“Why?” This simple question is loaded with assumptions about what philosophers call “teleology.” Teleology, which comes from the Greek word for “goal” or “end” (telos), is the study of purpose. The “why” questions are purpose questions. We seek the reasons things happen as they do. Why does the rain fall? Why does the earth turn on its axis? Why did you say that?
When we raise the question of purpose, we are concerned with ends, aims, and goals. All these terms suggest intent. They assume meaning rather than meaninglessness. Despite the best attempts of nihilist philosophers to deny that anything has ultimate meaning and significance, the perennial question “Why?” shows that they haven’t been successful. In fact, even the cynic’s glib retort of “Why not?” is a thinly veiled commitment to purpose. To explain why we’re not doing something is to give a reason or purpose for not doing it. Purpose remains in the background. Human beings are creatures committed to purpose. We do things for a reason—with some kind of goal in mind.
Still, there is complexity in this quest for purpose. We distinguish between proximate and remote purposes, the proximate being what is close at hand and the remote referring to the distant and ultimate purpose. To use a sports analogy, the proximate goal for the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line is to make a first down. Making a touchdown is the more remote goal. A goal that is even further off for the team is to win the game. Finally, the ultimate goal is to win the Super Bowl.
The most famous Old Testament illustration of the relation between remote and proximate purposes is found in the story of Joseph. At the story’s end, Joseph’s brothers express their fear that he will take revenge on them for all that they had done to him. Joseph’s response shows us a remarkable concurrence at work between proximate and remote purposes. He said, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). Here, the proximate and the remote seemed to be mutually exclusive. The divine intention was the exact opposite of the human intention. Joseph’s brothers had one goal; God had a different one. The astounding reality here is that the proximate purpose served the remote purpose. This did not absolve the brothers of culpability. Their intent and actions were evil. Yet God deemed it good to let the brothers have their way with Joseph—to a limited extent—that He might achieve His ultimate purpose.
We all experience what seem to be tragic accidents. Some years ago, one of the pastors of Saint Andrew’s Chapel cut his hand severely while working in a cabinet shop. He did not mean to slice his hand; he intended to cut the wood for the cabinet he was working on. Proximately speaking, he had an accident. He asked, “Why did God permit my hand to get cut up?”
The question looks for a final purpose to the accident. It assumes what we know to be true, namely, that God could have prevented the accident. If we deny this, we deny the God who is. If He could not have prevented it, He would not be omnipotent—He would not be God. Moreover, our question “Why?” assumes another truth: that the question has an answer. We know God had a purpose for the accident.
For questions like these, we may not get a full answer in this life. We may never know on this side of glory all of the reasons why a tragedy occurs. Nevertheless, there is an answer to this most important question: “Is God’s purpose in allowing this accident to happen a good one?”
If we know anything about God, we already know the answer to the question. The Lord’s purposes and intentions are always altogether good. There is no hint of arbitrariness or wicked intent in the will of God. The pleasure of His will is always the good pleasure of His will. His pleasure is always good; His will is always good; His intentions are always good.
Paul’s incredible promise that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28) is a statement of teleology. Here, Paul addresses the remote rather than the proximate. Note that he doesn’t say all things are good but that they work together for good—for a final and ultimate goal. The Apostle insists that the proximate must always be seen in light of the remote.
The difficulty we face is that we do not yet possess the full light of the remote. On this side of heaven, we see through a glass darkly. Yet, we are not utterly devoid of light. We know enough about God to know He has a good purpose for all things even when that good purpose eludes us.
God’s good purpose shows us that the appearance of vanity and futility in this world is just that—mere appearance. To trust in God’s good purpose is the essence of godly faith. Thus, no Christian can be an ultimate pessimist. The wickedness and tragedy we daily endure can lead to a proximate pessimism, but not an ultimate one. I am pessimistic about human government and the innate good will of men. I am fully optimistic about divine government and the intrinsic good will of God.
We do not live in a world of chance or chaos. It began with a purpose, it is sustained with a purpose, and it has an ultimate purpose. This is my Father’s world, and His rule is purposeful, not capricious and arbitrary. Purposelessness is a manifest impossibility.
This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.