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God Our Contemporary by J.B. Phillips


Born in London in 1906, J.B. Phillips was ordained in 1930. In 1940 he became Vicar of the Church of the Good Shepherd, London. He is noted for his work in the field of Biblical translation, and in particular for two books: Letters to Young Churches and Your God is Too Small. Published by The Macmillan Company, New York. Copyright by J.B. Phillips, 1960. Fifth printing 1966. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 16: Problems of Suffering and Evil (1)


"If there is a God of Love," people have asked and are still asking, "how can he allow so much suffering in his creation, how can he permit natural disasters such as earthquakes, and how can we possibly reconcile the existence of evil with the idea of an all-wise, all-powerful, all-loving God?" What are commonly called the "problem of evil" and the "problem of pain" are inevitably the most serious problems which face anyone of intelligence and sensibility.

Let it be said straightaway that no one knows anything like the full explanation of, or the answer to, these problems. The most we can do is first to break the problems down into what can partially be answered and what cannot, and secondly, to suggest an attitude of mind which can be honestly held without the necessity for denying the existence of a God of Love. Anyone who writes on this, the hardest of all human problems, must write with humility. For although he may himself have experienced a little of the burden of human suffering, and although he may have observed a very great deal more in other peopleís lives, he knows that there is no easy answer. If he has seen almost unbelievable courage and endurance and, what is even more moving, an unshakable conviction of the final goodness of God, he is bound to feel humble. He knows that, although he may write about the problem, there are countless thousands who could never write books but who in practice have met and solved the problem in a way that no words, however wise, could do.

Our first consideration should be to recognize that evil is inherent in the risky gift of free will. Naturally it is possible for the Creator to have made creatures who are invariably good, healthy, kind and virtuous. But if they had no chance of being anything else, if in other words, they had no free will, we can see, even with our limited intelligence, that such a creation would be no more than a race of characterless robots. It is really no good quarreling with the situation in which we find ourselves, and quite plainly that situation includes the power to choose. And it is obvious that this individual gift of being able to choose good or evil affects a far wider area of human life than that of one individual personality. The good that a man chooses to do, or the evil that a man chooses to do, have both immediate and long-term effects, and exert an influence, even spread an infection, of good or bad. Speaking generally, human life is so arranged that what we call "good" produces happiness, and what we call "evil" produces misery and suffering. Thus a good deal of human suffering can be directly traced to the evil choices of human beings. Sometimes this is perfectly obvious and direct -- a violent and cruel husband plainly causes suffering, fear and misery to his wife and children. Sometimes the evil is indirect -- the greed for money or power may make a businessman take decisions which bring great suffering to hundreds of people personally unknown to him, or the selfishness and greed of one generation may produce a bitter fruit in the next.

If we knew all the facts, and the effects, both short-term and long-term, of human selfishness and evil, a very large proportion of mankindís miseries could be explained. But of course this in no way answers the questioner who asks, "Why doesnít God stop evil and cruel men from causing so much suffering?" This is a very natural and understandable question, but how exactly could such intervention be arranged without interfering with the gift of personal choice? Are we to imagine the possessor of a cruel tongue to be struck dumb, the writer of irresponsible and harmful newspaper articles visited with writerís cramp or the cruel and vindictive husband to find himself completely paralyzed? Even if we limit Godís intervention to the reinforcement of the voice of conscience, what can be done where conscience is disregarded or has been silenced through persistent suppression? The moment we begin to envisage such interventions, the whole structure of human free will is destroyed. Again, may I repeat that we may not approve of this terrifying free will being given to men at all, but it is one of those things which we are bound to accept. (It may be worth noting here that the whole point of real Christianity lies not in interference with the human power to choose but in producing a willing consent to choose good rather than evil.)

The next problem which must be squarely faced is the apparent flagrant injustice in the distribution of suffering. (I feel bound to use the word "apparent" because I do not believe in final injustice, as I hope to show later.) Put in its crudest form the question is simply, "Why should the innocent suffer and the wicked get away with it?" This is one of the oldest questions in the world, far older of course than the Old Testament book of Job, which makes some attempt to deal with it. It is we that even within the limits of this little life men do sometimes see virtue rewarded and wickedness punished. But unhappily for their sense of justice, this is by no means invariably the case. To all appearances the cruel men with hard faces have a much better time in this world than the good, the sensitive and the responsible. Now here again we come right up against the situation in which we find ourselves, and which we must to some degree accept. There can be nothing wrong with our desire for justice and there can be nothing but right in our desire to see evil restrained and exploitation cease. But if we are expecting a world, and blaming God for not supplying such a world, in which good is inevitably rewarded and evil automatically punished, we are merely crying for the moon. We are not living in such a situation, and indeed it is debatable whether adult virtue and courage could exist at all in such a kindergarten atmosphere. This life is unjust, in this life the innocent do suffer, and in this life hard conscienceless men do, to all appearances, "get away with it." These are hard facts and only to a limited degree can we alter them.

Frankly, I do not know who started the idea that if men serve God and live their lives to please him then he will protect them by special intervention from pain, suffering, misfortune and the persecution of evil men. We need look no further than the recorded life of Jesus Christ himself to see that even the most perfect human life does not secure such divine protection. It seems to me that a great deal of misunderstanding and mental suffering could be avoided if this erroneous idea were exposed and abandoned. How many people who fall sick say, either openly or to themselves, "Why should this happen to me?-- Iíve always lived a decent life." There are even people who feel that God has somehow broken his side of the bargain in allowing illness or misfortune to come upon them. But what is the bargain? If we regard the New Testament as our authority we shall find no such arrangement being offered to those who open their lives to the living Spirit of God. They are indeed guaranteed that nothing, not even the bitterest persecution, the worst misfortune or the death of the body, can do them any permanent harm or separate them from the love of God. They are promised that no circumstance of earthly life can defeat them in spirit and that the resources of God are always available for them. Further, they have the assurance that the ultimate purposes of God can never be defeated. But the idea that if a man pleases God then God will especially shield him belongs to the dim twilight of religion and not to Christianity at all.

But it helps enormously, indeed it makes a fundamental change in our thinking, if we look upon the life we lead upon this small planet as temporary, as only part of a whole, the quality and extent of which we can only very dimly perceive. For the purposes of this life the Creator has made certain conditions, but we have no reason to suppose that the same conditions apply in the stages of life men live after the death of the physical body. It is largely because modern man has lost the sense of what we might call the background of eternity that he sees everything from pleasure to pain in terms of this world only. Yet if he were seriously to accept the attitude of mind which prevails throughout the whole New Testament he might come to see that, although there are many things which appear to deny the love and justice of God in this life, he is quite literally in no position to judge the final issue. If he tries to do so, he might quite easily be as foolish as a man attempting to determine the pattern of a carpet from examination of a single thread, a picture from a tube of paint, or a book from a box of assorted type. At most he is only seeing the raw beginnings of something so enormous as to stagger the imagination.

Naturally, it is easy to pour scorn upon the conviction common to all true Christians that, as Paul put it, "the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us." It can be called "pie in the sky," the "opium of the people," and doubtless it has been used as an anodyne for much preventable human suffering and exploitation. But the true Christian does not so use this point of view; he uses it to stabilize his own thought. To my mind, and I say this most seriously, it would be impossible to believe in a God of love and justice if the horizon of man were limited to this life only. But the Christianís faith does not rest in the here-and-now, and even at best he knows he is only seeing a little piece of the total picture. He knows, to put it crudely, that Godís love, mercy and justice must be infinitely greater than his own! Therefore, while he works on hopefully and cheerfully in this imperfect stage of existence, he never expects to find anything approaching the final working out of Godís purpose within the confines of life on this planet. He lives in the incomplete, the undeveloped, the inexplicable and the mysterious. He has enough light to live by, but he never claims to know all the answers, and throughout his life he is sustained by the conviction that he is moving toward the complete, the perfect and the ultimate reality. He is destined for light and enlightenment, for freedom from illusion, release from his present blindness to reality and from the inevitable limitations of his physical nature.

For many people natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, erupting volcanoes and all the other destructive forces of nature produce an insuperable obstacle to faith in a loving God. There is naturally no easy answer to explain such occurrences, but there are some considerations which make the problem a shade less difficult. A fertile valley in the United States of America was disastrously flooded, not for the first time, a few months before this book was written. Nevertheless, the commentator in the film showing scenes of this disaster remarked that, although the area had been flooded again and again, within a year or two of each catastrophe people would quickly forget and resettle in the same area. Similarly, people will live under the shadow of a volcano which is known to erupt violently and unpredictably from time to time. It may sound harsh to say so, but a certain proportion of human life could be saved if areas known to be dangerous for human habitation were avoided, or the proper steps to control the forces of nature were taken where this is possible. Man is mistaken if he thinks life upon this planet is automatically physically safe. But he has been given powers of body and mind and qualities of forethought and the ability to profit by experience. It would seem to be part of his job to learn to control the enormous energies of nature. We still have not the slightest idea why the situation should be as it is, but the blackness of what we call "natural disaster" is made far darker than it really is because of modern manís obsession with physical death as the worst evil. Moreover, he will persist in viewing disaster through human eyes. It is only from the human point of view that the headline, 200 KILLED BY EARTHQUAKE -- 5000 HOMELESS, is more distressing than, FARMER KILLED BY LIGHTNING, WIDOW PROSTRATED BY GRIEF. The question, How could a God of Love allow so many to be killed and to suffer?" has really very little sense in it. We may need the impact of a large-scale piece of human suffering before we are properly impressed, but in the eyes of the sort of God whom Christians worship, the question of number and size is neither impressive nor significant, impossible as it may be for man to conceive the concern of God for the individual. To imagine that God looks upon physical death as many men do, or to think of him as impressed by numbers, violence or size, is simply to think of God as a magnified man -- a monstrously inadequate conception.

Now the man who has the attitude of mind which is rooted in eternity is neither deceived by the illusive glamours of this world nor unduly cast down by the unexplained suffering and the unsolved problems which confront him on all sides. This does not mean to say for one moment that the true Christian regards his passing through this life as a somewhat boring prelude to the glories that lie ahead. Indeed, as a follower of Christ, and as one whose life is aligned with the purpose of God, he is inevitably involved in the life of this world. He is committed to do all within his power to heal the worldís injuries by active and outgoing love, and the personal cost to himself is probably high. He is not less concerned than the materialist or the scientific humanist for the welfare of men, but more so; for he has glimpsed something of manís value and potentiality in the eyes of God. But all the time he enjoys the enormous advantage of knowing that even the most hideous suffering exists only in this present state of affairs. He knows that death need be neither a disaster nor an enemy. He never suffers from the frustration of believing that this little world is any more than a visible beginning of some incalculably vast plan of the Creator. In short, he is much more likely to see life in proportion than the man who insists that life on this planet sets the final boundary of human experience.

It is a great help in facing life to believe that the final answers, the ultimate outcome, can never be settled in this particular phase of our existence. Of course, to the man without faith this appears to be both a piece of evasion of real issues in that it shelves difficult problems, and a piece of wishful thinking in that it believes in the ultimate goodness of God in some nebulous hereafter, even though the daily evidence of life denies such goodness and love. It is probably quite impossible to explain the Christian attitude to the thoroughgoing materialist, simply because the major premise which makes the whole position tenable and satisfactory is God, and the materialist denies such a personís existence. But, speaking as one who did not arrive at his present convictions without a good deal of questing and questioning, I would assure the materialist that his position looks every bit as ridiculous and untenable to the man who has some small knowledge of God as the Christian position does to the materialist! The materialist appears to be speaking and arguing not only in ignorance of a whole dimension but with a colossal if unconscious arrogance. For he is really wanting to comprehend the total scheme of things with the mind of the Creator. He appears to forget that we are not yet "Old Boys" who can talk on familiar terms with the Headmaster! We are all very much still at school, and probably very junior members of the school at that. Further, although we may not be able to convince the materialist, the Christian does not adopt his supra-mundane point of view willfully, as a kind of escape from lifeís hard realities. On the contrary, once he finds himself aligned with the vast and complex purpose of God the new point of view is born in him, and to go back and hold earth-limited views of the problems of pain and suffering appears as absurd as to believe that the world is flat. You cannot deny a new dimension once you have experienced it.

But while the Christian believes that God is a wholly reliable "shelf" on which unsolved problems and difficulties may for the time be safely deposited, he does not find himself in any way excused from attempting to relieve suffering and pain and to play his part in rebuilding the true order amid the chaos of earthly conditions. He is inspired by the recorded example of God-become-man who, without arguing about the "given-ness" of the human situation, set about healing menís disorders in a most down-to-earth fashion. Yet the Christian is not relying merely on a nineteen-hundred-year-old demonstration for his day-to-day inspiration and reinforcement, but on a living contemporary Spirit. He is no longer envisaging "God" dwelling in unapproachable remoteness and making impossible demands of man whom he has placed in a difficult and perplexing condition. The living God is allied to man, is with him in the fray, not merely guiding and encouraging, but striving and suffering and triumphing with him, in him and through him. So that even though the center of gravity of the Christianís faith is not really in this world at all, yet as far as this life is concerned God is always his contemporary.

At any given moment in history there is bound to be a large number of questions without any satisfactory answer. In the face of this, a great many people adopt an attitude of non-committal agnosticism. So long as their questions remain unanswered, they feel in no way morally bound to cooperate with such good purpose as they can discern. This is a characteristically modern attitude; for in past centuries men had to take for granted the fact that a great many of their hows and whys would certainly remain unanswered in their lifetime. Yet this did not prevent them from acting boldly and resolutely along the lines which they were convinced were right. But modern man, perhaps a little intoxicated with his success in answering the hows of life, will frequently not commit himself until his whys are answered -- in fact, until the Creator has taken him into his full confidence! Thus in dealing with the real human problems, such as the relief of suffering, the adjustment of personality, the release from fear and ignorance, the care of the physically or mentally defective or of the aged and infirm, there is nearly always a desperate shortage of living agents, and among their small number the cozily non-committed agnostic is very rarely to be found. I would suggest that since we are in a very junior position in the universe, men might do better to set their hands and hearts to tasks that cry out to be done, instead of posing everlasting whys before they are willing to work to alleviate human suffering and needs.

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