On Providence, God's hands-on/hands-off approach to the Good, and Whether God Actually Does Good (or bad) Things to us.
From time to time, I’m asked why God allows evil or why does he allow bad things to happen. But recently, I was presented with a different question that overlaps that subject.
“Does God cause good things to happen?”
I was asked this a few days ago, but I also encountered it over Twitter today.
“I have heard that God doesn’t cause bad things to happen. However, does he cause good things to happen?I’ve heard an argument that says ‘no’ and it baffles me.
The simple answer is “Yes, and no”.
First of all God doesn’t do bad or evil things. When people say “God let this [bad thing] happen for a reason” they are mistaken. God doesn’t ever do bad things to us. This sort of comment is so common because of a misunderstanding of something that’s actually true—God’s providence.
God doesn’t do evil. But does he do Good things? Is he active in the Good things in our lives, or did he just set them in motion at the beginning of time, letting the chips fall where they may? Well…it’s both! Let’s talk about the Good, God’s providence, and how it all works, with a little help from the Catechism and Thomas Aquinas (You can find those sources here and here).
By the way if you’re not following me on Twitter, you’re missing a lot
God is Goodness itself and all good things exist because He exists. He is the eternal cause of every Good, and he orders those goods to their fulfillment. He did this from eternity—the goods we enjoy were set in motion before we existed. In that way, God caused the good, but he didn’t necessarily make it happen in the moment that we enjoy it. But he does sometimes take an active role in time, to bring Goods to fulfillment, whether it’s a Good in our day, or the Goods of our existence.
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God is the eternal cause, source and origin of all Good throughout creation and throughout time, from all eternity. Nothing good would exist if God did not exist. Not even the things that we take for granted every day, like laughter. But when you laugh, he doesn’t cause you to laugh in that moment. He “invented” the Goods of humor and laughter, ordered their natures from eternity, and you, in that moment in time, became the intersection of those Goods, which caused you to laugh at a joke. He caused the good, but he may not necessarily have caused the good to happen in that moment. It only happened naturally.
“For all the Good that is in created has been created by God…In created things, good is found not only as regards their substance, but also as regards their order towards an end…[which] is the divine Goodness.”
-Summa Theologiae, Response to Question 22
As noted earlier, God is the eternal cause and creator of every Good, and he orders those Goods to their fulfillment. Laughter makes us feel good because he ordered laughter that way and ordered us that way.
God caused all Good from eternity, but He also plays an active role in some Goods that occur in time, in order that they may reach their fulfillment. This is called divine providence.
“Creation has its own goodness and proper perfection, but it did not spring forth complete from the hands of the Creator. The universe was created "in a state of journeying" (in statu viae) toward an ultimate perfection yet to be attained, to which God has destined it. We call "divine providence" the dispositions by which God guides his creation toward this perfection.”
Providence is not God being a puppet master who is all-controlling and dominates our free will. He’s more like the director of a play that we are writing but whose story, beginning to end, he already knows. By His providential care God orders things toward Good ends. He does this partially from eternity, but he also actively orders means to ends in time.
God’s providence can make good things out of the ugly things he did not cause. An analogy may help explain that more clearly. Consider the sheet music of a beautiful song played by a less-than-perfect musician. Maybe the first note is supposed to be an A-minor, but the player accidentally plays a B-flat. God’s providence will take the B-flat and make it the first note of a new and different song where B-flat is the correct note to play. All things, even bad things, can become ingredients in God’s providence.
God does not cause evil. He technically doesn’t cause a good thing to happen, but by his grace and Providence he orders and orients all things to fulfillment in Goodness. He may not have made you laugh at that joke, but laughing at the joke was made possible because of him. And if you needed a lifting of your spirits in order to do some higher good thing that God intends for you to do, God might use the moment of that joke to especially lift your spirits and clear out the cobwebs of your mood so that you’re be able to do that next good thing—the joke, which he did not cause, becomes an ingredient in his providence.
Ave Maria, Virgo Fidelis!