Keep Your Attention On Your Spiritual Condition

Keep Your Attention On Your Spiritual Condition December 12, 2016

When the same Abba Anthony thought about the depth of the judgments of God, he asked, “Lord, how is it that some die when they are young, while others drag on to extreme old age? Why are there those who are poor and those who are rich? Why do wicked men proper and why are the just in need? He heard a voice answering him, “Anthony, keep your attention on yourself; these things are according to the judgment of God, and it is not to your advantage to know anything about them.”[1]

Why do bad things happen to good people and why do good things happen to the bad? Time and time again, these questions have been asked, and time and time again,  various philosophers and theologians have provided all kinds of possible solutions to them.

While, at times, searching for answers to these questions can be of help, consoling people who ask them, it must be admitted that no answer can be complete, because no answer can come from the knowledge that is necessary to answer then, the knowledge which comprehends God’s wisdom.

The Patient Job by Gerard Seghers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Patient Job by Gerard Seghers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The beauty and message of the Book of Job, in many respects, is indicative of this. All the attempts by Job’s friends to explain his predicament were in error, and yet each represented typical formulations of theodicies which, despite being shown to be faulty, continue to hold sway in various philosophical and theological circles to this day (obviously, with nuances not given by Job’s friends).  Despite their attempts to answer him, Job was not satisfied. Indeed, sometimes they insulted him, insinuating that he must have been cursed by God due to some sin of his, which in reality, was far from the truth and yet the kind of reaction people continue to give when dealing with questions of worldly justice.

Job came to realize that the only one who could answer was God himself. Job thought that because of his complaint, that is, because of the injustices he had experienced and through the secondary mistreatment he received from his friends and family,  he could cry out to God and demand that answer.

God did answer, but not in the way Job expected.  God made it clear that Job could not understand his ways, that though there were reasons for all that he should do, someone like Job would never be able to comprehend them. This was the point God was making by asking Job about the world and its nature. If the vast expanse of creation was beyond Job’s comprehension, then God’s wisdom, which transcends creation, will likewise be beyond Job’s ability to understand. While some of the questions God posed of Job might be able to be answered by us today, we should not think we therefore would be able to get God to answer differently. The particular questions are not what matters; God knows and comprehends reality in a way which transcends what we know and understand, but he will ask according to what we do know, and show the limits of that knowledge by what lies just outside of it, so to us, he could ask questions relating to our current scientific knowledge, showing what lies beyond our understanding, to show us as well that if the universe itself is outside of our comprehension, then he himself, who is infinitely greater than the universe, would still act and react in ways which we cannot grasp.

That is, we must remember the point behind the question, because it reveals a truth about God and his incomprehensible nature in relation to us. If creation itself lies outside of our understanding, then God and his work and activity in and with creation will also lie way beyond our comprehension. So if and when we ask why things happen, we must remember, if we do not know how the universe itself works, outside of the influence of God, why do we think we will understand how and why God works with it as he does? To understand the justice of God’s providence would require comprehension of creation as well as God’s nature, and yet we find ourselves incapable of either.

This is not to say we cannot reason out some speculative answers, but we must assume those answers to be anything more than speculation. When we assert them to be universal truths, like Job’s friends did, we will end up being more wrong than we are right. What we must be assured of and accept is that what happens in the world comes out of God’s particular care for his creation. He loves it. He gives his creatures freedom at the same time as offers help in particular places and circumstances, so that such freedom can achieve a goal both God and his creation would desire. This care, this concern, is for everyone in creation – it is both universal and particular at once, and so God, in his infinite majesty is willing to engage people where they are at; he is truly concerned with them, they are not outside of his sight and interest. This is why God was willing to respond to Job. Despite the great distance between the two, from God’s infinite majesty to Job’s finite being, God took the time and concern to respond to Job, showing Job that the answer he seeks is one he cannot find for himself, because the ways of God transcends what any person can understand.

Even when it does not appear to be so, God is at work with creation, guiding it with his wise providence.  This, John Chrysostom explained, is what God is teaching us all in the Book of Job, reminding us all that his activity is founded upon his transcendent wisdom: “In particular, he shows that he does everything with wisdom and understanding and it is impossible for the one who conducts everything with wisdom and understanding to neglect the person for whom he fashioned it all, even when he suffers an evil fate, as happened in this case.”[2]

We are called to accept that, in the grand design, God is at work, taking into account, the whole of creation, the intricate relationships between the things which exist in creation, and he is using it all to bring about what is the best possible result with the best means possible. We cannot see the end, nor understand all that is being done in the present; this is why it would be wrong to assume that we suffer as a result of some previous sin (though it is possible), just as it would be wrong to assume someone is worthy of honor and respect merely because they are prosperous in the world. There is too much to know about the universe and what has happened in it to know why things are as they are today.

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