God can’t give you what he doesn’t have

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I served for a year as a volunteer chaplain in a hospital in Colorado. As I went from room to room to offer conversation, prayer, and the Blessed Sacrament, I met people from all kinds of backgrounds, from a Hollywood set designer and a restaurant owner to a stay-at-home mom and a rare-book dealer. Illness is a great equalizer.

But the person that sticks most in my mind is an elderly African-American woman. Her hair was thin and gray, her face worn by age and disease, but her eyes shone with a kindly light and her voice was strong and clear. I don’t remember her name or much of what we talked about, apart from one deeply profound encounter. 

We talked about coping with suffering. Having just spent a year in graduate-level theology studies, I most likely was sharing some quote from St. Augustine on how evil is just a privation of the good — the sort of thing that is technically true but not especially helpful to anyone outside of a classroom. She listened to me politely, sitting with stooped shoulders but looking me straight in the eye and nodding along as I spoke. Then she said, “People say, ‘God gave me cancer.’ But that’s nonsense. There ain’t no cancer in God. How can God give you something he doesn’t have?”

I was floored in that moment. All the pages I had read and moments spent in contemplation could not have produced that pearl; only a life of holiness and faith in God could. I’ve been trying to unpack this simple and wise phrase ever since.

We know that God is the maker of all things and that God’s providence orders all things. When we experience so many evils in the world — death and suffering and all the things that cause them, including cancer — we think that God must have made these things, too. But this is a big mistake! 

God is goodness itself, the source of all that is good, and everything that exists is good. He is so good that he created us so that he could love us and share his life with us. When Adam and Eve fell, they brought nature down with them, so that all of creation, and the relationship between humanity and nature, was broken. The universe is lacking that fullness of goodness it should have — it’s a little darker than it ought to be.

This means, as St. Augustine told us, that evil is not a thing itself; instead, evil is what we call it when something is missing something it ought to have — when a body is lacking health or an eye is lacking sight. There is nothing lacking in God, nothing that comes up short, nothing that isn’t what it ought to be. Anything that comes from God is only goodness. It is our world’s brokenness and our human sinfulness that seep into things, cracking them up.

In 1 John 1:5 we read, “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.” That elderly, dying woman may not have been able to quote the chapter and verse (though she might have!), but she certainly knew its truth. There is no cancer or heart disease, no pain or suffering, in God. There is only the goodness that loved us into existence and draws us to God himself. 

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