The Problem of Evil, Or, We Are All Statistics Till the Conflict Is Over
Shame and Anger: A Response to Small Miracles in a World of Big Pain and Evil
Latter-day Saints and many other Christians sometimes share faith-promoting stories of how a prayer was answered or how they experienced a miracle of some kind. These miracles are rarely the big, dramatic ones we might like to see, such as finding a cure to cancer or a peer-reviewed sighting and interview with an angel. Yet small miracles in the lives of individuals can be real and may have significant impact. The sharing of these miracles, however, often brings negative or even hostile responses, frequently draped in stinging sarcasm.
Wo unto the person who shares a story of losing and finding car keys after praying for help. Better that a millstone was attached to those keys and they were tossed into the depths of the sea than to be found with gratefully received divine help. Better that two millstones were attached to a grateful believer’s once lost kitten. And wo, wo, wo unto any member, but especially any allegedly insensitive church leader, who would dare to openly discuss a kindness from God in finding a quarter to buy some food when tired and hungry (see my discussion of Elder J. Devn Cornish’s story in my Mormanity post, “Trivial Miracles and Petty Prayer: How the Accuser Teaches a Man Not to Pray“). Better that the purchased chicken was cast into the sea along with the quarter and the hungry man himself, than to hint that God might miraculously help one person eat while millions starve with no sign of divine aid. Those who dare give public thanks for small miracles are likely to become “a hiss and byword” or, as Deut. 28:37 warns (NIV), “You will become a thing of horror, a byword and an object of ridicule among all the peoples,” especially on the Bloggernacle, where some LDS thinkers are horrified and appalled when others imply that God could be so callous as to care about lost keys and kittens when there are big problems in a world where terrorists rage, disease ravishes, and Congress is in session again.
On the Web, believers soon become trained feel shame at God’s tender little mercies, or even to become angry with those who express gratitude for encounters with God’s love through small miracles. For a faith that urges us to recognize the hand of God in all things (Doctrine & Covenants 59:21), this is unfortunate, in my opinion. Others in the Church and beyond are free to disagree, but I’d like to share some of my thoughts on this issue and also on the complex problem of evil.
Bethlehem, Cana, and the Problem of Evil
The story of Christ in the New Testament begins with His miraculous birth, a small but important miracle for Christians that remains completely unimpressive to skeptics since it surely looked like an ordinary pregnancy and natural birth. That small miracle was accompanied with the horrific massacre of infants in Bethlehem precipitated by Christ’s arrival, thanks to the evil of one jealous king. The life of one infant was spared with a warning from God given through a dream to a parent, a classic small miracle with large consequences, while no timely warning came for the rest as far as we know. We see that God was capable of sparing those lives, but apparently chose not to. We are swiftly introduced to the problem of evil in a world created by a loving God.
The Messiah, whom we worship as the Creator of the world and Master of all, came to earth as a mortal but also as Son of God. Three decades after His miraculous birth, He began His formal ministry. His divine status would be demonstrated with another miracle. If you could ask the Creator for any miracle, what would be on your list? Perhaps the eradication of cancer, malaria, or any of several dozen major diseases? Maybe the end of warfare? The elimination of poverty? The freeing of all slaves? There are so many big issues that our minds might turn to. So what did Christ do for the first big miracle of His ministry? The spotlight turns to tiny Cana and a wedding feast, where the Creator of Heaven and Earth revealed His divine power with a miracle not much more grand than helping someone find their lost keys: He alleviates a relatively trivial beverage supply problem at the wedding party. This is Miracle One in the ministry of the Messiah? Millions were struggling with poverty and undoubtedly starvation in various parts of the globe, and certainly some children were hungry and malnourished in the vicinity of Cana. People were suffering with disease, captivity, and grief of all kinds, yet the first miracle alleviated none of these problems even on a local scale. In the opening pages of the New Testament, the problem of evil can become, for some, a travesty of divine indifference with a God blind to the big problems of the community and the world. The New Testament begins with stories that we can easily ridicule as we question God’s priorities and lack of sensitivity, just as we do with modern small miracles involving car keys or the chance finding of a quarter by a hungry medical student.
We Are All Statistics (Or, What Could Stop the Complaining?)
The complaints about God’s neglect of suffering are legitimate ones that need to be considered in any system espousing the existence of a loving and all-powerful or even just very powerful God. If God is capable of preventing suffering, why is there so much? This world could be vastly better–so why isn’t it?
Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine a world in which your list of 50 or so top problems have been addressed. Imagine a God who in your view is vastly more intelligent (that is, He sees things your way) and responds to your demands, reshaping the world, giving us a safer, less painful existence. No more war, no more cancer, no more malaria, no more human trafficking, no more volcanic eruptions or earthquakes, and no more crushing debt incurred by corrupt politicians. Imagine airplanes and cars that never crash, ships that never sink, and trains that never derail, thanks to the infallible safety record provided by legions of unseen angels watching over all of us. Would-be terrorists and murderers are quickly exposed and stopped before they do serious harm. There could still be free agency and challenges to overcome that help us grow, but without all the blood, horror, and senseless pain of innocents that we face now. Let’s imagine such a world and then ask, would there still be cause for doubt and complaints?
Let’s imagine that under this new Omnipotent Care program, everyone is essentially guaranteed a relatively healthy life with a minimum lifespan of 80 years, with fully functioning limbs and eyes, joints that function well, and good teeth that are free of cavities and never need orthodontics. In this more progressive, compassionate system, would there still be cause for complaint?
Part of the horror of the mortal world we live in is that we are all statistics. With a little luck, I might even succeed in officially modifying an LDS hymn to have the catchy title, “We Are All Statistics Till the Conflict Is O’er” (including the refrain, “Random are we! Random are we!”). But the role of chance and randomness in our lives is an important and inevitable one in my opinion, even if God can guide us to find meaning and apparent design in the random things we sometimes experience.
Here’s the point: for every factor imaginable, there is a spectrum of possible outcomes, some better than average and some worse than average (occasionally much worse than average). Lifespan, economic status, IQ, skin quality, height, shoe size–all can have high variability due to combinations of chance, external factors such as the actions of others, and the consequences of our own actions. In a much more fortunate world that never knew and might not even be able to imagine the horrors of the Holocaust or Hiroshima, those on the unlucky end of the spectrum for other factors might still elicit doubt and anger. The fortunate folks in this imagined world might well wonder how could a merciful God allow so many hundreds of people to suffer from alcoholism, rabies, or whatever ailments had not been completely eradicated. They could also ask questions like, “How could a merciful God allow my grandfather to die so early, barely 80 years old, robbing him of decades of life?” “How could a merciful God and an intelligent designer allow so many teenagers to suffer with the shame of acne, and so many senior citizens to suffer the humiliation of incontinence?” Or, with perfect logic, “How could a merciful God allow so many people–nearly 50% of humanity–to be below average economically?”
Whatever our new mortal world has, as long as there is mortality, there will be death and sorrow, imperfection and pain. As long as there is any human freedom of choice, there will be the tragedy of sin and the painful consequences of error, even if great sins are miraculously prevented or mitigated as early as possible to shield many innocents. As long as chance and choice exist, there will be a spectrum of outcomes: some will be lucky, some will be unlucky; some will be perpetrators, and some will be victims. We do not need to know of genocide or mass slaughter from tsunamis to feel that evil actions from humans or unpleasant accidents of nature are senseless and unfair for victims. If the worse we ever learn of involves a few dozen lives or even a few broken bones, we may still find cause to recoil at the randomness of pain and the injustice that reigns in a world where we are all statistics, and some of us are always on the unpleasant side of every statistical distribution. Can even your more sensitive, progressive God escape criticism in your imagined new world?
The Small and Possibly Miraculous Tail
In the distribution of outcomes possible in any real or imagined version of mortality, some people will be extremely unfortunate, perhaps rarely, and also rarely, some will be extremely fortunate. So fortunate that rightly or wrongly we may attribute such fortune to divine intervention.
Some of the miracles humans report may be due to chance: perhaps those car keys found after prayer would have been found anyway (often likely, I would guess), or perhaps the illness that receded after a priesthood blessing would have departed on its own (in many cases, of course). In a true story I reported at Mormanity, perhaps the cookies that a busy mom felt impressed to make (with an unmistakable impression that was specific: chocolate chip cookies, now!) and give to someone she barely knew were just a matter of chance and had nothing to do with the prayer of the depressed, tearful, exasperated recipient earlier that day, uttering, “Dear God, right now I just need . . . I just need some chocolate chip cookies.”
In my own life, perhaps it was nothing but chance that we had a surprise encounter of a needy young LDS woman lost in Hong Kong, just hours after we put her name on the prayer roll of the Temple there, having no idea that she had come to Hong Kong that day on what would have been a disastrous misadventure had we not found her. See the story “Finding Selina” at the Nauvoo Times and also at Mormanity. Those of us involved in that story saw it as a small miracle and dramatic witness of God’s love for a troubled daughter, as pretty much the only people in that huge city who knew her managed to stumble into her “by accident” in a remote part of that huge city shortly before she would lose her chance to get back to China without trauma. Call it blind luck, but it is cause for rejoicing and gratitude, and sharing it as evidence of a loving God is not inappropriate–event though many lost young people have been far less fortunate, and some may revile and justly wonder why God would reach out to Selina while their child was lost.
In nearly all matters in life, there is a spectrum of outcomes, where miracles almost by definition are the exception, the outliers in the vanishingly small tail on the fortunate side of the statistical distribution of which we are all part. The miraculous in that small tail is often the rare and sometimes singular exception. We have no claim on it, though we may hope and pray. We have no cause to be angry with God when our lot is cast somewhere else along the spectrum, unjust as it may seem. May we have the faith and patience to accept the miracles experienced by others in spite of our loss. May we have the faith and patience to bear their fortune without added bitterness or anger for our misfortune.
These rare small tail outcomes may be due to chance, but in the lives of believers, they are sometimes perceived as so abundant and so rich in kindness from a loving God that they are hard to dismiss as accidents. But even if they are just lucky accidents, is not the proper way of receiving them to be with gratitude? In a world where many of us feel that we have great cause to believe in a Divine Creator and a loving God, is it not reasonable to accept both miracles and lucky breaks with gratitude?
If we are grateful for life itself, with all its opportunities and challenges, its pains and sorrows, then should we not lovingly praise our God for the good that we receive, even if it might sometimes just be chance? Let us never attribute blessings and seeming miracles to our righteousness or superiority, but let us gratefully recognize the hand of God in all things when it looks like a fingerprint or two is present, though sometimes the prints are whorls of chance. If a prayer seems answered, praise Him. If that which is lost is found after prayer–a child, a passport, a set of keys, or a kitten, praise Him. Maybe not on the Bloggernacle, and maybe not always in Fast and Testimony meeting, recognizing that we may be misunderstood, but receive these blessings with gratitude and not shame, and do not feel that they may not ever be uttered to others.
In addition to recognizing God’s hand in our lives and being grateful for whatever miracles, large or small, we may experience, let us recognize the pains and suffering of others and do what we can to alleviate and bless. If God has helped you get a good job, wonderful! Now what are you doing to help others with their careers? What are you doing to help the poor in your midst and beyond? And what are you doing to magnify your impact at work to create more opportunities and employment for others?
Our gratitude for miracles and gifts in our lives should make us all the more aware of our statistically good fortune and the painful long tail of less fortunate people among the rest of the spectrum, some of whom we may be in a unique position to help. To see the hand of the Lord in all things is not just to see the gifts that it extends in our direction, but also to see the direction that the same divine hand may point out to us showing where we can go and do good with the blessings we have received.
Ours is a God who tells us that He causes the rain to fall upon the just and the unjust–meaning we all will get some lucky blessings and some unlucky setbacks, yet should not our hearts still remain full of gratitude for the blessings we have? If you have been fasting for rain after drought and it rains at a choice time, praise Him, though surely it was going to rain anyway, one day or another. Meanwhile, should we not yearn for the welfare of others whose needed rain has not yet come? When it rains and your crops need water, praise Him–and think of others.
Defending the Offensive: Small Miracles in a World of Big Problems
In my reading of scripture, the purpose of miracles is clearly not to address our wish list of big things to change about mortality. Yes, sometimes disease will be healed in an individual or sight restored, while illness and physical handicaps remain in force across the earth. Sometimes keys will be found while children remain lost or thousands are taken away into permanent captivity. Miracles are the rare and exceptional tool to facilitate faith of an individual or to facilitate events for some specific purpose. Miracles tend to be small and personal, and always a drop in the bucket compared to the wish list of miracles any of us might have.
Yet these small miracles are real and can be significant. In past blog posts, I’ve shared a few from my own life, or the lives of family members and friends. These include the Miracle of the Cookies, the Miracle of the Pamphlet, the miracle my father experienced in coping with PTSD after the Korean War, a miracle involving a newly repaired cell phone received just in time to allow me to help prevent a suicide, and the Miracle of the Pink Coat. I’ve also discussed the independent confirmations I found for a small miracle reported by President Monson, along with several other miracles and blessings that I dared to share.
My own testimony of God’s reality began with a 6-year-old child’s prayer seeking God’s help to find the precious plastic magnifying glass that Dad had loaned to me. I had looked everywhere without success and needed it. My Dad needed that 5-cent toy for his work, I thought, and I had lost it. After praying as my mother had taught me, pleading for God’s help, I got up off my knees and my eyes seemed to go straight toward a middle drawer in my dresser. I rushed to it, open it, moved something and there it was. The magnifying glass, found! That child felt that God has answered a prayer miraculously, and that was the beginning of many personal experiences in prayer. It was also the beginning of many personal experiences with lost objects where things far more precious and more worthy of prayer were not recovered, including some tragic losses without easy fixes. It would be easy for me to wonder how God could so often not help me find, recover, or repair things much more important than a worthless magnifying glass, but I should instead praise Him for each kindness I have received and do the best I can to cope with all the other times where I suffer a fairly normal distribution of loss and pain in mortality.
In one past post on Mormanity, I shared a story about a mother I know who was staying at a friend’s home when she heard a voice say “Run!” That helped her recognize her bold little toddler was not at her side but in danger. She ran to find a stairway door had been opened by someone else and saw that her wobbly little son, a boy with no respect for gravity, was standing at the top, toes over the edge, ready to plunge forward toward bare wooden stairs leading to a concrete basement floor. She snatched him in time, courtesy of a tender mercy of God. I mentioned that we don’t know when and why these small miracles come, and recognized that life is often filled with pain and sorrow even for the best parents, but when the little miracles come, we should rejoice for those who receive them.
That story was somewhat personal, for we had a related experience with one of our sons, but with no warning that we noticed, and no rescue in time to prevent him from tumbling–we missed him by a fraction of a second and watched him tumble while we were at a friend’s house ourselves. It was traumatic for us and we felt like the worst parents ever. Why did that mother get help but not us? We are truly grateful for the mother who was helped, while still feeling some pain for our different outcome. The pain would have been vastly greater had our son perished or suffered permanent loss.
When I shared that story, I expected to get the response that I have often received when referring to a miracle that someone experiences. Skeptics will point to some of the tragedies that occur and insinuate that that miracles can’t be real, otherwise why would God help someone with something minor when such great sorrows and pains exist in the world? But the response was more painful or bitter than I expected. I should have anticipated some of the pain that might have been stirred up:
- ..and yet my son died. Am I to assume that I didn’t listen to the Spirit in some way to save him? Or that Heavenly Father just didn’t care enough to send any guidance?
- Good to know Heavenly Father was more concerned about the possible broken arm [for that child] than about my son getting the organ transplant that would have saved his life. . . .
- Stories like these are equivalent to a slap in the face for all of us who have [unhappy] endings to our fairytales. It’s great that [one child] wasn’t hurt…but surely you can see that what the flipside of it implies???
Ouch! I was so sorry to see these responses, possibly from fellow Latter-day Saints who pray and seek the Spirit and the miracles of God as much as any of us do. The loss of a child is one of the great tragedies of mortality. There are no easy answers, except for the far-off answer that comes through Christ and the hope of resurrection and reunion.
Is it wrong to record and share the exceptional help that led to the sparing of one child, knowing that others were not so lucky? Is it really a slap in the face to many who mourn?
For the many faithful Nephite wives and mothers whose husbands and sons died in battle against the Lamanites, and the many modern wives and mothers who face similar grief in this era of war, is the account of the miraculous sparing of the 2,000-plus teenage warriors, the converted “stripling warriors” of Lamanite ancestry in the Book of Mormon, an insensitive blunder that should be excised from scripture or at least no longer cited? Does that story mean that God did not hear the prayer of Nephite mothers and modern mothers and wives of all who fall in battle? Does it mean that our Christians who fall in battle die for lack of faith in God? Or is the story of the stripling warriors the rare, miraculous exception with lessons for us to consider (parents matter, faith in God matters, God can protect us miraculously, don’t be afraid to take on great challenges, be courageous, etc.), but little reason to expect the same miraculous outcome on demand?
If a child is spared in war miraculously, as my father was several times, give thanks to God, but recognize this as the exception, not something promised to all who believe, or an indictment for those with different results. Even Mormon, the great warrior and prophet of God, would fall in battle, one of the depressing statistics of Nephite destruction. Sooner or later, in one way or another (often many ways), we are all statistics, and somewhere along the way, some of those statistics will look and feel like tragedies.
Do these tragedies, though, negate the reality of small or even large miracles? Can God help someone by answering a prayer, healing an illness, or helping a car to start, when many are about to die from accidents, disease, or terrorism? Is God unjust or unfair because He sometimes reaches down and lets the current course of mortality be stayed for some purpose we cannot understand but that some can and should accept with gratitude?
God’s love is not a zero-sum game. His kindness to one person is not an insult to another whose outcome is less fortunate. His love is not less, His awareness of the others suffering is not diminished, His participation in our sorrow and pain is not diminished, His eternal plans and desires for the sufferer are no less glorious than for the recipient of a temporary little miracle.
Thousands across the earth were blind or going blind 2,000 years ago when Christ touched the eyes of one blind man to give him sight. Did God love the others less than the one rare man who was healed? Thousands, maybe millions, across the earth were hungry or thirsty as He attended a wedding feast in Cana and turned water into wine. If not even a sparrow can fall to the ground without God’s awareness (Matt. 10:29), we must understand that we, His children, are known, noticed, and loved, regardless of what trials we must endure. Shall we be skeptical of God’s love or His miracles because their more outward manifestations are not commonly and uniformly distributed according to our sensibilities? Our lives appear as statistics on numerous spectra, for we are inevitably part of the statistics of mortality, sometimes fortunate, sometimes miraculously blessed, but usually with many reasons to feel disappointment.
Mortality will leave all of us bitter and scarred if we cannot accept the diversity of gifts, blessings, trials, lifespans, ancestries, and genes that God lets us have.
Some Solutions and Insights from LDS Teachings
The problems of pain and evil leave many questions to grapple with, but I am grateful for the richness of LDS teachings in dealing with these issues. The basics are nicely presented and discussed in a speech by David L. Paulsen that I discussed in my previous post at Mormanity. It is a theme that is thoughtfully considered in the first half of Dr. Terryl Givens’ brilliant work, The God Who Weeps. I also have enjoyed the cogitations of C.S. Lewis on this topic in The Problem of Pain.
Here are some points that stand out in my mind regarding the LDS perspective:
- We are eternal beings, children of a loving Father in Heaven, who have temporarily departed His presence to come to a painful mortal testing ground. In this fleeting moment of mortality that we agreed to take on, we must all be born and then die.
- Death and pain, difficult as they are for us and those we love, are ultimately swallowed up in the victory of Christ. We will all be resurrected. We all have the opportunity to have the full blessings of eternal life in the presence of God with unlimited hope and joy through the power of Christ. There can be lasting pain and sorrow, though, but God seeks to mitigate that by inviting all – everyone who will – to receive His greatest eternal blessings. No matter how bitter our pains here, after this fleeting moment of mortality, Christ can wipe away all tears and bring us joy.
- Death and pain are part of the journey. Death is not the ultimate evil, but an essential part of our eternal progress. The journey here is difficult and fraught with challenges and opposition. In many cases, those challenges can have a purpose. In general, opposition in mortality is here for a purpose (2 Nephi 2). Pleasure and pain, sorrow and joy, the bitter and the sweet–it is in coping with these opposites and opposition that we grow and learn. The pains of mortality can have purpose in many cases, though sometimes it seems senseless and beyond purpose.
- God not only know our pains, but participates in them. Our Father in Heaven, as we read in the Book of Moses, astonished Enoch when Enoch saw that God wept over the suffering of His children. He is the God who weeps, who cares about our pains and our lasting, eternal welfare more passionately that we can imagine. He sent His son Jesus Christ to take on all our suffering in some way in His infinite Atonement, and Christ, like the father, fully knows how to minister to us through His intensely painful knowledge of what we suffer. His commitment to our lasting, eternal happiness is so great that He personally took on all our pains and all our guilt that He might liberate us from death, sin, and sorrow.
- God is a God of mercy. In the end, tears are wiped away, life restored, families reunited, and infinite blessings shared to the degree we have been willing to accept them.
- For us to return to God and be more like Him, He necessarily gives us the most wonderful and terrible gift of freedom, free will, the ability to choose Him willingly or to deny Him, curse Him, and destroy His most precious works. This freedom means that sin is possible and victims of sin inevitable.
- This is a world filled with chance and randomness, causing righteous and wicked to both suffer. Referring to some Galileans who had been slaughtered by Pilate while seeking to worship God, Jesus said, “Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13: 1-3). And regarding 18 people who died in his area when a tower in Siloam fell, he said, “Think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13: 4-5). Towers fall, children fall, and people die, regardless of who is righteous and who is not. It is not death but rebellion against God that is the real tragedy.
- He sometimes alleviates our suffering and our problems miraculously. More generally, though, we are left here in mortality as free agents, whom He calls to be agents for Him to love one another and alleviate suffering. He calls us to mourn with those that mourn, to comfort those in need of comfort, and to follow the example of His son in reaching out to help the sick, the needy, and the hungry. How we respond to the problems of hunger, poverty, illness, and suffering in our midst is intimately tied to our status before Him and the exercise of our faith.
- The righteous sometimes experience miracles, but some of the most painful tragedies occur to the most righteous. Righteous Seth was murdered, and loving Adam and Eve grieved over the spiritual loss of Cain. Lehi and Sariah suffered years of sorrow and grief with the rebellion of the oldest sons, and many privations during their difficult journey. Alma and Amulek suffered in prison, and then watched in horror as righteous women and children, their converts, were thrown into the flames to suffer and die. And the converted Lamanites who refused to take up weapons again would die by the hundreds, defenseless, as they were attacked by their brethren, dying in the attitude of praising their God. As they and their loved ones faced certain death, in the midst of this violent and bloody tragedy, their turned their hearts to God with gratitude, not bitterness for their loss nor anger at the injustice in not sparing them. Praising God as the sword (or macahuitl) came down upon them! I weep at this example and doubt that my faith would be this great–yet I have cause every bit as great as theirs to praise God for what He has given me and done for me, in spite of my pains and loss.
If God has blessed you with an awareness of the suffering of others in this painful mortal realm, rather than cursing or denying God, use that knowledge and the talents you are blessed with to help alleviate these problems and be part of the divine solution. In so doing, if you will turn to God and seek His help in doing good, I believe you will begin to experience the small and sometimes big miracles that will help you to do more good than you imagined and will strengthen your faith, giving you reserves to draw upon when it is your turn to be on the painfully unpleasant side of some of the statistical distributions of mortality. We all will have our challenges and moments of senseless pain, but there is One whose all-conquering love can, in the end, give lasting sense to all that we are and have gone through as he wipes away our tears and helps us and those we love become one with Him.
We cannot expect God’s miracles when we want them. We have no basis to demand them by right. But His love is no less, His presence no more remote, for the child that dies than for the one that is spared, for His work is not about keeping us wrapped up in our mortal shells and the little things of earth life, but in our ultimate destiny in His endless presence.
His timetable and plans for each of us take us through wildly different routes in our journeys. Some routes are tragic and seem senselessly painful, especially when the cruelty of man is involved–a consequence of that terrible gift of freedom, without which we could not fully choose goodness and light to become like Him, though some instead choose to become devils. But we are also promised that the Atonement of Christ is sufficient and in the end, as we come into His presence, all tears can be wiped away.
And he will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering cast over all people, and the vail that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of his people shall he take away from off all the earth: for the LORD hath spoken it.
And it shall be said in that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is the LORD; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation. (Isaiah 25: 7-9)
If we only understood more and saw more clearly, we might recognize the hand of God in numerous things around us and rejoice more fully in the miracles of life, of love, of beauty, and of families. We might recognize small or even great miracles even in the painful trials he allows us to experience, some of which may have been tailored for us in His grace. We may be blind to most of the miracles that make our lives, but that should not makes us doubt or even be bitter when His kindness is more obvious to some.
Praise God for each child spared and for each parent given miraculous guidance. Weep for the larger number who are not spared. Do our best to keep doors to danger closed and children close enough to us that we will not need an angel’s voice to best fulfill our duties. And may we never judge or condemn those who are not the recipients of yearned-for miracles, or begrudge those who are.
Meanwhile, we must not lose our bearings and sail away from God because we journey in a world where oceans of trouble and islands of miracles coexist on a map wildly unlike what we would draw if we were the cartographer. Let us learn to understand the real map for this mortal landscape and understand its relationship to other maps, especially those that God sees including what came before and what comes after this temporary, painful, and sometimes grisly mortal world, which can nonetheless be a place of remarkable beauty, joy, delight, and tender mercies expressed sometimes as rare but real small miracles from God.
This partial response only scratches the surface of the problem of evil and pain in the world, but the eternal perspectives offered through the Church help. That includes knowledge of our premortal existence, the purposes of mortality, the eternal ends for which we and this mortal journey were created, and the endless healing mercy of Christ, whose ministry extends beyond mortality so that the good news of the Gospel and all its blessings are made available to all who have lived.
Update: Further Thoughts
In response to my related post at Mormanity, Jonathan Cavender offered a helpful comment:
I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about this, and I have found that the two most convincing things that I have read on the subject are from C. S. Lewis and from Charles Dickens.
C. S. Lewis points out that God has the capacity to accomplish any and all of His works through naturalistic means — he is the great Architect of mortality and by placing the right people in the right places, His work ultimately becomes complete. Thus He needs perform no miracle to accomplish any task. The wine could have been cheaper (and thus more bought), but instead the Lord turned water into wine.
Lewis argues that because He could accomplish His work without miraculous means, the miracles of God are never about the things getting done. If the Lord cared about us finding our keys, He could have helped us to leave them somewhere we wouldn’t have lost them. Whenever there is a miraculous event, it is to teach us (and only to teach us).
That is why there is no contradiction between the minor miracles — the tender mercies of the Lord — and the absence of the grand miracles. The purpose of the minor miracle is not to accomplish the minor result, but to let us know that He is there and to inspire us to follow Him.
Dickens, on the other hand, spoke of local charity and telescopic charity. He wrote on how some people focus on some distant cause, and devote their charitable impulses there while their families and friends suffer. He wrote that when people become too focused on telescopic charity, they neglect actual charity towards those they can help.
In my experience, the Lord does very little work ‘telescopically.’ He wants to develop a personal relationship with each one of us, and He accomplishes that better by answering prayers about lost keys than answering prayers about world peace. He doesn’t use miracles to change the world, he shows us miracles to teach us about Him and draw us to live like Him, and we are to change our lives and over time that will change the world.
I especially liked the perspective drawn from C.S. Lewis. If the primary or sole purpose of readily detectable miracles is to strengthen a relationship in some way with an individual, then it makes sense that the presence of identifiable miracles would be confined to small realms involving one or just a few individuals at a time.
It’s also important to remember that God’s care for us is not expressed in statistics such as our life span, our wealth, or the number of days without pain. While His loving eternal objectives for us naturally trump all the mortal outcomes we’d like to see, His kindness can still be manifest here in many ways, even in the midst of disaster and grief, as the survivors of the Martin and Willie Handcart Companies attested, and as many survivors of lengthy, tragic ordeals have experienced. Those who didn’t survive so long might have gotten the better deal, actually. Again, death is essential for all of us and is not the ultimate tragedy, nor is the timing of our death a meaningful measure for the value of our life or the love that God has for us.