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The better part

(I must apologize for my very limited sketching skills – but yesterday’s Gospel about Martha and Mary triggered an urge to draw.)

What is the “one thing”? What is the “better part”?

I want to be that Mary and choose “the better part” – but what am I choosing?

Please, share your thoughts.

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Temptation

Temptation is a topic seldom broached in our post-modern culture, though it may be tolerated if divorced from such antiquated concepts as sin.

A temptation to violate one’s diet or to skip going to the gym could easily fit into everyday conversation.

However, the temptations that have the most potential to destroy our souls are often considered outmoded, at best. Bringing up these temptations is not unlike mentioning the devil – not to be done in polite company.

Doing so is likely to result in being considered a naive simpleton for believing in such things. Or, conversely, being considered the source of evil in the world for being “judgmental” and thereby inducing guilt in others unnecessarily.

Given that I often find myself encountering temptation in surprising ways, I thought I might post some reflections – in the event that anyone cares to read them.  (I shall not be shocked if no one does.)

I do not intend to judge anyone, except perhaps myself, with these musings – and even myself rather gently.

And I’m going to skip over the obvious ones, such lying, stealing, coveting, disobeying and enticements of the flesh.

Most people who have even a modicum of interest in the topic are likely to already be well-versed in these.

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I have always been a rather sensitive person, I think. As with most personality traits, I probably came to be this way through some inexplicable interaction of nature and nurture.

There is nothing wrong with being sensitive, of course, and it has both its functional and dysfunctional aspects.

Sensitivity, for example, can translate into empathy and compassion for others. On the other hand, it can also result in easily hurt feelings.

Hence, I write this evening about the temptation to have hurt feelings.

What’s the big deal about having hurt feelings? Isn’t that normal?

I will explain.

I experienced this temptation just the other night. Someone dear to me sent me an email, bowing out of a routine social commitment with me.

The reason given was that some other experiences had crowded the weekend and an evening “off” was needed.

Immediately, my sensitivity reactor was triggered and a combination of hurt feelings and angry thoughts began to flood my mind.

Since when was a conversation with me so stressful that time off was needed? My mind was abuzz with other perceived slights, as well as all of the times that I hadn’t bowed out despite my own illness or fatigue.

And something in me desperately wanted to express these hurt feelings, even if only to hint at them.

Temptation is born.

However, the temptation wasn’t just to strike back in some subtle or not-so-subtle fashion.

The true temptation, I believe, lie in the hurt feelings themselves. While this may be obvious to others – and even obvious to me when I see it in others – at the moment of being triggered, it is far from obvious.

It was, after all, about my ego – and my ego doesn’t like to admit its involvement when it is busy blaming others.

How could my friend not want to talk to me? How had I become so unimportant? Blah, blah, blah…

Yup, ego all the way.

Thankfully, God saved me from myself – as He so often does. Not only did He show me that I was being tempted, He helped me see how easily I could be freed of it.

All it took was a bit of compassion.

Instead of thinking about myself, He turned my heart to consider my friend who apparently needed a rest from activity.

I imagined my friend feeling very tired, perhaps ill or just overwhelmed – and then wrote the response of reassurance about how important it is that we take care of ourselves.

Without any effort to suppress them, the hurt feelings simply vanished into thin air.

The compassion that replaced them left me feeling a warm and quiet joy. All is well.

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It was narrow escape. How easily I could have slipped into brooding and resentment, even if I tried to convince myself that this was an overreaction.

How readily I might have nursed the wound, repeating my story of hurt feelings to another, in an effort to garner validation and sympathy.

And how ridiculous that would have been.

But more than ridiculous, it would have been spiritually toxic  – not only to me, but to all who fell into the path of the negative energy I was generating.

My friend would have sensed it at some point, even if I suppressed my initial reaction. Anyone with whom I shared my grievance would certainly have been affected.

And, quite probably, a whole host of other people would be caught in the ripples, unbeknownst to me.

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It is a shame that people so seldom talk about temptation these days.

It is, I think, a great gift to discover temptation nipping at one’s soul. Recognizing the monster, we can then turn our hearts Godward and surely the grace we need will be given.

Perhaps, God willing, I shall write a bit more about temptation…

All glory and praise to our Savior.

The impassibility of God

As I have noted before, I am not typically one to delve deeply into theology.

I want to know God, to experience Him, to be formed and shaped by Him. It is my hope that, in His endless mercy, someday He will allow me to experience union with Him – whatever union a tiny soul like me can experience with its divine Creator.

Knowing and learning about God seldom captivates me in the same way. Too much is speculation or argument about questions to which no one knows the answers.

Opinions, theological or otherwise, do not draw me into the heart of love.

There is, however, the occasional exception.

While I was composing my last post, I was reflecting on an important question: does God suffer?

Naturally, I brought this question to my chief advisor on important spiritual matters, i.e. my internet search engine. 🙂

To my surprise (and subsequent delight) I found an excellent article that addresses this very question:  Does God suffer?, by Fr. Thomas Weinandy.

What I discovered as I read and reread the article and some of its references is that there is some poor theology creeping into mainstream faith.

Or more exactly, some of it had started to creep into my own faith without me having critically examined it.

Allow me to explain.

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It is quite possible that what I am about to share is already well-known to my readers.

However, my own experience of being misled is most likely not. Hence, it is a good confession for me to make and to make publicly.

My first distinct memory of being exposed to this line of thinking occurred just under 5 years ago, when there was the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. A horrible, heartbreaking tragedy.

Someone posed the question of “where was God?” when the killer opened fire on the little children and their teachers.

Someone else responded that He was there, in the classroom, being shot.

Although I interpreted this response as a metaphor, there was something profoundly moving in imagining that God was there, suffering with each and every child who took a bullet.

(I have since learned that a much more famous account, provided by Elie Wiesel, used the same imagery when describing the horrors of a Jewish boy’s death in a concentration camp.)

Without me being consciously aware of it, this emotional appeal started to influence my conceptualization of God. Though I wouldn’t have said it outright, I began to think of God as somehow suffering with us.

This was not so very hard to imagine, given the suffering that Christ our Savior endured.

However, I am now convinced that this is not a theologically sound way to think of God – and that such thinking has the potential to create some serious delusion.

Although Fr. Weinandy provides a much more scholarly explanation that I am capable of, one danger now occurring to me is that this notion might lead one to equate love and suffering.

Something along the lines of this: “If God truly loves us, He must suffer with us.”

Perhaps you have detected hints of this when, in recent posts, I have linked love with sacrifice.

While I continue believe that such a link is valid in the context of the Paschal Mystery – and it may become valid when we prayerfully bring our own suffering to Christ – it is vital that we recognize that love does not necessitate suffering.

To think that it does is a serious distortion of God’s truth.

Belief in this distortion suggests that our God, Whose law beckons us to love Him and one another, must want us to suffer.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

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As I was pondering the points made by Fr. Weinandy, I had to stop and consider why this image of a suffering God held emotional appeal for me.

It is, after all, a rather strange notion when one stops to take a closer look.

How can God be perfect joy if He suffers?

Suffering is, by definition, bad or unpleasant. How could I imagine that God endures either?

If God suffers willingly, suffering is glorified and portrayed as an ideal – which makes no sense. Certainly we do not want to glorify that which is the consequence of evil.

If God suffers unwillingly, then He is not the transcendent and all-powerful Creator to Whom all things are subject. Someone or something else is more in control of the universe than Him.

Both notions are ludicrous.

Fr. Weinandy explains the dialectic between considering God “passible” versus “impassible”.

Impassibility, used in this context, means that God “does not undergo emotional changes of state, and so cannot suffer”*. Passibility, of course, is the opposite.

Because of our human nature, most of us think of emotional responsiveness as essential to love and compassion.

If we imagine God observing horrendous human suffering (such as those mentioned above) and not feeling anything, we most likely begin to feel uncomfortable. At least I do.

The absence of an emotional response in God gives rise to notions that God is passive and indifferent – that He doesn’t care about human suffering.

On a human level, compassion infers something deeper than mere caring. Indeed, the origins of the word carries the meaning of “suffering with”.

If our perception is that God does not even care, how can we consider Him our compassionate and loving Father?

The violent and senseless of death of children is perhaps the most disturbing kind of suffering we humans can conceive of.

Hence, at a time when our doubts are at their peak, the image of a God Who suffers with the children offers us reassurance that He truly is compassionate. Without this reassurance, the world as we know it would seem intolerable.

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Understanding now why the notion appeals to me, I am freer to examine it a bit more objectively.

Relief of fundamental doubt and emotional anguish is so powerfully reinforcing that part of me may just want to drop it there and not explore further.

However, I believe that this would be a mistake. Or perhaps I should say, this was my mistake.

On the most simplistic level, I can readily recognize that compassion, despite the etymology of the word, does not require suffering from the compassionate one.

If, for example, I were to require cardiovascular surgery, I would hope to have a compassionate surgeon. However, I most certainly would not want him/her to feel my fear with me beforehand – or suffer the physical pain of my recovery afterward. It would be disabling to the surgeon.

Similarly, while I strive to be compassionate with my patients, I do not expect myself to experience their suffering with them. Not only would it be impossible for me to do so, it would be of no benefit to them and potentially very harmful to me.

Thus, the rationale for my “need” to imagine God suffering with us deteriorates rapidly upon closer examination.

And that without any argument of a theological nature.

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Yet I found Fr. Weinandy’s discussion so compelling that I wish to highlight some of what it stirred in me.

If we are to consider God as impassible, how then do we contend with the Old Testament, where God is portrayed as having many emotions and even changing His mind?

One of the first thoughts that occurred to me is that the writers, no matter how divinely inspired, were still human beings and therefore limited by human words and concepts when trying to describe God.

To say that God was angry with His chosen people communicated a meaning readily understandable to a human audience.

In contrast, an explanation that the perfect goodness of God cannot abide evil is too abstract to be meaningful, especially in a culture where most teaching depended on an oral transmission of the faith.

Furthermore, as Fr. Weinandy explains, such Scripture passages need to be interpreted “within the deeper and broader revelation of who God is”*.

God was revealed to our ancestors to be One, not just numerically one but “distinct from all else”, or “transcendent”.*

In this complete Otherness, God was known to be Savior – such that He could not be thwarted “by worldly power or might, or by the vicissitudes of history, or even by the limitations of the natural physical order.”*

Scripture makes known God as Creator, intimately bound to His creation, but not part of the created world. Being completely “Other” from all else, “radically placed Him within a distinct ontological order of His own”.*

A final fundamental characteristic of God revealed to His chosen people was that He is All Holy. He was incapable of being defiled, even when His people defiled themselves. Thus, “He could restore them to holiness” in a way that no one else could.

God’s chosen people inhabited a world where their neighbors typically believed in multiple gods who fought among themselves and acted out their own emotions and passions on humans.

Hence, the revelation of these truths about God were a radical departure from the prevalent thinking of the ancient world.

This transcendent impassibility of God (as Other, Savior, Creator and All Holy) was therefore central to first Covenant understanding and thus foundational to the birth of Judeo-Christian theology.

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An interesting point made by Fr. Weinandy is that the shift to thinking of God as passible (and thus able to suffer) is a relatively recent phenomenon.

The early Fathers of the Church and Tradition assumed the impassibility of God without question.  It was only around the end of the nineteenth century that a shift in thinking developed in some circles. (See Fr. Weinandy’s article for further discussion of what led to this shift.)

As familiar as the Fathers were with Old Testament Scripture, they did not interpret its language as signifying mood changes on the part of God.

But what then did this language mean?

And, if God’s disposition never changes, if it is eternally unaffected by anything said or done in human history, how can we experience Him?

Why do I pray if my prayers have no impact on God?

How can I relate to Him, feel connected to Him? It almost seems like trying to bond with a rock.

I just had to say that. Because Fr. Weinandy’s explanation is so perfectly clarifying. This is what he writes:

While God and rocks may both be impassible, they are so for polar opposite reasons. A rock is impassible because, being an inert impersonal object, it lacks all that pertains to love. God is impassible because His love is perfectly in act (“God is love”) and no further self-constituting act could make Him more loving.*

Our author, citing Thomas Aquinas as a source, notes that, as created beings, humans are “constantly changing because they continually actualize their potential either for good, and so become more perfect, or for evil, and so become less perfect.”

God has no need to make such changes as nothing could make Him more loving. He is already “absolutely passionate in His love”*.

We cannot comprehend how God is “pure act”. Yet if we can conceive of Creation pouring forth from the being which is Being, the love which is Love, we may catch a glimpse of its significance.

From this glimpse, we may begin to understand how all things so created “are immediately and intimately related to God as He exists in His perfectly actualized love”.*

Yes, I know that I have risked that abstract communication style that can result in lost meaning. But please bear with me.

Fr. Weinandy offers a profound perspective that draws together Old Testament language, prayer and our personal experience of God.

Being human, he reminds us, requires us to enact our love differently in different situations. This is readily illustrated in parents’ love for their children.

Sometimes parental love is expressed in tenderness and gentle comforting. However, in other situations, it may require correction, sternness or even anger.

Because we are imperfect creatures moving through time, our expressions of love change in accord with the situations we face. And we ourselves cannot help but change as we encounter different experiences.

Indeed, we must change to live effectively in this world – and certainly in order to discover the Way of Love.

God, however, does not need to sequentially change His love to fit different situations. His love is always perfectly there and He is the Way of Love.

He does not change – but we do.

As we change, passing through our varying experiences and levels of maturity, both individually and as a people, we come to know different facets of God’s eternal love.

Sometimes we know them by faith. Sometimes we know them by experience.

In one situation, for example, I experience God holding me in love. In another moment, I experience Him withholding from me, that I might better learn my need for Him.

On other occasions, I experience Him “chastening” me because I need correction. At yet another point, I find myself drowning in His mercy.

As I pass through this process, God never changes. He doesn’t need to. But the nature of what I need from Him is ever changing.

In the perfection of His love, He always knows exactly what I need from Him, even when I do not. And His love for me is always completely and unconditionally present.

It is my awareness of His love is that is often lacking. And this is why I must pray – not to change God but to change me.

In prayer, I learn of my need for Him and I learn of His abundant love.

I become open to asking for and receiving His grace.

Of course, It has been there all along. But I have not seen it, lost as I’ve been in the sin of trying to be god myself.

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If we take this lesson and apply it to God’s chosen people, we see how the people of God went through similar changes on a larger scale. They encountered many blessings and many obstacles.

Both by faith and experience, they came to recognise in God’s love a “wrath” and a punishment, a compassion and a promise.

This knowledge of God’s abiding love sustained them through the desert to the Promised Land, through the Babylonian captivity to the rebuilding of the Temple.

Certainly their suffering caused them to struggle, to grumble and doubt. But, in the end, a remnant always remained, “a light to the nations” in the darkness of this world.

God’s people today are no different.

We tend to think of the evils of our day as being far worse than those of ancient times. Perhaps they are – or perhaps we simply have broader knowledge of them. Our electronic culture takes our vision of suffering far beyond that of our own families or clans.

However, in the New Covenant, we have available to us a grace beyond any graces known to our ancient ancestors.

We have Christ the Lord, risen from the dead.

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The Son has always been and was not merely invented to appear in human history.

But His incarnation brings us more deeply into an understanding of the nature of our God.

Ironically, His suffering may be cited as an argument in favor of the “suffering God” theology.

If God is impassible, should that not make the Son incapable of suffering as well?

And if the Son of God is capable of suffering, does that not mean that God Himself suffers?

But there are problems with this consideration.

Jesus was fully human and therefore subject to all of the same suffering as other human beings. And He did suffer during His human life, voluntarily, to bring about our salvation.

Still, we must remember that it is not the suffering itself that saves us but the love from which it springs.

There is the human love of Jesus, accepting suffering and pain out of love.

And there is the divine love of the Son who became Incarnate in order to lead us to resurrection and new life in Him.

Both loves effected our salvation and were inseparable in the person of Jesus.

But the human suffering of Christ was temporary and limited to His historical life. The eternal Son of God, our resurrected Savior, does not continue to suffer.

If He did, can we say we would want a share in His eternal life of eternal suffering?

If, as the Head of His mystical body on earth, He continued to suffer too, could we trust Him to sustain us until the period of struggle is over?

Certainly not.

As the chosen people needed to be led by a pillar of fire through the desert, we too need to be led by the Light while passing through this world of darkness.

The compassion we need is not someone sitting in the darkness with us. Rather, it is a compassion that comes looking for us in the darkness and is capable of leading us into the Light.

And this is the impassible, immutable compassion of our God, made known to us through Christ our Savior.

To Him be all praise and honor and glory forever. Amen.

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*all quotes so marked are taken from Fr. Weinandy’s article,  Does God suffer?

Is it worth it?

Still more reflections are developing in my mind since having posted, What is lacking.

One of my favorite movies of all times is Shadowlands, a film about C.S Lewis who, not so coincidentally, is also one of my favorite authors.

Among the most memorable scenes for me is one early in the movie when Lewis, a prominent university don, delivers an erudite lecture on Christianity and suffering. The presentation is confidently and competently given and its message is well-received by the large audience.

Later in the film, Lewis is portrayed experiencing both the greatest joy and the worst agony of his personal life. Despite being a lifelong bachelor, he unexpectedly falls deeply in love while in his mid-fifties. His struggle with the premature death of his wife is chronicled in the book, A Grief Observed.

He had spoken so competently about suffering. It was, of course, an entirely different thing to live through it.

Undoubtedly I am drawn to this movie and this scene because I see myself in it (minus the competence and late-life love affair).

The topic of suffering has had a conspicuous presence in my own writing for many years now. Entering the suffering of others has been at the heart of my life’s vocation and so I grapple with it, struggling to make sense of it in the context of the loving God to Whom I have given my life.

Yet my memory of this film prompts me to greater humility, recognizing that words are easy. Theologizing and philosophizing about other people’s misery is a far cry from drowning in it oneself.

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The issue I now confront hardly originates with me. But can anyone answer the question:

Is it worth it?

Allow me to explain what I mean.

In my last few posts, I have strung together several concepts:

  • God created us for love.
  • love requires a voluntary choice and cannot be compelled.
  • God created us with a free will so that we would be able to choose love.
  • having a truly free will requires knowledge of evil as well as good.
  • the choice of evil (departure from the Way of Love) leads to suffering.

Let us take a moment (but only a moment) to consider the suffering in the world.

In less than a month, there have been two major hurricanes that have caused extensive damage and devastation for millions of people in the western hemisphere. Mexico had a massive earthquake devastating millions more.

During this same time period, hundreds have been killed and millions more have been displaced by massive floods and landslides in Nepal, India and Bangladesh.

So far this month, there have been 94 terrorist acts around the world.

Of course, I haven’t touched upon all of the regions of the world where refugees are fleeing violence, starvation, etc.

And then there is all of the private suffering that occurs in every nation on earth. Or perhaps I should say in every life on earth.

I must stop here. If I try to cover every part of the world or start going back in time, neither you nor I will be able to bear it. I’ve probably already pushed too far.

We all know there is tremendous human suffering in the world – and there has been throughout recorded history. We do not need more reminders.

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Did God make a mistake in creating us?

I do not deny that God’s love, is far greater than anything I can imagine.

But can it possibly be worth all of this suffering?

It is quite possible, of course, that the links I have drawn between the freedom to love and suffering are incorrect. Perhaps it is all unrelated.

But somehow we are repeatedly drawn to the question of why God allows such horrors to occur. If not my explanation, choose another:

  • God is not truly omnipotent. He cannot stop all of the suffering.
  • God is not truly good. He doesn’t care about the suffering.
  • There is no God.

These are some of the other explanations floating around out there – I’m almost afraid to write them here for fear that one more person will adopt the heresies they entail.

I’m sticking to the understanding I have been given, thank you.

Yet, even within my admittedly inadequate understanding of suffering, there remains the question of whether love could possibly justify so much suffering.

Why did God do it? Why did God design creatures capable of love and therefore capable of such incredible suffering?

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Oh my. I’ve painted myself into a corner again, haven’t I?

Why do I keep posing questions that I cannot possibly answer?

(I had to stop and pray for a moment to ask God to help me.)

It just occurred to me that perhaps I do this out of love, as strange of an explanation as that may seem.

If I thought I were the only one who struggled with questions like this, certainly it would be wise for me to keep them to myself. Why disturb other people’s peace of mind unnecessarily?

Of course I know that I am not the only one. Books have been written on the topic. Across centuries and cultures.

I was in mid-adolescence when questions of this nature began to erupt in my mind.

Back then, it was about meaning.

Why? Why is there life? Why do I exist? Why does anything exist?

Back then, I felt very alone. As far as I could tell, other kids weren’t thinking these kinds of thoughts.

While I hid my anguish, I didn’t keep the questions to myself, even then. In one of my high school religion classes, the topic I chose for my presentation to my peers was “Christian existentialism”. Hmm…

In any event, from the earliest times I can remember, I wasn’t willing to use religion to hide from the real, raw questions of life. If I was going to have faith, it had to be real faith, tested in the furnace of unknowing.

Perhaps my act of love now is simply to let you know that, if you wonder about these things too, you are not alone. I’m here with you.

Perhaps God can make use of me to ease even a little of the suffering imposed by these questions.

Yes, these questions can be a true affliction for many of us as we try to follow Christ in our broken world.

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A few reflections surface as I ponder these questions before the Lord…

First, in my attempts to understand suffering in the manner that I do, I am not suggesting the explanation as a justification for suffering.

It is not as though I think God designed this system with suffering as part of the plan (e.g. “When these creatures of mine disobey Me, I’m gonna make ’em pay!!!”).

Did He know that our suffering was going to occur? Certainly yes, if He is God.

But this doesn’t mean that He “wanted” it to happen – only that He accepted it as an inevitable part of the process.

Now it may seem counterintuitive to suggest that something is “inevitable” as far as God is concerned. How is He omnipotent if He is constrained by some law of inevitability?

God’s omnipotence is not diminished by twists of human logic. My contention is simply that God cannot make us both “free” and “not free” at the same time (at least in the sense we are discussing here).

Neither can He make evil not be evil, thereby preventing it from being the opposite of good.

While I offer only educated conjecture, God alone understands how all things work together.

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A second consideration essential to this discussion is that, from our current vantage point, we will never be able to judge whether it is truly “worth it”.

There are several reasons I am quite certain this is true.

For one, we are naturally much more attuned to suffering because we see or experience it right now. It demands our attention, both personally and globally.

Love does not do this – and we will not experience its fullness until an unknown point in the future.

The animal part of us favors what is immediate and what is negative because this information is most crucial to our survival.

It is possible, though difficult, for our spiritual nature to transcend this biological hard-wiring.

Furthermore, at present, we cannot see the “big picture” of what events of our lives mean for ourselves or others – or where they will lead us.

I have recognized some significant suffering of my own as very much worthwhile – when I later saw what had grown out of it. But I never would have anticipated this while I was in the suffering.

Finally, we have no ability to imagine the fullness of complete, perfect and unending love. Our human experiences of love clearly don’t approach this. The glimpses God gives us of His love are but glimpses at best – for our view is clouded.

In other words, we cannot really comprehend what love is in its fullness. Hence, we cannot possibly make judgments of its relative worth.

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A final consideration is that we can allow our judgment to be distorted if we try to ponder all of the suffering going on in the world.

While not minimizing its scope or seriousness, we must remember that each instance involves individual souls traveling on personal paths to God.

In other words, each of us only experiences his/her own suffering, not all that we learn of through the media.

To make this clearer, let us suppose that I am involved in a tragic accident tomorrow. I am driving the Interstate 480 bridge and a defect in the bridge causes it to collapse. (I am using this example for all of the local phobics who fear this lengthy and highly trafficked bridge that carries us over a valley.)

Cars, including mine, fly off the bridge and all of them, along with an immense amount of rubble, fall on the homes and businesses in the valley below. People coming off the bridge as well as those underneath it are injured, trapped, even dying. And I am one of them.

It is likely that an event such as this would make national, perhaps even international news.

And undoubtedly, some people learning of this tragedy would be thinking: “How can a good God allow such a horrible thing to happen? Think of all of the suffering people!”

However, if we were to locate my one little body amidst the rubble, I would still just be me, one soul encountering another life event on my path to God.

It might be my final life event. Or it might be the occasion for a “miracle” in which I emerge unscathed. Or it might be the beginning of a new path, involving recovery from injury and trauma.

Whichever of these variations occurred would constitute the next phase of my journey. The fact that so many other people simultaneously experienced similar unanticipated changes in their life journeys is not greatly important to our understanding.

Every person on and under the bridge is going to suffer in this life and each one is going to eventually die. Whether we experience it as a group or as individuals, this reality does not change.

The world, however, which measures by numbers, would consider the loss of 200 people in the accident a tragedy that God should have prevented. If I alone died (and the others went on to die individually of other causes and at other times), the world would hardly notice.

Until finally united with God, my individual life, like all human lives, can always be expected to involve a multitude of unpredictable twists and turns that involve the potential for suffering – as well as the possibility of joy.

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Now it may sound like I am minimizing human suffering when I refer to it as “unpredictable twists and turns”.

This is certainly not my intention. However, I am being drawn toward a new perspective – and am taking you along for the ride.

I just mentioned “the possibility of joy”. In the midst of suffering?

Indeed.

I am currently reading a most extraordinary book: The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, co-authored by the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Carlton Abrams.

Two great spiritual leaders come together for a week to discuss and share joy, with a writer/author asking questions on behalf of the world and weaving the responses into a wisdom story readily accessible to all.

Of particular significance is the fact that both of these leaders have themselves witnessed and undergone great personal suffering. It is not an abstraction about which they speak.

It is something they are living.

In addition to speaking of the nature of joy and its obstacles, they specifically address learning to be joyful in the midst of suffering.

And they identify 8 pillars (each a chapter in the book): perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity.

There are so many wonderful passages in the book that I am tempted to quote them all. But, in actuality, I find that I cannot quote any of them.

The wisdom shared in the book is more than words. Joy bubbles forth from their interactions with each other, from their stories of forgiveness and gratitude, compassion and generosity.

Recognizing that we are all interconnected enables us to turn from focus on ourselves to attend to the other.

And when this happens, we are no longer held hostage by the suffering that is created by our own minds – the greatest suffering of them all.

Let us return for a moment to that definition of sorts by which I described the suffering born of sin: “an acute, conscious awareness of hardship, pain and death”.

Spending a moment with this notion, we observe the centrality of the highlighted word “awareness”.

Not only does this distinguish us from the lower animals but it also helps us to understand the variations we experience in our own personal suffering.

As noted elsewhere, much of my life is spent walking with others as they struggle with their suffering. Since none of us like suffering, our instinct is to find ways to escape the awareness of realities we do not know how to change.

And we humans have found a multitude of ways to do this, some relatively healthy, many of them not.

In our culture, we can observe that people drink to excess, do drugs, spend hours watching TV or movies, surfing the Internet or playing video games. Some people take refuge in comfort food, others in excessive sleep.

We can also pour ourselves into work – or working out, sports, music, art, gardening and many, many other distractions.

All to avoid being aware.

Sometimes this can be adaptive. For example, if I experience chronic pain, I will not suffer from it as much if my attention is caught up in a healthy pursuit.

Other times, this flight from awareness can be immensely destructive and lead to more suffering for ourselves and others.

But to find joy…

Though it is instinctive to attend to my discomforts, I will not find joy by clinging to an awareness of my pain and hardship. No matter how severe my pain, no matter how justified my anger, no matter how profound my sorrow.

But if, rather than burying myself in distractions, I cultivate gratitude, I begin to suffer less.

I recognize that I am no different from others and that we all long for the same things.

I learn to forgive.

I turn to another who, like me, suffers – and build a bridge of compassion.

In my gratitude, I share what I have in acts of generosity.

I smile. I may even laugh.

In time, joy is born – not only in me but in the other as well.

This joy is not merely a passing “happy” sensation because something pleasant has happened. It is who I am, regardless of what has happened or will happen.

Rather than bury that awareness which is born of sin, I turn my awareness to love and my suffering is transformed.

For it is love that has been lost in sin. And when we return to love, we are freed from our deepest suffering and discover before us the path to joy.

+++

Is it worth it? Did God make a mistake in creating us to be free?

As much as anyone else, I can be blinded by my pains and sorrows, absorbed in self-focus, so much so that I feel I have no choice but to suffer.

Lost in my suffering, I struggle to experience gratitude. I am not inclined to turn to another in love and compassion. What I want becomes my focus, not what I can share with another.

I discover that I am weak and sinful.

My old friend humility greets me once again, leading me back to Christ our Savior.

And He teaches me and trains me, over and over, to walk the Way of Love.

He teaches me by His compassion, His forgiveness, His generosity to me in my unworthiness.

He shows me the Way to Love by loving me.

This is a profound mystery I cannot fully grasp. But surely there is no mistake.

I was made free to love and so I choose love – to follow Him who is my heart’s desire.

+All praise and glory to Him.

Notes on Creation

Private correspondence regarding my last article stirred some additional thoughts in me – going in a couple of directions. I will begin with some reflections on Creation and the story of Adam and Eve.

Before delving into the heavier matter, however, allow me to share with you what I consider one of my life’s greatest achievements: developing an answer years ago to the age-old question of which came first, the chicken or the egg.

(My answer was drawn from my vaguely remembered college philosophy course that discussed Plato and types – or something like that – as well as a biology class on genetics and evolution).

The answer depends on whether one believes in an evolutionary model of creation or a direct creation model. (Both notions are consistent with the idea of God as Creator, although the former doesn’t require it.)

If one believes in direct creation, certainly the chicken(s) must have been created first. It would make no sense to create an egg with no rooster to fertilize or hen to warm it.

However, if one subscribes to an evolutionary model, the egg must come first. To understand this, we must assume that there exists a specific and unique genotype of the “true” chicken, that distinguishes it from similar fowl that are not chickens.

In the context of the evolutionary perspective, different types of fowl developed over time, some surviving better than others, as gradual changes occurred in their genetic makeup.

Finally, some day, somewhere, two “almost chickens” got together to create the first “true chicken”. With just the right combination of genes from its almost-chicken parents, this first real chicken emerged into the world – as an egg.

+++

Having addressed this weighty issue, I will now plunge more deeply into the complex questions relating to the creation of humanity.

In my last post, I drew some beliefs/truths (as I see them) from the Creation story found in the book of Genesis. In all fairness to the reader, I will disclose now that I subscribe to an evolutionary model of creation, though I am not claiming that either ancient or contemporary man could fully comprehend what this means.

In no way am I dismissing or minimizing the role of God in the creative process. Indeed, I cannot imagine there being no Creator of a universe that is so immensely beautiful and well-ordered. But neither can I imagine that God just created once and then stopped. Creation is continually unfolding before us.

To regard the Genesis Creation story as a myth is not to say that it is not true. Rather, we are labeling its genre in literature as a story that was told to describe a truth (or belief), rather than to report on a historical event.

This is not a great deal different from saying that parables of Jesus were intended to be stories designed to teach. We have every reason to believe that the story of The Good Samaritan, for example, was told to convey a truth, not an actual historic event. And it is no less the Word of God as such.

So, in Genesis, we have a story of how human beings came into existence and how evil entered our world. In learning how to read and interpret the truths in this story, we have the obvious dilemma of whether any of it was intended to be historical fact – and, if so, which parts.

Please allow me to take some liberties in describing the understanding I have arrived at, with my full recognition that I may be totally wrong. (Surely I am at least partially wrong – which of us can claim to understand God?)

First, if we assume an evolutionary model of creation, we likely have a similar process with the creation of Man as we did with the chicken in my story above.

Over vast periods of time, God created a universe which formed a planet Earth that revolved around a sun. Waters existed and land emerged. Life, initially in very small and simple forms, developed out of these materials. Again, over vast periods of time, these simple life forms evolved to produce increasingly complex living structures, both animal and plant.

Some of these creatures lived but a short time and died. The matter of which they were composed was then “recycled” to become the building blocks for more life. (Much like the process occurring right now in my compost bin – but at a higher level.) This was not a defect in Creation or a result of sin, but simply a beautiful cycle of how life was made to be.

At this point in the creative process, there was no suffering. Now I realize this is a rather bold assertion on my part. However, I am using the word “suffering” in a very specific way, which admittedly deviates a bit from the standard definition. I will explain this a bit more as follows.

This claim is perhaps most easily understood with very simple life forms that do not have nervous systems. While they may be subjected to experiences that lead to death, experiences we might classify as “painful”, they are not equipped to process the experience, to have an awareness of it that would constitute “suffering”.

Now as we observe more complex organisms, this claim of mine becomes more ambiguous. Many, for example, would argue that dogs and cats are capable of suffering. And, on one level, this appears to be indisputable. The fact that behavioral changes occur in response to pain and death indicates a significant level of awareness.

But do they have the “knowledge of good and evil”? And what does this mean?

To know goodness is to know God, for God alone is good (to paraphrase, Mark 10:18).

To know evil is to know the opposite of God – to know that there is a way opposite to the Way created for everyone and everything to live harmoniously with each other and the Creator.

Many animals seem to “love” by attaching to one another and even to humans, displaying what we would call warm and loving behaviors. But does this constitute knowing our God who is love?

Animals also instinctively want to avoid pain and death, but is this the same as knowing evil?

In both cases, I believe the answer is no. While their personalities and behaviors are often wonderful reflections of the Lord God, they were created to follow the Way instinctively and without free will.

Thus, as far as we can tell, the other animals do not have a true knowledge of good and evil nor do they have the capacity to consciously choose between them.

Hence, when I refer to the “suffering” resulting from the Fall of Man. I am referring to not just the experience of physical discomfort, but to an acute, conscious awareness of hardship, pain and death and their significance.

Only creatures who can comprehend good and evil – and make a choice between them – can suffer in this manner. For only those who understand good and evil can begin to fathom what it means to be separated from God.

+++

For those of us who grew up with Christianity, it is natural that when we first heard the story of Adam and Eve, we pictured the creation of one man, one woman, a garden with a special tree in the middle and a snake. In other words, we pictured a literal, historical event.

For some, as they become more educated and able to think critically, this became a problem. Not only was the theory of evolution taught in our science classes, but we also began to speculate that with this model, incest would have to have been the means of propagating the entire human race.

This contributed to some people dismissing the entire story as one creation myth among many, having no more significance than any of the others. Meanwhile, others have clung to the literal story and defended the notion of direct creation despite these rational arguments.

There is another understanding, however. If we return to my hypothesis regarding the first chicken, we may discover that an integrative approach is quite appropriate, spiritually and rationally.

Assuming an evolving creation set into motion and ordered by God, it is quite possible that along the way, there were creatures who were “almost” human but not quite. They had many similar biological features but not the level of awareness that we associate with “Man”. Archeological studies support this possibility.

Of course, we are not capable of pinpointing exactly who the first “true” humans were or what differentiated them from their close cousins. It is very likely, however, that there were more than just two individuals who reached this status at the same time. It is also possible that there may have been both the true humans and close cousins inhabiting the earth simultaneously as this process continued.

Since Adam means “Man”, it is reasonable to hypothesize that this Creation myth was meant to communicate something about the development of the whole of humanity and our relationship with God, rather than just being a story about one particular man.

Such stories or myths were common during those ancient times as truths had to be remembered and retold orally across many generations.

To effectively accomplish this, the core beliefs were woven into a good story – which naturally required specific characters in order to be interesting to the listeners. Scripture scholars tell us that this story was told and retold orally for hundreds of years before it was ever written down.

So what truths were to be conveyed in this story, making it any more significant than the other myths of its time?

Although I listed some in my last post, allow me to pick up where I left off.

We were purposefully created by the one true God, in His image and likeness.

We were endowed with the ability to know God and to be in relationship with Him. Thus, He created us to know goodness.

What about evil? The story tells us that everything that God created He pronounced “good”. He did not create anything evil, i.e. opposed to His Way of Love.

But the story tell us that God created the human creature differently from all the other animals, with the both the capacity and the opportunity to understand good and evil. The tree represents that opportunity.

Here is where the myth of our creation becomes particularly interesting – and challenging to understand.

The story tells us that God warned our ancestors not to eat the fruit of this tree, suggesting that He didn’t want humanity to have this knowledge. But, if this is so, why not simply make human beings incapable of acquiring it?

I am going out on a limb here, but I suspect that the storyteller was attempting to communicate a very important and profound truth about our God.

On the one hand, He created us to participate in His love and thus share in His life.

On the other hand, He didn’t want to us to experience the suffering associated with knowing evil. His love wanted to protect us from that – and so the narrative has Him forbidding us to try to obtain this knowledge, warning that it would only lead to our death.

This story is much more sophisticated in its implications than we might expect, especially if we are used to reading it as though it were a literal account.

As noted elsewhere, love is only love if it is chosen freely. The animals and plants were all created “good”, but none were given the capacity to love God.

To choose love freely, we must have a full view of its opposite – or there is no real choice.

Hence, a tension develops in the story: God wants us to love but doesn’t want us to know evil – but there seems to be no way around this.

And so the storyteller introduces a new character to embody this tension. The tempter, a snake, enters to try to convince our ancestors that they would not die but rather become like God – if they ate the apple (i.e. acquired the knowledge of good and evil).

We now have God telling Man that he will die if he eats this “apple” and a cunning tempter saying that he will not. The tension in the story reaches it climax: who is telling Man the truth?

What is happens next is both interesting and instructive. Of course, Adam and Eve eat the apple and thereby acquire knowledge of good and evil. From what God has said, we might expect that they would die immediately – but they do not. Instead, they feel shame.

The introduction of shame, something no other creature had ever experienced before, hints at another truth: not only is Man no longer innocent like all of the other creatures, but he has become capable of an entirely different sort of death.

Although Scripture reports that Adam did eventually die, it was only after living 930 years and begetting many children. (See Genesis 5: 5.) It hardly seems likely that this was the sort of death about which God had warned him.

What are we to make of this? Did Man’s disobedience cause his eventual bodily death?

There are some who have made this interpretation. Had the first pair not disobeyed, human beings would have been immortal and lived eternally on this earth. Mortality, it is said, is the punishment for disobedience.

Naturally, this makes little sense in the context of an evolutionary model of Creation, where the living and dying of species had been occurring from the very beginning. And on a planet with limited space and resources.

Furthermore, God never says this in the Genesis story. Indeed, the storyteller relates that God banned Adam and Eve from the garden where the Tree of Life grew, lest they try to attain immortality by eating from this tree as they did the other. (See Genesis 3: 22.)

Their actual punishment for disobedience, related by God in the story, is that men and women will be subject to increasingly painful labor, both in giving birth and in toiling for food.

Did God reverse Himself on His warning about death? How is this “punishment” significantly different from what other creatures experienced before the Fall? Certainly animals have labored to give birth and to obtain food before this.

The story, I believe, is attempting to convey two important truths.

One is that humanity is now to experience suffering. By knowing of good and evil, having a choice and sometimes choosing against the way of Love, the human creatures now experience an acute, conscious awareness of hardship, pain and death.

They will experience guilt and shame. They will anticipate and fear their bodily hardships and death. Rather than simply experiencing the coming and going of their lives, they will find life and death difficult, even dreadful.

Man is unique in having experiences of this nature. The other animals do not undergo this kind of suffering.

The second important truth in this part of the story involves what death really means to the ones who understand.

Bodily death comes to all creatures of the earth. However, except for Man, none of them depart from the Way created for them. The human being, however, now capable of choosing between good and evil, is subject to an entirely different type of death: separation from the Way of Love, separation from God.

This is the eternal death from which we need to be saved.

+++

Having thus extracted from the myth the truths I believe it embodies, what does this mean about what really happened?

Was there actually a moment in history when the first “true” Man committed a specific act of disobedience against God, leading to the Fall of all humanity? Is there really a tempter, a being outside of ourselves, who led us astray and continues to do so?

How did we come to attain the “knowledge of good and evil”? Did we truly obtain it through an act of disobedience as the story suggests?

Or did it come about when the gradually developing neural networks in our brains rendered us capable of understanding?

Possibly God breathed it into us at a certain point in our development through a mechanism separate from biological evolution.

These are questions beyond our knowing. We simply cannot know the facts of our creation or our Fall with any historical certainty. None of us were there – and neither were the people who finally put the Genesis account into writing.

My own tendency, as one who accepts the evolutionary model of creation, is to believe that yes, certainly among the first “true” human beings, someone went first in knowingly stepping out of the way of Love.

However, who went first is of little consequence. Within seconds, another human was probably doing essentially the same thing.

Perhaps one new human hit another in order to take his food. Or one stole a tool from another. This may have occurred before but, at some point, there was an awareness that this was wrong.

It is not as though the Fall would not have occurred if only that first ones had refrained. Eventually the first rebellious act was going to occur, both because the possibility was there and there was a tempter in our midst  (see below).

How do I know this? I don’t. However, I believe it to be true. While theologically it may be a helpful shortcut to refer to “the sin of Adam”, it is not as though the rest of us are merely innocent victims of one man’s decision.

True, evil begets more evil, creating an impact on future generations that is emotional, spiritual, even biological.

However, the story, the myth, I believe is to help us understand the nature and consequences of evil more than it is to pin the blame on a single person.

I can imagine a group of ancient humans huddled around the fire, asking “Why is life so hard? Why do people do bad things to each other?”

And some individual or group of individuals, aware of God and seeking the truth, attempted to answer this question by telling a story. It does not bother me that the story may have been refined a bit over the hundreds of years of retelling.

Something about the final version that was recorded in Genesis exceeds mere human invention. It is hard to imagine a story with such profound and sophisticated considerations being developed by a primitive people alone.

And I do not believe they did it alone. I believe that God revealed Himself and His spirit guided and inspired their story-telling – as He has guided and inspired the prophets, all of the authors of Scripture and, eventually, now, the Church itself.

God reveals Himself in different ways at different times. The Bible is a collection of stories about these events, though clearly not an exhaustive one. And relatively few of them were recorded to be historically factual accounts.

While truth has long been a concern of our race, it has been only relatively recently that humanity has become infatuated with the historicity of our stories.

+++

And what about the tempter? Is there really such a being? Or is our capacity to understand and choose evil a “defect” in our creation that makes our sin inevitable?

As I have written elsewhere, I do believe that there is an evil one, a tempter, one who was also created by God with free will (as opposed to being an uncreated equal of God’s.)

I’m not sure that I can describe fully how I reached this conclusion. But a few of my thoughts are as follows.

Scripture tells us that God pronounced “good” all that He created. Hence, we were created good and without defect.

I believe that the character of the tempter in our Creation myth was not incidental or simply inserted to enhance the story. The storyteller included him to both make clear that we were created good and to make us aware that our knowledge results in a vulnerability to being led astray by forces outside of ourselves.

If this were not enough to convince me, I would believe that there is a tempter because Jesus described him (Satan aka “adversary”) and cast out demons. If all such incidents were misunderstood physical illnesses, certainly the departed demons would not have identified Him as the Holy One.

If I choose to believe that Jesus is the Christ, our God incarnate, I must accept all that He said, even if I do not understand it.

While I sometimes catch glimpses of how our adversary operates, thankfully I do not know or understand him as one creature knows another. And I prefer to leave it that way.

+++

Much is mystery in our lives as we travel the journey toward God. I hope that I have not offended anyone with my musings here – for that is all they are. Certainly I am not trying to teach anyone anything since I am but student of truth myself.

All glory to our loving God.

What is lacking

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church… (Colossians 1: 24)

This enigmatic passage from Scripture recently entered my reflections, via a fine post on redemptive suffering by fellow blogger, Christina Chase, (see divineincarnate.com.)

I don’t claim to understand suffering, much less redemptive suffering. However, I continue to write on the topic, opening myself to the Spirit to guide me as together we struggle through these mysteries.

Forgive me if I seem to repeat myself. I sometimes need to summarize in order to reenter the topic…

+++

Suffering exists in our world because evil exists.

Evil exists because God created beings who were capable of loving Him. Love cannot occur without free choice, for that which is compelled cannot be called love.

The ability to choose love requires that there also be an option to choose its opposite, which we call “evil”.

Let us look to the beginning times for further understanding.

Many consider the creation account in the book of Genesis to be myth. This suggests that its genre was not one that set out to recap a specific historical event but to tell a story that communicates certain core beliefs or truths.

Some of these truths, as I understand them, are as follows.

In this story, we are told that God created man and woman as beings who, made in His image, had the freedom to choose love, to choose Him.

It is also implied that God had created other free beings before us, some of whom chose to create an “evil” way, i.e. a way opposed to His Way of love.

God created our earth and humankind to be perfect. However, those of the evil way were allowed to enter our world and offer human beings the choice they inevitably faced as free beings.

Although the story talks of an apple and a serpent, the primary truth is that a way of living that was not the Way of love entered into the minds of our early ancestors.

This alternate “way” went something like this:

Choose the way of God or choose to make yourself god. 

To make the latter option sound that much more appealing, a little lie was inserted: God doesn’t really want us to share in His divine life but insists on our obedience to keep us from it.

And our early ancestors were taken with this tempting notion, foolishly imagining that they could become God through some means other than love.

Through this choice, “The Fall” of humanity came about.

This Fall had consequences for these first human beings as well as for all of us who came after them.

We would not go through our life cycles mindlessly like the lower species. Rather, we would be acutely aware of our struggles, our pain and our death.

In other words, we would suffer.

And we would not suffer simply for our own misdeeds. Were this the case, perhaps we could save ourselves by learning to refrain from them.

Instead, evil took root in the human experience and perpetuated itself through all generations, making suffering among men a universal reality.

Clearly, if we were ever to be freed of this dilemma, God would have to intervene. As human beings, we were too far off the path to return to The Way by our own power.

We needed a Savior.

+++

I will not attempt here to recap all of salvation history. (There is some limit to my hubris; also I have written of my understanding of salvation in other posts, e.g. What kind of victory).

However, I will highlight an awareness or two that relates to our current reflection.

If Jesus were only a human being, he could not have saved us. He would be as lost as the rest of us. Even if He were a very good man, he would not have the capacity to set things right for all of humanity.

If Jesus were only God, He would have had to save us as one outside of our condition, eliminating our universal dilemma by Divine decree.

While this latter notion might seem quite desirable to us, it makes no sense. If, as God alone, He removed our suffering and all consequences of sin, He would simultaneously eliminate human freedom.

Can you follow where I am going with this? We would had no choice but to be saved. Without choice, we could not love and thus be joined to Him in the fullness of life.

Hence, salvation could only be made possible for us if He entered our world as both God and Man. And this is what He did.

As the God-man, Jesus took on the consequences of The Fall and entered our suffering voluntarily, though He had no personal need to do so, i.e. He had no need of salvation Himself.

He entered our suffering deeply, profoundly, humbly.

He did not save us by His suffering but by His love – a love more perfect than any of us can comprehend.

Yet His act of love required suffering, the sacrifice of self, in order to be the complete undoing of that initial, fundamental choice by humanity to try to make ourselves gods.

In Christ’s saving act, self is not glorified but sacrificed out of love.

+++

There is nothing incomplete about Christ’s saving act – and this is not at all what Paul intended to communicate in his letter to the Colossians. (We know enough of Paul’s thinking to know that the very idea would have horrified him.)

Let us review again what he wrote (Colossians 1: 24):

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church…

Paul rejoices in his suffering “for your sake”. Why would he (or anyone) rejoice in suffering?

Suffering in and of itself has no meaning or value. It is not something to rejoice about.

However, in Christ, suffering becomes sacrifice, an act of love for others.

Paul is rejoicing here because he has chosen the way of Christ, the way of love. He is doing what Christ did: sacrificing himself for the body, the church.

It is likely that Paul wrote this letter to the people of Colossae during his two-year house arrest in Rome. Hence, he could not travel but longed to bring “together in love” (Colossians 2: 2) the communities of believers he had never met.

By imitating Christ, by lovingly bearing affliction for the sake of the Church, he knew he was being made more and more like Christ.

He rejoiced in this but knew that his task was not yet complete. He was not yet fully one with Christ.

+++

While some commentaries suggest that this is what Paul meant by “what is lacking”, let’s take this reflection just a bit further.

If Christ’s sacrifice was perfect and complete, how could Paul have written that something was lacking? Something that he, a mere human being, could “fill up”?

Perhaps we do not see the answer because it is so obvious.

What is lacking is the part that Christ could not do without diminishing our freedom and thus depriving us of our ability to love.

The Lord Jesus could not do our part. To act within the divine Plan, He could not choose for us.

And certainly Paul knew this. He knew that the task of sacrificial love did not end with Christ.

To choose the Way of love, to choose to follow Christ, requires much more of us than simple assent.

Although salvation is freely given to us in Christ’s eternal sacrifice, our receipt of this gift can never be passive. We must actively choose and participate in it.

We do not fully returned to the Way of love if we do not immerse ourselves with Him in sacrificial love. For a love that does not sacrifice for the other is not love but mere words.

Paul immersed himself in Christ, “filling up” the part that Jesus could not do for him, i.e. his choice to sacrifice and bear affliction for the sake of the body, the Church.

You and I are called to do the same.

+++

But how, I might ask, am I to do this? How can my personal suffering become part of the sacrificial love of Christ for the Church?

Paul was shipwrecked, beaten, imprisoned for the sake of the Gospel he preached.

My sufferings, on the other hand, seem so disconnected from anything remotely meaningful for the life of the Church.

I suffer with migraine. I suffer with bruised ego. I suffer with spiritual doubts and confusion.

Of what redemptive value is any of this?

As side note, it is important to understand what “redemption” means in this context.

None of my suffering or sacrifices will ever free anyone, including myself, from sin and its consequences. Christ alone accomplished this.

What is “redeemed” is the suffering itself. No longer need my afflictions be pointless or without value, whatever they may be.

When I follow the way of Christ, my sufferings become a gift to be shared with others. They are redeemed.

And so how does this come about?

The language of my childhood would say, “Offer it up.”

Sadly, this language was so often overused and under-explained that it became, for many, a meaningless and trite response to suffering.

Yet it holds a fundamental truth of our faith.

To live in Christ, to actively choose to be part of His sacrificial love, I take whatever affliction I have and I offer it to my Savior as a gift, as a sign of my love.

I bear it as patiently as I can.

I ask Christ to help me carry it, for I am weak.

I think of someone else, known to me or not, and ask that my gift to the Savior become a prayer for that person.

Or I may offer it as prayer for the Church as a whole. Or even for the world.

And the meaning of such a prayer?

If I think of my sinfulness, the ancestral as well as the personal, it is not hard to imagine it putting a negative, destructive energy into the universe.

It may be an energy that causes suffering to an individual; it may be an energy that poisons the entire spiritual atmosphere of the planet.

Either way, it is undoubtedly destructive.

The prayer of sacrificial love then does just the opposite.

It showers drops of love on one person – or on a million. It is not for me to know.

It is enough only that I join myself to Christ in love.

So be it.

+To Him be glory forever.

The New Commandment

Suffering teaches me important lessons.

I am often not the most willing of students when suffering comes knocking at my door. However, through no merit of my own, new awarenesses cross my threshold and enter my heart. God’s grace and mercy are not deterred by reluctance.

These past few weeks have been a time of struggle for me. When I wrote of my “wants” in a recent post, I mentioned one that was particularly poignant: I wanted to visit my friend who is not well.

More weeks have passed and visitors are still not allowed. My heart has been bereft, fertile ground for the grim teacher to plant seeds for new growth.

If only I can accept them, tending to them until they germinate and develop roots that penetrate the depths of my soul…

+++

In the past week or two, I was reminded of the “New Commandment”. It simply came into my mind uninvited – but welcome nourishment for my dry soul.

The Gospels tell us that, when asked what to do to enter the Kingdom, Jesus instructed the inquirers to “keep the commandments”.

And when the people asked Him which commandment was the most important, He made it even simpler by summarizing the Law and the prophets in this way:

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22: 37-39)

He was not giving them any new commandments but helping them to understand the old – for both aspects of this instruction were already present in the Law. He even told a story to help them (and us) understand who we ought to consider our neighbor.

We all know that, despite the simplicity of this command, it is hard for us to carry out. To love God will all of myself, holding back nothing. To love everyone and to want for everyone what I want for myself. Not nearly as easy as it sounds.

But the new commandment, given to His closest friends at the Last Supper, asks for even more.

I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples… (John 13: 34-35)

So what is it that makes this commandment new? On the surface, it seems much like the one He already imparted.

“As I have loved you…” These are the words that penetrate to the very core.

To be His disciple, I must love all people as He has loved me. It is no longer enough to merely love others as I love myself.

I cannot escape the reality that He has loved me more than He loved Himself in this earthly life. For He willingly gave up His life that I might be freed from the eternal death to which I was consigned by sin.

Yes, He loved me more than Himself.

This is the Cross. The Cross that I both fear and long for.

+++

So does this mean that I am called to die for others? Perhaps someday it shall.

But for now, to keep the New Commandment involves not one big sacrifice but all sorts of small sacrifices that, unfortunately, don’t always feel so small to me.

Someone leaves me a message, wanting to talk. Perhaps I am tired or don’t feel well or just want to do something else. If I am to love the other more than myself, how can I close the door to such a small request?

And so I must leave the door open and allow God to decide what happens next. If I am loving Him with all of my heart, soul and mind, I am His to use as He pleases.

And I trust that His plan to use me for love, however that manifests itself, is far better for me than anything I might prefer.

Along the same vein, if I sorrow over not being able to see my friend (for sorrow is a normal emotion not to be squelched), once again, I am called to seek the way of greater love.

When consumed with love of self, I may complain and feel sorry for myself. I may even want to break down the doors and disobey. I may convince myself that these reactions are because I love my friend. However, in truth, they would be because I love myself.

To love God and my neighbor more than myself oftentimes results in suffering.

Keeping the New Commandment bids me to bear this suffering patiently, to bear it out of love. To die a small death for my friend.

This death I die is one of many deaths to self I must die.

Apart from Christ, such a death has no meaning, no power. However, when I empty my heart into His Sacred Heart, it is, perhaps, the most powerful prayer I could possibly offer for another.

+++

For those who know me as a psychologist, this notion of loving others more than myself may seem out of character.

What happened to all that psychobabble about learning to put yourself first? Or the suggestion that it is unhealthy to take care of others at your own expense?

Yup. I’ve said those things. And meant them.

There is a vast difference between codependency and discipleship, though we may sometimes be blind to the distinction.

As I have written elsewhere, I cannot give myself completely to the service of God and neighbor unless I first have a self.

And what does it mean to “have a self”?

It means to have a coherent sense of who I am, as well as a firm awareness that who I am is someone both loved and loveable. To have a healthy self is to accept all that I am in a realistic manner, both the beauty and the inevitable imperfections that are me.

Many of us have been wounded by events beyond our control and, because of our wounds, we have never developed a coherent self or, alternately, our sense of self has been badly damaged.

Certainly it is no one’s fault if they are so injured. Even when there is a long list of mistakes made, seeming to confirm culpability, in reality the mistakes are more often evidence of the depth of the wounds than of the “badness” of the wounded one.

And what is the difference between the unhealthy putting-others-ahead-of-self (which we call codependency) and the sacrificing of self for love of God and neighbor?

Frankly, it is not always easy to discern. Sometimes we may genuinely think we are following the way of the Lord when we are not. We may find it too disturbing to look at our wounds and therefore hide our pain beneath a facade of being “loving”.

Perhaps more loving than anyone else we know.

Being “more loving than anyone else” is but one of a number of possible indicators that we may be lost in unhealthy self-giving.

Some of the other indicators?

When “loving” makes us sick, mentally or physically.

Or when it makes others sick, mentally or physically.

When our efforts to give of ourselves result in ongoing disaster or drama, bearing no real fruit for anyone.

When resentment builds up in us because no one appreciates our love.

Such happenings develop from a genuine desire for love by the wounded and therefore ought to be regarded with compassion and respect, despite their dysfunctional nature.

The seriously wounded person often faces a great dilemma. When trying to give from an absent or damaged self, there exists an agenda which may be hidden from conscious awareness: the need to create or repair the self. 

Beneath the surface, a little voice urges more and more giving, “If I love more, then I will be loved in return. And then, when I finally know that I am loved, I will have worth.”

This is not only unsound thinking – it will never achieve its goal.

And it is not at all what the Gospel calls us to do.

+++

I have diverted from my spiritual discussion to one sounding more psychological in tone. Yet we cannot separate these parts of ourselves into neat little compartments.

I write of “the wounded” but aren’t we all wounded to some degree?

Indeed, we are. And yet, for reasons beyond our comprehension, some among us have been given greater burdens to bear than others in this regard.

As each of us seeks to follow Christ and His commands, it is vital that we watch for and respect our own vulnerabilities, lest our efforts to give and sacrifice lead us away from Him and onto a self-destructive path.

None of us are meant to give ourselves to God in precisely the same way. Although some seem to have been given deeper wells to draw from than others, the humble gift of one who has little may actually be greater in the eyes of the Lord (see Luke 21: 1 for the story of the widow’s mite).

Where we are on the path to God is not nearly as important as simply being on the path. Walking forward with a sincere heart.

And whether our wounds are small or great, we are to bring them to our Savior for healing.

As we all are at different stages of life biologically, so too are we at varying stages of healing spiritually. We need feel no shame in bringing our wounds to the Lord. Nor should we fear any reprimand from Him if we are not yet whole enough to love as He did.

When the Lord Jesus encountered someone beset with disease, demons or sin, did He start giving them commands first thing?

Of course not. He looked at them with love – and then He healed them, cast out their demons and forgave them.

It was only then that He gave them instructions – to go home, to make an offering to the priest, or perhaps to avoid repeating their sin. Simple instructions for the newly healed, to start them on the path to God.

They were allowed to be beginners – and so are we.

+++

As I have noted elsewhere, I am not good at being a beginner.

I can write about the way of love as though I am some sort of expert – but I am nothing of the sort.

In reality, I cannot live out the New Commandment anymore than the apostles could when they first heard it. And this is, in part, because I cannot comprehend the depths of how He has loved me.

When I consider the apostles listening to Christ’s final message to them before His death, I see myself being very much like them. I am ready to make all kinds of promises to follow Him wherever He goes.

I’ll stick with Him no matter what. I won’t betray Him.

However, when the actuality of “suffering” and “sacrifice” come upon me, I become frightened and I pull back, much like Peter who three times denied knowing Jesus the very next day.

The same Peter who began to sink when he stepped out of the boat to come to Christ upon the water. He wanted to walk with the Lord but was not ready for all it entailed.

Paradoxically, I can only come to know His love for me out of the depths of my wounds, my own suffering. When I am at the point where I cry out to Him in fear and desperation, “Lord, save me!”, as did Peter, it is then that I begin to understand.

All the fine words about my love for Him and what I am willing to do for Him mean nothing until, unable to breathe, I feel the grasp of His hand as I blindly reach into the darkness.

It is not I who have loved Him. It is He who has loved me.

But this is not a single lesson that I can learn once and be done with it. I must reach out for Him, again and again.

I must remember that I can never save myself. That I am incapable of love apart from Him.

To help me learn, my loving Lord allows me to sink into the suffering of myself over and over again.

He allows me to grow bored with Him, to doubt Him, to betray Him. To feel myself drowning in my fears and sorrows and rages until I cannot breathe.

“Lord, save me!” I cry once more.

And each time I reach out into the darkness and feel His hand grasp mine, I grow just a bit closer to knowing what it means to be so loved that I long to give away everything I have just received.

Indeed, when such a love takes possession of me, I will long to die the many little deaths I must die.

But I am not there yet. Despite all my words, I am a beginner, a reluctant learner who pulls back at the slightest assault on my security and comfort.

I am weak. I am afraid.

+++

The discovery (and rediscovery) of my weakness is not a pleasant lesson. But it is a good one.

I must know weakness to receive His love. I must know weakness to give His love.

Were the Lord to allow me to see myself as strong, I might be tempted to believe that He loved me because of my strength.

I would not receive His love because I would grow to think that I did not need it.

In truth, He loves me in spite of my weakness. Humbled, I open my hands and receive the riches of His mercy.

Were He to allow me to see myself as strong, I might be tempted to think that I am better than “the weak” to whom I offer these riches.

In truth, as one of the weak, I can only share what I myself have received. Anything else would be a sham and a mockery of our Savior.

For the Lord is not taking me to a place where He Himself has not willingly gone before. Having embraced weakness, first in the Incarnation, then at the Cross, He lovingly surrendered all claim to the supremacy that was rightfully His.

Weakness in itself has no meaning or virtue. But when Christ our Savior entered into our weakness out of love, He made it holy.

+++

I still do not like being weak. And I continue to resist suffering.

I am a beginner, somewhere on the path to love.

The way of love can be very hard to follow at times. Yet there is no other path I would rather walk.

I can only live for Him Who has loved me and become the Way and the Truth of my Life.

All you who are weak, who are beginners, my brothers and sisters – walk with me. We are not alone. He is always walking beside us – ready to grasp our hands when from out of our darkness we reach for Him.

All glory to Him forever. Amen.