Saturday, March 27, 2010

Go to Dark Gethsemane

As we head into Holy Week, I wanted to say something about this post. I'm a bit hesitant about doing so, because the author is obviously in pain. But unfortunately, he seems to be making some theological implications that are not right, and it seems to me that Holy Week is a good time to answer them.

In brief, the author of the post, Anthony Sacramone (whose work I have never read before), says that he does not want to believe that God had a purpose in allowing his mother to suffer a painful death, he does not want an explanation of this, because that would have to mean that he considered that suffering to have been "O.K." He says,
And so, no, I don’t want to know whether there was a “reason” for it all. I don’t ever want to get to the point where what happened becomes tolerable. I want it forever to be ugly and pointless and cruel.
One interesting thought that immediately comes to mind is that his mother (from all he says about her) almost certainly would disagree with him right now about "wanting it forever to be ugly and pointless and cruel," since it sounds as though she now understands better than any of us here on earth just what the Apostle Paul meant when he said that the sufferings of this present life are not worthy to be compared with the joys that lie before us.

Sacramone's answer to the problem of pain is the fact that Jesus wept when confronted with human death. Now it is indeed true that Jesus came to bear our suffering with us and to be a High Priest who can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities. That is a great Christian truth. But it is not by any means the sum total of Christian truth on the meaning of suffering, and to truncate Christian teaching on that matter, especially to do so on principle, is to rob oneself of resources of strength and courage that Scripture has to offer. They are in many ways difficult passages to bear, but they are there for all of us and have been, I believe, inspired by the Holy Ghost, in some cases spoken by Christ Himself, and preserved for our edification to strengthen us in trouble. Here are just some of them:

My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work,...(James 1:2-4)

Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted....Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you...Rejoice, and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven... (Matt. 5:4, 11-12)

If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. (Matt. 16:24-25)

And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. (Romans 8:17-18)

It is a faithful saying, for if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him. If we suffer, we shall also reign with him. (II Tim. 2:11-12)

Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death; that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4)

Scripture is unequivocal that there is an explanation for suffering, that God does desire to use all things in us for our sanctification, and that our acceptance of this is an essential part of becoming that which He intends for us, which is our only way to joy. We cannot reject this teaching; it is at the crux of the whole Christian view of the world.

Of course suffering is not "okay" in some shallow sense. Of course we should seek to alleviate suffering. Nor should we seek it for ourselves in some masochistic way. But that there is, in the mysterious yet at the same time openly stated purposes of God, a meaning for it, that it is allowed by Him for a reason, is one of the greatest truths He has given us. It would not be an exaggeration to say that one of the reasons Jesus came to earth, died, and rose again was to reveal to us that all human suffering, like His suffering, is both "not okay" and also not meaningless--not merely "not okay." Rather, suffering, which came upon us initially by the sin of Adam, can be by the terrifying favor and operation of God an opportunity and a means of grace. I do not claim to understand this at the deepest level, but I must try continually to remember it and never to reject it. It will, I pray, be a lifeline to me when my testing times come.

If I were Anthony Sacramone's personal friend, I hope that I would have the sense not to beat him over the head with these verses. Now is doubtless not the time. But I offer them to you, my readers, that they may be a reminder and strengthen you now.

Go to dark Gethsemane, ye that feel the tempter’s power;
Your Redeemer’s conflict see, watch with Him one bitter hour,
Turn not from His griefs away; learn of Jesus Christ to pray.

Follow to the judgment hall; view the Lord of life arraigned;
O the wormwood and the gall! O the pangs His soul sustained!
Shun not suffering, shame, or loss; learn of Him to bear the cross.

Calvary’s mournful mountain climb; there, adoring at His feet,
Mark that miracle of time, God’s own sacrifice complete.
“It is finished!” hear Him cry; learn of Jesus Christ to die.

Early hasten to the tomb where they laid His breathless clay;
All is solitude and gloom. Who has taken Him away?
Christ is risen! He meets our eyes; Savior, teach us so to rise.


William Luse said...

Seems to me the kind of know-nothingness he praises ought to be anathema to the Christian. If his mother's suffering was "...forever ugly and pointless and cruel," then so was Christ's on the cross, the only thing that can give ours meaning.

Lydia McGrew said...

That's the disturbing and sad thing about it, Bill: It's definitely a non-Christian view. It is, in fact, almost exactly like Ivan Karamazov's view of suffering, only it's a strange attempt somehow to baptize that view and bring it within the Christian fold. At least Ivan knew that his view was contrary to Christianity.

It's hard to know what to say _to_ a person like that, if one knows him. It would seem like a very delicate situation. For example, he talks earlier in the article in a way that implies that he speaks for a whole slew of people who are on the verge of losing their faith over doctrinal disputes and who were helped by this blogger (whom I haven't previously read) who is now dying of cancer, who kept them "talking, talking, talking" as one does with a would-be suicide. Obviously, if he's in that situation, I'm not sure my Scriptural brickbats would be a good idea _at all_, especially since he seems to have _some_ measure of equilibrium now, however theologically misguided he is.

But I _do_ know how to respond to his ideas and how to respond to any attempt to "mainstream" such ideas about Christianity and suffering, and that was why I wrote this post and the slightly revised version at W4. There were several readers who really seemed to like his column and to think it was spot-on, and that's even more disturbing than the column itself. So I thought it would be good to find some other place to answer it.

幸雨 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.