Saturday, July 05, 2014

Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering

Chapter Two: The Victory of Christianity

On page 35, Dr. Keller points out that Cicero taught that the main task of philosophy is to teach us how to face death.  Because of this, there are some important questions we must answer.  What do we desire above everything else?  Is it not to be understood, loved and not alone.  Therefore we do not want to die or have our loved ones die on us.  What is it that primarily gives your life meaning?  Isn’t it the relationships with the ones you love?  Do you honestly have no fear of a future that will strip you of all you hold dear?  Honest people understand that death and its consequences is the problem.   Because science cannot help us find purpose, it cannot help us with suffering.  It can tell us what is, but never what ought to be.  That is the purview of philosophy and “faith”.

For the Stoics, the Logos was the divine rational structure of the universe.  They had three ways of facing suffering and death.  First, accept and embrace what the world sent you because it is the providential and beneficent working of God.  The second was to give reason preeminence over emotion.  By avoiding excessive attachments, we can minimize the overwhelming pain and suffering they bring.  Finally, we do not cease to exist upon death, but transform from one state to another.  Because life is a loan from nature and can be recalled at any time, it is reasonable to accept this for that is our only choice.  Sorrow should be modest and with no positive function, grief is useless.

For Eastern cultures, the material world is all an illusion.  In Hinduism, it is called maya.  There is no evil, no good, no individuals, no material world.  All is part of the One, the All-Soul, the Absolute Spirit and nothing is outside of it.

Prince Siddhartha Gautama lived a secure, secluded life until he left the wealth and luxury of his palace and witnessed the “Four Distressing Sights” – a sick man, an old man, a dead man and a poor man.  He abandoned his life of security and achieved “enlightenment” and developed the Four Noble Truths, 1 – all life is suffering, 2 – the cause of suffering is desire or craving, 3 – suffering ends when craving is extinguished and 4 – this can only be achieved by following the Eightfold Path to enlightenment which includes right views, intentions, speech, conduct, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and meditation.

The early Christians argued that Christianity’s teachings made more sense of suffering and the lives of the Christians proved it as evidenced in how they faced the enormous persecution of the Romans.  Why were Christians so different?  They had a greater source of hope – the resurrection.  That is our future.  Our person is sustained and perfected after death.  The Logos was not an abstract principal, it is a person – Jesus Christ – who we can know and love.
Tears and cries are natural and good and bathed in hope.  Ultimate reality is known not only through reason, but also through relationship.  Also, Christianity does not teach us to love things less, but to love God more.  When God is our greatest love, we can face all things with peace.  Love and hope season our sorrow.  God is our heavenly Father who cares for us and is present to guide and protect us.

The victory of Christianity is the resurrection.  Jesus is alive in a physical body and will redeem and resurrect our physical bodies as well.  Therefore, this material life is good and worth enjoying.  Life is irreversible.  Youth, childhood, loved ones will be gone and cannot come back.  Christianity doesn’t just offer consolation in a heavenly bliss, but we get our lives and our bodies back beyond our greatest hopes and imaginations. 

St. (Pope) Gregory the Great (540-604) rejected the ideas that suffering was illusion or capricious fate.  Rather we are in the hands of a wise God and should like Job suffer patiently.  He also rejected the moralism of karma, that our suffering is proportional to our sins.  While suffering in general is results from our sin, specific sin does not result in particular suffering.  Some suffering is to chastise or correct wrongs, prevent future wrongs, or simply to lead to loving God for Himself alone and experience true peace and freedom.

After Gregory, there was a significant shift in the belief that “the appropriate response to [suffering] was to endure it patiently and thus, with the help of divine grace, to merit heaven…”  Accepting suffering with patience eliminates sin debt and earns God’s favor and admission into eternal bliss.  This emphasis points away from earlier Christian teaching into a more pagan expression, a kind of “Christianized Stoicism.”

Martin Luther rejected the medieval view of salvation as a gradual process of growth in virtue that eventually merited eternal life.  Instead, he saw salvation as coming through faith, and faith not primarily as an inner quality of purity but as “an essentially receptive capacity.  Faith is trust in the promise of God, the means by which we take hold of salvation as a free gift through Christ’s saving work, not our own.”  We can contribute nothing to our own salvation.  If we are saved by our own virtue, state of heart or good works then we increase uncertainty and insecurity into our lives.  
When we understand we are accepted and righteous in God’s sight solely by grace we are free from the burdens of proving ourselves, fear of the future and fear of our ultimate destiny.  This is the most liberating idea and enables us to face suffering because of the cross.  Luther stated, “It is God’s nature to make something out of nothing; hence one who is not yet nothing, out of him God cannot make anything,” and “therefore God accepts only the forsaken, cures only the sick, gives sight only to the blind, restores life only to the dead, sanctifies only the sinner, gives wisdom only to the unwise.  In short, He has mercy only on those who are wretched.”

For first century Jews, the Messiah would defeat Rome and lead Israel to independence.  A weak, suffering, crucified Messiah made no sense.  Looking at the cross, one could not see the greatest act of salvation in history.  Seeing only darkness and pain, God cannot possibly work through that.  But they do not realize that He could save others by not saving Himself.  In one stroke, the justice of the law is fulfilled and the forgiveness of the lawbreakers is secured, God’s love and justice are satisfied.  In dying, he ends death.  In weakness and suffering, sin is atoned.  It is the only way to end evil without ending us.

Today we live in a world that is viewed as entirely natural, there is no supernatural, it is an “immanent frame”.  We are “buffered selves”, bounded and self-contained.  We determine who we are and what we will be.  There is no need to look outside ourselves to know how to live.  We master the meanings of ourselves and stake our claim as the legislators of our own meaning.  There is no longer any humility about our ability to understand the universe.  We take responsibility of our own lives, create our own happiness, build our own strength, we are the engine of our own momentum.

Deism arose from the elites of the 18th century.  God exists but is distant and cannot be known.  Our purpose is not to love, worship and obey him or to seek his forgiveness when we fail.  Instead, we are to use our reason and free will to support human flourishing.  The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 provided the greatest argument for thinkers like Voltaire against the existence of the loving Biblical God.  Prior to this time, the impossibility of God’s existence was not questioned because of evil.  Previously, we were humble enough to admit that if suffering occurred, just because we couldn’t think of any good reason for it that there couldn’t be any.  But in the 18th century, thinkers began to believe that because of reason, we could eventually understand everything.
Another result of Deistic thought was that we came to believe that we were no longer created by God for his benefit, but that he created the world for ours.  But if the world is created for our benefit, then evil becomes a much bigger problem.  The skeptical conclusion is inherent in the premises.

American culture remained characterized by Christian beliefs due to several spiritual “awakenings” despite the deism of founders such as Jefferson and Franklin.  Inherent human sinfulness continued to explain evil in both moral and natural forms.  But eventually, liberal individualism achieved its pinnacle and we came to see ourselves in control of our destiny, able to discern right and wrong and that God is obligated to benefit us if we live a good life in accordance with our own standards.  Sociologist Christian Smith calls this “moralistic, therapeutic deism.”  Many who hold this belief consider themselves believers in God or even Christians.  Yet this may be the worst possible condition within which to encounter suffering.  If God exists for us, then natural evil offends us.  If we are not sinners in need of salvation by pure grace, then natural evil confounds us.

Christianity provides four doctrines that provide powerful assets greater than what secular culture can provide.  1 – God is personal, wise, infinite, inscrutible and controls the affairs of the world.  2 – Jesus, God incarnate, came to earth and suffered with us and for us.  God is not remote and uninvolved.  3 – Faith in Christ’s work on the cross provides assurance of salvation, much more comforting than karma.  4 – Bodily resurrection.  It provides not just consolation, but restoration.  It is the reversal of what seems irreversible.

Atheist writer Susan Jacoby wrote that “when I see homeless people shivering in the wake of a deadly storm, when the news media bring me almost obscenely close to the raw grief of bereft parents, I do not have to ask, as all people of faith must, why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen.”  But if you don’t believe in God, there is no reason to struggle with the question of why life is unjust.  It just is unjust – deal with it.  So atheism frees you from the theodicy problem (see Chapter One).  But theodicy is not the result of a strong faith, but a weak faith.  The larger we get in our own eyes, the less dependent we become on God’s grace and revelation, the more sure we become of understanding the universe and how history should progress, the less tolerable suffering becomes.  Theism and deism without assurance of salvation or resurrection become more disillusioning than atheism.  “When suffering, believing in God thinly or in the abstract is worse than not believing in God at all.”

Next week Chapter Three: The Challenge of the Secular.

Until then don't take my word for it, read the book - don’t wait for the movie, 
and have a little hope on me,


To learn more about Timothy Keller and his work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, you can check out his 
personal website, his Facebook page or the church homepage.

Keller, Timothy (2013), Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering. Penguin Group. ISBN 978-0-525-95245-9

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