By Jacob Baker
Art by Galen Dara
I am an instrument already rotten. I am too worn out. And even if I believed in the possibility of God’s consenting to repair the mutilations of my nature, I could not bring myself to ask it of him. Such a request would seem to me an offense against the infinitely tender love which has made me the gift of affliction
The following is a meditation on divine omniscience and the problem of evil, portrayed in the form of an apologue. An apologue is a kind of fable or allegorical story with pointed or exaggerated details, meant to serve as a vehicle for a moral doctrine or to convey a useful lesson without stating it explicitly. Unlike a fable, the moral is more important than the narrative details. As with the parable, the apologue is a tool of rhetorical argument used to convince or persuade or highlight a theme. Narrative seemed to be the most useful way to articulate my thoughts on these matters, as unskilled a narrator as I might be, and as abstract as the details appear. Please, then, forgive the rough edges.
At certain point in my life (after my mortal death), I was with him. I wasn’t with him for the first time—or even for the second or millionth time—it was more that I became aware that he had always been a presence within an absence—sometimes a little less absent, sometimes a little more present. I could make him out in vague yet detailed outline, sometimes starkly explicit, sometimes blurry and inchoate. But what I could perceive I perceived with intimate familiarity, my perception precisely proportionate with the extent that I had come to know him and recognize him in life. (Mother was there, too, I felt certain. But I could not see her. Only later—much later—did I realize that this was because I did not know her.)
I waited in silence.
He waited as well.
I had decided long ago what I would like do in this moment. At the beginning, I could only think about my plan triumphantly, arrogantly, covered over in sheets of rage. As time passed, however, the rage had been replaced with quiet pain. Even after I had resumed speaking to him (after a long absence), the pain remained: a familiar, hollow wound, as if it had always been a part of me, no different or less essential than an arm or an ear. My plan for this moment had not changed in all that time.
He already knew all this, of course. He knew what had happened, how it had affected me, and what I would have liked to have done about it. Yet he waited with what seemed to be a surprising urgency, an unmistakable anticipation, though surely genuine anticipation was not a reality for one such as he.
The moment had arrived. But I did not speak. I was weary: weary of having lived with this for so long, exhausted from obsessively and single-mindedly devising what I would say during our first face-to-face encounter. No, let him speak, I decided. He could tell me what I felt, what I experienced.
I thought I heard him say that he had indeed witnessed all that occurred, that he had been with them—in his way—as they died, and with me in the aftermath: in this and all other horrors I experienced. And that he knew something of what I would like to say.
Yes, you know everything, I thought bitterly. I already knew that. This entire exercise was so pointless.
But fire lit my eyes, tears streamed down my face, and I could not hold it in: How could it happen? So many griefs; but that one event, that one slow, never-ending descent into hell itself; left so thoroughly shattered that every moment of every day was a thousand piercing shards under the flesh. No one could have survived it unbroken. There were some days when I could not bear to watch their suffering, when I hid from them behind a crumbling wall of irrelevant responsibility for this or that—somewhere else I had to be, anywhere else but under the merciless heat of their agonized cries. My cowardice murdered me every day afterward. Because I couldn’t bear to be with them in every moment. I wept again, thinking now how terribly important my own pain had been to me, when I should have been everything for them.
This abject, all-consuming pain had not made me better, it hadn’t given me perspective, it hadn’t broken my heart open so I could love others more freely and deeply or worship more profoundly. I was familiar with that kind of suffering. I had experienced trying times that had refined me and made me more compassionate, strong, and wise. But this . . . this was no trial. This had been a death sentence. And millions upon millions could say the same of their own horrors.
Overcome, I bowed my head. I couldn’t face him. Eventually, I whispered: I discovered the worst thing about you. My greatest, most terrible revelation—a Hammer of the Gods if there ever was one. Worse than mutilated, starving bodies and burning children or watching your little ones die slow deaths that grind their minds into oblivion before the end—worse than all unrelenting suffering of the vilest sort. I knew the usual responses to these accusations: Because free will. Because soul-making. Because we made the choice to come here in some distant past existence. Because the Incarnation, where you descend from your throne to suffer with us. None of these were satisfactory. The suffering still stood.
But do you know what was, is, and always will be worse than all of that? You steal our words and meanings, our broken responses, halting half-answers, and frantic explanations for the horrors of the world. And then you replace them with nothing. You know all, and so there is nothing we can tell you; nothing that you haven’t perfectly anticipated since the moment of creation. You wrench from us the right to tell the universe, each other, even ourselves, what happened, to tell and write our stories as if they actually mattered, to send our own revelations hurtling back toward heaven as if you might learn something from us about what it’s really like to be stranded on this miserable rock in the galactic middle of nowhere. But our stories are already engraved in the vast repository of All Knowledge. It waits for us to open our mouths and then cuts us short with our own words, flinging them back at us: they’ve already been said, already been known, already been fitted and filled with meaning.
So here I stand before you at last, after a lifetime of waiting, eager to throw that greatest of all injustices back in your face: this hot burning mass of infinite justice, coming for you, more powerful than the raging fire of a trillion suns. Nothing can stop it. Not even you. In the end, the most you can muster in your celestial majesty will be to say, “I knew this would happen. I already know your heart. I already know your words. I already know that you have gathered all this from the distant corners of Creation for one final assault against me. Nevertheless I love you and have been with you, and I want you to come home and be with me again.”
But that very knowledge is your own undoing. That precise knowledge welds the killing tip to the spear, and you stand condemned, like a terrible Atlas holding the nightmares of hell on your shoulders. And while the children of creation give painful birth to their words and labor to bring forth hard-won meaning, you tell them you know their sufferings better than they do because you have penetrated parts of their souls they cannot see, because you have descended below them to dark places they cannot imagine, and this somehow gives you the right to save or damn them. You walk in the most secret and sacred gardens of our hearts where even we cannot walk, where some of us will never visit, and when we finally pry open our hearts after so much travail and suffering, ragged with weariness, we find that you’ve already been there, that those sacred paths are covered with your footprints, that your name is etched like graffiti into the walls, claiming our innermost depths as your own territory.
So go on. Tell me you were there too, suffering beside me, neck deep in the blood and mud of your creation, shaken and wracked by its cries. All of your fellow-suffering cannot touch the injustice of this: the deprivation of my innermost self, your unwillingness to let me genuinely reveal myself to you, and for you to receive me as if I truly had. No matter your own overtures on behalf of humankind, you stand condemned of murdering our humanity. We mortals are no more than the undead to you. You unashamedly gaze into every nook and cranny of our being, denying us our own creative life, turning us into mindless things, always and forever helpless before the beam of your perfect knowledge. Job had the right of it:
If only there were an arbiter who could lay his hand on us both, who could make you put down your club and hold back your terrible arm. Then, without fear, I would say, you have not treated me justly. But I want to speak before God, to present my case in God’s court. Will you blindly stand on his side, pleading his case alone? Be quiet now—let me speak; whatever happens will happen. I will take my flesh in my teeth, hold my life in my hands. He may kill me but I won’t stop; I will speak the truth, to his face. But I speak and my pain keeps raging; I am silent, and have no relief. I cry out and you do not answer; I am silent, and you do not care.
I bowed my head wearily and closed my eyes.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity, he seemed to speak.
What did he know of me? In which of my gardens had he walked? Into which abysses had he dived? There was much he knew of me, yes, gleaned from certain acts of creation and long eons of walking with me, conversing with me, observing my lives before, during, and now after the brief period of mortal life. There was even much he knew about me that I didn’t fully understand, or had forgotten, about myself. But this was mere data. What did he actually know of me?
Then silence again, but of a different texture, as if he were far away, carried off by an overpowering memory. Eventually he seemed to speak: It is often said that atonement is incomprehensible, but that is not quite right. To be at one with another is inexhaustible of comprehension; what is learned and experienced is Truth, but what is learned and experienced is never total—never the final understanding nor the ultimate solution to anything. At-one-ment is infinite not because it is impossible for finite minds to understand, not because it covers all forever, but because it is a never-ending mutuality of hiddenness revealed: an eternal dance of life-givenness. Atonement is the eternal insistence on Life. And where there is Life, there he is.
Love, then, is many things, but most importantly, it is the revealing of Life to itself, the willing and eager uncovering of Life to that which has Life. In this way, all life is prayer, the surging restlessness of trillions of beings opening and revealing and calling out to that which is hidden—hidden always and forever until revealed—by invoking the other, calling, crying out—to cells, trees, animals, the earth, the stars, persons, God: Look! Here I am! An offering; a secret freely revealed, naked and unashamed, seeking love and safety. And Life lives because to give in such a way is to risk rejection of one’s offered gifts, which is death. No life, no love, without death.
I had sought revelation from him; He also sought it from me. He could not know the depths of my heart until I offered them to him. He had given me his heart in oh so many ways, some of which I understood and others of which I yet lacked the eyes to see. The meanings and stories for which I had paid such a dear price were real, and were mine to give. No meaning or interpretation was categorical, all-encompassing, or final.
The moment we open our mouths to speak suffering, the infinite becomes the finite and we wade through a sea of utter insufficiency and half-truths, enduring a million gaping mouths and furrowed brows and shaken heads. But the finite is this moment, where all Life is lived, and this moment always weighs more than the whole universe—than even infinite universes. Answers cannot be imposed from the outside. If he gave answers, if he communicated meanings, I was not bound to accept them, because, as all eventually learn, questions and answers are of no ultimate import because they are not what is being addressed. Rather, a whole, eternal, ever-evolving person is being answered.
I seem to recall only one question posed to me—one that was thoroughly my own: “Did the Messiah come before my death?” (Of course he hadn’t. I was just one of billions who had lived and died without the coming of the Messiah. Surely he knew this.)
But he seemed to say that there are as many ways that the Messiah will and will not come as there are ways of loving. Most importantly (as it had once been said): the Messiah will not come until he is no longer needed. At that moment we will turn to one another and make our voices for the first time, deciding our own fates and creating our own meanings. And we will finally be free: the most terrible and wondrous thing we can be. Then we will create our worlds and give ourselves to our creations and bleed and groan under the weight of them, crying out in forsakenness to the heavens, searching in vain for the divine, and only after all this will the Messiah appear, and only then will we be like him and see him as he is, and only then will we realize that he had been there all along, for his eyes will now be our own. He will be more familiar than anything we have ever known. And we will fall upon his neck and he upon ours and we will kiss each other.
And then how shall we live? Is this the end of the story? An endless Zion?
He seemed to shake his head, and the story of Enoch came to my mind. He is swept up into God’s presence and shown the vast expanse of the universe and the greatness of God’s dominion, leaving Enoch amazed at the power of this being, able to do anything he wills, living in a painless realm of beauty and joy—the place we all yearn to inhabit: the one we’ve been promised if we are righteous and law-abiding. Then God shows Enoch the endless acts of wickedness his children commit, the infinite sea of suffering they struggle upon.
And God weeps.
Enoch is taken aback that such a being as God would suffer with such ghastly intensity. But then Enoch himself cannot help weeping at the scene, his heart swelling wide as eternity, his bowels yearning, eternity shaking. Enoch experiences, as perhaps no one had or would in scripture—not Nephi with his vision of the end of his people, not John with his revelation of the Apocalypse—what it is like to live God’s life—as one who is intensely connected to all the events and lives of the universe.
And, oh what joy Enoch does not feel from this experience. He weeps bitterly and refuses to be comforted. Why? Because this could not be it. This could not be all there is for all eternity, worlds without end. Enoch realizes that the essence of becoming like God—the heart and core of the Good News—is not that we can escape to a realm free of pain and suffering. It is that we can become beings who can and will endure the present of all moments: wave after infinite wave of pain, suffering, and evil along with the waves of joy and goodness. All of it. All the time.
That is not what the sick and dying want to hear, is it? Indeed, Jesus’ initial response in the terrible Garden was that he would that he might not drink the bitter cup and shrink. And he didn’t shrink—until he was on the cross, until he had borne more than he knew how to bear and cried out in anguish that God had abandoned him. It was in that moment, perhaps, more than any other, that he finally, and truly, and terribly, became one with us, one of us, down here in this miserable hell-hole where little children are tortured and killed and entire generations are exterminated in genocidal slaughter. No, don’t come down here to be with us, humanity seemed to say. It’s more horrible than you can imagine. Stay in those celestial spheres where disease doesn’t humiliate you by taking your mind before it takes your life. We’re too terrible to save, this race of beings that don’t just butcher one another but find ghastly ways to make each other suffer before the end.
But in celestial spheres, there is weeping. And the swelling of hearts. And the shaking of eternity. The terrible truths of the living universe penetrate deeply. Those spheres are shaken. They are destabilized, pierced over and over again by our cries and anguish.
What kind of vision of God is this? What kind of salvation is this: to never escape suffering? To, in fact, gain the ability and opportunity to suffer more intensely than we can imagine?
Feeding the hungry, healing the sick, lifting up the hands that hang down, weeding, dunging, trimming, pruning the vineyard, weeping that we can’t do any more but realizing that there is still more to be done—always more to be done. This is the life of a God: not eternal bliss, but tasks to be accomplished, injustices to make right in this eternal present.
Gods may have bodies that can’t get sick and die. Gods may live with their families forever. But the work that they do together—trying to persuade their children to be better, love a little more deeply, help those in need—is all there is and all there ever will be. Together their hearts swell in agony, and their bowels yearn for justice, and as a family they weep over the sufferings and deaths of their little ones, who will one day be doing that same work with them, shoulder to shoulder, engaged in that eternal, terrible, joyful soulwork.
To be a god is to say:
Once more into the breach, dear friends.
Once more, covered in blood and mud.
I was so tired; my burdens so heavy. I understood what he had said, and I appreciated the simplicity of his words. I understood that he gazed on an infinite expanse, that he had seen so much—yet not all. And because of that, he would stay, eternally rooted, in the face of the not-all—an act that would take me eons to comprehend. But I had also been through much—lost so much. Even with much of it restored in one fashion or another, my memories could not be changed or erased. And despite his words, I was, to my surprise, still angry. Still damaged. Hurting. My wounds were engraved in me.
And then I realized.
So were his.
For so long, his silence had pierced me to the core. For so long, my cries of anguish and prayers of lamentation were prolonged in suffering. Only the slow geology of years and distance had provided any relief. I had so many words, yet . . . they were still unspeakable.
His silence was piercing. Mine would have to be, too, for now. I wasn’t ready. I wanted to be. But at the moment, this was all I had.
I sat down on the ground and calmly looked up. Arrayed in silence, I gave him nothing.
In silence he sat down beside me. And waited.