Is God “Arbitrary” and “Capricious”? Some Thoughts on Trying to Understand God’s Inscrutable Mind Amid Life’s Challenges, Struggles, and Disappointments, and on Waiting for the Lord
By Ken K. Gourdin
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what, precisely, it means to “wait upon” the Lord. Personally, I like a particular clause from Isaiah 49:23, which says, “They shall not be ashamed that wait for me.” While the scripture may be referring to Christ’s first coming, to His second coming, or to both, there are various circumstances in which we “wait for” the Lord. The Apostle Paul writes of having courage enough to avoid succumbing to negativity despite various vexing circumstances—of being “troubled on every side, yet not distressed”; of being “perplexed, but not in despair”; of being “persecuted, but not forsaken”; of being “cast down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).
While I’m acutely aware that many people have waited for the Lord far longer than I have to be delivered from circumstances that are far more trying and far direr, I am a personal witness that we need not be vexed, or troubled, or distressed, or to despair, or to feel forsaken as we wait on the Lord to deliver us from such circumstances. However long we must wait, I know that ultimately, we will not be ashamed, no matter how many people in the great and spacious building of Lehi’s dream point their fingers at us and laugh, telling us, “You thought God was going to deliver you. Well, so much for that!” If we wonder, as did Joseph Smith, “O God, where art Thou, and where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:1). If we wonder, as Christ did, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Ultimately—sooner or later, however long we must wait for the Lord, however long and hard the road, whether deliverance comes in mortality or after—we need not be ashamed, and the Lord will deliver us.
I don’t think we do ourselves a service by concluding that the Lord is absent or that He is apathetic or that we’re simply not good enough when the answers don’t come, even though some of them may never come in mortality. Mortality is designed as a test: in some phases, it’s an open-book test, and we can use the scriptures as our guide. In some phases, even cheating is allowed when the Spirit whispers the answers to us. And in some phases, it’s a closed-book test in which neither of these resources seem immediately available to us. For some (perhaps many) of life’s trials, we won’t know the answers until the Lord reviews our lives with us and explains why it was that, at certain moments, He seemed absent, or apathetic, or silent.
I find tremendous comfort in this passage from Page 43 of Discourses of Brigham Young, which was included in his volume of Teachings of Presidents of the Church (Chapter 6):
If I ask [God] to give me wisdom concerning any requirement in life, or in regard to my own course, or that of my friends, my family, my children, or those that I preside over, and get no answer from him, and then do the very best that my judgment will teach me, he is bound to own and honor that transaction, and he will do so to all intents and purposes.
I think one of the key phrases from the endowment is “by their own experience.” If God is constantly leading us around as someone might lead a bull with a ring in its nose around, there will be limited (if any) value in this supposed testing period called mortality. Sometimes, just as an experimenter might alter conditions in a lab to observe the alteration’s effect, conditions here in mortality are altered—by God; by man’s inhumanity to man; by “hap crappening”; by one or more of life’s innumerable vicissitudes. Why? So God can see the alteration’s effect: “And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do whatsoever things the Lord their God shall command them.” Eve understood the importance of mortality as a test: “It is better for us to pass through sorrow, that we may know the good from the evil.”
I also like this, from Elder Dallin H. Oaks: https://www.lds.org/…timing?lang=eng.
We prepare in the way the Lord has directed. We hold ourselves in readiness to act on the Lord’s timing. He will tell us when the time is right to take the next step. For now, we simply concentrate on our own assignments and on what we have been asked to do today. In this we are also mindful of the Lord’s assurance: “I will hasten my work in its time” (D&C 88:73). . . .
The achievement of some important goals in our lives is subject to more than the timing of the Lord. Some personal achievements are also subject to the agency of others. . . .
. . . Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ prepares us for whatever life brings. This kind of faith prepares us to deal with life’s opportunities—to take advantage of those that are received and to persist through the disappointments of those that are lost. In the exercise of that faith, we should commit ourselves to the priorities and standards we will follow on matters we do not control and persist faithfully in those commitments, whatever happens to us because of the agency of others or the timing of the Lord. When we do this, we will have a constancy in our lives that will give us direction and peace. Whatever the circumstances beyond our control, our commitments and standards can be constant.
. . . If we have faith in God and if we are committed to the fundamentals of keeping His commandments and putting Him first in our lives, we do not need to plan every single event—even every important event—and we should not feel rejected or depressed if some things—even some very important things—do not happen at the time we had planned or hoped or prayed. . . .
Commit yourself to put the Lord first in your life, keep His commandments, and do what the Lord’s servants ask you to do. Then your feet are on the pathway to eternal life. Then it does not matter whether you are called to be a bishop or a Relief Society president, whether you are married or single, or whether you die tomorrow. You do not know what will happen. Do your best on what is fundamental and personal and then trust in the Lord and His timing. . . .
Whatever the case, no one who “waits for the Lord” ultimately will be ashamed.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about why God can seem so arbitrary and capricious in granting or delaying or withholding blessings. On a thread at Mormon Dialogue & Discussion, another poster commented on God’s seeming indifference or absence in regard to answers to prayer. Why, for example, are prayers over lost keys seemingly answered, while the prayers of the starving in Africa seemingly go ignored. In response, I pointed out that It’s not that [e.g., the prayers of the starving in Africa are ignored while prayers over seemingly-more-trivial matters such as lost keys are answered], and it’s not that, “Well, I always knew that Heavenly Dad loves you best!”, as one might say in a fit of “spiritual sibling rivalry.” It’s that God has his own purposes for granting or for delaying (or even for withholding) blessings, even if we don’t understand them. I agree: a lot of the things that happen in this Second Act wouldn’t make sense to me, either, if I didn’t know that there was a pre-mortal First Act and that there will be a post-mortal Third Act. The reason why the whole play doesn’t make sense is because we only know about the Second Act: We can’t remember the First Act, and the Third Act hasn’t been presented yet.
Also in response to that same poster, I pointed out that whether we see God (if he exists, as agnostics ask) as unfair depends a lot on the other qualities we believe He has. One poster skeptically asked, “Tender mercies for the children God really loves? Application of these tender mercies is totally capricious.” I responded, “To the mortal mind, perhaps,” and added that the hymn, God Moves in a Mysterious Way is one of my favorites:
God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.
He plants His footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm.
Ye fearful Saints, fresh courage take; the clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head.
His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour.
The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan His works in vain.
God is His own interpreter, and He will make it plain.
I also pointed out that whether we see God as arbitrary and capricious depends on what else we might believe about him. For example, I quoted 1 Corinthians 2:11—For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God”; and Isaiah 55:8-9—“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
I also pointed out that whether we see God as arbitrary and capricous depends on the other attributes we believe He has. “I realize,” I wrote, “that the implications of all of these answers can be quite complicated to the mortal mind, but the answers themselves are quite simple.” They are such questions as the following:
- Is God perfectly benevolent?
- Is He perfectly fair and just?
- Is He omniscient?
- Is He omnipotent?
- Does He love us?
- Is our trust in Him independent of what happens to us, even though we might not understand everything that happens to us?
If the answers to these questions are “Yes,” then I submit that this goes a long way to answering the sorts of questions and dilemmas posed in this thread. If He is perfectly benevolent, fair, just, omnipotent, and omniscient; if He loves us; and if our trust in Him is independent of what happens to us, then there must be reasons why He intervenes in some circumstances, but apparently not in others, even if we do not understand those reasons.
One of the reasons why life isn’t simple enough to be able to conclude that God—in His alleged arbitrariness and capriciousness—grants blessings to some of His children while delaying them (or even denying them outright) to others is because, whether we recognize it and want to admit it or not, all of us have fallen into each of those categories at various times. I shared my experience of undergoing two failed operations each of which was followed by completely immobilizing my lower body in plaster for six weeks, then learning that the wide medical consensus was that the best alternative was to try that same procedure—again!
I wrote that I believe Doctrine and Covenants 130:21: “And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.” For example, I believe there are blessings that accrue from obeying the law of chastity (that a man or a woman should only have sex with his or her spouse): I’m not going to get a sexually-transmitted infection if I don’t engage in behavior that puts me at risk for doing so; I’m going to avoid the potentially-deleterious effects (and, conversely, am more likely to enjoy good health) if I don’t drink, smoke, use illicit substances, or use licit substances in ways in which they are not prescribed. That’s the law of the harvest. I’ll reap what I sow: if I obey the Word of Wisdom (the prohibition in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints against coffee, tea, tobacco, alcohol, and harmful drugs), I lessen the chances of incurring consequences that will negatively impact my physical and spiritual health.
I also believe the scripture that says, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matthew 7:7 KJV). However, while I am far from perfect, and while there is a multitude of things I need to work on in order to improve my standing before God, I’m neither any better nor any worse than the average Latter-day Saint. Yet, from a certain perspective, it could be argued that I haven’t received at least some of the blessings that one might think should accrue from that level of faithfulness. What to do? I could conclude that such a state of affairs means that I’m not right before God or that He doesn’t love me, but I don’t think that’s it: I can’t explain why certain blessings I have earnestly sought have been withheld from me except to say that I don’t know exactly what His plan is for me, a la Isaiah 55:8-9.
Matthew 7:7 notwithstanding, we may pray for a certain obstacle or a certain burden to be removed, but what God does instead is open a different path around the obstacle or increase our strength to bear that particular burden. And while I may be “perplexed, but [hopefully] not in despair,” about why certain blessings apparently been delayed or withheld (or may even be denied me in this life), on the other hand, I have received clear, unmistakable witnesses of God’s love for me at key points in my life. I’ve written before of having undergone four surgical operations in a span of about 27 months: the first two each were followed by six weeks with my lower body completely immobilized in plaster, after which, when I was cut out of the cast, x-rays were taken, and I was informed that neither of the procedures was successful and that the conventional medical wisdom of the time was to try, yet again, a procedure which was similar to the first two. We got at least 3-4 different opinions, all of which said that same thing.
Instead, my parents found a surgeon who was willing to buck the weight of conventional medical opinion, to try a different procedure, and to opt for a postoperative course that could (but not necessarily would) not result in my being put into a body cast, but, rather, being allowed to recuperate in a wheelchair. My parents were much more cautious than I was: my optimism was much more unbridled; given everything I’d gone through to that point, perhaps a reasonable, sensible person would conclude that my optimism was, naive … pie-in-the-sky. I cannot explain why I felt such optimism, why I felt that I wouldn’t be put into a cast after either of the two operations he performed on me within a span of about three weeks’ time … why, when I took the matter to the Lord, including praying fervently on both occasions as I lay on an operating table waiting for the doctor and his team to “do their thing” … I felt such a sense of unbridled optimism and peace. I only know that I did, and the results were consistent with that sense of optimism. They were followed sixteen months later by another successful operation: I had misgivings about undergoing this one because, unlike the ones he’d performed previously, this particular surgeon told me I would definitely be put into a cast postoperatively … (I thought, “Well, even if it’s not what I would prefer, at least I know exactly what to expect this time”) … only for him to hedge on the day of the surgery, telling me, “Well, it depends on what I find when I get in there.” What happened? For the third time in a row, no cast.
In some ways, those failed operations and what followed set me back … permanently. I don’t know how someone completely recovers from something like that; if it does happen, I imagine it would have to be pretty rare. Sometimes, when I feel the rare urge to throw myself a Pity Party (but the trouble with Pity Parties is that the guest list rarely is more than one name long ), I ask myself why those two operations had to fail. Did the Lord have a purpose in it? I believe He did, if, even after all of these years, I don’t fully understand it (Isaiah 55:8-9). On the other hand, I’m still able to get around reasonably well. While some days are better than others, I’m able to walk (and otherwise to move) comparatively/relatively free of pain. Would that have happened had I not found the second surgeon who was willing to go out on a limb and try something different? I seriously doubt it; I would probably be in a wheelchair today if he hadn’t.
No one lives the kind of life I’ve lived without some serious emotional scars, in addition to physical trauma. While I’ve graduated three times (twice with honors), I’ve never quite been able to find a comfortable occupational niche. (Before I die, I would like to work one day for an employer who thinks I’m good for something besides answering phones! ) My professional aspirations have been derailed (perhaps permanently) by a lack of licensure, third (and advanced) degree notwithstanding, primarily, if not entirely, due to a complicated behavioral health history. (Every day, I wonder if getting that advanced degree was worth it: it seems that the only thing it did for me was put me under a massive load of seemingly-crushing debt with limited ability to repay it, since my earning power is circumscribed. I have spent the better part of the last 20 years crashing from one employment misadventure to the next, with long periods of unemployment and underemployment in between.
All of this, after receiving what I thought was a clear answer that I should pursue the most advanced degree I have received, and realizing (if only in retrospect) that there was no way I could have made it through my very tumultuous graduate education without divine help. (I’ve quoted Francis Webster’s account of his feeling like someone was pushing his handcart, but looking back and seeing no one, several times: that’s how I felt during most of my graduate education. Like Bro. Webster, I chose a spot in the distance where I said I would quit (usually the end of the semester), but, somehow, (and I don’t think I could have done it without God’s help), like Bro. Webster, I found the will and the wherewithal to keep going. I thought I’d finally reached the top of the mountain when I graduated, but I was denied licensure six months later. I had been giving serious thought to reapplying, and I sought a psychological evaluation in support of a new application … but the idiot who administered it to me concluded he thinks I may have a personality disorder. In doing so, he ignored an earlier evaluation that concluded that my particular diagnosis is in “sustained full remission.” I’d love to forget about the later eval and simply disclose the earlier one to licensing authorities, but if I do that, they would accuse me of lack of candor; but, of course, even if I disclose both of them to licensing authorities, they’ll give greater weight to the second one than to the first, because it’s more recent.
Meanwhile, my erstwhile professional aspirations now have been relegated to the status of a very expensive avocational hobby. Ironically, it seems that my strongest suits forever are destined to be used avocationally rather than vocationally. Why? I dunno. I don’t regret getting that particular degree, even though it hangs like an albatross around my neck and makes me overqualified for jobs for which I might otherwise be considered without it. I wonder every day if I should regret it. Generally, depening on what I’m applying for, I either: (1) list it, but disclose my lack of licensure; or (2) don’t bother listing it, and find creative ways to describe what I was doing with those several years I spent pursuing it. And, just as I sometimes do with those two earlier failed operations, I ask, “Lord, that was pretty much a waste, wasn’t it?” And in response, the Lord says, “Ken, don’t forget how you felt while waiting to be put to sleep on January 24 and February 14, 1984, and on June 7, 1985.” Those were my Oliver Cowdery, “Did-I-not-speak-peace-to-your-mind” moments (see Doctrine and Covenants 6:23).
I’d love for life to be an endless succession of found keys and miraculous cures and rainbows and sunshine and roses in response to earnest, fervent prayers. But for most of us, life is a mixed bag: sometimes, there are found keys, but if not, maybe there are kind locksmiths who help us out of our predicament without charging us nearly what their work is worth (or even without charging us at all); sometimes, there are miraculous cures, but if not, hopefully, there is strength to endure, and ability to see lessons learned from adverse circumstances, even if no cure is forthcoming (I’ve seen that, even though I’ve never had a terminal illness); there are rainbows, but maybe we have to live through torrential downpours in order to be granted the privilege of seeing them; there are roses, but, as the song says so well, “Every rose has its thorns” ; there are brilliant sunrises, but perhaps not before very dark, gloomy nights.
Too many of us Mormons have a Checklist™—go on a 2-year (or eighteen-month) proselyting mission; come home; go to school; pick a major; settle down; get married; graduate; start a career; et cetera—which is great when it works, unless it doesn’t. Doing what’s right isn’t simply a matter of checking things off of a list. If we happen to get blessings because of our faithfulness, all the better. Yes, God is merciful and benevolent, but He’s also a Sovereign. Though I don’t deny that He has blessed me, I don’t know why He hasn’t yet seen fit to grant blessings that, according to “The Checklist” ™, I should have gotten a long time ago. To borrow and slightly alter an expression purportedly used by Job, “The Lord giveth, and the Lord hath withheld. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” One thing I know for sure is that (as I have said on the Blog before; see here (last accessed October 13, 2015: https://greatgourdini.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/on-gods-injustice/). God isn’t Santa Claus, giving “presents” to those who are “good” while giving “lumps of coal” to those who are not. (Heck, for someone who’s supposed to be so good at giving out “lumps of coal” to the wicked, God sure seems to have doled them out a lot of diamonds, instead! Same substance … carbon … simply exposed to heat and pressure for a different period of time!)
The reality is, many of the “wicked” are going to do better, at least in the short run and at least in material (and other measurable) terms than many of the righteous are. The reality is, quid pro quo obedience, while we who have been denied some blessings here in mortality stomp our widdo feet and shake our widdo fists at how unfair the Sovereign Lord of the Universe is being, doesn’t work very well. By and large, we should obey (and should do the good things we do as a result) because such obedience is its own reward, because it fills our souls and makes us happy rather than because of anything we expect from God. As Rabbi Harold Kushner said, “Expecting to have a trouble-free life because you are a good person is like expecting the bull not to charge you because you’re a vegetarian.” As the GEICO campaign might put it, “Bulls charge people: It’s what they do.” Similarly, there’s no escaping the fact that sometimes, life simply sucks; its what it does.
And even the best blessings we could possibly hope for in mortality pale in comparison to the blessings we can expect thereafter if we remain faithful. When it comes to mortality, though, those who expect too much, even from God, had best take the advice of the Dread Pirate, “Roberts,” in his conversation with Inigo Montoya as the two prepare to duel in the film, The Princess Bride. Intrigued by some of the clues he lets slip during that conversation (and suspecting he may be the six-fingered man whom Inigo has sought since he was a boy) Inigo asks him, “Who are you?” “Roberts” replies, “No one of consequence.” Whereupon Inigo insists, “I must know.” And “Roberts” says, “Get used to disappointment.”
Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints points out that many of our goals—even our most righteous, worthy, noble goals—cannot be brought to pass without someone else choosing to exercise his free will in a particular manner. Elder Oaks says:
[S]ome of our most important plans cannot be brought to pass without the agency and actions of others. A missionary cannot baptize five persons this month without the agency and action of five other persons. A missionary can plan and work and do all within his or her power, but the desired result will depend upon the additional agency and action of others.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks (October 2003) “Timing,” Ensign, accessed on line at the following address on October 13, 2015: https://www.lds.org/ensign/2003/10/timing?lang=eng.
While I am no longer a full-time missionary, the same principle applies to me: I cannot Become One with someone else who meets my single, indispensable, non-negotiable qualification of reciprocating my interest (or I hers) unless and until someone else does, indeed, choose to reciprocate my interest (or I hers). (In the meantime, if no one can really see what she’s looking at, that’s not my problem: subject to other commitments, I have the the ability to come, to go, and to do as I please; to eat what I want when I want; to do or to see what I want without wondering what she will think of me for wanting to do it or to see it; and so on. Are these things a pale imitation or a poor alternative to Becoming One with someone? Perhaps, but I’m a pragmatist: I’ll take what I can get.) I cannot get a job out of which I may be able to make a career unless and until someone chooses to hire me. And so on.
Perhaps (indeed, it’s even likely) that the women who haven’t reciprocated my interest to a sufficient degree to choose to pursue the possibility of exploring our mutual eternal suitability have had reasons, reasons not a few and reasons good and sound, for not doing so. Perhaps (and again, it’s even likely) that the employers who haven’t seen fit to give me the opportunities I’ve hoped to get have had reasons, reasons not a few and reasons good and sound, for not doing so. And Christ died to give people the free will that those people used in making those decisions. Who am I to question that?
Regarding the issue of proper timing, Elder Oaks also said (and while he was speaking of spiritual or ecclesiastical matters rather than of mortal or temporal matters when he said it, I believe it applies equally to matters in both spheres):
We prepare in the way the Lord has directed. We hold ourselves in readiness to act on the Lord’s timing. He will tell us when the time is right to take the next step. For now, we simply concentrate on our own assignments and on what we have been asked to do today.
Oaks, “Timing,” Id.
Reinforcing the idea that the Lord often has his own timetable, both for events that occur on a larger, macro scale and for those that occur on a smaller, micro scale, later in that same address, Elder Oaks also said:
The Lord’s timing also applies to the important events of our personal lives. A great scripture in the Doctrine and Covenants declares that a particular spiritual experience will come to us “in his own time, and in his own way, and according to his own will” (D&C 88:68). This principle applies to revelation 2 and to all of the most important events in our lives: birth, marriage, death, and even our moves from place to place.
Oaks, “Timing,” Id.
In a similar vein on another occasion, Elder Oaks also spoke of the elements of a priesthood blessing, including the will of the Lord, and, again, his counsel on that occasion is more broadly applicable that it is limited to that single subject. He said:
Will of the Lord
Young men and older men, please take special note of what I will say now. As we exercise the undoubted power of the priesthood of God and as we treasure His promise that He will hear and answer the prayer of faith, we must always remember that faith and the healing power of the priesthood cannot produce a result contrary to the will of Him whose priesthood it is. This principle is taught in the revelation directing that the elders of the Church shall lay their hands upon the sick. The Lord’s promise is that “he that hath faith in me to be healed, and is not appointed unto death, shall be healed” (D&C 42:48; emphasis added). Similarly, in another modern revelation the Lord declares that when one “asketh according to the will of God … it is done even as he asketh” (D&C 46:30).
From all of this we learn that even the servants of the Lord, exercising His divine power in a circumstance where there is sufficient faith to be healed, cannot give a priesthood blessing that will cause a person to be healed if that healing is not the will of the Lord.
As children of God, knowing of His great love and His ultimate knowledge of what is best for our eternal welfare, we trust in Him. The first principle of the gospel is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and faith means trust. I felt that trust in a talk my cousin gave at the funeral of a teenage girl who had died of a serious illness. He spoke these words, which first astonished me and then edified me: “I know it was the will of the Lord that she die. She had good medical care. She was given priesthood blessings. Her name was on the prayer roll in the temple. She was the subject of hundreds of prayers for her restoration to health. And I know that there is enough faith in this family that she would have been healed unless it was the will of the Lord to take her home at this time.” I felt that same trust in the words of the father of another choice girl whose life was taken by cancer in her teen years. He declared, “Our family’s faith is in Jesus Christ and is not dependent on outcomes.” Those teachings ring true to me. We do all that we can for the healing of a loved one, and then we trust in the Lord for the outcome.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks (April 2010) “Healing the Sick,” Ensign, accessed on line at https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2010/04/healing-the-sick?lang=eng on July 18, 2015.
“Do[ing] all that we can” and “then trust[ing] in the Lord for the outcome” is a principle that is more broadly applicable than simply to healing from sickness or to priesthood blessings. Such trust is indispensable because, often, we don’t understand the Lord’s timing, His purposes, or His way of doing things.
In a similar vein, C.S. Lewis once wrote:
“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”