Much of the energy of patristic reflections upon providence focused on how to relate the claims of providence to the harsh presence of evil and suffering in this world that God has ordered. The crucial question as it presented itself to the church fathers was, How can evil and suffering be compatible with the caring providence of an incomparably powerful and good God? Several kinds of solutions were presented in the very early period of the church’s struggle for self-understanding, from the second through the seventh centuries:
• Although sin occurs through the divine permission, it is inexact to suggest that sin is ordained by the will of God. Sin is attributable to providence only as a secondary result of a larger, better divine purpose that includes freedom (Origen, De Princip. III.1 ff., ANF IV, pp. 302 ff.; John of Damascus, OF IV.21, NPNF 2 IX, p. 94).
• Sin is due to the abuse, not the use, of free will. Accordingly, when we rightly use our free will, we do not sin, but are responsive to God. But the abuse of free will is our own self-assertive placement of our egocentric interests above the common interest so that the original intention, for which the will was created and toward which it is intended, becomes distorted (Augustine, Spirit and Letter, NPNF 1 II, pp. 106–9).
• Although the abuse of free will was foreseen by God, it could have been prevented by God only at the price of depriving human existence of its most noble attribute, namely, free will (Tertullian, Ag. Marcion II.5–7, ANF III, pp. 300–3; Cyril of Alex., Contra Julian IX.13, 10 ff., MPG LXXIV, pp. 120 ff.; Theodoret, De prov., or. IX.6).
• We learn by experience, by moving through stages of growth, and by struggling toward good through evil. It is often only when we are forced to face adversity that we learn and grow strong by overcoming obstacles. So faith learns gradually to affirm that what at one point appears to be unmitigated evil and suffering may at a different point appear to serve our well-being or improvement, increasing patience and compassion (Lactantius, On Anger of God XIII, ANF VII, pp. 269–71; cf. Augustine, Divine Prov. and the Problem of Evil I.6, FC 1, pp. 253–55).
• One reason God permits the gift of freedom to result in sin is in order that we can arrive at a consciousness of our own finitude and our own inability to attain righteousness on our own. Hence Luther viewed temptation, sin, and suffering as closely related to providence. A major function of the law (the divine requirement codified in Mosaic law) is to train us to not rely upon our own righteousness. Thus providence works, even through the law, to teach us that we cannot achieve righteousness on our own, apart from God’s sustaining help and grace. The germ of that idea was already present in the patristic writers (cf. Letter to Diognetus, ANF I, pp. 27, 28; Gregory the Great, Magna Moralia III.42, LF).
• According to Augustine, God would not permit evil at all unless He could draw good out of it (Enchiridion X–XVII, NPNF 1 III, pp. 240–43). Since we experience life egocentrically in a temporal flow, aren’t we prone to evaluate one or more discrete parts as evil, artificially viewing these parts as separable from the whole? This is understandable, because of our finitude, but a broadened perception of the antecedents and consequents of our acts of human freedom often yields the insight that some good has emerged out of evil that could not have otherwise occurred. If the enlargement of our human perception yields this insight, surely God’s infinitely larger perception of human moral experience will behold much as ultimately good that we under harsh and limiting circumstances have felt to be evil. Hence an important aspect of the struggle to understand evil has to do with gaining a wider perspective, a vantage point larger than personal needs or immediate desires. We are prone to judge the problem of evil purely on the egocentristic basis of what hurts me, what is painful to me, what is an obstacle to me. The larger our perspective, the more we are able to see these individual dislocations and disruptions in the light of the cosmic universal-historical purpose and to be consoled by that dimension of meaning, even though we may still suffer and not fully grasp that purpose (Origen, Ag. Celsus IV.99, ANF IX, p. 541; Augustine, Divine Prov. and the Problem of Evil, FC 1, pp. 239 ff.).
• In the last judgment the problem of evil will be solved; yet on the road that leads to the last judgment the workings of providence doubtless will remain something of a mystery to us. Our finite minds are simply unable to conceive the wisdom of this infinite process in which we live and move. Faith in divine providence calls the believer to walk without seeing, based on what is known from God’s disclosure in Christ (John Chrysostom, Concerning the Statues IX.9, NPNF 1 IX, p. 404; Letters to Olympias, pp. 289–93).