Wednesday, July 21, 2010

God's Will & Human Freedom

In the early 80s I read Sheldon Vanauken’s personal story of faith entitled A Severe Mercy, how he came to surrender and commitment to Jesus through the death of his wife and the friendship of C. S. Lewis. A few years later Vanauken continued the story of his journey –– interspersed with other reflections –– in a work entitled Under the Mercy. A significant part of this later journey was his embrace of Catholicism; looking back, this was probably early seed being implanted in my own mind and heart.

I recently returned to this second volume to find the selection I’ve included below. The book is OP now, but available from used book dealers. I recommend it to you (despite a few strange excursions about the Confederacy; Vanauken was an “old-world” Southerner).


Reflections on the Problem of Pain

"I still can't get over it, Jane, losing my baby. Just before her second birthday. But it was God's will."—"God must be testing Sue by giving her cancer."—"He broke his back when the tractor turned over. It was God's will, of course."—"God took both our children."—"How can a good God let the Cambodians starve? I refuse to believe in a God like that."—"All three of his sons, such fine boys, died when the cruiser was torpedoed. It was God's will."—"How can God make me suffer so? I hate God!"

It was God's will. Or, as Allah wills it. Is this, in truth, the way of it? Does God indeed award a cancer here, a car wreck there, all according to His high and mysterious purpose? Does He punish Mr and Mrs Smith by willing the death of their child when the drunken youth rams their car? Does God will the earth to quake? Did He will the deaths of millions, Christians as well as Jews, in the Nazi death camps, or at the murderous hands of Stalin?

It may be indeed that good men must sometimes suffer to learn that their only lasting joy—their only security—is in God. Some may be called upon individually to bear the weight of the cross for His sake, nor can we always see how their pain shall be to His glory. But in speaking of every disaster as God's will, we forget something essential to the Christian faith: the Fall and its consequences. The story in Genesis may be taken as literal truth or as myth; but myth implies an essential truth. Moreover, the Fall is not only affirmed by St Paul, it is affirmed by redemption itself—redemption in Christ—for redemption is from sin. The sin that entered the world with the Fall.

Let us consider what the Fall was and is. It is man, a created being—a creature—in rebellion against his Creator. It is man in his pride seeking independence—autonomy—by choosing something other than God. By choosing himself. Self. Self-centeredness. Selfishness. Self-expression. Self-realization. Self-fulfillment. Some of these sound quite innocent, don't they? But Christ's command was to die to self. We are not roused to enthusiasm by the idea.

A question arises: Why did God let the Fall happen? Why didn't He give Eve a frightful slap and say in a voice of thunder: "Stop that!"? Why did He let us become infected with sin? We are so addicted to self, so infected, that our self-love doesn't even shock us, we hardly notice. But God allows us choice. That is the answer to the question of why He didn't slap Eve. A simple answer—and utterly astonishing. He not only made living, moving creatures. He made creatures capable of saying "No" to Him, of defying Him. Unlike the trees, we have free will. God's great experiment was to create us free to choose to love Him (the only love worth having) or to reject Him. We love Him and serve Him, or we love our self and serve that self. We don't admit we're self-serving, but we're often proud to say we're self-sufficient, without need for God.

But if we are fallen—infected with sin and addicted to sin—what hope is there for us? Perhaps God, not caring, has abandoned us? —He cares so much that He allowed us to drive the nails through His hands. My God! He loves us that much! The phrase has become so boring as to lose meaning: Christ came to save sinners. Awesome meaning, in fact.

He came down from heaven—God Himself—and became man and died in agony as man, trusting forsaken (as He had to be to taste the whole of death). When we suffer, let us remember the Son trusting the Father—and the validation of the trust in the Resurrection. Christ was, precisely, God's action to save us from the Fall. On our own we cannot conquer our addiction to self, but with Christ in us we are not on our own.

When the Fall occurred, it was not only man that fell. All creation (at least on earth) somehow fell too. We cannot know how it was before—whether it was only with the Fall that the lion learned to bite man. And we don't know whether there is indeed a Prince of this World, an archangel, himself fallen after "dubious battle on the plains of heaven." But we may remember that that ominous figure, however much not "in" among Christians these days, was spoken of with authority by our Lord. What we cannot know is what that fallen creation—and that prince—may have to do with the cancer that tries our trust.

The finite mind of man cannot comprehend the infinite mind of God. We can know only what God has revealed to us in Christ. We know that we have choice, for He told us. And we know, even with our finite minds, that if men can choose evil, other men will suffer. Three-quarters of the suffering is clearly traceable to man's own cruelty and greed. And we know—it is much—that He loves us and that we can trust Him. We can hold to that.

It is the implications of free will that I wish to explore. That we were given choice is one of the things we know. But it was not Eve only making a choice, and choosing further to tempt Adam: consequently he was faced with his choice, and he made it. And we have been making choices ever since: the Nazis were men making choices, so is the fellow who snaps at his wife at breakfast.

But choice has consequences or it wouldn't be choice at all. If we pull the trigger, the bullet strikes, and our victim gasps and dies. If God gives us freedom, freedom to choose, He must allow us to have what we choose—the taste of the apple, the death of the man we shoot, or, if we insist, Hell—or it wouldn't be choice at all. He must allow the consequences. And the consequences of the consequences, going on endlessly, involving the innocent.

If a young man drinks too much (a choice) and pridefully decides to show his girl how fast he can drive (a choice), he may smash hideously into your car, killing his girl and leaving you paralyzed for life. Is this God's will (except in the sense of permitting the choosing)? It cannot be, for that would mean God forced the young man to choose evil (self). He chose; the consequences follow. The girl's family plunged in grief. You unable to send your son to college. The policeman who came to the wreck not being somewhere else to stop a crime.

But there may be good consequences, too—God will bring these about if possible. You and your wife may learn to trust God more deeply; the young man, haunted by grief, may become a Christian. But those would be bringing good out of evil, not bringing about the evil in hopes of the good. The evil was the consequences of a choice.

To say that because God is sovereign and all powerful He can simultaneously give us freedom to choose and compel our choice is not to say something profound about omnipotence but to speak nonsense. The glass is either transparent or opaque. The Holy Spirit urges us towards the good, not towards the evil. And, of course, our good choices—our prayer for strength to bear pain or for healing—also have consequences. The consequences of good acts also go on and on.

Millions of people choosing, millions upon millions of choices, choices at every second of the centuries. One choice is like a stone chucked into a still pond with the wave spreading out in all directions. But all the choices: imagine an ocean with a constant hail of stones plunging into it and a chaotic tumult of boiling waves in a patternless storm. Only God could comprehend it.

The murderer is making a choice. So is the monk praying in the night. The rapist is a monster of self-choosing, as is the woman who feeds on her children to bolster her ego. The man who rushes into a burning house to save a neighbor's child; the businessman who cuts his neighbor's financial throat; the child who tortures the cat. The choices are not in a vacuum: someone else is helped or harmed, including the cat.

Sometimes it is said about monstrous evils like the Nazi death camps that, if there were a God, He would stop them. Why doesn't God stop such human suffering? Let us, then, suppose He does. Let us imagine God looking down at the Nazi death camps: the squalid misery, the near starvation, the cold, the brutal guards, the firing squads, the skinny children herded into the gas chambers. God sees it all and hears the wailing and the prayers: "Help us, oh God! Let our cry come unto Thee!" — Suddenly the divine fist slams down upon the table, and thunder drowns out the guns below.

"By God!" He says. "It's too much. Eating an apple is one thing—but thisl I never dreamt that my men could be this wicked. I will it to stop."

Well, of course it stops. A Nazi guard turns a handle to start the gas flowing in upon the huddled victims behind the heavy glass. He yawns, he's done this so many times. No thrill left. Then he notices that the people in the chamber are not clawing their throats. Odd. He gives the handle another push, just as the walls of the gas chamber dissolve. He and the other guards snatch out pistols and fire. God catches the bullets in His hand. In time the prisoners shuffle away, finding that the perimeter fences have vanished.

God has acted. Elsewhere, booted feet ascend the stairs, and a door is kicked in. Storm troopers enter, guns leveled, and the man they've come to get cowers. But the blow and the kick do not land; and the storm troopers, bewildered, go away.

Now that God is acting, He will have to act the next time the Russians purge a few million people. In the meantime, there is the Hitler war. Hundreds of Luftwaffe bombers are over London, bombs whistling down. But God's hand is in the way. Londoners go back to bed. The roar of the guns on the Russian front is stilled. A submarine fires a spread of torpedoes. It appears that two at least will strike the cruiser, and 800 men will die, including one family's three fine sons. God reaches into the water and seizes the torpedoes. The proud cruiser steams on.

But agony is not to be measured quantitatively. The 50 people in a gas chamber—a quick death, after all—or one man being hideously tortured, hour after hour, day after day, by the Secret Police. God stops that: no line can be drawn. And the woman in a hospital, her body eaten up with cancer: she is suffering almost as much or perhaps more—who can measure? God, committed now to action, acts. The woman draws a long breath, flinching. It doesn't hurt. She sits up and asks for lunch.

A rapist is leering down at his terrified victim. Then he finds an invisible wall between him and her. In a few moments she pulls her torn frock round her and goes, possibly sticking her tongue out at the shrunken man. A woman watches her husband drink the coffee she has put strychnine in. She turns pale when he gives her a kiss and goes off to work. Another woman screaming at her tired husband, as she has done for years, is suddenly voiceless. A boy's cruel epithet flung at a high school girl who would be scarred by it is heard by no one. The child's hands torturing the cat go limp. The cat goes away, tail in air.

All this—it's right nice, isn't it? This is the God we want, we think. We are ready to re-elect God, God. But let us look further. When all this begins to happen, people will be astonished and unbelieving, victims and predators alike. Of course many of the victims are predators in their own ways: the man in the death camp may be, in what he thinks of as better times, a rapist. People will go on for a while trying to find pistols that will work and have fun again.

But finally it will dawn upon mankind that God has stopped all victimizing. You cannot shoot anybody, but also—since God can't draw lines—you cannot bark at your wife or cheat on your income tax. The fist cannot connect. The cruel word cannot be said. Free will has been repealed. No one now chooses to be good; he must be.

Newspapers shrink. No more wars or rumors of war, no more corruption in Washington, no more murder trials, no more juicy scandals. Lions lie down with lambs, and capitalists with workers. Almost every novel ever written will soon come to seem unreal, for they were about a world where good guys strove with bad ones, and courage meant something. And goodness.

The gift God gave to man was the freedom to choose. If God acts to prevent the consequences of choice, the gift is withdrawn. No one will choose to shoot if the bullet cannot strike. No one will accept cancer with fortitude and prayer if there is no cancer. No one will wound with a cruel word if it is unheard. For awhile people will wistfully yearn to hurt somebody, but new generations will have forgotten choice. No longer will it be salvation through the redemptive sacrifice of Christ. Indeed, the Passion itself will seem meaningless to a world that has never known suffering, a world where wickedness is unknown.

But, also, a world where goodness is not chosen and is, therefore, unknown. To finite man, what meaning can goodness have if there is no badness? Is this, after all, the world we should like? As it is now, we are moved by valour and goodness because they shine in an evil world as stars shine in darkness.

No stars, so to speak, in our new world. God's grand experiment of creating people free to love and trust Him or to hate Him will be all over. We, compelled to be good without choice, shall sink into apathy. Perhaps our minds will decay. We shall not have achieved autonomy. We shall have become automatons. More and more like vegetables, merely existing. We who were created for the stars.

After all, perhaps it is as well that God is running the universe, not us.

When God became one of us in Christ, He never promised us an easy time or said that Christians would be spared. In fact, the lions in Rome were already looking forward to their first taste of raw Christian. What Jesus said was: "Take up your cross and follow me."

We shall suffer because of evil loosed into the world, most of it men's choices. Despite a shudder for what may lie ahead for me, I say thank God—imagining a world without choice. Pain may seem an unmitigated evil—and, unless it draws us or others to deeper trust in God, it is. But would we escape it by rejecting God's grand gift of freedom? We must indeed use that freedom to lessen the suffering in the world: thus good comes from evil.

And if we must suffer, let us remember Jesus forsaken. And, like Him, trust in agony—remembering that God Himself in awesome compassion is suffering with us. In the end we shall have what we have chosen: we shall have Him: and in the light of His face all the suffering unto death—the bearing of our cross—will then have been less than a half-remembered dream.

Sheldon Vanauken, Under the Mercy, Thomas Nelson Pub, 1985

ppg 117–122

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