Filipino Catholics display piety and devotion during Mass to celebrate the Divine Mercy of Jesus, also known as the Divine Mercy. (Photo by Angie de Silva)
It is our core Christian belief in the creation story that God created all of creation with intrinsic goodness, and that sin and evil distorted this "divine order."
An implication of these beliefs would be the question that if God is "powerful," why would he have not prevented this distortion in his creation?
It is undeniable — a reality that challenges us even today — that suffering is the usual lot if not the daily fare of every human being, and that the consequences of the evil of those who have fallen to the "dark side," we pray would not become our inescapable fate.
Perhaps in the Hebrew ethos, suffering, evil and death are so inexplicable and so difficult to accept that it has to be explained only in the context of the omnipresence of an all-powerful and all-loving God.
Only through a steadfast faith in a God that surpasses all that we are and can become can life have meaning; our belief in God supports our metaphysical notion that life has an underlying purpose, a hidden mystery that we have yet to uncover and discover for ourselves.
So, such is the essence of the creation story; it is a tale meant to reveal the enigma behind the hardship of life and the destiny of death. And the enigma being no other one but God; beneath all and beyond all that we can fully understand in our finiteness, is Infinity itself. Only the spirit of the cosmos can overwhelm what overwhelms us.
What we today consider perhaps differently, as the myth of our origins and the beginning of our human folly, could be for the Hebrew mind simply an articulation of the truth of God’s perpetual succor and guidance. What they may have wished to tell themselves through the creation story may be encapsulated as such:
Life is and will always be difficult, but God is and will always be with us.
Suffering exists whether or not we are to blame, but God is and will always be with us.
Evil exists because we have caused it to exist, not God, but he nevertheless is and will always be with us.
Death is inevitable and mysterious, but God is beyond death and will be with us forever.
But the drama of "ha adam" (the first human) that was with good intent, crafted to express this divine assurance in the forlornness of barren land, may have been maliciously twisted as to reverse its meaning.
Can the poignant reflections on tribulation from the cultural milieu of the ancient Middle East be reoriented by the concocted syllogisms of our "civilized" society living in comfortable frivolity away from any desert?
Unfortunately, yes, and so a story intended to give hope is seemingly a puzzling theodicy of despair. The story that originally articulated the truth has inadvertently become its own contradiction. Literally interpreted, the story raised more questions than it intended to answer:
If they say God created everything, why did he create suffering and death?
If they say God did not create evil, why did he permit it to exist?
If they say God is always with us, where is he when you need him?
If they say God will always be with us, even beyond death, how then are we sure?
Seemingly, through the shrewdness of our own reasoning, we "turned the tables" on God. Maybe our propensity for being too "pilosopo" (philosophical) surfaces, and now, sadly, the story may now be used as a weapon to "murder" him.
We are now disturbed by a theological oversight: is God really powerful and does he really love us? It may be the most bothering question of the ages and the philosophical underpinning of a growing modern religious indifference.
What exactly do we mean by "power" and "love?" Does love have to be always associated with the desired outcome of "absence of hardship?" Does power have to be always associated with the desirable state of the "absence of evil?" If sufferings exist, does it absolutely mean that God does not love us? If evil exists, does it unequivocally testify to the powerlessness of God? Or does he have different definitions?
In resolving our philosophical dilemma, I think we have to first critically discern that God’s power does not refer to "a capacity to create or to keep something from being created;" rather his power lies essentially in his love to create: the power of God’s love.
His omniscience does not rest on what he can or cannot do; it entirely rests on what he wills and chooses to do … for love. From this notion, we need not ask why he did not create a "perfect world," or if we believe he did, why he permitted the intrusion of "imperfections;" we must ponder upon the more important question as to the purpose of divine wisdom in creating us amidst incomprehensible "deficiencies." Why indeed?
Our own experience with parental love has taught us that true love is not in "controlling" the one loved to enforce "perfection," rather in the detached yet mindful presence of allowing the one loved to grow from "imperfection" in responsible freedom.
In other words, we truly love when we grace our children by simply guiding them to become, not by imposing on them what we desire them to be.
In true love, therefore, lies true power, for is it not much less difficult for God to create us as he would have wished; and much more difficult and thus worthy of obedience, to love not for the pleasure of the lover, but solely for the upliftment of the one loved? Selfless love is the foundation of real power.
So, is there a greater power than being able to teach the one loved, to love in return? Is there a greater power than having learned how to become ourselves in responsible freedom, we help the lover forge a much less "imperfect" world? Are we not awed at the power of God’s love, in the multitude of saints — some even worse sinners than we are — who followed the way of the Christ till death?
It is futile to try to tell God how he can be God or to ask why he is not what we suppose him to be. Why suffering and evil exist in his creation, may not be the right question to ask, but rather how we can cooperate with him into attaining the eschaton of his reign when sufferings and evil are finally overcome by our common concern and effort to achieve justice and peace for all.
Brother Jess Matias is a professed brother of the Secular Franciscan Order. He serves as minister of the St. Pio of Pietrelcina Fraternity at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Mandaluyong City, coordinator of the Padre Pio Prayer Groups of the Capuchins in the Philippines, and prison counselor and catechist for the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology.