The Problem of Evil and Some LDS Perspectives, Or, We Are All Statistics Till the Conflict Is Over

Shame and Anger: A Response to Small Miracles in a World of Big Pain and Evil

Saints and other Christians I know sometimes share faith-promoting
stories of how a prayer was answered or how they experienced a miracle
of some kind. These miracles are rarely the bigger and more dramatic
ones we would like to see, such as finding a cure to cancer or a way to heal Ebola.Yet these small miracles can be real and may
be received with gratitude from the recipient, for whom the miracle may
play an important role in strengthening faith or solving real problems.
The sharing of these miracles, however, often brings negative or even
hostile responses, typically draped in stinging sarcasm.

unto the person who shares a story of losing and finding their car
keys, after praying for help. Better that a millstone was attached to
those keys and they were tossed into the depths of the sea than to be
found with gratefully received divine help. Better that two millstones
were attached to a grateful believer’s lost kitten. And wo, wo, wo unto
any member, but especially any allegedly insensitive male church leader, who would
dare publicly recognize a kindness from God in finding a quarter to buy
some food when tired and hungry (see my discussion of Elder J. Devn Cornish’s story in my post, “Trivial Miracles and Petty Prayer: How the Accuser Teaches a Man Not to Pray“). Better that the purchased chicken
parts were cast into the sea along with the found quarter and the hungry
man himself, than to hint that God might miraculously help someone eat
while millions starve with no sign of divine aid. Those who dare give
public thanks for small miracles are likely to become “a hiss and
byword” or, as Deut. 28:37 warns (NIV), “You will become a thing of
horror, a byword and an object of ridicule among all the peoples,”
especially on the Bloggernacle, where some LDS thinkers are horrified
and appalled when others imply that God could be so callous as to care
about lost keys and kittens when there are big problems in a world where
terrorists rage, disease ravishes, and Congress is in session again.

the Web, believers soon become trained to be ashamed of God’s tender
little mercies, or even to become angry with those who express gratitude
for rare but possibly real encounters with God’s love through small
miracles. For a faith in which we are encouraged to recognize the hand
of God in all things (Doctrine & Covenants 59:21), this is
unfortunate, in my opinion. Others in the Church and beyond are free to disagree, but I’d like to share some of my thoughts on this issue and also on the complex problem of evil.

Bethlehem, Cana, and the Problem of Evil

story of Christ in the New Testament begins with His miraculous birth, a
small but important miracle for Christians that remains completely
unimpressive to skeptics since it surely looked like an ordinary
pregnancy and natural birth. That small miracle was accompanied with the
horrific massacre of infants in Bethlehem precipitated by Christ’s
arrival, thanks to the evil of one jealous king. The life of one infant
was spared with a warning from God given through a dream to a parent, a
classic small miracle with large consequences, while no timely warning
came for the rest as far as we know. We see that God was capable of
sparing those lives, but apparently chose not to. We are swiftly
introduced to the problem of evil in a world created by a loving God.

Messiah, whom we worship as the Creator of the world and Master of all,
came to earth as a mortal but also as Son of God. Three decades after
His miraculous birth, He began His formal ministry. His divine status
would be demonstrated with another miracle. If you could ask the Creator
for any miracle, what would be on your list? Perhaps the eradication of
cancer, malaria, or any of several dozen major diseases? Maybe the end
of warfare? The elimination of poverty? The freeing of all slaves? There
are so many big issues that our minds might turn to. So what did Christ
do for the first big miracle of His ministry? The spotlight turns to
tiny Cana and a wedding feast, where the Creator of Heaven and Earth
revealed His divine power with a miracle not much more grand than
helping someone find their lost keys: He alleviates a relatively trivial
beverage supply problem at the wedding party. This is Miracle One in
the ministry of the Messiah? Millions were struggling with poverty and
undoubtedly starvation in various parts of the globe, and certainly some
children were hungry and malnourished in the vicinity of Cana. People
were suffering with disease, captivity, and grief of all kinds, yet the
first miracle alleviated none of these problems even on a local scale.
In the opening pages of the New Testament, the problem of evil can
become, for some, a travesty of divine indifference with a God blind to
the big problems of the community and the world. The New Testament
begins with stories that we can easily ridicule as we question God’s
priorities and lack of sensitivity, just as we do with modern small
miracles involving car keys or the chance finding of a quarter by a
hungry medical student.

We Are All Statistics (Or, What Could Stop the Complaining?)

complaints about God’s apparent neglect of serious suffering are
legitimate ones that need to be considered in any system that teaches
the existence of a loving and all-powerful or even just very powerful
God. If God is capable of preventing suffering, why is there so much of
it? This world could be so much better–why isn’t it?

a thought experiment. Imagine a world in which your list of 50 or so
top problems have been addressed. Imagine a God who in your view is
vastly more intelligent (that is, He sees things your way) and responds
to your demands, reshaping the world, giving us a safer, less painful
existence. No more war, no more cancer, no more malaria, no more human
trafficking, no more volcanic eruptions or earthquakes, and no more
crushing debt incurred by corrupt politicians. Imagine airplanes and
cars that never crash, ships that never sink, and trains that never
derail, thanks to the infallible safety record provided by legions of
unseen angels watching over all of us. Would-be terrorists and murderers
are quickly exposed and stopped before they do serious harm. There
could still be free agency and challenges to overcome that help us grow,
but without all the blood, horror, and senseless pain of innocents that
we face now. Let’s imagine such a world and then ask, would there still
be cause for doubt and complaints?

Let’s imagine that
under this new Omnipotent Care program, everyone is essentially
guaranteed a relatively healthy life with a minimum lifespan of 80
years, with fully functioning limbs and eyes, joints that function well,
and good teeth that are free of cavities and never need orthodontics.
In this more progressive, compassionate system, would there still be
cause for complaint?

Part of the horror of the mortal
world we live in is that we are all statistics. With a little luck, I might even succeed in officially modifying an LDS hymn to have the catchy title, “We Are All Statistics Till the Conflict Is O’er” (including the refrain, “Random are we! Random are we!”).  But the role of chance and randomness in our lives is an important and inevitable one in my opinion, even if God can guide us to find meaning and apparent design in the random things we sometimes experience.

Here’s the point: for every factor
imaginable, there is a spectrum of possible outcomes, some better than
average and some worse than average (occasionally much worse than
average). Lifespan, economic status, IQ, skin quality, height, shoe
size–all can have high variability due to combinations of chance,
external factors such as the actions of others, and the consequences of our own actions. In a much
more fortunate world that never knew and might not even be able to
imagine the horrors of the Holocaust or Hiroshima, those on the unlucky
end of the spectrum for other factors might still elicit doubt and
anger. The fortunate folks in this imagined world might well wonder how
could a merciful God allow so many hundreds of people to suffer from
alcoholism, rabies, or whatever ailments had not been completely
eradicated. They could also ask questions like, “How could a merciful
God allow my grandfather to die so early, barely 80 years old, robbing
him of decades of life?” “How could a merciful God and an intelligent
designer allow so many teenagers to suffer with the shame of acne, and
so many senior citizens to suffer the humiliation of incontinence?” Or,
with perfect logic, “How could a merciful God allow so many
people–nearly 50% of humanity–to be below average economically?”

our new mortal world has, as long as there is mortality, there will be
death and sorrow, imperfection and pain. As long as there is any human
freedom of choice, there will be the tragedy of sin and the painful
consequences of error, even if great sins are miraculously prevented or
mitigated as early as possible to shield many innocents. As long as
chance and choice exist, there will be a spectrum of outcomes: some will
be lucky, some will be unlucky; some will be perpetrators, and some
will be victims. We do not need to know of genocide or mass slaughter
from tsunamis to feel that evil actions from humans or unpleasant
accidents of nature are senseless and unfair for victims. If the worse
we ever learn of involves a few dozen lives or even a few broken bones,
we may still find cause to recoil at the randomness of pain and the
injustice that reigns in a world where we are all statistics, and some
of us are always on the unpleasant side of every statistical
distribution. Can even your more sensitive, progressive God escape
criticism in your imagined new world?

The Small and Possibly Miraculous Tail

the distribution of outcomes possible in any real or imagined version
of mortality, some people will be extremely unfortunate, perhaps rarely,
and also rarely, some will be extremely fortunate. So fortunate that
rightly or wrongly we may attribute such fortune to divine intervention.

of the miracles humans report may be due to chance: perhaps those car
keys found after prayer would have been found anyway (often likely, I
would guess), or perhaps the illness that receded after a priesthood
blessing would have departed on its own (in many cases, of course). In a
true story I reported at Mormanity, perhaps the cookies that a busy mom
felt impressed to make (with an unmistakable impression that was
specific: chocolate chip cookies, now!) and give to someone she barely
knew were just a matter of chance and had nothing to do with the prayer
of the depressed, tearful, exasperated recipient earlier that day,
uttering, “Dear God, right now I just need . . . I just need some
chocolate chip cookies.”

In my own life, perhaps it was
nothing but chance that we had a surprise encounter of a needy young LDS
woman lost in Hong Kong, just hours after we put her name on the prayer
roll of the Temple there, having no idea that she had come to Hong Kong
that day on what would have been a disastrous misadventure had we not
found her. See the story “Finding Selina” at the Nauvoo Times and also here at Mormanity. Those of us involved in that story saw it as a small miracle
and dramatic witness of God’s love for a troubled daughter, as pretty
much the only people in that huge city who knew her managed to stumble
into her “by accident” in a remote part of that huge city shortly before
she would lose her chance to get back to China without trauma. Call it
blind luck, but it is cause for rejoicing and gratitude, and sharing it
as evidence of a loving God is not inappropriate–event though many lost
young people have been far less fortunate, and some may revile and
justly wonder why God would reach out to Selina while their child was

In nearly all matters in life, there is a spectrum
of outcomes, where miracles almost by definition are the exception, the
outliers in the vanishingly small tail on the fortunate side of the
statistical distribution of which we are all part. The miraculous in
that small tail is often the rare and sometimes singular exception. We
have no claim on it, though we may hope and pray. We have no cause to be
angry with God when our lot is cast somewhere else along the spectrum,
unjust as it may seem. May we have the faith and patience to accept the
miracles experienced by others in spite of our loss. May we have the
faith and patience to bear their fortune without added bitterness or
anger for our misfortune.

These rare small tail outcomes
may be due to chance, but in the lives of believers, they are sometimes
perceived as so abundant and so rich in kindness from a loving God that
they are hard to dismiss as accidents. But even if they are just lucky
accidents, is not the proper way of receiving them to be with gratitude?
In a world where many of us feel that we have great cause to believe in
a Divine Creator and a loving God, is it not reasonable to accept both
miracles and lucky breaks with gratitude?

If we are
grateful for life itself, with all its opportunities and challenges, its
pains and sorrows, then should we not lovingly praise our God for the
good that we receive, even if it might sometimes just be chance? Let us
never attribute blessings and seeming miracles to our righteousness or
superiority, but let us gratefully recognize the hand of God in all
things when it looks like a fingerprint or two is present, though
sometimes the prints are whorls of chance. If a prayer seems answered,
praise Him. If that which is lost is found after prayer–a child, a
passport, a set of keys, or a kitten, praise Him. Maybe not on the
Bloggernacle, and maybe not always in Fast and Testimony meeting,
recognizing that we may be misunderstood, but receive these blessings
with gratitude and not shame, and do not feel that they may not ever be
uttered to others.

In addition to recognizing God’s hand in our lives and being grateful for whatever miracles, large or small, we may experience, let us recognize the pains and suffering of others and do what we can to alleviate and bless. If God has helped you get a good job, wonderful! Now what are you doing to help others with their careers? What are you doing to help the poor in your midst and beyond? And what are you doing to magnify your impact at work to create more opportunities and employment for others?

Our gratitude for miracles and gifts in our lives should make us all the more aware of our statistically good fortune and the painful long tail of less fortunate people among the rest of the spectrum, some of whom we may be in a unique position to help. To see the hand of the Lord in all things is not just to see the gifts that it extends in our direction, but also to see the direction that the same divine hand may point out to us showing where we can go and do good with the blessings we have received.

Ours is a God who tells us that He
causes the rain to fall upon the just and the unjust–meaning we all
will get some lucky blessings and some unlucky setbacks, yet should not
our hearts still remain full of gratitude for the blessings we have?
If you have been
fasting for rain after drought and it rains at a choice time, praise
Him, though surely it was going to rain anyway, one day or another. Meanwhile, should we not yearn for the welfare of others whose needed rain has
not yet come? When it rains and your crops need water, praise Him–and
think of others.

Defending the Offensive: Small Miracles in a World of Big Problems

my reading of scripture, the purpose of miracles is clearly not to
address our wish list of big things to change about mortality. Yes,
sometimes disease will be healed in an individual or sight restored,
while illness and physical handicaps remain in force across the earth.
Sometimes keys will be found while children remain lost or thousands are
taken away into permanent captivity. Miracles are the rare and
exceptional tool to facilitate faith of an individual or to facilitate
events for some specific purpose. Miracles tend to be small and
personal, and always a drop in the bucket compared to the wish list of
miracles any of us might have.

Yet these small miracles
are real and can be significant. In past blog posts, I’ve shared a few
from my own life, or the lives of family members and friends. These
include the Miracle of the Cookies, the Miracle of the Pamphlet, the miracle my father experienced in coping with PTSD after the Korean War, a miracle involving a newly repaired cell phone received just in time to allow me to help prevent a suicide, and the Miracle of the Pink Coat. I’ve also discussed the independent confirmations I found for a small miracle reported by President Monson, along with several other miracles and blessings that I dared to share.

own testimony of God’s reality began with a 6-year-old child’s prayer
seeking God’s help to find the precious plastic magnifying glass that
Dad had loaned to me. I had looked everywhere without success and needed
it. My Dad needed that 5-cent toy for his work, I thought, and I had
lost it. After praying as my mother had taught me, pleading for God’s
help, I got up off my knees and my eyes seemed to go straight toward a
middle drawer in my dresser. I rushed to it, open it, moved something
and there it was. The magnifying glass, found! That child felt that God
has answered a prayer miraculously, and that was the beginning of many
personal experiences in prayer. It was also the beginning of many
personal experiences with lost objects where things far more precious
and more worthy of prayer were not recovered, including some tragic
losses without easy fixes. It would be easy for me to wonder how God
could so often not help me find, recover, or repair things much more
important than a worthless magnifying glass, but I should instead praise
Him for each kindness I have received and do the best I can to cope
with all the other times where I suffer a fairly normal distribution of
loss and pain in mortality.

In one past post on Mormanity,
I shared a story about a mother I know who was staying at a friend’s
home when she heard a voice say “Run!” That helped her recognize her
bold little toddler was not at her side but in danger. She ran to find a
stairway door had been opened by someone else and saw that her wobbly
little son, a boy with no respect for gravity, was standing at the top,
toes over the edge, ready to plunge forward toward bare wooden stairs
leading to a concrete basement floor. She snatched him in time, courtesy
of a tender mercy of God. I mentioned that we don’t know when and why
these small miracles come, and recognized that life is often filled with
pain and sorrow even for the best parents, but when the little miracles
come, we should rejoice for those who receive them.

That story was somewhat personal,
for we had a related experience with one of our sons, but with no
warning that we noticed, and no rescue in time to prevent him from
tumbling–we missed him by a fraction of a second and watched him tumble while we were at a friend’s house ourselves. It was traumatic for us and we felt like the worst parents ever. Why did that mother get help but not us? We are truly grateful for the mother who was helped, while still feeling some pain for our
different outcome. The pain would have been vastly greater had our son
perished or suffered permanent loss.

When I shared that
story, I expected to get the response that I have often received when
referring to a miracle that someone experiences. Skeptics will point to
some of the tragedies that occur and insinuate that that miracles can’t
be real, otherwise why would God help someone with something minor when
such great sorrows and pains exist in the world? But the response was
more painful or bitter than I expected. I should have anticipated some
of the pain that might have been stirred up:

  • ..and
    yet my son died. Am I to assume that I didn’t listen to the Spirit in
    some way to save him? Or that Heavenly Father just didn’t care enough to
    send any guidance?
  • Good to know Heavenly Father was more
    concerned about the possible broken arm [for that child] than about my
    son getting the organ transplant that would have saved his life. . . .
  • Stories
    like these are equivalent to a slap in the face for all of us who have
    [unhappy] endings to our fairytales. It’s great that [one child] wasn’t
    hurt…but surely you can see that what the flipside of it implies???

I was so sorry to see these responses, possibly from fellow Latter-day
Saints who pray and seek the Spirit and the miracles of God as much as
any of us do. The loss of a child is one of the great tragedies of
mortality. There are no easy answers, except for the far-off answer that
comes through Christ and the hope of resurrection and reunion.

it wrong to record and share the exceptional help that led to the
sparing of one child, knowing that others were not so lucky? Is it
really a slap in the face to many who mourn?

For the many
faithful Nephite wives and mothers whose husbands and sons died in
battle against the Lamanites, and the many modern wives and mothers who
face similar grief in this era of war, is the account of the miraculous
sparing of the 2,000-plus teenage warriors, the converted “stripling
warriors” of Lamanite ancestry in the Book of Mormon, an insensitive
blunder that should be excised from scripture or at least no longer
cited? Does that story mean that God did not hear the prayer of Nephite
mothers and modern mothers and wives of all who fall in battle? Does it
mean that our Christians who fall in battle die for lack of faith in
God? Or is the story of the stripling warriors the rare, miraculous
exception with lessons for us to consider (parents matter, faith in God
matters, God can protect us miraculously, don’t be afraid to take on
great challenges, be courageous, etc.), but little reason to expect the
same miraculous outcome on demand?

If a child is spared in war
miraculously, as my father was several times, give thanks to God, but
recognize this as the exception, not something promised to all who
believe, or an indictment for those with different results. Even Mormon,
the great warrior and prophet of God, would fall in battle, one of the
depressing statistics of Nephite destruction. Sooner or later, in one
way or another (often many ways), we are all statistics, and somewhere
along the way, some of those statistics will look and feel like

Do these tragedies, though, negate the reality of small
or even large miracles? Can God help someone by answering a prayer,
healing an illness, or helping a car to start, when many are about to
die from accidents, disease, or terrorism? Is God unjust or unfair
because He sometimes reaches down and lets the current course of
mortality be stayed for some purpose we cannot understand but that some
can and should accept with gratitude?

God’s love is not a
zero-sum game. His kindness to one person is not an insult to another
whose outcome is less fortunate. His love is not less, His awareness of
the others suffering is not diminished, His participation in our sorrow
and pain is not diminished, His eternal plans and desires for the
sufferer are no less glorious than for the recipient of a temporary
little miracle.

Thousands across the earth were blind or
going blind 2,000 years ago when Christ touched the eyes of one blind
man to give him sight. Did God love the others less than the one rare
man who was healed? Thousands, maybe millions, across the earth were
hungry or thirsty as He attended a wedding feast in Cana and turned
water into wine. If not even a sparrow can fall to the ground without
God’s awareness (Matt. 10:29), we must understand that we, His children,
are known, noticed, and loved, regardless of what trials we must
endure. Shall we be skeptical of God’s love or His miracles because
their more outward manifestations are not commonly and uniformly
distributed according to our sensibilities? Our lives appear as
statistics on numerous spectra, for we are inevitably part of the
statistics of mortality, sometimes fortunate, sometimes miraculously
blessed, but usually with many reasons to feel disappointment.

will leave all of us bitter and scarred if we cannot accept the
diversity of gifts, blessings, trials, lifespans, ancestries, and genes
that God lets us have.

Some Solutions and Insights from LDS Teachings

The problems of pain and evil leave many questions to grapple with, but I
am grateful for the richness of LDS teachings in dealing with these
issues. The basics are nicely presented and discussed in a speech by David L. Paulsen that I discussed in my previous post at Mormanity. It is a theme that is thoughtfully considered in the first half of Dr. Terryl Givens’ brilliant work, The God Who Weeps.
I also have enjoyed the cogitations of
C.S. Lewis on this topic in The Problem of Pain.

Here are some points that stand out in my mind regarding the LDS perspective:

  1. We
    are eternal beings, children of a loving Father in Heaven, who have
    temporarily departed His presence to come to a painful mortal testing
    ground. In this fleeting moment of mortality that we agreed to take on,
    we must all be born and then die.
  2. Death and pain, difficult as
    they are for us and those we love, are ultimately swallowed up in the
    victory of Christ. We will all be resurrected. We all have the
    opportunity to have the full blessings of eternal life in the presence
    of God with unlimited hope and joy through the power of Christ. There
    can be lasting pain and sorrow, though, but God seeks to mitigate that
    by inviting all – everyone who will – to receive His greatest eternal
    blessings. No matter how bitter our pains here, after this fleeting
    moment of mortality, Christ can wipe away all tears and bring us joy.
  3. Death
    and pain are part of the journey. Death is not the ultimate evil, but
    an essential part of our eternal progress. The journey here is difficult
    and fraught with challenges and opposition. In many cases, those
    challenges can have a purpose. In general, opposition in mortality is
    here for a purpose (2 Nephi 2). Pleasure and pain, sorrow and joy, the
    bitter and the sweet–it is in coping with these opposites and
    opposition that we grow and learn. The pains of mortality can have
    purpose in many cases, though sometimes it seems senseless and beyond
  4. God not only know our pains, but participates in them.
    Our Father in Heaven, as we read in the Book of Moses, astonished Enoch
    when Enoch saw that God wept over the suffering of His children. He is
    the God who weeps, who cares about our pains and our lasting, eternal
    welfare more passionately that we can imagine. He sent His son Jesus
    Christ to take on all our suffering in some way in His infinite
    Atonement, and Christ, like the father, fully knows how to minister to
    us through His intensely painful knowledge of what we suffer. His
    commitment to our lasting, eternal happiness is so great that He
    personally took on all our pains and all our guilt that He might
    liberate us from death, sin, and sorrow.
  5. God is a God of mercy.
    In the end, tears are wiped away, life restored, families reunited, and
    infinite blessings shared to the degree we have been willing to accept
  6. For us to return to God and be more like Him, He
    necessarily gives us the most wonderful and terrible gift of freedom,
    free will, the ability to choose Him willingly or to deny Him, curse
    Him, and destroy His most precious works. This freedom means that sin is
    possible and victims of sin inevitable.
  7. This is a world filled
    with chance and randomness, causing righteous and wicked to both suffer.
    Referring to some Galilaeans who had been slaughtered by Pilate while
    seeking to worship God, Jesus said, “Suppose ye that these Galilaeans
    were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such
    things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise
    perish” (Luke 13: 1-3). And regarding 18 people who died in his area
    when a tower in Siloam fell, he said, “Think ye that they were sinners
    above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye
    repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13: 4-5). Towers fall,
    children fall, and people die, regardless of who is righteous and who is
    not. It is not death but rebellion against God that is the real
  8. He sometimes alleviates our suffering and our problems
    miraculously. More generally, though, we are left here in mortality as
    free agents, whom He calls to be agents for Him to love one another and
    alleviate suffering. He calls us to mourn with those that mourn, to
    comfort those in need of comfort, and to follow the example of His son
    in reaching out to help the sick, the needy, and the hungry. How we
    respond to the problems of hunger, poverty, illness, and suffering in
    our midst is intimately tied to our status before Him and the exercise
    of our faith.
  9. The righteous sometimes experience miracles, but
    some of the most painful tragedies occur to the most righteous.
    Righteous Seth was murdered, and loving Adam and Eve grieved over the
    spiritual loss of Cain. Lehi and Sariah suffered years of sorrow and
    grief with the rebellion of the oldest sons, and many privations during
    their difficult journey. Alma and Amulek suffered in prison, and then
    watched in horror as righteous women and children, their converts, were
    thrown into the flames to suffer and die. And the converted Lamanites
    who refused to take up weapons again would die by the hundreds,
    defenseless, as they were attacked by their brethren, dying in the
    attitude of praising their God. As they and their loved ones faced
    certain death, in the midst of this violent and bloody tragedy, their
    turned their hearts to God with gratitude, not bitterness for their loss
    nor anger at the injustice in not sparing them. Praising God as the
    sword (or macahuitl) came down upon them! I weep at this example and
    doubt that my faith would be this great–yet I have cause every bit as
    great as theirs to praise God for what He has given me and done for me,
    in spite of my pains and loss.

If God has blessed
you with an awareness of the suffering of others in this painful mortal
realm, rather than cursing or denying God, use that knowledge and the
talents you are blessed with to help alleviate these problems and be
part of the divine solution. In so doing, if you will turn to God and
seek His help in doing good, I believe you will begin to experience the
small and sometimes big miracles that will help you to do more good than
you imagined and will strengthen your faith, giving you reserves to
draw upon when it is your turn to be on the painfully unpleasant side of
some of the statistical distributions of mortality. We all will have
our challenges and moments of senseless pain, but there is One whose
all-conquering love can, in the end, give lasting sense to all that we
are and have gone through as he wipes away our tears and helps us and
those we love become one with Him.

We cannot
expect God’s miracles when we want them. We have no basis to demand them
by right. But His love is no less, His presence no more remote, for the
child that dies than for the one that is spared, for His work is not
about keeping us wrapped up in our mortal shells and the little things
of earth life, but in our ultimate destiny in His endless presence.

timetable and plans for each of us take us through wildly different
routes in our journeys. Some routes are tragic and seem senselessly
painful, especially when the cruelty of man is involved–a consequence
of that terrible gift of freedom, without which we could not fully
choose goodness and light to become like Him, though some instead choose
to become devils. But we are also promised that the Atonement of Christ
is sufficient and in the end, as we come into His presence, all tears
can be wiped away.

And he will destroy in this mountain
the face of the covering cast over all people, and the vail that is
spread over all nations.

He will swallow up death in victory; and
the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of
his people shall he take away from off all the earth: for the LORD hath
spoken it.

And it shall be said in that day, Lo, this is our God;
we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is the LORD; we have
waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation. (Isaiah
25: 7-9)

If we only understood more and saw more clearly, we might
recognize the hand of God in numerous things around us and rejoice more
fully in the miracles of life, of love, of beauty, and of families. We
might recognize small or even great miracles even in the painful trials
he allows us to experience, some of which may have been tailored for us
in His grace. We may be blind to most of the miracles that make our
lives, but that should not makes us doubt or even be bitter when His
kindness is more obvious to some.

Praise God for each child spared
and for each parent given miraculous guidance. Weep for the larger
number who are not spared. Do our best to keep doors to danger closed
and children close enough to us that we will not need an angel’s voice
to best fulfill our duties. And may we never judge or condemn those who
are not the recipients of yearned-for miracles, or begrudge those who

Meanwhile, we must not lose our bearings and sail away from
God because we journey in a world where oceans of trouble and islands of
miracles coexist on a map wildly unlike what we would draw if we were
the cartographer. Let us learn to understand the real map for this
mortal landscape and understand its relationship to other maps,
especially those that God sees including what came before and what comes
after this temporary, painful, and sometimes grisly mortal world, which
can nonetheless be a place of remarkable beauty, joy, delight, and
tender mercies expressed sometimes as rare but real small miracles from

This partial response only scratches the surface of the problem of evil and pain in the world, but the eternal perspectives offered through the Church help. That includes knowledge of our premortal existence, the purposes of mortality, the eternal ends for which we and this mortal journey were created, and the endless healing mercy of Christ, whose ministry extends beyond mortality so that the good news of the Gospel and all its blessings are made available to all who have lived. 

Author: Jeff Lindsay

23 thoughts on “The Problem of Evil and Some LDS Perspectives, Or, We Are All Statistics Till the Conflict Is Over

  1. Outstanding article and treatment of a difficult issue. This is timely and well needed, particularly in light of the (to me, absurd) criticisms found in the "Bloggernacle".

  2. I would go to Ether, where Moroni basically says we don't get miracles due to lack of faith.
    What that means, I'm not entirely sure. Whose lack of faith?

    I believe it means generally speaking. So much pain is caused by wickedness of others that God cannot prevent without destroying agency–e.g. Pilate killing your relatives.

    But what about the natural ills–the accidents, the sickness and diseases? Some is incumbent on the state of mortality. Some is probably due to lack of faith in general. The miracles I've seen are usually due to a childlike faith, somewhere. For me it was God stopping the rain when I was 6 so I could watch the demolition derby. Totally pointless, yet I had faith and sure enough, it happened. Would I have that faith today? No, probably not–I would be like "Sure, God could stop the rain, but it's silly to use faith on this instead of curing someone of cancer….."

    If we had more faith as a people, I would bet we would see more miracles, and recognize the ones that do happen without us noticing. How many times do we even notice if God stops the runaway car before it hits us?

  3. It is difficult for me to face "theodicy" at this time in my life. I have only recently regained emotional stability after a stay in the suicide ward. I have been questioning God and evil a lot during this past year. I was buoyed up by our fellow siblings on this earth, in the form of a movie, "The Fault In Our Stars", which I understand is based on a novel. In reading about the author, I was thrilled to hear he had been studying theology, and the poignant portrayal of the two main characters of the book and their "challenge" in this life and how they cope with it was in stark contrast to the "eternal" message of my LDS faith. For some reason I'm still learning to understand, I thought the after-life would be so much better than this life, and that is not a good way to view this life. Hence, my disaffection from the LDS faith, and frankly, from other religions, too. I must treasure this life, or I'll be too quick to pass it up. Yes, sometimes thinking that there is a better life in the next helps one endure the pain of this life, but it also leads to other discouragements like mine. Another movie, "The Railway Man", taught me that "nothing is worth more than this life" as the Japanese prison guard/torturer confesses to Colin Firth (who plays the main character). This life is important and real, and we shouldn't forget that above all, even if there is an "eternity" waiting for us. We can do things now, find a cure for Ebola just like "we" found a cure for Polio. God gave us the powers deep inside us to be a better people, a better society, a better loving human being than we are right now, and often religion gets in the way of doing that. A young LDS man I know is foregoing a brilliant career as a medical doctor and potential medical researcher to be a dentist so he can "better live the gospel" as a family man providing a good living for many children. That is a laudable goal, but is it better, or best? What if God is telling this young man that he might be the researcher God intended to find the cure for Ebola, and the LDS religion is getting in the young man's way, inside his mind, to take him away from God's intended "calling", all because "eternity" is more important than here and now? Hard questions to think about, but we as an entire people on this precious planet should think about it. That's why the "small" miracles of keys and lost money sometimes don't ring very "true" to many of us, knowing that those same "miracles" could help a person grow to become a bigger help to our "Zion" society, our entire planet, if perhaps religion stepped down from it's high horse and sought to be more real, more in the here and now.

  4. Kevin, I'm so sorry about the challenges you have been going through. Hope we can meet someday — I would like to better understand your journey and the pain you've been through. Perhaps it would help more of us to understand and be more sensitive to some of the issues you've raised. Please hold on and never give up. Though I and some others may disagree with some of your positions, I do wish you well and hope you will find peace and success. Lunch is on me someday!

  5. I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about this, and I have found that the two most convincing things that I have read on the subject are from C. S. Lewis and from Charles Dickens.

    C. S. Lewis points out that God has the capacity to accomplish any and all of His works through naturalistic means — he is the great Architect of mortality and by placing the right people in the right places, His work ultimately becomes complete. Thus He needs perform no miracle to accomplish any task. The wine could have been cheaper (and thus more bought), but instead the Lord turned water into wine.

    Lewis argues that because He could accomplish His work without miraculous means, the miracles of God are never about the things getting done. If the Lord cared about us finding our keys, He could have helped us to leave them somewhere we wouldn't have lost them. Whenever there is a miraculous event, it is to teach us (and only to teach us).

    That is why there is no contradiction between the minor miracles — the tender mercies of the Lord — and the absence of the grand miracles. The purpose of the minor miracle is not to accomplish the minor result, but to let us know that He is there and to inspire us to follow Him.

    Dickens, on the other hand, spoke of local charity and telescopic charity. He wrote on how some people focus on some distant cause, and devote their charitable impulses there while their families and friends suffer. He wrote that when people become too focused on telescopic charity, they neglect actual charity towards those they can help.

    In my experience, the Lord does very little work 'telescopically.' He wants to develop a personal relationship with each one of us, and He accomplishes that better by answering prayers about lost keys than answering prayers about world peace. He doesn't use miracles to change the world, he shows us miracles to teach us about Him and draw us to live like Him, and we are to change our lives and over time that will change the world.

  6. Enjoyed your post, but a minor point: the brilliant work (and it is brilliant), The God Who Weeps, was authored by Terryl AND Fiona Givens.

  7. Jeff, thank you for your replies and Steve, thank you also, and Jonathan Cavender, excellent points from Lewis and Dickens, but my question seems relevant still to both authors, as well as to the point. Is there really an absence right now in our world of "grand" miracles? I don't think so. I think God is here with us all right now helping move our society forward in grand ways. The power, the faith, the hope that is common to all humankind is from God, and is not given to just LDS people, but to all of God's children here. The grand miracles of our technological world, our medical advances, our understanding of psychology and the mind, all are gifts to us all from God. I agree, in part, that God also works with us individually and it is hard to see as Our Parents, Gods both of them, work small miracles like someone finding their keys to give love and spiritual development to someone while others of Their Children aren't being helped from our point of view. But it seems religions are often blocking the way for our society to progress as God's mighty hands, His and Her hands, are doing across the world, in part because of our human tendency to become pharisaical and conservative, to judge others and make up rules that allow our OCD minds to measure other's, yet we so often fail to see our own cognitive biases. I see many LDS people with faith crises, like mine, who are leaving because they see society moving forward, progressively (and yes, I mean politically as well as more generally), yet many of these ex-Mormons become disenchanted with God because of the "local" charity our religion seems to prioritize over the broader charity God is able to accomplish in society. We LDS often see "the world" as so awful, but in reality, the world is moving forward in grand miracles by God, even if many of our secular sisters and brothers don't acknowledge that it is God. We LDS don't acknowledge that God is helping society progress, either, as evidenced by Jeff's OP here, and we seem to deny the sciences and the realities of the world around us, which I believe are God's work.

  8. Jeff,

    Considering my question early on in the last post, I appreciate this article and the amount of thought that was put into it. Methinks my eyes won't be rolling as much come Fast Sunday, but cause me to reflect what may have been blessings that I have not recognized.


    Once again, your comment was invaluable in this discussion so far, and it opened my eyes up a bit more about this issue. Thank you.

  9. How odd that in the thousands of words exchanged these past few days over the problem evil, there's not been a single mention of the Book of Job.

  10. Kevin, when I look at some of the developments in medicine, nanotech, and computer-aided systems, I see great miracles taking place before our eyes. But the divine origins of the many inspirations and helps along the way are obscured, making these grand developments look natural–as well they should. It's in the smaller things where the divine fingerprints are more obvious.

  11. If the "divine origins" of scientific developments "are obscured," who's the agent? Who does the obscuring — is it God? Satan?

    My main takeaway from this discussion is that Mormonism badly needs its own version of Candide (with Jeff, of course, as Pangloss).

  12. Johnathan, that's a great perspective. I especially liked your comments based on C.S. Lewis. Thank you. I'd like to mention your comment later, perhaps on my website, if that's OK.

  13. I understand why Mormons read and always quote C.S.Lewis.

    But do Mormons know that C.S. Lewis did not think highly nor kindly of Mormons?
    So the love affair Mormons have with him is baffling.

  14. C. S. Lewis wrote a lot of good stuff so the love affair is not baffling at all "if there is anything virtuous, lovely or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things."

  15. Anonymous, C. S. Lewis thought deeply about whether there was a God, and whether it was Christ. By his own admission, he put no thought into what Christian church he went to (in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, he said in essence that he just kept going where he had been going – not because it was right, but largely just because he had done so thus far).

    Lewis really believed in mere Christianity as a religion and not just as concept. He placed Mormons outside of Christiandom (which we have become familiar with), and thus was not a fan of the religion.

    There is nothing about Professor Lewis and his life (even the relatively few things he spoke out against Mormons) that bothers me. Add to that the fact that we Mormons look for truth wherever it is to be found, and it really shouldn't be baffling.

  16. I don't see the point of this post Jeff. Miracles are very private. It is very painful to a person who has just lost a loved one to hear how someone had the miracle of car keys. Have miracles, but keep them out of testimony meetings.

  17. Anonymous:

    "Anonymous said…
    I don't see the point of this post Jeff. Miracles are very private. It is very painful to a person who has just lost a loved one to hear how someone had the miracle of car keys. Have miracles, but keep them out of testimony meetings."

    I don't dispute for a moment that this world can hurt, and that hearing about miracles when your prayers have been unanswered about something important can hurt even more. I get it — I've been there. But just because something hurts doesn't mean that it isn't important. Otherwise, mortality makes no sense.

    It may hurt more to hear about miracles happening to others, but it also demonstrates the power of God. And that brings context to the pain that we suffer under — God could preclude our pain, and yet He has confidence in us enough (and a plan perfect enough for us) that He trusts us to make in through the pain of unanswered prayers.

    In my pain, hearing about others who have been spared my pain, or even just blessed to find their car keys, reminds me that we have a loving God who could, at a word, remove all of my suffering and dry my every tear. And yet He does not, but I still know that He loves me. Thus these miracles — whoever they happen to — serve to remind me that my pain has meaning, purpose, and a plan which will ultimately replace my pain with you. If not, God would have taken it away with the capacity that He clearly has to do so.

  18. "So the love affair Mormons have with him is baffling"

    I don't require someone to love my ideology in order to appreciate his. For me, it is refreshing to see a Christian who is able to see past some of the false traditions and creeds and understand our purpose and divine heritage, and how God is shaping us to be Celestial and Exalted beings. Many of his writings sound as true to me as any scripture or Conference address. Not only did he penetrate the heart of Christ's message (to allow ourselves to be transformed through our faith and actions), as I feel Joseph Smith did, but he was able to explain it with logic and eloquence in the modern era.
    He put himself out there as a philosopher and apologist, using logical reasoning to support his premises. Good philosophy, apologetics, and logic aren't a prominent feature in mainstream LDS materials, so it is refreshing to appreciate it when we find it.

  19. Bravo, Jonathan. I brought up car keys in the last post's comments, and it is a blessing to me to see responses such as yours using this specific example. My feelings have been closer to Anonymous's, but this a new perspective.

  20. In the best of all possible jabs, Orbiting K. optimistically hopes for a Mormon Candide. But with me as Pangloss–how would that end? Please don't leave me hanging.

    The LDS view is that this mortal journey has a purpose and that God is our Heavenly Father who loves us and can save us, if we let Him–but that does not equate with the optimism of Leibniz. We also know that this is a fallen mortal world with tragedy, death and hell. Indeed, some LDS people have speculated that this may be one of the worst of all mortal worlds since it was so wicked that we would crucify our God. As rough as this world is, it has also been blessed with a Savior who ultimately conquers death, hell, and pain and even in this mortal phase can help us on the journey, though we may all succumb to tooth and claw. There are important differences–don't gloss over them all.

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