poor (p. 335).
WHAT? Where is THAT in the Bible? Jesus on the Cross had a “painful thirst” for the poor in his Heart that he “called” her to share? Oh-my-goodness. Um, not to be a critic but she needed some time out and a strong and not co-enabling spiritual director as she dabbled in heretical and inflationary thoughts.
Her painful darkness mysteriously united her so intimately with her crucified Spouse, that He became the sole “object of her thoughts and affections, the subject of her conversations, the end of her actions and the model of her life" (p. 335).
Christ as spiritual Spouse is not the problem, and even her meditations on the crucified Christ, which is a rich and valid Catholic tradition. But to interpret his crucifixion as being about the poor is like she came from another planet and never read the Gospel.
I don’t have to repeat what I most recently blogged regarding why Christ was crucified, and it was not because his “Heart” had a “painful thirst” for the “poorest of the poor.” To correlate God sending his Son to redeem humans from the bonds of original sin and to establish the New Covenant with Jesus supposedly having a “painful thirst” in his “Heart” for the “poorest of the poor” makes me sympathize with Protestants who shake their heads at Catholics.
Thus evil tarnishes even the good.
The worst of evil is not the raving maniacs who murder, though that is the most heinous. The broadest impact of evil is to diminish God’s power and glory rather than diminish one’s self. The broadest impact of evil is thus to succumb both consciously and unconsciously to temptations of imbalance, whether it is the imbalance of the deprivation of poverty and access to life sustaining sustenance, or the imbalance of thinking that one is actually carrying Jesus around and he can’t go certain places without you taking him there. I’m not saying Mother Teresa was evil, but I am using her as a case study of a very good person who is eroded in what she could have been as the “finished product” by the corrosive effects of constant immersion in the despair of evil, the evil of deprivation. She was so long among the deprived that she started thinking that it is normal that God is deprived too, that Jesus was crucified because he had a “painful thirst for the poor of the poor.” (I keep expecting my laptop to go up in flames every time I type that phrase, good Lord).
What Jesus said:
So Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Let her keep this for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Um, does that sound like Jesus has a (watch for the laptop on fire) “painful thirst for the poor of the poor,” one that he disturbs the peace of mind of one Mother Teresa with, in person, two thousand years later? “You always have the poor with you” does not sound like someone with a “painful thirst” for the “poorest of the poor.”
In fact, it is the judging and stern Jesus who admonishes that in the final judgment those who saw him in the poor and ministered to them will be rewarded, while those who neglect the poor will be punished. That is far from saying that Jesus needs to be lugged by one woman and placed in “dark holes” (hopes my laptop does not catch on fire as I really can’t afford another one right now).
So God allows evil because evil is the sum total of the physical world and human condition since evil is simply misuse of natural law (hand can built a home or strike an infant caused by the same force equals mass times acceleration natural law) and succumbing to temptations, from the most appalling and wicked to the most insidious and subtle. Evil cannot be eliminated in any form without removing natural law and human independence of action, and doing either of that would really eliminate human life. Animal life could certainly continue on since animals have no concept of evil, only survival and raising their young. This then means the only answer would be for God to cull in advance anyone he knows since he is all knowing will perform evil, and again, we have the problem that few humans would exist. Look at the odds. Out of Adam, Eve, Abel and Cain, three of the four performed evil and the fourth was killed as a result of the evil act. If God eliminated evil he should not have created Adam and Eve in the first place (knowing they’d commit evil in advance) and thus there would be no humans in faith history. Obviously as with the angels example God is demonstrating that love is all powerful and is the reason, and that he will never close the door by culling like some sort of animals those angels or humans he knows will disobey and do evil. A lot of “good” people alive today descend from someone who did a lot of evil somewhere along the line, and if the line ended there, there would be a lot of whales and polar bears on earth but not a lot of humans, if any.
Jesus does not have to be “carried” into the slums; Jesus, like God, is already there.
“Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me.”
“On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.”
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.”
Evil is contrariness to the will of God, so it is not only the breaking of Commandments and other laws of God, but it is the cruelty and misleading of humans by other humans. A subtle but destructive form of evil and temptation is the destruction of the peace of Jesus, which is not just the peace of a lack of war and conflict, but also the serenity of peace of mind. Jesus does not teach an obsessive compulsive philosophy of works. He gives peace even as the world is in its flawed condition, and he tells all to NOT let their hearts be troubled or afraid. Jesus is about as far from having a “painful thirst” as you can imagine. (Is my computer getting hotter, or am I just imagining it?) I better wind up this blogging.
I hope that you have found this rather lengthy commentary helpful.