Today is Thanksgiving Day (in the United States), a day set aside for us all to remember the things in life we are grateful for. Fortunately, Nicole and I started the process of gratitude earlier this week when we finished writing and mailing our thank-you notes for the useful and beautiful presents we got by agreeing to spend the rest of our lives together.
All of us have been supported by other people in many ways, or we would not be alive. All of us should be grateful more often for those things. Those of us who believe in God have the privilege of also having someone to thank for the blessings of life that don't come from other human beings, such as the sun and moon, stars and trees, happy coincidences, good health and harvests, etc. Even when the good things come from other people, we can still accept it as ultimately coming from the hand of God, who has, after all, provided those other people with the ability and conscience to help us.
But what about when bad things happen? Is it consistent to attribute everything good that happens to God, but then turn around and say that God has no responsibility for any of the bad things that happen? Should we blame God for the bad as we praise him for the good? If religious folk thank God even for the indirect results of God's providence, that are mediated through human choices, why should we not take the same attitude for bad things caused indirectly by God?
Some people say: God does not cause evil, he only permits it. This idea can be comforting to those who have suffered greatly, because then they don't have to deal with resentment towards a God who inflicts suffering as well as joy. Others may find this a pedantic distinction, saying that God is equally responsible for the evils he permits.
The Bible, on the other hand, doesn't seem to refrain from attributing sorrowful events to God:
When disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it? (Amos 3:6)
When the evil comes from other people, this is in one sense a violation of God's will, who has most definitely commanded us to love our neighbors (Lev. 19:18), strangers (Lev. 19:34), and enemies (Ex. 23:4-5, Prov. 24:17-18, 25:21), and who has set a day of judgement in which wrongdoers will be punished. When a woman is raped, this horrible crime arises not because God approves of rape, but because God allows the will of wicked men to affect other people.
Nevertheless, God does allow it, and the Bible is not shy about describing such things as being (in another sense) God's decision and will. When the righteous St. Job loses everything, including his children, to a combination of "natural" disasters and bandit attacks, what does he do?
At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
may the name of the Lord be praised.”
In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing. (Job 1:20-22)
Job attributes the disaster to God's "taking away", but he does not blame God by charging him with "wrongdoing". What gives? How is it possible for God to do something evil without being evil? The key is what the patriarch St. Joseph says to his brothers, when he forgives them after they had sold him into slavery:
“Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20)
One and the same act can be both evil and good, depending on whose intentions we consider. The selling of Joseph into slavery is evil as done by his brothers, because they intended to harm him. It is good as done by God, because God's intentions were different: God did it in order to save lives. (I am not trying to make any comment about free will here; presumably if Joseph's brothers had freely chosen not to sell him into slavery, then God would also have chosen something different.) Thus God can condemn what people do, while simultaneously using it for his good plan.
That must be why, after the Apostles were flogged for teaching about Jesus, they were
The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. (Acts 5:41)
Why on earth did they take this attitude? St. Paul explains it like this:
We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. (Romans 5:3-5)
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
The idea that God does not cause bad things to happen is a superficial teaching. It evades the cross and forgets the gospel message that we are to rejoice and thank God for everything that happens to us. That is why St. James tells us to
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.(James 1:2-4)
But perhaps James was just copying his brother's idea:
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt. 5:11-12)
In conclusion, it doesn't make any sense to thank God for the good things in life and absolve him for the bad things. No, we should also credit the bad things to God, and give thanks for them as well. Not because the evil is imaginary, but because he intends to use it to build us up into more loving people, for the sake of the salvation of the world.
But perhaps your last year was actually quite pleasant, as mine was. In that case, let's not forget to thank him for the obvious blessings as well.