The banality of good

Why we don't recognize mercy, even when it's before us

Issue: "China: Caesar’s seminary," Jan. 27, 2001

Does it seem as if we've moved from election to recounts to battles over nominees with hardly a moment to catch our breaths? When there's no time is exactly the time to make time to remember the quality of mercy.

In my favorite short story, Leo Tolstoy's "What Men Live By," an angel is distressed when twin babies whose father has been killed in a logging accident are about to lose their mother as well. "Little children cannot live without father or mother," the angel tells God, and refuses to take the mother's life. Sent to earth helpless and wingless to learn some important lessons, the angel eventually realizes that men, women, and even orphans live not by human or even angelic considerations of necessity, but by God's mercy.

Do we see such mercy in our own lifetimes? Surely we do, if we look. We report "acts of God" such as hurricanes and hard storms, but often ignore the far more numerous acts of God that keep us alive day by day. We read reports of terrible auto accidents, but of course we never know how many just as horrible were barely averted. We do see international mercies as well, but they quickly tend to be taken for granted. How often do we ponder the amazing end of the Soviet Union a decade ago, or the non-use of nuclear weapons for 55 years?

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Perhaps we can get a sense of the happy-to-sad "acts of God" ratio in our own lives and in those we know. One person I knew died in a car accident, but he had been saved in tight spots several times before, and even came close to being aborted. I may die in an accident, but if I do I hope people will remember that I've twice done 180-degree turns on icy highways up North, ending up facing backward (but no cars were tailgating me at the time), or that while bicycling across the country I streaked down mountain roads at 45 mph, one flat tire away from hurtling over the edge and landing 200 feet below.

A decade ago I reacted to a news story the way the disobedient angel did. I read about babies exposed to cocaine while in the womb, babies who seemed to have as little hope for happy lives as did Tolstoy's orphan twins. Crack babies, according to studies, would have lives of mental disability and very slow development. But new studies tell a story of God's mercy, although they do not even mention God. The experts now say that these children, given a good, secure environment rather than one infested with drugs and general parental instability, regularly overcome the effects of maternal cocaine exposure.

Stonewall Jackson, it is said, gave thanks to God whenever he took a drink of water. Shouldn't we also give thanks to God after any pleasant occurrence and after every deliverance from evil, whether we are aware of it or not? That means thanking God every night for the bad things that could have happened during the day but did not. Crucially, if our faith is great enough, it means thanking Him even for the bad things, because God's wisdom is far greater than ours.

In August my third-oldest son, now 15, had to write a first-week-of-school essay about a critical turning point in his life. Daniel was frustrated to realize that he could not think of a turning point. Oh, his finger once was crunched by a heavy door closing, and he had to get lots of stitches. But he was born in Austin and still lives in Austin. He started coming to church when he was a baby and he still goes. There was always food to eat and there still is. He was worried that he did not have something dramatic to write, but I rejoiced in God's kindness.

Actually, Daniel could have written about one critical moment that is memorable because it was not a turning point. Swimming in the Atlantic last March, he went out too far and needed rescuing by lifeguards and a nearby surfer. If they hadn't been there, and if help had not come by some other means, Daniel would not be around to write an essay about the lack of turning points in his life. Meanwhile, I would recall his point-of-no-return with horror every day of my life. Since God was merciful, I (a sinner) think of it only occasionally.

Philosophers have written about the banality of evil, but we need to keep in mind the banality of good. Let's not forget the misery that can also be mercy in ways we do not understand, but let's offer thanks for the kindnesses of God that we can readily comprehend, when we care enough to do so.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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