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Quaker Thought & History

Health and the Will of God

By Edward Grubb


Health and the Will of God

Is pain and illness always contrary to the will of God, or is it sent (or permitted) in order that a greater good may through it be achieved than would be possible without it? This is by no means a merely speculative question; it is a very practical one for all believers in God who are faced with pain and trouble, in their own lives or in the lives of others. If we assume that the highest good for man is complete dedication to the will of God, it is essential that he should have some light on what the will of God is — what conditions are in accord with it and what are not. The modern movements towards "spiritual healing" mostly involve the assumption that the Divine purpose is that we should be always in perfect health of soul and mind and body; if we are uncertain about this, we cannot with full confidence lay hold of the healing power of God.

The question is, of course, one aspect of the problem of Evil in the world, a problem which faces any theistic interpretation of the universe; as indeed it faces anyone who believes that the world is constituted on rational lines — that it has some meaning and purpose which we can (even if dimly) discern. And, so far as I know, it has always defied and still defies the attempt to solve it intellectually. Recognizing the probable futility of such attempts, we yet are driven to wrestle with the problem as best we may, and if partial light comes to any of us we may do well to share it.

Of moral evil, or Sin, the Christian is (I take it), whatever some Calvinists may have held, bound to say unequivocally that it is wholly outside the Divine will: it is a partial thwarting of God's purpose; it is what ought not to be and ought never to have been. It is what has turned the harmony for which the world was made into a discord that horrifies us just in proportion as our inward ears are sensitive to the Divine music. But the case seems less clear with physical evil like pain and disease. The roots of this lie very deep indeed in the constitution of the world: disease itself is now believed to be mainly caused by micro-organisms which, to all appearances, are simply living out their own life in the bodies of the plants or animals they infest. A great doctor, reminded by the friend of a patient of "the healing power of Nature," once replied, "Nature? Why, she's trying to put him in his coffin." This was certainly a one-sided statement, for even Nature provides the "phagocytes" in the blood which wage war upon the germs of disease; we can hardly discover, by mere observation of Nature, a uniform or consistent purpose, whether bad or good. And, even in the case of moral evil, its roots lie so far back that it often seems to be an essential part of the constitution of the universe. Watch the conflict in any hedgerow, where innumerable plants of many kinds are struggling with one another for light and air. Or, still more pertinently, the "parasitic" habit by which many plants and animals maintain their own life at the expense of others.

"Nature," as Tennyson wrote, "lends evil dreams." And, the more we ponder, the more it seems, at times, as though the God of redeeming love revealed by Jesus Christ was at some sort of strife with Himself as the Creative Power in Nature. The God of Nature seems to be responsible for the evil of the world as well as for the good — unless, like the Manichaeans, we try to trace the former to a rival diabolic agency; and even then the roots of good and evil are so inextricably intertwined that we cannot separate them. H. G. Wells was so impressed with this that (in his book God the Invisible King) he refused the name of God to the "Veiled Being" concealed in Nature, and would use it only for the finite, struggling, redeeming power of love and goodness that he found revealed in man — to him no mere abstraction, but an unseen and personal Reality, closely akin to Him whom we Christians call the Living Christ.

An intellectual solution to this puzzle appears, as already said, to be wholly out of our reach. If we ask for the verdict of man's religious experience, the answer is I believe that it requires both conceptions of God — of God as the infinite creative and sustaining power of the universe, and of God as struggling with evil and overcoming it. God, as W. E. Hocking says in his great book. The Meaning of God in Human Experience, has to be thought of for some purposes as Law and for other purposes as Person. And, in all the Christian centuries, it has been recognized by the great majority of thoughtful Christians that the idea of God involves some inner differentiation, that He cannot be adequately conceived as bare formal Unity. Directly Christians began to "confess Jesus Christ as Lord," they were compelled at the same time to recognize, as in the Fourth Gospel, that "My Father is greater than I." For Paul the One God included, without any violation of His unity, "One Lord, Jesus Christ." The simpler Sabellian view, which identified Christ with the one God, the Church ruled out as "heresy," and indeed it does not explain the facts. If, on the other hand, we try to think of two Divine wills, one of which includes evil and the other excludes it, this will not do either — it is pure irrational polytheism. What can be the nature of an inner differentiation which does not destroy the Divine unity, it is beyond our blurred vision even to guess; but a simile lately suggested by Dr. Albert Schweitzer is suggestive. Dr. Schweitzer writes thus:

"The God who is known through philosophy and the God whom I experience as Ethical Will do not coincide. They are one; but how they are one, I do not understand. . . Let me express it in a simile. There is an ocean — cold water without motion. In this ocean, however, is the Gulf Stream, hot water, flowing from the Equator towards the Pole. Inquire of all scientists how it is physically imaginable that a stream of hot water flows between the waters of the ocean, which, so to speak, form its banks, the moving within the motionless, the hot within the cold: no scientist can explain it. Similarly, there is the God of love within the forces of the universe — one with Him, and yet so totally different."1

We see how the consideration of a practical issue leads us direct into the profoundest mysteries of the universe, which we can in no way escape, and which some of us at least are bound to ponder. The practical question is. Are we to think of pain and evil as within the Divine purpose, or as wholly outside it and inimical to it? The Christian answer would seem to be that, if it is the one and only real God who is revealed in Christ, then the knowledge we have of God through Christ's revelation of the Father is a deeper truth than any we can learn by scientific observation of the world. And faith means that we cling to this revelation as representing the inner Reality of things, in spite of appearances. We hold out, "as seeing Him who is invisible." We shall not fatalistically resign ourselves to pain and trouble as inevitable and pre-determined by God for our good and the good of others. We may, indeed be thankful for many evidences that pain and sorrow can, if rightly taken, work out a greater good; of this the Cross of Christ is the supreme manifestation. But the paradox is that evil only works out a greater good if it is treated as evil, and therefore as contrary to the will of God — if it is struggled with, and in His strength overcome. If it is accepted in the spirit of fatalism, and not wrestled with, it appears to have no good results; we might even conclude that, if evil works good, the more there is of evil the better it will be.

The Christian attitude, then, for those who are faced with pain and illness, either in their own lives or in the lives of those they love, would seem to be to take the thought of God which has been brought to us by Jesus Christ as the deepest thought there is, in the faith that other seeming revelations of His nature will ultimately, though we may not see how, be reconciled with it. And therefore we shall believe that He is striving to overcome evil of every kind as Jesus overcame the physical and mental infirmities of His brethren; that His healing power is ever round about us, seeking entry into our lives, as it entered into the lives of those whom Jesus cured. But we shall also recognize that evil has so deeply entrenched itself in human life that even the Divine power cannot overcome it suddenly or all at once, and not without pain and sacrifice and the apparent loss of good; that our life is essentially a tragedy. That all evil is contrary to the Divine purpose, and will eventually be overcome, is the Christian's triumphant hope; but meanwhile we cannot get beyond the prayer of our Lord Himself: "If it be possible, let this cup pass away; nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt." The cup of death did not pass away, but, drunk with perfect love and self-sacrifice, it led on to the resurrection, and to the salvation of mankind.


From Quaker Thought and History: A Volume of Essays. By Edward Grubb, M.A. Published in 1925 by The MacMillan Company, New York.)

Notes and Links

 1  A. Schweitzer, Christianity and the Religions of the World, pp. 77-8.