Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

Eternal Suffering

 

In this short essay I want to ask: Is our destiny suffering? In other words, is suffering a celestial activity? And in asking these questions, I hope to shed light on our stewardship.

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Reading Job and thinking about the nature of suffering, especially in a discussion informed by theodicy, or the question of how God, if truly good, allows evil to persist in the world, has raised several questions in my mind.[1] When we talk about Job suffering in his earthly life, or even Jesus suffering during his, we can easily retreat to the fact that telestial existence is not supposed to be perfect. The fall, though fortunate, was a fall nonetheless. By the sweat of our brow we will eat our bread, etc. However, the suffering experienced and related by God in Moses 7 is of an entirely different sphere. First, we often talk about the celestial experience as that time in which every tear will be dried, every wrong made right, every physical, mental, and spiritual ailment cured. However true, that kind of thinking is shortsighted. If we are indeed “Gods in embryo,” then we should take very seriously any mention of a celestial being engaged in suffering, for it predicts our own futures.

 

Moses 7.[2]

28 And it came to pass that the God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and he wept…

29 And Enoch said unto the Lord: How is it that thou canst weep, seeing thou art holy, and from all eternity to all eternity?

32 The Lord said unto Enoch: Behold these thy brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency;

33 And unto thy brethren have I said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood;

34 And the fire of mine indignation is kindled against them; and in my hot displeasure will I send in the floods upon them, for my fierce anger is kindled against them.

37 But behold, their sins shall be upon the heads of their fathers; Satan shall be their father, and misery shall be their doom; and the whole heavens shall weep over them, even all the workmanship of mine hands; wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer?

 

Having an intimate knowledge of God’s creations, on the order of the cosmic revelations given to Moses, Job, and Joseph Smith, Enoch is completely flabbergasted by what he sees as an entirely incongruous act on the part of God and the entire heavens.[3] To cry, when one is perfect and in control of all—what is Enoch to make of it? What are we to make of it?

The first lesson we learn is that God is not self-centered. We now talk about a multi-centric universe, and this set of verses confirms that powerfully. For the good of an entire species (and, as we learn elsewhere, all species), God has placed his own suffering below human agency in his personal hierarchy of wants. It is the bestowal of agency[4] and its preservation that enables his creatures to attain their greatest heights, and God has put the welfare of an infinitude of others above his own – how far the earth has moved from the center of the universe! Copernicus said nothing nearly so radical as these verses Joseph translated.

The second, more difficult, less comforting lesson is that if we are to rise up to where God is, we rise to a place of eternal bliss, light, knowledge, potentiality—and eternal (indeed, Eternal) suffering. Inherent in the creative process is loss—every painting represents the destruction of a blank canvas, and the universe is by no means blank. As we see in Darwin and Tennyson, “nature [is] red in tooth and claw.”[5] Destruction, violence, pain, suffering—these are our common heritage, and our common destiny. Thus, it may be that the burden of having faith “even as Abraham,” interpreted by Joseph Smith to be that kind of faith which is requisite for an exaltation with Abraham, is to understand fully that God’s omnipotence necessarily includes the power and, more importantly, willingness to sacrifice not only oneself, or a single beloved son, but an entire lineage of beloved beings.[6] And it cannot be simply waved away that this is “for the best”—indeed it is, but this “best” draws out of the most powerful Being bitter tears, anger, and deep sorrow. God’s sorrow is drawn out to those whom, by his own agency, he sent out into the lone and dreary world to fail. Whether we side with McConkie that progression from kingdom to kingdom is a “deadly heresy,” or whether we side with others who claim that inter-kingdom progression is the most likely and natural thing in the universe, we have to understand the pathos that would accompany such a decision on God’s part. To create a world—to govern it with love and compassion—to have countless progeny and spirit children—these are the godly activities Latter-day Saints talk about with aplomb and excitement. What I have failed to realize up to this moment is that completion with Christ includes and is inseparable from complete, eternal suffering. This suffering extends far beyond sweat-bread, childbirth, cancers—it is infinite, transcendent, celestial. We should be more sober when we speak of becoming as God is.

Finally, and perhaps least importantly, we have here a compelling theodicy. If God exists in a universe that has inherent suffering, if intelligences have agency and that agency must be preserved for progression and salvation, if God himself struggles with the consequences of the only way to provide for exaltation, and if the only way is to allow cause and effect its full sway, even if the cause is hate and the effect is war and death, then we have a God whose omnipotence encompasses farther bounds than ever expected. That is, we have a God whose omnipotence includes power over himself, power over his own suffering, or in other words, power to include the divine will itself in the circle of things that must be bounded for ultimate good to prevail.

Aldo Leopold reminds us to “think like a mountain” in order to understand ecosystems and what is good or bad on an ecological scale. Is it possible that Joseph is teaching us that God is God because he has learned to “think like a universe?” This would involve embracing (though not enjoying) suffering on a personal and cosmological level, and everywhere in between. It would involve an all-encompassing view of what is good and what is bad, and would comprehend time scales that have no beginnings and no endings.

 

[1] For a brief overview of theodicy and its history, the Wikipedia article is a good place to start: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodicy. As you will see, Mormon theology turns traditional theodicy on its head (partially because it holds different underlying assumptions about the nature of God).

[2] Moses 7:28-40 are particularly instructive if read in their entirety. For brevity’s sake I have here included only the most relevant excerpts.

[3] It should be noted that the “God” here could be Elohim, speaking for himself (cf. v. 39 especially) or Jehovah, speaking through divine investiture—it matters little.

[4] It may be argued that agency could not be bestowed, for it is coeval with God in the intelligences, but the ability to act fully on any inherent agency was certainly given through spiritual and physical creation. Choice itself may be inherent, but the full breadth of action we enjoy as embodied, ensouled creatures is definitively bestowed.

[5] I once mistook the history of this phrase, and my reader might find the correction interesting. I mistakenly switched the history of “nature red in tooth and claw” with the history of the phrase “survival of the fittest,” which was not from Darwin but from Herbert Spencer. Darwin used the “survival” phrase later, but did not coin it. He did indeed use “nature red in tooth and claw” in his early writings.

[6] Inasmuch as Isaac was the promised son, in whom the seed for an entire nation resided, his sacrifice would have been the sacrifice of an entire promised lineage.