Meditations for Layfolk - God and Evil

In his Summa Theologica Saint Thomas Aquinas allows only two possible objections to the existence of God, and one of these is the existence of evil. How can we, he suggests, suppose God to be omnipotent, if we find things in the world that spoil His plan; and if God is not omnipotent, how can he be God at all? Now this objection made by Saint Thomas from the writers of his time, taken by them from the first questionings of the human spirit or learnt, it well may be, from the spontaneous askings of their own hearts, is common even in our day. We are not to consider it here from the controversial standpoint: the whole problem is only mentioned in order that from its mystical appreciation we may the more hopefully face life. However our beliefs run, we all find that the trouble in the world is something that staggers us: nor is it the sad sight of war, but the unceasing miseries of peace that are most likely to affect us, since they seem so much more clearly to be allowed by God. The difference is no doubt one of imagination; but through convention we are wont to look upon war as definitely the work of man, while the miseries of daily existence, the wear and tear of it, appear the sole effect of God. The answer of Saint Thomas can be very briefly given. It is really nothing else than a quotation from the works of Saint Augustine, which can be thus stated: "If evil and sin spoilt the plan of God, He would clearly not be omnipotent, would not be God. But if He is so powerful that He can make even sin fit into the working out of His design, then the whole objection falls. Out of evil He brings forth good."

To see what this means we must first of all remember the old truth that the mysteries of God are above reason, can never find really any solution, must continue to perplex every thinking being that faces frankly the riddle of the universe. Therefore, it is as well to begin by insisting that there is no answer, and the religion that would suppose that it had at last discovered the way through would stand itself condemned. But granting all this, there is still much that a Catholic can see to help him to bear patiently the evils of this present life. Of course he cannot admit that the power to sin is an essential accompaniment of free will, cannot say, as many outside the Church say, that God could not create a human free will without permitting it to fall into sin. In the case of Our Lady we believe that God did, compatibly with her freedom, prevent her from ever sinning: and what He did for her He could have done for each. Why did He not? We do not know, and it is simpler to say so at once. We cannot tell why He has allowed sin to enter in. We know only and have to confess that He has done so, and that He could have prevented it. Nor is it much satisfaction to say that courage demands evil, patience requires it, unselfishness cannot be exercised without it. These do, indeed, depend for their exercise on the presence of evil in the world, but not for their existence. That is to say, it is quite possible for me to have virtues which I have never used, but which came infused into my soul by the grace of God. Thus the very poorest may have the virtue of liberality without even an opportunity for its practice.

Have I any comfort in this perplexing puzzle? Just this much, that I am on the wrong side to be able to judge whether evil works havoc in my life or no. For the lives of others I am unfitted to say anything, and I am too much part of my own life to understand what is happening to me. I stand on the wrong side of the loom. I see only the blotches of colour, the broken ends of thread, the chaos of line, and the tumult of fantastic shapes. To me it is all a medley without meaning. But if it were possible, as one day it will be possible, to get round on to the other side and view the whole embroidery from the throne of Him for whom the whole is being worked, then I should see that patient fingers were weaving a design that had depth of colour, firmness of line - a masterpiece of the machinery of God. This is indeed no answer to the problem, for we began by seeing that answer was impossible; but it is at least the direction in which one day the answer will ultimately come to us. Here I cannot see. Let me be patient: God is omnipotent. He can, with the failing tools of human life, build to Himself palaces of delight; with the worn-out implements of our saddened life gather a harvest of souls; with the arts and crafts of man effect something priceless to God. There is comfort then and reason for courage in the phrase of Saint Augustine that Saint Thomas repeats. It suggests to us never to despair, to trust that out of evil He can bring forth good, to live so perfectly in patience as to have faith in the hope that we may one day contemplate the plan of God.

- text taken from Meditations for Layfolk by Father Bede Jarrett, O.P.