05 November 2014

God Humbles us by Raising Us Up

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I have a friend who attributes every bad thing that happens to her to the will of God. She claims that God humbles us and that sometimes he "brings us very low indeed" through all kinds of catastrophes, persecutions, and disasters. Somehow this humiliation is supposed to move the person away from sin and even let them make reparation for sin. It helps them to deal with pride and other things, but I admit that I don't really understand it. Surely God is not One who teaches lessons in this way; surely God does not will disasters and catastrophes in our lives! What kind of God would that really be? And yet, what else might be the source of unremitting tragedies and disasters in my friend's life? Is there any way to help her let go of the theology she has embraced? She reads your blog by the way.]]

God Humbles Himself and Raises Us Up:

Thanks for the question. Let me assure and reassure you both of my prayers in this situation then. I will keep both you and your friend in prayer. I admit, I do not believe that God wills catastrophes and disasters. I don't believe God humbles us by bringing us low in pain and torment. I don't accept that evil of any sort is the work or will of God. You see, God has a much more effective way of humbling us and "bringing us low". (Note the difference in the word here; humbling and humiliation are different realities.) He does so by loving us, by reminding us how precious we are to him, how there is nothing we must or even can do to change that. God humbles us by asking us to set aside all of our own preconceptions about God, our own autonomous goals and projects, our own brief forays into the world of power and influence, of status and prestige for God's own Kingdom, God's own Lordship, God's own projects and commissions. In effect God says I love you with an inalienable, exhaustive, and unconditional love; I want the best for you; you will have that by serving me; you will serve me by letting me love you and treat you as infinitely precious. This is a humbling which raises up, not a humiliation which demeans even as it brings torment and catastrophe in its wake.

In yesterday's first reading from Paul's letter to the Philippians we listened to the great Pauline kenotic hymn: God empties himself to create the world; God empties himself even further by taking on sin-stained and broken human existence (flesh) out of love for us and commitment to the coming of the Kingdom. He empties himself by accepting death even death on a cross (that is, sinful, godless death) and he does all of this so that one day all might be redeemed, reconciled, and God might be all in all. In none of this is there a sense that God's work is inadequate or that reparation for sin is something you or I must or even can make. God reveals his very nature in all of these ways, but especially in Christ via the Incarnation, passion, and resurrection. These events are not contrary to God's nature. They are the paradoxical way he exercises his divinity --- not as something to be grasped at but as something lived for and freely given to others so that they might share God's life and he theirs.

Now, it is true that God's victory over sin and death is not complete. We experience relative godlessness in many ways for God is not yet all in all. I wrote about this just recently. Sin and death, chaos and catastrophe are still present and effective in our world but not in the same way they were before or apart from the Christ Event. They have been defeated in an ultimate way and no longer have ultimate power. They will never be the bottom line (or the final word or final silence) in our world or our lives and because they cannot be these things, they have lost much of the power they had to frighten, control, and destroy. God's love has proven more powerful. That is the new bottom line, the new and definitive last word we so needed to hear. God's love has penetrated the deepest darkness imaginable and has raised Jesus to new life; it has subsequently taken humanity into itself in the Ascension. It has entered into the unexpected and even the unacceptable (the literally godless) place and established the truth of the hope that one day the victory of God over sin and death will be complete and God will be all in all.

God's Justice is Neither Distributive nor Retributive

But what we must also hear in all of this is that God's justice is NOT retributive. He does not overcome sin by punishment but by love. He does not demand we pay the price for sin, whether that which besets us or that which we commit as a symptom of the sin that besets us. The price paid for sin is God's own price, the price God himself pays; God gives himself so that things may be set right, so that justice may be accomplished. He quite literally loves death and sin out of existence just as he does with nothingness and chaos in creating all that is. Not least, he does so by taking death within his own life without being destroyed by it, but (when the Christ Event is seen from another perspective) he also does so by transforming godless reality into a sacrament of his presence among us. He does this in the world at large, he does this in our own hearts, he does it in his own heart of hearts. God's love is a love that does justice; it destroys sin and death and the demeaning violence associated with these and replaces them with God's own love and life in abundance. Wherever this happens, and to whatever extent it occurs, the Kingdom of God has arrived and we have a new heaven and a new earth which one day will be a single seamless reality.

Of course, we must allow ourselves to be loved in this way, sinners though we are. We cannot instead make ourselves judge, jury and executioner in this matter. Human beings mainly think of justice in retributive and distributive senses. We think in terms of giving others what they deserve or of exacting (retributive) punishment in the name of "rehabilitation" for instance. We even project such notions of justice onto God so that God becomes the one who punishes us for our sin, demands reparation for it (impossible though that would be -- in this Anselm was surely correct!), gives us only what we truly deserve, etc. The God of Jesus Christ, however, does not think or act in these terms, and for this reason one of the things we must let go of, one of the bits of "dying to self" we must accomplish (so to speak) involves our renunciation of the idea of a God who exacts retribution or reparation from us for sin. Again, it is humbling to think that there is nothing we can do to "make things up" to God. It is humbling to be faced with a love which is eternal,  inalienable, and unconditional. But this is the humility Christianity calls for and it is the foundation for everything else in Christian life.

This is the source of real contrition. When we realize that the only good we do is the result of a grace we can never earn while the evil we do is the result of needing to justify ourselves (which includes the need to punish ourselves or refuse God's free gift of love), we are empowered to repent, to let God be God, to accept God's love even more fully and to hand it on to others who are as helpless to help themselves as we are. The turn from self to God in this matter is the essence of conversion. We let go of the various idols we have created for ourselves (or been given by others): the God of vengeance, of course, but also the God of a justice different than one rooted in unconditional love. We allow our minds and hearts to be remade in the name of THIS merciful God, the God who empties himself and suffers for us so that sin might be healed rather than asking us to suffer in reparation for sin.

The Source of the Catastrophes and Disasters:

I don't know the immediate source of the catastrophes in your friend's life except to point in a general (and less immediate) way to sin and death, which, because of the many ways human beings choose that which is not of God, are powers still at work in our world. As Bonhoeffer pointed out during his struggle with Nazism, and as I have posted here before, [[ Not everything that happens is the will of God, but inevitably nothing that happens does so outside the will of God.]] It becomes crucial that your friend not blame God for things which are destructive or personally harmful. She must understand that there are powers and principalities still at work in this world in which God is not yet all in all. Similarly, she must understand that attributing evil to God, suggesting that God demands retribution or reparation for sin from us, substitutes an idol for the real God revealed in the Christ Event. That way would produce a terribly dark and deadly spiral in a person's life --- a spiral in which the Holy Spirit is actually rendered powerless to redeem the situation. Not only would such a position make of God a kind of Golem, (or, as one friend suggested, a Mafia Godfather kind of figure), but it would make the person who saw God in these terms far less open to the message of the Gospel of unconditional love and mercy. It would also cause the person to be open to attitudes and acts of self-sabotage and other forms of capitulation to or collaboration with the powers of sin and death in the name of a false piety.

I hope your friend trusts and listens to you, especially to your own knowledge of God because to be honest I  don't believe you will be able to get through to her otherwise. I also expect this to take time and real patience on your part. You are asking her to let go of an entire "theological" vision and to embrace a very different one --- one where she is not a victim and where the meaning in her life does not come from victimhood. Let me be clear, you (or I, in any case) use the name God in a vastly different way than your friend apparently does. You say the same sounds (God, love, justice, dying to self, conversion, humility, etc) but signify antithetically different things by them. Moreover, the God your friend believes in allows her to blame God for things which may truly be her own fault or at least the result of choices she has made which collude with death and chaos.

The degree of humility and self-emptying required of her for letting go of all of this is immense. The grace of God is present seeking to empower and heal her in this, but she seems caught (trapped or bound) in a way which reminds me of what Scripture calls the sin against the Holy Spirit. In that sin the person cannot be forgiven, not because God withholds it (he does not), but because they can no longer hear (or they otherwise refuse to ask for) the graced word of forgiveness God makes present there. When the word justice, for instance, speaks to us of retribution and the demand for personal reparation rather than of a Divine love that is entirely sufficient and sets everything to rights (thus bringing heaven to earth) then the Holy Spirit has been rendered mute and powerless by our own deafness.

Choosing Life, not death: The choice of humility rather than humiliation, victory instead of victimhood:

Unfortunately it is possible to find older theologies of reparation and retribution that support your friend in her victim stance. These tend to be psychologically and theologically discredited today. Today when we read the Scripture about "making up what is lacking in Christ's sufferings/cross" we understand that Paul is referring to allowing God's love and the new life of resurrection and ascension to fill and transform us. That work still needs to be done and if we don't allow it through the grace of God, it will not happen. The Christ Event changed reality; God can now be found in the unexpected and even the unacceptable place --- but knock, call, invite, attempt to seduce us, etc, as God might, if we are really saying yes to a different God, if we are embracing the Golem that accompanies and grounds our ultimate victimhood, then we are rendering God's Word void and making Christ's Cross of no account. It must always be remembered that Christianity is built on a singular victimhood embraced by God so that NONE OF US would EVER have to be victims again!!! Especially, we would never need to be the victims of a vindictive God whose idea of justice is that of human retribution-writ-large!!

The choices before your friend are those of humility versus humiliation or victory instead of victimhood. We are humbled and made victors (raised up to new life) in Christ by a God who loves us without condition or limit as Jesus' Abba does; we are humiliated and made victims (cast down into the depths) by a "God" (Golem) who demands retribution and reparation for our sin and thus sends catastrophes our way regularly. Here is another version of the choice put before us during Lent: Choose life not death!!! Today,  it must be said clearly, victimhood is truly the way of the world, the way of "worldliness" in all its tragedy and distortion; those who reject that which is worldly, and choose instead the Kingdom where God is sovereign, reject victimhood and any false theology that tends to make them victims rather than victors. It is my sincerest prayer that your friend can find the courage to reject the ways of the world and embrace those of the Kingdom and that you might have some small place in helping this occur!

I wish you both God's own peace, hesychia (stillness), quies, shalom!