A friend finds you at Church, and pulls you into a quiet hallway. His eyes are red, wet with tears. He recently lost his spouse. Now he tries to make sense of the tragedy and looks to you as a confidant and advisor. “How,” he asks, “could this happen to me? How could God do this to me?”
How do you reply?
Putting aside the matter of consoling your friend — he is looking for an answer, not consolation — there are lots of possible responses. Some are more common tropes than others. Consider:
1. “God called her home. It was her time.”
2. “It was the act of an evil man, and God was not involved at all.”
3. “It is all part of God’s plan.”
4. “There is no way for us to know.”
5. “Probably because of something you did. Or she did.”
Each reply tells us something about how we view the world, how we see God’s intervention in our lives, and the overall problem of evil. Some of these replies are probably better than others, but none of these (in my view) are moral or truly correct.
1. “God called her home.” This appears to be a nice source of comfort. But it implies that the death was not only God’s will, but in some way it was God’s act. This statement belongs to a mindset in which life is a mission, with a clearly defined set of tasks and an arranged beginning and end, and that when you’ve accomplished those tasks, the celestial taxi arrives and picks you up. Alternatively, the bounds of life are set out by the sands of the hourglass, and when the sand is gone the taxi arrives. While there are some scriptures that support this view, this perspective fails to help us understand why God calls home some people sooner rather than later, or why one person’s time is longer than another’s. As such, this statement is mostly a platitude that implies some sort of involvement on God’s part, but leaves our friend with more questions than answers.
2. “God wasn’t involved at all.” Deists in the house, represent! Some people are so troubled by the idea of God’s involvement in tragedy that they excise him out of the equation entirely. It is definitely a clean solution to the problem of why bad things happen. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be a very scriptural solution. On its own, the phrase also suggests that God is only involved with those events we in our narrow view consider as good; which is why any self-respecting deist will also tend to rule out divine intervention, both positive and negative. Baby and bathwater are both out the window in a nice bit of clean reasoning, but God hates them for it.
3. “It is all part of God’s plan.” Other iterations include “God is over all,” or “all things will work out as part of His will.” Like #1, this suggests an interventionist God, but in this instance God is the architect of the death. Again, this is largely a platitude, but it strongly implies that on some level, God is behind everything that happens. With this, the problem of evil creeps in to haunt us; is God behind Darfur? Did God approve of the Holocaust? Those extreme examples may seem too shocking to be helpful, but I use them because the very concept of a masterfully interventionist God is what has led many of my own friends to resort to agnosticism or atheism; they cannot bring themselves to worship a God who is behind (whether permitting, allowing, or accepting) the recurring grand tragedies of the world.
4. “There is no way for us to know.” This answer fails because it is completely unsatisfying. What is the point of our religion if it cannot help us with this problem, at least in some partial measure?
5. “Probably because of something you did.” The Jack Handey reply is also a category that lumps together expressions of divine retribution as well as suggestions of free will. The divine retribution model is certainly not comforting, and it presents problems found in other interventionist models. Alternatively, we can take this as referring to expressions of free will by human kind — a spouse has been murdered, for example, and you might say that God had to allow the murder to happen because to intervene would have meant a subversion of free will, which is a greater good. This free will model has tremendous appeal for Mormons, but unfortunately it too is fraught with complications, as the scriptures are replete with instances of God subverting the free will of, say, Nephi’s brethren in order to save Nephi’s life. So while we might refer to it generally, we cannot take it as an absolute rule and as a result we’re not much better off. There are other variants of the free will arguments to consider; for example, take the notion that God primarily intervenes in our lives by inspiring others to act.
While I understand that there are many other permutations, let me suggest an alternative to these examples, one that has worked fairly well for me thus far. Say to your friend, “I don’t know why this happened. Some day, God may tell you. But until that time, we can’t say for certain.” This takes the ignoramus view (#4), but qualifies it to account for personal revelation and the restored gospel. In other words, I would simply state the truth: unless God tells us in our hearts the reason behind an event, we cannot know why it occurred. We can make suppositions; we can try and fit the events to match our predisposed worldview; but we cannot know until God tells us. This sounds similar to “putting an issue on the shelf,” as people often do with thorny problems of history and belief. In a way, this is right, but the approach I suggest is more a means of preserving the mystery behind the world in a way that works to God’s favor.
What, then, do we do with the scriptural accounts of divine intervention and retribution? Take them for what they are: individual accounts. As they say in a prospectus, past performance is no indicator or guarantee of future results. That the Nephites were unable to slay Samuel the Lamanite does not make all missionaries arrowproof; nor does the slaying of the innocent in the city of Ammonihah mean that God will never intervene to save the righteous. We simply do not know, and cannot know absent revelation. This, I would argue, is the point of our existence: to walk by such personal revelation, knowing that there are no guarantees of anything in this mortal life. To find the certainty we need, instead we should turn to the only certain things we can have: a knowledge of our existence, personal knowledge of God touching our hearts, and personal faith in the Atonement in our individual lives. Those are the anchor points.
I think it’s a big mistake to make presumptions about why things happen. Even if we are right about God’s intervention in a given instance, we may be making wrong guesses about the future – and inadvertently teaching false doctrine to others. We end up defining God in ways that may not be correct, and conditioning our confidence and belief in God on evidences that He himself has warned us to eschew.