What do we do with the truly awful things of this life? With a loss of love, with a deep constant pain, with a fear that pervades our depths?
It is dangerous to attribute it all to our not loving God enough, although perhaps we could say that is often the case.
Our faith is, as CS Lewis once said, often only a house of cards.
He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down. ~ CS Lewis A Grief Observed
We walk around, believing that our foundation is solid, but in truth we are playing at faith. Our house needs a good breath of wind, for if it is never allowed to fall, it can never be rebuilt to last for eternity.
If my faith is only steady enough to endure this life, wouldn’t I want God to blow it down with whatever wind is necessary so that I can endure to the end?
I’m not sure.
I think I want this, but fear holds me back. Fear of what God, in His infinite love and wisdom, might deal out.
He never promised to be gentle.
Is any pain at all worthwhile if it brings us closer to Him, closer to the sort of life with God that Jesus lived?
The given answer should be yes, but I hesitate and pull back at the brink of giving it.
Which means that I do not yet desire God above all else.
Do many of us?
We give our hearts over to so many things other than God. . .As long as our happiness is tied to the things we can lose, we are vulnerable. ~ John Eldredge Walking With God
If God is truly enough, if He is what we need for happiness, for contentment, then we should be able to let go of those we love, endure that deep pain, rise above the pervasive fear, because we still have Him.
It is God who remains when all else is gone. It is God who fills us up with Himself so that we do not need anything or anyone else.
In truth, when we lose, when we hurt, we have more of Him than we have in the comfort and in the ease. That in itself should make us turn from the easy way.
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. ~ Philippians 3. 7-12
If only I could believe that. Truly know it and live it.
Eternity is high stakes. We shouldn’t be surprised that the preparation can be grueling.
Each day we have a choice. We can choose to accept what we are given and let God use it to mold us or we can dig in our heels and choose to look for the easy way, the way of least pain and effort, the way of bitterness and discontent.
Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. ~ C. S. Lewis
Life is. We can fight against it and live in a state of war. Or we can surrender to God and be molded into someone who is perfectly ready for eternity.
The stakes are high. Are you ready for the challenge?
We are in the middle of moving, so I will be fetching from the archives for the next two or three weeks. Enjoy!
Is there such a thing as good?
Not the sort of good that is only good because it results in some desired, practical outcome, but the sort of good that is good in itself. Inherently good, intrinsically good.
It would be arrogant to think that such a question could be fully addressed in this small place, but perhaps this space is sufficiently large at least to begin the wonderings.
This is a question containing quite a breadth of meaning, so it is worthwhile to ask it again: is there anything that is good in itself, apart from any practical value it might have?
What would it look like if the answer was no? What would our world look like if we believed that there was nothing that was good apart from its practical value? (I hasten to insert, however, that belief of some truth is not quite the same as truth itself.)
If there is no such thing as good, then that which is good becomes the same as whatever thing that I want.
When all that says “It is good” has been debunked, what says “I want” remains. ~ C.S. Lewis in Abolition of Man
If good is the same as I want, then we become nothing but bundles of desires chasing after what will satisfy.
We in the United States love the idea of freedom, yet even that idea has changed over the years.
Freedom, for most of the time that the major religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) have existed, meant the freedom to choose what is good; it involved responsibility and even the idea of self-denial.
If you asked most Westerners today, even those belonging to Christ, freedom means being able to do what pleases me. It means doing whatever I want.
Those belonging to Christ might add “as long as I do not hurt others”.
Yet even that caveat seems to apply only to short-term harm and not to anything long-term such as caring for our earth and being committed to justice.
Look at our world and see the belief that there is nothing that is purely good, that freedom means the ability to follow my own desires.
Look at Christ, however, and see that if good does exist than freedom is the freedom to choose that good rather than being controlled by what is not good. Freedom means responsibility and self-denial. If there are things that are purely good, than those things should always be chosen for themselves and not for any practical value they might confer.
Many of those who pursue freedom are not truly free at all. They are controlled by their own passions and desires, forced to spend their lives chasing after what will satisfy, yet never finding it.
Those who freely choose to be controlled by Christ, however, are choosing to control their desires and to harness their passions in pursuit of that which is good. They will be satisfied.
Once again, Christ turns the wisdom of this world upside down and gives the good gift of true freedom to those who voluntarily offer their own freedom to Him.
It is an inevitable part of life that monochromatic winter begins to melt into spaces of bright color. Snow gives way to tulips and crocuses. Perhaps it is our necessary reminder that death is followed by new life. Our reminder of Easter.
It was our first Easter without Kristina.
On Easter morning, my eldest ran into the living room where we had left the figure of Jesus on the cross the night before, eyes wide with hope of resurrection. “Daddy, look! Jesus left us flowers that God made!”
Hope and joy at the end of sorrow and pain. This is Easter.
On Easter morning, gathered with our Family, we sang, “The greatest day in history, Death is beaten, You have rescued me. Sing it out, Jesus is alive! Endless joy, perfect peace, Earthly pain finally will cease. Celebrate Jesus is alive! Oh, happy day, happy day…”
During a celebration after tragedy, hearts swell and overflow with emotions that at first glance seem to be at odds. We feel both joy and gratitude, sorrow and longing.
On Easter morning, the joy is easy. Jesus is alive!
Sorrow and longing, though, those are things that are more difficult. Yet they are real and, although hard, they are what should be.
We all suffer. We all love and therefore all suffer because in our broken world, love means suffering. Those who do not love much do not suffer much. I would not grieve so deeply had I not loved Kristina so much. God loves our world and therefore God Himself suffers.
Such sorrow was felt over our first Easter without Kristina.
We acknowledge that all of this, this pain and death and sadness, is not how it was supposed to be. None of this existed before we rebelled against God.
And so we sorrow.
Our longing is for that day of redemption and transformation. The day when earthly pain will cease and death will be banished for all time. We desperately wish to be gathered into Jesus’ arms and told that all is now well.
And so we long.
Sorrow and longing.
At second look, we are reassured that these are what we should feel. After all,
Our kind, heavenly Father has provided many wonderful inns for us along our journey, but He takes special care to see that we never mistake any of them for home. ~ C.S. Lewis
At the end of it all, however, our hearts must return again to gratitude.
On that Easter morning, as we worshiped together, we sang, “You make beautiful things, You make beautiful things out of the dust. You make beautiful things, You make beautiful things out of us.”
Just as we did in the middle of our ugly places, our hearts cry out “Why?” Yet this time, it is a vastly different sort of why.
This time we ask, why do You love me that much?
You went to the cross to allow us to become children of God. Wasn’t that more than enough? Why would You now also work so very hard to make beautiful things out of the dust that we are? Why would You pour so much into molding us into people who look like You?
Let us fall on our knees in joy and with gratitude for such lavish love.
On Easter morning and beyond, let our hearts swell with both sorrow and longing, joy and gratitude, knowing that Jesus is truly alive, knowing that He has defeated death.
Children have control over so little in their lives.
We grownups like to think that we have control over our lives, but perhaps that is only illusion.
Daddies and Mommies tell them when to get up and when to lie down, when to eat and when to play, what to wear and where to go. Children will often grasp at anything that will give them more power over their lives.
One of the things I’ve noticed that children use to gain a little control is knowing what name to call things, especially when that thing frightens them a little. When she was smaller, my eldest daughter’s constant response to a loud noise was That was? That was? Now that she is a little older, she asks What was that? That noise? Knowing the name of something gives her power over it, makes it seem a little less scary.
She seeks to know.
Perhaps she is not very different from many adults.
Scientists, medical researchers, geneticists, stay-at-home moms who like to learn…people want to know what name to call things, want to know about things, because that gives them power over those things, those ideas. If we know how something was put together or how something works or even just what to call it, we feel as though we have power over our world.
We seek to know.
A long time ago, in a land far away, around the beginning of the Christian Church (perhaps even earlier), there lived a group of people we call Gnostics who believed (among other things) that matter, the material universe, was bad and that deliverance from our material form could only come through special knowledge.
Not long ago at all, in a land not at all far away, there lived a group of people who believed that their minds were all-powerful, that the dying of their flesh was bad, that through knowledge they could overcome all physical limitations. They could eat poorly and take vitamin supplements. They could ignore their children and send them to therapists. They could extend life and choose the sort of life that they procreated through the technology they created. They believed that saving our natural resources wasn’t important because their minds, human ingenuity in the form of science and technology, could surely take care of that problem as well.
There is nothing new under the sun…
In C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man (in 1943!), he said that mankind’s power to do exactly what it wants seems to be growing all the time through humanity’s so-called “conquest of Nature” – the progress of applied science. However, “each new power won by man is a power over man as well.” We can throw bombs from airplanes but can also be bombed ourselves; a race of birth-controllers is a race whose own birth has been controlled.
We seek to know. We seek to control.
Why do we feel that Nature is bad, that the material world needs to be conquered? Even as Christ-followers we seek knowledge because we fear. We want to know and to name so that we can control that which is uncontrollable.
Is the pursuit of knowledge wrong? Not at all.
Paul says in Philippians:
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. ~Philippians 1.9-11 (Italics mine)
Paul seeks to know.
Paul also said this:
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. ~Philippians 4.12-13
Paul is definitely not in control, nor does he seek to be.
Is this a Faustian-like power, this power of knowledge? A power that gives away everything good that God created in order to gain power and control over His creation?
It can be.
As Christ-followers, do we seek knowledge because we are fearful of the future and wish to wrest control of His creation from the One Who set it all in motion?
Sometimes I do.
Perhaps instead we can seek knowledge in order to praise God with our minds. Perhaps we can seek knowledge in gratitude for our imagination and intelligence, in gratitude for the complexity of His creation.
I suppose that, as with most that God has created, the goodness or evil of the pursuit of knowledge depends upon the heart of His creation.
May our hearts and minds seek to know out of thanksgiving rather than out of fear.
I sit in the early morning, looking out the window at the wind making shimmery the leaves of our cottonwood, and remember Kristina. It is the third anniversary of her death, and it sometimes still feels as though we are stumbling through the dark. So much hurt and fear back then, so much hurt and fear all around us now. In this world, it will always be so. There are glimpses of light that keep us going, slight breaths of a hope that keeps our eyes searching the gloom for that bright and beautiful future that is promised, but it is easy to get distracted by the ugliness all around. I am drawn back to a post I wrote soon after Kristina’s death.
In the middle of this pain common to all of us who live in this world, as we sit surrounded by those who love us, it is tempting to add a veneer of softness, to speak in clichés that turn raw, ripped-open pain into a lie. Sometimes this is even encouraged among those of us who follow Christ. Yet to do this denies that we are real, that our hearts can be ripped in two, that our pain and loss can suffocate and almost overwhelm us. To do this denies that Christ is real, that His body and heart were also ripped apart.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
When God seems not to place much importance on whether we are free from pain or suffering, it is difficult not to live in a state of paralysis. It seems a formidable task both to acknowledge the depth of pain we feel and also to acknowledge the depth of God’s love for us.
We see this pain in the world around us. We see it all throughout the Bible. Abel. Abraham. Joseph. Moses. Uriah the prophet…murdered for prophesying while Jeremiah was allowed to live. John the Baptist…Jesus’ cousin. All of the apostles…Jesus’ closest friends.
Understanding why Kristina had to die is hard. I might never know the reason.
God’s purposes are not for me to understand His plans: His plan is for me to understand Who He is…Faith is this unwavering trust in the heart of God in the hurt of here.” ~ Ann Voskamp
What can we do when everything inside of us wants to turn tail and run from the painful possibility of God’s loving best? Can we truly trust in the heart of God?
We often learn best through story. One story that helps to show us what to do is written in C.S. Lewis’ story of Narnia, The Silver Chair. Two children (Jill and Scrubb) and one Marsh-wiggle (Puddleglum) are given by Aslan (the Christ-figure) four signs with which to find the lost prince of Narnia. They completely botch the first three signs which leads to their imprisonment with a madman who is chained to a silver chair. The fourth and last sign is that someone “will ask you to do something in my name, in the name of Aslan”. The madman entreats the three travelers to free him, who says:
“Once and for all, I adjure you to set me free. By all fears and all loves, by the bright skies of Overland, by the great Lion, by Aslan himself, I charge you –”
“Oh!” said the three travelers as though they had been hurt. “It’s the sign,” said Puddleglum. “It was the words of the sign,” said Scrubb more cautiously. “Oh, what are we to do?” said Jill.
It was a dreadful question. What had been the use of promising one another that they would not on any account set the Knight free, if they were now to do so the first time he happened to call upon a name they really cared about? On the other hand, what had been the use of learning the signs if they weren’t going to obey them? Yet could Aslan have really meant them to unbind anyone – even a lunatic – who asked it in his name? … They had muffed three already; they daren’t muff the fourth.
“Oh, if only we knew!” said Jill. “I think we do know,” said Puddleglum. “Do you mean you think everything will come right if we do untie him?” said Scrubb.
“I don’t know about that,” said Puddleglum. “You see, Aslan didn’t tell (Jill) what would happen. He only told her what to do. That fellow will be the death of us once he’s up, I shouldn’t wonder. But that doesn’t let us off following the sign.”
That doesn’t let us off following the sign.
We aren’t guaranteed that anything here on earth will turn out all right. We try so hard to grasp at that security, to bring it into existence, but it simply is not there. Instead, if we have nothing else (and we do have so much else!), if we can turn to and trust nothing else, we have the cross.
After his wife of only four years had died of cancer, C. S. Lewis said, “If only I could bear it, or the worst of it, or any of it, instead of her…But is it ever allowed? It was allowed to One, we are told, and I find I can now believe again, that He has done vicariously whatever can be so done. He replies to our babble, ‘You cannot and you dare not. I could and dared.’”
And so we find that perhaps, after all, it does not matter why. It does not matter whence came the hard thing or even that it may be painfully hard. If God ever had to prove anything, at the cross He proved His love, His promise to work for the best of all He created.
It is not a bad thing to seek for the why’s and how’s and from where’s. God is able to handle our questions, our fears. Yet if we never get any answers, if we never know the reasons, if we never understand, then we who have chosen to follow Christ, who have allowed Jesus to be the Lord of our lives, we who have embraced His sacrifice of love…
The ease of which I find myself speaking in terms of “us” and “them” while speaking of how we interpret the Bible forces me to search more deeply into how I see the Bible.
Do I view the Bible as a way to live my own life or do I look into its pages to search out ways of making me right and them wrong? Of even more eternal import, do I place the Bible as an idol above God? Do I view the Bible or Jesus as the Word of God?
It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him. When it becomes really necessary (i.e. for our spiritual life, not for controversy or curiosity) to know whether a particular passage is rightly translated or is myth (but of course myth specially chosen by God from among countless myths to carry a spiritual truth) or history, we shall no doubt be guided to the right answer. But we must not use the Bible (our fathers too often did) as a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts (isolated from their context and not read with attention to the whole nature and purport of the books in which they occur) can be taken for use as weapons. ~ C.S. Lewis in a letter to a lady
When it does become necessary to know how to interpret a certain passage (only, as Lewis said, for my own spiritual life, not for controversy or curiosity), to know whether it was only written to one particular culture or whether it should be obeyed in all times and places, I am learning that love should be my standard. It seems obvious when you think about what Jesus mandated as the most important of all the commands, but it is a standard for interpretation that I had never thought about before. Love is to be the standard for deciding which passages are cultural and which are universal.
Paul says in Romans that whatever commandment there may be, it can be summed up in the rule “love your neighbor as yourself”. He is, of course, writing of the Greek word agape when speaking of love. Agape is a selfless, sacrificial, unconditional sort of love. It is the kind of love that seeks out the best for others before it seeks for the good of itself. I think what Paul means, what Jesus means by “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” is that if we are truly living out God’s kind of love for others, we will always be led to do the right thing.
Even Jesus seems to apply the same principle to the Jewish Scriptures when He heals on the Sabbath or picks and eats grain on the Sabbath. Rather than defending Himself by saying that He is not technically breaking the Sabbath, in each case He argues that sometimes violating the letter of the law is necessary in order to act in love and fulfill the spirit of the law instead.
I have a lot more praying and studying to do about this, but this idea feels incredibly freeing. Rather than having to be a Bible scholar and know the ancient languages by heart, I can apply this standard of agape love and let God’s Spirit lead me to the best answer of whether a passage is cultural or for always. Paul speaks of slaves obeying their masters, but agape love demands their freedom. Paul’s rules about hair length and head coverings were good in his time and place, but they have no current relation to loving God or our neighbors.
We have been set free from the Law. We no longer live under the supervision of the Law but under grace. “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” Paul speaks to this many times, saying that we are not to use our freedom to indulge our own selfish impulses but that we are to use our freedom to serve each other in love. Love, agape love, is to be our standard, our way of deciding what is right and what is wrong, both in our deeds and in God’s Word.
After all, as we see in the story of the judgement in Matthew 25, Christ knows us by our actions as we serve the outcasts, the hungry, the sick, the poor, and the imprisoned.
But Jesus provides no list of beliefs at all. People are judged not on what they believe but on how they have loved. ~ Kathleen Norris in Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith
What I did not address in my previous musings is how it seems that every time there is a new scientific discovery, a new theory about our world and our universe, both sides seem to leap upon the premise as proof of their point of view.
Whether we speak of the observation that the earth revolves around the sun or the theory of big bang cosmology, every new discovery or theory is at the first seized upon to carry wide-reaching theological and philosophical consequences.
Those who do not believe in our God grasp at the new discovery to be used as a new attack against Christianity. Those who do believe either dismiss it out-of-hand as patently false, a conspiracy of scientists who twist the facts to suit their own purposes, or else (perhaps more embarrassingly) try to use it as the basis for a new defense for proving their beliefs to the world.
Yet each time this occurs, when “the popular hubbub has subsided and the novelty has been chewed over by real theologians, real scientists and real philosophers, both sides find themselves pretty much where they were before.” ~ C.S. Lewis
One would think that we, as humanity, would learn. I suppose, though, that what was true in the third century, BC, is still true today. There is nothing new under the sun.
We would do well, I think, to remember that the purpose of science is to try to figure out how things work. Science does not give ultimate explanation for the origin and existence of the universe or answer questions concerning the purpose of the universe or of our existence.
Perhaps our role as believers is not, after all, to prove our faith beyond a shadow of a doubt. Perhaps this attempt is what leads us to seize upon science as either a hoax or a tool without really knowing the first thing about the particular theory or discovery we are discussing. This, I think, leads to the valid complaint among unbelievers that we tend to speak hotly about things we do not understand.
Perhaps, instead, we should remember that faith is something that can be pointed to, that can be supported by evidence and can be intelligently concluded to be true, but is not something that can be proved in a way that people cannot help but believe.
When our faith can be proved in such a manner, that, I believe, is the day we will call Judgement.
What we believe always remains intellectually possible; it never becomes intellectually compulsive. I have an idea that when this ceases to be so, the world will be ending. We have been warned that all but conclusive evidence against Christianity, evidence that would deceive (if it were possible) the very elect, will appear with Antichrist. And after that there will be wholly conclusive evidence on the other side.
But not, I fancy, till then on either side. ~ C.S. Lewis
Art credits: DNA photo by Tomislav Alajbeg; Pulsar and Supernova photos from NASA
I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten…you shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you…
A beautiful set of verses in Joel. Verses filled with hope, with new life and new beginnings.
Yet I hate with all of my being that there were entire years that were eaten by locusts. I hate that people had to endure that pain and despair before they could reach the end point of being satisfied and praising God.
The memories of those years don’t go away.
And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends. And the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before…And the LORD blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning. And he had 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1,000 yoke of oxen, and 1,000 female donkeys. He had also seven sons and three daughters…And after this Job lived 140 years, and saw his sons, and his sons’ sons, four generations. And Job died, an old man, and full of days.
Another beautiful set of verses in Job. Verses filled with hope, with new life and new beginnings.
Yet Job still endured the loss of all that he had. He still watched all of his children die and, as any of you who have lost children know all too well, no number of new children can ever take away the pain of losing those who came before.
It is a heart filled with mixed emotions, this kind of hope. It is joy and excitement over the beauty of what lies ahead and it is sorrow and grieving over what happened in the past.
This is life.
It is beauty that is tinged with sorrow. It is love that is colored by loss. All who live deeply are affected. None are exempt except for those who choose not to love.
God speaks beautiful words about our future with Him, words filled with promise, words filled with satisfaction and praise and joy. What do we do with this apparent contradiction? How do we get from this common suffering to a perfect life filled with perfect joy?
One option is that it is all a big hoax. None of this hope is true; it is all just a ruse to keep us from rebelling too hard against our lot in life.
Those who have known God long enough to catch a glimpse of His character, though, know that He is not given to such cruel jokes.
If you keep God in the picture, this God who is the very definition of love, than you are left with the answer that it is somehow all worth it. If God is who He says He is, if His words are trustworthy and true, then somehow the end is so brilliantly glorious that it will eclipse the darkness that came before.
Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. ~ C.S. Lewis
So what do we do with this hope that is so full of wildly contradicting emotions? I don’t understand how this sort of ending is at all possible when the sorrow seems so great. Yet like Abraham, we are asked to keep trusting in the face of apparent impossibility. Trusting that what God said to Abraham is truth for all: “Is anything too hard for the LORD?”
On our best days we are able to trust that, in the end, we will be so seized by the sight of His face that we will fall to the ground at His feet in pure adoration. And all that came before will be as a vacuous mist that is chased away by the brilliant light and heat of the sun.