Rev. Wilma Wake
“There are no ‘laws of permission’ that are simply that, or that are separate from the laws of divine providence. They are the same thing; so saying that God allows something to happen does not mean that he wants it to happen but that he cannot prevent it because of his goal, which is our salvation. Whatever happens for the sake of this goal, our salvation, is in accord with the laws of divine providence, since divine providence is always moving away from and contrary to our own intentions. It is constantly focused on its goal; so at every moment of its work, at every single step of its course, when it notices that we are straying from that goal it leads and turns and adapts us in accord with its laws, leading us away from evil and toward good […]. This cannot be accomplished without allowing bad things to happen.” -Divine Providence § 234*
How does God allow people to get away with atrocious acts that impact so many innocent lives?
There are, of course, theological answers to these questions. Through the years, I’ve valued the little book by Rabbi Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. It came out in 1981; Kushner sharing the tragedy of his three-year-old son dying of a degenerative disease. People tried to reassure him that “it was God’s will.” But the Rabbi found that to be an appalling theology. He could not accept a God who would take a young life for some Divine purpose. He came to see God as suffering with us in the realities of earthly life – not choosing to send us suffering. I was in seminary when the book was first out; I remember thinking that honest emotional approach to God made more sense than a lot of things we were learning in “pastoral care” about comforting the grieving. Later I found Swedenborg, and felt that he had a theology to help us understand God’s role in terms of “free will.”
I wished for a book like Kushner’s but within Swedenborgian theology. My wish was granted! In 2010 the Swedenborg Foundation released a book, Why Does God Let It Happen? by Bruce Henderson. This award-winning book incorporates many of the insights of When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Henderson’s book, however, is written from a specifically Swedenborgian perspective. It is hard to understand why God allows tragedy.
“Without the freedom to make mistakes that may lead to suffering in our own lives and the lives of others, we would be reduced to automatons. The same principle works on a spiritual level. If God were to meddle in our lives and change the course of history to preserve our own narrow sense of order and justice, where would he stop? God cannot pick and choose. His laws—and his love—must be absolute and consistent.”**
When I was a student at the Swedenborg School of Religion, one of my professors was the Swedenborgian scholar Rev. Dr. Robert Kirven. He wrote:
“Evil includes everything that flows from the hells, or comes about under hellish influences. Murder is evil, but the desire for murder; the intention to commit murder … is sin. […] Swedenborg sees the basic, minimal freedom of choice as absolute, irreducible, and unbridgeable.”***
Understanding Swedenborg’s concept of free will can help us cope with tragedy:
“We can wonder, with Rabbi Kushner, why “the wrong people” get sick or hurt, or die young. We can agonize with him over the “deep, aching sense of unfairness” over his son’s terminal disease. As people who are trying to do what is right in God’s sight—living a religiously committed life—we would be tempted to ask the same question: If God truly is loving and fair, “How could he do this to me?” And not only how could he do this to “good parents,” but how could he do this to an innocent, three-year-old child? …”
Rabbi Kushner has articulated the questions so well for so many people. He understands that God does not cause the bad things that happen to us, and that God does not sit on his throne, determining which of us will suffer misfortunes and which will be spared. But he does stand always ready to help, comfort, and lead. “The God I believe in,” Kushner wrote, “does not send us the problem; he gives us the strength to cope with the problem.”****
So, what can we take from Swedenborg in times of great tragedy– personally or in our society? When we suffer, God suffers with us. Evil is not God’s will; freedom of choice is God’s will, since that is the only way we can grow into union with the Divine. In times of tragedy, it does not help to blame God for causing it. But it does help to support others in their suffering. It helps to reach out for others in our own pain. We were created to be social beings, in relationships with others.
I see God not in the actions of a shooter, but in the compassionate actions of those in the crowd. Some gave their lives to save another life – by standing between a person and the bullet. Others focused on helping people find their way to a safe place… THAT is God. That is God guiding us through Love and Wisdom to take action in the world, to help us towards the New Jerusalem. Ultimately, the healing journey for all of us is through our loving actions and caring relationships. To Swedenborg, faith could not exist apart from the good deeds we do for others.
Swedenborg tells us that tragedy is never God’s will. But we are not helpless victims in a world of random violence. Ultimately, the healing journey of love and justice is through our actions and relationships. Central to Swedenborg is that we can experience the Divine through our relationships with each other. Every loving action moves us closer to the New Jerusalem where we live in peace guided by God’s will. God does have a will for all of us, that we love each other as God loves us and that we support each other through life’s journey. Anything else is NOT God’s will.
*Swedenborg, Emanuel. Divine Providence. Translated by George F. Dole. New Century Edition. West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2010.
**Henderson, Bruce. Why Does God Let it Happen? West Chester. Chrysalis Books, 2010.
***Kirven, Robert: A Concise Overview of Swedenborg’s Theology. Newtown. J. Appleseed & CO. 2003
****Kushner, Harold: When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Archer. 2004