(The American Catholic will observe its tenth anniversary in October. We will be reposting some classic TAC posts of the past. This post is from October 13, 2010. The above video is a new addition to the post.)
My co-blogger Paul Zummo’s post here on When God Says No caused me to think again of a theme that has alway intrigued me: the problem of God allowing terrible things to happen to innocent people. Endless words have been written on this subject, but I have always found moving the thought process of Abraham Lincoln as he addressed this complex subject.
The American Civil War has become such a part of American folk-lore, and so romanticized by reenactments, films, movies, etc, that we sometimes risk losing sight of just how dreadful it was. The death toll in the war would be the equivalent of us losing some six million killed in a war today and some ten million wounded, many of those maimed for life. One quarter of the nation was devastated, a huge war debt had to be repaid and regional hatreds created that only time would heal. Americans tend to be optimists and to view themselves as blessed by God. How had this dreadful calamity come upon the nation was the cry from millions of Americans at the time.
Lincoln also asked this question. In 1862 he and his wife had suffered the death of their 11 year old son Willie on February 20, 1862. This was the second son that the Lincolns had lost and the death of Willie left Lincoln and his wife shattered with grief , almost sending Mary over the brink into madness. The war was going badly for the Union, with many defeats, endless casualties and no end in sight. No wonder that Lincoln began to think hard about why God was allowing these terrible events to occur.
In September of 1862 Lincoln sat down and wrote this note. It was not intended for publication, but was rather simply Lincoln thinking out loud and writing down his thoughts.
The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party — and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true — that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.
Note the humility with which Lincoln approaches the question of the will of God. In a contest in which he is heart and soul for the Union, he considers it quite possible that God is using the war for purposes that are different from what either the Union or Confederacy is striving for. Lincoln believes that it is likely that God wills the war and wills that it not end yet for purposes known only to Him.
In his Second Inaugural Lincoln returns powerfully to this subject:
Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.
It is striking that addressing the entire nation as the Civil War was winding down, Lincoln did not simply say that the Union was on God’s side, but that rather God had His own purposes.
If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Lincoln views the war as God’s punishment on America for slavery, and I agree with him, but the careful reader will note that this passage rests on a supposition by Lincoln rather than him stating it as a fact. The ways of God are too inscrutable for him to state the purposes of God as an established fact.
In the face of great tragedy and sorrow, national or private, it is always good to recall in our grief the phrase of Lincoln: The Almighty Has His Own Purposes. Ours is to love and serve God as best we can, and not to seek to ferret out with our weak human intellects why God sometimes says no to our prayers and allows terrible things to happen to innocent people. We can take consolation in the belief of Lincoln and the Angelic Doctor, Saint Thomas Aquinas, that the will of God prevails:
I answer that, The will of God must needs always be fulfilled. In proof of which we must consider that since an effect is conformed to the agent according to its form, the rule is the same with active causes as with formal causes. The rule in forms is this: that although a thing may fall short of any particular form, it cannot fall short of the universal form. For though a thing may fail to be, for example, a man or a living being, yet it cannot fail to be a being. Hence the same must happen in active causes. Something may fall outside the order of any particular active cause, but not outside the order of the universal cause; under which all particular causes are included: and if any particular cause fails of its effect, this is because of the hindrance of some other particular cause, which is included in the order of the universal cause. Therefore an effect cannot possibly escape the order of the universal cause. Even in corporeal things this is clearly seen. For it may happen that a star is hindered from producing its effects; yet whatever effect does result, in corporeal things, from this hindrance of a corporeal cause, must be referred through intermediate causes to the universal influence of the first heaven. Since, then, the will of God is the universal cause of all things, it is impossible that the divine will should not produce its effect. Hence that which seems to depart from the divine will in one order, returns into it in another order; as does the sinner, who by sin falls away from the divine will as much as lies in him, yet falls back into the order of that will, when by its justice he is punished.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church sums up our hope in the face of innocent human suffering:
275 With Job, the just man, we confess: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2).