by St. John of Tobolsk
Since neither the devil, nor any person can do evil to another without God’s allowance of it, let us examine the following: what God allows, how He allows it, and for what reason does this allowance come about?
We must differentiate between two kinds of allowed evils. The first kind of evil, comprising various misfortunes, burdens, illnesses, insults or dishonor (impoverishment, imprisonment, banishment, exile), death – all of this cannot even be called evil in the strict sense of the word, but only a bitter medicine sent to us by God for our spiritual healing. The second kind of evil, in the exact meaning of the word, is represented by our sins, our transgression of God’s commandments. God allows the first kind of evil in accordance with His wishes, or to punish the wicked, or as a means of rectification for faithful sons and daughters. Concerning the second kind of evil, i.e. sins, one cannot say that God wishes them to be committed, but only tolerates them. Everything that really exists in the world, is present in it by the wish and word of God, by Whose will “all things were made, and without Him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3).
Sin, however, is not something real, but only an illusory antithesis to genuine being. Sin exists as a result of the imperfection, deceit, and guile of the rational and free, but insubordinate beings created by God; for this reason sin originally occurred and continues to occur against the will of God and not from God, yet by His tolerance. The reason for the tolerance of sin is hidden for the time being within the mystery of God’s absolute and perfect rule over the world, or His Providence. God has absolute knowledge of the future, and He can easily not allow the occurrence of the sinning that is abominable to Him, but He tolerates it in order to produce good out of evil and justice out of injustice for the sake of teaching and rectifying people, so that they would see the consequences of sin both for the sinner and for those around him, and for society. This is what distinguishes God’s tolerance from human tolerance, which cannot by human means avert and curtail evil in its inception, even though the committing of it would be undesirable. On the contrary, in God we see both His power to prevent or curtail the execution of an evil intent, and at the same time we see His will, allowing one or another evil to be committed. This raises the following question: why does God wish to tolerate the committing of sin, or what is God’s motivation in allowing people to sin?
God’s infinite goodness would never have allowed such iniquities to exist on earth, were it not able to produce the greatest good from them and turn into salvation all that had been done with evil intent. God allowed the escalation of brotherly envy against the innocent Joseph, but allowed it for what good reason? – was it not to deliver from a death from hunger not only his parents, brothers, and relatives, but all of Egypt? God allowed the iniquitous Saul to continuously offend the meek David, but was it not for the benefit of David himself, whose descendant was Christ our Saviour? God allowed the unjustly accused prophet Daniel to be thrown into a den with frenzied lions, but for what? – in order to raise him and his friends to the pinnacle of glory and grandeur. But why should I speak of numerous instances in Old Testament history, when by God’s tolerance the envious high priests, Pharisees, and Jewish elders presented for crucifixion the Only-begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ, and this tolerance turned into salvation for all mankind. Thus, out of each instance of tolerance arise and become revealed to us the greatest riches of God’s glory and His benevolence to each individual and all mankind. Each instance reveals to us God’s goodness and mercy, His munificence, omnipotence, and majesty, His foresight and Providence. In each instance His supreme wisdom and truth enlighten us in ways unknown to us, and thus encourage many attentive people to return to the path of virtue and to multiply their laborious yet glorious spiritual feats. O, how wondrously and majestically does Divine Providence reveal itself in its daily tolerance! It is not difficult to produce good from good, but to turn evil into good is quite amazing. There is a saying that “anyone can be a helmsman on a calm sea.”
It is not such a great matter to direct the ship towards harbor when the wind is favorable, the ship is strong, the sea is calm, the sailors know their business, and the harbor is already in view. But it is quite a different matter when a storm stirs up the sea, the ship is damaged, the waves pour noisily onto the deck and inside the ship, or when the night is dark and nothing can be seen, pirates surround the ship, the crew is small and poorly armed, and in spite of all, the captain has the ship under such masterful command, that he escapes danger without any damage – that is truly amazing, and in this case the actions of the ship’s captain have shown his wisdom and his ability to steer the ship. We see a similar situation in God’s rule over the world: some things which are allowed by God’s will and which seem to us not to lead to any good, God brings to the best possible end through His indescribable wisdom and truth. By tolerating illicit actions and harmful adventures, God sometimes turns malefactors into His honorable friends.
By God’s Providence, which directs everything towards the best possible end, wicked intents against a person are often turned to the latter’s advantage; the attacks and insults made against someone often increase his inner strength. The evildoers’ greatest iniquities confirm many people in righteousness and virtue, and save them from perdition. Many people already seem to be completely immersed in the abyss of perdition, yet in reality it turns out that this is their way to salvation.
For Joseph his fetters and imprisonment served as a precursor to honors and the greatest glory; his brothers’ envy brought him greater benefit than the goodwill of the entire world; Saul’s malice procured for David the royal crown; the lions’ den led Daniel to greater glory and honor than that of earthly kings; from the cross Christ, together with the repentant thief, went straight into heaven, while from the Mount of Olives He ascended into heaven and sat on the right hand of God the Father.
In God’s allowance both good and evil wills work for God, and no matter their original intent, in the final analysis everything works towards the attainment of the best possible goals.
In truth, the saints ascribed everything that came upon them in life, both pleasant and unpleasant, to the will and action of God, because they did not pay attention to the sins of others, but evaluated all human actions as either a gift from God or as having been allowed by God for their own sins. The saints reasoned thusly: the all-benevolent God would never have allowed anything evil, if He did not know that from this evil He would produce a multitude of great blessings.
The blessed Augustine expressed the same idea:
“God acknowledged it more profitable to turn evil into good than not to allow it at all, because, being all-benevolent, He would never have allowed evil in His acts, were He not so omnipotent and good as to be able to turn evil into a blessing.”
And again, Theophylus rightly says:
“God incomprehensibly interferes in our errors and our sins not in order to participate in them, but, despising them and correcting them, God produces much good out of evil, just as though He were turning fire into water.”
In another homily he says:
“All those who insult us in some manner or other combine two persons within themselves, one acting consciously, the other unconsciously. Firstly, each such person, out of malice towards us, wishes to act against us with hostility, with the intent to insult us, deprive us of our property, etc., although he is not always necessarily successful in his intent; but in case of success, through God’s allowance he unconsciously becomes a second person who is now acting as a tool in God’s hands, punishing or rectifying our conduct, and thus he unconsciously serves God.”
Such unconscious servants of God were the following historically famous people: Nebuchadnezzar, Attila, leader of the Huns, Totila, king of the Italian Ostrogoths, Tamerlan, and other scourges of God.
Dear brother Christian, allow me to ask you who so often rends heaven with your sorrowful complaints. Tell me: what insults you the most – the will and intent of the offender, or only his power, his ability to realize the insult, or both one and the other? You answer: “I am offended by both the one and the other.” In response to this I will tell you that neither offensive will, nor the execution of it (power) can insult you: offensive intent (will) is nothing without the power and does not harm you in any way, while the execution of the intent depends on the allowance or the will of God, which is holy and just. You know that all power is from God, – so why do you sorrow and complain about the offender for having done to you only that which was allowed him by God? Otherwise, without God’s allowance, he could not have offended you. You will say: “My adversary has offended me greatly.” – “Tell me – in what way? – for God is either punishing you for your sins, or teaching you patience, or multiplying your reward for being an innocent victim, – and yet you consider yourself offended?” – “I hate this malicious person and his evil will,” – you say. – “But you always pay attention to other people’s actions, while I advise you to rather raise your eyes towards God and your conscience. Human will, even though it is evil and wicked, what could it do to you? in what lies its success? You do not regret the fact that your adversary wished to harm you as much as the fact that he did harm you. From whence did this come and how could he harm you? Was it not by the power and will of God? And if it was by the power and will of God, then it was always in accordance with just and righteous Providence. Consequently, either you keep quiet or turn your complaints toward Divine Providence, – and at this point bear firmly in mind that God would never allow the evil will of another to harm you in any way that would not be to your benefit, unless you harm yourself.”
And who can harm us if we engage only in good things? Blessed Augustine has put it very well: “Do not fear the enemy: he is able to harm you only to the extent of the power given to him by God. Fear rather the One Who is able to do whatever He wants, and Who never does anything unjust, but whatever He does is always just; and should anything, in our opinion, seem unjust, if it undoubtedly occurred by the will of God, we must believe that it is just and true.” You may ask: “If someone killed an innocent person, is that just or unjust?” – “There is no doubt that it is unjust and deserves punishment.” – “Then why, – you will ask, – “has God allowed such injustice?” – “You wish to argue with God before you have become worthy to ask God: for what reason, O God, hast Thou allowed this? – I am unable, dear brother, to explain to you God’s intentions or the reasons for His allowance, because God’s Wisdom is too infinite for the human mind, but I can only assert that, on the one hand, the murderer of the innocent man has acted unjustly, and on the other hand, this murder would not have occurred had God not allowed it for a reason that is unknown to us, but just. In other words, the murderer committed an iniquitous act, deserving punishment, but God’s allowance is just and wise, for a just reason that is concealed from us for the time being.”
In the same manner blessed Augustine regards the putting to death of Christ our Saviour. “Judas, that iniquitous betrayer of Christ, – says Augustine, – and all Christ’s persecutors are all lawless, all iniquitous, all unjust, all damned; however, the Father did not spare His Son, but gave Him up (allowed Him to be put to death) for the salvation of us all.” Such is the mystic reason for God’s allowance of His Only-begotten Son’s being put to death by malefactors, – a reason that was incomprehensible at the time. Thus do not be surprised that God allows evil. He allows it according to His most-just judgment, and allows it only to a certain measure, number, and weight. There is no injustice in Him, and you only have to put your entire trust in Him.
There is only one sure means of calming oneself when being offended: if someone has insulted or offended you, do not pay attention to the offender’s malice, but turn to the righteous God Who has allowed your adversary to insult you, and do not avenge with evil the evil that has been done to you, for it has been allowed by God for the attainment of good and just aims, even though they are unknown to you for the time being. All of God’s saints kept to this custom: they did not try to analyze who had offended them and for what, but always turned their hearts to God, humbly acknowledging the justice of God’s allowance; for this reason they regarded the offenses given them as a boon for themselves, and their adversaries as benefactors, saying: “here are our true benefactors, for they do not flatter us; those who praise and exalt us to our face are flatterers and damage our inner perfection.“” Thus the saints always inwardly turned to God and in all matters placed their trust in God’s Providence and expected only good things from God.
On the other hand, one can see from all of the above that the sin committed against one’s neighbor by God’s allowance does not yet merit any mitigation of the sinner’s guilt only because his unlawful action gave God cause to produce great good out of evil. For the sinner had only given cause for good, and not of his own accord, but by the grace of God; the sinner’s intent was still evil and remains evil. Thus even the good that God produces from the commission of evil does not in any way mitigate the guilt of the sinner.