Surviving Suffering: Part I – Spiritual Surroundings

Recently I have been thinking and writing a lot about suffering. However, as is often the case, serious thinking and writing about suffering usually comes in the midst of an actual instance of suffering, or shortly after such a instance has been, to some degree at least, reconciled. In earlier posts I tried to articulate how some theological eventualities (i.e. epiphanic experiences) could transform concrete experiences of suffering into fully redeemed experiences. In other posts I have focused on particular virtues that the Christ-follower would hope to display when instances of pain strike us and strike us hard.

Here, I hope to give some useful applications for how to survive, and perhaps thrive, when those hard strikes come. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere there are varieties of pain to consider. In short, however, these practical suggestions hopefully will apply to any instance of either profound physical pain (e.g. bone cancer), deeply traumatic emotional pain (e.g. the loss of a child to cancer), or the enduring emptiness that attaches itself to hopes and dreams left unfulfilled (e.g. the faithful daughter who never finds a loving husband). All these challenges can be met, and met courageously, but they cannot be met apart from a sustained engagement with Christ and His people.

On that note, I see three domains of existence in which the Christ-sufferer–the one who suffers “with Christ”– should recognize in order to survive and even thrive within the storm: Spiritual Surroundings, Spiritual Times, and Spiritual Attitudes. In this post we will look at the first of these.

Spiritual Surroundings

In times of pain and suffering the Christian must surround herself with the resources God has provided. There are three universal categories of being that comprise our surroundings: people, places, and objects. For the Christ-sufferer, then, our surroundings should be permeated with regular interaction with spiritual people (Christian spiritual people, of course), occurring in spiritual places, and focused on spiritual things or objects (don’t worry, I am not promoting relic worship per se).

Spiritual People

Spiritual Christians are different from others, even others who may go to church or who have been baptized or who even give a lot of money to the church. Spiritual Christians revel in the things of God: they pray fervently, they naturally avoid the mundane, banal, and silly things of the world. They know the Bible and they love to sing worship songs. Spiritual people speak spiritual truths and they speak them in love. They pray on their knees, they call on God’s help and mercy, and they do so often. They cry in church and then laugh outside afterward. They know how to comfort, even if not perfectly. They want God’s will for you, even in the suffering you experience. Spiritual people are safe people.

Spiritual Christians have themselves been spiritually and emotionally broken, and have done their own share of breaking. They know God’s love and forgiveness personally. Their eyes tear up when they think of it. Then they smile warmly. Then they celebrate. We know, in spite of their failures and flaws, that these people can rightly be called born again. It is to these fellow sojourners we must run, and the more of them we know, the better. They are often older men and women, but not always. They tend to be empathetic to pain, yet forever hopeful. They give off joy and emanate peace.

Step one to thriving during suffering is therefore this: When you are suffering spend time with Spiritual Christians. There is a corollary to this, however, don’t spend too much time with people who are living for the world, or in the flesh. I’ll talk about that more in a later post.

Spiritual Places

However, one has to be theologically careful, when one speaks of things “spiritual.” That term has been usurped in our contemporary, pluralistic culture to mean anything that is simply other than materialistic atheism. In this context, however, I am not talking about geographical locations which emanate some special spiritual force or power. All of creation is God’s creation, and God works everywhere, always. His places are all places, from church to concentration camp alike. However, within this world there are specific places that can help us focus on God’s presence, and remind us of His power.

Yes, church is one of these places. And, I do mean the actual local church here, the very building that houses the Body of Christ; that physical place where the people of the invisible Church gather. What kind of local church you have nearby is less important, it could be a person’s home or a mega-church campus. But, all local churches should have as their primary focus Christ crucified and Christ resurrected, and they should be arranged in such a way to present this abiding truth to us. Church chapels, campuses, even cathedrals can be places to help us focus our mind on God’s Word and open our heart to His Spirit. The places where we worship matter to us as embodied creatures.

Of course, God’s cathedral, His “footstool” is creation itself. Thus, nature is also a spiritual place where we can observe the creative power of our God and, in perceiving His glory, come to see our particular pain within the vast complex of His overwhelming plan for creation. It is not that our particular struggles evaporate in the presence of the natural world; El Captain or Mt. Rainer have no such causal powers, but the Grand Canyon, or Yellowstone’s Upper and Lower Falls, can act as shadows of the Beauty that awaits us in the New Creation. That Beauty that C.S. Lewis said we long to inhabit, to be inside it and not just view from without. To know that the even the transcendent experiences of the Matterhorn on a bright Swiss morning, or the Redwood National Park at dusk actually pale in comparison to what awaits those who love God, well…it helps to know that in the midst of pain. It is part of what God showed Job in the middle of his own strife.

Lastly, other spiritual places could be places of human artifact, but again where Beauty is on display. Finely crafted gardens, Gothic cathedrals, awe-inspiring libraries, of course, the world’s best art galleries, could indeed bring some solace to an aching soul. However, here careful distinctions need to be made, and spiritual discernment applied, since not all art is reflective of the divine Nature. That which is, however, can draw us back into the grand design of the Great Designer, allowing us to see our own pain not as ultimate, but as contained within a much vaster arena of experience. Anyone who has experienced Rembrandt’s Raising of the Cross or the Isenheim altarpiece in living color will understand what I mean here.

In sum, step two: when in times of great suffering, seek places that either are centered on God’s Word through worship, or that reflect His Beauty in Creation or Art. However, as with spiritual people, there is a corollary: there are places in the world that are of the world and that should be avoided in times of struggle. These would be places that either offer nothing but mind-numbing distraction, or that actively tempt the emotions (e.g. movie theaters, sporting events, or bars & clubs of various types). These days there are also “virtual” spaces that one should reconsider visiting, e.g. video games, social media.

Spiritual Things

Here, let me make a theological qualification, as I am not ascribing intrinsic value to objects, as if any concrete particular thing is itself a source of spiritual power. Idolatry is, to be sure, not my aim. However, I think it can be appropriate, especially in times of heart-wrenching grief, to feel or grasp something tangible and in a way that can be comforting. So, for example, to hold my Bible tightly in my hands as I feel the weight of my pain, does not mean I am worshiping my Bible, but the feel of its pages in my hand, the smell of its leather binding, can be a reminder of the One Who authored it, and of the promises He has made to me. An actual Bible, perhaps a favorite copy, can indeed be an object to cling to. Recently, I have been sleeping with my Bible held close to my chest. Nothing about this rings untrue, or idolatrous. It reminds me of hope that lies within.

In addition to a Bible, good books can be spiritual things. In times of pain, a book can be a good friend. Philip Yancey has written a classic that neither whitewashes the reality of suffering, nor caves in to despair–reading through its pages can bless, as one encounters the tragedy of many, yet sees real cases of redemption that emerge from pain and sorrow. Reading can also be accompanied by writing spiritual thoughts. In times of hurt the Psalmist wrote inspired songs; so too can we write songs, poems, even articles or papers that help us creatively process our pain.

Finally, spiritual things can also be spiritual actions. As Yancey points out in his book, those who allow their pain to motivate them to action, especially to service toward others, realize that their purpose in life is not unraveled by their struggle, rather their struggle becomes an integral part of a far greater purpose. While this purpose is often very hard to discern, and certainly it is not something that is discerned immediately, there is a real hope that every Christ-sufferer will be called to act out of a conviction that he or she would not have had had they not suffered.

As we see so often in the Bible (Gen. 50:15-21), if our actions mirror God’s will in times of trouble, great exaltation often follows. This is perhaps a truth that soldiers or star athletes (I think especially of boxers) grasp more readily, since the endurance of pain is most often the integral component to future glory. Thus, to serve God and man in the midst of pain is a way of enduring that imitates Christ’s own actions on the cross.

The third step in surviving suffering then is to surround oneself with objects of spiritual comfort, and engage in actions of spiritual reward. As with the other steps, however, there are also corollaries to be avoided. There are object and actions that should be eliminated from one’s presence in times of trouble (e.g. silly or dark videos or books, drinking, gambling, etc.)

In sum, when we get hit, and hit hard: cancer, loss of a child, severe disappointment, we need to surround ourselves with spiritual light. We need to be surrounded by spiritual people, find ourseleves in spiritual places, and attach our thoughts to spiritual things if we are to survive and even thrive in times of trouble. In the next post, I will look at another domain of spiritual focus, Spiritual Times.

Knight, Death, and The Devil: Christian Faith & the Virtue of Single-Mindedness

Few works of art have gripped me over the years, and accompanied me through the vicissitudes of life, more than the 1513 engraving by Albrecht Dürer, Ritter, Tod, und Teufel (Knight, Death, and the Devil). Although I cannot recall if I ever saw the original in the Dürer Haus in Nürnberg, I know I have seen copies in many other venues–each time being struck by its complexity of detail, yet single-minded theme.

The engraving itself is a master work: the technical precision is exact, the composition is ingenious, the medieval symbology rich, and the theme, universal. Dürer displays his artistic expertise in the exactitude with which this engraving is executed. At the same time the theme and the symbolism present us with a world that is, on the one hand realistically depicted, yet, on the other, deeply allegorical and mysterious. Here, the natural world, in fine-grained detail, and the spiritual realm are woven together as if they truly do coexist as one interlocking reality. That which we experience sensibly in the mundane (e.g. the sinew of the horse’s muscles, or the thicket sprouting out of the cliff face), are presented in the same mode as that which we sense is real, yet which remains obscured from us (e.g. the devil), or is simply ineffable (e.g. death, or even the passing of time).

As with any work of this magnitude, interpretations have been mixed, ranging from those who suggest the the Knight is a “Raubritter” or robber knight, who, in his avaricious treasure hunting, is actually abetted by Death and the Devil; to those who see the Knight as a metaphor for the virtue of “sanguinity.”1 This interpretation is grounded by the fact that an “s” is engraved on the Tafel in the lower left-hand corner. However, it is hard to see how the Knight represents sanguinity, especially considering what that “humor” classically was meant to represent. If there is one of the four humors that we would want to associate the Knight with, it would clearly be the Choleric, not the sanguine. Unfortunately, the image of the Knight was tragically appropriated, not only by Nietzsche, but also by Nazi propagandists, who wrongly saw in the figure a picture of Aryan stalwartness. For Nietzsche, however, it was a northern European attempt, one of the finest attempts, to return to the glories of Hellenism and pre-Christian ideals of power and creativity.

But, these interpretations are not only anachronistic, they are antithetical to Dürer’s original intent. That is not to say that powerful artistic symbolism cannot rightly be interpreted in later cultural contexts, but the predominant interpretation that has endured over the centuries, and the one that most likely approximates to Dürer’s own mind, is that of the Christian sojourner, who, while tempted on all sides, remains singularly focused on his divinely ordained mission. It is not just the obvious portrayal of the Knight as the Christian warrior, and Death and the Devil as the Christian’s persistent enemies (see Matt 4:1-11, Luke 4:2-13 & Romans 5:12-17), but also the image of the “city on a hill” (Matt 5:14) that sits strong and stately above the tangled and desolate wilderness below, that draw us into this world of biblical themes adapted to a medieval context.

It is within this symbolic world, amidst the solidity of the city, the detailed, yet dark countryside, and even the grotesque strangeness of both the zombie-like visage of Death and his beast-like counterpart, that ultimately our Knight and his steed become the center point of our mind’s focus, and our eyes’ gaze. The posture of our Knight, his uprightness; the rugged, almost Aslan-like power of the horse (also a bit anachronistic, I admit); and even the simple faithfulness of our Knight’s dog: they all combine to evoke in the viewer, especially the Christian viewer, a feeling of single-mindedness and perseverance in the face of our only real adversaries; enemies that are “not of flesh and blood” (see Ephesians 6:10-14).

Finally, our focus is ultimately drawn most tightly to our Knight’s face, his unwavering gaze, an image which perhaps reminds us of Christ’s own single-mindedness regarding the rescue operation commissioned to Him by the Father: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles.” (Mark 10:33) It is Christ’s unwavering gaze toward Jerusalem, that will fulfill the greatest mission ever conceived.

It is that single-mindedness, that self-sacrificial commitment to the highest good, union with God and the proclamation of the Good News, that not only preserves our Knight from falling into the temptation to fear Death, or to succumb to the wiles of the Devil, but that also motivated our spiritual forefathers to endure the tortures of the world, in all their forms and varieties:

32 And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.35 Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— 38 of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

39 And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

Hebrews 11:32-40

And, it is this same single-mindedness that can give the Christian today the resources to do the same–to endure not only the physical tortures, as many of our brothers and sisters in the East must do, but also the desperate times that come when emotional tragedies strike. How will we be, not just act, when our marriage is on the line, when the lives of our children are in jeopardy? How will we fight, when we are slandered and slurred, when injustice is served up against us? When we are made fun of, lose our jobs, and face betrayal from friends and family? Will we lose our focus on Christ? Will we forget our mission? Will we turn our gaze toward our spiritual enemies, finding bewilderment in their distractions and machinations, and steer our horse off of the path to the Kingdom of God?

No, the Christian must look forward, in single-minded pursuit of the Messiah, just as Paul did from his own prison cell: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Phil 1:27) , or as Peter did, perhaps only weeks before his own death in Rome: “Therefore, as Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same resolve–because the One who suffered in the flesh has finished with sin–in order to live the remaining time in the flesh, no longer for human desires, but for God’s will.” (1 Peter 4:1-2)

Finally, single-mindedness for Christ and His Kingdom should not be confused with narrow-mindedness or close-mindedness. Our Knight’s eyes remain wide open, he is no blind fool, nor ignoramus. Nothing of his countenance nor anything in his form suggests pettiness or triviality, bitterness, anger, or contempt (unless, perhaps, contempt for his two enemies). Thus, we can see our Christian Knight perhaps as Kierkegaard might have seen him, as one whose will is set on one thing2 Kierkegaard wrote a famous penitential sermon entitled “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing”, and in setting that will on the right thing, God’s will, we can imagine our noble Sojourner not just passing by our worldly foes, but exiting stage left and fulfilling his divine mission: the attainment of a pure heart.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matt 5:8)

Epiphanic Redemption And The Problem of Pain

15 From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;
    I have borne your terrors and am in despair.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
    your terrors have destroyed me.
17 All day long they surround me like a flood;
    they have completely engulfed me.
18 You have taken from me friend and neighbor—
    darkness is my closest friend.

Psalm 88, a song of Heman the Ezrahite

The Problem of Pain

If there is one almost irreconcilable problem for Christianity it is the problem of pain and suffering. This tragic mystery, of how an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing God could allow suffering, pain, and extraordinary human cruelty, in a world where human beings seem either woefully helpless (against things like tsunamis, or bone cancer), or profoundly depraved (as in the rape of Nanking or the Armenian Genocide), presents itself as more than just an intellectual dilemma for Christian apologists. It is the thing which ultimately drives many away from faith in God and the promises found in Jesus Christ.

That said, I am not presenting a specific, theistic argument here, or a theodicy trying to reconcile particular instances of pain and suffering with God’s providential purposes, at least not directly. Rather I am making an appeal– an appeal to something we have reason to believe does occur, and, if it does, may be the kind of thing, perhaps the only kind of thing that would ultimately rectify the human experience of horrible suffering and extraordinary evil. And, if this rectifying kind of thing were actualized, then we might have very good reason to believe that Christianity is indeed true, and maybe believe that with certainty.

Kinds of Pain

But, what could rectify the kinds and degrees of suffering human persons experience in this world? First, let’s define what kinds of suffering there might be. It seems to me there are roughly four kinds of evils in the world that can befall the human person:

  1. Physical pain caused by natural evils
  2. Emotional pain that results from the same physical pain caused by natural evils
  3. Emotional pain caused by either:
    • a) Things other human agents do to other human agents or
    • b) Strong desires or longings left unfulfilled in one’s life
  4. Extraordinary evil, which is a special kind of 3a, in that it manifests itself in some act of unconscionable malice or malevolence at the individual level of human moral interaction (e.g. child sexual abuse), or at the macro-level of societal interaction (genocide).

Some examples of (1) would range from a toothache to bone cancer. The emotional suffering that emerges, and lingers, due to the c-fibers that fire during the instances of physical pain these biological deficiencies cause, would be an example of (2). Examples of this kind of emotional pain might be the kind of self-reflective questions that accompany the persistent enduring of physical pain: e.g. “Why is this happening to me? Why now? Why cancer, when I am so young and have children to raise?” Alternatively, someone punching me without warning is also an instance of physical pain caused by a natural evil, in that it is the force and the mass of the fist striking my nose that causes the pain. But, in the case of the punch, what distinguishes it from the toothache, or the cancer, is the additional emotional pain that arises on account of it being an intentional act by another moral agent (3a).

Hence, regarding type (3a), immoral human action, this would be the emotional pain that someone must endure when another moral agent either physically or emotionally damages them. Although, as I pointed out above, it is hard to see how physical damage, especially physical damage that is known to be intentionally carried out by one agent against another, would fail to cause subsequent emotional damage (barring exceptional circumstances, like the lack of capacity to have emotions). Therefore, someone getting mugged on the street, or a wife being raped by her husband would be examples of (3a). The latter however causing greater degrees of emotional trauma than the former, since other kinds of moral goods: promises, trust, and prior intimacy, have been broken in the case of the rapist husband, but not necessarily in the case of the anonymous mugger.

There is another kind of emotional suffering, however, (3b) is the kind of suffering that would come via a deep sense of unfulfilled longing. Not the kind that arises when we don’t get to have our favorite flavor of ice cream, because Baskin Robbins just ran out of Rocky Road, but the kind of ongoing pain that haunts someone when they realize they will never find someone to marry who really loves them, or when someone learns that the years of hard work and sacrifice they put in to prepare themselves to qualify for a special job or occupation was simply not enough, and they must now let go of that dream in order to move on with life.

I use one of my own examples for (3b), which would be the emotional pain of disappointment I experienced after spending over two years preparing myself physically and mentally for US Army Special Forces; first getting selected, then spending 17 months in the Q-course, but only to realize, perhaps too late, that I simply wasn’t going to make it all the way through. I had two berets at the end of my Army career, neither was green, and I had spent nearly three years killing myself to attain something I didn’t get, and still wonder whether I should have pursued at all (although I do credit the training I experienced in the “Q” with potentially saving my life a year later in Afghanistan).

While character development can certainly take place in many instances of unfulfilled dreams or lost opportunities, and valuable life-lessons are learned in failure, the disappointment of ultimately not making it through to some final consummation or clearly defined end state of a sought after goal is often a bitter pill to swallow. Soldiers who have left a theater of operations before seeing any real success on the ground know this feeling all too well. The sacrifices are deep and manifold, yet the gains seem meager and obscure.

Finally, there is also the kind of suffering that some, like military men, often wind up fighting against, namely type (4) pain and suffering. This suffering takes the form of what one genocide researcher, James Waller, calls “extraordinary evil.” Extraordinary evil is the kind of evil that breaks through the veil of normalcy in human history, causing us to collectively gasp and corporately weep. This is the stuff of genocide, be it Germany in the 1940’s or Rwanda in a few short months in 1994. But, within those seemingly macro-level events, are the actual grotesque, micro-events that make us question both God, and our own humanity. These are the hacking of bodies, the dismembering, the raping, the violating in every way, shape, and form of that which the Bible tells us is sacred and holy, and made in God’s image. It is image bearers torturing other image bearers.

Then, even outside of the context of war, there is the gruesome reality of things like child rape, mutilation, torture, and other things that real human beings somehow find themselves capable of doing: more image bearers desecrating other image bearers. This is the type of suffering that can make belief difficult. Surprisingly though, even this kind of evil does not stop many who have experienced it from believing in Christ, often in a far more profound way than those who have not had such experiences. Which leads us to ask how this might occur?

Is There an Answer?: The Hope of Epiphanic Redemptive Experience

In detailing these kinds of pain, and giving concrete examples, I hopefully have avoided whitewashing or marginalizing the serious challenge they present to the truth and goodness of the Christian message. With all that, and there is quite a lot of that there, what kind of thing could not just counterbalance such horror, but actually transform each instance of extraordinary evil into something one could justifiable call redeemed?

First, there are two distinctions to make if we are going to get a grip on how something like the sadistic torture of an innocent could become redeemed. One, the only kind of thing that can be understood to be redeemed from any person’s privileged, first-person perspective, is their own privileged, first-person experience. I cannot really experience my neighbor’s toothache, even if I can have compassion for her in the midst of it. Thus, a redeemed pain or injury suffered must be my own pain or injury, not of someone else’s, so too theirs cannot be of mine.

Thus we reject the notion that anyone, even Bill Clinton (or counselor Troi), can actually “feel” the pain of another person. First-person experiences are just that– first-person. As such the kinds of experiences that could make horrible, atrocious pains or sufferings redeemed experiences are themselves first-person experiences particular to the individual. They, the redeeming experiences, would be “custom-made” to the individual’s psychology, physiology, and personal history. There are no collective pains. Nor is it the case that individual experiences of pain add to some theoretical tally of overall suffering. Pains endured individually are redeemed individually, even if they may involve others in the process of redemption.

Second, no other person can know what would be the exact experience that would make some other person’s first-person experience of pain and suffering justifiably redeemed. So, if Bob has experienced extraordinary evil X, then only Bob can know what would redeem X. Even Bob’s best and closest friend of 70 years (perhaps his life-long spouse, Sally) cannot know what particular redemptive experience, E, would be the one that would in fact redeem Bob’s experience of X. E is reserved for Bob, and Bob alone. Just as Sally will have some other E, E*, that will redeem her X*.

So, redeemed pains will be redemptive, experiential instances whereby 1) the first-person experience of an individual, S, is the only thing that is in view, and 2) only S will know what can do the redeeming of the pains he or she has suffered, since only he or she has experienced those pains. Again, this safeguards against thinking that their are such things as collective pains, which there clearly are not, and also that I could know what your experience of your own pain is, and, subsequently, what it would take to fix it– something Job’s friends thought they could do, but failed at miserably.

It is not without irony that the character of Job is here invoked. For in Job we have what seems like the kind of irreconcilable suffering we’ve mentioned, i.e. the kind of suffering for which there seems no good counterbalancing reason, and where each of the four categories of suffering mentioned above are present. Since the book of Job maintains Job’s moral innocence throughout, the injustice of all four experiences of human suffering is thereby exacerbated. Job is not being punished, nor getting his just desserts. He suffers physical and emotional pain (boils and the loss of children to a natural disaster) and extraordinary evil (slaughter of faithful servants at the hands of the Sabeans and Chaldeans) without apparent purpose (from his perspective).

With the Book of Job in sight, what I am ultimately suggesting then as a sufficient answer to the apparent irreconcilability of human suffering with the Christian faith, must include one more countervailing experience: the direct manifestation of God to the human agent. This direct manifestation we can call “epiphanic,” for it would be a religious experience of the quality of Job’s direct encounter with God, or of the kinds of direct encounters so many Christian men and women have had throughout the centuries, regardless of time, culture, age or personal context. So, an epiphany of God and a countervailing experience of redemption are what the author of Job seems to tell us is the only answer to the irreconcilable problem. Let’s call this the “epiphanic redemptive experience.”

The Epiphanic Redemptive Experience (R) has two aspects then: 1) a new and deeper knowledge of God’s personal nature, and 2) a countervailing experience of a set of conditions or circumstances that doesn’t just “balance out” S’s experience of X, but that makes the experience of X, the extraordinary evil suffered, fully and completely justified. In short, S would know that X happened for this reason and that that reason was a good enough one to make X entirely acceptable to the sufferer. The Epiphanic Redemptive Experience is an experience of such power and beauty, both in the pleasure it gives, and the explanation it offers, that it truly is a fully justifying experience of any evil, X.

The Book of Job demonstrates this kind of countervailing experience, in that Job receives both a personal epiphany of God, Job sees God face-to-face, and Job, at the end of his life, receives a greater portion of that which he enjoyed at the beginning of his life. Both conditions of R seem satisfied in Job’s case. However, serious criticisms have been offered by skeptics and theologians about whether or not goods like children, i.e. real persons, can so be replaced so easily in what looks to be a rather crude swap. If so, perhaps the second condition is not satisfied, since Job has lost unique children that obviously cannot be so simply replaced.

Leaving aside whether or not the author of Job is recounting an actual historical event, or just making a theological point (on my view, both), we must remember that the idea we have in mind is that God can provide the individual, here Job, with that R which for the individual countervails the suffering he or she has endured. So, for Job, as an ancient patriarch, winding up with more children and grandchildren, a thriving family business, more livestock, and the opportunity to see his children and their inheritance prosper to the fourth generation, very well may be the specific Job-tailored answer that fulfills the second condition of R. HeJob, needed to see, regardless of our modern skepticism, these kinds of rewards in order for him to feel that his prior suffering had indeed been redeemed. For Job, this likely satisfies the second condition of R, even if we moderns find it distasteful.

To reiterate: each R for every S’s X will be specific to S. The R itself has an objective component to it, i.e. the direct revelation of God’s personal nature, and a subjective component, i.e. the particular set of countervailing experiences that God tailors to the individual. Let’s go back to Bob. On this account Bob, subsequent to his suffering, will experience some aspect of God’s personal nature that he did not previously perceive or grasp, and Bob will also experience some reward, which, being tailored specifically to Bob’s prior suffering, makes that prior suffering fully understandable and fully justified. Bob, through the Epiphanic Redemptive Experience is made not only into a wholly renewed person, but is now a person whose experiences of God and the Good outweigh his experience of suffering and evil.

So, while I cannot, being consistent with my own claims, work out this kind of redemptive formula for any particular instance of X for some other subject, S (e.g. I cannot work out concretely what would be the exact R for a woman who was raped by her husband), I can argue for two conditions that would suffice to countervail and redeem my own X and the X* of the woman: a direct revelation of God in all His glory, power, beauty and love, and a first-person experience of those conditions that only God knows perfectly, and that are specifically tailored to the particular set of emotions of the sufferer, and that further grant peace and fulfillment to the individual who has experienced the suffering in question.

Epilogue: Unfulfilled Desires Filled by Christ

In his short story, Araby, the turn-of-the-century Irish author James Joyce has his main character, an adolescent Dublin boy infatuated with an older Irish lass, experience the pain and conflict not only of a desire unfulfilled, but of the irony of realizing that the desires he possesses are themselves deeply flawed and illusory. At the end of the story, after attempting to buy a small love token from the exotic oriental bazaar “Araby” for the object of his affection, the narrator realizes the folly of his desires, having a sort of anti-epiphany:

“Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”

For the narrator of the story, this experience of unfilled desires (3b), which, in one sense, is more fundamental and prior to the other forms of pain mentioned above, there is no experience of God in the moment of despair. Nor are we told, or is there any hint of, some later experience that might countervail the young boy’s feelings of foolishness, shame, and loss. But, as was recently pointed out to me in a Sunday sermon, this Joycean response to unfulfilled desire is the antithesis of the Gospel’s message. It is not that the Bible doesn’t validate the reality of real, embodied suffering, as Job and Psalm 88 attest, but rather that the biblical writers, unlike Joyce, don’t leave us “gazing into the darkness,” eyes burning “with anguish and anger.”

For, in the moments of greatest despair, in the times when our hearts feel empty, and our desires are left unmet; or worse, when all appears pointless and futile, it is in this time we are called to look up, not up into darkness, but rather to look up to see the hope and light of Christ. For it is in this moment when the Revelation of God, the true Epiphany of the God Who redeems, can meet us in the moment of despair.

For, when God appears to us, and explains to us, it is not our eyes that wind up aflame, but our hearts:

30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them.  Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him,and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.”Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

Luke 24: 30-35

Where Joyce leaves our suffering mind gazing into darkness, a hopeless victim of unwanted and unfulfilled passions, St. Luke tells us of an encounter: a concrete presence of the Redeemer, who takes away our guilt and shame, overpowers death, and promises a life of desires fulfilled, and pains redeemed. When we see Him, then our eyes will be opened and filled with light, and the darkness flees.

Can We “Be” Good without God?

“For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Genesis 3:5

Can we be good without God? So it has been asked throughout the ages, or at least for a long, long time. At least since Lucretius, and probably Epicurus before him.

Very briefly, I would say “no,” we cannot be good without God. But, that is quite brief, and to say that one cannot be good, is not to say one cannot do good without God; it is only to say one cannot be good apart from God. There are, in fact, all kinds of objectively good, moral actions that a person can perform, but that alone does not make one good, not in an ontological sense, anyway.

For to be good implies more than just action in the world, it entails everything from intentions, attitudes, dispositions, even the content of one’s thoughts and imaginations. After all, would we say that a quadriplegic who is physically incapable of harming another, yet who fantasizes about torturing innocent children day and night, is good?

Obviously not. Therefore, goodness must extend beyond good or right action; it must apply to the soul of the person. It must speak to the formation of the self; to the self’s inner dispositions and desires, as well as to the body’s actions. Being good is a question of character.

But, perhaps a few examples might help clarify why good actions alone do not make us good; why they don’t change our nature, or the what we are:

  1. Objectively good actions are not always done out of objectively good motivations.

Example 1: Think of a soldier who has been trained to make certain kinds of sacrifices on the battlefield, or who lives under a highly structured system of rewards and punishments. This soldier sacrifices himself to save the life of another soldier, or maybe a civilian in a combat zone. Is his motivation for saving the other soldier or civilian done out of love and compassion? Or, is he thinking that if he pulls it off, he will get promoted, or win a medal, perhaps a very prestigious one? Or, is it because he has simply been trained to do so, and can’t really choose otherwise, his body just reacts a certain way to the circumstances. The act is loving, but is the soldier loving? At best we might say, it remains unclear.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that some soldiers don’t do heroic acts out of love, and that they themselves are not courageous or loving. It is just to show that not all loving or courageous acts are ones that exemplify a certain kind of moral virtue that itself is also objectively good. Most of us, unless you are a fan of Ayn Rand, would not think of self glorification as an objectively good motivation.1 Of course, I am simplifying this kind of scenario to make a larger point. A soldier in this kind of situation, or a police officer, or anyone really, can have a complex set of mixed emotions and intentions, to include, for example, a genuine desire to save someone and an equally genuine desire to win a medal, or gain personal favor. So, to become good seems to require something more than just the doing of good acts.

Example 2: Consider a celebrity playboy (think of one, there are a lot of them) who donates millions and millions of dollars to some inner city school project, or who frequently visits third world countries on relief missions, or who adopts a dozen orphaned African children. Yet, in his (or her) spare time, he engages in all kinds of activities that many, not just the religious among us, would consider despicable (e.g. I’m sure Harvey Weinstein gave a lot of money to charity).

Why is he doing all those good acts? Are his motives out of love…or is he trying to hide his guilty feelings from the world; making up for them by the good works he performs? Are his objectively good acts, also acts of self deception, and, in some sense, public deception? If they are, then we would have to say that they might be objectively good for others, but for the playboy himself, they are objectively bad. He is doing good on one hand, but only to alleviate his own guilt on the other. But, his public good works do not necessarily stop him from persisting in his private, yet wicked, intentions and acts. In fact, the good works act as aids to his persisting in that wickedness. (BTW, I did a lot of good works before I met Christ)!

Examples could be multiplied, but let me get to a second point.

  1. Even good actions, and the right motivations, are not enough to make us good.

    Even if one does act out of morally righteous motivations (love, kindness, a sense of duty, etc.), it is usually the case, because of the way the human heart is, that we who try and do morally good acts, and who even do them for the right reasons, begin to see ourselves as the source of our own goodness. But this is highly problematic, because the desire to do good, and the actualization of that virtue, often leads to the development of certain moral vices; like pride, or arrogance, or judgmentalism.

Example 1: The Pharisees. They thought they were good because of their religious status, their adherence to the law, and their moral virtue. They followed God’s commandments, and followed them to a “T.” They even followed more commandments than were required (see Mark 7)! In doing so, however, they developed certain vices, like religious pride.

Because of the way sin works, it seems that if we begin to see ourselves as good, we start becoming prideful and arrogant. If we become prideful and arrogant we tend to want to dominate others, to demean them, to shame them. Thus, the doing of virtue itself often becomes a source of vice, and can even lead to our hurting others in the process. We can actually undermine our own desire to be good. We can try and earn it ourselves. The Pharisees, in doing this, came up with a name for people who failed to do it; they called them “sinners.” The older brother did this to his younger, prodigal brother, and in both cases, the end result was a loss of the capacity to forgive.

Example 2: Satan and Adam’s desire to be good apart from God were the very first sinful acts against God. In fact, I think one could legitimately see all of Scripture as a grand story of man’s attempt to be good without relationship to God. This is done at the micro level (the individual who sees himself as “the Good one” and becomes haughty), or at the level of culture (the political system or ideology that is anointed as good, and is said will save humanity. Think Marxism, perhaps, which has oft been called a failed, Christian heresy.)

If Satan and Adam wanted to be good without relationship to God, and in doing so fell from His grace, then to think we can be good without God is like reenacting the original sin. It is eating from the tree; again, and again, and again.

3. But, what is the solution to this whole mess? What about being good?

From a historical Christian perspective, being morally good is not really the main purpose of human existence anyway; even if it is a byproduct of coming to grasp, and to live in that main purpose. What is that purpose? Well, it is our own happiness. Yes, that’s right; our own happiness. To understand and accept this is to follow in the footsteps of Augustine, not Pelagius; to follow Aquinas, not Socinus, and to realize what Luther realized during his study of Romans.

Or, for example, one could take this statement from The Westminster Shorter Catechism, in response to the question “What is the chief end of man?” Answer, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” So, actually, our ultimate goal is to enjoy God, not to act morally. Yep, enjoy Him, not be Him. But, once we start enjoying Him, an amazing thing begins to happen, we start becoming more like Him. We start becoming good, because of our joy in Christ.

Therefore, if enjoying God is the ultimate goal, then being good for that reason is what ultimately shapes us and make us good. When we have the right goal set in our hearts, then we can actually become what we desire to be: good.

In sum, I would say that men and women can do objectively good things without God, but that the primal sin is itself the very idea that we can be good without Him. That is exactly what we want as sinners, and it is exactly what the Devil want us to believe. So, no, we should never think we could be good without God, even if we are doing good things all the while.

On Dignity and Identity: An Homiletic Excursus

On Personal Worth & Personal Identity

“The one who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, will have streams of living water flow from deep within him.” (John 7:38)

Where does our worth come from? What makes us valuable and worthy; what gives us real dignity? Is our worth tied up in our actions, in the things we do, or is it in the things we have? Is our worth in our accomplishments, or our possessions? 

What makes us who we are? What gives us our identity? Is our identity the sum total of our actions, the sum total of the things we do, or the total things we have? The sum of our accomplishments, our possessions, or perhaps our relationships? 

What gives us our worth, and what defines us as who we are? Is it our money, our prestige, the number of friends we have on Facebook, the number of academic degrees we’ve earned, the number of times we’ve appeared on television or in the papers? Does it have to do with how many people come to us for advice, for our expertise, or our knowledge? Is it our influence that gives us our worth or our identity? What about our physical beauty, our fitness, and health? It is our ability to command respect and admiration from people? Is it our sexual exploits? The number of men or women who have been attracted to us, or “fallen for us?” The number we have pleased in the bedroom?

Is our identity in our work? In our hobbies? Is it about a certain kind of skill or capacity we’ve attained through years of hard work, or is it through some set of unique experiences that personal worth accrues? Or, is my worth and identity wrapped up in how religious I am? In how often I go to church, how much I give to charity, how much I pray? Is it in some group, some institution, or some club that I belong to? 

Is my worth or identity based on my intelligence? How smart I am, or appear to be to others? Is it in how well I can argue or how well I can educate? 

Finally, is my worth and identity tied up in my family? In my spouse? In the degree of cohesion and unity, the general happiness, the functionality of my own family unit? Am I identified and dignified by the achievements of my children, the perception that they have of me? Or, is my value or identity wrapped up in my relationship to my parents? Do I still struggle for their approval, especially if approval has been hard to come by?

I think if I were honest, I would have to say “yes” to at least some of these. Because, our worth and our identities do seem to be defined by one or more of these features of life, at different times in life. Our job is often who we are, our families define us, our clubs or political parties contribute to who we think we are. My degrees, my reputation as a husband or father, mother or wife; these simply are who I am. If I fail in any of these, my worth decreases and my identity is tarnished, if not ruined. I become less valuable, and I feel lost to myself, and my story is left incomplete.

All of these things I’ve mentioned will fail us at some point in our lives. They will either fail to satisfy us, and we will look elsewhere for our worth, or if we put too much value in them, we will begin to exploit them for what they can, or what they must do for us, namely, they must give us an unassailable sense of worth, and a lasting sense of identity. Because, after all, what else could give us worth, or identity, other than these? 

But, it’s not only that these things don’t satisfy, because even if they did for a while, by the nature of what they are, they would make all of us supremely different in both identity and value. We would be, no, we are supremely different in value and identity, if these are the kinds of things that define value and identity.

The poor are not as valuable as the rich, if riches are what make us valuable. Those who haven’t succeeded in life, who haven’t pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, are less valuable than the successful, those who are self-made men and women. The unmarried, less valuable than the married. The chaste, less than the sexually active. Couples with four or five well-behaved, energetic children, more valuable than couples who can’t conceive, or whose children are brats, or ill. Those who aren’t good at a sport or some hobby, less valuable than those who are top athletes, or skilled laborers and artisans. Those who can’t attract men or women romantically, far less valuable than the sex idols amongst us. Those who don’t go to church every week, less worthy than those pious souls who attend sometimes even twice in a week. Those who don’t have the academic credentials, well, not really worth listening to. Those with PhDs, not as good as those with PhDs and endowed chairs.

If our value is in these things, then we are not, nor can we ever be, equal. Because these things are all limited and finite; and we are all empty and broken vessels. We are like things that leak, that cannot hold the things we crave.  

All of these: money, family, skill, fame, prestige, influence, beauty, fitness, marriage, children, hobbies, sex, food, religiosity, intelligence. They all go away, they all fade, they are all transitory, they do not last. Neither do they ever really satisfy our hunger, no matter how much we have of them, or how good they seem to be. We long for more. We’ve been made for more. 

We are lost without that which can give us unassailable identity and lasting worth. And, as sad as it may seem, the love of each other, is also not enough. If it were, we wouldn’t be in the spot we are today, or yesterday, or in 2312 BC for that matter. Because in all honesty, few of us come close to loving others well, and none of us loves perfectly. Further, most of us don’t even know how to receive love, even when genuinely on offer. The first hurt taints all future attempts at love. 

But where do we go for the kind of love we need? The kind of love that makes all of these other pursuits (which in themselves could be very good, and very lovely desires and wants) valuable, but not ultimate?  Where do we go for that kind of love; the kind that defines us, and does so forever?

“You made us for yourself, and our hearts find no peace until they rest in thee.”

Is it the love of God that we are searching for? We will look for God’s love in one or more of these things I’ve mentioned. There we will seek it, but not find it, at least not find Him; only shadows. These things that, known from experience, could not satisfy me; could not fill my heart; these created things (Romans 1). These could not, can not, give me a real sense of lasting worth, and that true identity that I longed to find. Not a worthiness I had to earn, or an identity that I myself had to create, but a worth and a dignity that was given to me; an identity that was shown to me. Call me arrogant, but I don’t think you and I are that different in this regard.

It is said that Martin Luther on his death bed muttered these words, “we are all but beggars.” I have little to offer except this, and one only this: without the love of God in us, and the love of God that comes only through Jesus Christ, there are only two things worth pursuing, neither of which will make us whole, heal us, or give us peace, as much as we may try. What are the two? These two things are power and pleasure, and for 34 years I chased power so I could have pleasure. I wracked my body with alcohol, drugs, and sex. I travelled around the world hoping that the next mountain vista I saw, or the next exotic city I visited would leave an enduring sense of excitement and happiness. Then I taught school children, inner city kids, hoping I would feel good about myself, and then I joined the Army hoping that I would achieve things that would make me feel worthy and valuable again, perhaps even heroic.

But, after all this, it was ultimately Jesus who chased me down; Jesus who caught me; Jesus who loved me; Jesus who forgave me; and Jesus who gave me a new identity, and an worth that is absolute. He did it on the cross, go look for yourself. Your new identity is in His face, and your worth was proven by His blood.

Do I still fall into the trap of power or pleasure? Sure, but I don’t love them. Not any more. I love Jesus. What about you, friend? 

“Oh, the depth of the riches
both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God!
How unsearchable His judgments
and untraceable His ways!” (Romans 11:33)

We have redemption in Him through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace that He lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.” (Ephesians 1:6-8)