Some time after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center four years ago, I read the results of a study of 437 adults over age 50 that indicated that their sense of control over their lives dropped significantly after that event. I found it interesting that the people who were more religious suffered the greatest damage to their feeling of control. The researcher pointed out that most of the subjects were raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition and had probably believed in a world of just rewards and punishments. Now they felt that the good and bad things that happened to them were due merely to good or bad luck. I assume that if these same people were surveyed today after so many recent natural disasters, they might feel even less sense of control over their lives.
My reflections on that study led me to think of the myths that formed my philosophy of life as a child. I was raised to believe that if I were kind to someone, that person would be good to me, that if I worked hard, I would succeed, that if I “behaved,” nothing bad would happen to me. I remember the first time I was confronted with the fact that terrible things can happen to good people.
I was about 5 years old when my soon-to-be best friend, Sally, moved next door. The first time I saw Sally’s dad carry her mother out to the porch to watch us play and learned that she could not walk, I immediately went home to ask my mother, “Why?” When my mother explained that Sally’s mom had a type of disease that made her unable to walk, I asked why again. I cannot remember my mother’s response, but it obviously did not satisfy me, because my next question, the underlying one, was “What did Sally’s mom do that caused such a bad thing to happen to her?” I was confused when my mother assured me that she had not done anything wrong, that she had been born with a serious illness and no doctor or medicine could help her. The myth that I had already begun to believe—that bad things happen to bad people and good to the good—was shattered. Such was my earliest lesson that some things in life are out of our control and independent of our good or bad behavior.
If the more religious adults in the study described above had the illusion that they were living in a world where the just are rewarded and the evil are punished, it is understandable that they questioned how an all-loving God could allow something like 9/11 to happen, much less all the disasters that have occurred before and since then. They apparently believed that God should make certain that bad things do not happen to those who do not deserve them, a wish that probably most of us have had at some time in our lives.
In reality, the role of meting out rewards and punishments does not seem to be the one God has chosen in relating to us. Rather, except for miracles, it appears that natural causes and our free will account for much of what occurs in our world. God does not, ordinarily, change the course of a hurricane to accommodate our vacation plans, nor does God stop abusers, warmongers or suicide bombers from using their free will to wreak havoc on the innocent. Instead of directly causing either our happiness or our misery, it seems that God chooses instead to be with us in the midst of both, luring us to make choices for both our good and that of others, giving us the strength to endure whatever pain comes into our lives and trying to soften the hearts of those who would do evil.
I recently had a chance meeting with a counseling client of years ago. This woman related the story of an encounter she had recently had with her brother, whom she had not seen for many years. He had sexually abused her as a child. She had decided to meet with him to tell him that she had forgiven him, that she no longer wanted to hold on to the anger and hatred that had been devastating her for years. My client had expected her brother to deny that he had ever hurt her. Instead, he acknowledged his guilt, made no excuses for his behavior and apologized. He thanked her for confronting him and said it gave him hope that he could now be free of the shame that had plagued his life. My client felt a tremendous sense of peace after her meeting with him.
If we were living in a world like the one that the more religious people in the study had believed in, one in which good people are rewarded and evil ones punished, the encounter between my former client and her brother would not make sense. God should never have let this woman be abused; she was a good child. Her brother should never have been sorry nor should she have forgiven him; he was a perpetrator, a “bad” person.
What we, and perhaps the people in the study, often forget is that although God does not ordinarily interfere with natural laws or with the choices we make by our free will, God has made it possible that good can come from our suffering, that we can, so to speak, “grow stronger in the broken places.” Usually we see that good or experience that strength only after the suffering is long over. Perhaps our question ought not be: “Why does God allow evil in our world?” but rather, “Since pain and suffering are inevitable in a world governed by free will and laws of nature, how can we fathom the immensity of the love that arranged it so that compassion and growth can be the consequence of that pain?”
Such a question would remind all of us that although we are not in control of all that happens in our lives, we are—even in the midst of the greatest evils—still in the hands of a loving God whose care for us is endless and indiscriminately gracious.