(The following is an edited excerpt from an email I wrote to someone about the Catholic faith, with bits left out and some rewritten. I don’t go into in much, but I think a really good philosophical response to the problem of evil, that gets into evil as privation, is in God Matters by Herbert McCabe, OP. What I say here is of course generally not original to me and I picked it up (insofar as I have accurately represented it, which, if I haven’t, is my error alone) from others. See, for example, God Matters and material by Fr. Thomas Joseph White, OP—like this recording).
In many circumstances, we cannot get anywhere by wondering why God allowed this or that evil. That usually does not profit us in any way, and it is best to put that question from our mind as much as we can. It is usually a vain speculation and will not do us any good— indeed, it can be positively harmful to us often to ask or to venture an explanation to others. It causes anxiety and confusion to no purpose. I cannot stress this enough. “What is too sublime for you, do not seek; do not reach into things that are hidden from you,” says the Book of Sirach (3:21).
Or as Julian of Norwich puts it, “The second aspect is hidden and closed to us (that is to say, everything that is not necessary for our salvation); for it is our Lord’s privy counsel and it is proper to the royal Lordship of God that his privy counsel should be undisturbed, and it is proper for his servant, out of obedience and reverence, not to know his counsel too well. Our Lord feels pity and compassion for us because some people are so anxious to know about it; and I am sure that if we knew how much we would please him and set our own minds at rest by leaving the matter alone, then we would do so. The saints in heaven do not want to know anything except what our Lord wants to reveal to them…”
We must go by what we know, not what we don’t.
First, God does not will evil, suffering, privation, defect, except insofar as He wills some good to which some evil or suffering is attached (for instance, for St. Thomas, in willing justice, God thereby wills the evil of punishment which is attached to justice). He does bring good out of evil, but this does not mean He wills the evil that He brings good out of (again, except in the sense above). And He never wills, even in any qualified way, sin and the sins which effect or harm us—though of course He permits it and He wills to permit it.
Second, we know that love is the ultimate meaning of reality, of everything. All things that exist come from divine love and are leading to the divine love, even if we cannot see how.
Third, that here and now in our concrete lives, we can find meaning in our suffering as a means of union with Christ and as an occasion to participate in the redemptive plan of the Triune God for His creatures.
Here is what I mean on that last one. Jesus Christ, true God and true man, prayed for His Father to spare Him the suffering that stood before Him, but He accepted the Cross on which he was crucified insofar as it was the Father’s will that He endure it, as the lot of His being human. He was obedient to the will of the Father, though that meant He would be crucified. And He gave His obedience to the Father as a sacrifice and as the remedy for our disobedience of God, and that is our salvation.
Jesus felt real agony over this in His human nature. Luke 22: 41-44: “And he was withdrawn away from them a stone’s cast; and kneeling down, he prayed, Saying: Father, if thou wilt, remove this chalice from me: but yet not my will, but thine be done. And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony, he prayed the longer. And his sweat became as drops of blood, trickling down upon the ground.” Yet in his agony he obeyed the Father’s will. As a result, the Father raised Him from the dead, and we are saved by His obedience.
We follow Jesus. We can offer our sufferings up to the Father as a sacrifice, in obedience to His will for our life. Just as Jesus accepted the Cross from His Father and gave his suffering to the Father, so also can and should we accept whatever cross God gives us, and offer it up for our salvation and the salvation of the world—not that somehow we can be the ultimate source of redemption of the world, but as being instruments of the redemption of Christ under the grace of God. And when we die on the crosses of our life, we have the chance to see ourselves as with Christ, on His Cross, and to pray to the Father that He will receive our obedience to our cross and do whatever He will with it.
This is the best route to meaning, of a certain sort, in private sufferings. Atheism cannot offer anything like this, though of course even an atheist could acknowledge that suffering can temper our character. However, it is not a matter of ‘offering’ an idea, as if we voluntaristically just believe something for no reason except that we find it comforting. What matters is what is true—and it is true that we can do this. We really can, in the fabric of reality, offer up our sufferings in union with Christ, as obedience to the will of the Father.
We can do this at the Mass, where we can join our sacrifice to the sacrifice of Christ, made present on the altar. Our sacrifice is both our praise of God and our obedience to the will of God in embracing our cross. We join our sacrifice to the sacrifice of Christ, and pray God will receive it, for our good and for the good of the world. We should not do this as an ‘experiment,’ as if we judge the truth of it by the results we think we see, or out of vain curiosity, which as Blessed Newman points out, is opposed to “seek[ing] Christ in good earnest.” We must do it in the trust that no matter what we see or do not see, God does receive the sincere sacrifices we offer to Him.
But where can such trust come from, humanly speaking? I think one of your difficulties is that you start from your own experience. You say, basically, that you cannot trust God because nothing in your experience gives you any reason to. You let, that is, your experience and your feelings about your experience be the measure of things for you. This is natural and I will not say it is always wrong to consult our private history.
But as much as possible, I would urge you not to start from your own experience, but from the experience of the entire people of God, that is, the Catholic Church (and those who by grace are in some way part of it). Our lives are but one part of a great story that God is telling and we do not see the whole story, either in our own case, or in the case of the whole universe. But it is helpful to see ourselves as part of the body of Christ, and to make its memories, our memories, and its experiences, our experiences. By virtue of our baptism, we are members of the Body of Christ, and we have access to all that belongs to that body, including its memories, its experiences. God has come to the help of His people over and over again—as in the lives of the saints and in the world through the saints.
If we do not see how He has come to our particular help in our private life, we can nevertheless see that He has helped us by virtue of helping the Church, of which we are members. If God helps one member of the Church, he helps all, by virtue of how we are all united into one body in Christ. And we do know that God has provided for His people and through His people to the poor, the needy, the outcast—the memory of the Church testifies to this.
If we cannot find God in our private individual lives, we should look to find Him in the history of the Church. And there He can clearly be found—and so will He be found in our own private history if we stay committed to Him and stay in the Catholic Church, though we may not see all His works for us, until Heaven, if by His grace we get there.