04 August 2008

A Followup Question on "Bearing Our Crosses"

[[Can you say more about this idea that God does not send us crosses, but rather sends us into a world which is full of them and commissions us to carry them? How can you say that God did not send Jesus the cross he agreed to carry?]]

First, let me say that all the crosses that come our way come with the "permissive will" of God. However, too often we interpret the fact that God "permits" something to happen as though it is equivalent to the notion that he wants it to happen. The use of the word "will" in the term "permissive will" can be somewhat misleading therefore, and it can be associated with the idea that God is in total control (which, by the way, is not the same thing as affirming he is sovereign); sometimes when the term "permissive will" is used, we imagine something like options or possibilities being run past God so that he may intervene or not, say no or not: will she be sick or not; will disaster strike this person or not; should she suffer this pain or that loss, or not; will she die or not; etc? God is ALWAYS on the side of life, not death.

But God is NOT in total control, nor does he stand in the midst of the world's possibilities like someone making a deathcamp-selection of who shall suffer and who shall not. There are, as Paul clearly states, powers and principalities at work in our world, including death and sin, which God is in the process of bringing under complete subjection to himself. In Christ he has won the decisive victory over these realities or realms, but he is not yet "all in all" and some aspects of the world remain yet untouched or unchanged (or perhaps better said, inadequately or incompletely touched or changed) by his presence. Our world is marked not only by order, but by disorder, not only by meaning, but by senselessness, not only by truth but by falsehood and falseness. And God permits all this because it is the price of a free creation who can eventually turn responsively to him in genuine love.

My comments regarding God NOT sending us the crosses we are called upon to carry was largely based on the distorted but very common view of how permissive will operates or "what it looks like". It was meant to stress that, in fact, things happen which God does not directly will or send. That he permits them is not to say he wills them, nor even less that he wants them to happen. He works at all times to redeem the world, every aspect of it, and to reclaim it from the powers of sin and death. The decisive victory, once again, has been won, but there is yet work to do and the result for us is the crosses that ordinary life sends our way daily. Will these crosses eventually disappear? Yes, for one day God will truly be all in all and there will be complete victory over sin and death.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once summarized the entire situation in a quote I like very much, and have used here before, I think. He said, "Not everything that happens is the will of God, but inevitably, nothing that does happen happens OUTSIDE the will of God." God is sovereign in this world. Ultimately he will be the total victor, of that there is no doubt. But in the meantime he is not in COMPLETE control. For this to become reality means that you and I must take on the crosses life sends our way, wherever they come from! If we do this worthily IN CHRIST, then these symbols and bits of sinful, death-dealing reality will eventually be transformed into sacraments of God's presence and love, just as the cross WE PLACED ON JESUS' SHOULDERS, and the death he died, was transformed into a sacrament of God's presence.

There is one other problem with thinking that God sends the crosses that come into our lives. Most of the time these crosses are fashioned, as I noted yesterday or so, with bloody human hands and from the twisted, frightened, defensive human heart. Our tendency to think that God sent the cross that Jesus died on has sometimes prevented us from seeing that he REALLY AND TRULY died at our hands under the control of our torturers as crowds of us stood and jeered and mocked, and as our religious people orchestrated the matter even while they tore their clothes in anguish in feigned --- or delusional --- innocence. The cross was completely and wholly fashioned and laid on him by sinful human hands and hearts. When I consider what it was that God willed, it was that Jesus enter exhaustively into our flawed and distorted reality; God willed that he drink as deeply as possible from the cup of our lot, that he experience the very worst of what humans can do AND THAT HE REMAIN OPEN AND RESPONSIVE (OBEDIENT) TO HIS FATHER AND THE SPIRIT in spite of it all. Did he will Jesus' crucifixion per se? No, but there is no doubt it came to Jesus as a piece of the life he lived; still, it was very much something that WE WILLED and did to him. I can hardly agree that our will and God's were identical here except in the most paradoxical and ironic way!

On the other hand, there is another side to the equation I set out: namely, that God sends us, as he did Jesus, into our world and commissions us to carry the crosses the world lays upon us! God's will of course, is to be "all in all" as the Pauline phrase goes. The way that happens is by human beings bringing (allowing) God into those places he cannot force his way into. Jesus did this as exhaustively as he could by dying the deepest most "godforsaken death" one could die while yet remaining open to and dependent upon his Father to make sense out of it, to bring life out of it, and to turn the most horrific human injustice into the source and absolute measure of divine justice/mercy. We must extend this achievement to all the dark and unhealthy places that remain, and that means taking on life's crosses and allowing God to transform them with his presence. God has given us a mission in this world: we are to participate in its perfecting and being brought to fulfillment. This means we are to share in God's own destiny and make it our own; we do this by embracing both God and the crosses (as well as the great joys!) life sends our way.

But God goes further still than simply commissioning us to carry them. He accompanies us in this. More, like Simon the Cyrene, he helps us carry them; he takes a lot of their weight upon himself. He not only did this in Jesus so that our crosses are never as heavy as they might have been without the Christ Event, but he does it now, moment by moment. The image I like very much here is the picture of Jesus holding a young man up. The cross --- whatever it actually is is unclear, though the picture refers to the divine healer --- is the young man's, but the young man is Christ's and so Jesus carries or upholds both the young man and his burden. In all of this God wills to extend his sovereignty (that is, life lived solely in light of his love and mercy) to the whole of reality.

A Distinction between Willing and Commissioning

Perhaps another image will help us distinguish between what God wills for us, and what he commission us to do. When someone joins the armed services in order to protect or extend certain values to the whole world, the officers do not will for men and women to be hurt or die. The commission they are given is one of fighting and bringing peace and other values to a region, for instance. In the process, some will be captured, some will be tortured, others will suffer in all manner of other ways, and many will die. The officers do not will these things and they work in all kinds of ways to prevent them from happening, but the commission remains and it means taking on these kinds of things in the process of carrying it out. A less militant, but more effective image might be the peace corps: the commission is to educate, build community, enhance societies, etc. The means to carrying this commision will entail suffering, hardship, crosses. Does the peace corps as sponsoring organization WILL or WANT these things? No, but taking them on is very often part of the volunteer's commission and the Peace Corp will assist the person in doing so.

My response regarding Jesus is based upon this distinction. God willed for Jesus what was entailed in a life completely obedient to Him, or better, perhaps, he willed a completely obedient (open, attentive, responsive) life which would implicate Jesus' Father and their mutual Spirit into every moment and mood of human existence. Jesus was commissioned in this way. The general mission was God-willed; the specific cross on which he died, and thus, the manner of his passion and death was fashioned by the world and laid on Jesus' shoulders by human hands and hearts. Now let me say that I think it is possible and necessary to say that God willed this particular cross, and embraced it himself, but one needs to make our own role in it completely clear in doing so. That becomes even more important when we are dealing with the crosses that life hands us, but that God has never willed for us.

I hope this clarifies a bit more what I was saying in my last post. Again, please get back to me if it raises more questions or causes greater confusion!!