Nothing to Fear but Your Self

At Bible study last night, Pastor Sammie asked us why we were afraid. We struggled to produce a good answer. Buddhism puts a point on this: because of our attachment to material things. Christianity goes the other way. It asserts that we find the strength to resist fear only in embracing God.

But in the interval between surrender of materiality and the embrace of God, we feel pain. This is not just because the world tries to punish us for abandoning it. As Christians, we feel pain – we “pick up our cross” – because it is only through our pain that love knows where it must bring healing.

Even Jesus struggled with this:

Father, if it is possible, take this cup away from me.

Followed by the humiliating:

But not my will, but yours be done.

To avoid that pain, we choose to try to love ourselves. We pass judgment upon others. This one is fallen. That one is genetically inferior. All the -isms and -alities that divide us, and justify our reservation of our power for people like us.

In doing so, we make a grave error. The Most High loves all things, so in choosing not to love someone, we divorce ourselves from love.

The devil does not corrupt us. The devil only attempts to convince us to choose to reject love. He heaps pain upon the weak, and then whispers in our ear that God does not love us.

But if we lift our heads, the strong realize that in beating us down, Satan has loosened his grip on those around us. We receive their wonder and gratitude. We become meaningful. We become powerful.

Surrender your self. Be weak in the face of evil, and find strength in the Most High.

What is Evil?

This is a response to this post by Insanity Bytes on “There’s this Thing Called Biology”:


IB:

This is a terribly complex problem, but fundamentally, I see it this way: love (which is God) enters into all things, because everything desires the power that it offers (the essence of loving is to offer power). But that power comes with constraints – love will abandon us if we hurt others. So love turns everything to its purpose, which is loving. To preserve their identity, the things that love embraces will do terrible things to push it away.

You began your post with a meditation on dysfunctionality in relationships. Often, that is what I see going on: people struggling for control against the dictates of love.

Jesus taught on many occasions about this struggle: the parable of the talents, the exhortation to “die to yourselves.” He understood how difficult it was, confronting the surrender to Death in Gethsemane and pleading “take this cup away from me.” The reason it is hard is because the world is full of the pain of our attempts to assert ourselves over the needs of others. Rather than the graceful patience of accepting that “this is not my moment, but my moment will come”, we lash out in fear, seeking to make every moment our moment. Paradoxically, we only augment our suffering, because in that lashing out we drive love from us.

Jesus was confronted with the obligation to shoulder that burden, surrendering everything else to it. I don’t know if you’ve seen “The Green Mile”, but the jailed healer in the movie pleads in the end for death. He says that walking around in the world is like living with broken pieces of glass in your mind.

You allude to Christ as the solution to evil, but he is the “Prince of Peace” for a reason. Death separates our souls – we mourn the loss of those that loved us, and often celebrate the end of those that hurt us. But Death consumes us, stealing from us the memory of our lives. Jesus changed all that. He suffused Death with love, and so now has the power to say: “These two enemies need to be separated for the sake of peace.” So I don’t think that he sees anything as evil. He sees sickness that as a surgeon he has the power to heal.

Pope Francis, in reaction to his predecessors characterization of homosexuality as a sin, said “Who am I to judge?” As humans, we might recognize the existence of evil in the world – the presence of personalities so committed to themselves that they will never accept the dictates of love. But it is not our place to pass judgment on them. Jesus redeemed death when no other believed that it was possible. Until we enter fully into his mind, we should be cautious about casting people into the abyss, seeking instead to educate and heal.

I recognize your participation in that in your work. Thank-you.

How Christ Tranforms Evil

In “Christ is Risen”, Matt Maher encapsulates the message offered by so many celebrants at Easter:

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling over death by death!
Come awake! Come awake!
Come and rise up from the grave!

Oh, death, where is your sting?
Oh, Hell, where is your victory?

It is a message of conquest.

But those that have survived a near-death experience tell us that as they drifted into the light, they saw all their loved ones reaching out to call them forward, and behind them shone the loving embrace of Christ.

Jesus did not conquer death: he entered into our greatest fear and transformed it into a conduit through which love is brought to us.

Understanding that conflict justifies evil, I have been negotiating with sin for the last fifteen years, offering the exhortation that love will not destroy it, but bring it into greatness. In that process, I have been assaulted psychologically, night and day, by people that exercise sin to gain power over others. The struggle has been exhausting.

This morning, I find myself in a different place. I turned the problem around: rather than resisting them, I envisioned the light of Christ shining through me, then through them and onto those that they oppress. The closer they press against me, the closer they come to the light, and the more brightly it shines from them.

Maher begins his song with this exhortation:

Let no one caught in sin remain
Inside the lie of inward shame.
We fix our eyes upon the cross
And run to him who showed great love.

Those that rely upon sin for power run in the other direction, of course, and build their castles to wall out the light of Christ. Death is their final tool – the means by which they weed out those that insist upon loving. Every Christian that keeps his eyes upon the cross defeats that strategy: they make death the means by which Christ enters into the darkness, bypassing all the walls of the citadel.

How does Christ protect his faithful? Because even thinking about bringing harm to a true servant of Christ calls him closer. Those that would sin against the faithful must flee their ramparts into the wilderness.

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus offered this counsel:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.
[NIV Matt. 5:38-39]

And for those strong enough, even more:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of heaven.
[NIV Matt. 5:43-45]

What I see now is: it is the miracle of the cross that guarantees the efficacy of this conduct! Death was not vanquished, it is the very tool by which we redeem one another!

Who is to Blame?

When I began listening to praise music five years ago, my most powerful reactions were to two types of songs: those that express gratitude for the cross, and those that describe the patient suffering of a parent confronted with the loss of a child.

There is no experience in life that more powerfully contradicts the premise of a loving God than to watch an innocent child succumb to cancer. The experience of the Amish families that lost five daughters to a gunman in 2006 is far more shocking, but the faithful can rationalize it as the work of an external evil working through fallen humanity. The silent killer that consumes from within is a horrifically intimate violation.

The pain of that struggle is captured powerfully by Mark Schultz in “He’s My Son”. It takes real strength to face this loss without anger.

So why does it happen? Why does God allow this, and so many other bad things, to happen to good people?

The depth of our outrage is sharpened in the West, where so many religious traditions teach us that we have only one life to get it right. I’ve touched on this before in On Dying. When the nature of the soul is revealed, it will be obvious that reincarnation occurs, and that – as our Eastern siblings have been telling us for so long – we have many chances to free ourselves to spend an eternity in the divine embrace.

But even so, why should good people have to suffer?

It might help to back away and look at a case that is not so terrible. I have a friend, a great strong man, that cross-dresses. He has married and had children, but is overcome with the need to wear women’s clothing. He shared with me one particular experience: he served in the navy on an aircraft carrier. They were at port, and on this occasion all men had been called to their quarters in preparation to return to sea. My friend grabbed a dress, changed, and went out on the flight deck. When he was spotted, an all hands was issued. Changing back into his uniform, he participated in an exhaustive search of the vessel for a female stow-away.

When I heard this story, I had an apprehension of a father holding his daughter while their ocean liner sank. He had promised to keep her safe, and had failed her. She was afraid to go out into the world again, and so was journeying with him in this life to overcome her fear. That was, in part, why he had joined the Navy.

When I listen to Mark’s song, I have similar visions. In the child is a spirit that has never received love, and suffered terribly in a past life as an adult. They need some strength to face that journey again, some reason to hope. So they come into the world to have some time with parents that love them. They push all their pain into the disease that consumes them, and leave it behind when they die, filled with the love that their parents have poured into them.

Yes, it is a heart-breaking work for parents to perform, but so beautiful and full of purpose.

The story of the Amish children has a similar sense to it. The girls were trapped in the schoolroom with a deeply disturbed man. When he determined to kill them, the eldest girl stepped forward to say (I paraphrase) “I am oldest. Leave these others alone and kill me.” In that moment, she conquered his evil. And during the preparation of the bodies for burial, the elder watched the women at work and counseled “We must not think evil of this man.” In fact, the community gathered resources to sustain his family.

In The Soul Comes First, I interpret the Bible from the perspective that good people are medicine used by God to heal the wound of selfishness. What these experiences have given me to believe is this: bad things happen to good people because their light is needed in the darkness. While Jesus confronted the greatest darkness – the evil of systems of justice that destroy the people that come to bring healing to the world – all good people carry that cross to a greater or lesser degree. We bring light, and the world that suffers in darkness attempts to steal it from us.

So, please, if you can: when confronted with evil, or pain, don’t collapse into resentment against God. Just open your heart wider, and let his love brush back the pain of the world around you. Maybe you won’t change the people that prey upon you, or heal the diseases of those that you love. But you will give hope to others that suffer as you do, and leave them with the strength to do better next time.