That’s not fair! I am sure every parent has heard this cry coming from their son or daughter. Probably a lot more than once too. There is deep within most of us a desire for fairness. This is especially true I think when we focus on ways we might be treated unfairly. And yet treating people fairly and being treated fairly are not always easy things to do. Sometimes I find that when I think things are not fair, I am not always right.
The reality is that this concern about fairness is not a recent development. The prophet Ezekiel quotes the house of Israel. “The LORD’s way is not fair!” And with all the bad things that happen in the world, especially to good people, it is not difficult to ask God “Why?” Even a quick look seems to show that some people suffer more than others. And this suffering does not always seem to bear any relationship to the quality of the moral life. Good people suffer evil. People who cheat others can seem to prosper. What is a person of faith to make of all this?
The problem of evil, the question of why bad things happen to good people, is one that haunts us as people of faith. And it is understandable. God is good. God is all-powerful. Why then does not God intervene to prevent all evil? It does not take much of a stretch to wonder about why people who dedicate their lives to God also suffer bad things.
As a Dominican, searching to answer difficult theological questions leads us to Saint Thomas Aquinas, the great Dominican author of the Summa Theologiae. The objection atheists raise is that if God is all-powerful and all-good, then he could create a world free from evil. Since the world has evil, the argument goes, then either God is not all-powerful or all-good, or God does not exist at all.
Rather than avoid the question, Saint Thomas Aquinas takes it on. He asks about the providence of God, and whether or not God has providence over all things in his care. Now evil is not a “thing”, but is rather what Thomas would called a privation, which can be defined as “something that lacks what it is supposed to have.” Moreover, it is important to note that we can distinguish two kinds of evil. There is physical evil, like hurricanes, and moral evil, which is an action done by a human being. Physical evil occurs without an human intervention. One aspect of evil that might be easier to comprehend is the evil we experience as the result of evil actions done by another. Because God preserves our freedom as a tremendous good, as an attribute that is intimately connected to the fact we are made in God’s image and likeness. And so, if we are to be truly free as a human being then I need to be free even to completely reject God. I cannot be free to be a good person if I am not also free to be evil and sin. So, when we experience evil because of the sinful action of another, while we may not like it, I think we can understand how God is not responsible for moral evil.
Physical evil, on the other hand, is a harder question, precisely because it does not require human intervention to occur. Trying to see how a dying tree that falls on my house and kills me, or the horrific destruction of a tornado, for example, is a problem that can seem harder to solve.
First, we need to understand that God’s original plan was paradise. That is to say, we were destined to live forever with God, yet through sin, we commit evil. God constantly gives us “another chance” when we turn to him in repentance.
Second, we need to observe our world. In our world things live and things die. And this is in fact a good thing insofar as the death of one animal is the food of another, or the death of one plant can be the way to feed another. Also, when natural things die, as they decompose, they provide the means for new things to live. We might be afraid of bats, but their consumption of mosquitoes is a good thing, even though they may cause fear in us.
Third, God allows evil in particular instances for the good of the whole universe. So what may appear (quite rightly) to be an action that causes great destruction or sadness, may be necessary for the good of the entire universe.
All this is to say that while certain evil events can be quite devastating, they do not, in and of themselves mean that God is neither all-powerful nor all-good. This answer, of course, is not particularly satisfying for someone who is experiencing a great tragedy, even at the hand of another’s evil actions, but it does serve as a good reminder that we cannot always view the “big picture.”
This is not unlike a situation where a toddler gets mad because he is being denied the ability to do something that could cause himself harm. He may feel it grossly unfair to be denied to do what he wanted to do, but his parents rightly can see a bigger picture and need to protect him from harm.
Another thing is that sometimes it is the experience of our bad decisions that can bring about change. When we experience negative consequences over and over, we might rightly conclude it is probably a good idea not to make the same choice. It is not that God punishes us in a one-to-one way for our evil. And, it is true that God accompanies us in those times when we endure evil.
God loves us. God is always desirous of a deeper relationship with us. Always. We may conclude “The LORD’s way is not fair!” but in fact may do so by being blind to the fact that we are often unfair. When we commit evil, we ultimately die. But when we turn away from evil, and embrace virtue, we live.
And this is the point. What God encourages from each of us, in a variety of ways, is to accept the grace, the help God gives us, and to enter into the deep conversion that helps us to live forever with him. To avoid murdering, work on not getting angry. To avoid hypocrisy, work to heal broken relationships. This is a Friday in Lent, which makes it a day emphasized for penance, so that we will be more like Jesus, we may gain control over our sinful impulses, and most importantly, come to bask in the love of Jesus.