A minimal encounter with the fatherhood of God

Say I’m in pain and it makes me hate my life and view it as vain, pointless, and worthless. Say someone comes to me (a scientist, and angel, a genie, it doesn’t matter) and presents me with two options: I can either remove all the pain from my life, now and forever; or I can see my life, even with the pain, as meaningful and be granted all the virtues necessary to deal with it courageously, with patience, and as a shining example to others. It is very difficult not to acknowledge that the second option is the better choice, since the one who suffers well is a better person that the one who merely lives out his life without pain, irrespective of whatever else he might do with his existence.

Now the immediate response to this either/ or is that it would be best to have both. We need to make a distinction here, however, for on the one hand there is a sense in which one cannot have both. We cannot suffer heroically and also never suffer. On the other hand, there is no intrinsic contradiction between the absence of pain and suffering and the presence of meaning. But though it is possible to have both meaningfulness and absence of pain, it does not appear to be possible in the world we happen to live in now. Our world is one where courage, patience, forbearance, self-denial, mercy etc. are all virtues, and all of these presuppose an encounter with evil.

So there are two facts (a.) our perfection as persons in the actual world we find ourselves in is tied up with evil (though there is no necessary logical connection between meaningfulness and suffering) but (b.) this evil is never such that it could render our lives intrinsically meaningless. The first requires that evil be necessary, though there could be a world without it; the second requires that the righteous or virtuous person could never suffer an evil that would render his life meaningless, and, more generally, there is no evil that a man or animal could experience that would necessarily make their lives meaningless. It seems necessary to reduce two facts to different sorts of cause. Christianity reduces the first to the fall of man, but the second seems to admit of a philosophical explanation. We can take (b) in two ways: we can consider man’s personal and free choice to be a good person, or we can consider the objective state of the world in which the suffering of gratuitous evil (that is, an evil that could not be a part of a meaningful life) is logically impossible for the righteous. Taken in the second way, we find that the very structure of the world is such that meaning is omnipotent and can never be overcome from the outside.  The universe infinitely empowers persons (and even, in a lesser way, animals) and allows nothing the absolute power to make their lives vain or pointless. In this precise sense, it makes sense to speak of God as a loving father, one who, so far as we consider how he delivers man from any evil that could make their live vain, has exercised a perfect fatherhood. That this fatherhood does not protect us from every possible evil is obvious, but this does not mean that we cannot encounter an infinite fatherhood in protecting the righteous from any gratuitous evil.



  1. Kristor said,

    October 27, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    What is meant, exactly, by “meaningful?” Don’t get me wrong, I think I understand perfectly well what you’re getting at, but I think it may be fruitful to ask what exactly we mean by the term. Significance? Signifying what? Not vain, or pointless? Full, then, of what; pointing to what?

    One possibility is that the righteous or virtuous life is suffused with an apprehension and love of a Good so vast as to make nil all ill. What could empty a life into which God has been allowed to empty Himself? For such a life, death is swallowed in victory, and suffering is mere contrast.

    Which makes me think that the very most basic operation of existence, the sine qua non of existence, is a minimum of worship. Even rebellion recognizes the King.

  2. croncor said,

    October 27, 2011 at 7:20 pm

    The discussion of “meaning” aside, it’s worth pointing out that in the present state of things anyone who chose “option one” (with the exception of the BVM) would actually suffer more than the person who chose option two, just as children who are disciplined have happier childhoods than those who are spoiled. Anyone who managed by some awful curse (the anti-Job) to navigate life without suffering at all would be so malformed and given over to fallen nature that it would be terrible to behold. On the other hand, if we explore the virtues and gifts necessary to take extraordinary pain and live with it courageously and patiently, there’s a great deal of joy in that path: more joy than the anti-Job would comprehend in his miserable apathy.

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