DIVINE PROVIDENCE AND TRAGEDY
A Sermon by Rev Lawson M. Smith Preached in Westville, South AfricaMarch 10, 1996
“Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And not one of them shall fall to the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:29-31).
We are grateful to the Lord for all the good things that take place in our lives. Religious people often say of good luck that it’s really the Lord’s providence. But it’s much harder to see how the Lord is taking care of us when misfortune or tragedy strikes someone we love.
We think of natural disasters, such as an earthquake or a volcano. We think of manmade disasters, such as terrorists’ bombs, the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, or the slaughter in Bosnia. We have friends whose spouse or child was killed or maimed in a car accident, or struck down by cancer or some other terrible disease. A person loses his job, and battles to find another, and meanwhile his family suffers great hardship.
Wicked people get away with murder and other terrible injustices. In society, even in families, people are spiteful to each other and hurt each other badly.
We cannot help but ask ourselves sometimes, “Why does God let such things happen?”
In ancient times, people often simply believed that God rules all things, and that they could not expect to know why certain things happened. Many believed that all things, good and bad, came from God.
In the book of Job, for example, we see Job’s terrible suffering as he lost his loved ones, all his wealth, and finally his health. Job saw these tragedies as Divine judgment for his sins and a test of his faith. His comment was, “The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
It is so important for us to believe in God, and to believe that He has all power, that the Lord permitted this appearance to be written into the Old Testament: namely, that tragedy and disaster as well as blessings come from Him.
The ancient Israelites needed to believe that Jehovah punished their sins. Otherwise He would have seemed a wimp, not God. They would have felt it didn’t matter whether or not they kept His commandments. But then God came into the world in Person. He revealed Himself to us as our Lord, Jesus Christ. He showed us that He is a God of love, our Heavenly Father, who even feeds the ravens and clothes the grass of the field, and forgives our sins.
God does not send punishments or misfortunes into our lives. But if misfortunes are not Divine punishments, how can we understand them? Besides, what about birth defects and other tragedies that strike infants? Who sinned?
In modern times a rabbi wrote a best-selling book, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. He said, We know tragedies strike good people. We also have the two ideas of God, 1) that He has all power, and 2) that He is loving. But one cannot reconcile both of these ideas with the reality of tragedy. Therefore he chose to give up the idea that God has all power, rather than the idea that God is loving. He suggested that God cares for us, but does not have complete control of events. Things get out of hand, and tragedies occur.
But what is a god who does not have all power? What does that mean? Evil and suffering have been a stumbling-block to many people’s faith. Some people feel driven away from belief in God by bitter experiences, into accepting a godless universe that operates by random chance. In effect, they choose the rabbi’s other option: a god – call it nature – that has all power but does not care or know of individual human lives.
Rather than give up our belief in the Lord, we can try to understand the laws according to which God acts. It may seem strange to think of God acting according to laws. Can’t He do as He chooses? Who could make laws for Him? But we would not think of God acting erratically, doing one thing one day and the opposite another day, merely on whim.
God is the Source of all the wonderful order that we see in the universe. He enables our minds to discover laws of nature, and to work out just laws to govern human society. He is orderliness itself, justice and truth itself, mercy itself. To say that the Lord operates according to laws means that He has a certain purpose or goal in all His actions. Because of His goal, there are certain ways and means which He always follows. Thus there are reasons for what He does which we can understand in some measure, at least in general, if not in particular cases.
The Lord has explained to us the most basic laws according to which He acts so that we can understand and love Him deeply, and defend ourselves against unbelief in times of grief. This book, Divine Providence, includes chapters on five laws of providence, a chapter on the Lord’s goal in creation and in His work with us, and a chapter on His permission of evil and hurtful things. If we believe in God, in this book we can find Him helping us to understand Him.
The Lord’s goal for us is heaven. Heaven is the state in which we love the Lord above all things and we love our neighbors as ourselves. Love must be given freely.
The Lord could force us to behave, out of fear, or He could have created us as robots. But His goal is that we may love Him freely, and choose and want Him to be close to us. Then He can make us happier and happier forever, because we are willing to receive His blessings.
The first law of the Lord’s providence, then, is that human beings must act in freedom, according to what makes sense to them. This implies that people must be allowed not to love but to hate and to hurt. If we are not free to choose evil, neither are we free to choose good. So the Lord always preserves human freedom, even allowing us to do stupid things, to hurt others and to be hurt – but within certain limits.
One of the limits is that we cannot take away another person’s freedom to believe in the Lord and to love Him. One person cannot destroy another’s opportunity to go to heaven. The Lord always guards the spiritual freedom of each one of us. We can help other people believe in the Lord, or we can make it harder for them, but ultimately the choice will be their own.
So the Lord allows no hardship, evil or misfortune which cannot be turned to good. Listen to this passage: “In the other life the Lord permits hellish spirits to lead the good into temptation, consequently to pour in evils and falsities, which they also do as hard as they can. But the Lord is then present with people in temptation, both directly and by means of angels. He resists the hellish spirits by rebutting their falsities and by dissipating their evil, thus giving refreshment, hope, and victory. Thus with people who are in the truths of good, the truths of faith and the goods of charity are implanted more deeply and are confirmed more strongly [as a result of their trials]. This is the means by which spiritual life is bestowed … It must be known that … not one whit [of evil] is permitted [hellish spirits] by the Lord, except to the end that good may come of it, namely, that truth and good may be brought into shape and be strengthened with those who are in temptation. In the universal spiritual world the Lord’s purpose reigns, which is that nothing whatever, not even the least thing, shall arise except that good may come of it” (AC 6574:2,3).
We know some of the benefits that the Lord brings out of unhappy or tragic situations. People confront the nature of evil, and of mankind apart from the Lord. We realize the need to fight injustice in society. The Lord stirs us to act. We face the need for personal change and repentance. Setbacks, such as in business or in health, slow us down in our onward rush to gain material things and pleasures, and give us a chance to re-think our priorities. We gain direct experience of our dependence on the Lord as we realize that we cannot manage without Him. This in turn brings us into a closer relationship with Him than before, allowing us to receive more of His blessings.
The Lord is always thinking of our eternal happiness. While He wants us to be happy all the time, He would never sacrifice our eternal happiness to some short-term pleasure. There are lessons that we cannot learn except through grief because of the selfish and materialistic state of mankind today.
The Lord never causes grief. Hellish spirits are always eager to do that. And sometimes the Lord allows them to cause a limited amount of hurt, because He sees that He will be able,to turn it into a long-lasting strength for the good people going through that trial. In fact the Lord is always, always shielding us from harm, and filling us with good things. Otherwise life would be nothing but miseries from beginning to end.
In times of trouble it seems as though God has forgotten us, or as though He is standing back, waiting to see what we will do. The Writings say that actually the Lord is never closer to us. It’s just that the unhappy state brought on by the hellish spirits around us dims our eyes to the fact that the Lord is carrying us in His arms. He is a very present help in trouble. In the gift of freedom to choose what we love and to pursue our loves, and the ability to think rationally or irrationally, as we choose we see the depth of the Lord’s love for us, and His great wisdom in leading us.
The Lord respects our freedom, because He loves us. He respects it so much that He allows us to get into trouble, and then as far as we are willing, He brings us new strength out of our troubles. He is constantly, though quietly, working with us, encouraging and warning, providing us with circumstances and opportunities to make the spiritual, eternal choices we want to make.
A psalm says, “The footsteps of a [good] man are ordered by the Lord, and He delights in his way. Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down, for the Lord upholds him with His hand” (Psalm 37:23,24) May we come to see the truth of this more and more in our lives. Amen.
Lessons: Matt. 6:25-34; Matt. 10:24-39; DP 70:1,3; 71:heading; 72
70. It is well known that there is a Divine Providence, but it is not known what its nature is. This is not known because the laws of the Divine Providence are interior truths, hitherto concealed within the wisdom of the angels; but they are now to be revealed in order that what belongs to the Lord may be ascribed to Him, and what does not belong to man may not be ascribed to any man. For very many in the world attribute all things to themselves and their own prudence; and what they cannot so ascribe they call accidental or happening by chance, not knowing that human prudence is nothing and that accidental and happening by chance are empty words.
 Since it has been acknowledged in the church that man is unable from himself to do good that is in itself good, and is unable from himself to think truth that is in itself truth, and since these are one with the Divine Providence so that belief in one depends on belief in the other, therefore lest one be affirmed and the other be denied and thus both perish, it must be explicitly revealed what the Divine Providence is. This, however, cannot be revealed unless the laws are disclosed by which the Lord provides and rules the things of man’s will and understanding; for these laws enable man to know the nature of the Divine Providence; and only he who knows its nature can acknowledge it, for in this case he sees it. For this reason the laws of the Divine Providence, hitherto concealed within the wisdom of the angels, are now revealed.
IT IS A LAW OF THE DIVINE PROVIDENCE THAT MAN SHOULD ACT FROM FREEDOM ACCORDING TO REASON.
72. But as few know that this can be a law of the Divine Providence, chiefly because man has thus freedom also to think evil and falsity, although the Divine Providence is continually leading man to think and to will what is good and true, therefore that this may be clearly perceived it will be set forth distinctly step by step in the following order:
I. A person has reason and freedom, or rationality and liberty, and these two faculties are from the Lord in the person.
II. Whatever a person does from freedom, whether it be of reason or not, provided it is according to his reason, appears to him to be his own.
III. Whatever a person does from freedom according to his thought is appropriated to him as his own, and remains with him.
IV. It is by means of these two faculties (rationality and liberty) that a person is reformed and regenerated by the Lord; and without them he cannot be reformed and regenerated.
V. By means of these two faculties a person can be so far reformed and regenerated as he can be led by means of them to acknowledge that everything true and good that he thinks and does is from the Lord and not from himself.
VI. The conjunction of the Lord with a person, and the reciprocal conjunction of the person with the Lord, are effected by means of these two faculties.
VII. The Lord preserves these two faculties in a person unimpaired and as sacred in every step of His Divine Providence.
VIII. Therefore it is of the Divine Providence that a person should act from freedom according to reason.