An Ethics Alarms Colloquy On An Ancient Rationalization

'On the other hand, you must never, ever work in mysterious ways.'

‘On the other hand, you must never, ever work in mysterious ways.’

My wife and I just streamed the first season of the CBS drama “Evil,” which CBS gave to Netflix to goose interest in Season 2, soon to begin. The series raises a series of questions about morality, ethics and theology as it tells the adventures of three paranormal investigators: David Acosta, a former journalist studying to be a Catholic priest who works as an assessor, investigating and sometimes confirming events such as miracles and reports of demons;  Dr. Kristen Bouchard, a professed atheist and a forensic psychologist hired by Acosta to help him distinguish between legitimate instances of demonic possession and insanity; and Ben Shakir, a Muslim contractor who works with both of them as a technical expert, problem solver and equipment handler. Much of the series also focuses on Bouchard’s lively family of four pre-teen girls, her frequently absent husband, and Bouchard’s annoying live-in mother, played by the always interesting Christine Lahti.

The series is the most recent creation of the husband and wife creative team of Robert and Michelle King, best known previously for “The Good Wife.” Robert King won permanent Ethic Alarms brownie points for engaging here when I raised legal ethics objections to some aspects of “the Good Wife” in its early years. “Evil” routinely suggests religious controversies, particularly those relating to Satan and the Catholic Church. I would love to know Amy Coney Barrett’s opinions on it.

Ethics Alarms has had a resurgence of sorts of new rationalizations, and the series reminded me of what might be one of the most frequently used rationalizations, and the most respected of them all: “God works in mysterious ways.”

This statement comes up a lot in the Marshall household. My wife, the daughter of a Methodist minister and Harvard theologian who himself thought the statement was a too-common cop-out for those unable or unwilling to address the real issues faced by Christianity, pretty much flies into a rage every time she hears someone use it. It would definitely be a rationalization if the statement were applied to anyone but God.

I’m not going to say any more at this time; I’m interested in the perspective of the diverse ethics community here.

Should “God works in mysterious ways” be added to the Rationalizations List?

28 thoughts on “An Ethics Alarms Colloquy On An Ancient Rationalization

  1. Speaking as a traditionally orthodox Christian, who is also a Roman Catholic, it’s true that I hear the phrase used all too often as a blanket way to just write off some occurrence that the speaker doesn’t want to think too much about, but is quite happy to attribute to God. So it can easily be a facile excuse, much like the seemingly common use of “If Allah wills it.”

    That said, the saying certainly has a kernel of truth in it, in that even though our rationality as human beings can be attributed to our being “made in God’s image”, and the God of the Bible says again and again that we can know Him and His ways, any god worthy of the definition is also not entirely knowable, i.e., as the God of the Bible says, “My ways are not your ways,” and, “Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”

    Overall, however, and being careful of context, I would say that it could be added to your list of rationalizations.

    • Ah. George Carlin. I’ve always thought George could easily have been a Catholic priest of the Irish Catholic variety. Or he could have been a cop, of the Irish Catholic variety. Or he could have been a Boston gangster, again, of the Irish Catholic variety. His world view is definitely a very strongly structured one, against which he rebels but never really rejects. Interesting guy. I’m glad I took my son to see him live in Phoenix.

      • Ugh, poor George.

        I’m hardly an authority, but it seems to me that he died a soured cynic. He posited ethics (moral laws) without a Lawgiver, gifts without a Gift Giver.

        “There was an age of reptiles. Now it’s the age of primates. Who knows, maybe it’ll be the insects next.It’s not up to us. It’s not divinely ordained. We’re here on chance. … I think we squandered great gifts. I think humans were given great, great gifts. Walking upright, binocular vision, opposable thumb, large brain, making tools … ”

        I can only imagine the endless frustrations of the God-hating, Darwinian, Saganite materialists who still insist on the existence of ethics.

  2. To wrap my mind around the question, I guess I’ll begin with when the phrase “God works in mysterious ways” is appropriately replied. Catholics understand that God is sovereign over all creation. Existing in eternity, he beholds all of human history in its entirety, and in his foreknowledge of all things, he can ensure that evil that he allows to exist can be used for a greater good. Some of these are very evident. A hurricane hits a city, and an effect is an outpouring of generosity from the world at large. A tragic death brings about justifiable regulations that save thousands of lives. Because God can see how everything works together, some of the things he permits (such as Donald Trump becoming president of the United States) may seem inscrutable. If, after all we can do with any particular event that we’re agonizing over, we cannot find any satisfactory answer, the best we can offer is that God knows what he’s doing, and we’re left with trusting him to take care of things.

    I think back to when our second daughter was hospitalized at a year old because she was losing weight and nothing we could do could make her eat more or put on weight. One night when I was in the hospital room with her, I was praying for her, and it came to mind that God, who holds everything in being from moment to moment, knows every bit of my daughter, from the muscles to the nerves, to the cells, to the subatomic particles. He could without any effort heal her of her condition. He has that power. So why didn’t he? Why even after all my fervent prayers, did we still have to send her to have a feeding tube surgically installed so that we could essentially force feed her? I think I know part of the answer. Working through that situation (and her gastroparesis still persists to a certain degree today) has forced both my wife and I to grow, to offer more of ourselves, to prioritize our lives better so that we can truly focus on what is important. But I still tear up when I see how skinny my daughter is, and I try to take some solace in the fact she is very active, and so is by all standards (except for weight) very healthy.

    At the end of the day, some mysteries are going to remain mysteries. We hope to delve deeper and deeper into them, but we’ll never know them all. At some point, we do have simply accept that God does work in mysterious ways and seek to move forward without knowing the whole answer.

    On the flip side, I don’t like the phrase used as a dodge. Though God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and our ways are not his ways, still God provides us with a great deal to help understand. First, God does desire us to know him, and he provides us with intellect, with reason, and where those fail, he also provides us with revelation. We have thousands of years of great minds who have applied themselves to the mysteries of life, of suffering, of drawing straight with crooked lines, and using the weakest tool to bring about the greatest of effects. Anyone who defaults to God working in mysterious ways to avoid thinking about a difficult issue, or at least trying to provide some basic explanation, is doing himself and the people he is dealing with a disservice.

    Why does God allow some Catholic priests to abuse children? We can ask this question about any evil we encounter, but this one seems to keep cropping up everywhere I look. Why? Aren’t priests supposed to be holy? Are children the most innocent and in the most need of protection? I think there are broad answers we can apply. God allows priests to be sinners because he desires us to understand the efficacy of the Sacraments is not from the holiness of the priest, but from God’s promise. We’re not Donatists. God works primarily through agency, not directly, because he wants us to cooperate with his plans, and he wants us to participate in his divine prerogatives. So he does lay a burden on us to be diligent, to vet our candidates to the priesthood, to hold priests (and bishops and popes) accountable. And this is part of the explanation of why God allows children to come to harm. We need to be shaken from our complacency and act to protect our children. Imagine if nothing bad could happen to a child, but it could happen to an adult! How unprepared would the children be? How complacent would the adults be? It is terrible to picture something awful happening to a child, but how much worse would it actually be otherwise?

    Of course, these are far from satisfactory answers. And people who are hurt want to know why this happened to them. And we may not have the answers right away. I didn’t know why God allowed me to screw up so much in my early twenties, but almost two decades later I wouldn’t change a thing about the past because then today I might not have the wife and three beautiful daughters that I do. But looking to the future is a cold comfort, because we don’t know how things will work out. We can walk with those who are hurt, work to encourage them, and when they’re open to hearing what explanations we do have, we can offer those. Eventually, we might not have anything left except a plea to trust in God, and his mysterious ways.

    I don’t have time to address the perceived evils in the Bible. There are many explanations I’ve heard that have impressed me, and at later time I could maybe indulge on some of them. But the point is that there are explanations, and they don’t have recourse to “God works in mysterious ways.” Our study of ancient cultures, the way they thought, the way they told stories, and the reasons for paying attention to certain details over others provide a great amount of explanation for these difficulties. So I don’t think anyone should aver to God’s mysterious ways when encountering difficult passages in scripture. A simple, “I don’t have the answer to that, but I’ll see if I can find one,” should suffice.

    Lastly, I hope there aren’t many people who utilize “God works in mysterious ways” to justify committing morally abhorrent deeds. But because there are some, that alone would justify adding “God works in mysterious ways” to the rationalization list. But I hope some of the other issues I mentioned would also justify its addition. God’s mysterious ways should never been used as an excuse, and instead only as an invitation to delve deeper in God’s mysteries.

  3. It strikes me as a religious variant on “Every cloud has a silver lining” but I’m not sure that holds up. There’s some overlap, depending on how exactly the phrase is utilized.

  4. “God works in mysterious ways” is too broad a statement to be considered a rationalization. It could be an attempt to explain why some “bad” things happen, but could just as easily be invoked to remark about how a series of coincidences resulted in a good thing happening, too. It could also just generally be a comment on how creation is mysterious. Seeing as how science still cannot untangle how the laws of physics even coexist together, that’s an okay descriptor.

    • It’s not from the Bible, but in Isaiah we do get, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, said the LORD.”

      • Well, don’t forget the story of Joseph and his Brothers, with the pertinent line found in Genesis 50:20 –

        “…as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today…”

        During Joseph’s speech forgiving his brothers for faking his death and selling him into slavery in Egypt.

        • Which allowed the family of Jacob to survive the famine…

          Which led to the descendants of Jacob becoming slaves themselves for several generations…

          Which allowed those generations to grow so large that conquest of the promised land was assured…

          you see the pattern…

  5. Currently contemplating distinction between “God works in mysterious ways,” and “it is what it is,” both of which are shoulder-shrugging comments. The former claims ignorance; the latter simplifies reality.

    Not sure if it is a rationalization ….


  6. Don’t know if it helps, but it seems to me that this phrase is, in most cases, used to provide comfort to those who grieve or question – and that’s not necessarily unethical.

    But I’d also note that used manipulatively, it’s closely related to rationalization #s 1a, 1c, 3, and 3a, and you allude to it in #69.

  7. I have more thoughts on this that I am not willing to write tonight so I will attempt it tomorrow if I have time, but this is not only religious in nature. You could say “every cloud has its silver lining” or “it’s a blessing in disguise.” I might call these rationalizations.

    • I don’t see the statement at issue as meaning the same as “every cloud has its silver lining” or “it’s a blessing in disguise.” “God works in mysterious ways” is an appeal to blind trust and faith on the theory that the listener isn’t smart enough or perceptive enough to understand the complex plans and actions of a superior power. It’s not optimism. It’s an appeal to authority.

      • I have never really looked at it as an appeal to authority. It’s an interesting thought, but I’m not sure I agree completely. I will concede it is an appeal to authority, but it carries the same thoughts as the other two things I mentioned: something good can come out of your situation with the idea that God is in control. However, It mostly seems to be used as “I don’t know.” This is actually why I don’t use it. People should just admit when they don’t know answer to something. Anyway, it is a good thought and I posted it on my Facebook page (appears to be working without a picture) to see what my peers think about it.

  8. Looking over the unethical rationalizations list, it’s revealed that many of these misstatements and distortions have in context, a percentage of truth to them.

    Sometimes everyone is doing it. At times you really have earned it. Maybe granddad would’ve wanted it this way. Pointing fingers is rude and sometimes implies the person pointing is the one doing it. My teacher once said, “you’re better than this” and it worked. If people didn’t allow others to take care of themselves, they’d never mature. Gavin Newsom telling his constituents to wear a mask between bites is a hella stupid rule.

    Taken beyond the basic truth – of why something was done or why someone did it – is where phrases or statements become excuses and unethical rationalizations. It’s a boundary crossing of words and their meanings to excuse lazy or irrational thinking.

    God working in mysterious ways is true for believers. Its sentiment can be exploited to the point of deception, just like the other rationalizations and concepts. It becomes unethical to use it to not take responsibility or ignore destructive or potentially destructive situations and actions.

    Saying it was His will a child be abused in the Catholic Church is a cop out, especially from a congregation that refuses to confront and counteract this egregious behavior. Understanding that encountering bitter evil is non-negotiable in ones lifetime means we are tested to do the following:

    Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

    Ethics alarms or having a conscious means not just relying on the easiest low hanging fruit thinking about behavior, even when aspects are true. We can’t just rely on pithy sloganeering and moral pearl clutching either. God does work in mysterious ways but we still have to be accountable and willing to be aware, especially of our own thinking. For believers this means those rationalizations, unethical or not, will have to be accounted for on the flip side.

    • In the rationalizations and diversions list, it must be clarified – they aren’t rationalizations or diversions if the conduct being defended is NOT unethical.

      Also, within the list, one must be clear between rationalization and diversion- where a rationalization makes the claim that the unethical conduct is indeed ethical because “insert rationalization here”; and a diversion doesn’t try to defend the behavior but rather diverts attention elsewhere.

  9. My answer may be of limited use here, because I’m an atheist. As an existentialist atheist, I reject the concept of a supreme deity as most of Earth’s monotheists describe it; I see it as either self-contradictory or completely vacuous, depending on whether we’re talking about the motte or the bailey.

    That said, it seems the most important aspect of this question is whether this rationalization is used to justify unethical behavior. I don’t think the phrase’s use as a rationalization in theodicy (reconciling the Problem of Evil) makes applies to people’s behaviors.

    If we’re going to step into religious ethical issues, we may as well go all the way. (But it’s not too late to turn back!) The phrase people use to justify their unethical acts in the name of religion isn’t always, “this is all all according to my deity’s benevolent plan… somehow. I am assured this is the case.”

    Often, it’s simply, “my deity told me to do this.”

    If someone claims they’re acting on divine orders, whether they are being unethical about it depends on what their honest beliefs regarding of the nature and will of their deity actually are. Just because I think someone is incorrect in their belief doesn’t mean I judge their actions based on that belief to be unethical. I do think that people can be unethical for practicing willful ignorance and incorrectly applying critical thinking towards sustaining their belief in a deity that gives orders and information, but that’s a separate problem on a different level.

  10. It can be a rationalization. I don’t think the utterance deserves being boxed-in as solely such, though, and thus permanently judged purely unethical.

    I am sure I have uttered it numerous times. Now, in this moment, trying to recall why I said it, I cannot recall the context of any specific instance when I used it. So that alone is a positive result of the question that Jack has asked – a result that I think is constructive for understanding myself better. To me, that lack of specific contextual recall tells me that I have used the expression too much like a “throwaway” filler or “closing statement” at the end of a discussion, particularly a discussion where one or more of us is left unsettled and dissatisfied with a lack of clear and shared or common understanding.

    For my way of thinking about it at this moment, though, I have probably meant it as, “I don’t know” or “How could we know?” But my uses of it have not been appeals to authority; it’s been a rationalization only when I was being sarcastic. I definitely have meant it as a kind of virtue-signaling (at worst), and (at best) a simple, honest, sincere admission, confession, and-or declaration of Who Is The Object of my ultimate trust. I have to believe that I have said it most often as an expression of resignation to ignorance of whatever thing it is that’s being discussed when it seems – at least for that instant when I have said it – the thing is inscrutable.

    It’s getting late, but I have to share that as I write and re-write and strive to be clear here before bedtime, a little gnome inside my head is tormenting me in a whiny voice, saying: “If ‘God works in mysterious ways‘ is a rationalization, then so is the assertion (at least at certain times) that certain events or behaviors and circumstances and outcomes are moral luck. What that voice is saying might be utter gibberish, but it’s there, in my head, and it won’t go away for now. Good night.

  11. My summary comment-

    If anyone uses it to justify unethical conduct, sure, it’s a rationalization. But have you ever heard someone defend a rapist by saying “God works in mysterious ways?” No, I think the rapist’s conduct is wholeheartedly condemned as unethical. “Oh? Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown were viciously slaughtered by her jealous ex OJ? Let him go! God works in mysterious ways!” But does anyone actually say “God works in mysterious ways” to let an evil doer off the hook?

    I’ve only ever heard it used *long after* the consequences of unfortunate or unforeseeable events have been normalized in someone’s life and have actually worked to shape some strength or benefit in that person’s life…while the event, if the act of a bad person, is still wholly condemned.

    And that seems harmless from a secular perspective as human psychology needs coping mechanisms to deal with a seemingly unfair universe that they still power through. From a religious perspective it seems harmless as well.

    Not a rationalization or diversion.

  12. I have seen God work in mysterious ways. Years ago, the minister of my church was trying to raise awareness of our relief efforts in Armenia. He had no traction getting press from papers or TV, so he would go to churches that wanted him to speak. Well, most of those were small, remote churches, but he went. We had founded an orphanage in the Karabakh region, where government-funded relief organizations were banned. We were trying to raise enough money to feed the ~100 orphans in the orphanage for the winter, but as a small church, we were failing. Were were doing fund-raisers, soliciting food donations, everything we could, but this was a tall task for a congregation with an average attendance of ~90. Our minister went to a poor, decrepit, old church in the middle of nowhere to talk about Armenia one Sunday. There were only 5 elderly women in attendance. He graciously gave his talk. At the end of the talk, a VERY elderly lady asked him if they could use some sweet potatoes. Assuming she had some from her garden, he told her the orphanage probably could and gave her a phone number to call to have them picked up. He left depressed, wondering what HE could do to feed those kids. On Monday, a panicked mission team member called the minister and asked him if he was out of his mind. A lady called, saying that he could pick up her sweet potatoes, the member said. The minister confirmed that he did tell a woman that. ‘Do you know how many she wants us to pick up?” he asked? The answer was: 6 railroad cars of sweet potatoes. The woman was the matriarch of one of the largest sweet-potato operations in the country. We spent 6 weeks on fundraising to pay for the shipping, but those sweet potatoes (some were sold or traded for other things) fed those children through the winter. In the spring, we had to send a mission team to show the Armenians how to plant and grow sweet potatoes. They aren’t native, but people really liked them. So, that is the story of how sweet potatoes were introduced to Armenia. God Works in Mysterious Ways.

    Last week, when people arrived at our church’s food pantry to open it, they found that someone had dumped a treadmill off at the entrance. One of the workers was going to take it to GoodWill at the end of the day (what are we going to do with a treadmill at a food pantry?), so he dragged it around back so people couldn’t see it. A woman came in and, as she was leaving, asked if we knew anyone who had a treadmill. She was undergoing rehab and couldn’t walk outside, but her treadmill had broken recently and she had no money to replace it. God Works in Mysterious Ways.

    I have seen too many of these things happen in my lifetime to discount it. Just at the food pantry alone, people have dumped off at least 10-12 bizarre items in the middle of the night days before someone showed up and desperately needs just that thing.

    I don’t doubt that you could use ‘God Works in Mysterious Ways’ as a cop-out, I am just saying they are using the phrase wrong.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.