Dear Catholic Exchange,
I've got a question that has been gnawing at me for a long time and I'm always frustrated when I can't defend myself against questioners. What is the exact scope of God's will over our lives? That is obviously a broad question, so let me give context. I am a 21 year old college student and one of my friends was just killed in a car crash. He was just about the best person I knew and some people chalked it up as "God's will". But it seems that people only attribute "God's will" to bad things that happen to good people. I have had philosophy professors say that if God is all-knowing He would have prevented bad things from occurring. If He did not prevent it and knew someone would die, He is malevolent. If He could not stop it, He is not all powerful. If He didn't know, He would obviously not be omniscient. As all good, I cannot believe God would will my friend to get killed, but that leaves me in a bit of a theological quandry, right? Is God not "in control"? I get more and more confused every time I think about this. Please help!
Peace in Christ!
Perhaps a distinction will be helpful in understanding God's will.
The ordaining will of God is also known as the "active" will of God, i.e., God's plan for the whole of creation as well as each individual. God desires only our good and thus our human perfection. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church provides, "The ultimate purpose of creation is that God ‘who is the creator of all things may at last become ‘all in all,' thus simultaneously assuring his own glory and our beatitude'" (no. 294; cf. nos. 290-96).
The permissive will of God refers to that which God allows to happen. For example, God allows sinful behavior, even though He does not desire it. Why does God allow sin? God truly loves us and love necessarily implies freedom. God lovingly allows us to freely choose or reject His will for our lives. When man rejects God's will, he freely sins. God permits such sin, as a consequence of the freedom He gave man, but He would never ordain such sin. The Catechism addresses the issue of God's permissive will succinctly:
"Angels and men, as intelligent and free creatures, have to journey toward their ultimate destinies by their free choice and preferential love. They can therefore go astray. Indeed, they have sinned. Thus has moral evil, incommensurably more harmful than physical evil, entered the world. God is in no way, directly or indirectly, the cause of moral evil. He permits it, however, because he respects the freedom of his creatures and, mysteriously, knows how to derive good from it:
"For almighty God. . . , because he is supremely good, would never allow any evil whatsoever to exist in his works if he were not so all-powerful and good as to cause good to emerge from evil itself (no. 311).
Why bad things happen to good people is a fundamental question everyone should revisit on occasion. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, warning against easy answers, provides a beginning:
"If God the Father almighty, the Creator of the ordered and good world, cares for all his creatures, why does evil exist? To this question, as pressing as it is unavoidable and as painful as it is mysterious, no quick answer will suffice. Only Christian faith as a whole constitutes the answer to this question: the goodness of creation, the drama of sin and the patient love of God who comes to meet man by his covenants, the redemptive Incarnation of his Son, his gift of the Spirit, his gathering of the Church, the power of the sacraments and his call to a blessed life to which free creatures are invited to consent in advance, but from which, by a terrible mystery, they can also turn away in advance. There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil." (no. 309).
Ultimately, the suffering of the innocent must be accepted as a mystery, not the consequence of their sin. For further explanation, please see our FAITH FACT Human Suffering: Why Does God Permit It?
United in the Faith,
Director of Catholic Responses
Catholics United for the Faith
827 North Fourth Street
Steubenville, OH 43952