Providence/Grace and Free Will
We live in a world where we often feel pressured to prove that God exists and then we can be at a loss in explaining where God is. Out in the world of work, everyone is supposed to pretend that they are very objective and scientific. But, as we have said, empirical data is only one modality of space-time reality. Experience is a valid category by which we learn and make decisions. Following my gut feeling about how to approach a worry or a situation with a person can be very useful. Trying things like prayer and finding out that something new, unexpected and helpful outside my usual “bag of tricks” is happening, can send me down a good path towards surrender to the ways of God. No one can define exactly how this universe is set up in terms of cause and effect. No one philosophy or great intellect can tell us definitively a way to control outcomes. I can be as intelligent, mature, ethical and unselfish as possible and that will not guarantee certain results.
Why is that? From the secular point of view, we come into our lives with many predetermined factors. Our physical lives, ethnicity, time in history, birth order, family system, religion, and socio-economic situation dictate a great deal of how we will develop. There will also be many influences along the way. The choices parents make, teachers we have, opportunities, illnesses, choices we make, etc. will be part of the mix of who we become. But, from the spiritual point of view, there are other factors that intervene and open up possibilities. If one has the perspective of faith, one will see the action of God in his life in varying ways.
Why in “varying ways?” Therese of Lisieux said that “Everything is a grace.” Ignatius of Loyola said that we can and should “Find God in all things.” Everyone will observe and interpret the action of God in the external world and the motions of God within ourselves in different ways. Many people will be very conservative in believing that God is active at all in their lives. Others will see God and God’s care in many events big and small throughout the day or week. The most challenging context in which to affirm the presence of God will be in the experience of suffering. It can be challenging to see God or any value in any experience of pain or difficulty. Hurt, inconvenience, failure, addiction, and loss can all seem pointless and to be avoided.
How can suffering be okay or how can God allow it? How could failure be a grace? Why aren’t resources that I discover just something I did on my part? And, further, why see God in my circumstances at all? If my sister dies at a young age, how can that be okay? If I spill breakfast cereal on my pants, how can that be a good thing? Didn’t I figure out which graduate school to go to on my own? Does God do my tax return? Isn’t it important to take control of my life? These questions are at the heart of the daily grind of our lives. If God is here, what is he doing and why or how is this mess of a world okay?
The theology or meaning of Christ on the cross is at the center of this question. What Christians believe is really strange but poses a answer that confounds all other interpretations of reality. How can surrender in obedience and helplessness to a divine Father who loves him, be the apex of salvation — THE solution to the problem of evil and suffering?! Look at the other solutions. First, if we believe in God, that is a reality which encompasses and surpasses the immensity of the universe by definition. So, scientific laws are included within the reality of God who is intelligent and complex beyond anything we can understand. Second, things we think are bad because they feel painful may not be bad in an objective sense. If my overall desire is to realize my potential fully, I may not even see what that is. If I have desires to be happy in a certain way, I may not know how to get there. I may not see what is in the way.
With faith, one believes in a Sacred Reality that is close but also beyond my limitations. I believe that this Reality is loving and personal. At some point I may take a chance on this God and let him guide me. My life may take me through suffering. It may be at the hands of crude, misguided people. I may get beaten up one way or the other. I may make bad choices too. With guidance I could learn to discern better decisions. From the hurt of the past I can gain several things. I may see that I am compassionate because I know what hurt is. I may be an exquisitely good at setting limits and yet being generous. I may know how to express myself clearly because I have had to protect myself. I may see through the games of others. The suffering was in no way a waste or distraction — it was all good.
This learning, maturity, holiness is not something I can insert into myself. It is part of a great mystery. Something greater has made itself available to me. The key resources are beyond the components of daily life. I can go to yoga, the chiropractor, analysis, the health food store, school, have a great job and body, and be rich, and still not be on my true path. If one is a person of religious faith, the only way to real happiness is surrender to God. It is that blunt and simple. This is so totally uncool that saying it is like marketing cat poop. Okay, so we could say “Higher Power” and it might sound less “Churchy.” The bottom line is that dependence on any authority figure is totally unacceptable. We are supposed to grow into greater and greater independence. God is a weird old guy wearing white gowns who is out of touch and judges people. So, that’s for later — when we die. Admitting that I have a relationship with God, experience his presence on a daily basis and make decisions in relation to the inner motions of the heart is unusual for most people.
Yet somehow, a sizable segment of the Catholic/Christian population does have this experience. They are middle of the road believers who know that they are being guided by God and still have their free will intact. They surrender their inclination to demand that God explain it all. They trust the mystery of how providence and freedom work, but they know the balance is real. They base this trust on experience. The care and challenge they feel from this divine reality is consistent, rational, reliable, helpful to them, and beyond their own abilities. They would have abandoned their faith in God a long time ago if the results had been destructive. They know when they “bump” into someone they need to see, that it is a gift. They realize that the thought to travel down a certain road helped them avoid a pileup on the freeway. When they lose a job they eventually see that it moved them out of a situation which was undermining their health.
Mystery, yes. Surrender, yes.