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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 17: Problems of Suffering and Evil (2)


Some of the physical "evils" in the world are plainly inimical to human life and constitute a continual challenge to manís vigilance and ingenuity. Man had made enormous strides in discovering the causes of disease, and is still fighting a long-drawn-out battle against such things as the incredibly minute viruses, and the apparently arbitrary cell-degeneration known as cancer. Of equal importance with these discoveries is the increasing knowledge of the influence of the mind upon the health or disease of the body. A vast amount of further experiment and correlation of experience is needed in this field. Before long more emphasis will be placed upon curing a disease by working from the inside out, so to speak, that is, by paying far more attention to the condition of the center which controls the functioning of that organic whole which we call the body. But again, though we may hope for many significant answers to our hows, we have no answer at all to our whys. Why, for example, should the virus of poliomyelitis exist at all? Or why indeed should there be disease, not merely in human beings but throughout the whole animal creation? Some of our forefathers were apparently satisfied to believe that the whole army of bacteria, germs and viruses which lie in wait to injure or destroy human life were the direct consequence of the sin of Adam. Of course it is possible to concede that the breaking of natural laws, as for instance those of health and hygiene, can incur natural penalties, but surely it surpasses even the most vivid imagination to suppose that one manís disobedience to, and defiance of, his Creator, could actually create deadly organisms and viruses! Moreover, when it is known from the malformation of bone structure of animals which existed a very long time before man appeared on the earth that they also suffered from disease, the argument falls flat on its face. We still have no clue whatever as to why what we call "disease" should exist at all.

To connect human disease with human sin is an easy and obvious, but to my mind, misleading thing to do. It is altogether too facile an explanation and is contradicted by the evidence every day. We can probably all think of people who live good and unselfish lives yet suffer from disease. And we can also think of people who are thoroughly self-centered who are full of energy and have not had a dayís illness in their lives! Indeed it would appear that there is a monstrous unfairness about the incidence of physical disease I am well aware that certain kinds of functional disorder and even actual disease are being more and more frequently alleviated and cured by increasing the health of the human spirit, and I regard this as a most hopeful approach to the whole question of healing. But that does not alter the fact that, as one looks upon life dispassionately, those in robust health are for the most part extroverts who feel no particular concern for the world around them, while those who suffer from poor health and an assortment of diseases are often sensitive, conscientious people who are doing what they can to lessen the worldís sorrows.

Although we are quite in the dark about the why of human disease and suffering, ordinary observation can show us that the result of their occurrence is by no means necessarily evil. It is not in the sentimental novel only that the self-centered husband has been shocked back into responsibility, and even into a renewal of true love by the sickness of his wife. Similarly the illness of a child can and does renew and deepen the love between a husband and wife. And I can recall quite a number of occasions when visiting men in hospital who had never previously been ill in their lives, being told that such a forcible withdrawal from life came to be regarded far more as a friend than as an enemy. "It gives you a chance to think." "It makes me think about myself and what Iím in this life for." "Itís made me think about God and pray to him for the first time since I was a kid." "Itís opened my eyes to a new world -- I just didnít realize that this sort of thing [that is, suffering and nursing care], was going on all the time." "I didnít know what human kindness was till I came here [that is, into the hospital]." These are only a few typical remarks made to me in recent years, and they far outnumber those of the self-pitying or embittered. What is even more impressive and moving is the almost superhuman courage, hope and faith shown by the human spirit when the body is attacked by pain and disease. I am sure that disease is in itself evil, but I am left wondering how the courage, love and compassion it evokes would be produced in a world where everybody was perfectly healthy. Perhaps physical health is not of such paramount importance as our modern geocentric materialist would suppose.

This question of the physical evil in the world leads us naturally on to the question of moral evil, which poses at least as difficult a question, even though it is sometimes argued that they are but different manifestations of the same thing. It is customary nowadays to look upon evil as either the absence of good through ignorance or fear, or else as something which manifests itself through maladjustment of personality. It is not considered to have any objective reality. I believe this to be as fallacious a point of view as to look upon disease as the mere absence of health. It is certainly true that the healthy body, controlled by the healthy mind, will successfully resist all kinds of disease-producing organisms. But this does not prove that the organisms do not exist, for their objective existence can be demonstrated to anybodyís satisfaction. I believe there is a valid parallel here. The fact that moral evil is defeated by the spiritually healthy human being does not prove the non-existence of moral evil.

We have unfortunately grown accustomed to the monstrous inhumanities and cruelties of our modern world. Shocked as we have been by well attested stories of unspeakable tortures and degradationís, by the mass exterminations of the gas chamber, and by the living death of such places as Belsen and Buchenwald, many people find it difficult to react with proper indignation to contemporary cruelties such as the Communist slave camps in Siberia, or the callous indifference of most people to the plight of millions of refugees. It is as though human sensibility has been dulled by repeated shocks, and has even come to accept the most revolting barbarity as an inescapable part of the modern human scene. At the moment of writing this book, for example, we know that the Communists hold as slave laborers in Siberia great numbers of wretched human beings who are treated with deliberate brutality. We know this; it has been reliably attested by several witnesses who have had the courage and good fortune to escape. But it has come to mean no more to us than, say, the fact that there are penguins in the Antarctic. In time of war we may perhaps say that men revert to the impulses of primitive savagery, and this may well be true. But no savage, however primitive, can show the cold, calculated ruthlessness of, for example, a Communist government. This is not a question of going back to the fight for survival, to "nature red in tooth and claw," but the appearance of something infinitely more radical and sinister. This is not "the growing pains of civilization," but the premeditated use of terror, degradation and vicious brutality.

How are we to begin to explain the existence of such evil? It is not the case of a few maladjusted personalities exhibiting antisocial tendencies; it is like some frightening moral infection which can basically affect thousands, if not millions, of people. But where does it come from? Admittedly I have drawn attention to large-scale suffering, but the question is just as difficult to answer when we come to the hatred, lust, malice, greed, pride and selfishness which mar the national, social and family life of our own country. It seems to me quite inadequate to regard the qualities which spoil relationships as mere absence of good, and for myself I am driven to the conclusion that there is such a thing as evil which can infect and distort human personality just as certainly as there are germs and viruses which attack and damage the physical body.

It is clear, at least to me, that people who worship and love the true God, and open their spirits to the active Spirit of Love, show to a greater or less degree the presence of good within them. It does not seem to me therefore unreasonable to suppose that those who worship and love the wrong things create conditions whereby they are actuated, and to some extent possessed, by "evil." In fact, although it may sound old-fashioned, I do not believe that we take the question of "evil" seriously enough in modern days, so that we are continually being disappointed, shocked or horrified by its manifestations. Although I am very far from subscribing to the doctrine of the total depravity of man, it does seem to me to have been proved within my own lifetime that the problem of human evil is not much affected by better education, better housing, higher wages, holidays with pay, and the National Health Service -- desirable as all these things may be for other good reasons. We need a much more realistic approach to the problem of human evil, and I am perfectly certain that no really effective way of dealing with it will be found apart from the rediscovery of true religion.

When we come to examine the life and teaching of Jesus Christ we may at first be surprised to find how little explanation he gives of the human situation. He does not argue about the existence of suffering or evil, still less does he seek "to justify Godís ways to man." He does not appear to waste time in arguing about the desirability or otherwise of the human situation. He accepts it and he concentrates upon the center to which everything else, however important or impressive, is merely peripheral. That center is, of course, the human heart, or perhaps we might be more particular and say that inner center of human personality, where the very springs of action are conceived. As we study the admittedly incomplete records of that unique life, we shall see that his particular genius lies in concentration upon what is really essential. The deep fundamental problems of human life are really neither intellectual nor technical; they are always in the last resort problems of human relationship. It would seem that Jesus (regarding him for the moment purely as a man of poetic insight) could quite easily disregard the non-essentials, the mere trappings and scenery of human life. His concern was with the quality of human living, and in his eyes aspects of our human life, which appear to us of pressing importance, were of little significance. It might indeed be fair to epitomize his whole attitude in his own famous words "What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?"

Now this refusal to be influenced by non-essentials never meant in Christís life an indifferent pietism. For although it is plain from his life and teaching that he looked upon this life as a prelude to something infinitely more important, yet, where ever it was possible, he restored health of mind and body. He was deeply moved by the strains and distresses of men, by their hunger and thirst and weariness, and he was roused to passionate indignation by the exploitation of the weak. Indeed, he alone of all religious leaders of all time was bold enough to state, as we saw above (see Matthew 25, verses 31 to the end), that love of God must be expressed by love of man, even in his earthly and sordid distresses. For although Christianity is an incurably otherworldly religion and speaks unhesitatingly of sharing the timeless Life of God, it is also devastatingly practical and down to earth. It holds out the highest ideals and promises, and yet faces life with a downright and almost frightening realism. If we regard Christ seriously as God-become-man we shall find his reaction to the life around him extraordinarily illuminating. Yet he offers no explanation of the origin of evil or of human sin and suffering. No doubt he used the language of his own day it would be difficult to know what else he could have done -- but surely there can be no doubt that behind such expressions as "Satan," "the Evil One," "the Prince of this world," "Beelzebub" and "the Devil" there is recognition of the power of evil. His concern was not to explain how such a power came into existence, but to defeat it. It seems probable that we shall have to share this attitude and spend our energies not in discussing the origins of evil, but in defeating it, both in ourselves and in the world around us.

Now I venture to suggest at this point that we need resources outside ourselves to defeat this evil. So long as we cling to the idea that we live in a closed-world-system, the most we do is adjust and rearrange existing forces. But if it is true that spiritual energies of constructive good are really available in a dimension of which we know very little, surely we are very foolish to ignore them. We should know by now that "Satan cannot cast out Satan," and that although force may restrain evil it is powerless to transform it into good. We probably all know from experience that the only quality which has patience and strength enough to redeem either people or situations is the quality of outgoing love, the very thing of which we are all so lamentably short. If, again, we look at God-become-man we find that as a matter of course and of habit he opened his personality to God not merely to be sure that he was following the divine plan of action but to receive potent spiritual reinforcement for the overcoming of evil. If this was necessary for him we might sensibly conclude that it is even more necessary for us. And yet how few, even alas among professing Christians, deliberately and of set purpose draw upon the unseen spiritual resources of God? We are so infected by the prevailing atmosphere of thought, which assumes that nothing can enter our earthly lives from outside, that a great deal of what the New Testament takes for granted does not strike us as realistic or practical. Yet I would suggest that there are discoveries to be made here which would prove far more revolutionary in the solving of human problems than any purely physical marvels.

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