WHY EVILS ARE PERMITTED
A Sermon by Rev. Kurt Horigan AsplundhPreached in Bryn Athyn February 11, 1996
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him” (John 9:3).
One of the miracles the Lord did was to give sight to a man who was born blind.
Imagine this poor blind beggar. He had never seen the light of day. He had passed through a childhood of utter darkness and now could only hope for the mercy of others to provide him with the barest necessities of life.
There were many other pathetic beggars in and around the cities in those days. Some were blind, some were lame, some had incurable leprosy. The Lord looked upon all of these miserable and suffering beings with compassion. He grieved at their suffering. Many He healed. He gave hope to others. But most He seemed merely to pass by. For each miraculous physical healing a hundred, a thousand, remained untouched because the Lord’s purpose was to heal the spirit of men, not the body.
As the Lord and His disciples were passing by, the presence of this man who had been blind from birth raised a question. The Jews believed that disease or deformity was a punishment for sin. A man was blind, leprous, or lame because he had committed some evil. His condition was believed to be a direct result of his transgression.
But here was a question. This man was born blind. How could he sin before birth? Was his blindness the consequence of the sins of his parents? The disciples could not see the justice in that possibility. Therefore, they asked the Lord, “Who sinned?”
Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him” (John 9:3).
There was a reason for the beggar’s blindness, but not the reason most suspected. It was not a punishment for his sin. And, more importantly, a remarkable benefit could come of it. The Lord could use this blindness to show His Divine power to open blind eyes. A “work of God” could be revealed in the healing of this man.
Think of the far-ranging importance of this miracle. Not only was this man’s own life changed, but many who witnessed or heard of this miracle were moved by it. Millions, perhaps, have been touched by the account of it and have found hope for their own lives. And now that the inner sense of the Word has been revealed for the New Church, a new power for good has been released in it that will extend into the lives of generations to come.
The “work of God” this miracle shows is how the Lord can open our eyes to see Him. We all are born blind! – spiritually blind. We are completely ignorant of spiritual truths that make it possible for us to live a full life. The Lord forms our minds with His truths, as a potter forms his clay, and bids us wash. “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean,” He has said. “Put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil, learn to do good. (Isaiah 1:16).
Washing in the pool of Siloam signifies our spiritual washing. Having done this, we may come into a belief in the Lord our Savior and may truly worship Him. We see Him at last! This is the real miracle!
The Lord asked him whose sight was now restored, “Do you believe in the Son of God?” He answered, “Who is He, Lord, that I may believe in Him?” Jesus said to him, “You have both seen Him and it is He who is talking with you.’ Then he said, “Lord, I believe!” And he worshiped Him (John 9:35-38).
There is a striking contrast between a blind man who finally saw and the sharp-eyed Pharisees and other detractors who would never see. Who was better off after all, the man who was in darkness for a few years or these men who will be forever blind? It is said: “There are none so blind as those who do not wish to see!”
Physical blindness is an affliction, but spiritual blindness is a tragedy. Both are of evil. Neither is of the will of God. Some people sincerely believe that disease and other tragic misfortunes are Divine punishment for sins. This is not so. God does not punish. He is a God of love and mercy. “The Lord is good to all,” we read, “and His tender mercies are over all His works” (Psalm 145:9). No anger is in Him.
What accounts for the human condition then? What accounts for suffering and temptation? What of the blind, the poor, the insane? Why do infants die and children starve? What of the innocent victims of countries at war?
Some say that God sends suffering and tragedy to teach us a lesson. If we suffer a setback, perhaps we will learn something. If we are subjected to a hard life, perhaps our character will be strengthened by it.
The Lord never wills that we suffer, no matter what the quality of our life may be. It is true that we learn and grow through the experiences of life. It is not true that God inflicts unhappy circumstances upon us for the sake of our own good. If we were to go to the lowest hell, the Lord would grieve over our suffering there. Never, under any circumstances, does He inflict evil upon us. No, He “delivers us from evil.”
Often it appears to be otherwise. And that is just what it is – an appearance. Evil comes from hell. It enters our lives, often unasked, bringing disorder, tragedy, sickness and death. We know that this is so. It is common experience. But why is it so? Why does the Lord allow these things? He is omnipotent and all-powerful. So why does He allow evil to happen?
The answer to this question is now revealed for the New Church in the doctrine of permission. This doctrine teaches that many things of life are not of the Divine will or of His good pleasure, or even by Divine leave. Many things are of permission. The Lord permits what He does not will. He allows evil things to happen. Does this mean He is responsible for evil? Not at all. It is a common misconception that whoever permits something when he has the power to prevent it must also will it. The Writings point out the fallacy of this idea. “It is believed that evils … are from the Divine because the Divine permits them and does not take them away; and he who permits and does not take away when he is able, appears to will, and thus to be the cause. But the Divine permits because it cannot prevent or take away; for the Divine wills nothing but good; and if it were to prevent and take away evils, that is, those of punishments, vastations, persecutions, temptations, and the like, then it would will evil, for then such persons could not be amended, and evil would increase until it had the dominion over good” (AC 8237:2). The Writings give this example: “… where a mild and clement king who intends and does nothing but good must needs suffer his laws to punish the evil and the wicked (although he punishes no one, but rather grieves that they are such that their evils must punish them), for otherwise he would leave his kingdom itself a prey to them, which would be the height of rigor and of unmercifulness” (AC 2447:3). So the Lord permits what He does not will because He cannot prevent it and still protect us from what is worse.
Every injustice, tragedy, illness, madness, and disorder has its origin from what is evil. These are from hell and dwell with us through our freedom of choice, our proprial tendencies and our unregenerate loves. The Lord permits these evils to influence us even though He does not send them upon us. He cannot prevent them, yet He controls them and He uses them.
Here is a remarkable thing about the Lord’s permission: He brings something of good out of everything He permits. The fact that the Lord brings something good out of permission is the very reason it appears that the Lord purposely wills what is of evil upon man. But it is not so. The evil itself comes from a different source. When it has manifested itself, the Lord turns it to what is good. “Not the least of evil is from the Lord,” the Writings declare (AC 592). Indeed, the Lord constantly works to turn whatever is of evil with us to something good, and does not allow anything of evil to enter which cannot be so turned. We read that “not one whit is permitted … except to the end that good may come of it …. Nothing whatever, not even the least thing, shall arise except that good may come from it” (AC 6574). “The evils which are foreseen are by the provident disposition of the Lord continually bent to good” (AC 6489).
The Scriptural account of the blind man illustrates the doctrine of permission. The cause of the man’s blindness was the evil of hell. The Lord did not want this man to be born blind. He did not even intend it so He could use him for this example. However, He could not prevent his blindness, given the circumstances and evil states of the world. He permitted the blindness, foreseeing that He could turn it to some use. So He said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him” (John 9:3).
It is the same with everything of this world that is not of order. There are murders, thefts, adulteries, misfortunes, deaths and sicknesses. Many suffer deprivation and persecution. Does it not appear that the disorders of the world are on the increase? Where is justice today? Who lives according to spiritual and moral principle? Even in the life of the church we seem to see a decline, a falling away from first loves. Does this mean that God is losing the battle with hell? Sometimes our faith is sorely tried.
The Writings of the New Church assure us that the Lord is not losing the battle. He is in control. While He permits what He does not will, He governs that permission by the same laws of Providence that rule all things. “The Divine Providence,” we read, “is constantly moving in a way diverse from and contrary to man’s will, continually intent upon its end; and in consequence, at every movement of its operation or at every step of its progress, where it observes man to be swerving from that end, it guides, bends, and directs him according to its laws, by leading him away from evil and leading him to good …. This cannot be done without the permission of evil,” we are told. “Moreover, nothing can be permitted without a reason, and the reason can be found only in some law of the Divine Providence, which law teaches why it is permitted” (DP 234).
The Lord permits evils to occur only for the sake of some important reason. He permits a man to choose an evil, for example, because the man’s ability to act from freedom according to his thought is essential to his life. It is more important for the man to act freely of himself and choose evil than to be forced to live in good. If he were forced to live in good, he would resent it and find no joy in it. If he is permitted to live in evil by his own choice, the Lord may yet save him, and he later may turn himself to the joy of a life of good.
“Evils are permitted for the sake of the end,” we are told, “which is salvation” (DP 249:3, 275-284). “Without permissions man cannot be led from evil by the Lord, and thus be reformed and saved. For unless evils were permitted to break out, man would not see them, and therefore would not acknowledge them, and thus could not be led to resist them. For this reason,” the Writings add, “evils cannot be prevented by any providence; for if they were they would remain shut in, and like the diseases called cancer and gangrene would spread about and consume all that is vital in man” (DP 251).
It is important that we know and understand the doctrine of permission. If we do not know that the Lord permits evils, and yet provides that some good may come from every evil thing that happens, we may lose our faith and trust in Him. “He who does not understand permissions,” the Writings teach, “falls into doubtful and negative things respecting the power of God Messiah over the universe. But this should be known, that without permission no one can be reformed …. Hence are temptations, vastations, punishments, persecutions of the faithful and of the faith, and many things besides. In a word,” the passage concludes, “without the permission of evils, which must be understood in a proper or wise sense, man can never be regenerated … ” (SD 398).
We tend to form God into our own image of Him. Since we abhor pain and suffering for ourselves and those we love, since we do not wish to face conflict or admit that there are disorders in our lives, we want to believe in a God who prevents all these things, or removes them for us. Life is not like that, particularly life which is completely infected with hereditary tendencies to what is evil. Evils must be met according to laws of Divine order, according to laws of permission. This teaching is given in the Writings: “… evils are foreseen, and goods are provided. And the evils which are foreseen are by the provident disposition of the Lord continually bent to good, for the Divine end of good reigns universally. Hence nothing is permitted except for the end that some good may come out of it; but as man has freedom in order that he may be reformed, he is bent from evil to good so far as he suffers himself to be bent in freedom, and (if he cannot be led to heaven) continually from the most atrocious hell, into which he makes every effort to plunge, into a milder one” (AC 6489).
The Lord’s laws of order, when rightly seen, are mercy itself. Often we fail to appreciate what the Lord does for us every moment of our life. He is continually working with us in a way that respects the freedom that is essential to our life and happiness, but drawing us at the same time out of evils. We may cry out in despair, even anger, that many things are permitted that afflict us or cause us grief. We may ask, “What have I done to deserve this?” “How can the Lord let this happen?” In the wisdom of the Lord there is an answer. “In the universal spiritual world reigns the end which proceeds from the Lord, which is that nothing whatever, not even the least thing, shall arise except that good may come from it” (AC 6574e). “The Divine end of good reigns universally” (AC 6489). “The very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matt. 10:30).
The intricate ways of the Lord’s Providence are beyond our comprehension. As the writer of the Psalms has said, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it.” We may not see the reason for some particular form of suffering or tragedy in our life, particularly while we are in it; and yet from understanding the laws of providence and permission we may have confidence that the Lord is caring for us and looking to our eternal welfare in everything that happens to us no matter how bad it looks. If we ask the question of the Psalmist, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?” (Psalm 139:6), the answer is that the Lord is always present. The Lord is present in every situation and in every state of life. He has but one end toward which He continually works with the power of His infinite wisdom and love: that we may be saved and find eternal happiness. ‘The Lord sits as King forever. The Lord will give strength to His people; the Lord will bless His people with peace” (Psalm 29: 1 1). Amen.
Lessons: John 9:1-25; AC 10773-10781
Arcana Coelestia 10773-10781
10773. The government of the Lord in the heavens and on earth is called Providence. And as all the good which is of love, and all the truth which is of faith, are from Him and absolutely nothing from man, it is evident from this that the Divine Providence of the Lord is in each and all things that conduce to the salvation of the human race. This the Lord thus teaches in John: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
“As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself except it abide in the vine, so neither can ye except ye abide in Me; without Me ye can do nothing” (John 15:4,5).
10774. Moreover the Divine Providence of the Lord is over the veriest singulars of man’s life; for there is one only fountain of life, which is the Lord, from whom we live and act and have our being.
10775. Those who think about the Divine Providence from worldly things conclude from these that it is only universal, and that the singulars appertain to man. But these persons are not acquainted with the arcana of heaven, for they form their conclusions solely from the loves of self and of the world and their pleasures; and therefore when they see the evil exalted to honors, and gaining wealth rather than the good, and also that the evil succeed in accordance with their skill, they say in their hearts that it would not be so if the Divine Providence were in each and all things. But these persons do not consider that the Divine Providence does not look to that which is fleeting and transitory, and which comes to an end together with the life of man in the world, but that it looks to that which remains to eternity, thus which has no end. That which has no end is, but that which has an end relatively is not.
10776. Everyone who duly reflects is able to know that eminence and wealth in the world are not real Divine blessings, although from the pleasure in them men so call them; for they pass away, and likewise seduce many, and turn them away from heaven; but that life in heaven and happiness there are the real blessings which are from the Divine. This the Lord also teaches in Luke: “Make for yourselves treasure in the heavens that faileth not, where thief draweth not near nor moth destroyeth. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:33,34).
10777. The reason why the evil succeed in accordance with their skill is that it is according to order that everyone should do what he does from reason and also from freedom; and therefore unless it were left to a man to act in freedom according to his reason, and thus also unless the consequent arts succeeded, the man could not possibly be disposed to receive eternal life, because this is insinuated when the man is in freedom and his reason is enlightened. For no one can be compelled to good, because nothing compulsory cleaves to the man, for it is not his. That becomes the man’s own which is done from freedom, for that which is from the will is done from freedom, and the will is the man himself; and therefore unless a man is kept in the freedom to do evil also, good from the Lord cannot be provided for him.
10778. To leave man from his freedom to do evil also is called permission.
10779. To be led to happiness in the world by means of his skill appears to the man as if it were done from his own sagacity. Nevertheless, the Divine Providence continually accompanies by permitting and by constantly withdrawing from evil. But to be led to happiness in heaven is known and perceived not to be of man’s own sagacity, because it is from the Lord and is effected from His Divine Providence by disposing and continually leading to good.
10780. That this is the case a man cannot apprehend from the light of nature, for from this light he does not know the laws of Divine order.
10781. Be it known that there is providence and there is foresight. Good is that which is provided by the Lord, but evil is that which is foreseen by the Lord. The one must be with the other, for that which comes from man is nothing but evil, but that which comes from the Lord is nothing but good.