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God's Mysterious Ways: A Light Beyond These Woods
Before we begin, I should point out that I am not a preacher. In fact, while I do believe in God, I do not practice any specific religion. My belief is a person will be judged by his or her deeds, compassion and remorse (or lack there of). It is difficult for me to believe that either the Pope or Gandhi (and possibly both) must be denied entrance into Heaven because one (or both) of them practiced the wrong religion. And I find it equally impossible to believe that a man could live a life willfully and knowingly doing evil, then save himself by repenting at the last minute when faced with certain death.
But I do believe there is something beyond this life and that we move on to it in one way or another after death with full understanding of where we have been and why we were there. I do not believe that while we are here we have more than an inkling of understanding as to where we are going. For that matter, I doubt we really even know why we are here. But I feel certain it must have something to do with learning to appreciate the good in life and understanding the need for respect and compassion in our relationships with others. With that being said, let's see if I can explain why this God I believe in would allow -- or perhaps even directly cause -- some of the tragedy we see in the world.
Why Are We Allowed To Question Our Faith?
I suppose the first question we should look at is why doesn't God just make it clearer to man that He is there. Why don't we all have a burning bush in our garden, the power to heal by faith or a miracle every time we need it? If God is all-powerful, why does He allow man, even those most faithful to Him, to suffer indignity, sickness and hunger? Why not simply give us Heaven on Earth? If He is all-knowing, why not just take those who will eventually end up in Heaven there now instead of making them endure life with those who do not believe? Especially when they must live in a world so full of sin, disease and sadness?
I do not claim to have the answer to this, but I believe it has less to do with finding those deserving of reward than with preparing those who will receive this reward. We are here to learn lessons and have the opportunity to put those lessons to use. We are here to understand the value of things like life and freedom, hope and faith, peace and compassion. Imagine if we were born into a world where there was no death, no tyranny, no fear, no doubt, no war, and no hatred. How could we not take the good things in life for granted if they were all we had ever known? How could we understand the joy of showing compassion if we had no one truly in need to show that compassion to?
God knows that which is in our hearts and minds and which lessons we each need to learn. Everything happens for a reason though more often than not we cannot begin to fathom what those reasons may be. Especially when it comes to things like death, pain, hatred, war... It may at times seem cruel, but that is because we do not have perspective. We are seeing things in terms of an Earthly lifetime rather than in a Heavenly time frame. If we live eternally, then whatever happens in this lifetime is less than pinprick. It is like a child being inoculated against a disease. It is that class in school we dreaded but which paid off later in life. It is what we need to grow beyond what we are now. But as mortal men, we cannot even really comprehend this concept.
How Do We Find Redemption?
While God knows each individual intimately, I do not believe God is all-knowing in the sense that he knows how each man will live his life or the details of the future of mankind. Man has free will to choose his own path as both an individual and as a society. But when it comes to what is truly in a man's heart, I believe He is all-knowing and it is this on which we each will be judged. If you try your best to do what is right and truly feel remorse when you realize you have done wrong, you will be judged worthy even if you were completely wrong and even if you did things that the world considers evil.
This is where I usually stop discussing religious philosophy with most people because the next thing they want to know is what I believe will happen to terrorists who die fighting for what they believe in. What if they truly believe the actions they take are necessary to protect themselves from the infidels? What if they truly believe they are doing God's will when they commit murder? When I explain they will receive the same reward as those who fought against Hitler, sacrificed their lives to save others, or simply lead a good, "Christian"* life, people often start getting upset.
When I explain that for that matter, if Hitler himself or the terrorists flying the planes on September, 11, 2001, truly believed that what they were doing was right and just, then even they would be forgiven their Earthly sins and granted whatever reward is waiting. Of course, on the other side of their Earthly life these men would recognize the error of their ways, but if their Earthly intentions had been truly the best, then they would be allowed to share in the rewards of the Afterlife. I guess I do not believe the old idiom that the path to Hell is paved with good intentions. A person's motivations matter more than the end result. Whether or not I believe Hitler or any other terrorist may have had the best intentions is another question all together.
* Christian is in quotes here because there are many different denominations in the Christian faith and one denomination does not necessarily believe that another denomination lives a truly Christian life.
Why Ask Why?
Man has a need to believe in something. Whether those who turn exclusively to science to explain things want to admit it or whether they are even aware of it, scientific theory is as much a question of faith as is any religion. Even when you look at a well established theory like evolution, there is missing information and even a general lack of certainty in some parts of the theory. If you do much reading on the subject, you will find phrases like "scientists believe", "researchers theorize" and "the possibility exists". But just as religion will teach that there are things man is not meant to understand, so will science teach that no theory should be expected to explain everything.
Just as we all have a need to believe in something, we all have a need to understand the world we see around us as well as things we can sense but not see. It is this need for understanding that is the driving force behind all learning. We seek out as many facts as we can, but what we cannot support through evidence, we accept on faith -- both in religion and in science. No one has all the answers yet many people refuse to cross the line between science and religion even though in many ways it is clear that a line does not exist. This is not to say that religion and science are one and the same, but to deny both are essentially belief systems designed to explain the world around us is simply being blind to the obvious.
The discussion of science as a religion is a bit off topic for my article here, so I will not go further into the subject for now, but I make this point simply to illustrate that everyone believes in something. Most people in the modern world believe in a combination of the natural and the supernatural. Not all scientists are atheists and not all clergymen believe fossils are a mass hallucination. I guess I am one of those who believe in both because while I do believe in God, I also believe in dinosaurs. That being said, dinosaurs are easy to explain so let's see if instead I can further explain God's mysterious ways as I see them.
Revelation: The Mystery Revealed
The best way I can explain why I believe God allows bad things to happen to us during our mortal life, is to explain why I believe it was necessary for my mother to have a hard life that included bouts with cancer and major depression, never finding real happiness until the last few years of her life though even then her health problems continued. Though this was many years ago, I can still close my eyes and be sitting next to her in her hospital room, talking about my day at school and when our family might be able to make a return trip to the Blue Ridge Mountain Parkway that was always her favorite vacation destination. When she passed away, I did not at first see the reason why she had to suffer, but fairly soon after she was gone, I had a dream in which she pointed me in this direction.
In the dream, she was sitting in the living room of the house I grew up in, resting in the chair where she always sat. I came out of my old bedroom and saw her, knowing fully well she had passed. "Mama?" I managed to say as I choked back tears. She did not speak, but I knew she was there to tell me she was okay and I also knew that she wanted me to know that if I gave it time, I would understand not just why I had to lose her but why her life had been as it had been. When I woke from the dream, I did not have any miraculous understanding, but I did feel more at peace. In time, the understanding, or perhaps only the acceptance of an understanding already within me, would come.
What it boils down to is this... The only comfort my family felt after my mother's passing was that she would no longer suffer and that she had found some happiness before she passed. In the last years of her life she had found comfort in a rejuvenated relationship with our father. Though she was still constantly in and out of the hospital with one condition or another, she began making trips to the mountains both alone with my father and as a family with my sister and me included. This combination of continued suffering with new found joy seemed to somehow assure us that she would now be at peace. This was all we had to hold onto.
So in a way it was partly her suffering that gave us comfort. It is not something that was easy to admit at first, but as the days, weeks and months passed, I came to see it more and more clearly. Just as I had learned in Sunday School that Jesus suffered for those he loved, so did my mother suffer for those she held in her heart. Anyone who knew my mother would know that if her agony and grief would make it easier for anyone in her family to accept her passing, she would have not only willingly but joyously accepted those tribulations. She was a Christian woman of the type that felt it was her duty to be as Christ-like as possible. She always tried to treat everyone with compassion and would have done anything for her family. While we might feel it was unfair and wish she had not suffered for us, when you get right down to it, she would have suffered more had she not done what she did to ease our pain.
And if she did this so freely, how could I be angry with God for giving her what she would have considered a beautiful gift? Once this all became clear to me, for the briefest moment I could see that there is a plan and that yes, everything does happen for a reason. For awhile, this message glowed brightly for me, but admittedly, as more time passed, the glow has dimmed. I tried to hold onto this "big picture" mentality, but what makes it hard is that so many things have happened since then that seem to conflict with this belief. But every now and then, I will get another glimpse and once again I will briefly... feel an understanding of it all within me. But then someone starts a war or a child is kidnapped and murdered or someone I care about will suffer some seemingly pointless tragedy and I lose any hint of comprehension once again.
I do not have the ability to truly describe what it feels like to come to even this amount of understanding. It is like seeing a giant puzzle come together and realizing that our lives, our world and even our very existence is in fact that puzzle. We all have two boxes that hold the pieces to these puzzles -- religion and science. We take pieces from each box to complete different parts of the puzzle. One person may find a piece in one box that another person will find in the other box. Sometimes we cannot find a piece and have to move on to other parts of the puzzle. Sometimes when we complete one part it makes it clear to us how another part fits together. We would all like to put together the whole puzzle before we pass on, but what we must understand is that there is a third box. Call it truth or understanding or enlightenment or whatever you like. It doesn't really matter what we label it because that box cannot be found in this world.
It is not easy, day to day, to maintain faith that everything happens for a reason. But if you open your eyes, sometimes you can see the pieces fall into place. Not only will there be pieces of the puzzle that we cannot find, but there will be pieces that do not seem to fit or even belong to our puzzle. There will be suffering you cannot explain away. There will be horror you can see no reason for. There will be people you care about in pain. You will suffer. We all will suffer. And what is it all for? That is not an answer I or anyone else can give you. Maybe someone can help you find your path to an answer, but if you are to find it, you will ultimately find it in yourself where no one else can go.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- Progressive Creation: An Overview
Progressive creation examines both the biblical text and our current knowledge from science in order to determine a viable interpretation of the biblical creation account.
- Darwin Under the Microscope by Michael J. Behe
Michael J. Behe, associate professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, is the author of "Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution.".