142 Is God a Utilitarian?

Earlier this month, two nuns were viciously attacked outside a church in Malacca, Malaysia. One of them, Sister Juliana, later succumbed from her injuries. The incident only made a small tab in the Straits Times- a little mention, a passing reference before the world moved on to bigger things, greater catastrophes, Events rather than Incidents.

Sister Juliana was a good friend of my mother’s godmother. We received word of the attack one day before the papers were published. It felt strange to be on the other side of the news, and it made me wonder about all the other little incidents that I always skim past in the papers, all the reports that I don’t deem interesting or scandalizing enough to peruse hungrily.

“Whatever you learn about people, however bad they turn out, each one of them has a heart, and each one of them was once a tiny baby sucking his mother’s milk...” –Graham Swift, ‘Waterland’

Before I go off on a tangent about the stories behind the articles we read, however, the primary thing that gave me pause about this was: how could God allow nuns to be so viciously attacked? Why give suffering to those who have given up everything to follow Him? I do not ask why the assailants made their choice, but rather, believing that there is a foreordained path for all of us and that God guides us along this with a firm and sure hand, I wondered why the Sisters’ path had taken such a dark and dangerous route.

“Do you think God is a utilitarian?” I asked my mother.

I mean, I went on, look at it: Jesus, one man, was made to suffer (and in such an ignominious manner) for mankind (whose sins he had not even committed).  His arc is the story we all follow most closely; His the story that spans all the Gospel readings in church. Is God trying to drill his utilitarian philosophy into us? (Utilitarianism dictates that the purpose of every course of action should be to ensure the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. A utilitarian, for example, would happily sacrifice one soldier if it meant saving the company. So: very close to the Jesus example.)

The application of utilitarianism to Catholicism, however, stops there. Jesus’ suffering has a dearth of metaphorical implications. In this day and age, it is more a symbol of eternal love and mercy than literal history: how do we prove that the walk to Golgotha actually happened, let alone that all our sins were removed by one man? The concept of ‘sin’ is still a very religious one, as is its removal. How then do we interpret modern suffering?

The epiphany I came to is as thus: we must stop thinking of suffering as punishment, but as a challenge.

The feelings of indignation and injustice that I felt with the attack on the Sisters stemmed from that universal question we have all pondered one time or another: why do people suffer? In the legal system, it is easy to explain that people are punished because of their transgressions. But in daily life, suffering often comes apropos of nothing.

I just finished reading a book on Greek mythology, which expounded on popular tales and briefly explained their relevance within Greek culture. One thing that I have always found fascinating about Greek mythology is the way they saw their Gods: as inexplicably greater than humans, but only in terms of their power, not their virtue. In fact, the idea of a perfect God is very much Christian, not Greek: their gods lusted, murdered, envied, discriminated… Thus, I realized that I had unconsciously been viewing our God as a Zeus-like figure, thunderbolt in hand, ready to strike down anyone whom he deemed to ‘have it coming’.

The Sisters did not have it coming.

Therefore, we must stop seeing God as someone who coldly and harshly deals out just desserts- or worse, someone who doles out suffering for the heck of it. There must be a purpose to every suffering- not so much the ‘fore’, or how this suffering came to us through a fault of our own, but the ‘after’: how we must arise from each suffering stronger, and most importantly, closer to God.

What suffering or what glory is in our future, nobody can tell but God. This past month has been one of my most trying experiences. To state it plainly: I did not get into NUS Law on my first attempt. This, following a string of disappointments such as not getting into Oxford and not getting into one of my desired internships, caused my self esteem to dip to an all time low. But riding alongside that lack of confidence was an almost arrogant sense of betrayal: how is person X better than me? She is not prettier, or smarter, or nicer; how did she get so much, while I got so little? Bitter thoughts like these raced through my mind for a very, very long time. I felt terrible about them but could not escape them until I had the epiphany that God’s will must be done.

And God’s will is thus:

That we are blessed beyond compare. That the audacity of hope is not to dream fervently that all our puny wishes will come true, but that we hope in God for His peace to dominate our world. That God has for each of us a unique path that will bring us closer to Him. That there are hidden blessings in every curse, that maybe some time later you will discover a thousand things to make you glad your life turned out this way.

It was only after gaining this peace through this realization that I could get my wits together and marshal a game plan. I wrote essays and attended interviews and tests with the strengthening knowledge that God is always beside me, and that when He does not bring me where I want to go, He is leading me by the hand to pastures that are much greener. And whether that pasture is near or far away, I must strive on, in the sure knowledge of His grace.

I have heard that it is nearly impossible to get called up for the second round of interview and tests if you did not get called up in the first round. I have heard that the chances of a successful appeal are close to zero. And most crushingly, just this Monday I spoke to my PSC officer on the phone, and she advised me that since NUS had not contacted me within a fortnight of my interview, I should assume the worst and start to make contingency plans. But that very same night, I logged into my NUS portal with a sinking heart, and saw the most blessed words:

My appeal had been successful.

I do wonder what I would have done had it not been successful. But I am grateful beyond belief to God that I did not have to surmount this one more challenge. I am so grateful to God for the past month, for the peace He has given me, for the surety of wonderful friends and supportive family members, and most of all for the confidence in my identity as a loved child of God, whose purpose in life must not be to scoop up all the accolades possible but to, through my words and actions, bring others closer to Him, closer to love.

Every now and then, my brain goes “Whaaa-?” about the news. I still don’t quite believe it. But I love that leap of happiness that rises in me when I remember it. It makes me remember how beautiful life is. And I hope I will continue believing that life is indeed beautiful, no matter what challenges come my way.

“God may tell you to ‘wait’, but He will never tell you to ‘worry’.” –a poster at the office

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