Note: This is adapted from a talk, which is why it sounds kind of like…a talk.
In the book Brothers Karamazov, there’s a famous passage in which Ivan Karamazov, a passionate intellectual and atheist, is discussing what is known as “the problem of evil” with his younger brother, Alyosha. Alyosha is a devout Christian, striving to live a life filled with compassion in the brutal, miserable setting of 19th century rural Russia. Ivan tells the tragic story of a small child, a serf, who is sent to a painful and arbitrary death on the whim of a cruel master, despite the child’s prayers to be saved.
Ivan uses the story as a powerful argument against God, whether He exists or not. He proclaims, essentially, that he would rather opt out entirely than be a part of a system that requires the suffering of children. It’s a passage that has become a foundational piece of the theological and philosophical back and forth on the nature of God and agency, but there’s one particular point that I wanted to pick out of the story and talk about: the little boy’s prayers, and their failure to save him from evil.
The story in Brothers Karamazov is fictional, but you don’t have to go very far to find countless examples of equally saddening depravities. They’re numerous in the scriptures, but they also appear every day in the news, both here at home and in far flung corners of the world. Though rarely as dramatic, devastating events happen in our own lives and in the lives of our friends and family. The reality of life is that bad things happen to good or innocent people constantly, despite an equally constant tide of prayers aimed at keeping all of those personal tragedies at bay. On balance, it seems extremely difficult to make the case that faith-based prayer has any effect at all, at least as far as deflecting from the supplicants everything that life throws at them.
To the Ivans of the world, the fact that God could ignore the prayer of a child pleading for his life, much less the countless other petitions sent to heaven each day, is an unpardonable offense against Him. To them, the explanation has to be either that God simply does not exist, and that’s why the prayers go unanswered and cruelties perpetuate themselves, or worse, God simply doesn’t care or is cruel Himself. What God would create a world where children suffer and die at the hands of evil men with no intercession from an omnipotent being? How can God be moral and also watch passively while these kinds of things happen?
On its face, it’s a potent argument. Countless Christians and other believers have lost their faith because of an inability to reconcile with the question of evil, the seeming inutility of prayer as a tool against human suffering, the indifference God seems to show to a humanity that proves over and over to be locked in a cycle of self-destruction. If God won’t fix it despite our faith, then why bother?
This is where Latter-day Saints should feel incredibly blessed to have the understanding of the Plan of Salvation that they do, because without that understanding, it can be painfully difficult to reconcile the question of evil, and even if you can, Ivan has one more argument that sinks even the devout Alyosha:
“Imagine,” Ivan says, “that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”
“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly.”
Based on the information he has, Alyosha is probably right to agree with Ivan. Knowing what he knows, I wouldn’t consent, either. Not because I agree with Ivan that no eternal end could justify the temporal means, but because I simply lack the necessary perspective, love, and compassion possessed by a God willing to allow his own children to choose suffering for the sake of their own eternal good. Not only that, a God willing not just to allow his own children to suffer in a way that would cause him to feel an infinite sadness of which only God is capable, but who was willing to sacrifice his own son to take on that debt of suffering that could only be reconciled through atonement.
Moreover, when one considers that Christ himself was an architect of the Plan of Salvation, it becomes clear that in a way, God didn’t just allow his son to be sacrificed, God sacrificed himself. The atonement is often cast as a perfect act of mercy, which it is, but it is also a perfect act of fairness in which God says, “not only am I willing to ask you to come to this world and experience this suffering, I will meet you there and I will take every ounce of it on my own back in order to make certain that each one of you has the opportunity to make it to the other side.” There was no suffering that Christ would ask of us that he wasn’t willing to suffer himself.
What then, is the role of faith, in this process? Everyone on earth will undergo tragedy and pain over the course of their lives, regardless of whether or not they possess faith in Christ or faith in anything at all. Faith does not prevent trials. It can’t. Were God to grant us the power to prevent pain by having sufficient faith, to use prayer as a shield against both the natural processes of the world and the misguided or evil choices of our cohabitants, he would be destroying the engine of his own plan and removing from us the means of our salvation.
In America and elsewhere, in the church and outside of it, many have bought into the theology of the “Gospel of Wealth,” in which to be righteous is to be prosperous, to be insulated from the material costs of mortal life, and hopefully to be given the closest thing to an opportunity to make it through our earthly test relatively free of pain and suffering. It seems more likely to me, however, that we are simply enjoying the fruits of a happy coincidence that we are currently living in one of the richest and most peaceful countries in the world at a time where there is ample room for us to practice our faith. This is a historical anomaly for both the world in general and for Christ’s church in particular. I am more than happy to be living in a time when I don’t have to worry about being stoned, or fed to lions, or chased from my home, or having to watch church leaders be killed by angry mobs. It is relatively easy to be faithful under these circumstances, because by all indicators, it feels as though our faith is closely correlated with peace, happiness, and prosperity.
But what happens when that changes? What happens when despite the fortuitous circumstances in which we live, tragedy finally shows up at our doorstep? This is where faith starts to really matter. Not when all that faith requires is to read scriptures and say family prayers, but when it requires wrestling with the death of a loved one, a burned down house, financial ruin, or any of the other countless things that can go wrong even in a country like ours where things tend to go right for most people most of the time.
I don’t mean to argue that at its mean, faith provides no positive benefits. I believe that faith brings happiness, that through faith we can work miracles, that faith has value even when everything is going right. Even if we do somehow go through life without suffering any significant personal setbacks, faith in Christ is still the only means to salvation.
What I am saying is that regardless of how much faith one has, bad things will still happen to you, and that even if you have perfect faith, it seems as likely as not that those bad things will come to their logical conclusion, that divine intercession in the material hardship of life will be the rare exception rather than the rule. There are examples in the scriptures of faith in the face of trials yielding miraculously positive results. Paul, in Hebrews, explores scriptural examples of faith’s positive outcomes in some depth:
“By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac. By faith Moses … refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt. …By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king. …By faith they passed through the Red sea as by dry land. …By faith the walls of Jericho fell down. [Others] through faith subdued kingdoms, … obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight.”
In all of those examples, great faith led to great miracles. But Paul also saw that great faith often led only to a faithful death at the hands of one’s persecutors, going on to point out that “others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, … bonds and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about … being destitute, afflicted, tormented.”
For every Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego walking out of the fiery furnace unscathed, there is at least one corresponding tale like the one in which the unwavering denizens of Ammonihah are cast, man, woman, and child, into the fire with a prayer on their lips. And to what end?
“God having provided some better things for them through their sufferings, for without sufferings they could not be made perfect.”
Everyone suffers. It’s part of the plan. Faith will not prevent us from suffering. What it will do is make suffering that seems arbitrary, cruel, and pointless instead become meaningful and perfecting. Without faith, the existentialists are right and the world is nothing but an absurdity where all one can do is cast about in the darkness trying to forge some kind of logic where none exists. It is our faith in Christ, in Heavenly Father, and in the Plan of Salvation that reifies the inherent meaning of mortal existence in a way that is otherwise impossible.
The real miracle of faith is not found in moving mountains. The real miracle of faith is that every day it allows us to take the raw material of our limited human existence and transform it into something eternal. It is the tool by which, when given an endless array of inputs, good and bad, and an equally endless number of outcomes, we are able to select the outcome that leads us to God. As Terrell Givens put it, in The God Who Weeps, “The call to faith is not some test of a coy god, waiting to see if we “get it right.” It is the only summons, issued under the only conditions, which can allow us fully to reveal who we are, what we most love, and what we most devoutly desire. Without constraint, without any form of mental compulsion, the act of belief becomes the freest possible projection of what resides in our hearts…The greatest act of self-revelation occurs when we choose what we will believe, in that space of freedom that exists between knowing that a thing is, and knowing that a thing is not.”
As I see it, Ivan can never understand why a little child would be allowed to suffer and die for three key reasons. The first is that he does not understand the Plan of Salvation and is therefore unable to comprehend that there is the possibility that a plan could exist in which such unspeakable horror could be justified without being excused. The second is that, unlike Alyosha, he fails utterly to comprehend the love of the Savior and his willingness to justify that suffering personally by taking it upon himself, both the physical and the spiritual consequences. Third, because he has no faith himself, he cannot comprehend that faith in that eternal sacrifice by the Savior is the medium by which such events cease to be arbitrary and cruel and instead take on eternal meaning and import.
Alyosha, on the other hand, as familiar with the suffering that surrounds him as his brother, instead of seeing it as the negation of God’s plan, uses it as a driving force to become more Christ-like, to exhibit greater compassion, and through his example and his works, to bring others to Christ and thereby make some dent in the vast quantity of quotidian human tragedy.
This is our challenge, too: not to think of faith as a shield against suffering, but as the means of transforming it into perfection, and then to transfer that perfection to the world around us. In that way, we ourselves become the vessels of faith that lessen human suffering, creating within our own personal sphere at least one little holdout on this mortal earth where instead of pain, people find kindness, compassion, and love.
4 thoughts on “Faith and Karamazovs”
Great thoughts. Sometimes I wonder if faith is even the cause of the kinds of miracles Paul describes, or if faith is simply the power that allows people to stick with it long enough to witness the miracle. But it seems like there are plenty of examples to the contrary.
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that’s a really interesting idea about sticking it out long enough to witness the miracle. I have a really hard time reconciling the question of why a miracle happens in one situation but not another, even though in both situations there may be a demonstration of great faith. it’s something I think about a lot.
I’m glad I found this blog. There are not many Christians interested in existentialism, let alone Mormons. I’ve thought about this sort of topic for a while, and haven’t reached any settled conclusions yet, but I’m going to throw out some thoughts, and see what you make of them, if you are interested.
I have a lot of trouble seeing any utility in the traditional idea of prayer, firstly because when I pray, and I have prayed a lot, for a long time, I feel nothing, I may as well be talking in a foreign language, or reciting a single word on end for a duration of time, so it fails that basic existential test. Secondly, I simply don’t know what to pray about. Am I praying for the right things? Do I really mean it, or am I saying it because I think I should? What if I do not have anything at all to pray about? Thirdly, retreading the same ground as Ivan, the idea that my petition to God through prayer could have some causal act here on earth is utterly grotesque, considering the untold horror that countless people have suffered here on earth. The implications of this are utterly shocking, and I don’t think are understood properly by almost everyone.
I think the idea of prayer needs radical revision, if it is to be of any use to anyone in the future. If you have any thoughts, or would like me to clarify anything, please let me know.
Hi Clark, I definitely sympathize and empathize with where you’re coming from and I agree with a lot of what you’re saying here. I’ll say this: I think whether you feel something or not, prayer is a good in itself. There’s something about pouring out your soul to God, asking for help, asking for a changed heart, expressing gratitude, that is good in and of itself, even if the result is not always some kind of powerful spiritual experience. Prayer changes people.