There’s a line in the writings of Julian of Norwich, the 14th-century mystic and perhaps the first theologian to write in English, which is endlessly quoted by preachers, poets and writers: “But all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” It’s her signature teaching.

We all have an intuitive grasp of what that means. It’s our basis for hope. In the end, the good will triumph. But the phrase takes on added meaning when it’s seen in its original context.

What was Julian trying to say when she coined that phrase? She was struggling with the problem of evil, sin and suffering: why does God allow them? If God is both all-loving and all-powerful, what possible explanation can there be for the fact that God lets us suffer, lets us sin and lets evil be present all over the world? Why didn’t God create a world without sin, where we would all be perfectly happy from birth onwards?

Julian had heard enough sermons to know the standard apologetic answer for that, namely, that God allows it because God gave us the great gift of freedom. With that comes the inevitability of sin and all its sad consequences.

That’s a valid answer, though one that’s often seen as too abstract to offer much consolation to us when we are suffering. But Julian, despite being a loyal daughter of the Church and having been schooled in that answer, doesn’t go there. She offers something different.

For her, God allows evil, sin and suffering because God will use them in the end to create for everyone a deeper mode of happiness than they would have experienced if sin, evil and suffering hadn’t been there. In the end, these negatives will work towards creating some deeper positives.

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