What is God’s providence?
All creatures come from nothing and, left to their own devices, would inevitably and instantly fall back into nothingness. Consequently, God must, right here and right now, be sustaining me, you, and every other created thing in existence.
God’s activity is both current and all pervasive. This observation alone is enough to hole the Deist vision of God (the notion that God kick-starts the universe and then retires into obscurity) below the water line. Yet God is not merely our life support system. His providence is insistently edging us in the direction of attaining the end of human existence, namely intimate and (ultimately eternal) communion with Him. His providence is not merely benign, it is loving.
In the very first paragraph of the Catechism, the question is raised as to what God gets out of the Herculean tasks of creating and running the universe: “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life.” What does God get out of this? Nothing, all the benefit is on the side of the creature.
Where does evil come into it?
Our first parents touched what ought not to have been touched, and by this primordial rebellion, evil infected creation and entered the story. The curve was never fully flattened, but spikes with every personal sin since. All humanity – with two exceptions – has been infected. All this makes a big difference to the operation of providence.
When sickness comes, bitter medicines must follow. Is death (of which Covid-19 is only the latest tentacle) a punishment? That it is seems to be part of revelation: “In the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:17). But, and this is a very big but, it is not retributive punishment but what St Thomas Aquinas calls medicinal punishment: and to that extent it is mercy.
Indeed, there is nothing particularly unique about the latest mutation in human suffering: it takes its place among the ranks.
All human suffering in this life is both penal and medicinal. It is penal to the extent that it flows from a primal sin and the disturbance that this introduced into the cosmic order (Genesis 3:19). It is also penal because the very fact that we now need trials to turn us back to God results from the damaged state of human nature; a lamentable state that is both the consequence and “wages” of sin.
But unlike Hell, this suffering is not the raw justice of retributive punishment, but a purgative force permitted by God to mend the fractures that sin (both Original and personal) has opened up in the human heart.
Why does God permit evil?
God has one endgame in view in His providence of the world: to get us to heaven, and like any good parent, He’ll use whatever it takes to see his children flourish: even a 60nm-wide ball of RNA. Everything has its own particular purpose, but under the regime of Providence, everything also serves this final purpose.
In a soundbite that bears quiet reflection, St Thomas reminds us that God “neither wills evil to be done, nor wills it not to be done, but wills to permit evil to be done; and this is a good.” The last phrase is the punchline here: “and this is a good”. The medicinal dimension of God’s providence falls squarely in the zone of God’s specialty of bringing good out of evil: “Oh happy fault.”
But what does it mean to “bring good out of evil”? In the current crisis, it can mean a rediscovery of the family as a haven, the awareness that material wellbeing is a relative good, bringing significant opportunities for solidarity, a deeper gratitude for what we can easily take for granted (the NHS?), and more occasions to act virtuously and even heroically. For others, it will remain, at least for now, a mystery as to how God is bringing good out of this evil.
What part do we play in this?
Good does not come from evil in the way that a cake comes from its ingredients. Rather, good comes from evil in the sense that evil can be the occasion for the rational creature to change his mind and his behaviour (metanoia). Good will not come “automatically”: we must choose it.
It’s important to remember that the sufferings and death of Our Lord were only raw material for something else that does the heavy lifting against sin: namely love. Christ heals mankind not principally by the pain that He endured – taking it on the chin, so to speak (as in the false theory of “penal substitution”) – but by love. Standing in the place of so many moments of human hatred, God sees in Jesus a man completely turn towards Him in love. This is what mends the relationship; a choice for love amidst suffering.
We can lose control of a lot of things in life; but we can always respond to God’s impassioned and bittersweet entreaty to us; or we have the choice to turn away.
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