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Trying to understand evil

Fourth Sunday of Lent

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

The encounter between the Lord and the man born blind offers us many interesting points for our reflection because of the miracle itself, but also the learning curve of the blind man, the parents’ attitude and that of the pharisees. The question asked by the disciples to the Lord allows for a reflection on the problem of evil in its many manifestations and, in particular, about the suffering of innocents, which is quite difficult to understand. It is also one of the most difficult objections to the existence of God. It is not easy to answer it, especially for those of us who proclaim that God is love and all of creation is a product of his love.

There are some good Christians that sometimes explicitly and at other times unknowingly, proclaim a vindictive god, who responds to grievances by sending evil to people, so as to satisfy his desire for vengeance. That is clearly not the God of Israel, the God of Jesus Christ, the true God who is love and out of love for His creatures assumes our fragile and vulnerable human nature, submitting even to the power of death, precisely to destroy its power.

The disciples seem to think that the blindness of the man is divine retribution for his sin or that of his parents. That is what the question they ask seem to indicate. The Lord categorically denies that. His blindness is not a direct consequence of his sin or that of his parents. It is an occasion for the glory of God to be revealed. God does not retaliate in that manner, causing physical suffering. On the contrary, He mitigates and undoes the consequences of sin. The cross of Christ is the instrument God uses to break through the vicious circle of evil, setting us free from the power of sin and death. God loathes evil in all its manifestations. He desires good for His creatures. He wants us to have life in abundance, fully. He wishes our joy to be complete. How can we understand then the presence of evil in the world and the suffering of the innocent?

A key point of departure to better understand the nature of evil is to recognize it as a privation. What exists is good in itself, just because it exists. Evil is a lack of some good, an imperfection. Just as cold is the result of the absence of a source of heat, so is evil a privation of some good.

Additionally, we ought to distinguish between moral evil and natural evil. The latter is more difficult to understand because it directly involves the suffering of innocents. It is obviously neither good nor desirable to be born blind. Blindness is precisely the privation of a good, namely the sense of sight. Now, the man was not born blind because God punished him or his parents. Rather, given human nature, it is possible to be born blind. It is possible that there be a malformation in an organ or that we become sick. That does not mean that the person who suffers is less of a person, or less desirable or worse than another. Next Tuesday, March 21 is World Down Syndrome Day. Just think of the love that so many parents receive from their children with Down Syndrome and the joy that their presence and tenderness bring to so many families.

It is a little easier to understand moral evil because of human freedom, a gift from God that He scrupulously respects. The Lord always offers us all the assistance of grace so that we do what is good, according to truth and beauty. However, in the mysterious interaction between the grace of God offered to us and human freedom, it is possible that one reject grace and act in a way contrary to goodness, truth and our very human nature. That is exactly what sin is. Its consequences always affect the sinner and others too. We can think of a man who drives inebriated. God does not what him to do that and offers him all the necessary assistance so that he does not do it. If he does, it is possible that he may cause an accident, hurt himself and even cause others to suffer, either because they are victims of that action or because they love the drunk driver and suffer because he has been severely injured or arrested. God abhors evil. Yet, given that man rejects grace and acts in a way contrary to divine will, God will not allow evil to destroy man. It is not that evil is an instrument of God. Rather, in the presence of evil, God will find a way so that good still prevails.

Penance, prayer and works of mercy, which we practice with special intensity during Lent, make us more receptive to grace, more attentive to the suffering of the innocent and the need of redemption we all have. Redemption is offered to us as a free gift in Christ, the Light of the world, whose Passion, Death and Resurrection transform and bring meaning to everything, including suffering and death.

Fr. Roberto M. Cid