A Meditation on God’s Alleged Favoritism
By Ken K. Gourdin
A not-infrequent theme at Mormon Dialogue and Discussion, to hear atheists/agnostics/the disaffected/detractors tell it, is that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that they’re “special” in God’s eyes (my phrasing) such that they receive even trivial blessings from Him while others must endure terribly unfavorable and (in mortal terms) unfair circumstances, be victims of evil, suffering, and wickedness, and so on. The question, in more general terms (my phrasing), is, “Why does God bless only the special?”
God cares about about such a trivial matter as someone losing his keys, on the one hand, so the common complaint goes, but cannot be bothered to save someone from (for example) being raped, on the other hand (or, He saves one person but not another from the latter fate)? I admit, I can readily see the hand of God in some (many) of my trials, yet I cannot understand why He has not seen fit to grant other blessings which I have sought earnestly. Indeed, the juxtaposition between blessings granted, on the one hand, and blessings denied or delayed, on the other hand, is a puzzlement to me, with my limited, finite, mortal perspective.
Essentially, that means I fall into both camps. In some things (indeed, in many things) I am among the “special” (though I’m really not so special) to whom God, in His mercy and love and as befits His perhaps-unfathomable eternal purposes, has granted bounteous blessings. On the other hand, (while I admit that any trial I have been called upon to endure pales in comparison to trials others have endured; for example, my brother lost his first wife and my niece and nephew lost their mother to cancer), I have also been exposed to the considerable buffetings of mortality (such as the dog of clinical depression, which alternates between nipping at my heels and threatening to devour me whole; perpetual underemployment, work dissatisfaction, and resulting financial difficulties; and so on) and have wondered from the depths of my soul, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” My constant mantra is, “Could things be worse?” and, as much as part of me might hate to admit it, the answer’s always “Yes, they could always be worse.”
So, while I might not agree with it, I certainly can understand the “Why does God, if there is one, seem to love some more than He loves others?” perspective. I can understand the “How is it that I, or that my loved ones, have not found favor in God’s sight?” perspective. One fallacy to which we mortals often fall victim is that we equate God’s blessings with His love, or we equate His failure to grant a desired blessing (even a deserved blessing) with His displeasure or His disfavor. My sister-in-law is one of the finest human beings I have ever known. I don’t know why God saw fit to allow her and her family to go through what they went through (are going through?). But I have faith (sometimes weak, sometimes wavering faith, but faith nonetheless) that He does.
Prompting my first contribution to the thread, another poster wrote, “I’m not a fan of the ‘candy machine’ God–you put in the tokens, push a button, and goodies come out.” I responded, “Neither am I,” and posted a link to something I posted a few years ago on the blog on “God as Santa Claus” (this and all other links last accessed September 9, 2017):
Later, I added:
If one of the purposes of this life is to learn to trust God, let us be in whatever circumstance we might find ourselves, then it wouldn’t do for Him to dole out blessings as though He were Santa Claus, nor would it do for Him always to withhold them as though He were an arbitrary, crotchety old miser (something akin to, say, Ebeneezer Scrooge).
Though it might seem to us, from the outside looking in at others, as though He does the first or the second of those two things inordinately in the lives of people we know or of whose lives we are aware, often, those assessments are based on a single snapshot in time. At any given moment, in any single life, of course it’s going to seem to us as though He does the first of those things more than He does the second (or vice-versa).
As unfair as it might seem to us (with our limited, myopic, mortal perspective), whatever else He is or is not, God is also a Sovereign. I don’t know why it seems as though God, to this point, has withheld certain blessings I have earnestly sought, but even the thick-headed, dull-of-heart, dull-of-mind, often-unseeing, often-unfeeling natural man that is Kenngo1969 [my screen name] has seen and felt the Hand of God in his life in unmistakable ways often enough to know that even if I don’t understand His perhaps-unfathomable larger and long-term purposes, I can trust Him when His servants say, “All things work together for the Good of them that love God” (Romans 8:28); and “I know not the meaning of all things; nevertheless, I know that [God] loveth His children” (1 Nephi 11:17); and “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him” (Job 13:15); and so on.
In response to someone who posted news of the tragic death of a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I wrote:
I don’t deny (and I don’t think anyone here whose views are similar to my own would deny) that it’s easy to conclude, if one only looks at evidence from this mortal Second Act alone, that life is not fair. The thing is, we don’t remember the premortal First Act, and the post-mortal Third Act hasn’t happened yet. One must consider the three-act, premortal-mortal-postmortal drama in toto before reaching any such conclusion.
Later, I posted, “I was searching for something unrelated, and I happened upon this address/article by Elder D. Todd Christofferson [of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ] from 2012. I think it might have relevance to this discussion:
Using myself as an example (since, as I mentioned earlier, I fall into both camps, the “favored” upon whom God has bestowed considerable blessings and the “why does God bless some but not others” camps, respectively), I posted:
One reason why God doesn’t intervene to prevent all of the “bad” stuff from happening is His commitment to the free will of His children. Another reason why He doesn’t so intervene is because that would obviate the need to have faith in Him. (If I were absolutely certain God would answer all my prayers in exactly the way I wanted Him to, there would be no need for me to have faith in Him.) Another reason why He doesn’t so intervene is because the evil that certain members of humankind perpetrate upon their fellows will stand as a testimony against them and will condemn them at the judgment. (God will not be mocked.) Another reason why He doesn’t so intervene is because this is, by nature and by design, a fallen world in which we all, to a greater or lesser extent, must learn to deal with (to put it very mildly, in many cases, I realize) less-than-ideal circumstances. Another reason why He doesn’t intervene is because to do so would circumvent His (perhaps-unfathomable, at least to the mortal mind, anyway) larger purposes. Another potential reason why He might not intervene is because whatever else He is or is not, He is also a Sovereign. And so on.
I have no need to explain why, in specific cases, God did or did not intervene in a certain circumstance, or why He chose to intervene in a certain way in a certain circumstance (or chose not to). I don’t know why God, apparently, chose not to intervene before I had two failed hip reconstructions (with all of the attendant physical consequences ensuing); I’m exceedingly grateful, however, that He chose to intervene by guiding a surgeon’s hand in three consecutive subsequent operations: It’s entirely possible that I would not be walking at all today, let alone being able to do so relatively free of pain, if He had not. Conversely, I don’t know why God apparently has seen fit to withhold certain other blessings I have earnestly sought, but I have faith that doing so, for whatever reason, is more in line with His purposes for me.
Meanwhile, the standing of those recipients (or non-recipients) of blessings before God is between God and them; and my standing before God is between God and me. I dunno.Perhaps the recipients of those interventions really are better than I am, but, in any case, it doesn’t do any good for me, with my “toddler’s” perspective (in Eternal terms) to shake my widdo fists and stomp my widdo feet at how “unfair” the Sovereign Lord of the Universe is being, or to declare, in a fit of “Spiritual Sibling Rivalry,” “See?! I always knew Heavenly Dad loves you best!” Nor would it do any good for them to respond likewise to the blessings I have received.
Another poster critiqued my proffered notion that God intervenes in the lives of His children by stating that in doing so, He removes free will. I responded:
I don’t think it removes free will for Him to intervene as suits His purposes [emphasis mine, in original]. It would remove free will if He always intervened. And again, this is the Second Act. We can’t remember the First Act, and the Third Act hasn’t happened yet. (Notwithstanding the fact that I was voted “Best Philosopher” of the THS Class of 1988, I lack the philosophical chops to say more than that, so I’ll have to leave the philosophical defense of my position to people who are smarter than I am. )
My skeptical interlocutor then asked, “Did God guide just your surgeons [sic] hands, just his hands when operating on you, or does He guide all surgeons [sic] hands all the time regardless of wether [sic] they believe in Him or not?” I responded, “With due respect, you need to reread the post to which you are responding. Reread it as many times as necessary, for comprehension this time. ”
My skeptical interlocutor then asked, “Why did God remove your surgeons [sic] free will by intervening and guiding His hands?”
He didn’t remove His free will. (You’re seriously mischaracterizing my position if you think I believe that, absent God’s intervention, this surgeon would actively have done harm to me.) Ever hear of the Hippocratic Oath? The fact that this sawbones (as an old law professor of mine used to call them) is a damn good surgeon didn’t hurt. And why are you ignoring all of the other reasons I mentioned in my previous post for Bad Things Happening to Good People in favor of focusing on this one?
My skeptical interlocutor responded, “With due respect, I’ve reread your post and comprehended it. My question still stands.” I replied, “However many times you have read it, nonetheless, it seems that, alas!, you still don’t understand it.”
My skeptical interlocutor responded, “Where do I insinuate the surgeon would have actively done you harm without God’s intervention?” I replied, “You stated that God ‘removed [my surgeon’s] free will by intervening and guiding his hands.’” (The implication of that statement, being, of course, that, left to his own devices, my surgeon would have been apathetic, or careless, or even that he might have done me harm affirmatively).
My skeptical interlocutor then asked, “If God hadn’t guided your surgeons [sic] hands, would he have done a worse job?” I responded, “I don’t know. I have no empirical, objective evidence for the belief that God guided my surgeon’s hands. The only evidence I have for that belief is that God told me He did so [emphasis mine, in original]. I know that will drive you crazy, but you’ll simply have to deal with it the best you can. ”
My skeptical interlocutor then asked, “Does your surgeon recognise that he wouldn’t have done as good a job but for God guiding his hands?” And I responded:
I don’t know. He knows I believe that, because I have told him so. I do know that the type of surgery he performed on me is incredibly complex. I do know that the postoperative complication rate is very high, and that the postoperative prognosis isn’t very good even when the surgery is successful (even when it is performed by the best in the field). I do know that a high percentage of people who undergo surgical operations such as the one(s) I underwent have additional surgery to address further problems (even when it is performed by the best in the field). All of that having been said, neither he nor anyone else has operated on me in the last 32 years.
My skeptical interlocutor then asked, “Does your surgeon do a worse job when left to operate solely relying upon his own training, experience and skill?” And I responded:
I don’t know. I do know that he keeps my file separate from those of the rest of his patients and former patients. I think he considers my case and its outcome especially notable (see my previous paragraph). I’ve never explicitly asked him if that is the case; it’s simply something I have inferred from the tenor of our conversations over the years. (And we have had a considerable number of conversations in the years since I “officially” was his patient; more than the norm, I gather, but I don’t have any evidence for that, either, so sue me. ) A few years ago, we needed some medical documentation for something (a handicap parking placard/plate for a vehicle, I think it was), and my father went to visit him. A member of the doctor’s staff said, “I’ll pull the file,” and he said, “That won’t be necessary,” and signed off immediately on whatever it was.
Notwithstanding the fact that I haven’t “officially” been his patient for 32 years, his memory of my case seems especially vivid. Most doctors, and especially most surgeons (and this is not an indictment of them), if a patient were to tell them that the patient needed something (especially after that length of time), would say, “Let me get back to you after I’ve pulled and reviewed the file,” or something similar. Not him.
Later in the thread, I posted (bold mine, in original):
What you, apparently, are missing (or downplaying, or ignoring, perhaps because it doesn’t fit your [apparently] godless paradigm or what you do or do not want to believe about a God who does exist), [screen name redacted], is that I haven’t told separate stories in this thread: I haven’t told one story about an 11-13 year old kid whom God apparently didn’t like, or toward whom He was ill-disposed, or toward whom He was, at best, apathetic, and so He allowed that 11-13 year old to suffer through two failed hip reconstructions and their painful, grueling, apparently-fruitless aftermath, on the one hand, and another story about a 14-15 year old kid whom he liked, or toward whom he was well-disposed, or toward whom (fortunately!) He was not apathetic, on the other hand, and so He blessed that 14-15 year old and the surgeon who operated on him through three subsequent successful operations.
The young man who went through all of that, the initial two failures and the subsequent three successes? Same kid. So my experience can’t an instance of “we’re back to the opening of the thread: apparently God loves some more than He loves others.”
My skeptical interlocutor then responded to my denial that my entire experience (the first two dismal failed operations and their difficult aftermath, followed by three successes despite long odds) still could be summed up by saying “God loves some more than He loves others,” “Yes, it can.”
I responded (bold in original):
No, it can’t, because, again, you’re conveniently ignoring or downplaying my own not-inconsiderable physical and emotional suffering through those first two failed operations. God could have intervened then, too, but, for whatever reason, He did not. (I’m not trying to be a “Drama King” here … I’m just sayin’!) I don’t know precisely what God’s purposes were for choosing to not intervene in the first two operations while intervening in the latter three, but I choose … perhaps naively, perhaps foolishly, from your point of view, and that’s fine … to trust Him.
Perhaps, rather than saying that God chose to not intervene, I could have pointed out that, in fact, He may have done so in ways I didn’t perceive. As much as I might have wished (indeed, as much as I might still wish, even today) for a better outcome, perhaps the outcome would have been even worse, had it not been for his unperceived intervention. Indeed, that’s true of any horrible, undesirable circumstance any of us might face. My interlocutor continued, “Because whilst your version of God was guiding your surgeons [sic] hands, he was allowing children to suffer at the hands of their abusers.”
Yep, and he also allowed a child to suffer through two failed major operations and their physically- and emotionally-painful, grueling, ultimately-fruitless aftermath before that, too. I freely admit, that I don’t know all of the reasons for that, but I choose to believe that He does.
My skeptical interlocutor then continued, “If God can physically intervene in your reality, then He has the ability to physically intervene in everyone’s reality.”
And I replied:
I’m not sure what you mean by “physically intervene.” When I posit that God guides someone’s actions, I’m not suggesting that He intervenes in the same manner in which, say, an earthly parent might guide a child’s hands as the child learns to tie his shoes, nor am I suggesting that that’s what happened when I use such phrases as, “God guided the hand of my surgeon.”
My interlocutor then continued:
So when a child prays for the abuse to stop, and it doesn’t, it irrefutably means that’s because He chose not to [intervene to make it stop]. What kind of God chooses to not stop child abuse when He has the ability to do so, whilst seeing fit to help your surgeon perform the operation on you?
The same God who allowed my sister-in-law, who is one of the finest people I have ever known, to die a horrible death from cancer. I don’t know all of the reasons why God, despite many fervent, faithful prayers that she be delivered from that fate, did not deliver her, and I would, indeed, think that is a tragedy, if I also thought that her existence was due to nothing more than more-or-less random biological processes and that, once her life was snuffed out, she simply succumbed to the void, but I don’t think her existence is due to nothing more than simple biology, so I don’t think she simply succumbed to the void. I realize the only thing that will convince you of the soundness of my position is your own surprise at not having ceased to exist entirely when you shuffle off this mortal coil, so I suppose we’ll simply have to wait to see who’s right.
And I’m sure Elizabeth Smart prayed, fervently and frequently (if not more-or-less constantly) for her abuse to stop. I don’t know why those prayers, along with those of her family and friends for her swift safe return, were not answered in the way she, her family, and her friends hoped they would be (at least, not at first), but I’m sure that they have faith that God does.
We can’t always choose our circumstances in this life: I couldn’t choose not to have those operations (any of them, not just the ones that failed) if I wanted to enjoy the degree of orthopedic health I enjoy today; my sister-in-law couldn’t choose to not get cancer; and Elizabeth Smart couldn’t choose to not get kidnapped, raped daily for nine months, and otherwise abused. Often, the only thing we can choose is how we respond to our circumstances, as unfair and undesirable as those circumstances may be. If you believe that, ultimately, how we choose to respond to our circumstances matters only for the rest this life (which, frankly, is the equivalent of believing that, ultimately, such choices don’t matter), that’s your choice. I believe … and choose … differently.
Another poster asked, “How do you explain those of us who asked, begged even, and got nothing?” And another poster added, “That’s what I’ve been wondering,” adding that his family had been searching for information on his father’s relatives so that they could perform proxy ordinances for them in the Temple, without success, and ending hopefully, “Maybe in the millennium,” the thousand-year period of peace prophesied following Christ’s return. I responded:
I’m sorry for what you both have been through and for what you’re both going through. By no means have my contributions to this thread been intended for me to set myself up as any kind of a paragon of virtue or an example of answered prayers. The truth is that when it comes to answered prayers, for the vast majority of us, life is a mixed bag: Perhaps there are found keys, but, if not, hopefully, there are kind locksmiths who can help us out of our predicament without charging us nearly what their work is worth (or perhaps without even charging us at all); perhaps there are miraculous cures, but, if not, hopefully, there is strength to endure and there is perspective gained despite (indeed, perhaps even because) of dire circumstances; and so on.
Indeed, my contributions to the thread are intended to illustrate this “mixed-bag” perspective: For every righteously-desired blessing I’ve been granted, at least one other blessing has been delayed or denied. I’ve posted at length here about the protracted, circuitous route I continue to travel in search of financial security and occupational fulfillment. This is especially puzzling to me in light of an experience I had in the Nauvoo Temple that I posted about on another thread. I have a lot of questions to which I don’t have the answer. I have simply determined to not allow what, as yet, I do not know to persuade me to doubt the reality of the Oliver Cowdery, “Did-I-not-speak-peace-to-your-mind-concerning-the-matter” moments I have experienced. I have simply determined to not allow what I do know to be held hostage to what, as yet, I do not know.
Here’s an account of my Nauvoo Temple Initiatory experience:
While I was wondering, in light of the denial of licensure [to practice law], what I should do next, I wasn’t necessarily overly troubled by it, and I wasn’t necessarily actively seeking answers. I visited the Nauvoo Temple where my aunt and uncle were serving as temple missionaries at the time and had the chance, for the first time since receiving my own endowment nearly 20 years before, to do initiatories. While I wouldn’t expect that passage to strike anyone else in the same way nor with the same force that it struck me, a particular passage from that ordinance struck me with unusual force: it talks about wielding a certain instrument in defense of certain assets. It made me think that this long, circuitous, tortuous odyssey I have undertaken in an effort to find a comfortable career niche might not have been completely in vain, after all.
Lack of progress on that front in the more than ten years since then (indeed, given the careless psych eval I received from an idiot psychologist, in some ways, I have regressed) makes that experience all the more perplexing, but, nonetheless, I still cannot deny what I experienced: “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15).
My original skeptical interlocutor then asked, “Let me say again, I’m glad your surgery went well. Can you look at it objectively with a wider lens and perhaps consider that you have been drawing a target where the arrow fell? Isn’t that a possibility in cases where divine intervention is claimed?”
Anything is possible. In matters of faith, we’re all our own triers of fact with respect to what evidence we choose to admit, what evidence we choose to exclude, how much weight we choose to give any given piece of evidence we choose to admit, and so on. Given the myriad possible different perspectives, I wouldn’t be surprised if you were to choose to exclude evidence I have chosen to admit, were to choose to weigh the evidence I have admitted differently than I do, and so on.
Another poster responded, apparently feeling that the example of prayers offered for help in finding the information necessary to perform proxy ordinances in Latter-day Saint Temples for loved ones is too trivial, “I had something a little more crisis-oriented in mind, like terminal illness, that kind of thing.”
I don’t know why the many fervent prayers offered in my sister-in-law’s behalf that she be delivered from the horrible fate which befell her of dying from cancer were not answered in the way those who offered those prayers would have liked them to be, but I have faith that God does.
Later on, I responded to the implicit contention that finding information on one’s ancestors so that a Latter-day Saint can perform proxy ordinances for those ancestors in a Temple is a trivial matter which is unworthy of Divine intervention still further. Not to go all “Church Lady” from Saturday Night Live on my readers or anything (“Could it be . . . Satan?!”), but Latter-day Saints do believe that a battle began in the premortal realm between Satan and those of Heavenly Father’s spirit children who chose to follow him, on the one hand, and those of His spirit children who chose to follow Heavenly Father’s plan and come to earth, on the other hand. See Revelation 12 in the Holy Bible.
I think [screen name redacted]’s example is a good one, though. One would think that a righteous desire, a purely spiritually-oriented goal, an effort to keep one of Heavenly Father’s commandments to seek out our kindred dead, would be something regarding which Heavenly Father would most readily grant blessings which His children seek. Opposition in all things, living in a fallen world, and similar conditions seem ever-present. I can only say that if we allow such “fallen-world” conditions to convince us that God doesn’t love us, then the Adversary wins even though he hasn’t persuaded us to commit any “great or malignant” sins, to use Joseph Smith’s phrase. Again, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him” (Job 13:15).
Bottom line? I think the extent to which any mortal—with limited powers of perception, cognition, reasoning, and so on—feels he can trust God is greatly influenced by what else that mortal believes about Him—what other attributes that mortal believes He possesses. With the Book of Mormon prophet-king Benjamin, I “[b]elieve in God; believe that He is, and that He created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend.”
Because of my personal experience with God—even though much of that experience involves perceiving Him only dimly, “through a glass, darkly,” to use the Apostle Paul’s phrase (1 Corinthians 13:12 KJV)—I know He exists. As the Book of Mormon prophet, Nephi, tells us of the Savior, so it is with His Father, too: “He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world” (2 Nephi 26:24).
It’s true that I don’t understand the reason why God does everything He does—and why He refrains from doing some things I might wish He would do (see Isaiah 55:8-9: God’s thoughts and His ways are higher than are our thoughts and our ways, because the heavens are higher than the earth)—but, whatever happens that I might wish doesn’t happen, and whatever doesn’t happen that I might wish would happen, my assurance of the fact that God loves His children, that He loves me, individually, is unshakable: Given life’s myriad utterly mystifying vicissitudes, if I give that up, what’s left?