Thursday, December 22, 2011

Suffering

[Written in October 2010]

"Rejoice in the Lord alway; and again, I say, Rejoice" (Philippians 4:4)

Reading this verse, it is *quite* easy to follow Paul's command in this verse to "rejoice in the Lord"....but only so long as one stops at the word "Lord", and go no further. However, the Apostle made a key point of adding the word "alway" to that command. That, of course, is where most of us face our difficulties. Rejoicing when one is *not* happy is much more of a challenge (and might even appear a contradiction). Yet it is something that should come much more easily than we would think, if we had the proper perspective.

I, of course, make no pretense of being able to actually take my own advice in this matter. For the last couple of months especially, I have been struggling with "rejoicing" due to certain specific reasons, and part of the reason for me writing this is simply to set down my own thoughts in order. And yet, even though it is difficult to rejoice in trying times, for one who believes in God's providence, we know that "all things work together for good to them that love God" (Romans 8:28). Indeed, even our very sufferings can be cause for rejoicing. We are told, for instance, that the Apostles "rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer shame" for the name of Christ (Acts 5:41). Or again, Paul wrote to the Colossians that he "rejoiced" in his sufferings for them (cf. Colossians 1:24). He was not simply "resigned" to suffering out of an attitude "Well, I have to put up with it anyway", but rather he positively *rejoiced*. The question is why should we so positively rejoice?

Sometimes the circumstances may make the answer a little more obvious. Even if we are suffering greatly, we might be granted the grace of seeing the fruits of such suffering, which can be a cause of rejoicing. Even if we do not see such fruits, we might at least have a hope of such fruit, in that we can at least forsee circumstances in which something positive may result (even if the circumstances seem unlikely). In other words, at least there is a *hope* within our scope of vision that our suffering is not wasted.

But why should we rejoice when we cannot see even the possibilitiy of something fruitful resulting from our suffering (that is, from our own admittedly limited perspective)? The answer (though not the only one) that I am coming to see more and more clearly is precisely because it unites us more and more to the Crucified Christ, and conforms us more to His image. After all, why was it necessary for Christ to die to atone for our sins, for instance? There can be various reasons given, needless to say, but surely one of them (again, not the only reason, but one of them) was simply to show the extent of his love for us. That the Divine Word who created all things and who even at this moment upholds the universe by the "word of his power" (cf. Hebrews 1:3) nevertheless "humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross" (cf. Philippians 2:8), dying to atone for the sins of his rebellious creatures does more to demonstrate the astounding fierceness of God's love for humanity than any mere abstract declaration of such love would. A love that expresses itself in sacrifice, with no thought of gain for the one who practicies the sacrifice, is surely a worthy demonstration of that love.

When one has love for another person (whether it be a parent for a child, a husband for his wife or vice versa , a friend for another, etc.) one is willing, and, indeed, eager to demonstrate that love through sacrifice. It demonstrates the reality of the love in a unique way, to put it mildly. So the question that occurs is this: do we have such love for God?

We can, of course, offer God nothing of ourselves. Everything we have is due to His grace, even the love that we have for Him. He is the source of all our good. (And, of course, the good that we do can be "pleasant" to us, something we would do anyway quite apart from love of God, simply because we like that particular good)

Yet if we wish to show our love for God, it may at times be that we express it best through great sacrifice. The sacrifice in and of itself is not pleasant; indeed, if it were, then it wouldn't be much of a sacrifice, of course. This is all the more the case when it seems to be "wasted" suffering (to all appearances that is, though not in reality). But a sacrifice offered in a spirit of "offering it up" to the Lord under such circumstances can be a cause of rejoicing, because it is an expression of love for God, not to mention faith in his Providence beyond our vision. One who loves another person rejoices to be able to express his love in such a way. Not, indeed, that he is always trying to live in a state of permanent suffering, of course. Rather, he is always permanently *willing* to suffer out of love for the other. So can we also, out of our love for God, always be willing to accept His will, however unpleasant it may be, or how "wasteful" any accompanying suffering looks (apart from faith in his promises).

And let us never forget that we are not called to do anything that He has not himself first undergone. "Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?" (Mark 10:38)

Hope

[Written in November 2010]

Recently, I was meditating on the mystery of the Resurrection, when a fact struck me that I had not contemplated before. Or rather, I had contemplated the fact, but I had never really contemplated the implications of it, and how it should apply to our own lives as Christians. It may be a little difficult for me to put into words, but I'll try....

First, imagine you had been one of the women who went to the tomb with spices to anoint the body of Christ early on that first Easter Sunday. The most wonderful person you had ever known had been brutally executed the Friday before, the one whom (as the disciples on the Emmaus Road would later put it) you had expected to be "he which should have redeemed Israel." (cf. Luke 24:21). It was not simply that he was executed by the Roman occupiers of your country, however (which would have been bad enough), but also that it was done so at the urging of the leaders of your own nation, who had rejected him as a false Messiah. And they of all people would know if he was one, would they not? His execution would seem to have confirmed their judgment in any case. Indeed, all of the facts would seem to indicate to one that, given the inglorious end Jesus had come to, he was, indeed cursed of God (cf. Galatians 3:13). If ever there was a situation which would make one hopeless, it would seem to be this, would it not? Where would you go from here? And how could you reconcile the above facts with everything you thought you had known about Jesus?

Can you imagine what must have been going through the womens' minds on their way to the tomb that morning?...Note what I just said in those last few words...."on their way to the tomb that morning" That is what struck me recently. In spite of everything that I recounted above, the women *still* were on their way to the tomb to anoint the body of Christ. In spite of everything that would seem to have indicated that Jesus was a false Messiah ( perhaps with his miracles simply being the tricks of a "magician", as was later to be alleged by some of the enemies of Christianity), the women had *not* lost faith in him. They knew Christ. They knew him so closely as to be convinced that, despite everything seeming to point to the contrary, despite not being able to understand how to reconcile the tragic facts above with their image of him, that nevertheless, He was not a fraud who had deceived them, a false Messiah. His miracles were not "magic" that nevertheless were unable to save him from His doom in the end. Their faith in Him, even under those most trying of circumstances, remained intact, because they knew Him personally in whom they had believed.

That is why they were on their way to the tomb that morning. They did not have understanding of what had happened, true. But they knew in Whom they had placed their faith. That was enough. And therefore they remained loyal to Him even after His death.

In consequence, they were to have their reward of their faith, by being the first to hear the good news of Easter morning, the Resurrection, the fact that was to put into focus all of the facts that had hitherto perplexed them so much.

I can't help but think of this and try to apply it to my own life. So many times I may come across things that I cannot understand why God allows to happen, and at times things that appear "hopeless." Yet have I ever come across any circumstances that were as hopeless as that which the women who went to the tomb of Christ that morning had been under? Any honest reflection would have to admit that the obvious answer is "no." Indeed, it is even more than that: given what I know of the Resurrection, I have knowledge of the *supreme* example of how a seemingly hopeless situation can be reversed, an advantage that the women, needless to say, did not have when they first started on their way to the tomb of Jesus that morning. Yet if they could still have faith in Christ, despite not having the advantage that I have, then since I have such knowledge, should not I all the more have faith that He is working for my good (cf. Romans 8:28), no matter what circumstances I may find myself in?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Means and Ends

One of the things that I cannot help noticing is how often people make such an idolatry of the means to a certain goal, that they actually end up by forgetting the ends they were originally meant to pursue. We see this, for instance, with the Pharisees, who were so intent on keeping the Sabbath (or what they thought was keeping it, in any case), that they forgot what was the original purpose of the Sabbath's institution in the first place. It was left to Christ to remind them that the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.

And yet, are we not guilty of doing it quite often ourselves? We are so intent on following a certain means to a goal, that we forget the goal itself, or are even willing to sacrifice the end if it gets in the way of what had originally been only recognized as being a means! Perhaps the most obvious example is that of money. Quite apart from any spiritual considerations (and spiritual writers have always, rightly, regarded an inordinate desire for money as quite dangerous to the soul), it is simply insane from any perspective at all to sacrifice a normal, healthy human life to the pursuit of wealth. After all, what, precisely, is the point of trying to accumulate riches? Is it to gain happiness? As the saying goes, money cannot buy happiness. It may be a cliche, but that is because it is true. Yet there are so many people who are willing to sacrifice normal everyday life in the pursuit of wealth, that even if they ever do gain wealth (by no means a guarantee, of course), it will be at so great a cost as to be neglible in comparison. (Contrast that with the example of St. Francis of Assisi).

That is not to say, of course, that we should not pursue goals, and in fact discipline ourselves so as to attain them. An athlete, for instance, or a musician must devote many long hours to practice to acquire the skill that they wish to possess, and many of those hours they would much rather be doing something else. But they also (or should at least) have a particular goal that they are trying to attain, and have reflected that such sacrifice is worth the cost. The very love of the game, say, or the very love of music, is such a passion in them that even if they never become particularly successful, they would on reflection recognize that their love of sports or music justified the hours of practice. It brings its own happiness, so to speak. In other words, they realized one goal, at least, one of the many benefits of being an amateur (which term itself reflects the love involved.)

But what is so great a problem today is that so many people do not take the time to truly reflect what they wish to do. They may think a particular course of action will bring them happiness, and so they set out along that path. But even if later on it becomes apparent that happiness will not be found along that road, they nevertheless continue to pursue the means for its own sake. Why is that? Is it because we become so focused on the means, that we forget what we set out to do? Have we made an idol of the means, so that it becomes more important to us than the ends? Something to think about.

Of course, apart from being rooted in God, any goals become utterly meaningless, as we are reminded by the book of Ecclesiastes. But in the light of Christ, we can be re-focused on what is really important, both our ultimate goal of our heavenly home, that we are, after all, on a pilgrimage to, but also the places we may stop to lodge at along the way in this life.