DIVINE PROVIDENCE AND THE PROBLEM OF EVIL

"He made the little and the great, and He hath equally care of them all" (Wisd.6:8).-- Scripture reading from John 6:1-13, or Mark, 8:1-9.

The most widely known infidel and atheist in America towards the close of the last century was Robert G. Ingersoll.  He believed neither in a god nor in a future life. We are told that Mr. Ingersoll was one morning seated in a Washington city hotel, looking out of the great window, when a United States Senator entered. The Senator appeared excited.

"Mr. Ingersoll," he bursted forth, "I saw a sad thing a moment ago. While a man was struggling across the crowded street on crutches, I saw another man strike the crutches away from him."

Ingersoll arose, and with fingers twitching and eyes flashing, exclaimed in a militant mood: "I should like to see the man;  I would punish him!"

With eye to eye and face to face, the Senator placed his hand on Ingersoll's shoulder and in a solemn tone replied: "That is what you have been trying to do for years; striking away the crutches of people, the support of people in sorrow, the support of people in temptation."

Yes, my friends, belief in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God is the great sustaining force that carries people through their trials and temptations, through periods of difficulties and depression. For a God who is all-powerful, ever-present, all-knowing, all-loving and all-just, as we saw in our previous discourse, must in His divine wisdom provide for and watch over His needy children. We call this Divine providence, which shall be the subject for our consideration today.

(O Jesus, assist with Thy grace!)

Divine Providence Defined.--My dearly beloved! In all revelation, I do not believe that there is anything more encouraging, more consoling in our daily struggles i life, than this beautiful doctrine of Divine Providence. Even though many cannot define the words, yet the man of faith professes belief in Divine Providence in all his actions. I love to think of your gathering here in church. Sunday after Sunday, as such a united profession of faith in Divine Providence. In doing so, you are imitating the multitudes that followed Our Lord from place to place through Galilee, forgetting their temporal cares and even their bodily wants, intent upon the words of Him who had said: "Seek ye, therefore, first the kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things shall be added unto you" (Matt.6:33). This promise Jesus forthwith fulfilled and confirmed by feeding the thousands with seven loaves and a few fishes. Strengthened by this fact, we too confidently look up to our Heavenly Father as our protector and our provider, both in things spiritual as well as things temporal, for body and for soul, for time and for eternity. "Cast all your care upon Him, for He hath care of you" (1Pet.5:7).

Briefly then, by the Divine Providence, we understand that act of God by which, in His wisdom, He so orders all events within the universe that the end for which it was created may be realized. It comprises that coordination and combination of all those means given by God, so that all creatures can attain their end and fulfill the tasks for which God has created them. For irrational creatures, their ultimate end is first, the glory of God and then the service of man. For man, his ultimate end is first and foremost his reasonable service to God, with the assurance of eternal happiness as his reward. For this God has created man, to know Him, love Him and serve Him in this world, and be eternally happy with Him in heaven. The necessary means are all contained in God's Divine Providence.

How comforting, then, is the thought that we are not brought into this world and left like driftwood on the sea of life, to be tossed about by the turbulent waves and finally washed upon uncertain shores; that, instead, our little bark of life is unceasingly under the guidance of the Divine Pilot. But what assurance have we for all this?

(1) First of all, God's own word, the Bible, reveals it to us. The Scriptures abound with evidence of God's Divine Providence. It shines forth with special splendor in the history of the Israelites. You can readily recall how God protected Moses and guided the Jews into the Promised Land, sending them manna and quail and other provisions as they passed through the desert. Isaias (48:17) calls God our guard and our guide, our teacher and our counsellor. The royal Psalmist calls God our protector and our defender in all troubles and dangers. "Our God," says King David, "is our refuge and strength, a helper in troubles." Jeremias (33:13) calls God our consolation in all anxiety and sadness, providing comfort for all. "And I will turn their mournings into joy, and will comfort them, and make them joyful after their sorrow." "For He made the little and the great, and He hath equally care of all," says the author of the Book of Wisdom (6:8).

But it was left to our loving Redeemer to inform us in the tenderest of terms how the Heavenly Father provides for His creatures. St. Matthew devotes almost the entire sixth and seventh chapters to the Divine Providence of God. Here we hear Jesus speak with a simplicity and a tenderness that even a child can understand. "Be not solicitous" He says, "for your life, what you shall eat, nor for your body, what you shall put on.  Behold the birds of the air, for they neither sow, nor do they reap, nor gather into barns; and your Heavenly Father feedeth them. Are not you much more value than they? And for raiment, why are you solicitous? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. And if the grass of the field, which is today and tomorrow is cast into the oven, God doth so clothe, how much more you, O ye of little faith! Your Father knoweth that you have need of all these things. Seek ye, therefore, first the kingdom of God and His Justice, and all these things shall be added unto you" (Matt.6:25-33).

Then Jesus proceeds to tell us how to address the Heavenly Father when we petition Him for assistance, by saying: "Our Father who art in heaven, etc." He adds these comforting words: "If you who are imperfect know how to  give your children the good things which they ask of you, how much more will your Heavenly Father give you the good things which you ask of Him!"

(2) Secondly, reason tells me that if we admit, as we demonstrated in the preceding discourse, that God is omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, etc., then His justice and wisdom must also guide the world, so that it will fulfill the purpose of its creation. God does not leave His work unfinished; He will not rest until He sees it crowned with glorious consummation. Hence, God's goodness also demands that He lend His aid to the creatures to whom He has given existence, especially those endowed with reason, until their designated task is accomplished. This we call Divine Providence.

A loving mother does not abandon the child to whom she has given birth. She watches with infinite tenderness over the cradle; she guides with patience the first faltering steps; she surrounds with never-tiring solicitude the years of childhood; her anxious care for the welfare of her own continues into the years of adolescence; and it only ends when her loving eyes close in death. When telling us through His prophet about His solicitude for mankind, God uses this very example of maternal affection. "Can a woman forget her infant, so as not to have pity on the son of her womb? And if she should forget, Yet will I not forget thee" (Is.49:15) He says.

(3) Thirdly, the history of individuals and of nations demonstrates the existence of Divine Providence. "The dogma of a Providence," says Bergier ("Traite de la Religion, II, 224), "is the faith of the human race; the worship rendered to the Divinity in all times and places attests the confidence of mankind in the power and care of the Creator. A natural instinct leads us to raise our eyes to heaven in our wants and sufferings; even the impious, by their blasphemies against Providence, demonstrate that they believe in it.  This is what Tertullian calls the testimony of the soul naturally Christian."

Now, as to the history of the nations, here is the summation of them all: virtues and reward, crime and punishment! In other words, fidelity to the divine laws, which should govern all nations, is followed by happiness; disobedience to them is most certainly followed by misery.  On the one hand, behold God's law, on the other, His approval! This is the Divine Providence of nations. The identical facts are reproduced in all quarters of the globe. They have ever been so, as far back as we can travel into the twilight of time. Oh, would that every nation and every ruler thereof could realize and understand that, "it is virtue that elevates nations, and sin that renders them miserable" (Prov. 14:34). That is the immortal inscription of Divine Providence which should be inscribed in glowing letters at the head of the constitution of every people, as it is written at the head of every page of their history.

George Washington, the Father of the United States, recognized the power of Divine Providence over nations.  In his farewell address to the armies of his countries, contemplating the depletion of their ranks and the enfeebled conditions of American resources at the time, he ascribed the success of the War for Independence to "the singular interpositions of Providence which were such as could scarcely escape the attention of the most unobserving." And about the same time, when Thomas Paine submitted as prepared manuscript to Benjamin Franklin for approval, in which he tried to refute and deny the existence of as particular Providence, Franklin rebuked him, saying: "Denying Divine Providence is like spitting against the wind." In other words, the conviction of the existence of a Divine Providence is so deeply imbedded in the hearts of all, that no attempt at refutation would convince anyone to the contrary.

And why that universal conviction? Let St. Augustine give the answer: "God does not treat the world as an architect treats the house he has built. The finished house stands alone, without any further help from the architect; but the world cannot remain for one moment without the constant sustaining activity of God." And St. Chrysostom adds:  "The preservation of the world is only a  continuation of the act of creation; if it was not worthy of God to begin the miracle, why should it be unworthy of Him to continue it? Rather, as the miracle of the creation occupied only six days, while that of the preservation of the world has already occupied nearly six thousand years, the latter must be much more glorious to God than the former." And as to the individuals, let the great Cardinal Gibbons speak for us all: "If I may disclose my own inward thought, I will avow that Divine Providence has ever been to me the most reassuring of all Christian teachings, and one that has been a sustaining force to me amid the vicissitudes of a long life." As Shakespeare says:

There is a Divinity that shapes our ends,

Rough-hew them how we will.

Modern Doubts Due to Problem of Evil.--Now, let us turn to the laboring man, stooped over from hardship and work, who daily faces harsh, concrete acts. All the beautiful things we might have said about Divine Providence impress him very little. When he listens, he wonders perhaps whether we are speaking of people in an imaginary world. Can we be speaking of people struggling for their very existence in a modern malicious world? Almost in derision, he might turn to us and say: "What are you talking about? A Canaan flowing with milk and honey, where golden apples and grapes hang from the trees? I heard that before; "Two automobiles in every garage and a chicken in every working man's pot." We are now living  among smoking factory-chimneys. We are starving on the top floors of monstrous apartment buildings or in unsanitary slums. We are rubbing elbows every day with millions whose one thought, problem and anxiety is: "What shall we eat? How shall we pay our rent? With what shall we clothe ourselves and our families? We see suffering on all sides. There are storms and floods; there are wars being fought by boys coming from the homes of us poor people. And all the while we see the rich few grow richer, while the poor are growing poorer. We labor until our flesh is worn to the bone, while the rich live a life of luxury and of ease. The good seem to suffer and the wicked prosper. How can you reconcile all these contradictions with an all-loving Heavenly Father who watches over us and the world with His Divine Providence?"

My friends, here is an array of charges and accusations that cannot be passed over lightly. They are mostly facts, with little fiction. They are disturbing thought that frequently haunt many an honest man. We must face them and try to answer them in the light of God's revelation. We shall group these evils under three headings: (a) evils in general; (b) physical evils; (c) and moral evils. Let us consider them one by one.

Evils in General.--When we look at evil as such, we should begin with the supposition that, when God created the world, everything He made was good, and was intended to serve for a good purpose. For Scripture tells us that, after God had created the heavens and the earth and all the creatures contained therein, He paused, and "God saw that it was good" (Gen.1:25). It was only after God had created man, endowing him with understanding and free will, that evil entered into this world. Therefore, we say that evil was first introduced into this fair world by the sin of man. And almost every evil that now curses mankind maybe traced to some abuse of the free will which God has given to man. God could have prevented, and can now prevent, evil by destroying the free will of man; by depriving him of his most precious prerogative. This God will not do. He, therefore, allows evil, but makes even the bad subservient to His greater ends. Thus, storms and lightning, heat and cold, floods and fires, may be damaging to some, while greatly beneficial to the many. They frequently purify the air and the water, carry away pestilence and disease, and bring refreshment to a tired body.

Physical Evil.--But physical evil seems to haunt us most of all. Let us take the labor and toil and drudgery of the working man. "Consider the birds in the air and lilies in the field, they labor not, nor do they gather or spin, and yet you are more than any of these, etc."--these words of Our Lord mean very little to the man who knows that his family will go hungry if he does not go out and work.

But let us not be too hasty in our conclusions and our interpretations of God's words. There is another admonition God gave after the fall of man, and that is: "Thou shalt earn thy bread under the sweat of thy brow. With labor and toil shalt thou eat thereof all the days of thy life" (Gen.3:17). It is true, God provides the daily food for birds. But He does not place the food into their mouths. Do we believe that the fishes leap in the water and the birds dart here and there in the air for our amusement? Oh no. They are gathering food; they are working. The bee gathers its honey; the spider weaves its web; the ant is busy; all living beings work. This is how we must interpret Divine Providence.

God gave manna and quail to the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. He provided for them, but they had to arise early and gather before sunrise. His disciples' nets were filled with fish, but they had to cast them out, and later gather them into their boats. So, too, God did not promised that a roasted chicken would fly into every hungry man's mouth. "Ora et labora!" (Pray and work), has ever been the watchword of the true Christian. "Pray," says St. Augustine, "as though everything depended upon God, and the work as though everything depended upon you." Strive and work, but trust too. While Our Lord asked us to pray: "Give us this day our daily bread," He also tells us through the lips of St. Paul: "But if any man have not care of his own, and especially of those of his house, he hath denied the faith and is worse than an infidel" (1 Tim.5:8).

As to physical suffering from disease, aches and pain, these also may serve a twofold purpose for good. Either they may be the consequence of our sins which disturb not only the peace of the soul, but frequently the peace of the body as well. Or they may be sent to us as admonitions and warnings lest greater evils befall us. If I did not have a splitting headache of a cramp, I would never know, perhaps, that there is something vitally the matter with one or the other organs of my body. Timely attention may cure me from a fatal disease, prolong my life and enable the physician to prove his skill in the proper application of his medicine or the knowledge of surgery which God has given him for the good of his fellow-man.

We have many beautiful examples in Holy Writ, as well as in history, of how God permitted what seemed at the moment great physical evil to the individual, but later proved to all the world that His loving providence had not failed. If time only permitted, I could tell you once more the story of Abraham, of Tobias, of Job, of Joseph of Egypt and numerous other instances where Divine Providence manifested itself at the end. In the eyes of many, Christ's life, suffering, crucifixion and death were indeed a great evil to Him personally. But He died that many might live. Through His ignominious death and resurrection, He became our Saviour and Redeemer.

Prosperity of the Wicked.--But one final question: "Why do the wicked so frequently prosper while the good so frequently suffer?" First of all, let us remember this: man's happiness cannot be measured by money. Man's happiness comes from within and not from without. A good, peaceful conscience is worth more than all earthly wealth. But many good people, too, enjoy the affluence of wealth. However, they so live as though they possessed it not. In other words, they use it not merely for their own personal enjoyment and pleasure, but also to alleviate the wants and sufferings of others, for works of charity towards the poor and unfortunate, or for the erection and beautification of temples of God on earth wherein both rich and poor alike may serve their Master and Provider.

From Holy Writ, we know that God never intended all to share the wealth of the world equally. To one He gave five talents, to another two or three, and to another, one. St. Paul compares the human race with the members of the body. "If the whole body were the eye, where would be hearing? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling?" (1Cor.12:17). God, in His wisdom, knows also how many poor, were they to possess too much wealth of the earth, would use it only for their own eternal destruction. Hence, even in their poverty, He comforts the poor with these consoling words: "Be glad and rejoice, for your reward will be very great in heaven."

You know the story of Lazarus, but you also know the story of Dives. To the unjustly rich and to those who have acquired their wealth at the expense of the laboring man, the widow, and the orphan--to all such, God has spoken a warning: "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven. What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, if, at the end, he loses his soul?" It is said that a certain wicked queen (Elizabeth of England) exclaimed: "Give me forty years' reign here on earth, and God can keep His heaven in the next." She reigned for forty years here. Her eternity rests solely with Divine Providence.

No man is so wicked that he has not some good in him. However, since some have chosen an earthly heaven, God may permit them to enjoy the affluence of wealth for a time as their reward, even though they may use it to abuse the Giver of all good gifts by sinning. Freely they choose gold as their god, lust and passion as their idols. But, as for nations, so for individuals the alternative is presented: virtue and reward, crime and punishment.

Thou the mills of God grind slowly,

Yet they grind exceedingly small;

Though with patience He stands waiting,

With exactness grinds He all.

Conclusion.--For each of us, then, Divine Providence means this: "God has placed me here upon this earth to enjoy the fruits thereof as far as they are conducive to my eternal salvation. If sickness or suffering overtakes me, I am to use all the medical skill, all other means at my disposal, to remedy my temporary ills. If I am not conscious of any guilt of sin, for which I might be suffering, and yet must endure suffering, poverty or want, let me say: "God's will be done!" It must be for the best. It may be the means of my eternal salvation. I will confide in God's Providence, remembering all the while, that

Evil is only the slave of good;

Sorrow the servant of joy,

The fountain of joy is fed by tears

And love is lit by the breath of sighs;

The deepest griefs and the wildest fears

Have holiest ministries.

St. Augustine admonishes us that we should dread nothing so much as to be temporarily so blessed as to see our every wish fulfilled, to have nothing to disturb our comfort. Only too many of those so situated are in danger of losing sight of their eternal destiny. Rather, let us praise God not only with hands clasped in prayer, but also with hands that hold the tool, the pen and the brush.  Once we are imbued with this spirit, the office desk and the computer, the kitchen-range and wash-board, the sewing machine and the cradle, all become altars.  Hard, tiring, laborious work becomes a divine service. "Casting all you care upon Him, for He has care of you" (I Pet.5:7). And like St. Francis de Sales and St. Vincent de Paul, let us behold the Providence of God in every sick or poor person who makes a demand upon our service, our charity, our patience. "To them that love God," says St. Paul, "all things work together unto good, to such as, according to His purpose, are called to be saints" (Rom.8:28). Yes, worthy to be inscribed in golden letters on the heart of every Christian soul, is the beautiful prayer-poem of Adelaide Procter, with which I shall close:

For one thing only, Lord, dear Lord, I plead:

Lead me aright,

Though strength should falter and thou heart should bleed,

Through peace to light.

I do not ask my cross to understand,

My way to see;

Better in darkness just to feel Thy hand

And follow Thee.  Amen.