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The Doctrine of Permissions

1. When His Will is not done

by Rev. Peter. M. Buss


The Lord rules the universe, we are told. He is omnipotent. There is nothing He cannot do. If we trust in Him, we can be sure that He will save us and order all things in such a way that we will be happy to eternity, and, incidentally, happy on earth. This is our faith.

Many people, however, deny the Lord's omnipotence, pointing to a large variety of circumstances which they feel prove that it is impossible to maintain that He governs all things and so can insure the protection of the faithful. Some of these arguments unquestionably affect members of the church; although they may not say in so many words, "I don't trust the Lord completely," their unconscious feeling tends that way, and many of their decisions are based on a reserve about His omnipotence.

Now such a reserve can be of two kinds. It may be of the will - a man saying in his heart that he does not want to accept the consequences of total faith in the Lord. After all, if we fully accept that His leading is the best thing for us, not just in general but in the details of our lives, we no longer have our excuses for our favorite sins. No longer can we argue that we have to do evil because of circumstances. (See I Samuel 13: 5-15) The answer is that if the Lord does all things for our good, He can provide that we never have to do evil. The unwillingness to believe the totality of the Divine Providence may be a part of our personal interior combat against evil; or a measure of our rejection of the Lord from the heart.

There are also those, however, who feel obliged from their understanding to question the Lord's leading. Depending on their background, be it religious or pagan, philosophical or pragmatic, they advance a series of doubts. Each one of them basically asks the same question: How can the Lord be omnipotent if he allows certain things to exist, or to happen?

There are objections from the Word. Adam and Eve ruined things for everyone by eating the forbidden fruit, and God did not stop them; Cain killed Abel, and Jehovah stood by, helpless; the Israelites worshiped a golden calf; David numbered the people; Jezebel killed all the prophets of Jehovah; the Lord Himself was crucified! (See DP 237) Why did the Lord allow all these things, if He could have stopped them?

Then there are injustices in civic and social life. Those who are evil, and glory in it, are not punished on earth by God. The deceitful succeed, often against the innocent. The guilty are acquitted through bribery and chicanery. Irreligious and unscrupulous men get to the top, and men of integrity frequently are ruled. (Ibid.) In general, it seems that the bad guys hurt the good guys, and get away with it. "The best lack conviction, and the rest are filled with passionate intensity."

Differences in religion may also cause one to wonder why the Lord allows such confusion to reign. There are thousands of religions, most of which profess to be the right one; many of them are not even true religions, and the vast majority do not worship Jesus Christ. Why has the Lord been so apparently unsuccessful in communicating His law to man? (See DP 238) Allied to this argument is the feeling expressed by those who are incredulous of the claims of the Writings; why has the Lord waited all this time before fully revealing Himself to mankind? (See DP 239)

The questions listed above are dealt with fairly exhaustively in nos. 241-274 of the work entitled Divine Providence. There are still others which are answered, or the answers are implicit, elsewhere in the Writings. Why does the Lord permit disease? Why does He let the innocent get sick, while the evil often live disgustingly healthy lives? Why does there have to be a hell, and punishment, here and hereafter? Why does the Lord let any evil prosper? Why do accidents occur, which sometimes bring incredible misery to a family that did not deserve it? Finally, and most difficult to answer, why are there natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes, tricks of the creation itself, to spread chaos upon a helpless populace?

One of the troubles with unregenerate man is that he expects everything around him to be perfect and without taint, despite the fact that he is close to the opposite. The ideal laws of the Divine Providence tell how the Lord works with that which is ideal; but since there is imperfection and evil in the world, the Lord has laws for dealing with evil also. They are called the laws of permission, and they embrace the entire operation of the Divine Providence where there is evil. They provide an answer to all objections to the Lord's omnipotence, for "the doctrine of permissions is an entire doctrine; he who does not understand permissions, or conclude [rightly] concerning them, falls into doubtful and negative things respecting the power of God-Messiah over the universe." (SD 398)

What are Permissions?

Essentially, permission is the government of the Lord with regard to evil. This is called "permission" because the Lord does not will it, yet in leaving it to happen He is still exercising His government over it, for were it completely opposed to the Divine Providence He would not permit it. The word, permission, therefore implies control. It is not a leading, nor is it something which pleases the Lord; yet He does not stop it. "To leave man from his freedom to do evil also is called permission." (AC 10,778. Cf. AC 10,777)

The Lord does not stop something evil from happening. This causes the argument with many that since He could stop it if He willed and does not, then obviously He wills it to happen. Yet, the Word says, He does not will it. "That evil is permitted has the appearance as if it were from him who permits, seeing that he has the power to take it away." (AC 7877) This is man's natural idea of permission. (AC 2768, 8827: 2, 8700e) Evil is permitted by the Lord, not because He wills it, or because He does not care what happens on the natural plane. It is permitted because He has a greater end in view which requires that evil must be permitted. (AC 7877, 8827) In that circumstance, for the Lord to prevent the evil would be for Him to do a greater evil. (Ibid.)

This brings us to the essential concept of permissions: the laws of permission are not separate from the laws of the Divine Providence. They are the same laws. (See DP 234-236) They are extensions of the perfect mode which the Lord established and impressed upon His creation.

In brief summary, the basic laws of the Divine Providence are:

1) Man must act from freedom according to reason.

2) He should cleanse the external man as if from himself, so that the Lord can cleanse his internal man.

3) He should not be compelled to good from without, but he should compel himself to good.

4) He should be led by the Lord through heaven, but also through the Word, thus apparently by himself.

5) He should not perceive and feel the operation of the Divine Providence, but should acknowledge that it exists.

If we apply these principles to the assumption that man abuses law number one, we will find the whole range of the Divine Providence. Basically, that is the purpose of this treatment - to attempt to demonstrate how the laws of permission are these same laws, accommodated to encompass evil.

In summary, when the Lord allows something to happen which is not good, it is for a good reason, not for a poor one; not because He improperly controls His creation; and not because He made a mistake in ordaining that man should be as he is. He does not stop the evil because to do so would be to stop also a good which is far more important, which He is providing. "Nothing can be permitted without a cause, and the cause is found only in some law of the Divine Providence, which law teaches why it is permitted." (DP 234) "The causes of permission are the laws of the Divine Providence." (DP 249: 2)

This is still, however, only half of the general picture. The Lord does not simply allow something to happen and so slip beyond His supervision. He still controls it, for a king cannot rule unless he controls the evil in his kingdom. The Lord does this by permitting only such evils as He can turn to some good. (AC 6663e, 1664: 8, 2447, 592; SD 418; DP 296: 7. is DP 296: 7) Thus the Lord is working through the evil which He permits to effect something better, and so still rules; and He does not permit anything to happen out of which no good at all could come. We will return to this point later in more detail. The general concept, however, is contained in the following quotation:

"Now as all things which an evil man wills and thinks are of permission, the question is, what, then, is the Divine Providence therein, which is said to be in the most minute particulars severally in every man, evil as well as good? But it consists in this, that it continually permits on account of the end, and permits such things as pertain to the end and no others; and that the evils which go forth by permission it continually surveys, separates and purifies, sending away what are not in agreement, and discharging them in unknown ways." (DP 296: 7)

There Are Degrees of the Divine Providence

A father who is wise does not punish a two-year old in the same way as he might a boy of twelve; he knows that their appreciation of their transgressions is quite different. Similarly, the Divine wisdom dictates that the Lord's provision for the leading of men takes account of the states in which they are. Some are spiritually children, others are approaching maturity. Some are in evil, some are in good, and most of us are in between.

"Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him. For He knoweth our frame; He remembereth that we are dust. . . . The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear Him, and His justice unto children's children; to such as keep His covenant, and to those that remember His commandments to do them" (Psalm 103)

To have mercy is to lead man from the place where he is toward heaven, not to set an ideal far beyond man's present reach and then condemn him because he is not there. "He knoweth our frame; He remembereth that we are dust." He accommodates His leading to us; never diminishing the ideal itself, never failing to present a perfect hope, but at the same time pointing out the first few steps on a path that will lead us away from our imperfect selves towards that heavenly goal. He does not say: "Find your own path, and when you are good enough then I will accept you." He leads us through weakness. "If I make my bed in hell, behold, Thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall Thy hand lead me, and Thy right hand shall hold me." (Psalm 139: 8-10)

The New Word describes, therefore, four general degrees of the Divine Providence: will, good pleasure, leave, permission. (See AC 2447, 9940; SD 892) One may say that the Divine will leads the celestial. The Divine good pleasure, on the other hand, is the grace of the Lord toward the spiritual who, relatively to the celestial, could be said to be in evil. Because of their willingness to love and serve the neighbor, however, the Lord is pleased to accept them and grant them His gifts. It was of the Divine good pleasure that the Lord was born on earth, for He came to save the spiritual. Therefore the phrase is used in the Writings: "It pleased Him to be born." (See AC 10,579, 256)

The Divine "leave" appears to encompass natural good, be it genuine or merely a cover for internal evil. (See SD 2296, 3896. Cf. AC 2447) In other words, a man who performs charitable offices from a sense of external duty because it is his job does so from leave; so does a man who does the same thing from a purely selfish or evil motive. The first man comes under the Lord's laws as to good, for He is leading him slowly to a greater good; the second, unless he repents, does not. (See AC 2447) Sometimes "leave" is divided into two - "leave" and "sufferance." (See AC 17550) The implication is that "sufferance" has reference to natural good covering a state of evil, and "leave" to a genuine but merely natural state.

In summary, the Divine leave governs a merely natural state, whether of the lowest heaven or of hell. The Lord does not desire that men merely obey, still less that they obey with the lips but not with the heart; but He gives them leave so to be, that He may lead them further. Whereas leave compasses a state of external good, permission is the government where there is evil, usually both external and internal. Only a few things which are permitted fall under the Divine laws as to good, and we would assume that these are externally bad acts which are done with the utmost sincerity. (See AC 2447) In general, permissions are evils, which the Lord does not will, which do not please Him, and which He does not even suffer to be so. He permits, as one not willing, for the sake of the greater good.

These distinctions, which are discrete, are important.25 We frequently find that people are tempted to assign and attribute everything to the Divine Providence, with a few exceptions which they acknowledge as of permission. They forget about the things in between. A man may act in temper, cause a great deal of misery, and then on looking back he will see that something useful came out of it, so he will say: "Maybe I was meant to behave that way; see how it turned out." The behavior was not meant. It was permitted and the good provided despite it. All too often people adopt a fatalistic attitude towards past faults, because it all "turned out for the best in the end." Thus they take credit for the wisdom with which the Lord improved on their errors!

Let us take the example of a basically well-disposed young man in a promising position with a firm who develops a strong and unreasonable sense of grievance against his immediate superior, so much so that he eventually gives in to his anger, there is a nasty scene, and he resigns. He then finds another job and does very well there, too; and so, on looking back on his life he will say: "That change was for the best. Obviously I was meant to do that." In saying this he excuses his ill-tempered behavior, and even insinuates the thought that the Lord willed him to leave the first firm, thus that he acted according to the Lord's will. He did not. His action was wrong, but the Lord still led him and provided good for him, despite his wrong. Had he behaved well, he might have received greater benefits; he will never know, because that was not what happened.

Let us consider also the example of marriage. A young couple ought to believe, if they have searched themselves and each other, that their love is of the Lord's will; but this does not mean that everything they are going to do from that time on in the name of their love will be of His will. There is a dangerous tendency to think this, to feel that because we have felt the joy of an ideal love which the Lord wills us to have, the rest of our married life will proceed also according to His will. Then, when we are motivated by selfish urges and find that a lot of our emotions in marriage are not as pure and ideal as they ought to be, we are downcast, and tend to question whether we ever truly loved each other. How, we ask, can such a bright vision fade? The truth is that the first of marriage love, that recognition that we were created to live to eternity together, is an acknowledgment of the Lord's will. What follows, however, is a path in which two people walk together through things which partake of permission, leave and good pleasure toward that perfect goal. Many things we do in marriage may not be of the Divine will. We may be eternally thankful that He has other kinds of leading also, more accommodated to our state, which will enable us to reach in time the state in which we may be one flesh, which cannot be put asunder.

When we appreciate the infinitely patient and accommodating nature of the Lord's Providence, we may understand better how things that we presently believe to be good are only partly good, and must fade in time, to make way for others which are more pleasing to our Maker. (See AC 4063, 3701, 4145)

-New Church Life 1972;92:403-408

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Doctrine of Permissions

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