The Devil’s a coward and a bully. He picks on us when we are weak and alone. He is a roaring lion… pretending to pronounce his prowess from a position of power, staking claim over his territory and his slain prey, while still on the prowl, seeking whom he may devour to satisfy his insatiable hunger.
I enjoy my life. I’ve made my share of mistakes, but it’s a good one. I’ve been the beneficiary of God’s merciful and bountiful provision, and have the luxury of deciding when to pay off more debt, or to help someone in greater need, rather than choosing which of my children get to eat today. I haven’t had to bury a child. I’ve never starved. I’ve never even been involuntarily unemployed. I’m not excessively burdened by worry.
Sufficient for a day is its own evil.
I recently saw a picture I can’t un-see. A couple of young men cut the ears off a dog, just because.
And one of a mother holding her child, snatched from her by sickness.
And another, of the remains of hundreds of aborted babies stored in what were essentially plastic butter tubs.
Do you know there have been well over 54,000,000 abortions in the USA since 1973? If each of these children were put into a small 8oz butter tub, and we assume the tubs all fit together with no wasted space, we’d need room for 432,000,000 oz. There are about 1.8 cubic inches per oz of liquid. That’s 777,600,000 cubic inches, or 450,000 cubic feet. Piled into a cone, that’s a cone approximately 120 feet tall and 120 feet across. You know that statue in Brazil? The statue of Christ the Redeemer? It’s 120 feet tall. A mountain of tiny infant coffins 120 feet tall.
You don’t have to go far on the internet or any history book worthy of the name to be confronted by evil.
Leibniz proposes that we live in the best of all possible worlds:
“I do not believe that a world without evil, preferable in order to ours, is possible; otherwise it would have been preferred. It is necessary to believe that the mixture of evil has produced the greatest possible good: otherwise the evil would not have been permitted”
Plantinga argues that there are possible worlds that even an omnipotent being cannot create, and one of those is a world where persons have free will, but never choose evil. He proposes:
“A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil. The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.”
There are substantial disagreements between their positions, I think primarily arising from Leibniz’s more classical understanding of God as being itself, versus Plantinga’s understanding of God as the greatest creature having being, and the difference between Leibniz’s “possible” and Plantinga’s “possible to actualize.” But, the point is…
God loves us.
And he wants us to love him
And the value he places upon our love, freely given, is so powerful that even horrific evils pale in comparison.
He loves us more than moral good, as we understand it.
He loves us more than a mother her child.
He loves us more than life itself, even his own.
And he allows us to suffer, and to cause suffering, because that is the only way we can also freely receive and give love.
It’s mind boggling.
What about the 55 million corpses? Did he love them? What about the critters (human and otherwise) in the world that are tortured and killed? What about the starving? The sick? The abused and molested?
I think my brain, and my faith, and my understanding of his love is just too small. I’m thankful for the gift of faith, however small, that I know I’ve received by the fact that when my soul is crushed, I find myself having to choose whether to bless or curse God, rather than wondering if he exists at all.
Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.
Christians have become so reasonable and moderate in the past century or so. We’ve succumbed to the lie that it is the broad and even road paved with good intentions that leads to heaven. We’ve exchanged God’s economy for a pathetic socialism, content to aim for the lowest common denominator.
The world calls us too moderation in the pursuit of holiness, justice, and absolute truths, but extremism in the pursuit of our own rights and of acceptance of relativism.
- Forget mercy in exchange for repentance, let’s instead deny sin exists, and that repentance is necessary.
- Forget that knowing the truth will set you free, let’s instead be free to create our own truth.
- Forget being holy, as God is holy, that’s unreasonable, and leads to extremism.
- Forget perfection, God never called you to perfection, just be content with doing your best.
- Turn the other cheek isn’t about meekness, it’s about peaceful resistance; stand up for yourself.
- Forget Jesus, the path to salvation is good will, defined as “I meant well.”
- It’s admirable to hate the haters, to label those who label others, to stereotype those who stereotype others, to reject those who reject others. And to define the second party to suit our whim.
What does scripture say?
- Be holy, for I am holy.
- You are the temple of God.
- No one comes to the Father except through Christ
- Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.
- Turn the other cheek when assaulted and insulted.
- Go the extra mile when unfairly burdened.
- Offer no resistance to evil against yourself.
- Do good to those who are spiteful towards you.
- Love your enemies.
God calls us to extremism (put out your eye… cut off your hand) in pursuit of holiness, justice, and he who is absolute truth. He even calls us to extremism in rejecting our own rights. I struggle to accept this, or to apply it in the “real” world, but he’s very, very clear.
I catch myself on perhaps a daily basis making some accommodation or excuse. I moderate my opinions, lest they offend. I accept milquetoast platitudes from the hierarchy as if they are serious theological and philosophical proposals. I allow linguistic gymnastics to excuse me from confronting the plain truth of the gospel.
As Yeats (“Second Coming”) puts it..
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
I’m part of the problem.
But I don’t want to be.
Lord, help me to aim higher, never forgetting to put charity first, but not using charity as an excuse for cowardice.
Sometimes Often, I find myself wishing for a more authoritarian deity. Verse 14 of Sirach 15, which immediately precedes the readings for this sixth Sunday in Ordinary time (A) , sets the stage for the readings:
God made man from the beginning, and left him in the hand of his own counsel
Saint Pope John Paul II, in Veritatis Splendor 38-39, reflects upon this:
Not only the world… but man himself has been entrusted to his own care and responsibility. God left man “in the power of his own counsel” (SI 15:14), that he might seek his Creator and freely attain perfection.
This being made responsible for ourselves is one way that we are in the image of God, and certainly complicates life. It would be easier, in so many ways, if sin were immediately punished with fire from heaven, or if we obviously bore the marks of sin as disease in our physical bodies, or if we could rely upon a comprehensive and clearly communicated set of rules to apply to every situation. Unfortunately, the former would result in a world either populated by monsters, or entirely devoid of life; the latter would produce a world populated by robots.
In the gospel, Jesus points out that sin is in the heart and mind, not only in word and action. It exists where no external force can either force it upon us, or protect us from it against our will. It is in the will that we ultimately choose sin or sanctity, disobedience or obedience, hatred, or love.
Not that it exists only in the heart and mind; Saint Augustine notes (Sermon on the Mount II 9) three degrees of sin and corresponding punishment:
- The first is the fault of feeling angry; to this corresponds the punishment of “judgment”.
- The second is that of passing an insulting remark, which merits the punishment of “the council”.
- The third arises when anger quite blinds us: this is punished by “the hell of fire”
I’ve grown in my understanding of God as (most of) my children have (mostly) matured into adults. This is particularly relevant today, as our twins turned 20 this morning, leaving only the youngest still a teenager. God seems to desire an increasingly mature relationship with his children. He gave clear and strict commandments for the people of antiquity, then encouraged them to think upon, adapt, and apply his commandments to a complicated world, and now looks to us to freely choose to live in accordance with his spirit.
When my offspring were children, it was relatively straightforward to set boundaries upon their behavior, to reward and punish the associated attitudes as they became more rational, and to begin to teach them “why”. It was difficult to punish the cute little things, but delightful to reward them. My relationship with them was not unlike that of God with his people from the Garden through their establishment as a family, then tribes, then a nation. These are the rules… Where you’re capable, let’s talk about why, but… these are the rules.
As my offspring became teenagers, it was more difficult to discern what behaviors and attitudes of the heart we should manage directly, and which we should/could only hope to influence with reason and example. I think a good deal of the tension of this period revolves around this pivot. This reminds me of how God interacted with his people through prophets, wisdom literature, and up until the messiah arrived.
As they approach and achieve adulthood, both my offspring and their parents have had to learn to discern when it is appropriate to bend the rules, as long as the spirit remains intact, and when the rule itself is inviolate. We have learned to focus more on the “why” behind the commandments and guidelines of the past. Most difficult, at least for us as parents, is recognizing, then adjusting to the reality that even “good” behavior, as we near the transition out of this period is only truly valuable in the long run when freely chosen.
“Adulting” is hard, both for the child, as they realize the burden of responsibility, and for the parent, as we realize the eagle is slipped. We could attempt bind them to us, and control their flight, but in doing so, we will only hinder their efforts, and risk serious harm to them, and to us. Onlookers, particularly those with no children, or only younger children, are quick to criticize, whether for holding too tightly while they’re young, or allowing too much freedom as they mature. God seems to have a similar challenge, as onlookers simultaneously criticize him for excessive rigidity and for allowing evil to exist in the world.
The people of God, as an entity, and the individuals comprising the people of any time, seem to go through these same stages of growth. In many ways, I’d prefer to remain a spiritual toddler, rewarded for doing well, punished for error, and allowed to dive as deep in to “why” as my intellect can manage. As with most sane persons, I would prefer not to pause at the teenager stage – invincibly arrogant, convinced I’m at least as smart as God, and simultaneously wracked with self-doubt and uncertainty about who I am.
But, God’s calling me to be an adult. A child of God, yes, but an adult child.
- He’s calling me to show prudence in applying right reason to the real world situations I encounter, not simply follow (and apply to other) rules mindlessly.
- He’s calling me to live justly, considering not only my own rights, as any pre-teen might, but those of my neighbors.
- He’s calling me to face obstacles with fortitude, and to overcome my fear, for he is with me, and I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.
- He’s calling me to temperately restrain my passions, and to enjoy the good things of this life without falling into the hedonism so stereotypical of the pre-adult.
- He’s calling me to faithfully believe in God, in what he has said and revealed, and that the church proposes for belief, even when (especially when) I don’t quite understand.
- He’s calling me to live with hope, because I can trust in Christ’s promises even though my strength is insufficient.
- He’s calling me to live charitably, because in living out of love, I receive the spiritual freedom of the children of God, no longer a slave or a mercenary, but a child responding to the lof of him who first loved us.
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, proclaiming the mystery of God, I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of Spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. 1 COR 2:1-5
My friend, Deacon Leroy Behnke, frequently reminds us that one of the greatest beauties of our faith is that this is “the stuff that works.” The moral laws and guidelines, the natural order explicitly and implicitly defined, the religious practices and habits, the reality and consequences of sin – they are not arbitrary expressions of an omnipotent God who hated bacon in the old testament, and wants to make our sex life boring in the 21st century; they are an expression of what brings us life and joy, and what leads to death and destruction in this universe God creates and populates with the people he loves. I see this in Paul’s message to the Corinthians.
Paul tried rhetoric. He went to the Areopagus, where he engaged in debate with those present. He presented inculturated theological and philosophical arguments, applying his prodigious intellect and education to persuasion. It wasn’t incredibly effective, since not many wise or learned people are called, and ‘when they heard about resurrection of the dead, some began to scoff, but others said, “We should like to hear you on this some other time.’ And so Paul left them. But some did join him, and became believers.” (Acts 17:32-34)
Did Paul learn from his mistake? Why the shift in style?
I think this is another case of “the stuff that works.” Jesus sent his disciples out (Luke 10:4) without purse, sandals, swords, or staves, and then again (Luke 22:35-38) with instructions to take with them all those staples of travel. That doesn’t mean Jesus changed his mind about swords or extra shoes, but rather that he was giving the best advice for the mission at hand.
Saint John Chrysostom (d. 407 AD), in reflecting upon this passage, and addressing those of us who do not simply dismiss the record of miracles as mere fables, says
But some one may say perhaps, “If the Gospel is to prevail and hath no need of words, lest the Cross be made of none effect; for what reason are signs withholden now?”
How then, you will say, is it that signs were expedient then, and now inexpedient?
And that this is the truth, hear what He saith unto Thomas (St. John 20:29) “Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed.” Therefore, in proportion to the evidence wherewith the miracle is set forth is the reward of faith lessened.
Saint Chrysostom proposes that miracles are not prevalent now, because their brute persuasive force is overwhelming, and robs us of the opportunity to freely exercise faith. Again, signs, miracles, and simple words in one context, and persuasive arguments in another. Do the stuff that works.
Saint Augustine, in meditating upon this fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, has a similar thought
It is wont to perplex many persons, Dearly beloved, that our Lord Jesus Christ in His Evangelical Sermon, after He had first said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven;” said afterwards, “Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men to be seen of them.”
But he who is of a right understanding, fulfills both, and will obey in both the Universal Lord of all, who would not condemn the slothful servant, if he commanded those things which could by no means be done.
The very words of the Gospel carry with them their own explanation; nor do they shut the mouths of those who hunger, seeing they feed the hearts of them that knock.
The intention of a man’s heart, its direction and its aim, is what is to be regarded. For if he who wishes his good works to be seen of men, sets before men his own glory and advantage, and seeks for this in the sight of men, he does not fulfill either of those precepts which the Lord has given as touching this matter; because He has at once looked to “doing his righteousness before men to be seen of them;” and his light has not so shined before men that they should see his good works, and glorify His Father which is in heaven. It was himself he wished to be glorified, not God; he sought his own advantage, and loved not the Lord’s will.
Do the stuff that works, and do so from the perspective of a heart seeking the glory of God.
By no means am I suggesting we should abandon the absolute truths of the Gospel, or the Christian praxis that has proven reliable for almost two thousand years, but part of living out our Christian witness is doing the stuff that works. A hallmark of living things is our constant state of change. The church, the body of Christ, and the Church (one, holy, catholic, apostolic) are living, and also in constant change. I wonder if we tend to fall into camps inclined to either cling too tightly to the stuff that worked, or to cling too tightly to the idea of change for change’s sake. Perhaps we should cling to the stuff that works, and the God who ordered the universe so, whether that is ancient tradition, or modern innovation.
On another note, I was terrified and yet somehow comforted to read this as I continued to consider Saint Chrysostom’s words…
Why then do not all believe now? Because things have degenerated: and for this we are to blame.
For, “Let your light so shine before men,” saith He, “that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” (St. Matt. 5:16) And, “They were all of one heart and one soul, neither said any man that aught of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things common; and distribution was made unto every man, according as he had need.”; (Acts 4:32, 35) and they lived an angelic life. And if the same were done now, we should convert the whole world, even without miracles.
But we are desirous of enjoying great luxury, and rest, and ease; not so they: they cried aloud, “Even unto the present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling place. (1 Cor. 4:11) And some ran from Jerusalem unto Illyricum, (Rom. 15:19) and another unto the country of the Indians, and another unto that of the Moors, and this to one part of the world, that to another. Whereas we have not the courage to depart even out of our own country; but seek for luxurious living and splendid houses and all other superfluities.
Chrysostom went to be with the Lord one thousand, six hundred and ten years ago, and he bemoaned the degradation of faith and commitment from the days of his ancestors. We’ve certainly fallen even further in the intervening 1600 years, and yet the faith marches on, the church endures, and people are still converted to Christ.
The recipe is the same now as it was in the days of Isaiah, and of Christ, and of Paul, and of Chrysostom, and it does not require, or even necessarily benefit us to speak eloquently or perform miracles, but rather consists in finding a need, and meeting it. Rarely, we’re called to greatness, but always we are called to simple (albeit difficult) things: share our bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless, clothe the naked, satisfy the afflicted, remove oppression, false witness, and malicious speech, and do so with the sincere desire of witnessing to God’s love.
This is the stuff that works.