Sunday, March 1, 2009

Opposition: A Necessary Evil

First off, I'm sorry I missed last week. I've been pretty consistent for the past couple months, putting up a new post each Sunday. But last weekend I was in Oregon at a professional fiction writers' workshop and didn't manage to post, as I was traveling that day. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming . . .

The subject of "why bad things happen" came up twice in the past week with two different people I know. It was basically framed as a semi-rhetorical question by the people with whom I was speaking: "How can God exist, all powerful, all knowing, and all loving, yet allow bad things to happen to good people, to allow awful things to happen to children, to allow suffering and misery and war and pain and death and loss to exist in the world? How can it be?" The question was used as an explanation for why those particular individuals cannot bring themselves to believe in God.

The seemingly irreconcilable paradox has left many people, including these people I know, to draw the only conclusion that seems logical to them: that there is no God, or at least not one who cares.

I'm here to set the record straight on this topic - to point out the fallacy that keeps these good people locked into a state of faithlessness. I will provide an explanation that transcends the skepticism of these folks. I don't fault these good people who have lost their faith over this issue - it can be a tough one to get your head around, and it is born out of a good heart that has love and compassion for people and difficulty understanding how it all can work this way.

Hopefully my words can help put it all in perspective and describe how there is no other way that life could function. Hopefully I can explain that without the misery, there could be no joy. That without the freedom to do evil, we could do no good. That the purpose of life, and the whole Plan of Salvation would be frustrated and come to naught - if not for opposition.

Let's start at the beginning . . .

Whether you believe in God or not, it cannot be disputed that human beings have what we call “agency.” Agency is freedom of choice – the ability to decide for yourself how to think, feel, believe, and act. This is a gift from God from before we ever came to earth, and it is immutable – no matter what your circumstance, you always have your agency – He will never take it away from you. Before the earth was created, when Satan rebelled and was cast out, he wanted to take away man’s agency – to force everyone to follow his plan. This is the very definition of evil – to try to take away man’s agency (addictions, for example). Thus, we will always have it, no matter what. Even if bound with chains and thrown into a dungeon, your liberty taken away – you still have the freedom to choose how you will deal with the situation – how you will think and feel and behave. All humans have agency, and God will never take that away – it is an eternal principle.

For an excellent study of the power of agency, see Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, a book in which he relates his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps during the holocaust, and how he observed different people using their agency in different ways, for better or worse, despite the awful conditions. A very interesting (and short) read.

Using their agency, people have the freedom to choose to do good. They can choose to be kind and charitable or to be cruel and selfish. They can choose to repent of their wrongdoing, or to continue in the ways of sin. Making these choices is how we progress in this life – how we approach our tests and prove ourselves, how we decide where and how we want to spend eternity.

Along with agency, there is the principle of opposition. We could never choose good over evil if there was no evil. We could never know joy and happiness if there was no sadness or misery. We could never learn and grow if we couldn’t make a choice between good and bad. And if we never chose bad, we’d never learn the value of choosing good, and we’d never be able to learn how to humble ourselves, repent, and avail ourselves of the Atonement - receiving grace, mercy and forgiveness. Likewise, if nobody else chose wrong, never hurt us or offended us, we would never have the chance to learn how to be Christlike – to forgive others. How can we learn to be like our Father in Heaven and Jesus Christ if we never have an opportunity to act like them?

Thus, without evil and sin and pain and victims and suffering, our life on earth would be pointless. We could never improve ourselves, never come closer to God, and never experience real joy. It would be like walking around with a lobotomy – we’d feel nothing, but we wouldn’t care. Life would simply be a period of time during which your body functioned, then it would end when your body ceased to function, and there would be no exaltation afterwards.

Eternal Perspective
When you combine the eternal principle of agency with the necessity of opposition, you get the world in which we live: filled with the good, the bad, and the ugly.

But rest assured: when the righteous suffer, when the innocent are hurt, God has promised that they will receive recompense beyond our imaginations. God is just and fair and kind and loving. He is perfect, and He loves all of His children. The rewards that await the good are far beyond anything available in this life. Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin referred to this as the principle of compensation:

"While it may not come at the time we desire,
the faithful will know that every tear today will
eventually be returned a hundredfold with tears
of rejoicing and gratitude."

Every experience we have, and the way in which we choose to deal with it, has a consequence in this life and in the next. One must maintain an eternal perspective to remain patient and peaceful in the face of adversity, and when considering the fates of others.

Is it hard for we mere mortals to keep an eternal perspective in mind? Is it a struggle to put everything in the context of a reality that is beyond our own comprehension? Sure it is. That’s one of the challenges of mortality. It takes a tremendous amount of faith.

But it can certainly be done. I know of parents who have lost their children, but maintained their faith. I have myself been through very painful times, but maintained my faith – and came out all the better and all the stronger for it. It’s why we’re here.

President James E. Faust gave a wonderful talk on this subject in 2004. It's hard to pull a single quote from it, as the whole thing is so good. Read it here.

I feel somehow that I have failed to do justice to this topic tonight. I will probably need to amend this with a quote that I want to find - but it is really late and I must go to sleep. Hopefully this will at least provide some food for thought.

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