Two weeks from the celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord, and one week from Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion, the readings from the fourth gospel, John 11, invite us to meditate on God’s response to evil. The evil we encounter with Christ in the words of scripture is not the kind of evil that easily traces its origin back to weak or willful human acts. It is the evil of the loss of goodness due to the frailty and contingency of our human condition: non-moral evil. Illness, aging, disability, and death all are very real losses of very real goods in our lives. When we or ones we love lose capacities or life itself, we are wounded. The stripping of that which we love and value is experienced as injury, and we crave an explanation or someone to blame. In these cases, however, there is no human agent responsible for what befalls us.
For those of religious faith, it can lead to a suit against God, much like that of Job in the Hebrew Scriptures. Ultimately, confronting the Divine with a charge of injustice leaves us facing what can be perceived as God’s snotty-sounding counter-charge demanding to know by what right and authority we small human beings think we know better than God of Providence and God’s Plan. We shrink back in terror or bitterness, still dissatisfied with the response.
We can also try to rationalize persistence of evil in our world with the logical problematic of the “theodicy trilemma.” It goes like this: 1. God is omnipotent/all-powerful; 2. God is omniscient/ all-knowing; 3. God is benevolent and loving. Now, choose two. Here, in our thought experiment, God’s defense in this case against us looks pretty bleak. Either God isn’t all-powerful, God isn’t provident, knowing what we need when we need it, or God does not love us. Seems pretty rational, but something doesn’t ring true to the good news I hear in the Gospels.
In the eleventh chapter in the Gospel of John, Jesus arrives “late” to save his friend Lazarus from death. Mary, another friend of Jesus and Lazarus’s sister, runs out to him and breaks down weeping, “‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed [choked up] and deeply troubled, and said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Sir, come and see’” (Jn 11:32-34). Mind you, these are the same words Jesus used to call his first disciples while walking in the same town of Bethany a few years earlier. Now, his disciples are calling him to follow and bear witness to their suffering. And then, in the shortest verse of the Bible, we see the response of God-Incarnate to our shared vulnerability.
“And Jesus wept” (Jn 11:35).
The mystery of suffering and non-moral evil is not a problem to be solved. It is also not only an experience of hardship and loss to be endured. It is an opportunity to draw close to each other, human to human and human to God, and share in a common life that defies even the most absurd contradictions of what is good and valuable in our lives. Jesus shared that with his friends—mourned and wept with them. God-Incarnate is a com-passionate companion. And as Jesus promised earlier, though he delayed, our fragility and dis-ease will not end in death, but for the glory of God. Even his own death will witness to that.
This can be hard to swallow, admittedly, and it takes a great deal of inner fortitude and resolute faith to choose to continue actively moving forward and realizing good in our lives when there has been suffering and loss due to our present “natural condition” of contingency. But Christian revelation teaches us that contingency and vulnerability is not our ultimate destiny, nor the horizon by which we ought to know ourselves and live our lives. St. Ignatius of Loyola very deftly summed up in the “First Principle and Foundation” from his Spiritual Exercises the perspective out of which we ought to live our lives if we want to be happy even in the midst of “this our exile” from earthly paradise. He wrote:
A Contemporary Reading of the “First Principle and Foundation” from The Spiritual Exercises, no. 23, by St. Ignatius Loyola
The goal of our life is to live with God forever. God, who loves us, gave us life. Our own response of love allows God’s life to flow into us without limit.
All the things in this world are gifts of God, presented to us so that we can know God more easily and make a return of love more readily.
As a result, we appreciate and use all these gifts of God insofar as they help us develop as loving persons. But if any of these gifts become the center of our lives, they displace God and so hinder our growth toward our goal.
In everyday life, then, we must hold ourselves in balance before all of these created gifts insofar as we have a choice and are not bound by some obligation. We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God.
Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening his life in me.
– David Fleming, SJ
We are most truly ourselves and most human, when we allow God to live and work through us, and this can happen no matter what our state in life and condition of physical and emotional “well-being.” All things can work for God’s greater glory, even sickness, poverty, failure, or a life cut short. Non-moral evil can in fact be a vehicle and means to good. We were created in the image and likeness of God, capax Dei, or capable of receiving God’s very being—it is our human identity. When we allow God to use all of us—even our suffering and frailty, this seeming evil, non-moral evil that we experience without rhyme or reason—even in the midst of death, we are alive. And Christ is with us.