A reader named Katherine recently e-mailed me. She had lost her husband, a man some years older than she, to multiple myeloma and Alzheimer’s disease. She is a Christian, and is struggling to make sense of his death, and the difficult questions of why God allows suffering. She writes, after giving me some details of his life, death, and fine character, and asks:
Why does God allow such terrible illnesses to such a kind person? I know there is really no answer as I know all about Job. The thing I am really afraid is that I prayed for his healing, and it did not happen. When I became a Christian back in the 80’s, the health and prosperity gospel was big at the time, and I guess it really influenced me more than I care to admit as I now know it is false. Even though I know it is false, I have become obsessed that God did not answer my prayer because of not being able to get rid of all the sin in my life (as if this were possible to do). One of the teachings of that movement was that if your prayer for healing went unanswered it was either because of lack of faith or sin in your life. I kept thinking that I don’t always put God first in my life, and that I spent more time reading secular magazines than reading my Bible and listening to more secular music than Christian music. These were my “main” sins, at least in my mind and thinking. Can you shed some light on this for me? I would be very appreciative.
The problem of suffering and evil is an ageless one. It poses a particular challenge for Judaism and Christianity, because of the seemingly insoluble tension between a world filled with suffering and evil, and the belief in a God who is good and all-powerful. Solutions to this dilemma, both adequate and inadequate, abound. It is the desperate hope of the atheist that this logical incompatibility proves beyond question the nonexistence of God. Others, less willing to ditch a Divine order, have concluded that God is good, but impotent; or that God is detached and uncaring, or capricious, or moody, or sadistic — and therefore not good.
It must be said plainly that answers to this paradox are neither simple nor entirely satisfactory. The dilemma as it stands may be solved in a global and satisfactory way — as has been done by both Judaism and Christianity — but invariably the lofty principles seem to break down at the moment when a solution is most needed: in the time of crisis when we ourselves experienced the depths, hopelessness, and irrationality of suffering in our own lives. CS Lewis, whose tightly reasoned treatise The Problem of Pain provides an extraordinarily deep and thorough discussion of this dilemna–later in life nearly repudiates his faith and sound theology after the death of his wife, a process painfully detailed in his diaries, A Grief Observed. It is indeed unsettling to watch Lewis discard all of his carefully reasoned and theological understandings of pain and suffering in the brutal crucible of unbearable pain and loss. Nonetheless, he ultimately comes to terms with the paradox, and undergoes an embracing of this profound dilemma far deeper than the intellectual by means of his own trial of fire.
At the heart of this difficult issue lies the human heart. God undertook a vast and dangerous experiment when creating man: He wanted, not merely another animal — of which there were countless — but an animal capable of something He alone understood: love. He gave this exalted animal vast intellect — but this was not sufficient to engender love. He gave His creation powerful emotions, the capacity for both creation and destruction, which He alone had possessed — but this also was not sufficient. For love — the utter, uninhibited emptying of self for another — required that most dangerous license of all: free will. Having created us thus, designed with the capacity to love, we must of necessity be utterly free to choose — for choice is the very heart, the very essence of love.
It was, by all visible measures, an experiment gone wildly awry. Having given this creature the extraordinary capabilities required to love fully — intellect, emotion, passion, empathy, the ability to feel intense pleasure and pain both physically and spiritually — he set this creature free to love — first of all Himself, and then others of like kind. And the first choice of this masterpiece of creation was the decision to turn away: to replace the intended objects of love with the sterile altar of self. Thus was unleashed the monstrous liability of a truly free creature: the ability to hate, to cause pain, to kill, to destroy.
A world in which God eliminated evil would by necessity be emptied of all mankind.
If we are to be honest, much of the pain and suffering which comprise the evil of the world is due to nothing more than this: that man, having been given the ability to choose, chooses wrongly, and uses the gifts and abilities given for the purpose of love to instead elevate himself at the expense of others, often in ways stunningly malicious and utterly wicked. Look around you, at the world both near and far: pride, selfishness, greed, lust, rage, jealousy — all these things manifest themselves in our lives and those of others, causing great pain and endless suffering. The child abused; the wife abandoned; the drive-by shooting; the greedy CEO who bankrupts the company and rapes the stockholders; the serial killer and the rapist; genocide; wars of conquest; torture; senseless massacres: these are the actions of men and women putting self above others — and each of us does it, to a greater or lesser degree, though we minimize our own roles to justify our own actions. We all wish for a world where God would eliminate evil — but all assume that we ourselves would be the only ones left standing when His judgment is delivered. A world in which God eliminated evil would by necessity be emptied of all mankind.
Yet there also exists those evils which have been called, in days past, somewhat ironically, “acts of God” — those circumstances or events which cause pain and suffering, not directly engendered by human evil. Thus the child is born with a severe birth defect; hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes cause death and destruction; chronic and devastating diseases fall upon those who seemingly deserve a far better fate. It is with this, this seemingly capricious evil, with which we struggle most earnestly, straining to understand, yet to no avail.
Judaism and Christianity both imply that some such evil may be consequential, the result of punishment or predictable consequences for the malfeasance of man. A more robust theology is less accusatory and thereby more coarsely granular — maintaining that such evil has entered the world because of the fall of man. Under such design our divine divorce has corrupted not only behavior, but our very natures, and all of creation. Yet such theology is of little comfort to those who are the objects of such seemingly random evil; we demand to know of God, “Why?” — and in particular, “Why me?” Yet there is no answer forthcoming, and we are left assuming a God either powerless to stop such evil or unwilling to do so.
Yet the problem of a good God, an omnipotent God, and an evil world of His creation is not entirely insoluble. Much lies in our projection of human frailty onto the nature of the Divine, and the impreciseness of our definitions of good and omnipotent. When we say God is good, we tend to mean that God is “nice” — that he would never do anything to cause us pain or suffering. Yet even in our limited experience, we must acknowledge that pain and suffering, while not inherently good, may be a means to goodness. We choose to have surgery or chemotherapy, though painful and debilitating, that our cancer may be cured. The halls of Alcoholics Anonymous are filled with men and women who, having faced both personal and relational destruction, have used their former liabilities as a gateway to a new, more fulfilling life — one which could not have taken place apart from their harrowing journey through alcoholism. To a misbehaving child, the discipline of a loving father is not perceived as good, but such correction is essential for the development of personal integrity, social integration, and responsibility.
Our inability to discern the potential for good in pain and suffering does not by necessity deny its presence; there are many who, when asked, will point to painful, difficult, and unbearable times in life which have brought about profound, often unexpected good in their lives, unforeseeable in the midst of their dark days. There surely is much suffering which defies our capacity to understand, even through we strive with every fiber of our being to find the goodness therein. But the fact that such inexplicable suffering exists, and that answers are often lacking, does not preclude the possibility that God is good, or that such suffering may ultimately lead to something greater and more noble than the pain endured.
We are … not merely imperfect creatures that need improvement: we are rebels that need lay down their arms
In our egocentricity we often neglect to look for the benefit in our suffering which comes not to us, but rather to others. Caring for someone suffering unbearably provides an opportunity to the caretaker to experience selfless love, compassion, tenderness, patience and endurance — character traits sadly lacking in our selfish world, which routinely turns its back on suffering to pursue an untroubled life of self-fulfillment and self-gratification. It is not inherently evil to be called to give beyond our means and ability — as caring for someone suffering always demands — for in the exhaustion and inadequacy thus revealed, we may discover unknown inner strengths, and come to a richer, and more fulfilling dependence on God. We are, as CS Lewis so accurately described, “not merely imperfect creatures that need improvement: we are rebels that need lay down their arms” — and finding how shallow are our reserves of love, compassion, and strength, we may through this brokenness seek to acquire them, humbly, from their Source.
But surely an omnipotent God has the power to stop suffering — is He not either impotent or evil when failing to use such power to remove our suffering? The omnipotence of God, like His goodness, is but dimly perceived. For the power of God is in perfect harmony with the purpose of God, and is thus used to advance these purposes for the greater good. Thus, the good deed of creating man with free will — and thereby capable of love — by its very nature restrains the omnipotence of God to violate that free will. The evil of the world exists in large part, if not wholly, because this free will has been abused. Yet the abuse of free will must be permitted, that the proper use of free will — the laying down of arms, the surrender to the sovereignty of a wholly good God — may take place, freely and unfettered as required by love. God must tolerate the existence of suffering and evil, that all may have the freedom to choose the good — though many will refuse to do so.
Yet he does not merely tolerate the presence of suffering, but provides for its very redemption: that suffering, though itself evil, may ultimately produce good. Thus pain, suffering, death, and evil need not triumph: they may provide the means that some may turn toward the good, or bring forth further good for themselves or others. This is redemption: to buy back that which is destructive, worthless, of no value, evil, and make it worthwhile, valuable, even priceless.
Christianity, throughout its history, has struggled with and largely resolved the problem of pain, within the confines of the mystery of God. Yet Christianity in its many doctrinal eddies has sometimes chosen the wrong path and the wrong answers to this challenge. Such errors generally fall into two broad categories: the concept of suffering as punishment or retribution from God, and the manipulation of God for man’s gratification. The first of these runs counter to the core doctrine of the cross: that God has chosen to provide in Christ a sacrificial lamb — that Christ, through his suffering, may bear the justice of God, so that we may see the mercy of God. Our suffering is not a punishment for sin, as such punishment negates the purpose of the cross. Correction, it may be; discipline, it often is; opportunity, it always is; punishment, it never is.
The countering position — that of God as divine opiate, ever present to kill our pain — is a variant of the faith which has become perniciously widespread, feeding on a culture of ease and self-gratification which creates God in its own image. Thus God becomes a font of wealth, of health, of prosperity, of a trouble-free materialistic lifestyle, a divine vending machine whose coinage is faith. Faith, however, in such a worldview is no longer a profound trust in a God who is beyond understanding and infinitely wise, but becomes instead a means of buying from God all which we demand. Hence, we may be wealthy, if we only have enough faith; we may be healed, if our faith is sufficient; we will not suffer if we will but strengthen and enlarge our faith. Our faith must be prefect, lest our pleas go unheard. The strength of faith matters more than its verity; we charge the gates of heaven with the bludgeon of self-will.
The perniciousness and destructiveness of this perversion of historical Christian faith lies in removing from the hands of God decisions of life and death, health and illness, wholeness and suffering, while burdening us with the hopeless demand that we steel our faith to impossible heights to coerce and manipulate the will of God. That such efforts are typically fruitless seems self-evident: God most surely is capable of healing — and does indeed do so often, even dramatically at times — but most surely does so in accordance with his divine wisdom and will. Should His wisdom dictate that suffering, poverty, brokenness, even death and despair would better serve the purposes of drawing men to Himself, what measure of human obstinacy and recalcitrance will change this will? When such “faith” proves futile, it destroys trust in God, and not infrequently leads to utter loss of belief, a bitter agnosticism born in false expectations and misplaced hope.
We demand of God that which we alone deem to be good, then blame Him when He pursues a greater good beyond our understanding
Hence, we demand of God that which we alone deem to be good, then blame Him when He pursues a greater good beyond our understanding. This is the struggle to which Kathleen is alluding, as she questions the goodness of God in failing to heal her husband, blaming her own “sins” for his untimely demise. To us, such a healing seems only good — in so far as it mitigates our pain and loss, as well as that of those we love — but like the surgeon’s knife, sometimes such pain must not be withheld that evil may be conquered by the good. Were he healed, and restored to full health, would he not then face death on yet another day? Our lives have both purpose and a proper time: we live for that purpose, and we die when that purpose is fulfilled. That those who are left behind cannot grasp that purpose — and appropriately suffer profound pain and loss at this separation — does not negate that purpose nor impede its culmination.
We live in a time when our expectations of health, of prosperity, of a pain-free life are increasingly met in the physical realm, while we progressively become sickly, impoverished, and empty in the realm of the spirit. Despite our longer lives, we live in dread of death; despite our greater health, we obsess about our ills; despite our comfortable lives, we ache from an aimlessness and purposelessness which eats at our souls and deadens our spirits. Though we have at our command the means to kill our pain–to a degree never before seen in the history of the world–yet we have bargained away our peace in pursuit of our pleasure. The problem of pain has never been an easy one; in our day, it has not been solved, but rather worsened, by our delusions of perpetual comfort and expectations of a trouble-free life.
Until we come to terms with suffering, we will not have comfort; until we embrace our pain, peace will never be ours.
Today is Good Friday. It has been my custom, on this extraordinary day, to post an old meditation on the meaning of the cross, called Three Men on a Friday. Today, however, I feel led to meditate on something rather different, though not unrelated.
Good Friday, of course, is the Church’s remembrance of its most central truths: that God became man, was crucified to pay the price which we could not pay, and was raised victorious on the third day. Good Friday is a somber day, a day to remember that we individually are responsible for the torture and agony which befell Christ — that he hangs on the Cross in our stead.
Yet, in the deep sorrow and humility which we bring to mind on this profound day, there is also an extraordinary hope: that in our greatest disasters, in our biggest failures, in our most agonizing and painful moments, there is a purpose, a plan, a hope which is both utterly irrational, yet absolute and sure.
Good Friday teaches me that failure is not to be avoided at all costs, but instead embraced as a great opportunity. Good Friday teaches me that my lifelong struggle for perfection is doomed to failure, and is chasing after the wind. Good Friday teaches me that I have no idea what is best for me, that pain and suffering have a purpose which I need not, and often should not, understand. Good Friday teaches me that God can make sparkling diamonds out of filthy coal, that my worst attributes, my most painful failures, the most disastrous events which have befallen me beyond my control, are but the building blocks of a new and far better life in hands of God.
I have recently shared some of the struggles in my life, especially my professional trials, and these have indeed taken no small toll on my spirit. Beyond that, like many, I have watched as a country which I love, whose institutions and traditions have blessed and prospered millions, is undermined and corroded by greedy men lusting for power who serve only themselves. Like many, this has been most painful to watch, engendering much anger, frustration, dismay, and discouragement.
Yet I must not forget that I too am greedy, that I too seek to control others and manipulate my world for my own benefit and betterment. We hate most in others what we see in ourselves, and our instincts scream to return evil for evil. Yet by so doing, I enslave myself to those who would enslave and destroy me.
The Cross teaches me another way. It teaches me, quite simply, that God is in control of all things, and that His ways are not my ways. It teaches me that the darkest hour comes before dawn, that God can use evil for good, and that only by bending my will and my knee before Him, no matter what the cost, can my own victory and deliverance, and that of others, be purchased.
We are at war. This is a war, not merely of bombs and guns, nor of words and arguments, nor of politics and power. It is an ancient war, from the very beginning of time: a war between the will of man and the will of God. One way is the way of hatred, anger, revenge, and destruction, whose outcome, no matter how fleeting its seeming victories, will inevitably and invariably lead to defeat and destruction. The other way is that of submission, of self-crucifixion, of “not my will but Thine.” Every fiber of my being strains against this way; every inclination of my will and spirit runs contrary to such surrender. Yet on the Cross, surrender, humiliation, agony, and defeat became the very instruments used of God to reconcile man — stubborn, rebellious, hateful man — to Himself, and to bring new life, and new power, and new hope to those who would follow in the irrational ways of God. And this war must be fought and won, first and foremost, within me.
Yet in this way of submission, brokenness, and humility, we are not called to passivity nor defeat. We are called — each in our own way, using our own gifts — to do battle. For some this will be a way of persuasive words, or prophetic proclamation of the evil which surrounds us. For some it will be writing letters, contributing money, volunteering time and effort, running for office, becoming involved.
But for all, first and foremost, it must begin with prayer, with self-examination, with the submission of every aspect of our lives to the will and wisdom of God, for judgment begins with the house of God. It is time, quite literally, to be on our knees; it is time to fast, to repent, to make amends, and take hold of that joy and purpose which can only come by aligning our wills with that of Him who paid the ultimate price to make us whole.
We do not know — we cannot know — what the outcome will be; the ways of God are vastly higher than our capacity to understanding, and our efforts will come to naught if we try to bend the plans of God to the will of man. We must submit to crucifixion if we are to see the Resurrection.
There are many paths, the broad leading to destruction, the narrow to life. May God give us the will and the wisdom to follow that narrow path.
Addendum: The code at the top of my home page pulls up random quotes, each time the page is refreshed. Upon posting this, the above quote from Whittaker Chambers came up:
To those for whom the intellect alone has force, such a witness has little or no force. It bewilders and exasperates them. It challenges them to suppose that there is something greater about man than his ability to add and subtract. It submits that that something is the soul. Plain men understood the witness easily. It speaks directly to their condition. For it is peculiarly the Christian witness. They still hear it, whenever it truly reaches their ears, the ring of those glad tidings that once stirred mankind with an immense hope. For it frees them from the trap of irreversible Fate at the point at which it whispers to them that each soul is individually responsible to God, that it has only to assert that responsibility, and out of man’s weakness will come strength, out of his corruption incorruption, out of his evil good, and out of what is false invulnerable truth.
Some time back, the WSJ wrote a book review of Son of Hamas. The historical background on the individual’s biography is as follows:
Mosab Yousef is the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a founder and leader of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas. Throughout the last decade, from the second Intifada to the current stalemate, he worked alongside his father in the West Bank. During that time the younger Mr. Yousef also secretly embraced Christianity. And as he reveals in his book “Son of Hamas,” out this week, he became one of the top spies for Israel’s internal security arm, the Shin Bet.
The reviewer describes the book as follows:
The book, a Le Carre-sque thriller wrapped in a spiritual coming-of-age story, is an attempt to answer what he says “is impossible to imagine: “how I ended up working for my enemies who hurt me, who hurt my dad, who hurt my people.”
“There is a logical explanation,” he continues in fairly fluent English. “Simply my enemies of yesterday became my friends. And the friends of yesterday became really my enemies.”
Worth a read.
Many of us have been struggling to understand the nature of our current economic meltdown. Was it greedy bankers, who made unscrupulous loans while passing the risks on to others? High-rolling hedge fund managers who resold the risky bundled securities and reaped millions? Politicians and political activists who pressured banks and lending organizations to make risky loans to minorities and low-income customers or be castigated as racists and bigots? Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or the FHA?
Let the confusion end: The Atlantic has hit the news stands with a breaking revelation: It’s the Christians! To wit: Did Christianity Cause the Crash?
… recently, critics have begun to argue that the prosperity gospel, echoed in churches across the country, might have played a part in the economic collapse. In 2008, in the online magazine Religion Dispatches, Jonathan Walton, a professor of religious studies at the University of California at Riverside, warned:
Narratives of how “God blessed me with my first house despite my credit” were common â€¦ Sermons declaring “as your season of overflow” supplanted messages of economic sobriety and disinterested sacrifice. Yet as folks were testifying about “God can do”, little attention was paid to a predatory subprime-mortgage industry, relaxed credit standards, or the dangers of using one’s home equity as an ATM.
In 2004, Walton was researching a book about black televangelists. “I would hear consistent testimonies about how ‘once I was renting and now God let me own my own home’, or ‘I was afraid of the loan officer, but God directed him to ignore my bad credit and blessed me with my first home’, he says. “This trope was so common in these churches that I just became immune to it. Only later did I connect it to this disaster.”
Whew! That was easy! Who knew? But is it really that simple? What are the facts on which this startling conclusion is based?
…Kate Bowler found that most new prosperity-gospel churches were built along the Sun Belt, particularly in California, Florida, and Arizonaâ€”all areas that were hard-hit by the mortgage crisis.
Makes sense: these were rapidly growing areas of the country; with rapid growth and cheap credit, lots of homes were getting sold. And lots of new churches and churchgoers would be expected. So, these Sun Belt areas grew quickly, had a lot of new churches (some of which were the “prosperity” variety) and ended up with a lot of foreclosures. But surely there has to be more evidence than that…
Nationally, the prosperity gospel has spread exponentially among African American and Latino congregations. This is also the other distinct pattern of foreclosures. “Hyper-segregated” urban communities were the worst off, says Halperin. Reliable data on foreclosures by race are not publicly available, but mortgages are tracked by both race and loan type, and subprime loans have tended to correspond to foreclosures. During the boom, roughly 40 percent of all loans going to Latinos nationwide were subprime loans; Latinos and African Americans were 28 percent and 37 percent more likely, respectively, to receive a higher-rate subprime loan than whites.
So, a lot of foreclosures occurred in the Hispanic and black communities — and the prosperity gospel was increasingly popular among these groups as well. Pretty damning, I’d have to say. Pretty much nails it down, don’t ya think?
Seriously, there’s really not much more to the “evidence” in this article than that. Sure, they mention that some of the banks were marketing to prosperity Gospel churches, and some pastors were a bit cozy with the banks as well, and seemed to be encouraging debt. But really, that’s about it. Perhaps some numbers would be nice: how many of these churches’ members actually ended up foreclosed or financially destitute? What percentage of foreclosed homes were purchased by these church members? If you’re going to make the claim that the prosperity churches are a major factor in the housing meltdown, wouldn’t some hard facts and numbers be, you know, reasonable to provide?
Oh, and here’s a little mental exercise for you: imagine their cover blaring forth: “Did African-Americans and Hispanics Cause the Crisis?”
Sigh. From a once-great magazine to garbage journalism, chasing Newsweek to the bottom of the literary barrel. What drivel. This is their cover story? Jeez.
Where to begin? The prosperity Gospel churches and their televangelists have always been favorite targets of the mainstream media and pundits who want to get a handle on “Christians” and what they think. They are easy targets because they have such high media visibility, and their preachers often have an ostentatious lifestyle which almost begs the accusation of greed and hypocrisy. And sometimes, as happened with Jim and Tammy Baker and Jimmy Swaggert, they hit pay dirt.
What seems to go unnoticed is the the “health and wealth” churches, although culturally highly visible, are very much a fringe movement in Christianity, bordering on cultic at times, and are regarded by most mainstream evangelical and Catholic theologians and scholars as being heterodox at best, if not outright heretical — the antithesis of the core Christian doctrines about concern for the poor, the spiritual benefits of suffering, the dangers and bondage of debt, excessive materialism, and an unhealthy focus on wealth. They are widely ridiculed and little respected among most Christians in my experience, and I suspect their stated numbers of followers is inflated more than Obama’s “jobs created or saved” stats.
True, there will always be an appeal for a message that promises you wealth in the now and joy in the hereafter, and so it is no surprise that their congregations are often large. But neither is the teaching of these prosperity preachers solely devoted to wealth acquisition; there is a strong emphasis by most on morally upright living, self-discipline and spiritual development, and they often have ministries to the divorced, victims of domestic abuse, the homeless, and drug and alcohol recovery. Not everyone in the pew on Sunday is looking to cash in on God.
No, the real motivation behind this article has nothing at all to do with any serious attempt at understanding the housing crisis and its causes; it is a gratuitous slap at conservative Christians, and the nefarious politicians and preachers who supposedly exploit them:
Few of Sarah Palin’s religious compatriots were shocked by her messy family life, because they’ve grown used to the paradoxes; some of the most socially conservative evangelical churches also have extremely high rates of teenage pregnancies, out-of-wedlock births, and divorce.
They just can’t help themselves, can they? What does Sarah Palin have to do with the housing crisis? And precisely what are these “extremely high rates of teenage pregnancies”, etc., etc.? Facts and hard numbers don’t matter when your proffering a political and religious hit piece. Or this:
There is the kind of hope that President Obama talks about, and that Clinton did before him: steady, uplifting, assured. And there is [Pastor] Garay’s kind of hope, which perhaps for many people better reflects the reality of their lives. Garay’s is a faith that, for all its seeming confidence, hints at desperation, at circumstances gone so far wrong that they can only be made right by a sudden, unexpected jackpot
The real “desperation” comes not from sincere-if-misguided congregants of some prosperity gospel churches, but rather from a dying journalism industry, which having lost all objectivity and the respect of their readers, have become naught but petulant, pathetic harpies hoping to score a journalistic jackpot at the expense of religious conservatives.
It’s not working, fellas — nobody’s listening to you or reading you anymore.
Perhaps the money we gullible Christians save by canceling our subscriptions to your sad rag can go towards a bigger home someday.
Third in an ongoing series on grace in Christianity:
We struggled through some intimidating “God-words” — justification and sanctification — in my previous post, and in the process I lost both of my regular readers, leaving but a few wandering insomniacs whose Ambien prescription had just run short. For those now drifting back, whose eyes are just now unglazing, I touched on something of how Christianity works — or doesn’t, for many who have tread its well-worn path.
If nothing else, I hope for those who endured that irreverent review, that there arose at least a glimpse of the uniqueness of the Christian faith. Christianity is not merely another framework of moral codes by which to live. It is not comprised solely of the teachings of a charismatic leader, urging compliance to please or placate God or promulgating some hidden wisdom. It asserts at its very heart an outrageous claim: that those who relinquish their right to self-centered autonomy by submitting to God through the specific and exclusive portal of Christ will become judicially guiltless before their Creator. It further claims — perhaps even more outrageously — by this act to re-create the person so submitting, in a manner so thorough and profound that the individual can no longer be thought of as the same person who existed prior to that moment of choice and submission.
Yet if these claims are true, if this transformation be as radical and profound as its teachings and proponents assert, why then are those who lay hold of this conviction seemingly so little different from others who have not undergone this metamorphosis? If Christians are utterly transformed in the depth of their beings, why do they struggle and fail so often to be outwardly transformed as they should inevitably be by such a tectonic shift of the soul?
I was afraid you were going to ask that.
And I would be presumptuous and foolish to pretend that I have simple answers; I do not. What I do have is experience — the experience of many years of walking the Christian life, with stunning successes which proved all too fleeting, and disastrous failures which made a mockery of the high calling and lofty precepts of the convictions I hold dear. And I have shared this journey and experiences with many others, both past and present, whose path while wildly different in particulars is indistinguishable at its core.
What exactly is the nature of this transformation, this re-creation, which lays claim to a man in such mysterious manner? It is perhaps best described by what it is not.
It is not simply a change in thinking, a new perspective, a different set of opinions or a new worldview. If anything, the mind is the last bastion of resistance to its influence, and often the greatest enemy of the very change needed to transform the whole of one’s being.
It is not simply an emotional experience. Although emotions may be powerfully affected, emotions often serve to inhibit or distract from true progress, and are notoriously unreliable guides to its course.
It is not simply a change of the will, a setting of a new direction and discipline to achieve new goals and improve one’s life. The will, indeed, must be conquered, shackled, broken like a wild stallion to suit the purposes of this new Master. The will becomes but servant — rebellious, recalcitrant, resistant, remorseless, fighting its new overlord at every turn.
It is not simply a change of heart — although the heart lies closest to the seat of change, and senses its arrival before all else.
It is perhaps best described as a genesis; an arid fountainhead bursting forth with fresh spring water; an ancient stygian chamber shot through with dazzling shafts of light; a Phoenix arising from the ashes of the heart. There is a primordial recess in the soul of man, a silent sarcophagus unheralded and unseen, which springs to life like the burst of new flora at winter’s demise, when this dawn first breaks.
Thus is the experience of this new creation — but it is far more than mere renewal. It is as well — unexpectedly, surprisingly — a force of sedition with an unassailable foothold in a hostile land, seeking to undermine and overturn the tyranny of self with the sword of grace.
We are now at war. “I have come, not to bring peace, but the sword.”
Its effects are immediate, and often profound. There is a new vision, a grasp of things formerly hidden, a new light disclosing much which was cloaked in darkness, a profound and unbounded joy of discovery, and purpose, and optimism. We glory in the glint of sunlight reflecting off the helmets of our soldiers, marching in perfect unison, their colorful regalia stirring our hearts with visions of triumphant victory.
The reality is soon discovered to be starkly different. The cratered carnage of the battlefield, littered with the detritus of battles fought bravely but foolishly, sobers the spirit and saps the strength. The victory we hoped to be swift and painless now seems pyhrric if not pointless. Yet the failures are themselves at the point of the sword — they are, paradoxically, the means to triumph.
When a man becomes new in his spirit, he has engaged the very power of God in an irrevocable union whose outcome will be the full restoration of the purpose and relationship intended — by design — between the Creator and His creation. But the love which such a relationship demands must be utterly free, and hence the will and actions of man must be left unfettered and without coercion. This will, long subsumed to the service of self, must ultimately be turned to harmonious submission to the will of God, which desires, in freedom, the full integration of the new man into the wholeness and purpose of God’s design.
Though the inner change brought about by submission to God and our judicial pardon is profound, the mind and the will are steeped in a toxic brew of lifelong slavery to self. We have years of destructively pursuing that which seems right to us — of deceiving ourselves and others about our true thoughts and motives; of addictions and obsessions and hardened habits which have served to mitigate the pain and emptiness which our ego-enlargement have ultimately wrought. We lie to cover the shame; we react in anger, and resentment, and rage to cover the fears: fears of exposure and moral nakedness; fears of rejection; fears of failure; fears of existential insignificance. The sex, the booze, the pursuit of money and prestige, the materialism — all are exploited in search of integration and meaning, all leading only to more emptiness, more pain, more meaninglessness — and more of the same behaviors, over and over, endlessly.
Before our transformation, we are in a sense of one mind: this is the only life we know, the only tools we have at hand. Our inner and outer selves are on the same page, though the story is going nowhere and the final chapter looks bleak.
After our inner selves are transformed, however, the old contrivances no longer find consonance within; they find, instead, dis-ease. Our spirits are forging forward on a separate journey, and there is increasing tension between a mind and a will committed to failed, destructive solutions and an inner being seeking truth and wholeness.
We react to the inner discord our old life engenders with the tools we know best: we try, using knowledge, and effort, and will power, and discipline, to change the thoughts and actions we now know to be destructive. And we succeed — at first.
The behavior changes, but the thoughts and desires linger. The appearance improves, but the inner demons remain — if anything, they grow stronger, as each failure is a new victory for an old life. The struggle is draining and painful, disheartening and exhausting, as old habits persist and even prosper. With each failure, renewed commitment; with each relapse, new resolve. With each sortie, stalemate. Again. And again. And again.
And this, surprisingly, is exactly as it should be.
The mind and the will, unaided by grace, have no power to conquer the forces which bind them. They must be broken. There can be no resurrection of the dead until the dead be shown incapable of resurrection.
At some point in this long and fruitless journey, a juncture is reached. The wheels are coming off the car, and we’ve tired of pushing the pedal ever harder. It is a moment of choice: to resign ourselves to our old life, embrace our failure, and drown out the quiet pleadings of that inner voice; or submit, yet again, broken, falling headlong into the arms of grace, which alone can conquer that which is vastly larger than our feeble wills and darkened minds can overcome.
The sword of grace has slayed yet another stronghold of the old life. Another small parcel of the tyranny of self has been repurchased. We have been given what we could not gain by our own efforts, regardless how determined.
Cheer up. There are many more such battles ahead.
How then do we appropriate this liberating grace, this victory through surrender? There is no formula, for formulas are the haven of fools. But there are answers. The answers, I have found, are always simple — and never easy.
But that, my friends, is a topic for another day.
I’ve been spending some time in Paul’s letter to the Colossians. As is my habit, because I am rather dense about matters of the spirit, I read and reread short sections, day after day, trying to quiet the mind, shut out the noise, and open the spirit to insight beyond what this world has to offer.
And the noise is relentless, played at full volume, unmercifully, irrationally, without pause or purpose. Health care reform. Corrupt and condescending politicians. Wars and rumors of wars. Recession and depression. Culture clashes and the death throes of a dying society. Insistent demands in my head for just one more thing, another possession, to satisfy the emptiness of the soul and feed the lie that my wants are one with my needs.
And so I come to this:
This same Good News that came to you is going out all over the world. It is bearing fruit everywhere by changing lives, just as it changed your lives from the day you first heard and understood the truth about God’s wonderful grace.
So we have not stopped praying for you since we first heard about you. We ask God to give you complete knowledge of his will and to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding. Then the way you live will always honor and please the Lord, and your lives will produce every kind of good fruit. All the while, you will grow as you learn to know God better and better.
We also pray that you will be strengthened with all his glorious power so you will have all the endurance and patience you need. May you be filled with joy, always thanking the Father. He has enabled you to share in the inheritance that belongs to his people, who live in the light. For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, who purchased our freedom and forgave our sins.
And I start to wonder, what would happen, if I prayed like that? Without stopping? For things such as these?
What would happen if, with every person I encounter each day, be it friend, foe or family, that I prayed for them? Short prayers, simple requests for gifts of wisdom and understanding for them?
What would happen if, with each patient I see, I were to ask for such wisdom and understanding, endurance and patience?
What would happen if, rather than obsessively seeking the opinions of those whose ideas reinforce my own convictions and feed my frustrations, I prayed instead for peace within my heart, and thanksgiving for all I have and have received? What would happen if I prayed instead to be a better citizen of the kingdom of the light rather than trying to wrestle the kingdom of darkness, already defeated, to the ground?
What would happen if, instead of merely passively and passionately following the demands of my many addictions and compulsions, dark desires and destructive impulses, I sought instead through prayer and perseverence the power to overcome them?
What would happen if, I prayed for the Church, to purify herself from the world and find once again her First Love? What would happen if I prayed for my pastor and my congregation, rather than finding fault with this teaching or that behavior? What would happen should I pray that the Church — yes, and that specifically includes me, and mine — would be passionate about sharing the truth of the Good News, that it might “bear fruit by changing lives,” when so many need just such change, and can find it nowhere else?
What would happen if, I prayed to be able to pray like that, since my mind and my spirit are so deadened by the noise and distractions and by the mental parasites that paralyze the soul and sap the spirit?
Just wondering, what would happen, if…
Recently, I’ve been ruminating on a topic which a frequent topic online and elsewhere: the endless pursuit of a longer, or eternal, life.
Here’s the question I’ve been pondering: is it an absolute good to be continually striving for a longer life span? Such a question may seem a bit odd coming from a physician, whose mission it is to restore and maintain health and prolong life. But a recent article describing the striking changes in health and longevity of our present age, seemingly presents this achievement as an absolute good, and thereby left me a tad uneasy — perhaps because I find myself increasingly ambivalent about this unceasing pursuit of longer life.
Of course, long life and good health have always been considered blessings, as indeed they are. But long life in particular seems to have become a goal unto itself — and from where I stand is most decidedly a mixed blessing.
Many of the most difficult health problems with which we battle, which drain our limited resources, are largely a function of our longer life spans. Pick a problem: cancer, heart disease, dementia, crippling arthritis, stroke — all of these increase significantly with age, and can result in profound physical and mental disability. In many cases, we are living longer, but doing so restricted by physical or mental limitations which make such a longer life burdensome, both to ourselves and to others. Is it a positive good to live to age 90, spending the last 10 or more years with dementia, not knowing who you are nor recognizing your own friends or family? Is it a positive good to be kept alive by aggressive medical therapy for heart failure or emphysema, yet barely able to function physically? Is it worthwhile undergoing highly toxic chemotherapy or disfiguring surgery to cure cancer, thereby sparing a life then severely impaired by the treatment which saved that life?
These questions, in some way, cut to the very heart of what it means to be human. Is our humanity enriched simply by living longer? Does longer life automatically imply more happiness–or are we simply adding years of pain, disability, unhappiness, burden? The breathlessness with which authors often speak of greater longevity, or the cure or solution to these intractable health problems, seems to imply a naive optimism, both from the standpoint of likely outcomes, and from the assumption that a vastly longer life will be a vastly better life. Ignored in such rosy projections are key elements of the human condition — those of moral fiber and spiritual health, those of character and spirit. For we who live longer in such an idyllic world may not live better: we may indeed live far worse. Should we somehow master these illnesses which cripple us in our old age, and thereby live beyond our years, will we then encounter new, even more frightening illnesses and disabilities? And what of the spirit? Will a man who lives longer thereby have a longer opportunity to do good, or rather to do evil? Will longevity increase our wisdom, or augment our depravity? Will we, like Dorian Gray, awake to find our ageless beauty but a shell for our monstrous souls?
Such ruminations bring to mind a friend, a good man who died young. Matt was a physician, a tall, lanky lad with sharp bony features and deep, intense eyes. He was possessed of a brilliant mind, a superb physician, but left his mark on life not solely through medicine nor merely by intellect. A convert to Christianity as a young adult, Matt embraced his new faith with a passion and province rarely seen. His medical practice became a mission field. His flame burned so brightly it was uncomfortable to draw near: he was as likely to diagnose your festering spiritual condition as your daunting medical illness — and had no compunction about drilling to the core of what he perceived to be the root of the problem. Such men make you uneasy, for they sweep away the veneer of polite correction and diplomatic encouragement which we physicians are trained to deliver. Like some gifted surgeon of the soul, he cast sharp shadows rather than soft blurs, brandishing his brilliant insight on your now-naked condition. The polished conventions of medicine were never his strength — a characteristic which endeared him not at all to many in his profession. But his patients — those who could endure his honesty and strength of character — were passionate in their devotion to him, personally and professionally. For he was a man of extraordinary compassion and generosity, seeing countless patients at no charge, giving generously of his time and finances far beyond the modest means earned from his always-struggling practice.
The call I received from another friend, a general surgeon, requesting an assist at his surgery, was an unsettling one: Matt had developed a growth in his left adrenal gland. His surgery went deftly, with much confidence that the lesion had been fully excised. The pathology proved otherwise: Matt had an extremely rare, highly aggressive form of adrenal cancer. Fewer than 100 cases had been reported worldwide, and there was no known successful treatment. Nevertheless, as much for his wife and two boys as for himself, he underwent highly toxic chemotherapy, which sapped his strength and left him enfeebled. In spite of this, the tumor grew rapidly, causing extreme pain and rapid deterioration, bulging like some loathsome demon seeking to burst forth from his frail body. I saw him regularly, although in retrospect not nearly often enough, and never heard him complain; his waning energies were spent with his family, and he never lost the intense flame of faith. Indeed, as his weakened body increasingly became no more than life support for his cancer, wasting him physically and leaving him pale and sallow, there grew in him a spirit so remarkable that one was drawn to him despite the natural repulsion of watching death’s demonic march.
Matt died at age 38, alert and joyful to the end. His funeral was a most remarkable event: at an age in life where most would be happy to have sufficient friends to bear one’s casket, his funeral service at a large church was filled to overflowing — thousands of friends, patients, and professional peers paying their respects in a ceremony far more celebration than mourning. There was an open time for testimony — and such a time it was, as one after another took to the lectern to speak through tears of how Matt had touched their lives; of services rendered, small and large, unknown before that day; of funny anecdotes and sad remembrances which left few eyes dry, and not one soul of that large crowd untouched or unmoved.
A journey such as his casts critical light on our mindless pursuit of life lived only to endure longer. In Matt’s short life he brought more good into the world, touched more people, changed more lives, than I could ever hope to do were I to live a century more. It boils down to purpose: mere years are no substitute for a life lived with passion, striving for some goal greater than self, with transcendent purpose multiplying and compounding each waking moment. This is a life well-lived, whether long or short, whether weakened or well.
Like all, I trust, I hope to live life long, and seek a journey lived in good health and sound mind. But even more — far more indeed — do I desire that those days yet remaining — be they long or short — be rich in purpose, wise in time spent, drenched in prayer, and graced by love for others and for God.