Source: St. Luke Orthodox Church
The paradox of a good God permitting evil.
When an unexpected and humanly incomprehensible death occurs it is viewed as a tribulation which confounds commitment to Christ who is the good God that lovest mankind. The age old question arises: How can a good God permit such tribulations and travails? Such calamities are perceived as evils by those who ask. This question did not escape, was not even missed by one of our holy spiritual fathers of the Eastern Church St. Peter of Damaskos, who wrote: “I was also astonished how God, who is good beyond all goodness and full of compassion permits all the many and various trials and afflictions of the world”.
Cultivating Trust in God
This ascent to finding a Godly meaning in life and inexplicable death begins with cultivating both trust in what God provides and trust in His enduring mercy. A recently deceased very holy monk of the Eastern Church, Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain, said: “Providence is the care that comes from God. Everything which is done with God’s providence is done in the best possible way, that is, Godly manner…” (Ageloglou, 1998). Ascending the ladder of Divine trust implies that we “see dimly,” now, but know we will be understood and understand (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12).
To climb that ladder, we hold fast to the words Christ has told us: “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelations 21:5). Our only commitment to God is to continue to put all our trust in Him. We pray the words of King David as he fled from Saul, “This I know, that God is for me. In God, whose word I praise, in the Lord, whose word I praise, in God I trust without a fear” (Psalm 56:9-11). We must follow the counsel of St. Isaac of Syria: “For someone to entrust himself to God means that, from that point onwards, he will no longer be devoured by anguish or fear over anything; nor will he again be tormented by the thought that he has no one to look after him” (Brock, 1997).
The Holy Fathers on God’s Mercy
St. Ephraim the Syrian (1997) wrote, “Only hope in the manifestation of Thy Grace, O man-befriending Master, consoles me and keeps me from despair. Whether Thou so desirest or not, save me, O all-good Lord, according to Thy great kindness.”
“God’s mercifulness is far more extensive than we can conceive” (St. Isaac of Syria quoted by Brock, 1997). God’s love according to St. Isaac is the driving force of all He has done, is doing. and will ever do. Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev (2000) quoting St. Isaac the Syrian noted: “In love did He [God] bring the world into existence; In love is He going to bring it into that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all these things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised.”
It is only in the context of understanding God and all His works as love that St. Isaac’s understanding of the end of time becomes comprehensible. St. Isaac wrote: “Accordingly the kingdom and gehenna (hell) are matters belonging to mercy; they were conceived of in their essence by God as a result of His eternal goodness…That we should further say or think that the matter is not full of love and mingled with compassion would be an opinion laden with blasphemy and an insult to our Lord God. By saying that He will even hand us over to burning for the sake of sufferings, torment and all sorts of ills, we are attributing to the Divine Nature an enmity towards the very rational beings which He created through grace; the same is true if we say He acts or thinks with spite and with a vengeful purpose, as though he were avenging himself.”
A way to make sense of the loss all have suffered by this incomprehensible death, is for us to allow ourselves to be motivated by the memory of our loved one, by making all things new in the world around us by cultivating trust in the God of mercy and love.
Trust: The Key to Overcoming Hopelessness
For the Orthodox Christian, the theological virtue of hope is an important healing instrument of mind and spirit overcoming suicidal hopelessness. St. Maximus the Confessor wrote:
Hope is the intellect’s surest pledge of divine help and promises the destruction of hostile powers. Love makes it difficult or, rather, makes it utterly impossible for the intellect to estrange itself from the tender care of God; and when the intellect is under attack, love impels it to concentrate its whole natural power into longing for the divine…
The return to God clearly implies the fullest affirmation of hope in Him, for without this nobody can accept God in any way at all. For it is characteristic of hope that it brings future things before us as if they were present, and so it assures those who are attacked by hostile powers that God, in whose name and for whose sake the saints go into battle, protects them and is in no way absent. For without some expectation, pleasant or unpleasant, no one can ever undertake a return to the divine (Philokalia II).
Joy in the Midst of Pain
Christianity recognizes that the pain of separation and love are deeply related. These are hard emotions to reconcile but meaning, and therefore comfort and peace, are found at the Cross of Christ — the death of the Son of God — who, in rising from the dead, vanquished death and brought joy into the world. “Through the cross,” St. Paul reminded us, “joy comes into the world.”
Christianity has always viewed death as the doorway to life; a joyous transformation although not always without pain. St. Ephraim of Syria sums up the Christian view of those who die in Christ:
Those who labor, and accomplished strugglers of piety, rejoice at the hour of departure. Seeing before their eyes the great labor of their struggle, vigilance, fasting, prostrations, prayer, tears and sackcloths, their souls rejoice when they are summoned from their bodies to enter into repose.
Meaning in Life and Healing
By purposely engaging this mindfulness, vigilance, and watchfulness (nepsis), hopeless-helpless thinking can be replaced by means of meaningful meditation. One example of this would be reflecting on St. Paul’s exhortation to the Athenians. He told them in part: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything. And he made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17: 24-28).” He gives us everything, He allots all and He is not far from any of us. God is Truth and Beauty. Indeed He heals our infirmities and diseases. (Morelli, 2006).
The greatest tribute we can make to our lost loved one is to have a change of our own minds and hearts and actions. We cannot bring back our lost loved one into this life. However, we can honor our lost one’s memory by transforming our own lives, imitating what we all saw as the good in our lost one and what our lost one was potentially capable of doing. The past cannot be changed; it can only serve as a classroom to learn what we ourselves can do in the present and in the future.
Yes, we do not understand God’s will or purpose, we now see dimly, but we know that God can make all things new. We trust in His love and mercy and know what “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Mt. 19: 25).
Ageloglou, Priestmonk Christodoulos. (1998). Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain. Mt. Athos, Greece: Holy Mountain.
Alfeyev, Bishop Hilarion (2000). The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications.
Brock, S. (1997).The Wisdom of Saint Isaac the Syrian. Fairacres Oxford, England: SLG Press.
Morelli, G. (2006, July 29). Dealing With Brokenness in the World: Psychological Optimism and the Virtue of Hope. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliBrokenness.php.
Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. Ware, K. (trans.) (1979). The Philokalia, Volume 1: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain. London: Faber and Faber.
Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. Ware, K. (trans.) (1981). The Philokalia, Volume 2:; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Makarios of Corinth. London: Faber and Faber.
Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (trans.) (1986). The Philokalia, Volume 3 The Complete Text;; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Makarios of Corinth. London: Faber and Faber.
Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (trans.) (1995). The Philokalia, Volume 4: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Makarios of Corinth. London: Faber and Faber.
St . Ephraim the Syrian (1997). Spiritual Psalter or Reflections on God from the Works of our Holy Father St. Ephraim the Syrian, Arranged in the Manner of the Psalms of David, Together with the Life of St. Ephrem (Br. Isaac E. Lambertsen, trans.). Liberty, TN: St. John of Kronstadt Press.
V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist, Coordinator of the Chaplaincy and Pastoral Counseling Ministry of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, (www.antiochian.org/counseling-ministries) and Religion Coordinator (and Antiochian Archdiocesan Liaison) of the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology and Religion. Fr. George is Assistant Pastor of St. George’s Antiochian Orthodox Church, San Diego, California.
Fr. Morelli is the author of Healing: Orthodox Christianity and Scientific Psychology (available from Eastern Christian Publications, $15.00).