Valley of tears

August 31, 2022 in Bill Toner SJ

BILL TONER SJ :: In a recent blog I suggested that it may be a mistaken kind of spirituality to think that God leads us by the hand all the time. It seems more likely that God has placed us in a world where a lot of things happen to us randomly. If this is correct, God may accompany us on our journey through life, and occasionally pick us up and dust us down when we fall, but he rarely takes immediate responsibility for everything that happens to us.

Not every believer will be comfortable with this view of God’s way of being present in our lives. There is also a kind of spirituality, found even in parts of the Bible, which sees God as guiding us every step of the way, and overseeing everything that happens to us, good or bad.

The difficulty with this latter view is that, if taken too literally, it risks reducing God to the level of a puppet-master. It suggests that nothing happens to us by chance, from birth to death. And that seems to make God directly responsible for bad things to happen to us, such as sickness, accidents, natural disasters, and the death of our loved ones, sometimes after great suffering. Such happenings can put a great strain on the faith of believers.

Furthermore, in this view of things, there seems to be no room for free will, which permits humans to make choices which are random. These choices can affect people’s lives in terrible ways, for instance when the leader of a state declares war on another country.

Nevertheless, could it be that God somehow brought about the best outcome for his creation by permitting a great deal of chance, of randomness, to determine how things turn out in the evolution of the natural world and in our human lives? The Bible does not rule out that many things happen to us by chance:

The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong,
Nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent,
Nor favour to the men of skill;
But time and chance happen to them all. (1)

This question is not a new one. In 1710, the German philosopher, Gottfried Leibniz, in his great essay on the problem of evil (2), argued that no matter how bad the world may seem to us, any other kind of world – such as one free from all the evils that afflict us – would have been worse than the current one, all things considered. In Leibniz’s view, God could only have created “the best of all possible worlds”.

It must be emphasised that even if God does not lead us by the hand, he accompanies us through the best and worst moments of our lives, and may even intervene from time to time in answer to prayer or through special moments of grace, often giving us the strength to bear the most difficult crosses.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this simple accompaniment by God is the Carrying of the Cross as recounted in the Bible and in Christian tradition. There can be no doubt that God the Father accompanied his son Jesus, the incarnation of God the Word, in his terrible journey from Pilate’s palace to the Cross. Yet, what happened to Jesus on that journey seems mainly a matter of chance, and of random acts by Roman soldiers. It is unthinkable that God the Father took a hand in the scourging of his son or his mock crowning with thorns, or that he pushed Jesus to the grounds at least three times as he staggered under the weight of the crossbeam of his scaffold. So invisible was any intervention that Jesus cried out on the Cross that his Father seemed to have forsaken him. It may be that the Father sent Simon of Cyrene to help Jesus carry the cross, or that he sent Veronica to wipe the sweat and blood from the face of Jesus. But these also may have been random acts that were noted by the bystanders.

The Way of the Cross, as it is called, may be a model for aspects of our own lives. We can have no doubt that God accompanies us through all our dark moments, but for reasons that we do not understand, he rarely intervenes. We must accept that, for all the bright moments that light up our lives, we often find ourselves in a valley of tears, at times walking along with Jesus as he carries his cross, while we carry ours. Perhaps, in the words of St. Paul, as we walk along enduring our own calveries, we are making up for whatever is lacking in the sufferings of Christ as he goes about his work of redeeming the human race. (3)

Endnotes

  1. Ecclesiastes, 9:11.
  2. Gottfried Leibniz, Essays of Theodicy on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man, and the Origin of Evil.
  3. Colossians 1:24