Some of us (me definitely included) fall into despair sometimes when we believe that we are too damned.
We detest sin — as we all should! — but we detest sin not because we desire the good, but we detest it out of frustration, out of a belief that God might not forgive us again.
Peter Kreeft in his book Three Philosophies of Life talks about the Treasure of Sin and he has basically given me hope again!
Wait. What?! Sin? A treasure? Yes, read on.
“But we are all philosophers, unless we are animals. Men live not just in the present but also in the future. We live by hope. Our hearts are a beat ahead of our feet. Half of us is already in the future; we meet ourselves coming at us from up ahead. Our lives are like an arc stretching out to us from the future into the present. Our hopes and ideals move our present lives. Animals’ lives are like an arc coming to them out of their past; they are determined by their past. They are pushed; we are pulled. They are forced; we are free. They are only instinct, heredity, and environment; we are more; we are persons.
The determinists, from Marx and Freud to Skinner, who deny this fact, insult us infinitely more than any preacher who shouts sin and damnation at us. It is a great compliment to call a man a sinner. Only a free man can be a sinner. The determinists mean to steal from us the great treasure of sin. They deny us our freedom, and therefore our hope, our ability to live not just from our determined past but also from our undetermined future.”
Once upon a time — that is how all the old stories start. And they do have a certain inkling of romance attached to them — the sound of a roaring wind — chestnuts cracking in a great stone hall — the smell of lavender and jasmine in the opal air — the sweet taste of the first honeysuckle — the red, blue, and purple crackling of an open fire with the stars dancing above and the dew lightly kissing the grass beneath. The smell of cinnamon and nutmeg, ginger and garlic; the warmth of the sun on your face and sand between your toes; the creaking of the leather saddles and the taste of freshly-baked blueberry pies — yes, those magical words have a kind of romance about them that can instantly transport you to another place and time.
With all this in mind, there is still an unsatisfied recess of my mind which demands for something more. Why are all the stories in the past? Why doesn’t someone write a story that is happening this very instant; as the clock ticks away the seconds while you are reading, the very same clock is ticking away the seconds in the story.
What new horizons would this lead to in the world of literature? What planets are we yet to discover? Quit your tedious plowing of the underground fields of the ancient myths, and turn your attention to the deep and secret happenings of today — either plainly exposed under a mountain or concealed in a soft bed of clouds. Breathe in the polluted air and enjoy the progress of today. Don’t bother recording it for posterity — the future is too hazy and that would make us the past — accordingly, irrelevant. No, instead, do everything for the now. Because now is all that really matters. The progressive people of today want to know what is happening as it happens. After that, what does it matter anymore? Why would we want to wait 20, 50, 100 or more years for it to be a confirmed part of our history, our culture, and our folklore before obtaining the story? I mean, hey, the best thing about our society today is satisfaction on demand. Instant gratification, some call it. But didn’t someone once say something about time being money? How true!! Why waste time on little details?!
Funny that we should use that metaphor, though, because these days money is so figurative. It’s a hazy concept which has been floating around for centuries. Apparently it used to actually have a specific value and stood for something real. Now, our money system is basically a complex cycle of numbers. You get paid X amount of dollars and bring it to the bank in the form of a cheque. You hand the piece of paper to the teller, who types something into the computer and hands you back a receipt. You go merrily on your way, and there the numbers sit for X years. In the meantime, you have earned interest on your numbers and they have increased by 0.0XXXXXX%. You finally decide to purchase something with your numbers. So you go to the store and bring along with you a tiny plastic card with your name and — you guessed it! — a series of numbers engraved on it. With an easy swipe of the card and pressing of a few numbers the items are yours. But woe are you if the numbers in your bank account and the numbers on your grand total don’t match up! Some time is wasted by worrying about how to multiply and add up those numbers. I’ll admit, that is the one flaw in our current monetary system. But no worries! Pretty soon you will receive a piece of paper in the mail from the government saying that they made more numbers to give to you! So you see, like time, money is a hazy thing which somehow keeps on coming. You never see it itself. Just its representatives.
Can you imagine living in a world where you had what you had, and you had to work, plan, and wait to get it? I hear tell that that is what it used to be like. But we have more important things to spend time on now. Why worry about the future and how you are going to eat when you are hungry now? Why pinch pennies for winter clothes and heat when you really want that new pair of sunglasses? I mean, seriously, why worry about those boring, mundane details of life when now is happening!! I mean, now is now. Yesterday is gone and who knows if tomorrow will ever come? Now is what is important. Time is now.
Well, there you have it. Futility. Money, however much it is not, is not is mere numbers. Or rather, it shouldn’t be. It should have purpose and use. God is outside of time, larger than time. However, we need to encounter Him in the now of every moment of our lives. Time and money are not the same. But they are similar in that they both represent something larger than themselves: money representing our temporal needs, our mortal bodies. Time representing our immortal souls, and our quest to let God find us. Hence, time is not money. And we can’t save both at Dollar General because we will die and we may or may not make it to Heaven. People, Dollar General is not the answer to all life’s questions. The name implies ordering money around, which translates to someone bossing you about how to live your life, which, seen as it is none of their beeswax, trespasses on Free Will. Seeing that Free Will is a Gift from God, and Dollar General is trying to take away God’s gifts, don’t listen.
As I sat there closing one eye, then opening it while closing the other, going back and forth looking through each one, I thought that maybe the reason why there seemed to be a dark blotch covering half the view of my left eye was because I was tired. I went on with my day thinking it would go away after a good night’s sleep. I was wrong and found out that I was experiencing retinal detachment.
I had a great doctor, self-described “eye butcher”, who took care of me. At first I was told by others that I might need to stay on my back or stomach for 2-3 weeks. However, after one 24-hour period of staying on my back for 45 minutes of every hour (I was not allowed to even lie down at all the night before), I was able to go back to semi-normality.
This meant no restrictions in my positioning, but I was not able to pick up more than 5 lbs, including my two daughters and infant son, and was told to take it easy. I took two weeks off work and was unable to perform the tasks I was used to as a husband and father. Because of this I took kind of a tough hit. Maybe I felt like I lost my identity, maybe the seclusion and bed confinement were giving me cabin fever. I definitely felt a dark cloud descend, but I got through it and the cloud has since lifted.
Many people have it much worse than this and go through some extremely harsh trials. This causes them to question God’s goodness, power, and love. It seems like a fair question. Why would an all loving all-powerful, all-loving God allow us to hurt?
The answer to the question comes to us in the story told by the Gospels. Who knows suffering more than the Son of God, Who out of great love, came down to earth to be rejected, scorned, tortured, and killed by the very ones He came to save? And even in the midst of our greatest suffering, remembering this fact reminds us that we are immensely loved.
Furthermore, Jesus’ suffering on the cross takes away our sins. We choose sin out of free will, which is given to us by God. It is in this freedom to choose that we are able to reject God. However, without free will, we are merely robots programmed to obey, but with it, we are sons and daughters choosing to lovingly obey our Father.
Everything God created is good. It is human free will that has brought sin and the consequential suffering into the world. He allows this suffering to help us remember not to sin again and for a greater reason.
Jesus sacrificed Himself on the cross to take away all sin, however, when we choose to sin, it still hurts us. It hurts our relationship with God, either venially or mortally, and every time we sin, we make it easier to choose to sin. This is done through our choice of pleasure over God.
Therefore, to undo the habit of choosing pleasure over God, we need to continually choose God over pleasure. This can come to us by choice (penance, fasting, and almsgiving), or those pains out of our control (sickness, vision loss, death of loved ones). Either way, any acceptance of suffering can make up for our sins and the we can offer it up for others.
Furthermore, it is during these times of suffering that we can unite our pain to that of Jesus’ on the cross. This is how Jesus transforms and gives value to our suffering. He takes our suffering, unites it to His own, and uses it to save us and others. In this way our suffering merits grace.
This means that a headache could help someone get to heaven. Or my eye surgery and subsequent healing process made up for many of my sins.
How good is that?! God took a consequence of Original Sin and made it into a treasure. We have a treasure in suffering in that we can help others with our pain. And really anything that causes discomfort can be offered up. This includes rejection, stubbed toes, not getting our way, burning dinner, not eating ice cream after dinner, a stomach flu, a minor cold, and much more.
Jesus came to set to the world on fire with His suffering. We can do the same with offering up our own. Our world currently commands us to avoid suffering at all costs, but imagine what it would be like if everyone embraced it like Christ embraced His cross.
The following was a response to an inquirer who was troubled by the Christian language of Jesus’ saving death. How is it possible that God can be “appeased” by the death of His innocent son?
I have organized this in a Q& A format.
Why did God create creatures capable of sinning?
I guess we can flip this question around. Why did God create creatures capable of loving? To love means to have free will. Could God create creatures without free will? Yes He could. In fact He already has, by creating the plants and animals. Human beings (and angels) on the other hand, are creatures with free will, capable of choosing love. On the flip side, they are also capable of choosing selfishness. Choosing to be selfish is sin.
Did God know that His creatures would sin?
He would surely know. When He created creatures with free will, the possibility of disobedience/selfishness was in-built into the equation. Does He will that we sin? No He does not. But can God foresee the possibility? Yes He could. Take for instance the relationship between parent and child. After giving their child a good education for instance, can they foresee that it is possible for them to abuse it? Indeed they could. Nevertheless, they can also foresee them making use of this gift to serve society. And if they freely choose the loving act, it is a wonderful thing, it’s not something “forced.”
If His creatures were to sin, was the death of His son the only way to rescue/save them?
St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, two giants in Catholic theology, answer “No”. God is sovereign; He could choose other ways. He could simply forgiving them. In fact, He already did so as described in the book of Genesis. He banished Adam and Eve to be sure, because they seemed not to have been aware of the gravity of their actions, i.e. wanting to be like God (on their own terms), knowing (determining) good and evil. However, He showed that he cared for them by “making them garments of skins and clothing them.” (Gen 3:21)
In fact, in the entire Old Testament, God teaches Israel how to obtain forgiveness, through very precisely prescribed sin offerings via worship in the temple. The Psalms, especially psalm 51, are full of episodes of the human person recognizing his fault and being confident that he is forgiven.
If that is the case, then why must He send His Son to earth, if not on a rescue mission?
Blessed Duns Scotus, another giant in Catholic theology answer in the following manner: “The incarnation was the greatest and most beautiful” of God’s works and is not “conditioned by any contingent facts.” God has always planned to “unite the whole of creation with Himself in the person and flesh of the Son.”
In other words, His Son coming to earth was not “plan B” but always part of God’s intention from the beginning. If our first parents did not sin, nor subsequent human beings, then the incarnation would be like a courtesy call, something like the prince visiting the dwellings of his subjects to have tea with them. It would be something very happy and most pleasant. In fact, C.S. Lewis tries to imagine such a scenario in his space trilogy.
Even if our first parents sin, and so did subsequent human beings, the Son of God will nevertheless keep His appointment. Hence in the fullness of time, the incarnation, in a situation of dysfunction. One of the things that the Son of God need to do is precisely to heal the dysfunction.
Why must the rescue mission involve the crucifixion?
We must be very clear on this. God is not appeased when He sees blood. As you mention so correctly, it is ludicrous for someone convicted of murder to escape scot-free because the judge agrees that his own innocent son can take his place and die instead. This is not mercy. This is perversion. This is not Catholic teaching. Perhaps certain Protestant groups hold to this. It’s called penal substitution.
The crucifixion is not necessary, in the strict sense, for salvation. Why then did the Son willingly subject Himself to this?
Perhaps Plato (Greek philosopher a few hundred years before Christ) might help. Plato wonders what would happen to a perfectly righteous man if he steps into a society full of people who are dysfunctional and tries to help them. Plato concludes that these people would mostly likely crucify him.
What Plato highlights is the stark but terrible reality of human beings. We are often comfortable with our wrongdoing/selfishness and dysfunction. We don’t believe we need rescuing. If somebody who is righteous comes along and shows us a better way, we may well be resentful and feel it best that he gets lost. Maybe we want to put him to death in our hearts.
In the time of Jesus, crucifixion was Rome’s way of telling the enemies of Rome to conform. If you try rebellion, this is what will happen to you. When Jesus preached the kingdom of God, love, brotherhood, and worked His miracles among poor people, and later make gradual claims about his divinity, it was too much for both the Jewish people and the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. What Jesus seem to be preaching is a rival kingdom. Of course He has to die. And Jesus was willing to pay the price for the kingdom.
But how does His willingness to pay the price “save” me?
Catholics have divided the effects of Jesus’ death into two categories. His death as example, and His death as expiatory (making up for what we cannot).
Let’s deal with the example first.
The question for me, and perhaps for humankind, is “are we really that bad?” Surely I am not personally responsible for the death of Jesus? A popular hymn we sing at good Friday is “Were you there where they crucified my Lord?” Of course we were not there. But what if we were? Will we join in the crowd and shout “crucify him” due to cowardice? Or turn away and say “I prefer to mind my own business?” Or if we stand in solidarity with his Mother, do we not also feel the great sorrow at a man who did not wrong and yet suffered in that manner? And what if this was no ordinary righteous man, killed by evil men (an often too familiar action). What if this righteous man was God incarnate? Does this mean that in our free will, we are capable of killing God? And if we are capable of killing God, do we even deserve to be forgiven?
Applying it to our contemporary context, do we dare say we do not turn a blind eye to the evil around us? Are we also not complicit?
The answer from the cross is Yes. “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). And if we are “cut to the heart” and realize that we are indeed capable of crucifying the Son of God, we may well cry out like Peter in a paradoxical way “leave me Lord for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8) while at the same time clinging on to him tightly.
Hence His death saves us in an exemplary sense because we may well be “cut to the heart”. We are indeed sinners, we have nothing to boast about. We need a Savior. And God from the cross has already given the verdict. If you recognize your need for a Savior, you will indeed be forgiven, for we know not what we do.
How is Jesus’ death “expiatory” i.e. making right what we cannot?
Perhaps in comfortable modern society, we can make the case “saying sorry is enough and relationships can be restored.” We don’t encounter horrific evil that often. At least not personally. But think of the Japanese Occupation. Is “saying sorry” enough for a Japanese soldier who may have tortured and brutally murdered the husband of an innocent women?
No matter how sincere, even if the Japanese soldier were to commit seppuku in atonement, can we say that he has successfully “made up” for the evil he has done? Could we describe his death as “expiatory”?
While it is possible that his asking for forgiveness is sincere, and his sacrifice wholehearted, can he actually “make things right” for the woman after he has tortured and killed her husband? It is not possible.
This is where only the intervention of someone who hold the power of life and death and can make things right in a more than earthly sense becomes perhaps fitting.
Jesus is that someone. He is a man: He can be our true representative. He is God: His life given up willingly can actually make things right again. Why? Not because God the Father demands blood (he does not) but because the order of justice can actually be restored only through someone who is of cosmic importance.
For the Japanese soldier, in Christ, his attempt at expiation is made possible. For the victim, in Christ, the expiation (making right) not possible through the death of the Japanese soldier, becomes possible, since Christ holds the power of life and death.
In the Old Testament, the temple sacrifices of animals in atonement for sins is a constant pedagogical reminder to the people. Making things right is important. And yet the sacrifice of lambs can only be symbolic. For very serious breeches, forgiveness is always possible. Making things right “expiation”, however, is beyond your capability because in the final analysis, via a sacrificial animal , it can only be symbolic. You need YHWH Himself to provide the solution through His Messiah.
Hence the book of Hebrews has a very prescient observation (Hebrews 10:11-14): Day after day every the priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins [referring to atonement not so much forgiveness]. But when this Priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
“Abuse (and the trauma that results from it) causes not only the anxiety of meaninglessness and the anxiety of guilt, but also the anxiety of non-being.
…mind-control is the perfect metaphor for emotional abuse. Maybe it’s because the human will is so core to what it means to be, that if you take it away—whether through physical, emotional, spiritual, mental, social or financial coercion—you violate a person’s humanity on an elemental level. You take away that person’s ability to say I am.” —Maylin Tu, “Jessica Jones, Abuse, and ‘The Courage to Be’”, Christ & Pop Culture
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” —1 John 4:18
Abuse makes the victim feel as if she is dirt, worse than dirt – just something to be used, abused and discarded. It violates her sense of self and her identity as a person made in the image of Love.
In my experience, abusive people have grown up with over-controlling parents, or absent parents. When they have not received love from the people who brought them into being, children are in danger of growing up thinking that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. They internalise the idea that they were not worthy of being loved unconditionally. If they do not heal, they are prone to inflicting pain on others in a misdirected search for justice and reparation. We are meant to be loved.
Patterns of Sin
“Give your children these two things: roots and wings.”
Over-controlling people are dominated by fear – fear of the world, fear of the unknown. When they demand that their children conform completely to their narrow vision, it pinions the growing wings of the child, suffocating him and sending him the message that he’s not good enough as he is, but has to become something else in order to appease his parents and be loved. Fearful parents are in danger of bringing up children malformed by fear, unable to strike out on their own paths and swinging from one end of the pendulum to the other – fearfully appeasing people when they ought to say no, or controlling other people whom they deem weaker than themselves.
Absent parents deny their children an identity rooted in nourishing love. How often do you hear friends gushing over a baby to a parent, “She’s just like you!” We are stamped with the features and mannerisms of our parents; “we are of our parents before we are of ourselves.”1 I have watched people with absent parents look for love and attention in all the wrong places,2 hungering for the nourishment denied them in their earliest years. They become desperate for a resolution, something which can fill the aching void in the core of their being.
St. Paul reminded the Romans: “For you have not received the spirit of bondage again in fear; but you have received the spirit of adoption of sons, whereby we cry: Abba (Father).” (Romans 8:15). When you have an identity rooted firmly in Christ, confident in the loving providence of God and His steadfast abiding presence no matter where you go in life, you are able to break free of any crippling chains handed down from your imperfect parents. It is true, you may have to struggle with the vestiges of generational sin throughout your life – but Christ is there with you in the struggle, purifying you and using your weaknesses as openings for grace.
Love is the Rule that Gives Freedom
“Your family and your love must be cultivated like a garden. Time, effort, and imagination must be summoned constantly to keep any relationship flourishing and growing.” —Jim Rohn
True love respects the free will of the person. The gardener may prune the plant now and then, but he allows it to develop naturally in its own time, fertilising it and watering it with dedication while it transforms energy from the sun into its own food, glucose. Likewise, God the most loving of parents may permit us afflictions to prune us of unhealthy attachments or attitudes – He may allow us to go through a trial, even a trial that seems to wrest us from Him, only in the end to bring us back safely, after which we realise that half the suffering could have been avoided if we had just trusted more in Him.
Like a gardener practising companion planting,3 God sends us good friends who help us flourish. He fertilises our souls with the nourishment of the scriptures at every Mass, and He waters them with showers of blessings – it is a blessing to even be alive and breathing! But like a gardener, God allows us to develop according to our nature, through which He too is quietly working. What is our nature? It is to produce the sweet food, the life-sustaining glucose, of Love.
“Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such.” –Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est
“Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate in it intimately.” –Pope John Paul II
“To the extent that we fail to grasp what love really is, it is impossible for us to give adequate philosophical consideration to what man is. Love alone brings a human being into full awareness of personal existence. For it is in love alone that man finds room enough to be what he is.” –Dietrich von Hildebrand
“You asked for a loving God: you have one… not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes.
When we fall in love with a woman, do we cease to care whether she is clean or dirty, fair or foul? Do we not rather then first begin to care? Does any woman regard it as a sign of love in a man that he neither knows nor cares how she is looking? Love may, indeed, love the beloved when her beauty is lost: but not because it is lost. Love may forgive all infirmities and love still in spite of them: but Love cannot cease to will their removal. Love is more sensitive than hatred itself to every blemish in the beloved. Of all powers he forgives most, but he condones least: he is pleased with little, but demands all.” —C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
Sin Leads to Non-being
“Me miserable! Which way shall I fly Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threat’ning to devour me, opens wide, To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.” ― John Milton, Paradise Lost
Sin “wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as ‘an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.’” (CCC #1849) Evil warps or destroys what is good. As pests consume crops and blight a garden, sin corrupts a person’s soul, dividing it from God, the source of all life and love.
Fr. Chris Ryan MGL writes:
“God’s unfailing offer to all human beings is the gift of Himself, which is the gift of His unconditional and unfathomable love. However, God utterly respects our freedom, which means that we can reject this love. This rejection can continue in and through further actions that deny or reject love to the point that such a choice, such a rejection, becomes fixed, irrevocable. Hell is thus not a punishment imposed upon the human person but is rather, the definitive outworking of the human person’s decision to define themselves in isolation from God and others. Hell is self-exclusion from Heaven.
Hell, moreover, is not a place. Rather, it is non-relationship. Hell is “where” the possibility of all relationship is ended… Heaven is other people – people living in a rich and vibrant communion with each other and with God. Hell is actually definitive loneliness.”4
When I was fourteen, my father brought home a pamphlet from church about abortion. I had already watched a video on abortion when I was eleven, in school (my non-Catholic schoolmates are against abortion to this day). But suddenly, the horrendous enormity of not existing struck me full in the gut, and I began to weep inconsolably in front of my parents, sobbing, “What if I had never been born?”
Sin divides us within ourselves and sunders us from God and neighbor. It destroys both harmony within the soul and harmony between persons. In the end, it can kill us – forever.
Professor Eric Johnston writes:
“We live in a world of cheap grace. In a way, the amoralism of our culture is a kind of deformed Christianity. On some level, our culture believes that all sin is forgiven, that God is merciful. But our culture’s understanding of this forgiveness is impersonal. Our culture’s understanding of God’s forgiveness is just that God doesn’t care about what we do, so we needn’t even ask forgiveness. God is a very distant father.
To the contrary, to ask forgiveness is a personal encounter. Pope Francis talks about the caress of God’s mercy on our sin. We are meant, not to ignore God and our sin, since our sin doesn’t matter, but to bring God into contact with our sin, by asking forgiveness.”5
Marc Barnes wrote: “If [God] is outside of time, if He is suffering right now, then, and this is really the crux, our sins directly increase His suffering that day on Calvary, His constant suffering.”6
God the eternal Logos, Who is Reason itself, has created an intelligible universe with rules of physics, mathematics – and morals. These rules, like traffic rules, allow us the freedom to travel along the paths of life. But when we stuff up, we are bound by the consequences. Also, the repercussions of our sins emit shockwaves throughout the world, into the lives of others, even those we may never meet. Broken relationships leave wounds that are passed down through generations. Just look at Romeo and Juliet.
How do we repair this damage? God has granted us the insurance of His mercy. By participating in the Sacrament of Confession, we receive the sacramental grace not to sin again. By performing penance, we offer God our puny loaves and fish to be multiplied by His grace into nourishing food for thousands – the food which is eternal redemption, that is, God Himself, the source of Life. When we stuff up, we do what we can to make amends, to right our wrongs, and trust in God to bring healing and reconciliation in His time.
“In a game of chess you can make certain arbitrary concessions to your opponent, which stand to the ordinary rules of the game as miracles stand to the laws of nature. You can deprive yourself of a castle, or allow the other man sometimes to take back a move made inadvertently. But if you conceded everything that at any moment happened to suit him — if all his moves were revocable and if all your pieces disappeared whenever their position on the board was not to his liking — then you could not have a game at all. So it is with the life of souls in a world: fixed laws, consequences unfolding by causal necessity, the whole natural order, are at once limits within which their common life is confined and also the sole condition under which any such life is possible. Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.” —C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain7
The Good News: We are Not Our Sin
Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane said in his keynote address at the 2016 Spirit in the City conference: “The pagan world is just, but merciless, with retribution. You are no more than your crime or your sin. The woman caught in adultery must be destroyed.
“Mercy is the more, seeing with the eye of God. The pagan eye always sees less.”
God became sin for us so that we may become justified in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). Christ took on the sinful, unlovable identity of mankind so that we could take on His Divine image, the image shattered by Adam and Eve when they turned away from God, mistrusting His loving providence. Through Christ, we may enter into the life of the Holy Trinity, becoming fully alive, transformed by Love into beings who can give pure love to all the world.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. —John 10:10
Gloria Dei est vivens homo; vita hominis visio Dei: The glory of God is man fully alive; the life of man is the vision of God. —St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses, Book 4 Ch. 20.
From a purely scientific point of view, we are all slightly-discolored bags of water, contaminated with a smattering of minerals and various carbon-based organic compounds. These carbon-based compounds are in turn wondrously-complex. Query any chemist on the likelihood of these appearing by chance on the street, and he would maintain that their existence in a purely-random world would be extremely unlikely, if not almost impossible.
Yet, here we are. A miracle of randomness, perhaps? Or the design of a benign Creator? There are those who subscribe to the first view – that life is nothing more than a result of chance. Millions and billions of years of chance, no more unlikely than a randomly-formed monkey with a randomly-formed typewriter typing out the complete works of a randomly-formed Richard Dawkins.
Their argument is this – there has been quite a few millennia since the beginning of time (and indeed there has been), long enough for molecules of space matter to bump into each other in just the right way to produce a molecule a step up in complexity. This happens over and over again, over a long period of time. And with each passing millennium, a more complex molecule is formed. Up till the aggregation of such molecules learns to move, to consume, to procreate… to live.
And from that very first bacterium, life then underwent many more billions of years’ worth of evolution to arrive at what we have today. Infinitely more complex, yet still no more than a bunch of intertwined chemical reactions in bags of water.
That chemical reactions are needed for life to occur is not a new concept, nor is it controversial. The very thing responsible for the production of most food for life on earth is nothing more than an extremely convoluted chemical reaction: carbon-dioxide-plus-water-gives-you-glucose-and-oxygen-equals-photosynthesis. The very thing that allows you to run, to jump, to laugh and to cry has its origins in little tiny membrane-bound organelles in every cell of your body called mitochondria. Glucose-plus-oxygen-gives-you-carbon-dioxide-plus-water-plus-energy. Respiration. So it is not wrong to talk about chemical equations being an essential part of life.
But what about feelings, emotions, thoughts, free will? If bodily actions can be reduced to a mere smattering of colliding compounds, why not the decision whether to eat-in or take-away? For Science, there is no conflict. If what controls a cell is a series of very many (albeit tremendously complex) chemical equations, then it makes no difference to the nerve cells of the brain, firing electrical impulses to one another and conducting chemicals across their synapses. Every time molecules collide, a thought is produced.
Free will, in that case, is an illusion. Whenever one is faced with a choice, the many molecules in the brain collide in a certain way that produces a thought. The thought that yes, although one is on a diet, one can very well have chocolate ice cream for dessert if one goes for a five-kilometer run afterwards. It is an illusion that one has a choice, when in fact it has been predetermined by those dastardly molecules in your neurones which were always going to collide in that specific way because, well, kinetic energy and Brownian motion.
So, for those who believe in life being chance, it also is predetermined. Because those molecules are always going to collide in a certain way, there are no choices to be made. There is no need for goodness, for mercy, for justice, for altruism. No suffering, no pleasure, no meaning.
A murderer is as innocent as a saint. What they do is nothing more than the bidding of their molecules colliding. Me typing out this article, going over my paragraphs over and over and tweaking them just-so is simply a result of a series of furiously-colliding molecules. (I do wish they’d make up their mind, though. All that bumping around and getting me to retype things is making me rather annoyed.)
But what if there was an alternative? More than just chemicals, more than life being an illusion of free will? What if our decisions were controlled by something outside of our water-bag-bodies?
Perhaps that is what we call a soul.
Jason K. is a biology teacher in Singapore who enjoys reading Pratchett, playing board games, and immersing himself in Japanese culture. He has taken temporary vows as a third-order Dominican.
An Anglican friend told me that she does not bother to cultivate deep friendships with non-Christians—although she certainly treats them civilly and shares the Gospel with them when they are curious—because she knows she won’t see them in Heaven, unlike her Christian friends like me, with whom she anticipates eternal friendship.
This is a logical conclusion of the illogical and unscriptural premise “once saved, always saved.”
Conversion is not a once-off experience. Conversion is falling in love and staying in love. Like any relationship, our relationship with God may be sparked by a defining moment, an encounter that transforms reality as we know it. However, like any relationship, we have to work at it. St. Paul says, “Wherefore, my dearly beloved, with fear and trembling work out your salvation” (Philippians 2:12).
Catholics say, “We have been saved, we are being saved, and we shall be saved.” Salvation was brought about by the perfect sacrifice of Christ on the cross, but God respects our free will in each and every moment of our lives. He wants us to cooperate with Him in the work of restoring ourselves and our fallen world according to His divine plan, but He will not force us to stay in His grace. That is true love, to be able to shower untold gifts on someone—precious gifts which bring him into relationship with oneself, especially the ultimate gift of self—but to allow that person the freedom to reject these gifts and yourself. Love does not force a return of love; it cannot be forced, but must be a willing response.
People stay in marriage when they choose day after day to remain faithful to their vows and their spouse. People stay friends when they keep in contact, forgive trespasses, and help each other grow. People stay Christian when they choose to remain faithful to their baptismal vows and their identity as children of God. Redemption is a lifelong commitment to live in the grace of God. Satan, who gave up the gift of communion with God, strives ever to wrest this priceless gift from our hands; we must practice constant vigilance and maintain a firm hope in God, avoiding both the sins of despair and presumption.
“All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, I am the way.” —St Catherine of Siena
It is said that the most popular theory for the beginning of time and space is the Big Bang. This is the theory which states that 13.8 billion years ago, “everything in the Cosmos started out as a single point in space. In an instant, everything expanded outward from that location, forming the energy, atoms and eventually the stars and galaxies we see today.” An impressive theory, one that can easily be reconciled with the Creation Narratives of Christianity. However, there are many who renounce the account of God creating the universe, choosing various other viewpoints, even random chance, as the reason why there is something rather than nothing.
Monsignor Georges Lemaître, a Roman Catholic priest, is credited with conceiving and advancing the Big Bang theory in 1927. This was at a time when many scientists believed that the universe was infinite, and therefore most had trouble accepting Monsignor Lemaître’s proposal. However, after Edwin Hubble reported in 1929 his observations that far galaxies are continuing to move further away from us, scientists began to accept the theory. This included Stephen Hawking, whose work in the 1960s helped to further the understanding that the universe has a beginning.
A sensible decision — if we observe that galaxies in space are moving away from each other, then it would make perfect sense that they were at one time very close together. Moreover, it would be correct to infer that there was some force that caused the galaxies to separate and expand.
While science is a great tool in discerning and discovering aspects of reality, it cannot be deemed the sole arbiter of what is real and what is not. To say that God did not have a role in the beginning of time and space is an unscientific claim. I state that there is much more proof for God than there is for the idea of a Godless beginning of everything.
First, we can scientifically observe the world around us and see that in no other circumstance does something cause itself. Nothing else seems to just happen without something bringing it about. To say that the Big Bang caused itself would then be an exception in which we allow for a self-caused entity to exist.
If one wanted to turn the tables, so to say, on Christians and our God, we see that the definition of God is that He is not created, therefore not a self-caused, but an infinite Being. We believe this as it has been revealed to us through Divine Revelation and not from mere observation. Furthermore, we do not believe this as sole individuals or as part of a cult, but as members of an institution with rich foundational Tradition, which brings me to my next point.
If we look at the evidence for our Faith that has been handed down over the millennia, we can rest assured that when we assert that the Creation of Life and the World by an all-loving God is reality, we are in good standing and good company. The Church itself has 2,000 years of teachings and further clarifications from many respectable, intelligent people. If one does the work, one will find logical conclusions and insights within these teachings.
Furthermore, much like Christ performed miracles to affirm His teaching, so too do we find many miracles through the history of the Church to affirm our Faith. Two of the strongest are the tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe (still on display in Mexico City) and the Eucharistic Miracle of Lanciano (still on display in Lanciano, Italy). While many can assume these two phenomena, both studied and tested, are false and easily ignore them, that does not prove them to be false. In fact, in many of its investigations of miracles, the Church has asked atheist scientists to study them in order to receive unbiased conclusions.
While these miracles and testimonies are indeed extraordinary, there is still more for the Christian in our Faith. In fact, not only can we know more about our Faith and come to know of God’s power, but we are also able to know God Himself, growing closer to Him and experiencing His power each day. Just like it is possible for one to buy a really expensive telescope and witness for themselves the drifting of the planets to believe in the Big Bang, it is also possible for one to know for themselves that God exists.
However, before God proves Himself to us, we need to prove ourselves to Him. Throughout the Gospels, the miracles that Christ performs on behalf of the sick, the blind, the deaf are for those who show great faith in Him. The hemorrhaging woman who touches His cloak, the paralyzed man lowered through the roof by his friends, and the Centurion whose slave was also in need of healing all went before Jesus with faith. While God too is the source of this Faith, we must use our free will to accept His Revelation and whatever He has planned for us. Additionally, it is interesting to note that all of these men and women manifested their Faith to Jesus in a big way.
It might not have been as comfortable as it seems for these people to go before Christ in front of others, humbly show their weaknesses and ask for healing. In a way, they needed to leave their comfort zones in order to experience Jesus in this way. So too must we be stretched at times in order to experience God. Furthermore, we must go humbly, seeking Him on His terms. We cannot reduce God into an organism that we can fully know and study exhaustively. If we could, He would not be God.
In a way, the origin of the universe is an interesting analogy for God. Today, we can study and learn more about it, but we cannot fully identify nor comprehend how or why the universe began, with the unique role of Earth in supporting life. Nor can we know God fully. However, with the testimonies we find in the Church over the past 2,000 years, along with the Jewish foundations on which these accounts are based, as well as our own experience of God in our daily ever-enriched lives, we can study and learn more about God, while not fully comprehending Him.
In our study and growth in relationship with the Almighty, there are things we can actively do to both prove ourselves to Him and know God and our Faith more.
First, we can read some of the following books:
Practical Theology by Dr. Peter Kreeft
Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science by Stacy Trasancos
Pints with Aquinas by Matt Fradd
Theology for Beginners by Frank Sheed
Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church by H. W. Crocker III
Mass more than just on Sundays (even every day is possible)
Scheduled prayer time
Daily Bible or Gospel Meditation
Join/start a Prayer group that involves any of the above devotions or the books listed.
Our Faith is much more than a viewpoint, opinion, or theory of life. It is even more than a way of life, because it is Life itself. These books and practices are ways for us to encounter this Life that raises us up both now and at the end of our lives. Our Faith is bursting with much more and I would love to see in the comments anything else you would recommend for myself and others to encounter God and grow more in our Faith.
We are surrounded by human suffering. Many people are hurting in today’s world. Some suffering is horrific and some minor, but every kind can be soothed, and even removed, by trusting in God’s infinite Love and Mercy. Furthermore, God desires for us to become images of His Love and Mercy and to play a role in the alleviation of the suffering of others.
“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose.” Romans 8:28
God brings good out of all situations for those who love Him. Nothing on our planet has happened, is happening, or will happen without God’s allowance. And He would not allow something to occur if He could not use the situation for our good.
Sometimes, we who have our tiny perspective of the world, history, and even our own life, forget this. We forget that God has the bird’s eye view of every human’s life and desires all to find fulfillment in Himself. We lose sight of the fact that He understands that there is nothing in our existence worth more than this fulfillment and that even our temporal suffering is worth it if it helps us to our Salvation.
So does God hurt us to save us? No, He allows us to be hurt to save us, seeing the pain we experience infinitely less important than our salvation. Our pains come from ourselves, other humans, or the world around us, which has been broken by the first humans and many more thereafter.
Humanity was created with, by, in, and for Love, to be Loved and to Love. However, love cannot be forced. It must be freely given and accepted or we would be merely programmed robots instead of free humans who can choose and therefore Love. So, with the freedom to choose comes the freedom to be wrong, and with the wrong choice comes the undesired outcome, which will bring with it some level of pain as proportionate to the choice.
God is Love. He knows us. He knows what we can take and what would be too much for us.
“No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.” 1 Corinthians 10:13
God is faithful and will not let us be tried beyond our strength. In the Gospel, Jesus asks what father would give his son a snake when the son asks for a fish, or a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread. God is a Good Father. Sometimes it might seem to us like He is giving us stones and snakes, but in reality we are getting bread and fish.
God wants to give us every desire of our hearts, but we have tarnished hearts filled with desires that could keep us from God and Salvation. Therefore, God might need to change our hearts, redirect them, in order to satisfy us completely. Anxiety, sadness, pain, discomfort, death, all these remind us of our human nature and need for God.
This humble remembrance of our humanity allows us to approach God in the way we ought. In return, He provides for us in all of our necessities. Keeping this in mind, we can live each day in the satisfaction that God will provide for us today and in the future. We can be at peace with the truth that we already posses, in a way, all that we need, because we know that God will provide it.
Suffering is a difficult aspect of the human condition. It has caused many to walk away from the Faith and seek consolation in other things. However, it is only through God that we can overcome suffering.
My favorite example of this is found with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who was able to transform suffering with love. She understood the value of her suffering in the currency of souls saved. Furthermore, she loved God and souls so much that she said she could no longer suffer as she fully grasped the true meaning behind it.
Likewise, Jesus said to St. Faustina, “accept all sufferings with love”. By keeping these words of Our Lord to heart, we can find in our suffering opportunities to grow in virtue and open the floodgates of grace into our lives. This grace will not leave us unchanged. But first, we must change our approach and our attitude toward suffering, and in particular, our approach and attitude toward the daily grind of our lives.
“If you wish to feel and to have an attraction for suffering, you are in search of your own consolation, for when we love anything, pain disappears.”
— St. Thérèse of Lisieux
This week, I was called upon to exercise my civic duty and present myself at the federal court for jury selection. While I was there, a woman said what many seemed to feel: “Democracy is about choice. I should get to choose if I want to be called for jury duty or not.” Now, I grumbled with all the rest about being expected to wake up early, drive downtown, and leave my life behind to sit all day in a court room. Her words, however, did not sit right with me. I know enough about the foundation of our country to realize that this kind of “democracy” was a far cry from what the founders had in mind. I also know enough about our culture to know how innocuous, and even commendable they sound to ears accustomed to modern American rhetoric. Americans have become obsessed with choice, and anything that requires the submission of the will to another is viewed with suspicion and even disgust.
We have come to the point in American culture where the ability to choose, regardless of the effect on our own or others physical, spiritual, and emotional health, is seen as a sacred right. How often we hear “just do it,” “it’s my choice,” “do what makes you happy,” “march to the beat of your own drum,” and other such platitudes? Even soda machines trumpet 140 flavor options. But a glut of options does not guarantee happiness or health. They may simply be 140 ways to fill your body with high fructose corn syrup and empty calories, for example. The love of choice extends into American religion as well. If one does not like the music, preaching, people, or doctrines at a particular church, they simply find a new one that speaks to them. The individual, the ultimate arbiter or, at least, interpreter of truth chooses the teachings that align with their own.
This fascination with choice is natural to the human condition. Even my three-year-old loves to list the choices of what he can have for breakfast or which movie he can watch. Free will is a gift from God, something that sets us apart from animals driven by instinct. Without free will, we are little more than pawns in a cosmic game. In fact, Catholicism celebrates our ability to choose to participate in our own salvation — to work with God. We make a choice to baptize our children and raise them in the faith, and they themselves choose again that faith at confirmation. Yet, choice in itself is not seen as a positive good, something to be pursued for its own sake.
When those who do love choice for choice’s sake come into contact with Catholicism, they simply cannot imagine what would possess someone to give up their autonomy of choice to the Church’s authority. The difference is particularly stark during the season of Lent. When the world says, “it’s my body,” the Church says “Fast, abstain, be chaste, and respect the temple of God.” When the world says, “It’s my time,” the Church says, “Attend mass when required, confess your sins often, give to the Church and the poor, and spend time each day in prayer.” The Church insists on helping her members get to heaven, by making good choices a requirement and labeling bad choices what they truly are — sins.
On matters of faith and morals, members of the Catholic Church cannot simply decide what to believe. Despite what so-called “cafeteria Catholics” feel, Catholics are not allowed to pick and choose from the doctrines of the Church. They cannot make the Church into a democracy that will change with times. The Catholic submits not only his soul and his body, but also his mind to the Church. It baffles outsiders that extremely intelligent people could forfeit their choice in this way. But those who accept the Church as the vehicle of God’s truth on Earth, guided by the Holy Spirit, and entrusted with the salvation of men, have already made their decision. As St. Peter said, “Lord, to whom else should we go? You have to words of eternal life.”
To those who belong to the cult of choice, Catholicism seems stuffy and stifling. The narrow road doesn’t attract many who want to go their own way. Yet, to those who have experienced the freedom of following Christ in His Church, the possibilities for loving and serving the Lord are as many and varied as the saints in Heaven. In sacrificing our ego, our desire to control our lives and decide our own right and wrong, we discover the joy of choosing Christ daily.
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