A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XXIX.

A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XXIX. August 29, 2011

Introduction and Part II

“Providence is manifested in events which occur in accordance with divine necessity – such as the daily rising and setting of the sun, and the yielding of fruits by the earth. Law, similarly, is manifested in events which occur in accordance with human necessity. Everything has been created for man’s sake.”[1]

“Since God is good, whatever He does, He does for man’s sake. But whatever man does, he does for his own sake, both what is good and what is evil.”[2] Don’t be surprised when the wicked prosper; “you must realize that just as states employ executioners and, while not approving their terrible profession, use them to punish those who deserve it,” and so God “allows the wicked to tyrannize others in the worldly sphere as a means of punishing the impious.”[3] Nonetheless, God will still judge the wicked, because their actions have not been to serve God, but their own wicked desires.[4]

One the most basic and yet difficult concepts to grasp is divine providence. God is all good, all powerful, all knowing, so God must be directing creation to serve his good purpose. And yet all around us evil seems to prevail. The wicked prosper while those who seek to do good suffer all kinds of setbacks. If God is all good, how can this be?

Jesus, of course, reminds us that God gives all kinds of blessings to the wicked, and uses that to tell us to follow the example of God, and to treat everyone, even those who we see as doing as harm, with love and respect:

“You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:43 -48 RSV).

Providence is about God’s benevolent action in history for the benefit of everyone. If we want to be adopted as sons of God, we must become perfect like God and treat our enemies with honor and respect by loving them. God, after all, gives them the same blessings he gives us. We must be perfect, even as God is perfect; and that perfection requires us to be willing to give of ourselves and bless everyone, especially those who most irritate us. It is a difficult task, and as long as we are sinners we fail to achieve such universal love.  We can try, and sometimes we do give as we should, but we must admit to ourselves, as long as we have not achieved the perfection of love, there will be times when our concupiscence gets the best of us and we do not reach out in love to those who make our lives difficult, if not painful. We wallow in our pain. But God’s blessings are still upon us, giving us every chance to reach out to him and to be transformed by the light of his grace. We can see the wickedness within us and see that, despite it, God’s grace is still there, showing us his love, seeking to transform us and make us perfect in our love. We must see this is indicative of how God desires us to be with others, showing them love even when they are not receptive of it.

God’s providence makes sure that the laws of nature, however fallen and weakened nature is, are sustained. The earth continues to exist and act like normal. It rotates and makes the sun rise, and the light of the sun falls on our crops; the ground continues to bear food and nourishment for us all. After creation has been established, it is sustained by God. All who find themselves in creation find themselves with a stage on which they can act and make of themselves as they will. Providence, in this sense, is about freedom; it is about making the conditions necessary for us to be able to act in history and to be true persons with actual roles in the drama which time creates. It is because of  his love that God has given us this freedom, but it is also out of God’s goodness, that he takes what he knows will happen  and use it to serve his eschatological design. That design includes all of humanity and the desire of God for all of humanity to be saved; everything has been created for this sake (even if this is the only purpose of God’s creation, it is certainly one of them).

Providence is there for the nurturing of the earth, but it is also there to realize God’s eschatological desire. God’s love shines upon the world so that he can save it. He allows the wicked to prosper, not because he loves wickedness, but because he loves everyone, and wants to give people freedom. He sees that the trials the wicked create upon the earth help serve his eschatological purpose. The wicked might see the error of their ways and do penance; allowing them to prosper for a time gives them the chance to reflect upon their deeds so that their hearts can be converted and they can become a force for good. And, we must realize, this is why we are allowed any prosperity as well; our sins can show forth our wickedness; how can we blame God for allowing wickedness to prevail and be sustained when we, ourselves, continue to be sustained by God with an imperfect love for him with an imperfect contrition for our sins? But when we suffer persecution from those we consider to be wicked, we are given the opportunity to be tested, to show whether or not we have ourselves come on the side of God and love, or if we still need conversion of heart. The wicked, in this sense, are to be seen as a tool; of course, the people who do such wickedness are subjects in their own right, and God is working on them and in their lives for their own conversion, but, in relation to how we experience their influence in our lives, we experience them as a test and as a means of purification if we accept the test for what it is. When we know our own wickedness and sins, we know we have no excuse and no just cause to demand anything from God. When we suffer, we can use the suffering for transformation; if we prove successful in our test, this is what will happen, so that, having become perfect, we will enter eternity in perfect harmony with God and so receive the eternal beatitude which we seek.  Someone will prosper on the stage of history, but will they find such prosperity in eternity, or will they, because of their prosperity, ignore what is most necessary, the salvation of their souls? God allows the wicked to act, but he certainly does not approve their wickedness; he wants them to convert and change their ways. He will let everyone create their own persona, their own role in history, and then he will call everyone at the end of their lives and judge them for what they established of themselves. We will see how the role everyone has made for themselves will be seen and presented to everyone else by God.

The suffering we experience in the world will make us call out to God. It will make us look for God, to see where he is. Initially we will do it because of selfish reasons. We do what is good because we want to be blessed. We avoid evil, because we know such evil will lead to our own eternal condemnation. But the more we turn toward the good, the more we become one with the good, the more our motives will change; when it becomes selfless and willing to perish and suffer eternal damnation so others can be saved, it will have been made perfect. Only when we die to the self and willingly embrace suffering for others will we be worthy of eternal beatitude. But it is because we know this is so, we begin the journey, however imperfect we are. Contrition and love start off so weak, but because of that weakness and imperfection, if we embrace the little we have, the more it will become, until at last, we will find our selfishness leading to selflessness. This is the paradox of salvation, but the paradox which also explains how divine providence works. This is why imperfect contrition, imperfect love, is seen as a good; if imperfect contrition can be fostered and maintained, it will lead us to perfect contrition and a perfect love for God.

As people who come to understand God through analogy, positive law, when it is properly executed, is the good way for us to understand how God works in and through providence. Positive law seeks to provide the foundation for a free society. While many forms of such law can, and do, fail, this does not discount its purpose. And positive law, by providing for a free society, can allow and does allow many wicked to prosper. With positive law, when it is properly explained and followed, one knows how the state will or not react to given actions, and so one can and will deduce one’s best course of action based upon such predictions. The wicked, of course, know how to take advantage of the system; the only way to prevent them from doing so would be to eliminate freedom in the system; the end result of that, of course, would be far worse than the free society positive law establishes. The wicked must be allowed to take advantage of the system so that those who desire the good life, through good actions, can also be free to achieve their ends. Human law tells us the necessary consequences of certain actions, just as divine providence provides God’s necessary responses to certain actions; but, outside of such necessities, both provide for freedom. Positive law has no ability to judge the wicked if their deeds do not fall under its normal sphere of condemnations; nonetheless, positive law allows us to understand why the wicked can be and will be given some freedom under the tutelage of divine providence. It shows us a kind of necessity, allowing us, once again, to understand how and why divine providence leads to a necessary conclusion, even if we do not understand and comprehend all the laws established by divine providence and how they are used to achieve such an end. Divine providence has a greater picture to deal with (the whole of creation), and a different end to establish (the eschaton) than positive human law, but the similarity between the two allows us to understand, in a very limited way, why divine providence can allow all kinds of wickedness; it is for the basis of freedom. The outcome of such freedom is established by providence, even if what it attempts fails to be achieved by positive law. God knows what will happen, but he doesn’t force it to happen. Providence is what God does as a result of such foreknowledge combined with his willingness to give us free will.

 

When trying to determine whether or not Anthony cold have written these words down, we must remember the question of providence and theodicy is an issue consistently addressed in Christian theology and spirituality. What we have here is a very bare answer to the question, and yet, it does seem to relate to the way Athanasius saw Anthony dealing with providence:

For our life is naturally uncertain, and Providence allots it to us daily. But thus ordering our daily life, we shall neither fall into sin, nor have a lust for anything, nor cherish wrath against any, nor shall we heap up treasure upon earth. But, as though under the daily expectation of death, we shall be without wealth, and shall forgive all things to all men, nor shall we retain at all the desire of women or of any other foul pleasure. But we shall turn from it as past and gone, ever striving and looking forward to the day of Judgment. For the greater dread and danger of torment ever destroys the ease of pleasure, and sets up the soul if it is like to fall.[5]

Here, we find a similar sentiment with our root text. Providence provides for and establishes the day. Providence establishes what happens and allows for daily existence, but in the end, it is the final judgment which counts. This is how our text deals with the prosperity of the wicked; if they remain among the wicked, they will be judged and condemned. Providence, in allowing for and creating the daily conditions for life, does not remove the final judgment, but rather, adds to it. We should, therefore, not look at how people face the day, each and every day, but upon how they will find their eternal existence. We might be confused as to why God’s providence allow the wicked to flourish, but in eternity, wickedness will be judged, and those who hold onto such wickedness will be judged accordingly. While we have words about Anthony here, it is also clear, Athanasius portrays Anthony as believing in providence and showing that it upheld and directed creation, as when Athnasius quoted Anthony saying:

We Christians therefore hold the mystery not in the wisdom of Greek arguments, but in the power of faith richly supplied to us by God through Jesus Christ. And to show that this statement is true, behold now, without having learned letters, we believe in God, knowing through His works His providence over all things.[6]

Though we find a treatment of providence connected to Anthony via Athanasius, we do not see a focus on it in other writings about or by Anthony. As such, we have a limited basis for our discernment here. It seems to work with what we know a Christian, asking questions about providence, would say, and it complements Athanasius’ biography of Anthony, but we cannot y tell more than this. The end result here must be inconclusive; we might have an Anthonite source for our root text, but it doesn’t have to be.


[1] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 347 (#120).

[2] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 347 (#121).

[3] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 347 (#121).

[4] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 347 (#121).

[5] Athanasius,  Life of Antony, 201.

[6] Athanasius, Life of Antony, 216.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Catholic
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Mark Gordon

    Brilliant, Henry. I particularly liked this: “But when we suffer persecution from those we consider to be wicked, we are given the opportunity to be tested, to show whether or not we have ourselves come on the side of God and love, or if we still need conversion of heart.”

    How difficult it is to pass that test, especially since only a perfect score counts! I can say I have never passed even once, but I’m getting better, thanks be to God.

    • Thanks; yes, I fail there – I know I fail for many reasons… but I also know what I and others should strive for and that some saints do reach that stage!