Tag Archives: suffering

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. ūüôā

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.

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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 Рor 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 Рif 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 Рbut 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.