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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

What I feel

What do I feel right now? Truthfully, not much of anything.

Oh, surely there is something. Well, there’s that oddly familiar twinge of pain that occasionally shoots up the right side of my torso. Probably associated with the vaguely sick feeling in my stomach.

And I feel really tired inside my head. Perhaps mildly irritable too – why do the neighbors let their dog bark?

But mostly I feel rather flat and lifeless. Perhaps the best descriptor would be that well-worn phrase: “I don’t care.”

I see things, simple things, that need to be done – and I don’t care. I have family and friends and patients but I feel no caring within. (No offense intended to any family, friends or patients who are reading this – it is nothing personal.)

I look at my art materials or projects I’ve been wanting to do. Nope. Don’t care.

Of course, there is God in all of His goodness and the call to pray to Him. But again, there are no feelings stirring in my stony heart.

Some of you may be getting concerned by now. “Wow. She sounds really depressed. Is she alright?”

Rest assured. This is nothing new. It is called “Migraine: Day 2”.

I don’t feel like myself. I don’t even really feel like a person. I feel like someone could crumple up my body, stuff it in a trash bag, toss it in a dumpster and there would be no great loss.

But I’ve been down this road enough times that it is very familiar to me. I expect it will pass. So far, it always has.

+++

We know that feelings are extremely fickle. What I feel (or don’t feel) at this moment may well be gone tomorrow.

It may be replaced with something I find more comfortable. Or taking its place may be some inner state that I find even more unpleasant.

I should like to think that I have some control or at least choice over what I feel. But is this actually the case?

I’m sorry. I’m too tired to continue. I need to rest or do something different…

+++

I resume writing, though briefly since I am at work. It is a day later than when I began this post.

I do not feel much today either. My head is hurting again, though not severely. I am tired inside my head, despite sleeping well.

My brain does not feel like it belongs to me. There is a fuzzball in my head where it used to reside.

But I am here at work because I know that, ultimately, it doesn’t matter all that much how I feel. I often think that it does – and I can spend a great deal of time pondering what I feel or how I might try to change it. But, in truth, it is a minor thing.

God can make use of me even when I am in this state. In fact, He may be able to make better use of me because I am in a state of weakness.

I know now how much I need Him. Helpless as I am, I don’t have the energy to get in the way of what He wants to accomplish through me.

As the Lord said to St. Paul in his struggle,

My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.

(2 Corinthians: 12:9)

I may not feel like I care about anything. But I know that I do. At any given moment, there is a much deeper reality at work than what I feel.

+++

Another day has passed (so, technically, we are on Migraine: Day 4).

I woke up this Friday morning to find that my brain is back! I am so grateful – though I haven’t totally emerged from the fog.

I had suspected last night, despite the head still hurting, that things were getting better. On the way home from work, as I was praying Evening Prayer, I heard the following excerpt from the first chapter of James:

My brothers and sisters, count it pure joy when you are involved in every sort of trial. Realize that when your faith is tested this makes for endurance. Let endurance come to its perfection so that you may be fully mature and lacking in nothing.

(James 1: 2-4)

I found myself feeling a bit encouraged. Yes – I felt something.

My Friday evening is typically “art with God night”. I fast from the Internet and God and I spend the evening together – praying, reading, making art – whatever.

I read and prayed a bit last evening but was very tired, my head still hurting.

And then it occurred to me, “Now is the time to paint my socks!” (See previous post for context). It was the perfect thing for God and I to do together because it would absorb my attention but was not at all artistically complex.

And so we did. I wasn’t ready to hear any sounds that I didn’t have to so, rather than putting on music, I just sort of hummed random tones while we chose and mixed colors of ink to splash upon my socks.

It was kind of fun. By the time we were finished, bedtime was right around the corner. Prayers were said out of my still-scrambled brain. But I suspect the real prayer had already taken place – in the time spent together as God allowed color to awaken my soul.

+++

Praying this morning was different than it has been for the last several days. I felt present. I felt human. I felt grateful.

Breakfast settled comfortably in my stomach, the torso pains and vague nausea having vanished overnight.

While driving to work, a fresh wave of fatigue hit me. I had been up for three hours. I have come to expect this as well – or at least not be surprised by it.

With fatigue and a slight headache appearing and disappearing throughout much of the day, I undertook the process of catching up. There are many things I didn’t do, back when the feeling of “I don’t care” reigned.

And so I must work and get back to you later…

+++

It is now Sunday and I am alive. And I feel alive.

During Liturgy this morning, I wanted to sing and dance – and I did, though I kept the movements of my feet and the swaying of my body very subtle. (I wanted God to know that I was dancing for Him but no one else need notice…)

I want to write and paint and do a few things in my garden today. In fact, I want to do more things than I will reasonably be able to do. I feel good.

But I must watch this sensation with some caution. The feeling of release from a migraine attack is sometimes so pleasant that I feel a bit euphoric.

While we all like euphoria, I have learned to be careful with it. Sometimes it is part of the prodrome of the next migraine. Does it cause the attack? Or is it simply a warning sign? I do not know – but I prefer not to test it.

In any event, I have not written here to tell the tired old tale of what my migraine attacks are like. (Anyone wanting to learn more about migraine will find an abundance of information at migraine.com.)

Rather, I am writing about feelings, those fickle, frightening, fascinating vicissitudes of my inner state that often challenge me in my emotional and spiritual journey.

I suspect my journal-like entries above address the question I posed at the onset – whether I have any control or choice in how I feel.

Apparently, quite often, I do not.

+++

Not too long ago, I wrote a rather lengthy post about feelings – or perhaps, more accurately, about emotions (see Strange bedfellows.)

What I write about now is not so much the emotions themselves (anger, fear, happiness, sadness, etc.) but how the absence or distortion of normal feelings may confuse us in our faith.

How do I pray, how do I relate to others, how do I live, when I find myself passing through such a desert – regardless of how or why I came to be there?

I do not know. But I return to the letter of James. I am called to endure and to allow that endurance to come to perfection.

What does it mean to endure?

On the most fundamental level, it means to survive – to stay in existence. Certainly important. However, it has a deeper meaning as well: to suffer patiently.

As I enter further into this reflection, I ask myself, “and what does that mean?”

Suffering, or experiencing discomfort in body, mind or soul, comes to us whether we want it to or not. It is a fact of our human existence – and one that we don’t like and cannot readily understand.

Certainly I didn’t ask for my migraine episode. I would have much preferred an easier path.

But for me to suffer patiently or to endure involves learning acceptance of whatever God allows to come to me. To accept it without becoming angry or fearful or despairing.

I do not banish these emotions should they arise as part of my experience. But I do not become them.

I cannot help what I feel (or don’t feel). But I can know deep within me that I belong to God, regardless of what is happening to my body or even my brain.

I may not feel Him with me. Quite probably I won’t – at least during the more severe challenges. But I know that I am His.

A dear and holy patient of mine (who has since gone home to God) told me something years ago that stuck with me. She had passed through a profound depression that lasted a very long time (months? years? I no longer remember). It was so deep that she could not work, she could not keep track of her bills or property, she could not think clearly.

Much later, when the depression had eased considerably, she told me that she hadn’t known where she was then except that it had been a place of great darkness. She didn’t remember being able to pray or feel God’s presence but, “I knew He knew where I was.”

There was the link. He knew. He had not forgotten her. And so she could hold on and endure.

My little migraine episode is nothing compared to that.

But it is part of the same process – a necessary process, I believe, that God uses to purify us, to make us “fully mature”.

+++

The holy people of several spiritual traditions tell us the same thing: we are to welcome and accept equally the pleasant and unpleasant experiences of life – for they come to us carrying a message or a lesson.

While God may or may not be the one who sends the lessons, He allows them to come. He wants us to learn and grow.

Part of my daily prayer is to ask God to purify my heart for Him alone. Had I thought He would accomplish this for me pain-free?

Perhaps, naively, I had. But He is teaching me.

He teaches me that to follow Him is to walk the way of the Cross.

Not the way of the shiny cross that fashion hangs from a chain around my neck. Not the way of the painted or sculpted cross that hangs safely in our museums and churches. Not even the way of the cross observed in song or prayer.

No, to follow Him to the Cross is to walk the way of suffering.

But “why?” we might ask. Why is suffering so important? Does God love suffering?

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Most certainly He does not.

Yet two things have been made clear to me in this regard.

My preoccupation with “what I feel” keeps ME on center stage – and I do not let go of this easily. Indeed, for my heart to be purified, the “contaminants” that pride has sown there must be rent away. This, inevitably, is painful. (For a wonderful illustration of this, see The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C. S. Lewis, where Aslan “un-dragons” Eustace.)

If I wish to pass my time on earth with God as just one small part of my life, I can do this. I can go to church now and then, say a few prayers and call myself a Christian. And little or no rending will occur.

I will not have freed myself from all suffering, of course. None of us can do that. But, without purification, I will not have walked the Way of suffering or entered the Cross of Christ.

The suffering that does come to me will have no meaning. I will be apart from Him and left with only me. Perhaps the best description of hell I can imagine.

And this leads us to the second thing made clear to me.

Lived in union with the Savior, my suffering is no longer pointless misery. When I stop clinging to the self-idolatry of “what I feel”, it is no longer about me.

My suffering is transformed into sacrifice. My life becomes part of His holy sacrifice.  

When patiently enduring my trial for the sake of the Gospel, the love of Christ Jesus is poured forth in me and through me.

And whether I am feeling good or bad or nothing at all – none of this is important – so long as I give myself back to Him in love.

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But I don’t know how to do this.

I don’t know how to patiently endure. And what trials of mine could possibly be worthy of being joined to His holy Cross?

It is here that the Gospel becomes surprisingly simple. If I return to “the little way” of my friend, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, I learn that any trial may be given to Jesus as long as it is given in love.

While it may be something as major as a serious physical or mental illness, it may also be as small as routine day-to-day disappointments or annoyance. No trial is too small to offer as part of the Way of Love.

And it is true that I do not know how to patiently endure. But that is why the lessons come. How else will I learn?

I must admit that I am not a very good student. Yes, I’m good at studying books and answering questions on tests – but I am not at all good at accepting my weakness.

In the end, it is His grace that will lead me.

May I follow, no longer having a “will of my own”. A priceless thing that shall be…

Amen.

What I expect

This week, someone had occasion to remind me that I am human.

Off and on in the course of my life, people who cared about me and were trying to be of help have issued similar reminders.

I have often found this curious. I have never had any doubts about my status as part of the group called homo sapiens. Is there something that parents failed to tell me?

As best as I can discern, these loving individuals were actually trying to communicate a concern about how much I expect of myself – with the implication that my expectations were perhaps a bit high.

While I certainly cannot fault these compassionate people for making such an observation, there is something paradoxical about considering any expectation “too high” in the realm of the Spirit.

What self-expectation can be considered excessive, when the Lord Christ Himself commanded us, “…be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5: 48)?

Are the issuers of these reminders encouraging me to accept as inevitable that I can be nothing more than a half-hearted Christian?

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Of course not.

Whether they were consciously thinking of it in these terms or not, what these kind people were actually doing was gently pointing out my sinfulness and need to repent.

What they could see (and I could not) was that my expectations of myself were built on a foundation of pride.

There is something subtle enough here that it merits further discussion.

Let’s suppose that someone has dealt me an offensive blow in the course of my professional life. And let’s suppose I feel really, really angry with this person and the systems or individuals who have turned a blind eye to this injustice.

Let us further imagine (since this a hypothetical scenario) that I am versed in the Gospel and call to mind Christ’s command that we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (see Matthew 5: 44).

I take seriously this clear instruction from the Lord but I am faced with a dilemma. How can I possibly love these “enemies” whom I recently discovered I have? Or even pray for them – when I cannot stop my mind from reviewing over and over how wrongly they behaved?

At first glance, it may seem that I have only two options: either I suppress my anger and rage, hiding them beneath a cloak of piety, or I give in to it, acknowledging that I cannot love this enemy, for I am “only human”.

The former course is likely to make me ill, emotionally, physically and spiritually. In fact, it has done so in the past.

The latter course seems to suggest that it is all right for me to disregard the Lord’s instructions in some circumstances because, after all, I am human. I cannot expect so much of myself.

It is, indeed, a good thing that there exists a third path.

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Both of the options above contain an element of truth.

In the first case, I am recognizing an essential tenet of the Faith and making an effort not to let my anger run amok.

In the second case, I am accepting that I am weak and cannot carry out the Lord’s directives on my own.

In the third option, these truths come together.

My human weakness can never be an excuse to disregard the teachings of Christ. He would not instruct us to do something that is impossible for us.

On the other hand, nowhere does Jesus say or even suggest that it will be through our own strength or virtue alone that we will be able to carry out His directives.

In fact, He tells us quite the opposite. Let us listen in as Jesus gives His final discourse to the apostles before His death.

Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father. And whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it.

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. (John 14: 12-18)

The Lord Jesus promised His followers then and promises us now all the support we could possibly need: the Advocate. He knows that we are neither strong enough nor wise enough to even remember His instructions, much less carry them out without the Spirit of truth among us.

For me to try to do otherwise is, quite simply, one more dimension of the pride that so often infects my soul.

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So what does this mean for me if I am to embrace both the Gospel and my humanness? What do I expect of myself lest I fall into one trap or the other?

St. Paul gives witness to what he was told by the Lord when he was faced with a similar dilemma:

Therefore, that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.

Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. (2 Corinthians 12: 7-9)

And so I expect myself to be weak.

This is not permission to sin or disregard any aspect of the Gospel. Rather, it is an expectation that I accept the truth about myself.

This is the very heart of humility. And, ironically, part of this acceptance of my weakness is the knowledge that I cannot even become humble without the intervention of God’s grace.

Yet I also know that my Savior never forces His help upon me.

So I also expect myself to be obedient and to pray for His help. (Knowing, of course, that I can be neither obedient nor prayerful without the aid of His divine mercy.)

Is there anything else I expect?

Yes. Yes, indeed, there is…

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I expect myself to stumble and fall. I expect myself to make mistakes. I expect myself to lose control. I even expect myself to sin.

I expect myself to fear and to question and to doubt. I expect that some days I will hear not a whisper from the heavens and my heart will feel like a heavy stone lodged in my body.

I expect that some days I will not want to pray  – or that I will forget – or that I will pray mechanically as my mind wanders to everything from troubles to trivia. And I will feel helpless as it does so.

I also expect that, at other times, I will feel hopeful and joyous and very good about myself and my life – only to discover that I have once again fallen into self-admiration rather than having truly turned my heart God-wards.

I expect myself in times of hurt or heartbreak to cry, to sob, to wail. To pound on the floor, with tears streaming down my face, as I scream “Why?” at the ceiling.

Then I expect myself to fall in a heap at the foot of the Cross and beg Him to forgive me, to be merciful, to help me.

And then I expect that He will come to me, wrapping me in His love and mercy, wiping my tears away…

And then, I expect we will repeat this process many, many times over as He purifies my heart for love alone.

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Knowing who and what I am, I cannot expect that He will succeed. This can never be an “expectation”.

But I can trust. I can trust that, in the end, His love will be far stronger and more powerful than any weakness or sin that I can lay before Him.

And so it shall be.

All praise to Him, Father, Son and Spirit…