I got an email a couple weeks ago. Russell has given me permission to share it.
I know you don’t know me well, but I had a friend come to me with a question this week and it made me think of you. I gave him my best answer, but I don’t feel like I nailed the answer. After reading The Hero Doctrine, I know you and I think quite a lot alike. Would you mind giving his question a thought and shooting me back an answer? If the question is interesting enough to you and you’re interested in posting it on your blog (yes, I do read a lot of your posts, in case you are wondering), feel free to do so.-Russell ElkinsI’m paraphrasing his question, but it was something like this:One of the main reasons we are sent to Earth is so we can go through trials and learn from them. There are a lot of people who think God sits up in heaven sending trials our way- like he points at one lady and says “breast cancer” and points at another guy and says, “verbally abusive wife” and so on. And all day each day we are faced with trials that God sends to them. I don’t feel that way. I feel like that’s not the case. I feel like God set up a system where, no matter who we are, we’re going to run into trials. Like walking this earth is like walking through a dense mine field. We may get lucky and miss mines along the way, but nobody misses all of them. We all step on them constantly. It’s impossible to know how often we’re missing them, but it’s easy to see when we step on one. So, the real question comes from the other side of this. If I believe that trials are a product of the environment set up for me, how can I believe anything other than that for the “blessing” side as well? If God isn’t up there directly giving me trials, is it reasonable to think He is up there easing them? Am I reasonable in thinking that relief from trials comes from my own efforts?
Russell! So sorry it’s taken this long for me to get back to you.The thing is, your friend is asking one of the trickiest questions in Mormon meta-theo-philosophy. Trying to find the line between our agency and God’s omniscience/omnipotence. The line between God weeping helplessly over the choices of His children and God yet being in control of all things. The line between everything good comes from God, and God rejoicing over our good choices.How much of Earth’s history is written by God, and how much is written by us?If God can see the end from the beginning, couldn’t He make a few changes to the beginning that would help His children in the future make the right choices? If He knows what bad choices we will make in certain circumstances, why doesn’t He use His vast power to change those circumstances? Why does God choose to intervene and break/transcend His own laws (of physics and so forth) at some points, and not at others? If God chooses to intervene in some lives, thus putting them on a path to salvation, why doesn’t He in others, when a simple miraculous answer to a prayer could make a doubter a believer for life? Why does God save lives in one instance and the in another throw up His hands and say, “Sorry, blame agency!”?You can see I’ve wrestled with this issue a lot as well. And I’ve got a TON of questions for when I wake up on the other side (hopefully in the right place).I know a few things. One, God is still there, and He does in fact help us ease burdens. But that easing of burdens generally comes as a result of our own actions, for instance, the simple act of prayer. Prayer is an expression of agency. When we pray and ask God for things, we are showing/proving that a) we really do want them (our choice) and b) we show that we believe He can help, either in peace or in the prompting of the Holy Ghost.I think our trials are a mixed bag. Their sources are varied; some come from God (I believe the breast cancer example is in that category—a trial God could have prevented and/or foreseen and/or planned), some come from the agency of others (like the verbally abusive spouse), and some come from our own dumb choices. Likewise, I believe latter-day saint theodicy—by which I mean Mormon theology’s answer to the famed problem of evil—is also a mixed bag. In an essay I wrote once I called it a “patchwork” theodicy. There isn’t just ONE answer to the question of, If God is all-powerful and all-benevolent, why do bad things happen? There are many reasons for bad things happening, all unique to their own circumstance.I think God intended for this life to spontaneously give us certain problems and pains, just as in Eden fruit and flowers grew spontaneously. Those are the bumps in the road, the everyday opposition we face as we journey through life. I don’t think those things—stubbed toes, traffic on a morning commute, the printer breaking down (all 1st world problems, of course)—needed to be written manually by God. I don’t think every tiny little detail is planned from the beginning. I don’t think He had to calculate it all out perfectly from the start so that He would never have to intervene at all. Because clearly, He does intervene, and His interventions change the course of the world’s story from how He set things up at the start. Did He foresee His own interventions? Does God have to adapt his own choices to the choices of His children?On that note, though, is our agency possible to calculate? Does God always know exactly what we will do in any situation, ever? If so, what is the point of this life, if some are just going to be failures? Why give us all a chance if He knew everything from the beginning? Likewise, WHAT WAS THE BEGINNING? When did God achieve omniscience? At what point did He know everything, including the finer details of the souls of His children? When He organized us from intelligences into full spirits, did He know all that we would ever do? If He knew it then, why give the failures a chance? And why has the vast, vast majority of human lives lacked knowledge of the Atonement and gospel? What is the point of this life except for our souls to be tested and grown as we have knowledge of God’s commandments and salvation ordinances?Back to the point, though, I think He is purposeful with the big trials. The ones that truly change or prove our souls. I think He’s had those in mind for a very, very long time.Have you read Chris Heimerdinger’s Eddie Fantastic? It’s a brilliant, brilliant book, his best and one of my all-time favorites. One of the main characters is a Mormon scientist who bears a horrifically scarred and mutilated body and has to move around with a wheelchair. He builds devices that are essentially science fiction, but all with a spiritual bent. One of them is a device that is designed to trigger an experience in the wielder that will bring out that person’s greatest growth. Kind of a spiritual, metaphysical instrument. The scientist has locked it away for decades because the one time it was used, he, the scientist, crashed a small airplane in a storm with his young son riding with him. He survived barely, and his son did not. His wife left him while he was in the hospital. It destroyed him physically and emotionally, but also changed his soul forever.Anyway, like I said, I think God supplies the big trials and helps us bear them and be changed by them (cancer and other such marks of mortality). And I think God allows the medium trials and helps us bear them (maybe the pain caused by others’ agency). And I think God expects the small trials (stubbed toes or problems we create with our own agency) and largely expects us to deal with them ourselves and thus mold ourselves into better people, i.e. not swearing when that toe is stubbed or repenting when we’ve made a mistake.I just made that system up on the fly so it probably is insufficient, but it might be a reasonable way of looking at trials. And now I’m going to scroll back up to your friend’s issues and see if I answered them or just rambled on for all these paragraphs.If I believe that trials are a product of the environment set up for me, how can I believe anything other than that for the “blessing” side as well? If God isn’t up there directly giving me trials, is it reasonable to think He is up there easing them? Am I reasonable in thinking that relief from trials comes from my own efforts?I think I mostly got it, but I’ll add a little. Personally, I hate the attitude of “give God all the credit” for every good thing that ever happens. In a way God is responsible because our souls are redeemed by the Atonement and we have the light of Christ and the Holy Ghost and without all those things we would be dark and loathsome creatures, etc. But I think we have to give ourselves some credit because ultimately the gateway to good things happening in the world is our own agency. Yes, I was helped up onto my feet by the Atonement, and I will forever be grateful to my Savior for that (true story), but at the same time, I chose to seek help and I chose to reach out and I chose to stand up. If we were not responsible for any good things happening in this world, they wouldn’t happen. Where would God be without the righteous choices of His willing servants? Where would He be without His hands? We choose to follow God, we choose to do His work. I chose to sit at this desk and write my book(s). I tax my brain, I sweat and weep and bleed over these words I’m writing and though I know some come from genuine inspiration, I am still giving God’s work my all. The Spirit is the true mechanism of conversion, but it wouldn’t have a medium to travel through if that 18-year-old kid did not choose to serve the Lord in the first place. Maybe people with better senses of self-esteem and self-worth can give God all the credit. But some of us are desperate for reasons to not feel worthless and unprofitable as servants of God.So in that sense, God does rejoice over our choices, I think. And yet, through us, He writes the story of this world.Frankly I think there are a ton of influences and interventions CONSTANTLY going on in our lives. We cannot see the angels and demons fighting over us, each in the name of their masters. I doubt Lucifer himself is attending to us, just like I doubt Christ Himself is ministering to us, although He could be (I really don’t know the metaphysics on the other side). Think about it: there have been (by some estimates) at least a hundred billion human beings on this world alone. If we just take that number and think of it as God’s children in pre-mortal life, how many billions upon billions of sons of perdition are there? And how many angels-to-a-Devil are there assigned to just one of us? And how many of our ancestors do we have, those liberated by the saving ordinances, who are angels who are also helping us at all times without our knowledge? Our souls are in a constant tug-of-war, and ultimately it’s our choice which camp we give the edge to.So the conclusion I’ll come to for now is: it’s all a mix. If you have a relationship with the Savior, we thank Him that He is helping us bear our burdens, even as He is probably grateful to you for being willing to bear them, ideally without complaining—and not just enduring them, but enduring them WELL. Enduring well is about more than just having a good attitude about our trials—it is USING them to further the cause of the gospel. Every trial brings with it a strengthening quality. A loved one passes away from cancer? Peace is obtainable from the Savior, and after receiving that, suddenly you are equipped with compassion for others going through the same trial, and together you can approach the Savior and maybe save more than just your own soul. Think the anti-Nephi-Lehies, how their willingness to die and their actual deaths resulted in thousands more receiving salvation. God has a deep interest in both trying your soul and in helping you bear the trial. And the only way for it to work to maximum effect is agency. We have to participate, to ask, to work, and so we contribute even as God makes such contributions possible.Whew. Hopefully that helped. Sure did help me. I love being able to write down all my thoughts like that. Gets them moderately organized. So thank you, Russell, for emailing me. I knew it would end up being a long email, and that’s why I wanted to wait till I had time and was in the right frame of mind. Please correspond anytime. Love this stuff.-NealP.S. You know, I think this would make a worthwhile blog post.