Religion has been a major part of the lives of humans throughout history. Unable to comprehend the complexity and vastness of this world and the phenomena in it, humans have always turned to God as the answer. There always has been some conception of the divine. Humans have worshipped natural elements such as rain, sun, forests, and whatnot. We have managed to find the divine in almost everything. It is only now that our conception of God is becoming more and more abstract.
The primary reason behind the advent of various religions as well as contemporary belief in God is in a sense darkness. Human beings have always had difficulty in understanding the nature of this world. Even today, with massive advancements in technology and sciences, we are still not able to answer fundamental questions about death, afterlife, dreams and consciousness.
Moreover, in today’s world, people are becoming more and more alienated from each other and their inner self. Thus, people are in a desperate need for something that would complete the narrative of this world. Otherwise, their existence would make no sense. That is where religion comes in. It acts as a comforting narrative which supplies meaning to the lives of people. As Karl Marx once said, religion is the opium of the people. Yet, he didn’t mention that a majority of people would not be able to function in a society without this opium.
The origins of the phrase
In almost all cultures, the figure of Godhead has been constructed as something positive, in contrast to an evil figure. This binary is seen in almost every religion. For instance, in Christianity, there is God and the Devil. In religious narratives, God is supposed to triumph over evil forces and bring peace and happiness to human beings. However, this simplistic narrative doesn’t hold when one takes a look at the condition of world today. Famine, poverty, wars, genocides, murders, and natural disasters. Innocent people die every day and often times, the guilty elude justice. Bad things happen to good people for seemingly no reason at all.
Human beings are unable to comprehend the unfairness of how the world works and it breaks the comforting narrative of religion. That’s why, the phrase ‘God works in mysterious ways’ became famous. This phrase not only points at the inability of the human mind to comprehend the ways of the divine but also connects the everyday world with the religious narrative. This connection, however, requires faith on part of the believer.
This phrase does hold true at times. Human beings tend to be preoccupied with their own little problems and fail to consider the bigger picture. In the following section, we will see how this phrase holds true without us even realizing it!
How does God work in mysterious ways?
The worldview of an individual human being can be too limited. It is impossible to grasp the interconnectedness and complexity of this world by the human mind. All phenomena relate to each other in a very intimate way, and it is a fact that nothing can exist in isolation. The most common thought experiment that substantiates this claim is the butterfly effect. A butterfly flaps its wings in one part of the world, an action which culminates into a storm in another part of the world. One tiny action can have massive consequences and the butterfly effect is just an exaggerated form of this principle.
Some tales about God’s mysterious ways
For instance, let us consider this scenario. Two boys are playing on the playground with a football. One boy decides to hit the ball very hard towards his friend. The ball breaks his friend’s nose. The injured boy goes to his home and his mother becomes very angry that he broke his wrong. She rushes him to the doctor in her car, while simultaneously scolding him for being reckless. Due to her being distracted and not focusing on the road, she runs over a cat. If the boy had not kicked the ball so hard or not kicked it at all, maybe the cat would have been alive. This is just one example of the butterfly effect. The point is that everything in the world is connected, which brings us to God.
Whenever people are placed in a negative situation or something bad happens with them, they question God. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the figure of God is associated with benevolence and mercy. Thus, people entrenched deeply in Western religious traditions aren’t able to comprehend whenever things go off the rails. One can always argue that it is only during turbulent times, when the faith of believers is tested. However, many people who question the intentions of the divine fail to consider the bigger picture. This idea of bigger picture is further explored in the section of this article which deals with the Eastern perception of the Godhead. The bigger picture or the idea of multiple possibilities eludes man when he is preoccupied with his own insignificant ‘loss’.
For instance, let us assume, your alarm clock doesn’t go off and you get late to work. From the surface, this situation can simply be categorized as bad and undesirable. However, it could be a possibility that by being late, you potentially avoided a car crash which could’ve resulted in your death. Instances like this happen all the time. We have all heard the tales of people who missed a flight or a train ride and later found out that they avoided a tragedy. Although, these examples are quite extreme.
On a smaller scale, instances like you not being selected for a particular job can prove to be good too. Perhaps, had you been selected for that job, you wouldn’t have found your passion. It is comforting to believe that God is looking out for you and has your best interests in his divine mind. Yet, then questions like “What about people who are actually suffering and people who meet untimely ends?” come to mind. The answers to questions like this one are complex but nevertheless there, and you will find them further down in the article. But first we have to consider the ethical implications of the phrase – ‘God works in mysterious ways’.
The dangers of this phrase
Even though there is some truth attached to this phrase, it does carry certain dangers. The phrase can also become a potential excuse for people to escape from their social responsibilities. For instance, it can be very problematic when people see the suffering of others and evoke this phrase. This phrase can help them turn a blind eye towards the suffering of that particular individual. Deeply religious people often consider everything the will of God. However, when taken to an extreme, this attitude can make people apathetic towards others.
This phrase not only offers comfort to the psyche of the religious, but also helps construct a false image of the self. The world is brimming with inequality. Some people are more privileged than others and naturally, this can lead to guilt. To put things into perspective, one particular person in a developed country owns 10 jets and on the other hand, a family in a war-torn nation struggles to get food. When the privileged religious comes face-to-face with this inequality and their own privilege, they invoke God. The condition of the poor is made out to be a result of God’s mysterious ways and thus, the individual escapes from social responsibility. At the same time, that person’s self-image of a good human being remains intact due to the invocation of God in that situation.
Difficult questions from the West
As mentioned before in this article, the phrase ‘God works in mysterious ways’ sometimes implies that God is looking out for you in mysterious ways. Yet, what about the people who do not deserve to suffer, but do so anyway? What about those children who die of hunger in poor nations? These are difficult questions that skeptics often ask. The phrase ‘God works in mysterious ways’, in this context, can often infuriate the other party as it doesn’t make sense. Yet, there is a lot of things that we still do not know about this universe as well as ourselves. It is entirely possible that death is a release from suffering that is life.
In the context of the East
In Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, this life is considered to be a bondage and it is the soul’s divine duty to be liberated from the material. Thus, death is not actually something morose. It is also believed that every soul is on a journey and the suffering encountered by it is a part of that journey. The Godhead is present in every atom of this universe including all the lifeforms. Surely, God is working and the ways are beyond our understanding. Theologians, philosophers and scientists will keep on publishing on the matters of death, consciousness and God. Yet, to live our life to the fullest, we have to let go of control. And it is perfectly okay to do so. It is only when we truly let go, when we realize that God actually works in mysterious ways.