Kneeling with Giants Part One

Previous: Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering Part Three

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(https://www.amazon.com/Kneeling-Giants-Learning-Historys-Teachers/dp/0830835628)

Hello, and welcome back to the book club! Last time, we focused on Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering. Now we are turning our attention to Kneeling with Giants by Gary Neal Hansen. This book is interesting since it looks at different aspects of prayer from many famous Christians in history and how those might help modern Christians to further enrich their own prayer lives

Hansen’s book begins with a look at language: Which words should a Christian use when engaging in dialogue with God? To answer this question, Hansen looks at three methods used by three teachers:

‘All three ways of praying in part one of this book help us pray by putting words in our mouths, giving us language when we have none or giving us better words than we could think of ourselves. They all start with ancient prayers rooted in Scripture. Still, these three approaches could hardly be more different from each other. St. Benedict of Nursia taught his monks to pray using the words of the liturgies from the church’s daily services. Martin Luther taught the early Protestants to use their own words, but to follow the outline of topics in the Lord’s Prayer. And teachers in Eastern Orthodoxy have taught that we should pray by constantly repeating what they call the Jesus Prayer.’

(Pgs.17-18)

Benedict_of_Nursia

St. Benedict (Orthodox Icon)

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benedict_of_Nursia)

Thomas_Cranmer

Thomas Cranmer Unknown

Wikipedia

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Cranmer)

In Chapter One, Hansen starts with the Daily Office as exemplified by St. Benedict. This is the set of scripture readings, hymns and psalms that are used by both monks and laity throughout every day of the week. The Daily Office is also known as the Liturgy of the Hours and usually consists of seven or six offices.

Hansen also includes the Morning and Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, which is an amalgamation of some monastic hours into two distinctive prayer services (Morning Prayer consisting of elements from the morning offices of the Catholic Daily Office, while Evening Prayer features those from the evening offices).

In Hansen’s case he has been using both Catholic and Anglican versions of the daily office for some time, and he has found them to be helpful. He highlights some benefits of using the Daily Office:

‘First, praying the office can bring order to our busy lives. Even outside a monastery, people really can stop what they are doing and pray multiple times throughout the day. … In a fifteen-minute break, a Western Christian can pray Terce, Sext or None and still have time for coffee’ (Pg.23). Sometimes, due to the busyness of our lives and work, we often find that we have little or no time for prayer. But, with the daily office, we can at least keep touch with God during certain hours of the day (e.g. either morning, noon, and night) and we can even use prayer to even help inform our work schedule: ‘If you pray morning and noontime prayer, the workday looks like two open stretches between times of prayer, rather than a frantic scramble punctuated by a sandwich crammed in at your computer terminal. The rhythm connects us to the eternal, so temporal demands fall into context. This is not squeezing prayer into a busy schedule. Prayer creates the schedule, so the day feels less busy and more productive’ (Pg.23)

Second, the Daily Office can teach us how to pray in that it provides the actual words for praise, confession and intercession. ‘The office leads us through the whole range of ways people really need to pray: confession of sins, praise and thanks, asking for help for ourselves and others. It does these things with clarity, depth and wisdom. By giving us good words, the liturgy builds our skills. Then, when we go to pray on our own, what we have learned is waiting there to help us’ (Pg.24). It can help those whose prayer-lives have fallen into a rut to move beyond that point and be able to pray more effectively. (The office helps to push) us toward a complete conversation with God. It prods the neurotically guilty to thankfulness, the obsessively grumpy to praise and the annoyingly cheerful to some honest complaint. It might even help us grow as people’ (Pg.24).

The third benefit of the Daily Office is that it can help make prayer possible during the most trying and/or depressing times. ‘With the divine office, all we have to do is read the words, moving through the liturgy. At first it may seem more like listening in on other people’s prayers, but eventually we notice that some fragment of the service expresses our own longings – some biblical cry for help or bitter lament. Even convinced we can’t pray, we find we actually have prayed’ (Pg.25).

A fourth benefit from the office is a sense of peace, a peace that is derived from the rhythm of life that opens people up to God and eventually can open them up to new forms of prayer.

Hansen encourages that the best method of starting the Daily Office is to pick one from either tradition (Catholic, Anglican or otherwise), pick a time of the day and then move on from there. For beginners, he recommends the night office of Compline because it ‘has few daily variations, (thus) making it easy to learn’ (Pg.28). He does acknowledge that it takes some time to get used to going to-and-fro between different parts of prayer-books, and he encourages people to simply practice at getting better at using the office. He then moves on to Scripture readings (in the case of the Book of Common Prayer the readings are often given in a lectionary), psalms, and seasonal prayers known as collects (pronounced as CUL-lects), which will deepen and enhance the Christian’s prayer life throughout the year. In the case of the Catholic daily office, it is a little more complicated since it involves a more intimate understanding of the many parts of the prayer books, and Hansen tells his readers to begin with a part like the Ordinary or the. But, above all, it is just simply a case of patience:

‘Whether it feels exciting or a bit stiff, press on. Each hour is different, so try to get to know its “personality” before moving on to another. If it begins to feel boring, press on; you may move from familiarity to affection. Press on even if some parts bother you: Protestants may be troubled by the theology of some Catholic prayers, and many today cringe at traditional masculine language. Think of it as praying with your older, slightly curmudgeonly friends. Stick with it until you can enter the flow of the service. A solid try takes at least a couple of weeks; give it that before you switch to a different version.’

(Pg.30)

Hansen does admit that some people may find themselves uncomfortable with the idea that the office originated from Catholicism (invoking the presence of saints and angels), or with the repetition involved in the office.

Hansen also highlights certain other advantages from the daily office. One is perspective, where the office helps us to see things in God’s perspective, which is illustrated in the life of St. Benedict himself. ‘ “By searching continually into his own soul he always beheld himself in the presence of his Creator. And this kept his mind from straying off to the world outside.” This was not a permanent retreat from conflict; Benedict returned to active ministry, and with great success. Prayer enabled him to see his life in perspective, in relation to God, and that equipped him to serve’ (Pg.33).

I confess that, ever since I first read Hansen’s book, I have used the Daily Office to guide and enhance my own prayers because it gives an ordered structure of prayer. J felt that she preferred to pray in her own words or to pray through passages in the Bible, but she admits that the Daily Office was useful when she was going through a dry spell. On the one hand, we do not care for praying to saints and angels, but, as for the structure of the daily office, we agree that it is helpful. We noticed this in particular with the use of different prayers and the lectionary as well as the structure it gives to the day. Plus the fact that the structure itself helps us not to ask for a long list of things but to help us keep things simple.

R talked about how devotional books are often written in the northern hemisphere in that they often reflect that environment and culture, so we need to first get our heads around that difference in order to use them. This led to a discussion of the different devotionals that we have used over the years. J’s example was My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers. GM talked about the prayer book type of prayer, because that was what he learned first, before learning to pray in his own words. We also discussed about using the Bible in our prayers, even the less exciting bits such as the genealogies as well as our favourite stories. We talked of the benefit of the Anglican lectionary, which stops us just reading our favourite parts of the Bible. Another benefit is the use of familiar prayers that are often shared in the Daily Office, giving modern Christians the chance to use prayers that have been handed down from generation to generation. The one problem we saw with this method is the constant flipping back and forth between different sections, which can prove distracting during prayer. I recommend that anyone who wants to use the Daily Office might try the Divine Hours series by Phyllis Tickle because Tickle’s way of structuring the Daily Office means you only go through a certain number of pages without the need to flip to another section. Otherwise, we have nothing but positive things to say about this type of prayer.

Martin_Luther_by_Cranach-restoration

Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Wikipedia

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther)

In Chapter Two, Hansen focuses on the Lord’s Prayer, in particular the teaching of the Reformer Martin Luther on how Christians should use this prayer as a structure for their prayers. Hansen mentions the benefits:

‘First, using the Lord’s Prayer as our outline ensures that we pray for a wide range of things. Clearly Jesus did not want our prayers to be dominated by a single issue, whether praise or confession or intercession. This can help those of us who tend to bring the same issues over and over. Second, it reminds us that prayer is a requirement: Jesus commanded us to pray. Since Jesus said, “Pray then in this way” (Matthew 6:9 …), we can’t leave these topics behind. With Luther’s method, any time of prayer, short or long, can follow the pattern Jesus gave us. And third, according to Luther, this helps us pray with confidence. If Jesus commands us to talk about these things, by implication God promises to listen to these things. That can especially help people who are afraid to pray.’

(Pg.40)

Both the Lord’s Prayer, and Luther’s teaching on the different sections of this prayer, can be divided up into two halves: the first dealing with our addresses to God, the second with our own personal petitions. The first half consists of “Our Father in heaven. Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is heaven.” The first part “Our Father in heaven” addresses both the intimate side of God (He is our loving Father, especially in connection with Jesus) while at the same time He is “in heaven” meaning that He is the Creator who is all-powerful and beyond our control. It is this balance of awe with affection that Luther says can place us on intimate terms with God: ‘ “Now through your mercy implant in our hearts a comforting trust in your father’s love, and let us experience the sweet and pleasant savor of a childlike certainty that we may joyfully call you Father, knowing and loving you and calling on you in every trouble” ’ (Pg.42). Then, comes the next phrase “Hallowed be Your name”, which addresses the name of God, because His name is linked completely with His essence, and hopes that this name may also be honored in various aspects of our life. In Luther’s case this prayer was for holiness in his own behavior before changing later in life to an appeal for evangelism.

The third phrase “Your Kingdom come” means that we must pray for the coming Kingdom of God. On the one hand, it may seem redundant to pray for a coming Kingdom where God is already King, but, according to both Hansen and Luther, God’s Kingdom represents the highest pinnacle of service and justice and therefore we need to keep our will in line with God’s or else it only reflects our own glory. ‘If we are not living as God intends, Luther think we are robbing God of territory where he should reign – our hearts – and living like citizens of the kingdom of the devil. (Luther) was also particularly aware of the opponents of the church and its work, and he prayed with tenderness and passion, “They are many and mighty; the plague and hinder the tiny flock of thy kingdom who are weak, despised and few … Dear Lord, God and Father, convert them and defend us” ’ (Pg.44).

In the fourth phrase in the prayer “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”, we display humility to allow God to transform us and conform us to His will. Although it might seem odd that a powerful God wants us to pray for His will to be done on earth, it does make us ‘partners in his planning’ (Pg.44) as well as making us feel more confident in our prayers. It also allows us to intercede on behalf of others and to make sure that our life and ministry reflects that of God’s will, even though it may not be heard or answered differently. It also makes us examine ourselves carefully in God’s light: ‘Luther knew his own will always got in the way. “O Father,” he prayed, “do not let me get to the point where my will is done. Break my will; resist it. No matter what happens, let my life be governed not by my will, but by yours.” He suggested we look hard at the ways we willingly seek ungodly goals and at selfish motives we disguise as good. … This can also be the place to ask for help in the struggle to live as God calls’ (Pg.45). Above all, it is to place our behavior in God’s hands, making sure that we behave as He directs us.

The second half of the Lord’s Prayer deals with our personal concerns: “Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial. But rescue us from the evil one.” The phrase “Give us this day our daily bread” deals with our own basic needs such as food and clothing, as well as those of others. We need to depend upon God but not in the sense that He is some kind of “genie” giving us more material wealth: ‘we are also challenged to simplicity, not luxury; we are not praying for daily cake. Of course we can talk to God about anything, even our desire for luxuries. However, this petition gives us confidence of a promise only when we ask for what we really need. Jesus gives us a measuring stick: we should pray for what is really good for us and for the world’ (Pgs.45-46). More importantly, we should also acknowledge Jesus as our “bread of life” as mentioned in one of Luther’s prayers: ‘ “Therefore, O heavenly Father, grant grace that the life, words, deeds, and suffering of Christ be preached made known and preserved for us and the world” ’ (Pg.46), which in turn led Luther to pray and intercede for other things.

The phrase “And forgive our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” addresses both our need for ask for our personal forgiveness as well as forgiving those who have wronged us. First, we pay attention to any wrongs that we have committed before forgiving others. According to Hansen, by forgiving others it allows us to forgive ourselves: Forgiveness is not pretending that no harm has been done – that is denial. Nor does it mean the painful feelings all melt away – that is healing, which may come much later. Forgiveness is when you have been harmed, but you actively, prayerfully lift the sentence and decide not to exercise your right to prosecute or avenge’ (Pg.47) And, even though it may seem unnecessary to pray for forgiveness because God has already forgiven us on the Cross, it does help us to give us a much needed sense of humility, especially in our prayers.

 

The phrase “And do not bring us to the time of trial” is best summed up in Luther’s prayer about temptations from “the flesh, the world, and the devil.” The flesh might be mistaken for asceticism, which is wrong because, according to Hansen, Luther enjoyed taking pleasure in lots of things, such as his wife Katherina and beer; what he is praying against is the idea of sins such as greed and lust becoming idols and taking God’s place. The “world” is the ‘the negative influence of society on our character and behavior’ especially ‘greed and lust for approval and power’ (Pg.48). The “devil” addresses “spiritual temptation”, which would be anything that causes us to either ignore or dismiss God’s Word, that could lead us to either pride or despair. In other words, the “time of trial” addresses every one of these temptations. The last phrase “But rescue us from the evil one” means that we ask for God’s protection from everything that might afflict us. This includes everything ranging from disease to disaster, and even God’s judgment itself.

Like the Daily Office, Hansen recommends we take some time to practice Luther’s advice and that individual Christians may need some time to practice praying from even the smallest part of the Lord’s Prayer. Hansen lists three further benefits from this prayer practice: first it makes us think of prayer in ‘three time frames: each petition in a sense accomplished already, and we give thanks; each petition applies to current needs, and so we ask; each petition will be truly fulfilled only at the end of the age, and so we wait with longing’ (Pg.51). A second benefit is that as we are led to pray to God for ourselves, we are also called to pray for our family, church, and society. And the third benefit is that each petition may even lead us to our individual prayers of praise, confession, intercession and/or thanksgiving.

It makes sense to use this prayer since it is how Jesus says we should pray. It is easy to just rattle it off without thinking but this method used by Luther is a good way of actually thinking it through more deeply. GM’s experience of going to the Catholic churches in Ireland was that the Lord’s Prayer becomes a quickly repeated chant, gone over once or twice without any pause for reflection.

Like the Daily Office, it too provides a structure. It helps us to not to skip over things when in prayer. It also provides some perspective in that it makes us know when and what to say during our prayers. We also liked the bit about forgiveness – forgiving others and forgiving ourselves as well as the quote from Luther where he says we don’t want to call down God’s wrath on anyone. The reason why is because we are not helped by their ruin and we would much prefer that they would be saved with us. Another positive aspect is that Luther was not writing for monks (like Benedict was) and it’s comforting to know that he (Luther) liked the good things in life!

Cathedral_of_Christ_the_Saviour_(Moscow,_Russia)

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow

Wikipedia

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_Orthodox_Church)

In Chapter Three, Hansen looks at the Jesus Prayer. This is a method of meditative prayer originated with and was used by the Eastern Orthodox Christians to achieve union with God, and it originated in two books the Way of the Pilgrim and the Philokalia. It merely consists of a repeating a phrase “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”, which is a phrase that comes from the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:9-14). It also relates to the advice the apostle Paul gave in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, which encourages Christians to pray without ceasing, which is the main focus of hesychasm or “stillness” in Eastern Orthodoxy: ‘The hesychast, and anyone who prays the Jesus Prayer, wants to draw near to God. It takes preparation, but of a paradoxical kind. God is not in a place you can get to with your body. God is not reached by your intellect alone, even if you study Scripture and theology. Feelings and emotions will not bring you to God. To approach God, one must bring all of one’s self, with the intellect drawn into the heart, a unified whole’ (Pg.56). So therefore, when praying the Jesus Prayer it involves bringing our whole self to God.

Praying the Jesus Prayer consists of three stages. Stage One is simply finding a time and a place to recite the prayer. This usually varies. Some use a prayer rope or chotki just so they can count beads every time they recite the Prayer; some recite for an allotted amount of time, say, five minutes; while a third method is to use a series of reminders to move Christians to say the prayer. Stage two is to concentrate on the words using the intellect. In the case of the Jesus Prayer it is simple. The first part “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” makes us know which God we worship: the word “Lord” places us in front of our “lord”; the word “Jesus” makes us trust in the God who was very merciful to those who He helped and healed during His lifetime, but with the word “Christ” it also reminds us that this is a God who is also the Messiah; and the words “Son of God” shows Jesus’ relationship to His Father. The next part of the Prayer “have mercy on me” reminds us that we calling for God’s mercy (“have mercy”), and when we say “on me” it reminds us of our individual relationship to God: ‘It reminds us that God knows us, loves us, hears us, and has mercy on us personally. Each of us has a multitude of needs to bring to God in prayer. Praying for mercy on ourselves urges us towards honesty and wholeness’ (Pg.63).

The third and final stage of praying “within the heart” is a complicated one, but it is something that actually involves the whole body:

‘The start of the journey, I believe, is to bring our bodily habit of prayer, well informed by the intellect, deep into the center of our being. Thinking about the meaning of the words has taken the prayer deep into our minds; now we can relax, still praying as we breathe, still meaning what we say, but without concentration. There is an inner concentration, though, that is not intellectual. It is an attention to who we are and what we bring as we enter into prayerful communion with God. We try to bring God a whole and undivided self, alive from the center of our being, as conveyed by the image of the intellect moving into the heart.’

(Pgs.64-65)

Now, Hansen admits some people have objections to this method of prayer. Some object on the grounds that it might drive them to insanity; others object to it because its resemblance to Eastern methods of yoga, while another objection is that it runs against the command in the gospels to avoid using “vain repetitions” in prayer (Matthew 6:7). In response to this, Hansen says that the Jesus Prayer has a Biblical basis; that it is not a nonsense word being uttered over and over nor does it invoke other gods, rather it is focused on Christ and Christ alone. It can help us to focus more on prayer and help focus our prayers to Christ. There are also physical benefits in saying this prayer:

‘Some learn to pray the Jesus Prayer when they are angry or anxious out of a related desire to be centered. I suspect that this is a spiritually more helpful kind of centeredness than just stopping to take a few breaths. … Though feelings are not the goal, researchers have used biofeedback techniques to show that praying the Jesus Prayer causes a particularly profound state of relaxation. The mind can remain peaceful and attentive long after praying the Jesus Prayer.’

(Pg.69)

But the main benefit from this prayer is getting a grip on God’s mercy and this, in turn, can lead into unceasing prayer ‘Asking for mercy, we depend on God for our every need. Breathing this prayer more and more, it carries body, mind and heart to God, to stand contemplating the name above all names, gazing at the mystery and beauty of the One who holds the universe’ (Pg.70).

We found that this prayer was a source of controversy. J says that she found the repetitive chanting aspect of the Jesus Prayer uncomfortable in its similarity to Hindu and Buddhist pagan meditation practices. Others, such as R and E, found it useful in certain situations, such as going back to sleep during a restless night, or driving to work. I went on to say that this prayer has some breathing techniques that Orthodox monks use, so in a way it is similar to yoga but more real. GM compared it to the rosary, where Catholics would recite the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary to focus their full attention on God. In the same way, the Jesus Prayer focuses our minds back to a central place, especially since our minds have a tendency to wander. However, we are not sure if Jesus prayed that way, and maybe the idea of ‘praying without ceasing’ is more like having a relationship throughout the day, not having a scrolled prayer running in the back of our minds. GR says that the idea is to keep your mind wandering back to God. But we’re not sure if this is the way to do it. Chanting a phrase is the least creative way to do it. We feel, especially due to the subject of the similarity of the Jesus Prayer with Eastern religious practices, that it is always going to be a personal thing. However, there is a big difference between this prayer and Eastern religious practices. With yoga meditation, you are simply emptying your mind to free you of all stress. With the Jesus Prayer, however, you are focusing on God. That is one benefit from this particular type of prayer.

Thank you for joining in this discussion. Next time we look at Part 2 of Hansen’s Kneeling with Giants, which looks at praying with scripture.

Gary Neal Hansen, Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers. IVP. 2012

Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering Part Three

Previous: Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering Part Two

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(https://www.amazon.com/Walking-God-through-Pain-Suffering/dp/1594634408)

Hello, and welcome back to the blog! Last time we looked at Part 2 of Timothy Keller’s Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering, where he looked at the reasons for suffering, the reasons for God’s sovereignty and Jesus’ Passion in suffering, how suffering can help develop our faith, and the varieties of suffering. Here, Keller turns his attention to the use of the Bible and biblical characters to help us through our individual and collective suffering.

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The Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace (15th century icon)

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shadrach,_Meshach,_and_Abednego)

In Chapter Eleven, Keller looks at the subject of “walking with God” through our suffering. This idea is in contrast to the modern idea of coping with suffering, which is taking time off, avoiding anything that can cause stress and finding supporting relationships that can help us overcome our suffering. But the idea of walking through our pain and suffering is more balanced as well as confrontational:

‘The walking metaphor points to the idea of progress. …. The unusual balance of the Christian faith is seen in the metaphor of walking – through darkness, swirling waters, or fire. We are not to lose our footing and just let the suffering have its way with us. But we are also not to think we can somehow avoid it or be completely impervious to it either. We are to meet and move through suffering without shock and surprise, without denial of our sorrow and weakness, without resentment or paralyzing fear, yet also without acquiescence or capitulation, without surrender or despair.’

(Pg.226)

To back up this idea, Keller uses a whole range of biblical metaphors such as those found in Isaiah 43 and 1 Peter, which speak of faith under trial being like gold being refined by fire. Keller also uses the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from Daniel 3, who are thrown into the fire by King Nebuchadnezzar. In this story, the three men told the king that their reason for not bowing down in worship to the golden statue was due to their dedication and faith in God. They said that they believed that God would rescue them from the furnace, but even if He didn’t they would still not worship the golden statue. This statement of both ‘confidence and humility’ (Pg.230) may seem a bit of a contradiction but Keller says that it is indicative of a real faith in God:

‘The answer is that their confidence was actually in God, not in their limited understanding of what they thought he would do. They had inner assurance that God would rescue them. However, they were not so arrogant as to be sure they were “reading God right.” They knew that God was under no obligation to operate according to their limited wisdom. In other words, their confidence was in God himself, not in some agenda that they wanted God to promote. They trusted in God, and that included trust that he knew better than they what should happen. So they were essentially saying this: “Even if our God does not rescue us – and that is right – we will serve him and not you. We will serve him whether he conforms to our wisdom or not. We do not defy you because we think we are going to live – we defy you because our God is God.’

(Pgs.230-231)

This is in contrast to some Christians who pray that God will answer their request the way they want, only to either never get that answer or get an entirely different answer from what they expected.

Another aspect of Daniel 3 that Keller focuses on is the presence of the fourth person, who rescues the three youths from the furnace and amazes King Nebuchadnezzar, who says that the fourth person looked like a “son of the gods.”

Who was it? (asks Keller) In the Old Testament, there is a mysterious figure called simply “the angel of the Lord” – not just an angel but the angel – and later Nebuchadnezzar actually says that the Lord “sent his angel and rescued them” (v.28). Who was this? He is not like other angels who appear elsewhere in the Bible. When he appears and speaks in the burning bush to Moses, his words are said to be God’s words; his speaking is God speaking (Ex.3:2-6). When the angel appears, he is given worship (Joshua 5:15) in a way that other angels refuse (Rev.19:10). To see this angel was to see God (Judges 13:16-22). The angel is mysterious because he seems to be God in a visual form. And indeed, Christians have understood for centuries who he was. Old Testament scholar Alec Motyer sums it all up well: 

‘“The Angel is revealed as a merciful ‘accommodation’ or ‘condescension’ of God, whereby the Lord can be present among a sinful people when, were he to go with them himself, his presence would consume them …. He is that mode of deity whereby the holy God can keep company with sinner. There is only one other in the Bible who is both identical with and yet distinct from the Lord. One who, without abandoning the full essence and prerogatives of deity …. is able to accommodate himself to the company of sinners …. Jesus Christ.”’

(Pgs.232-233)

And yet, during Jesus’ First Coming on earth He underwent a completely different trial under fire: the crucifixion. Keller writes:

‘But when it came time for Jesus to enter the furnace of affliction, there was no one to walk through that furnace beside him. He was in it all by himself. No divine personage stood beside him, for he cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” “When the fire of God’s wrath (quoting Iain M. Duguid) burned him to the core and blazed unchecked over him he was entirely alone.” Why? Why should God be with three Jewish exiles but not his only begotten Son? The answer is that on the cross Jesus was suffering not only with us but for us. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were good men, but they were still flawed human beings. David said that if anyone were to keep a record of our sins of hand and heart, no one could stand before God (Ps.130:3). These three did not then deserve the Lord’s deliverance because of the perfect purity of their lives. God could walk through the fire with them because he came to earth in Jesus Christ and went through the fire of punishment they and we all deserve. That this why he can forgive and accept those who trust in his mercy. And that is why he can be with us flawed, undeserving people in the fire.’

(Pgs.233-234)

Knowing that God is with us in the fire and also that Jesus was Himself put on the cross we will be able to overcome and endure all the fiery trials in faith. Without this knowledge, we’ll become easily disheartened and will turn to either anger or despair. Enduring also means sticking to the walking plan, day in and day out: in prayer, Bible reading, worship with fellow Christians, as well as using various exercises from the Bible that Keller will be looking at in the remaining chapters.

We looked at this theme of “walking with God” closely. We said that God’s presence in trials gives those trials meaning. R in particular liked the walking metaphor because it is something that’s possible. Not having to work ourselves up to fight or anything but just to put one foot in front of the other. Even when we cannot feel that God is there it still helps us to know that He is. It even reminded one member of a quote by David Jones “a faith that can’t be tested is a faith that can’t be trusted.”

When J thinks about Jesus suffering on the cross she thinks that she has nothing to complain about. GM thought of the Footprints poem, where God and the author walk along side-by-side until one day God carries the author in moments of trial.

This made us think further about walking with God. We noted that Jesus and His disciples walked a lot. Walking is a progression through. It maybe not be rapid but we still go through with our journeys. People even walk at different paces so there is no point in comparing yourself to others.

However, we can cast ourselves onto Jesus and then we don’t have to carry our suffering alone. For us, God’s greater meaning in suffering gives us comfort but if you don’t have faith in God then it must look like foolishness.

Beweinung_Christi_Erfurt_um_1480_detail

Lamentation of Christ, Erfurt, c.1480

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tears)

Moving onto Chapter Twelve, Keller looks at the subject of weeping or lamentation. The reason why he writes about this subject is because most churches have a “stiff upper lip” attitude towards grief and lamentation. It dates back to the Reformation, where the Lutheran church was dead set against any expression of grief. ‘Christian were taught not to weep or cry but to show God their faith through unflinching, joyful acceptance of his will’ (Pg.241). Keller goes on to state that most Lutheran theologians were embarrassed by the Psalms of Lament and the Book of Job, one of the theologians even going onto say that the reason Job is included in the Bible is because ‘God wanted to show us he could still forgive and have mercy on someone with faith as weak as Job’s’ (Pg.241)!

But Keller disagrees with this idea, because even though Job did speak against God through the book that has his name, he simply began to lament when calamity came upon him and did not sin. Even though God did rebuke Job for not understanding His character, nevertheless He vindicated him and restored him to his fortunes. According to Keller, then, expressing our grief is natural for a Christian: ‘We should be more gentle and patient with (those who grieve)(Pg.242). We should allow those who suffer from grief and depression time to heal and recuperate. Even Jesus who was described in the Book of Isaiah as the Suffering Servant:

Who is this Servant? The Christian church has since its very beginning understood this to be Jesus Christ himself (Acts 8:32-33) and in Matthew 12:20, it is said that Jesus will not break the bruised reed or snuff out the dying candle. It means Jesus Christ the servant is attracted to hopeless cases. He cares for the fragile. He loves people who are beaten and battered and bruised. They may not show it on the outside, but inside they are dying. Jesus sees all the way into the heart and he knows what to do. The Lord binds up the brokenhearted and heals our wounds (Ps.147:3; Isa.61:1).’

(Pg.243)

Keller then looks at how God cared for Elijah when he felt overwhelmed by all his enemies:

‘If you read the narrative, you know this is not all that Elijah needs (food and drink). Eventually, God comes to him and challenges him out of despair. God asks him questions, gets him talking, and challenges his interpretation of things, showing him it is not as hopeless as he thinks. And God reveals that he still has a plan for Israel (1 Kings 19:9-17).

‘But reasoning and explaining are not the first things God does with Elijah. He knows the prophet is also a physical being – he is exhausted, spent. He needs rest and food. He needs touch and gentleness. Later, (God) talks to (Elijah). The balance is striking. Some today conceive of depression as all physical, simply a matter of brain chemistry, and so they just need medicine and rest. Others, often Christians, may instead come upon a depressed person and tell him to buck up, to repent and get right with God, to pull himself together and do the right thing. But God here shows us that we are complex creatures – with bodies and souls. To oversimplify treatment would be to break the bruised reed – to put out the smoldering wick. God does not do that. At the right time, a despondent person may need a confrontation, and be challenged. But he also may need a walk by the sea and a great meal.’

(Pg.244)

In other words, we should allow a space where people (including ourselves) can fully express their grief and have someone listen. And the Bible itself has some writing that helps to express that grief. An example would be Psalm 88. From that psalm, Keller comes up with three interpretations:

  • Psalm 88 is not scared to be honest about the darkness. In fact, it even uses the word three times! It does not even end on a note of hope! And to Keller, that’s alright: ‘Things don’t have to quickly work themselves out, nor does it always become clear why this or that happened’ (Pg.248). Therefore, it is reasonable for even a devout Christian to express pain.
  • Darkness can help reveal God’s grace to us in a new way. The psalm’s author, Heman the Ezrahite, does not pull his punches in saying that he wants to praise God yet he cannot and so ends up in despair. And yet, according to Derek Kidner: ‘“The very presence of such prayers in Scripture is a witness to His understanding. He knows how men speak when they are desperate.”’ (Pg.248). In other words, while it may seem blasphemous to speak against God, the very presence of Psalm 88 in scripture is proof that it is OK to express anger and despair at God. And soon, even in the darkness, God will reveal His grace towards us.
  • Finally, God can use these circumstances to rely on Him and His grace more and more. On the one hand, it may feel like that there is no point in trying to worship God and love our neighbor, yet what if, asks Keller, it helps to do both and rely more on His grace as well. It could make us see that there is no comfort in earthly things but in God alone.

In fact, even in our abandonment, Jesus is still there. He felt our sin and pain when he endured the cross. He even quoted from the suffering psalms, especially Psalm 22. While we may often feel abandoned by God, that is nothing compared to the pain that Jesus felt on the cross. And to deny our pain and despair would only lead to a false security. In fact, there will come a time when we’ll be able to rejoice when it is over.

We have often heard of certain phrases such as “stiff upper-lip”, “walk in victory” and “fake it till you make it”. We have noticed that our culture can view grief as weakness. The only place where problems can be fixed is in fiction, where they are resolved at the end of the story simply and neatly. This is according to the three unities of time, place and function as proposed by Aristotle. The same applies for Greek tragedies as well as sitcoms.

Obviously it is good for Christians to express their pain. In this case, Job’s reactions were quite reasonable! Asking “why” is not always helpful, just ask what would Jesus do with this?’ Sometimes, the best one can do is simple to take a nap and eat something. The reason is because we are physical beings and we need to remember to look after our bodies. Therefore, the best questions should may be, ‘we need to eat/sleep?’ Finally, we noted there are many fallible people in the Bible, which is very encouraging since we are fallible beings. The only thing we need to remind ourselves is that there is only ONE infallible Person. And he is NOT the Pope!

Joseph_in_prison

Joseph in Prison by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_(Genesis))

In Chapter Thirteen, Keller looks at the other side of the coin: trusting in God. Throughout this chapter, he uses the story of Joseph, especially his trials and tribulations. To begin Joseph was a young if rather arrogant man, but after being sent to Egypt as a slave and even wrongfully accused, he learnt a lesson of depending upon God in adversity. And after that, God raised him up to a position of power in Pharaoh’s court. Through that Joseph was able to save not only Egypt but even his family as well.

‘How did all this come? (asks Keller) ‘It came through suffering. Suffering for the brothers and Jacob, terrible suffering for Joseph too. The terrible years of crushing slavery for Joseph, the terrible years of debilitating guilt for the brothers, and the terrible years of grief and depression for Jacob, were all brought about by God’s plan. Yet how else could they have been saved physically and spiritually? He “disciplines us for our good.” After the pain, comes a “harvest of righteousness and peace” (Heb.12:10-11).’

(Pg.261)

The reason why God’s answer often feels slow to some is because He has a reason for this pain. God then becomes in Keller’s view, a “hidden” God. In the case of Joseph it was to attain a carefully planned out deliverance for his country and family, whereas in the case of the prophet Elisha God granted a miracle that saved Israel from destruction. In fact, Keller himself experienced a similar thing when he became pastor at New York City Redeemer Presbyterian because, of all things, the Watergate scandal! Because of one night watchman noticing suspicious activity, it led to a president being impeached, another one coming in, that president’s son providing an administrative complication that prevented a professor at Keller’s seminary from getting a visa delaying his arrival to the US till later, and when in the US, he was able to lead Keller to an interest in the Presbyterian denomination and later to that church in New York. All because of the plan of God.

In Genesis the plan of God helped to show Joseph and his family how sinful and conceited they were:

‘Joseph had two vivid dreams, each of which obviously meant that all of his brothers would eventually bow down to and serve him. Now, often dreams make concrete and vivid a desire we have been harboring secretly or subconsciously. Joseph’s eager announcement of the dreams shows that he had a growing sense of his own superiority. He was fast becoming a very arrogant young man, a narcissist with unrealistic views of himself, who would eventually have an inability to empathize with and love others. He was headed for the unhappy marriages and broken relationships and all-around miserable life that such people have. 

‘But Joseph was also blind to the toxins in the family system. His dreams only made his brothers more furious at him (Gen 37:11), poisoning their hearts with more bitterness. They craved their father’s love but didn’t get it. They hated Joseph and competed with one another. The interlude chapter 38, the story of Judah and Tamar, shows the effect all this had on the characters of Jacob’s sons. They were becoming callous, selfish, and capable of real cruelty. The future was dim for everyone. A lifetime of fear, jealousy, disappointment, violence, and family breakdown was ahead of them all.’ 

(Pg.256)

In his suffering Joseph learnt to humble himself and rely on God even through the blackest days. And in the case of his brothers it led them to acknowledge their sins and to reconcile with their long-departed brother.

But perhaps the most wonderful aspect of Joseph’s story and his trust in the hidden God was the fact that Joseph himself was a forerunner to Jesus in that that Jesus too went to Egypt as a babe and later endured His passion and crucifixion.   On one point, one may even ask why such as a powerful man would let himself die such an excruciating death? All because He trusted in God’s plan and was able to give us our salvation.

We agreed that Keller did a good job of bringing all the aspects of Joseph’s story together. We never thought about the dreams being a subconscious desire before. Why would Joseph take these to his brothers? We hadn’t thought about how his life would have turned out if he hadn’t been sold into slavery. He wasn’t the nice person we thought he was – he was a spoiled brat. God gives us what we would have asked for if we had known everything He knows.

The only way we grow is by going through tough stuff. We wondered, ‘Is there growth in heaven?’ Heaven is an eternity, outside time, whereas growth is a function of time. This means that, maybe in heaven, there will be no need for growth.

But maybe we just don’t know how to grow without pain but maybe in a higher plane we won’t need pain to grow. Maybe growth in heaven will be like study but without the pain.

Job_and_his_friends

Job and His Friends by Ilya Repin (1869)

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Job_(biblical_figure))

In Chapter Fourteen, Keller looks at prayer, particularly in the case of Job:

‘’No other book in the Bible or, to my mind, in all of ancient literature, faces the questions of evil and suffering with such emotional and dramatic realism yet also with such intellectual and philosophical deftness. Obviously, the main theme is that of innocent suffering – why do so many very good people have a disproportionate number of afflictions and tragedies, while many dishonest, selfish, and greedy people have comfortable lives? The book of Job is uniquely balanced in its treatment of this theme. It treats it neither abstractly nor just viscerally. The problem of evil is examined through one man’s vividly described agony. His cries are poignant and provocative. Nevertheless, the long speeches of Job are filled with profound, thoughtful reflection. This perfectly conveys that the problem of horrendous suffering is both a philosophical and a great personal problem. To treat it as only one or the other is inadequate.

‘Another way the book of Job is unique is in its implicit critique of nearly all the common answers to the problem of evil. When suffering comes upon us, we wonder why it is happening to us. The traditional religious answer to this question is: You must have done something wrong or bad. The secular answer to the question is: There is no good reason. A good God wouldn’t do this – so he doesn’t exist or he’s cruel. One of the main messages of the book of Job is that both the religious and the irreligious, the moralistic and the nihilistic answers are wrong. Both are, in the end, pat answers that can be stated in a sentence or two. But neither the author of Job nor Job himself will go for such easy solutions. Both classic answers are given withering critiques in the book, and that is largely what creates the dramatic tension and makes the book so intriguing. The religious answer expressed by Job’s friends is revealed to be slanderously wrong: Job’s difficulties come upon him not despite his goodness but because of it. But the nihilistic view, which Job veers towards at times, is also a grave mistake.’

(Pgs.270-271)

Keller first looks at the beginning of the book of Job, where God and Satan debate the merits of Job’s worth. Satan says that, if God took away all the good things that Job has, such as family, wealth and health, Job will start to curse God to His face. And with that, God gives Satan permission to inflict whatever pain Satan can bring to Job. Now while it may seem shocking that a good God can allow Satan to inflict pain and suffering on a good man like Job, Keller says that this trial by fire is helpful in making Christians become true lovers of God:

‘There is a difference between external religiosity and internal heart love and devotion to God. That gap is to some degree in us all, and it is one of the reasons we don’t have the intimacy with God and the peace and the joy in him that we should. What is a real servant of God? Well, think of any love relationship. What if you fell in love with someone who seemed to love you back, but then when you had a financial reversal, he or she broke off the relationship? Wouldn’t you feel used? Wouldn’t you think the person loved the things you could give him rather than loving you for you yourself? It’s no different with God. We should love God for himself alone, not for the benefits he brings.

‘How do you develop a love like that? Let’s say you initially fall in love with a person, and, if you are honest, it was partly because of some of the person’s “assets” – his or her looks or connections, for instance. But as the relationship progresses, you begin to love the person for himself alone, and then when some of the assets go away, you don’t mind. We call that growth in love and character. Now, what if you grew in your love for God like that? What if you could grow in your love for him so that he became increasingly satisfying in himself to you? That would mean that circumstances wouldn’t rattle you so much, since you had God and his love enriching and nourishing you regardless of the circumstances.’

(Pgs.273-274)

In other words, God often uses hardship to help us to develop our love for Him rather than just the good things that He gives us. In fact, God has control of even Satan and it is not God who inflicts these things on Job, nor does God enjoy inflicting pain on Job. The point of these hardships is to develop a better relationship between God and Job.

Next Keller moves onto the debates between an embittered Job and his friends. As mentioned earlier in the book, Job’s friends are under the assumption of a moral theology, but it’s one that simply bases God upon a human idea of morality, in that He behaves according to human mores. Against this, Job argues that his friends are both wrong about his sinfulness and the nature of God. Job even complains about his treatment from the hands of God and wants to hear personally from God Himself the reason for his suffering, which leads to a new truth:

‘“If there is (quoting Francis Anderson) a grain of truth in Eliphaz’s teaching about the “the [correction] of the Almighty” (5:17), it is not in the negative sense of training so a person is restrained from potential sin. Job had long since attained this …. The readers know what Job does not know, namely that Job’s highest wisdom is to love God for Himself alone. Hence Eliphaz’s words, far from being a comfort, are a trap. The violence with which Job rejects them shows his recognition of the danger.”

(Anderson shows that Job) was being called to live on a new plane. Job shows that he has an inkling of this. Through all the speeches and prayers, Job repeatedly states his desire is granted, but not in the way he expected. When God actually does appear and speak to Job in the final chapter of the book, there are four great shocks and surprises.’

(Pgs.279-280)

The four “shocks and surprises” are:

  • God’s final appearance as a storm – He appears in front of Job in the form of a cloud, in a moment off power, as Yahweh. Yet He has appeared not to punish Job but to teach him grace, to enter into a dialogue with Job about His power and wisdom. ‘God comes both as a gracious, personal God and as an infinite, overwhelming force – at the very same time.’ (Pg.282). Keller even connects this appearance to Jesus who came down in the form of a hapless baby and yet revealed God’s power and grace at the same time to a sinful humanity.
  • God’s answer – His answer is different from that Job and his friends were expecting. Instead of explaining the reason for Job’s problems and affirming Job’s friends that Job is a sinner, God simply speaks about the natural world. In a paradoxical way, God does not answer Job’s cries, but His “absence” provides Job the experience to grow and develop into a true follower of God. (God) would have been cooperating with Job’s impulse for self-justification had (God) given (Job) those reasons (for his sufferings). Instead, the experience of suffering leads Job to the place where he loves and trusts him simply because he is God. Job becomes a person of enormous strength and joy, who does not need favorable circumstances in order to stand up straight spiritually. This makes the suffering – or, more accurately, the results of the suffering – a very great gift indeed, and it is doubtful that this level of reliance on the grace of God can ever be gotten any other way.’ (Pg.284).
  • God’s speeches – God gives Job and his friends a wide-ranging look on creation and finally asks Job if he will contend with the Almighty. Keller likens it to that of an ancient Israelite king behaving as a judge who sets things to rights, and that is what God is doing by asking Job if he has power like God’s. ‘Since Job does not have the power to be judge, he does not have the right. Job says that he can run the universe better than God – but that is simply a fiction. Job is being told to drop his claim that he can do so. (Francis) Anderson says that Job is being called to “hand the whole matter completely to God more trustingly, less fretfully. And do it without insisting that God should first answer all his questions”’ (Pg.286). This helps rid of Job of any pride and makes him rely upon God.
  • God restores Job and rebukes his friends – God restores Job to his former glory and also tells off Job’s friends for their false advice. Some modern readers have often questioned this segment asking why God would restore Job back to his wealth after Job has cursed Him to His face. But Keller says that the difference is that Job addressed these complaints in the form of a prayer, that ‘the suffering did not drive (Job) away from God but toward him.’ (Pg.288). In fact, it is ok for a Christian to turn all our complaints towards God: Like Job, you must seek him, go to him. Pray even if you are dry. Read the Scriptures even if it is an agony. Eventually, you will sense him again – the darkness won’t last forever. The strength you need for suffering comes in the doing of the responsibilities and duties God requires. Shirk no commands of God. Read, pray, study, fellowship, serve, witness, obey. Do all your duties that you physically can and the God of peace will be with you’ (Pg.288). Above all, also re-examine your feelings and hopes, and allow prayer to change you. Keller refers to advice from a Christian psychiatrist John White: (W)hen you are despondent an effort to read the Bible “devotionally” – that is, looking for inspiration and uplift – is not the answer. Instead, (White) counsels that you should study the Bible for content. Get the truth out of the text. Remind yourself of who God is, and you are in Christ, and what he has done for you. Simone Weil says that it is important to at least want to love God. So do what you can to pray to him and ponder the truth. And wait. Wait like Job waited.’

This news vindicates Job and enables him to move onto a better understanding of God. But, like Joseph in Chapter 13, Job is also a type of Christ, in that He also underwent pain and torment under Satan and managed to bring about our salvation through that entire struggle.

R said she liked the idea that the whole process of God’s treatment of Job was to bring Job into a better relationship with God. Paul said, “I’ve learnt to be content in all circumstances” (Phil.4:11-13). Paul didn’t need the good things of God to be in relationship with God.   It is the same with what Keller is saying about Job. The more you know the Bible the more you can use it in life, which is better than a devotional book. Read, pray, study, fellowship, serve witness, and obey – we all love this.

Saint_Paul,_Rembrandt_van_Rijn_(and_Workshop?),_c._1657

Paul the Apostle by Rembrandt van Rijn

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_the_Apostle)

In Chapter Fifteen, Keller turns his attention to the apostle Paul, especially in relation to his Epistle to the Philippians:

‘Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Phil.4:4-9)’

(Pg.295)

According to Keller, this “peace” that Paul has received has helped him through many tribulations during his ministry. Keller says that this peace Paul possessed is different from an innate stoicism because Paul learnt it from God. Nor is it an absence of anything bad, but a “presence”: ‘Christian peace does not start with the ousting of negative thinking. If you do that, you may simply be refusing to face how bad things are. That is one way to calm yourself – by refusing to admit the facts. But it will be a short-lived peace! Christian peace doesn’t start that way. It is not that you stop facing the facts, but you get a living power that comes into your life and enables you to face those realities, something that lifts you up over and through them’ (Pg.297). In fact, even if bad things happen, the peace of God will keep many believers, like Paul, afloat. The way to learn this peace is via three things:

  • The Discipline of Thinking – in verses 8-9 of Philippians 4, Paul tells his readers to think about whatever is ‘true, …. noble, …. right, ..… pure, …. lovely, (and)(Pg.295). In Keller’s point-of-view, it is not aspirational, lofty thinking but rather basing our thoughts on salvation: ‘the specific teaching of the Bible about God, sin, Christ, salvation, the world, human nature, and God’s plans for the world – the plan of salvation’ (Pg.298). It means turning our minds to the idea of Jesus dying on the cross for our sins and rising from the dead. It is different from the peace that wants us to deny anything bad and simply turn our thoughts somewhere else, which is what Keller calls a “stupid peace”. Rather, it means turning our minds to the bigger picture of salvation and deriving our peace from there, which Keller calls a “smart peace”.
  • The Discipline of Thanking – in v.6 of Philippians 4, Paul also says that we should not be anxious but make our requests to God in This is putting our trust in the God in charge of our history, even when we do not understand the bad things that happen to us. Keller quotes another of Paul’s writings Romans 8:28 where “all things work together for those who love God.” Keller warns us, though, that ‘Romans 8 must not be read in a saccharine way. It does not say that every bad thing has a “silver lining” or that every terrible thing that can happen is somehow “actually a good thing if you learn to look at it properly.” No, Paul says in Romans 8:28 that all things – even bad things – will ultimately together be overruled by God in such a way that the intended evil will, in the end, only accomplish the opposite of its designs – a greater good and glory than would otherwise have come to pass. Only God now has the eternal perspective and vantage point from which he can see all things working together for our good and for his glory – but eventually we will occupy that place and will see it too’ (Pgs.301-302). We are, therefore, to thank God for everything, even if we do not always understand what is happening to us, even if His ways do not always answer our requests.
  • The Discipline of Reordering Our Loves – Paul then encourages his readers to turn their love to God ‘not just to order the thoughts of their mind but to engage the affections of the heart …. It is not enough just to think the right things. It is also important to love the right things’ (Pgs.302-303). This is different from Greek philosophy, especially Stoicism, which argues for a complete detachment from everything that could cause us to feel pain. Here, a Christian puts his-or-her love in God who is above and beyond all material things and not to place our love for anyone or anything above and beyond God.

These three things, according to Keller, can help use our suffering to review our lives, to see if we placing our trust in the wrong things in life and to have a ‘rediscovery of the gospel of free grace. If we hear the accusation in our heart: “God will not save you; you are unworthy!” the only answer is that God’s salvation is not for the worthy but for the humble – those who admit they are not worthy. …. We do not save ourselves – it is unmerited’ (Pgs.306-307). It means looking at the Person of Jesus and His atoning death and to place it above and beyond everything else. Yes, we may love some things, but when Christians suffer it should make us rethink our priorities and place our love on Jesus. To illustrate this point, Keller tells the story of two actors:

‘Some years ago, I remember two young men at Redeemer who were actors. They both auditioned for the same role, and it was the biggest one for which they’d ever been considered. Both were professing Christians, but one, I believe, put all his emotional and spiritual hopes into having a successful acting career. He believed in Jesus, but it was clear that he could only enjoy life and feel good about himself if his career was going well. The other man was also a professing Christian, but after some disappointments, he had come to the place where he wanted as his main goal in life to please and honor the God who had saved him. He thought he could do that by being an actor. 

‘They were both turned down – neither got the part. The first man was devastated, going into a time of depression and drug abuse. The other felt terrible at first, and wept. But not long afterward, he was fine, and saying, “I guess I was wrong. Looks like I can please and honor God better in some other career.” See the difference? The second man held his acting career as a means to an end; the first man had made acting an end in itself. The circumstances of life couldn’t touch the second man’s treasure in life, but it was able to sweep away the first man’s treasure, and it was terrible for him. To be loved by God, to be known by God, is the ultimate treasure. And if you make it your ultimate treasure, then no “thief can break in and steal” it (Matt.6:19).’

(Pgs.308-309)

We all agree with the ‘think, thank and love’ disciplines because it would help deal with the problems of life. Both actors and authors are trained at being rejected, so most of them would develop a hard skin in relation to rejection. We then went on talking about social media and thinking on the right things while watching what we read and watch on TV and the Internet. Some people even go so far as to not watch the news. Maybe it’s better to use news websites or something that can allow to absorb the information at our own pace. But, then again, we need to keep ourselves educated, especially when trying to vote. In the end, it is all a question of balance.

Schnorr_von_Carolsfeld_Bibel_in_Bildern_1860_236

Vision of John on Patmos by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1860

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Revelation)

Finally, in Chapter Sixteen, Keller turns to another apostle John, especially in the book of Revelation, where, in spite of tribulation and suffering, there will be hope for Christians:

‘John gave (the Christians undergoing persecution) the ultimate hope – a new heavens and a new earth that was coming. That is what he gave them to face it, and it is a simple fact of history that it worked. We know that the early Christians took their suffering with great poise and peace and they sang hymns as the beasts were tearing them apart and they forgave the people who were killing them. And so the more they were killed, the more the Christian movement grew. Why? Because when people watched Christians dying like that, they said, “These people have got something.” Well, do you know what they had? They had this. It is a living hope.

‘Human beings are hope-shaped creatures. The way you live now is completely controlled by what you believe about your future. I was reading a story some years ago about two men who were captured and thrown into a dungeon. Just before they went into prison, one man discovered that his wife and child were dead, and the other learned that his wife and child were alive and waiting for him. In the first couple years of imprisonment the first man just wasted away, curled up and died. But the other man endured and stayed strong and walked out a free man ten years later. Notice that these two men experienced the very same circumstances but responded differently because, while they experienced the same present, they had their minds set on different futures. It was the future that determined how they handled the present.’

(Pg.314)

It is this hope, that God will come and bring a new heaven and a new earth that brings joy in the midst of suffering. It is the same hope that sustained the African-American slaves in their turmoil, as evident in their songs. But again it is in Jesus that provides this hope:

‘Donald Grey Barnhouse, was a pastor at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia for many years, lost his wife when his daughter was still a child. Dr. Barnhouse was trying to help his little girl, and himself process the loss of his wife and her mother. Once when they were driving, a huge moving van passed them. As it passed, the shadow of the truck swept over the car. The minister had a thought. He said something like this, “Would you rather be run over by a truck, or by its shadow?” His daughter replied, “By the shadow of course. That can’t hurt us at all.” Dr. Barnhouse replied, “Right. If the truck doesn’t hit you, but only its shadow, then you are fine. Well, it was only the shadow of death that went over your mother. She’s actually alive – more alive than we are. And that’s because two thousand years ago, the real truck of death hit Jesus. And because death crushed Jesus, and we believe in him, now the only thing that can come over us is the shadow of death, and the shadow of death is but my entrance into glory.” ’

(Pg.317)

This means that, because Jesus Himself bore our hopelessness along with our other sins on the cross, He has given us hope that will help us all even during our darkest moments. Keller himself felt this when he went under for an operation on his thyroid cancer: ‘And in the moments before they gave me the anesthetic, I prayed. To my surprise, I got a sudden, clear new perspective on everything. It seemed to me that the universe was an enormous realm of joy, mirth, and high beauty. Of course it was – didn’t the Triune God make it to be filled with his own boundless joy, wisdom, love, and delight? And within this great globe of glory was only one little speck of darkness – our world – where there was temporarily pain and suffering. But it was only one speck, and soon that speck would fade away and everything would be light. And I thought, “It doesn’t really matter how the surgery goes. Everything will be all right. Me – my wife, my children, my church – will all be all right.” I went to sleep with a bright peace on my heart.’

(Pg.318)

J loved the Donald Grey Barnhouse story. This makes us ask questions like how do we know that the darkness on our earth is the only place? There has to be life for there to be evil, meaning sentient beings, personalities, etc.

We talked about grief being always there, always with you. We liked that Keller ends his book with such triumph and hope. The hope that we have gives us the way through life, to walk through whatever life throws at us.

Overall, we enjoyed this book more than the last few we looked at the book club. It has given us some tools for life, not only because it helps us handle the most difficult aspects of our lives, but does so from a godly, Christian and biblical perspective. It is for this that we are grateful for Keller that he gave us the time and the resources to discuss this painful topic.

Join us next time as we look at the first part of Gary Neal Hansen’s Kneeling with Giants!

Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering. Hodder. 2013 (Rep:2015)

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Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering Part Two

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(https://www.amazon.com/Walking-God-through-Pain-Suffering/dp/1594634408)

Hello, and welcome back to the blog. Last time we looked at Part One of Timothy Keller’s Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering, where he talked about the difference between the Christian and non-Christian views on suffering. Now, we turn our attention to Part Two, where Keller discusses suffering in specific Christian doctrines, God’s place in the suffering of our universe, and how the Bible views suffering.

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

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In Chapter Five, Timothy Keller looks at any challenges to faith, continuing his theme of theodicy versus a defense of God’s existence and the problem of evil in Chapter Four. Keller says that, in particular, the visceral argument – that one has a deep, profound shock and horror at the evil done in the world – stems mainly from a heart level. (Blaise) Pascal’s insightful phrase “reasons of the heart” refers neither to mere irrational feelings nor simply to logical propositions. They are best described as intuitions – explanations that not only give some light to the mind but are also existentially comforting or satisfying. A “reason for the heart,” unlike an abstract proposition, affects and changes attitudes and actions’ (Pg.113). Therefore, this reaction is a reaction against evil itself, that is it wrong and should and must not happen. Keller claims that this intuition against evil stems from three Christian doctrines:

(1)      The Christian doctrine of creation and the fall, in which our world was made and put into existence by a good and just God but because of original sin, we have now inherited a world of suffering and darkness. Our intuition tells us that all this suffering is wrong and Keller relates this feeling to the fall. On the one hand, we are to do our God-given tasks but now under great duress. We also must not be quick to assign blame of a particular into anyone who suffers, like Job’s friends did with Job because the ‘world (itself) is too fallen and deeply broken to divide into a neat pattern of good people having good lives and bad people having bad lives. The brokenness of the world is inherited by the entire human race’ (Pg.114). The only reasonable reaction is to admit that suffering and death is just judgment from God against original sin, and to rid ourselves of the Deistic view that we are good people and God permits us no harm, because it is so self-centered. This is made obvious with our sinful record and our inability to be good all the time. Paradoxically, Keller puts forward this question: ‘Why, in light of our behavior as a human race, does God allow so much happiness?’ (Pg.115). That idea, in contrast to the one where we usually ask ourselves the question on how a good and all-powerful God should allow suffering to happen, should make us pause for thought.

(2)      The Christian doctrine of the Last Judgment. The Christian believes that on Judgment Day, all past wrongs, pain, and evil will be done away and the whole world will also be restored to its original glory. This doctrine has often been seen as a rather gloomy one, but Keller reassures us that it is not, because it will restore creation, and all evil will be destroyed. The concept of final judgment will also help us have an idea of God’s goodness and courage because it can enable us to see that, in the darkness and pain, there is a good God who has a plan for us. All we have to do is depend upon Him and wait.

(3)      The Christian doctrine of Atonement. The idea that an all-powerful God who is in charge of the universe, whose will is hard to grasp at times, became a man and endured suffering on the cross is a radical one. ‘Here we see the ultimate strength – a God who is strong enough to voluntarily become weak and plunge himself into vulnerability and darkness out of love for us. And here we see the greatest possible glory – the willingness to lay aside all his glory out of love for us’ (Pg.120). It is this uniqueness that sets Christianity apart from other religions in that God Himself came down and suffered for us. By contrast, the God encountered in the Book of Job is beyond our comprehension, especially in relation to Job’s sufferings, but in the incarnation, we can appreciate God’s love for us and see for ourselves that He does understand our suffering.

Our intuition that something is wrong with the suffering in the world, and these doctrines, allow us to know that there is a God who knows and understands our struggle and pain, and that one day it will be gone from our lives.

We found that, on the issue of suffering, non-Christians cannot agree with us. It simply doesn’t make sense to them, which brings to mind the biblical passage “the message of the cross is foolishness” (1 Cor.1:18). In our case as Christians, Jesus is living and interceding for us and He helps us even now. Once you have experienced and received that succour you don’t want to go back to your old life. However, if you are an atheist, you would automatically want justice now, and will on rely upon a God to help you. As for us, we look forward to the day when things actually work properly. This is in sync with the Christian doctrine of the last judgment. We hope for a future that does not have the usual woes that befall society. Especially a future where everyone is a lot kinder to everybody else. We also agree that we don’t deserve happiness, especially a happiness that is only temporal and can easily give way to other feelings, such as sadness or anger. The only happiness worth waiting for is the one that comes at the end of this life.

The_Creation_of_Adam

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo c. 1512

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In Chapter Six, Keller takes a look at the theme of God’s sovereignty, especially in relation to the issue of suffering. Here he looks at how the Bible as a whole describes pain and suffering and says that he finds it to be balanced about these issues:

‘Suffering is both just and unjust.

‘God is a both a sovereign and a suffering God.’

(Pg.130)

He first begins in Genesis, where the fall caused us to live in a universe of suffering and evil. Keller says that this is the fallen state of the world itself and that it is under God’s judgment. It also led us to be frustrated with the world itself: ‘Humans beings were not created to experience death, pain, grief, disappointment, ruptured relationships, disease, and natural disasters. … A frustrated world is a broken world, in which things do not function as they should, and that is why there is evil and suffering’ (Pg.131). Yet, as the wisdom literature of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes prove, the causes of evil are many and varied. While Proverbs reiterates that a wrong action would result in judgment (e.g. a lazy person would not profit from his actions), Job and Ecclesiastes balance it by stating that sometimes people may suffer for no reason obvious to us. But in God’s plan, He is totally against the evil that permeates his creation and wants to restore it. In the Old Testament, God is there yet hidden and sometimes beyond our comprehension, but by the time of Jesus we have an incarnate God who is totally against the evil that He sees and actually hates it for what it is. This is apparent when we see the resurrection of Lazarus. But instead of destroying us completely for this sinful state, Jesus went to the cross instead:

‘Instead of coming as a general at the head of an army, he went in weakness to the cross in order to pay for our sins, so that someday he will return to wipe out evil without having to judge us as well. He will be able to receive us to himself because he bore our judgment himself on Calvary.’

(Pgs.137-138).

Therefore, we see two truths at work, that the suffering in our world is both just and unjust and we need the wisdom to know the difference, and that our world is also a fallen world that needs redemption and will one day reach that state. This in turn leads to Keller’s second supposition: that our God is a sovereign one who uses both good and bad events to shape our world and even participates in our suffering:

‘ “The God of the Bible (quoting Ronald Rittgers) … both suffers with humanity – supremely on the cross – and yet is in some sense also sovereign over suffering. Both beliefs were (and are) essential to the traditional Christian assertion that suffering ultimately has some meaning and that the triune God is able to provide deliverance from it.”

‘What do we mean, first when we say that God is sovereign over history and therefore over suffering? The doctrine of the sovereignty of God in the Bible has sometimes been called compatibilism. The Bible teaches that God is completely in control of what happens in history and yet he exercises that control in such a way that human beings are responsible for their freely chosen actions and the results of those actions. Human freedom and God’s direction of historical events are therefore completely compatible. To put it most practically and vividly – if a man robs a bank, that moral evil is fully his responsibility, though it also is part of God’s plan.’

(Pgs.139-140)

This means that even suffering may have a purpose, though we may not be aware of it at the moment.

We liked the part about Jesus bellowing in anger at Lazarus’ tomb, which displays His anger at death and suffering in our world. In the case of free will and suffering, we agree that it seems like a contradiction, but it is like the Trinity, or, in the case of science, light being both a wave and a particle. This only highlights the fact that we possess finite minds, which cannot take in everything.

We discussed how we did not know even our own theology, which could lead us to possess an immature theology. When that theology is attacked, it doesn’t stand up and, as we do not study deeply, we cannot stand against the attack as well. “Now we see through a glass darkly” (1 Cor.13:12). As for the case of Scripture seeming to contradict itself, we would rather argue that it does not. The reason why it appears to be that way is because we don’t understand enough. Therefore, the failure to understand Scripture actually betrays Scripture. On a human level, we can feel that suffering often appears meaningless, and we can still feel it even when we stand in our belief in the sovereignty of God.

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Pietro Perugino’s depiction of the Crucifixion as Stabat Mater, 1482

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus)

Moving onto Chapter Seven, Keller turns his attention to the suffering of God. The idea that a sovereign, all-powerful God has felt, and can still feel, our suffering is something that Keller says is what makes Christianity unique. On the one hand our God is a God who is all-powerful, but on the other hand He is not above and beyond our suffering. Keller says that the Old Testament is replete with references to God feeling the pain of His creation and people, and this reaches its culmination in the incarnation of Jesus. This is apparent during the Passion on the cross where Jesus endured our sin:

‘ “He was without any comforts of God (quoting Robert Murray M’Cheyne) – no feeling that God loved him – no feeling that God pitied him – no feeling that God supported him. God was his sun before – now that sun became all darkness …. He was without God – he was as if he had no God. All that God had been to him before was taken from him now. He was Godless – deprived of his God. He had the feeling of the condemned, when the Judge says, “Depart from me, ye cursed …. Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his power.” He felt that God said the same to him. I feel like a little child casting a stone into some deep ravine in the mountain side, and listening to hear its fall – but listening all in vain….

‘ “Ah! This is the hell that Christ suffered. The ocean of Christ’s sufferings is unfathomable … He was forsaken in the [place] of sinners. If you close with him, at your surety, you will never be forsaken … “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” [The answer?] For me – for me. The ocean of Christ’s sufferings is unfathomable.” ’

(Pgs.150-151)

In fact, even after His ascension Christ continues to suffer, as we see in Acts 9, where Jesus stops Saul from persecuting the early church because He can feel their pain! ‘If God is out of control of history, then suffering is not part of any plan; it is random and senseless. … On the other hand, if God has not suffered, then how can we trust him?’ (Pgs.152-153). God’s suffering gives our suffering meaning because we are not alone in an empty, meaningless universe but are sharing it with a God who can give it meaning. This also makes us view Judgment Day with a difference, because the book of Revelation mentions that the scroll is opened by, of all things, a slaughtered lamb.

‘Who is opening the seals on the scroll and carrying out judgments against the forces of darkness? A wounded lamb! That is hardly a figure we would associate with strength and power, and that is the whole point. The Bible says that at the very moment Jesus was dying on the cross, he was “disarming the powers … triumphing over them by the cross” (Col 2:15). Through his death, he absorbed the curse for human disobedience (Gal 3:10-14) and so defeated sin and death and the evil forces behind them. For those who are “in Christ Jesus … there is no condemnation” (Rom 8:1) – death has no more ultimate claim on us. And so it is a wounded lamb who now is able not simply to judge wrongdoing but actually to undo the damage that evil has wreaked on the creation.’

(Pgs.155-156)

So, thanks to the ultimate irony, we will be able to escape death and judgment via the very forces that once held us so tightly in their grip! And it is thanks to this deliverance that we will, one day, be able to partake of God’s ultimate salvation.

As Christians, we feel that it is great to have different celebrations, that bring our minds back to the suffering of Christ . In everyday life a normal person may not think about it often but the Holy Week celebration makes more of it and concentrates our attention on the Passion of Jesus. At the same time, we cannot stay in the past forever, but we have to be in the present as well, leaving the future in God’s hands. Which makes us think that, if we do not have the lows, the suffering, then we will not be able to appreciate the high points in life. An interesting question to ask is what how will heaven be like if we don’t have suffering?

In the case of one book club member, R, it made her think about how having a suffering God is a comfort if you are suffering, because the usual idea of God is that He is too far away from our pain to actually experience it. But in Christianity, we possess this doctrine and helps us to elevate our suffering. Another member, GM, remembers a science fiction story that features time travellers going to Jesus’ death at Golgotha, only to find themselves the ONLY people there as witnesses to His death! To GM’s thinking, this story helped illustrate that it is our sin that put Jesus on the cross, in this case suggesting that through all history, people will STILL be drawn to this event.

Strand Magazine vol IV

The Adventure of Silver Blaze by Sidney Paget

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In Chapter Eight, Keller turns his attention to the reasons for God allowing us to experience suffering first-hand. Keller quotes psychologist Jonathan Haidt in stating in how suffering can help us better cope with it:

‘First, people who endure and get through suffering become more resilient. Once they have learned to cope, they know they can do it again and live life with less anxiety. Romans 5:3-4 sums it up: “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Second, it strengthens relationships, usually bonding the sufferer permanently into a set of deeper friendships or family ties that serve to nurture and strengthen [a person] for years.

‘But the third benefit is perhaps the most significant – suffering “changes priorities and philosophies.” Psychologist Robert Emmons has sorted people’s life goals into four basic categories – personal achievement and happiness, relationships and intimacy, religion and spirituality, and “generativity” (contributing something lasting to society). People who invest much or most of their energy into the goals of personal achievement and happiness are the most vulnerable to the adverse circumstances of life. Efforts to seek God, deeper relationships, and the good of society sometimes can be directly enhanced by suffering, but our freedom and comfort never are. And so trouble and trials tend to force us out of certain agendas and into others.’

(Pgs.165-166)

More importantly, the whole point of suffering is to remind us that the purpose of our lives is to glorify God alone. Keller offers three reasons why we should praise God:

‘The theology books struggle when they try to define it (the glory of God). I believe it is because the glory of God is actually the combined magnitude of all God’s attributes and qualities put together. The glory of God means what can be called his infinite beyondness. He is not a “tame” God, a God at hand. He is not someone you can always figure out, or expect to figure out. This is a God beyond our comprehension, and it is one of the aspects of the biblical God that modern people dislike the most. We are always saying, “I can’t believe in a God who would do this” or “I can’t believe in a God who would judge people.” One of the things that [this] may mean is that we don’t want a glorious God, one beyond our comprehension.

‘The glory of God also means his supreme importance. The Hebrew word for “glory” is kabod, which means “weight” – literally God’s weightiness. Fortunately, we have an English word that has the same lexical range and that functions in the same way – it is the word matter. Matter means “as opposed to the immaterial, something solid, something substantial,” but it can also mean “importance.” And therefore, when the Bible says that God is glorious, it means he should matter, and does matter, more than anything else or anyone else. And if anything matters to you more than God, you are not acknowledging his glory. You are giving glory to something else.’

(Pgs.168-169)

‘There is one more thing to say about God’s glory – it is his absolute splendor and beauty. The word for “glory” in the Old Testament means importance, the word for “glory” in the New Testament (the Greek word doxa) means “praise and wonder; luminosity, brilliance, or beauty.” Jonathan Edwards once said: “God is glorified not only by His glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in.” It is not enough to say, “I guess he is God, so I have to knuckle under.” You have to see his beauty. Glorifying God does not mean obeying him only because you have to. It means to obey him because you want to – because you are attracted to him, because you delight in him. This is what C.S. Lewis grasped and explained so well in his chapter on praising. We need beauty. We go to lengths to put ourselves in front of beautiful places, or surround ourselves with beautiful music, or hang out with beautiful people. But these will leave us empty if we don’t learn to see all of these things are mere tributaries and God himself as the fountain, the headwaters of it all.’

(Pgs.169-170)

This means we must have no “graven images” i.e. no false gods or false notions of God Himself. Keller illustrates this point from a novel by Elisabeth Elliott where a missionary in the Amazon who relied on a native to help her translate the Bible into the local language finds herself in utter strife when her translator is dying. She prays for his relief but to no avail for the translator dies anyway. This in turns leads this character to the conclusion that the God she was worshipping was just a false god an “idol” in the strictest sense of the word and that the true God would never be bound by such restrictions. ‘The theme that runs through all of Elliott’s work is that to trust God when we do not understand him is to treat him as God and not as another human being. It is to treat him as glorious – infinitely beyond us in his goodness and wisdom’ (Pg.174). In turn we will be capable of presenting the glory of God to others in the same way as the early martyrs such as St. Stephen did. We will be able to cope with the sufferings in our lives, in much the same way as members of the Amish community in Pennsylvania did when they attended the funeral of a gunman who, in 2006, shot ten people before killing himself because they (the Amish) found the strength to forgive this person. It could give us the strength to understand how suffering can affect another person and how we can see God’s will in it, as in the case of Joni Eareckson Tada who struggled in her faith when someone she knew, Denise Walters, slowly died from rapid-progression multiple sclerosis, only to find consolation from the Bible which showed that Denise’s death did have a purpose. This is in contrast to the secular worldview which states that this world is the only one we have and that we should do our best to get rid of suffering altogether, whereas the Christian knows that there is a purpose behind suffering.

In response to the issues raised in this chapter, R thinks that the secular worldview is that if we can’t understand the reason, then the reason itself doesn’t exist. E talked about parents who remove any obstacles from their kids’ lives, which, while well-meaning, only leads to their kids having no resilience to handle the suffering of this present world. Another member, GM talked about character being built by cross country races at his old grammar school. If he had not been made to do it, he wouldn’t have done it and he wouldn’t have known he could run the 5km.

So somewhere between bubble-wrapping children and the hell of bullying there must be a small spot for building character. In particular, we all grow up with a false notion of God and, if we never rid ourselves of this notion, we will never understand him fully. We also all agree that we all reflect His glory badly no matter how we try.

Job_and_his_friends

Job and His Friends by Ilya Repin (1869)

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Job_(biblical_figure))

In Chapter Nine, Keller continues with the theme of the glory of God by focusing on how we can use suffering to improve our lives. By having a good grasp of God, we do not seek our own personal happiness but rather God’s righteousness. This runs counter to the Western view of individualism where we are trust in ourselves alone. It also helps to develop our characters further and help us to deal with life’s problems. Keller sums it up by showing how suffering can change us in four ways:

‘First, suffering transforms our attitude toward ourselves. It humbles us and removes unrealistic self-regard and pride. It shows us how fragile we are. … It does not so much make us helpless and out of control as it shows us we have always been vulnerable and dependent on God. … Suffering also leads us to examine ourselves and see weaknesses, because it brings out the worst in us.   …. Suffering will throw these inner flaws into relief during times of stress in a way that enables us to get out of denial and to begin working on them.

 

‘Second, suffering will profoundly change our relationship to the good things in our lives. We will see that some things have become too important to us.

 

‘Third, and most of all, suffering can strengthen our relationship to God as nothing else can. C.S. Lewis’s famous dictum is true, that in prosperity God whispers to us but in adversity he shouts to us. Suffering is indeed a test of our connection to God. 

‘Finally, suffering is almost a prerequisite if we are going to be of much use to other people, especially when they go through their own trials. Adversity makes us far more compassionate than we would have been otherwise.’

(Pgs.190-192)

In other words suffering can help us to develop our faith in ways beyond our imagination. Keller likens it to a type of gymnasium where God is the coach who helps us to develop our faith. But the two main important outcomes are the development of our minds and our hearts. With the mind we need to have a deep knowledge of the Bible and what is says about suffering because it will prevent us from getting mired in the view of suffering as shared by the world. But the most important one would be the heart, where we find ourselves asking important, existential questions about our faith and why God allows suffering to enter our lives:

‘Philosopher Simone Weil writes that a soul in affliction finds it difficult to love anything. It must therefore almost force itself to keep loving God and others “or at least wanting to love, though it may only be with an infinitesimal part of itself.” If, during affliction, “the soul stops loving it falls, even in this life, into something almost equivalent to hell.” So when suffering comes in, God, love, and hope seem unreal to you to begin with, then there is almost no way to do what Weil urges. Suffering will be like a river that sweeps us into despair. However, if our understanding and experience of God’s love was strong to begin with, they can serve as anchors that keep us from being sucked into the whirlpool.

‘If the mind is well-prepared, the coming of adversity will not be a complete shock. But when suffering first hits you, the gap between what you know with the mind and what you can use out of your store of knowledge in your heart can be surprisingly large. When troubles come, you will need God’s help to find the particular insights, consoling thoughts, and wisdom you will need to get you through. Some of these you may have already known intellectually, but God will have to make them real and relevant in a new way. Others you will not have seen before and will have to learn. But that is how you survive. If you are going to get through it all, you will need God being with you, helping you pick your way through by learning, grasping, and cherishing many ideas and truths that become powerful and consoling to you.’

(Pg.199)

By using both the mind and the heart we can become capable of dealing with suffering as God sees fit, see His will and purpose in our suffering, and be ready to handle it in a balanced way.

As GM puts it, pain is God’s way of saying you are still alive. R liked the point about doing the study in the good times so that you have something to hold onto during the bad times. We can see this in the case of Jesus, when He used the scriptures he had learned as a child to help Him during His time in the wilderness.

As to the question concerning how the Bible helps us to handle suffering, we all stated that the scripture we had memorized had helped us during our lives. It is often hard to remember chapter and verse, but you can recognize whether its Paul or John or whoever is writing.

Suffering is not guaranteed to bring good things and we think that it is good that Keller is clear about that. Suffering definitely causes us to stop and think about things. We have life so good that its easy to ignore God so suffering is almost necessary.

To share in His sufferings is to share in His glory (Romans 8:17; 2 Cor.1:5). How do we share in His sufferings? Even if we have just been rejected for our faith we have in some way shared in the sufferings of Jesus. If we are feeling cut off from God, then we’re sharing in suffering of God.

We need to trust God that He will give us the suffering that we need. We don’t need to seek it out, but just accept what comes. We live in the most blessed place in the world. We have it very easy. So that makes us ask this question: What does God want us to do with the riches He has given us?

NOR Skrik, ENG The Scream

The Scream by Edvard Munch

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Scream)

In Chapter Ten, Keller turns his attention to some various forms of suffering. He reiterates the fact that suffering can help us to grow, yet we need to know how to handle the different external factors:

‘Among the other measures we have already addressed, it is critical to recognize the remarkable variety in the Bible’s teaching on pain and adversity. One man is suffering from drug addiction in prison because he attacked and maimed someone in a fit of rage. Another man’s whole life changes when he accidentally kills a seven-year-old boy who suddenly runs out into his car’s path. A young mother with three little children at home is dying of a brain tumor. A family with teenage children is devastated when their father commits suicide. Finally, there are the young parents who just gave birth to a severely impaired child. All of these people are suffering, but the causes and shapes of their pain and anguish are wildly divergent.’

(Pgs.205-206)

Understandably, everyone wants a once-and-for-all cure for whatever they suffer from, but Keller says that is not possible, since we all have different forms of suffering. Fortunately, the Bible has a wide range of people and solutions to deal with suffering:

(a)       Suffering we bring upon ourselves – this is exemplified by the biblical figures Jonah and David because they committed actions that had consequences. In the case of Jonah, he at first refused God’s command to preach to Nineveh, then, when Jonah did so, he was angry at God for forgiving the repentant Ninevites. God, in turn, created a tree to cool Jonah before destroying it, angering the prophet before making him realize that God is just as concerned for Nineveh as Jonah was for the tree. As for David, it was his affair with Bathsheba that God did not approve, thus paving the way for the breakdown of David’s family and kingdom. Keller does not describe this suffering as payment for any particular sins, because Jesus’ atoning death did away with that penalty for sin, however ‘God often appoints some aspect of the brokenness of the world ….. to come into our lives to wake us up and turn to him’ (Pg.208). This was what God did with the suffering of Jonah and David, in order to wake them up to their faults and repent of them.

(b)      Suffering of betrayal – this type of suffering is exemplified by the apostle Paul and the prophet Jeremiah, where, for their dedication to God’s work, they were betrayed, tortured and imprisoned because it upset and angered people who did not want to hear it. This suffering is different from the one described above, which is to correct wrongs in a person’s life. This type is meant to help develop our character: ‘The temptation will be to become bitter and to hide your growing hardness and cruelty under the self-image of being a noble victim. Often confrontation and the pursuit of justice is required, but it must be carried out without the spirit of vengefulness that will allow the experience to turn you into a worse person rather than a better one’ (Pg.210).

(c)       Suffering of loss – this is evident in the account of Mary and Martha when they lost Lazarus. Often the problem of death is that it comes in many varied forms and we need to recognize the right approach to suit the suffering that comes from death. There may be some need for some ‘examination and repentance, or confrontation and forgiveness’ (Pg.211). But, in spite of any differences, we Christians need to turn our attention to the eternal rewards that lie ahead and always remind ourselves of that.

(d)      Suffering of mystery – this is found in the case of Job who lost everything, such as wealth, family and friends. ‘Job’s suffering, then, was not a chastisement or a lesson aimed at changing a particular flaw in Job’s life. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t a powerful vehicle for Job’s personal growth and for God’s glory. Job had looked in vain for a specific “lesson,” but the lesson was really a revelation about the whole tenor of his life, and his need to base it fully, with all his heart, on God. However, it was a long, long journey from the beginning to the end of the book of Job, where Job began to see this. And when this kind of mysterious, inexplicable suffering comes upon us, our journey is also a long one. It certainly may entail repentance, forgiveness, and fixing our eyes on our hopes. But Job-type suffering requires a process of honest prayer and crying, the hard work of deliberate trust in God, and what St. Augustine called a re-ordering of our loves’ (Pgs.212-213).

However, there are also internal factors in suffering as well. Keller uses a definition by the philosopher Simone Weil to describe affliction and its five signs. One is “isolation” where the sufferer deliberately puts up a barrier between him-or-herself and other people, which could in turn lead to a change in identity. The second sign is “implosion”, which automatically renders the sufferer incapable of thinking of anything else but his or her pain and ignore everything else. It can even render a person incapable of feeling love and/or concern for anyone else. The third sign is “condemnation” where the sufferer possesses a great degree of guilt towards some action he or she did and make he or she keenly aware of their faults. ‘This sense of condemnation is even persistent in Western cultures, in which all efforts are made to see sufferers as victims and not responsible for it in any way’ (Pg.215). The fourth sign is “anger”, where the sufferer inflicts his or her fury at many things: God, the world, other people, etc. The fifth and final sign is “temptation” where the sufferer is tempted to keep his or her pain always in mind and even become comfortable with it. It could lead the sufferer to feel either noble for possessing this pain; to allow it to become an ‘excuse for all sorts of behavior or patterns of life you could not otherwise justify’ (Pg.215); or maybe leave the sufferer with a permanent sense of guilt.

The lists of both external and internal factors for suffering may seem a bit daunting. But, for Keller, it does help us to know the difference and enable us to help ourselves as well as others who suffer profusely and help us all out of our despair. It does not give us license to put all sorts of problems under a neat label and it gives us the resources and the patience we need to help anyone who is enduring a particular crisis in his or her life.

Keller talks about different ways to help people who are suffering and shows that a way that helps one person would irritate another. It makes us scared to say anything and perhaps it is better not say anything at all. For example, the length of the book of Job emphasizes how long suffering can go for!

There is also suffering which we can bring on ourselves, so it does not always come from God but from the consequences of our own actions. For example, drug addiction brings the suffering of ill health. We recognize the signs of affliction as ways we deal with suffering. One of us, J, felt despair before she came to Christ but being close to the Lord now brings her out of that despair. Therefore, Jesus replaces despair and He, in turn, gives us security, comfort and hope.

Thank you for spending time with us on Keller’s book! Next time, we will look at Part Three, and discuss the Christian methods to handling suffering. See you then!

Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering. Hodder. 2013 (Rep:2015)

Next: Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering Part Three

 

Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering – Part One

Previous: Beautiful Outlaw – Part 3

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Amazon.com

(https://www.amazon.com/Walking-God-through-Pain-Suffering/dp/1594634408)

Hello, and welcome back to the blog. Last time we looked at John Eldredge’s Beautiful Outlaw. Now we’ll turn our attention to a different book: Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering by Timothy Keller.

In the introduction Timothy Keller states the reason why he wrote this book is because suffering is everywhere and no matter how hard we try, it will come for us: (t)he loss of loved ones, debilitating and fatal illnesses, personal betrayals, financial reversals, and moral failures – all of these will eventually come upon you if you live out a normal life span. No one is immune’ (Pg.3). Keller quotes from a journalist named Ann Patchet who was describing the “Beltway Sniper”:

‘We are always looking to make some sort of sense out of murder in order to keep at bay: I do not fit the description; I do not live in that town; I would never have gone to that place, known that person. But what happens when there is no description, no place, nobody? Where do we go to find our peace of mind? … 

‘The fact is, staving off our own death is one of our favorite national pastimes. Whether it’s exercise, checking our cholesterol of having a mammogram, we are always hedging against mortality. Find out what the profile is, and identify the ways in which you do not fit it. But a sniper taking a single clean shot, not into a crowd but through the sight, reminds us horribly of death itself. Despite our best intentions, it is still, for the most part, random.

 ‘And it is absolutely coming.’

(Pgs.2-3)

Keller and his wife Kathy would grow to understand this suffering, through not only the suffering of people whom Keller has ministered to but also through their own personal trials, which led to a “dark night of the soul” for both of them and, in turn, has led Keller to understand suffering, especially in relation to God. For some it was proof of His non-existence, while for others it led to experiencing a greater awareness of Him, which they never had before.

‘Over the years, I also came to realize that adversity did not merely lead people to believe in God’s existence. It pulled those who already believed into a deeper experience of God’s reality, love, and grace. One of the main ways we move from abstract knowledge about God to a personal encounter with him as a living reality is through the furnace of affliction. …. Believers understand many doctrinal truths in the mind, but those truths seldom make the journey down into the heart except through disappointment, failure and loss. As a man who seemed about to lose both his career and his family once said to me, “I always knew, in principle, that ‘Jesus is all you need’ to get through. But you don’t really know Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.”

Finally, as I grew in my understanding of the Bible itself, I came to see that the reality of suffering was one of its main themes. … The Bible, therefore, is about suffering as much as it is about anything.’

(Pgs.5-6)

Keller has written this book to provide the reader a way to understand and cope with the topic of suffering.

We were all in agreement with Keller’s premise that at some time in our lives suffering will come to each of us. Whilst suffering may often appear to be ‘random’, GK strongly disagreed that is always so. He pointed out that people can be the cause of their own suffering as a result of their foolish actions or words. GM identified how what we believe in affects our view of suffering. As an example, he referred to the Book of Job, and Job’s friends – Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar – who each believed that Job was at fault and had caused his own suffering. J said that she had experienced times of intense suffering, and that her trials have helped her to grow in trust and relationship with God, so that He has now become her ‘first port of call’.

We concluded that the reasons for suffering are not always straightforward, especially from our tiny human viewpoint.

We all talked about how much easier it is for Christians to cope with death and pain, compared to non-Christians. While, as GM stated, the statistics for death for everybody are high indeed (100%), because of the sure and certain hope Christians have in Jesus, the prospect of death is much less threatening. ES spoke of losing her husband, saying that whilst it was very sad, the knowledge that she would one day see him again helped her greatly with coping with the loss.

Having written the blog posts on St. John Climacus (The Ladder of Divine Ascent – Introduction), I noticed that he urged his readers to always keep death in mind, especially when it comes to God judging our souls. To quote Ecclesiastes 7: 2 and 4:

‘It is better to go to a house of mourning

than to go to a house of feasting,

for death is the destiny of everyone;

the living should take this to heart.’

(v.2)

‘The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,

but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.’

(v.4)

J mentioned that we are already crucified with Christ (Romans 6:5-7) and she referred to the passage in Romans 5:3-5, which shows that suffering is an expected part of the Christian life: ‘Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us.

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The Scream by Edvard Munch

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Scream)

In Part One, Keller looks at the many responses to suffering in our secular Western culture and the ancient/non-Western cultures in comparison with the Christian worldview. In the ancient/non-Western cultures there are about four different methods of dealing with suffering. In the “moralistic” culture, such as Hinduism, suffering is the result of some misdeed done in a past life and the only way to deal with it is to simply do good in the present life in order to gain a future reward. In the “self-transcendent” culture such as Buddhism suffering is seen as an illusion and the best one can do is to develop a sense of detachment in order to gain enlightenment. In more “fatalistic” cultures such as Islamic cultures, our suffering is a part of destiny or the will of God/gods and therefore all we require is a heroic endurance in the face of it. The fourth culture is dualism, which sees the whole universe divided between good and evil and we need to recognize that, one day, good and light will triumph over evil and darkness and all we need to do is patiently endure our suffering.

All these world-views possess recognition of the supernatural and the idea that our world has a certain order that it adheres to. Suffering is therefore a natural part of the world and can even help us to develop our moral worth. However, the modern Western world does not possess this idea of the supernatural due to the fact that it sees the physical world as the only thing there is. Therefore, in the Western worldview, the only thing we can do is simply be concerned for our personal pleasures and try to avoid suffering as much as possible. In other words the Western world-view moves from a reliance upon a supernatural order to that of man and man alone to do away with suffering:

‘The first (thing we can do to lessen our suffering) is to manage and lessen the pain. And so over the past two generations, most professional services and resources offered to sufferers have move from talking about affliction to discussing stress. They no longer give people ways to endure adversity with patience but instead use a vocabulary drawn from business, psychology, and medicine to enable them to manage, reduce and cope with stress, strain, or trauma. Sufferers are counseled to avoid negative thoughts and to buffer themselves with time off, exercise, and supportive relationships. All the focus is on controlling your responses.

‘The second way to handle suffering in this framework is to look for the cause of the pain and eliminate it. Other cultures see suffering as an inevitable part of the fabric of life because of unseen forces, such as the illusory nature of life or the conflict between good and evil. But our modern culture does not believe in unseen spiritual forces. Suffering always has a material cause and therefore it can in theory be “fixed”. Suffering is often caused by unjust economic and social conditions, bad public policies, broken family patterns, or simply villainous evil parties. The proper response to this is outrage, confrontation of the offending parties, and action to change the conditions.’

(Pg.26)

The Christian worldview differs from all five of these worldviews. Although Christianity does acknowledge the supernatural like the first four worldviews, there are some key differences. Unlike the fatalistic world-view, Christians do not causally accept suffering and can even be permitted to rail against it, and decry it for being unfair. Unlike Buddhism, Christians do not see suffering as an “illusion”. It is very real and therefore an ingrained part of our life. In fact, Jesus Himself underwent kinds of suffering, especially in leading up to the cross. Unlike fatalism, Christians do not see suffering as a part of God’s plan or destiny, it is simply evil and part of our fallen world. This is clear in the life of Jesus as well: ‘As (Max) Scheler writes, the entire Christian faith is centered on “the paragon of the innocent man who freely receives suffering for other’s debts … Suffering … acquires, through the divine quality of the suffering person, a wonderful, new nobility.” ’ In the light of the cross, suffering becomes “purification, not punishment.” (Pg.29). And, unlike dualism, Christians do not see ‘suffering as a means of working off your sinful debts by virtue of the quality of your endurance of pain’ (Pg.29). In contrast to dualism, as well as the other non-Western worldviews, Christianity puts forward grace as a means of salvation:

(T)he Christian understanding of suffering is dominated by the idea of grace. In Christ we have received forgiveness, love and adoption into the family of God. These goods are underserved, and that frees us from the temptation to feel proud of our suffering. But also it is the present enjoyment of those inestimable goods that makes suffering bearable.’

(Pgs.29-30)

As for the modern Western world (which Keller will look at in Chapter Three) Keller agrees that it is right about the fact that there is suffering in the world and that we need to address it. However, Christians also have the Person of Jesus, which can offer us salvation: ‘The example and redemptive work of Jesus Christ incorporates all these insights into a coherent whole and yet transcends them. … While other worldviews lead us to sit in the midst of life’s joys, foreseeing the coming sorrows, Christianity empowers its people to sit in the midst of this world’s sorrows, tasting the coming joy.’ (Pgs.30-31).

We agree that there is a big difference between the Christian view of suffering and the secular one. According to GM, most Christians in the West have tried to eliminate suffering because they see an imperfect creation that needs God’s help, whereas the secular one is trying hard to take God’s place in deciding to rid the world of suffering. Some people even try to alleviate their suffering by the use of drugs and alcohol. As for atheists they feel like they have to have a say in determining their own fate. J agree with this, saying that secular psychologists use cognitive therapy, which aims to empower people and allow them to take control over their lives. Techniques borrowed from various types of Eastern mysticism and given new titles, such as “mindfulness”, “meditation”, “positive affirmations”, are employed to teach people ways of controlling their mind and thought processes. This contrasts hugely with a psychologist she met later on who is a Christian. This psychologist often referred to Scripture, which enabled J to view her circumstances and suffering in a completely different light. In connection to other life-issues, this psychologist gave Christ-centered advice, which J found invaluable.

And as for Keller’s own summary of the different philosophies in Chapter One, we were impressed with how he summarized them all. Especially the explanation of the peace that Christianity gives, compared to stoicism . We do not need to be tossed around by our emotions all the time but we do need to be able to express emotion.

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Zeno of Citium, Founder of Stoicism, Photo by Paolo Monti, 1969

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoicism)

In Chapter Two, Keller looks at the history of Christianity’s influence on how the Western world viewed suffering, especially in comparison with both pre-Christian and post-Christian societies. The earlier Greco-Roman philosophy (especially Stoicism) looked at the universe as having a ‘divine rational structure to it called the Logos. They (the Stoics) did not believe the universe is made up strictly of physical matter, but neither did they believe the universe had a God in the sense of a personal God who created and transcended it. … They believed, therefore, that there were moral “absolutes” – right ways of behavior that were in accord with the order of the universe – as well as wrong ways of living that went against its grain.’ (Pg.37). Stoics tried to give reason preeminence over emotion and to avoid being attached to anything in life. To live in the present with no desires or regrets. This is similar to Eastern thought, in particular Buddhism, which believes that we need to be detached from desire in order to avoid suffering.

In contrast, Christianity offered a difference. It offered hope in the life to come: (Philosopher Luc) Ferry says that what human beings want “above all is to be reunited with our loved ones” ’ (Pg.43). All this ties into the belief in the Logos, the Person of Jesus, the fact that we can have a personal relationship with Him and the Hope that He can he give to believers. It was this same hope that allowed early Christians to tend their sick, and to even weep freely at funerals for the loss of a loved one, which was prohibited by Stoicism: ‘Ultimate reality was known not primarily through reason and contemplation but through relationship. Salvation was through humility, faith, and love rather than reason and control of emotions. And therefore, Christians don’t face adversity by stoically decreasing our love for the people and things of this world so much as by increasing our love and joy in God. … Only when our greatest love is God, a love that we cannot lose even in death, can we face all things with peace. Grief was not to be eliminated but seasoned and buoyed up with love and hope’ (Pg.44). It was also different from the karmic idea of paying the penalty for sins, because the reasons for suffering are many and various: ‘Some suffering is given in order to chastise and correct a person for wrongful patterns of life (as in the case of Jonah imperiled by the storm), some suffering is given “not to correct past wrongs but to prevent future ones” (write St. Gregory the Great) (as in the case of Joseph sold into slavery), and some suffering has no purpose other than to lead a person to love (as in the case of Job and his suffering)(Pg.47).

It is the Christian concepts of hope in Jesus and on suffering that sustained Western civilization up until the modern era. However, that idea of God’s grace and suffering became lost when the idea of the “Immanent Frame” emerged. This idea is of the world as ‘a completely “ ‘immanent’ world over against a possible ‘transcendent’ one.” … Because there is no transcendent, supernatural order outside of me, it is I who determine what I am and who I will be. I do not need to look at anything outside myself in order to know how to live.” ’ (Pg.53).

This rise into this “Immanent Frame” occurred during the 1500s onwards where a superiority in technology and science placed man first and foremost. It did not get rid of a belief in God, just altered it to that of Deism, which separated God from the material universe. This meant that we would be in charge of our destiny and that God created this universe for our benefit. However when a disaster occurs (such as the earthquake at Lisbon) this made us question a belief in a good and all-powerful God and wonder if he exists at all. This has led many Christians today to possess what Keller calls a “residual Christianity” which more or less share the same ideas as Deism, and is greatly challenged when suffering occurs. It is only those who adhere to traditional, orthodox Christianity who are able to understand the concept of suffering in its proper context and not get caught up in the views held by modern secular thought.

As we discussed this we considered that it is arrogant of the Western world to ignore all the religions of the world and to consider that we have got it right. The terms “Immanent Frame” is useful in describing this situation. We all agreed that, in Christianity, suffering has a purpose. R prefers to think that there is meaning in suffering and GM says that atheism, in their efforts to rid the world of suffering, only take so much away. However, we agreed that we should not say to others that their suffering has meaning or purpose. That advice may help us but it is not something we should lay upon others. As for the resurrection, it becomes more of a comfort as our earthly body suffers more aches and pains. As for the secular idea of happiness being our sole aim in life, that is rather individualistic (which is also very selfish) and, in fact, it becomes rather impossible due to the amount of pain and suffering in all our lives.

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Smiley Face

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smiley)

In Chapter 3, Keller looks at the secular concept of consoling those who suffer. He finds that, in spite of the fact that many people in the Western world do not consider themselves Christians, they still find consolation in traditional religious modes of thought, such as praying for the loss of loved ones. Some atheists such as Susan Jacoby object to this, stating that they cannot believe in the existence of an all-powerful God because of the problem of evil. ‘This escape from the burden of the problem of evil “frees up” the atheist “to concentrate on the fate of the world” ’ (Pg.67) and would encourage greater activism against the suffering in the world as well as a consolation of the fact, that after we die, we become nothing and therefore do not suffer. While Keller admits that secularism is admirable in that agrees with religious thought that there is evil in the world that needs to be combatted, he finds Jacoby’s reasons for people to find consolation in atheism to be a bit “shallow”. First, up until the modern era, religious people had a mindset that helped them cope with evil but it was only when the “Immanent Frame” mindset was adopted that we began to be preoccupied with idea of an all-powerful, all-loving God and the problem of evil. Secondly, in history, many social justice movements were religious, because of the fact that their concerns came from religious ideas and motivations. Thirdly, atheism does not help us determine any final ideas of what would make a just society because there are many different beliefs of what constitutes human freedom being held by different people. Finally, the idea that we cease to exist after we die is pretty inhumane and offering such an idea to someone at the point of death would appear to be rather cruel: (t)he secular consolation that “the dead do not suffer” seems thin in comparison to the Christian consolation of the resurrection’ (Pg.69). The concept that we are more than creatures of flesh and blood is still so persistent that even some dyed-in-the-wool atheists feel greatly moved when participating in a funeral ceremony with religious overtones.

Keller then goes to cite three reasons why secularism does not provide an adequate response to suffering. First, it is based upon a rather simplistic view of suffering and evil: ‘The Western approach (to suffering) oversimplifies the complex causes of suffering, reducing it all to “victimization as the dominant account.” Of course this does account for suffering in many cases. … But plenty of suffering – even much illness – is caused to some degree by the sufferers themselves. Too much of suffering simply doesn’t fit into the straitjacket of Western analysis’ (Pgs.73-74). Other cultures, by contrast, have a way of dealing with suffering that gives a variety of ideas of why suffering happens (ranging from destiny to one’s own personal sin) as well as various ways of how to deal with it. A second objection is that secularism offers a rather naïve optimism in finding happiness in the here and now and that we need to eliminate any suffering that comes our way. But, as we seen, suffering is just too complex an issue to be dealt with in a single stroke, whereas religion can provide consolation in saying that all our problems will be gone when we die and enter the afterlife. Secularism can only look for some future happiness on earth, which, given the amount of suffering at hand, looks very unlikely to be realized.

But perhaps the most jarring criticism to the secular approach at handling suffering is the fact that we lack an “overarching narrative” in our lives: ‘Andrew Delbanco …. says that a cultural narrative must accomplish two things. First, it must give us hope. … Second … the narrative must enable a society to cohere instead of atomize into a million individual parts. It inspires us to put self-interest aside for the community, by delivering “the indispensable feeling that the world does not end at the borders of the self” ’ (Pg.75). Delbanco comments upon how American society evolved from one that was centered around the concepts of God, Nation and Self, and become focused on the concept of individualism which in turn led America away from the worship of a transcendent God to open mockery of it.

In contrast, Keller says that the Christian view of suffering can help offer us two things. First, it can make look at suffering in a new light: ‘Suffering is actually at the heart of the Christian story. Suffering is the result of our turn away from God, and therefore it was the way through which God himself in Jesus Christ came and rescued us for himself. And how it is how we suffer that comprises one of the main ways we become great and Christlike, holy and happy, and a crucial way we show the world the love and glory of our Savior’ (Pgs.77-78). The second thing is that it gives us a sense of humility in order to cope with suffering. On the one hand, we cannot be passive in the face of evil, yet we must always recognize the fact that for our knowledge and technology, we cannot solve the problem of suffering because it is too complex to be tied down in simple categories. We must use this humility to help grow in an appreciation of what God wants done in our lives, especially when we deal with evil in our lives.

In this chapter we saw that in the modern Western world, happiness has become our ultimate aim, and it is part of a very individualistic worldview. We discussed that happiness in this world is actually impossible to achieve because others impinge on you. It only becomes possible when you turn your focus on something that is much bigger than yourself. As for talking with people when they are suffering, we agreed that you will need to be very careful, and as for talking to people about pain, there is always a danger of become simplistic about their pain. When GM talks about a relation of his who is currently suffering from a life-threatening illness, GM often finds that talking about this suffering often reveals how it is affecting people, especially within GM’s own family. R mentioned the stories of Corrie ten Boom, how her struggles during the Second World War influenced her faith in God throughout this period. In the end, the response to suffering is different for different people, because, for some, it deepens their faith while, for others, it sadly takes it away.

Muller Collection - Dr. W.E. Bok of Pretoria in robes and wig

Dr. Willem Eduard Bok (1880-1956), Lawyer in robe and wig

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawyer)

Finally, in chapter 4, Keller focuses on the problem of evil, especially when atheists object to the existence of God because of suffering. Most Christians, when trying to prove the existence of God in world of suffering, often rely on theodicies, which are a ‘justification of God’s ways to human beings. … A theodicy seeks to give an answer to the big “Why?” question. Its goal is to explain why a just God allows evil to come into existence and to continue. It attempts to reveal the reasons and purposes of God for suffering so listeners will be satisfied that his actions regarding evil and suffering are justified’ (Pg.89). An example is the “soul-making” theodicy, depicting the world as one where God makes us grow and mature into a place of spiritual perfection, or the “free-will” theodicy where humans are depicted as having the ability to choose between good and evil. But Keller says that most theodicies possess problems of logic (the free-will one runs into problems of moral choices and violations of human rights), an inadequate grasp of the biblical understanding of God, and a failure to grasp the many complexities of evil.

He says it would be much better to mount a defense of God in a world of evil and suffering. ‘A defense shies away from trying to tell a full story that reveals God’s purposes in decreeing or allowing evil. A defense simply seeks to prove that the arguments against God from evil fails, that the skeptics have failed to make their case. A defense shows that the existence of evil does not mean God can’t or is unlikely to exist. In making a theodicy, the burden of proof is upon the believer in God. … But in a defense, the burden of proof is upon the skeptic.’ (Pgs.95-96).

One example of an objection to God is the “Noseeums” objection, which is summed like this:

‘1. A truly good God would not want evil to exist; an all-powerful God would not allow evil to exist.

2. Evil exists.

3. Therefore, a God who is both good and powerful cannot exist.’

However, the Christian’s response would be:

‘It may be that someone has a very strong desire for something and is able to obtain this thing, but does not act on this desire – because he has reasons for not doing so that seem to him to outweigh the desirability of the thing … [so] God might have reasons for allowing evil to exist that, in his mind, outweigh the desirability of the non-existence of evil.’

 (Pgs.96-97).

In other words, God has reasons for allowing some evil and suffering to happen in a person’s life in much the same way that a parent and/or teacher has for dealing with a child who would do the right thing: in order to teach that child to AVOID it!

Another argument is the “Boomerang” argument, which says that there cannot be a good God because there is so much suffering in the universe. However, the only fallacy in that argument is the fact there has to be a “moral” reaction to the evil from the skeptic’s point-of-view and the Christian’s defence would be to ask the skeptic why he or she finds some action to be “evil”? This then leaves the skeptic into something of a blind spot because he or she would have to think hard about why he or she possesses these moral feelings. And therefore they would not have any ground for criticizing Christians for believing in such a God.

It is a reliance on defense rather on a theodicy that Keller is encouraging Christians to embrace when it comes to defending our faith in the light of much suffering.

When we had finished this chapter, we all thought that the different theodicies were laid out clearly. We also found it interesting to note how, at first, they seem to be something good until Keller picks them apart. We also found it interesting that the “defences” that Keller provides in this chapter offer an interesting contrast to the theodicies where we turn the attention to the atheists and see how their objections to God stand up.

This led to a further discussion about the atheist worldview. J’s sister, who is an atheist, says that evolution shows what is good or not. However, we discussed that this would lead to us killing off the weak or disabled children. To quote from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, “to decrease the surplus population.”

People think that “what is generally thought to be right” is right, but that definition of right changes over time. Unfortunately, this leads to a slippery slope with no absolutes. It is also leads to the issue of removing the supernatural, or God, from everyday life. Once that has been done, there appears to be no justification for morality. Therefore, even though arguments like theodicies and defences may appear to be a waste of time, they are essential on keeping the idea of God in a world of suffering.

To conclude from the first part of Keller’s book so far, we agree that he does a superb job on summing up the Christian view of suffering and the many non-Christian viewpoints that are used to explained. Our only quibble is that this part of the book seems to be a bit dry and technical for those who are just beginning the book. But we do agree that Keller is good at summing up suffering and how both Christians and non-Christians view it.

Join us next time as we look at Part 2 of Keller’s Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering!

Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering. Hodder. 2013 (Rep:2015)

Next: Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering Part Two

Beautiful Outlaw – Part 3

Previous: Beautiful Outlaw Part 2

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Amazon.com

(https://www.amazon.com/Beautiful-Outlaw-Experiencing-Extravagant-Personality/dp/1455525707)

Hello, and welcome back to this edition of John Eldredge’s Beautiful Outlaw. Sorry for the delay! As dedicated readers of my blog would know, I was busy this Lent working on John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent. But now I will look at the final six chapters of Eldredge’s book.

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Book of Common Prayer

Source: Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Common_Prayer)

In Chapter 13, Eldredge addresses the issue of how we should love Jesus. He gives us three pointers:

  1. To love Jesus with all that is within you. This is the first and greatest command. Everything else flows from here.
  2. To share your daily life with him; to let him be himself with you. On the beach, at supper, along the road – just as the disciples did.
  3. To allow his life to fill yours, to heal and express itself through yours. There is no other way you can hope to live as he did and show him to others.’

(Pg.140)

In other words, religion should rely less on mere ritual, such as the ones found in Catholic and “High” Anglican, which often put forward barriers that prevent us from having an intimate relationship with Jesus because it makes Him too unapproachable or “holy” for us to reach and more on loving Jesus. Another obstacle that Eldredge wants us to get rid of is that of trying to fellow the ethics and teachings of Jesus without loving Him, which Eldredge likens it to a friend and/or family member who does a lot of chores for someone, yet does not spend enough intimate time with them. Therefore, against both ritual and the legalistic following of Jesus’ teaching, Eldredge says only one thing: love Jesus.

We talked about this issue. One of us, R, feels that we can have a great relationship with God while also using the traditional liturgy. Another member, J, says that praying the daily hours helps her to come into the presence of God. In fact, while Eldredge is critical of relying on liturgy alone for our life with God, we also noticed that he was good with memorizing scripture and something like the Book of Common Prayer is based on scripture, in both its set prayers and the lectionary readings. We do not need to throw the liturgy away. On the other hand, the trap is that following the liturgy can become mechanized or become an idol, so in that case we might need to rethink our relationship to the liturgy and whether or not it hinders our relationship with God. As for the issue of trying to put the ethics of Jesus into practice without loving Him first, we all agreed that it is simply doing it the wrong way around! If we love love Jesus first and our actions will come out of that. We also agree that religiosity will subtly twist us so we get things in the wrong order. In the end, Jesus’ strength is made perfect in our weakness.

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Stained-glass window from Nancy (France)

Source: Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Window)

In Chapter 14, Eldredge continues telling his readers how to avoid falling into the trap of the religious fog. He tells the story of a woman called Jolie who, after having undergone an abusive past, managed to find intimacy in Jesus even though she felt that she was unworthy of His attention. Instead, she soon found out that He loved her and wanted to bring her into a relationship with Him, which touched Eldredge deeply. This has led him to wonder why others who suffer from the religious fog never hear of these experiences. The answer that Eldredge comes up with is summed up in a parable:

‘One day a man decided to board himself up inside his house.

‘He sealed off the doors, the windows, even the chimney. He left only one opening – the kitchen window – through which anyone wished to speak to him was forced to speak. Fortunately, there were people that still wished to speak to him, so they called on the man at his kitchen window. 

‘Over the years this fellow came to the conclusion that the world was such a place in which people only speak to one another through kitchen windows. He wrote a book in which he argued that human discourse cannot and does not take place in any other way than through kitchen windows.

‘The Kitchen Window School was founded shortly after his death.’

(Pg.154)

Eldredge was making the point that there are ways in which we often miss out the intimacy with Jesus, by making him speak via our kitchen windows, because we are the ones who place limits, either intentionally or unintentionally, which in turn hinders our relationship with Jesus and only gives a partial glimpse of Him. However, there is evidence in Scripture that Jesus can still come down and dine with us if we just ask Him to. Therefore we need to get rid of the fog and the debris that stops Him from coming to us and us receiving Him so we have the full experience.

Among some of the limits we impose on Jesus are our sense of unworthiness (i.e. thinking that we are too sinful to let Jesus into our lives) and feeling angry towards Him for letting some painful event happen. In the case of the former, we need to recognize the fact of our brokenness by simply writing down a series of questions and statements that address this, then inviting Jesus into our lives and allow Him to heal our brokenness. The second case is simply to forgive Jesus for any wrong that we have felt that He has done to us. This act of forgiving Jesus may not exactly lead to a direct answer of why the suffering happened, but hopefully it might lead to a restoration with God and be a means to getting rid of a lot of the barriers that affect this relationship.

We discussed and agreed that there is an element of “kitchen window” in everyone. When things go wrong, we always say “why me?” and we don’t know why. Therefore, we need to remove the blame game and try to do our best to avoid it. Another fact is that we need to always align our will with God no matter how awful everything may seem, and sometimes our perseverance may help to increase our faith.

As for the concept of blaming God and then “forgiving” Him, we had some difficulty in mulling this over because it presupposes that God has done something wrong. It is true, though, that biblical characters like Job often ask the question of why God allows such suffering, so, in a sense, it is a perfectly natural reaction to this situation. I even put forward the question of whether Angry Atheists ever felt this anger against God, and the answer was that maybe their anger came from a place of hurt.

High_Desert_Fog

Fog, in the form of a cloud, descends upon a High Desert community in the United States

Source: Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fog)

In Chapter 15, Eldredge goes into more aspects of the “religious fog” and how it threatens to exclude Jesus out of not only our churches but also our very lives. He mentions some examples: ‘My mom went to Catholic school; it made her walk away from church and God. The fruit of that seems pretty clear. A friend went to seminary, gained a theological degree, and lost his faith. (The inside joke is to call seminary “cemetery.” How sick is that?) A good friend was subjected to rigorous Bible classes as a child; she now hates the Bible.’ (Pgs.168-169). In other words, the religious fog, especially with its rules and the various posturing that tend to come with it often distracts and can even prevent people from having a relationship with the real Jesus: ‘A wing nut talking about Jesus does far more damage than fifty atheists’ (Pg.171).

Throughout this chapter, Eldredge posits a series of questions about how to know if the religious fog is really operating in our churches. Such as how things as power displays, religious activity and false reverence can distract us from Jesus, how rule-keeping and even Christian service can often be not so much a case of serving Jesus as either serving the community and/or ourselves, and how a sense of false humility is often invoked when, in reality, Jesus got rid of the need for it because we can now approach Him daily. But the one that Eldredge is most critical about is the idea that it is far better to keep a safe distance between Jesus and us.

Now, on the one hand, it is understandable how this type of piety has evolved because of the “unsettling” nature of Jesus. However, it can threaten to not only limit our encounters with Jesus but also keep Him away from the people outside church. But Eldredge says that all of the events of Jesus’ life on earth were spent outside a religious context and were out there in the secular world and that you are more likely to find Jesus OUTSIDE church than INSIDE one:

‘For heaven’s sake – there are 168 hours in your week. Are you really going to say that the one or two you spend at church are more important to God than the other 166? That’s religious spirit stuff. The spiritual life is meant to be lived out in everyday life. In this sense, Jesus was a very spiritual man, but never a religious one.’ 

(Pg.179)

We were rather puzzled by this term and concept “religious fog”. We thought if it would be more accurate to call it a religious “prod,” which is pushing people away from Jesus. We all agree that Jesus is very important throughout our whole week rather than just at church. We do admit, though, that the church has bad press about being full of really strict rules; when you go in and become a Christian you can see that it is not really about the rules. The Anglican church has, in the past, been very formal but that has changed a lot. We do agree that some Christians do need to get out of religion and into relationship.

We believe, unlike Eldredge , that Jesus Himself was often in a religious space. He may have been critical of the religious authorities in first century Palestine but He still participated in a religious space.

altobello_melone_-_the_road_to_emmaus_-_google_art_project

The Road to Emmaus by Altobello Melone

Source: Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Road_to_Emmaus_appearance)

Moving onto Chapter 16, Eldredge turns from the religious fog to personal encounters with Jesus. He goes through quite a number, ranging from St. Augustine’s conversion to personal encounters with people such as Eldredge’s friend David and Eldredge’s son Sam, who both, prior to their encounters with Jesus, had been going through a period of depression. These encounters Eldredge uses to illustrates not only how Jesus is able to heal them but even how His playfulness is still apparent, especially in the case of Augustine who, despite being a complete and utter bookworm, needed to pick up and read the gospel in order to convert him to Jesus. More interesting is the encounter that David had with Jesus where He uses David’s experience of someone who had made him feel sad (a math and science teacher) in order to lead him (David) to joy and healing. Now, in answer to any objections that such a series of experiences would not seem biblical or even “kosher”, Eldredge simply states that all we have to do is to see Jesus is residing in the life of the person:

‘First. Where does Jesus Christ now reside, in the life of the believer? Inside us; more precisely, in our hearts: “For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Eph.3:14-17). So we should expect to experience Christ within us, as well as “with us”, or alongside us. 

‘Next, is there any aspect of our personal history that is beyond the reach of Jesus Christ? Never. “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Ps.139:16). Would the faculty of our memory be a realm beyond the understanding of Jesus Christ, or – more important – beyond his access? No. “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb.4:13). So, Jesus within us is also Lord of our memory.

‘Finally, if our relationship with Christ or our witness for him in this world is being hindered because a part of our soul is not yet fully under his loving rule, would Jesus want to address that? Of course he would. Remember his fierce intention.’

(Pg.189)

It is this relationship, with its fierce, tender and even playful aspects, that Eldredge claims we should welcome in our lives and so lead us into a deeper relationship with Jesus.

We were touched by these beautiful stories of healing but we would prefer that the opening up of these places of hurt in us would be done in a place where trained counselors and leaders would be present and that there be lots of prayer as well. However, we do agree that there isn’t any one way that God leads. There are different ways, different things and different times for the same person. We also think that we should not rest on your religion, don’t get stuck in a rut, always press on to learn more, experience more, fill more in love with Jesus. But, with Eldredge’s book, we do sense that there is a great deal of American culture present and that one may need to separate that from true spirituality.

 

Transfigurationbloch

The Transfiguration of Jesus by Carl Bloch

Source: Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus)

In Chapter 17, Eldredge states that Jesus is Life itself, especially in the fact that He did all sorts of amazing things in His life on earth and the fact that he represents the life that courses through our creation, especially in the case of His miracles. ‘Now for a wonder of wonders – not only do you get Jesus, you get to live his life. Really. Everything you’ve seen here, everything you’ve read about, this life is yours for the asking. That is what Jesus believed.’ (Pg.199). However, in spite of this generous offer, there are people who still get it wrong. They either gain a false humility where everything that is asked for them in the Christian life is optional, or they try to do everything at once and became exhausted in the process. But Eldredge says that we don’t need to either give up on the Christian life or just struggle via our own efforts: all we have to do is simply just repent of our own attempts at self-salvation and rely upon Jesus daily, not just in a lifetime but ALL the time:

‘How do we remain in vital union with him? By loving him, by obeying him, by surrendering more and more and more of ourselves to him. This is how Jesus lived, by the way. He modeled for us a totally surrendered life, a life lived in union with the Father: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing … For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it” (John 5:19; 12:49). He came in part to show us how it’s done. All that dynamic life you see coursing through him, he received it as we must do – through ongoing love and dependence upon God.

‘Now, we must give our lives over to him in order to receive his life. Not just once, but as a regular practice. Of course there is more to this than saying a prayer. It would take another book to describe the ways we make ourselves available to his life. We find those practices that help us receive the life of God. Whether it be prayer, worship, silence, sacrament, or the gift of sunshine, sitting beside a stream, music, adventure – we seek out those things that help us to receive the life of God. You have a personal guide now; ask Jesus what to take up and what to set down, so that you might receive his life.

‘By the way, this is the bottom-line test of anything claiming to be of Jesus: Does it bring life? If it doesn’t, drop it like a rattlesnake. And you will find that the religious never, ever brings life. Ever. That is its greatest exposure.’

(Pgs.208-209)

To sum up what Eldredge is saying it is to simply avoid the religious fog, which could lead to either inactivity or too much activity in Jesus’ name without experiencing His presence.

We thought that Eldredge seemed to be against anything that makes Christianity static and dead. He is trying to bring back joy into worshipping Jesus. We do agree that nature is incredible and exuberant in its quality and quantity and that the Creator must be awesome. We also think that Eldredge is trying to shock us out of sitting in church and doing the stuff without really thinking about it. And that is a good thing. We agree that Eldredge’s heart is in the right place in that he is trying to bring us closer to God and also to be real in our relationship with him. Sometimes, however, religious rules are all we can hold onto when we are going through dry times. And the really big anchor is actually church on Sunday. This can keep us in until we’re in a good place again. Also, our emotions cannot be trusted, and therefore having habits like reading the Bible and constant prayer can help us to keep close to our creator even when our emotions have changed.

In the epilogue, Eldredge takes a look at the issue of suffering and a new heaven and a new earth. He says that, while we live in a beautiful world, it is also one caught up in immense suffering. The main concern about suffering is how it separates us from Jesus. On the one hand, Eldredge does not want to diminish the role of suffering in a Christian’s life, on the other hand, he wants us to be careful as well:

‘Be very, very careful and pay attention to how you interpret your suffering. Don’t jump to conclusions. Interpretation is critical. Beware the agreements that you make. This is where the enemy can destroy you. Agreements such as God has abandoned me; it’s my fault; I’ve done something wrong, and a host of others. If you’ve been making these agreements, you will want to break them. They allow a chasm to form between you and your Jesus.’

(Pg.214)

The only answer Eldredge gives to us in our suffering is to simply see a breakthrough, seek Jesus through prayer and allow His sufferings to be shared with our own. Jesus will also comfort us in our pain, allowing it to overflow in our lives.

Another question that Eldredge looks at in the epilogue is this: ‘ “What are you looking forward to with Jesus?” ’ (Pg.216). The answer is that, Eldredge believes we will be spending eternity forever with a playful Jesus. It will not be as those under the religious fog have us see it, as ‘when we die we go to church forever, there to sing hymns for millennia’ (Pg.217). It will be a ‘renewed heavens, a renewed earth. My friends, I hope you understand that we get the entire glorious kingdom back. Sunlight on water; songbirds in a forest; desert sands under moonlight; vineyards just before harvest – Jesus fully intends to restore the glorious world he gave us. Paradise lost; paradise regained. A hundred times over. … I know this beautiful world will be ours again and so will Jesus, and all the time imaginable to play together. Beauty. Intimacy. Adventure. The very things we were given at the dawn of time. But honestly, more than all that, I’m just looking forward to seeing him [Jesus], looking into his eyes, hugging him as Peter did on the beach and not letting go for a very long time.’

(Pgs.217-218)

The only thing that matters for Eldredge is the fact that we should love Jesus more and more and even spread that love to others in our lives. Therefore, everyone will come to know, love and spend eternity with this “beautiful outlaw.”

We looked at this statement in the epilogue and we agree that it has nothing to do with “prosperity gospel”, in fact, it has more to do with Brother Lawrence. The new heavens and the new earth will be better than the old. One of us often wonder how many “Christians” have these misconceptions that Eldredge talks about. Could it be something to do with the “Church of England” Christians only? Here in Australia, at the present moment, one doesn’t go to church unless one wants to but in both England and the US there are many Christians who maybe do not believe in God. And only God knows what people really believe.

Thank you for spending time with our discussions on Eldredge. See you next time when we talk about Timothy Keller’s Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering.

John Eldredge, Beautiful Outlaw. Faith Words. 2011 (Rep:2013)

Next: Walking with God Through Pain & Suffering – Part One

The Ladder of Divine Ascent – Fifth Week of Lent

Previous: The Ladder of Divine Ascent – Fourth Week of Lent

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Copyright: Paulist Press (http://www.paulistpress.com)

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Hello, and welcome to the last in the series of the Ladder of Divine Ascent. Sorry for the delay. This time we are turning our attention to the final five steps in Climacus’ work. These steps focus their attention on the more “interior” part of the monastic life, known as the “contemplative life” or theoria and how a monk should begin to practice them after, and as well as practicing, the “active” life (Pg.12).

Don_Diego_del_Corral_y_Arellano,_por_Diego_Velázquez

17th century Spanish Judge in full gowns, by Diego Velazquez

Source: Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judge)

Step 26

The first of these “contemplative” steps that Climacus looks at is discernment, to which he spends a great amount of time discussing. Climacus says that this aspect is an ‘an uncorrupted conscience’ (Pg.229), and that a monk should practice this virtue in order to help fight against both the passions of the body and the demons that would provoke us to perform passions such as anger and lust. Climacus urges the monks to use discernment in order to combat this problem. Climacus encourages the monks to not give up after falling into such a passion, but to use the shame after having fallen into a passion to beg God’s forgiveness and even use their experience to warn others not to fall into the same trap. For monks have to cross a dangerous place, in this case Climacus likens it to a sea:

(A) sea full of winds, rocks, and whirlpools, of pirates, waterspouts, and shallows, of monsters and waves. A rock in the soul is wild and sudden anger. A whirlpool is the hopelessness that lays hold of the mind on every side and struggles to drag it into the depths of despair. A shallow is the ignorance that makes a good of what is evil. A monster is this gross and savage body. Pirates are those deadly servants of vainglory (vanity) who snatch our cargo, the hard-won earnings of our virtues. A wave is the swollen and packed stomach that by its gluttony hands us over to the beast. A waterspout is pride, the pride that flings us down from heaven, bears us up to the sky, and then dashes us into the lowest depths.’

(Pgs.231-232)

The only way to combat these dangers is to have a mind like God, which ‘is certainly endowed with spiritual perception and this is something that, whether we possess or not, we should always seek to have. And when it comes, our senses desist from their natural activities. This is why a wise man once said, “You shall obtain a sense of what is divine’ (Pg.233). Those who are like to have a discernment like God’s must ‘begin by mortifying their own will. Then having prayed in faith and simplicity, all malice spent, they should turn humbly and in confidence to the fathers or even the brothers and they should accept their counsel, as though from God Himself, even when that counsel goes against the grain, even when the advice comes from those who do not seem very spiritual. God, after all, is not unjust. He will not lead astray the souls who, trusting and guileless, yield in lowliness to the advice and decision of their neighbor. Even if those consulted are stupid, God immaterially and invisibly speaks through them and anyone who faithfully submits to this norm will be filled with humility. If a man can express on a harp whatever ails him, surely a rational mind and a reasonable soul can provide better teaching than something inanimate.’

(Pg.244-245)

But this discernment must be able to know the will of God in all things good and bad, especially in the case when a monk prays for something and God appears to not grant their prayer. More importantly, the monk has to be resolute in all trials, not to give in to despair and doubt, and to be able withstand an attack from one demon and an attack from another as well, and also not be careless when the demons do not attack. These attacks become apparent especially during times of illness, where a monk finds himself unable to withstand their attacks, but Climacus urges his readers to take comfort and to even use this illness as a means of helping to the monk to better prepare himself for any onslaughts. Above all, a monk should use a degree of “dispassion”, which stems from his sense of innocence and simplicity and can be used to combat these passions. This will enable them to remain steadfast in the faith and practice.

Having read this chapter on discernment, I can admit that even a modern Christian needs this virtue in order to combat the trials and temptations of this world. At the moment, we all live in a fallen world, and everywhere we have enemies both on inside and outside that can trip us up. In fact, even Jesus faced temptation in both His 40 days in the desert and in the Garden of Gethsemane as His passion on the cross. Every Christian must remind him-or-herself that not everything in life is a bed of roses and that, even when we are least expecting it, we need to pray to God and look to other Christians for the strength to help overcome these moments and not give into despair. It is why a season like Lent is helpful in reminding us of these themes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Common Ash Tree

Source: Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tree)

Step 27

Another aspect is stillness, which Climacus describes as twofold in the sense that it leads to a control of both soul and body: ‘Stillness of the body is the accurate knowledge and management of one’s feelings and perceptions. Stillness of soul is the accurate knowledge of one’s thoughts and is an unassailable mind’ (Pgs.261-262). The known signs of those who practice stillness consists of ‘a calm mind, a purified disposition, rapture in the Lord, the remembrance of everlasting torments, the imminence of death, an insatiable urge for prayer, constant watchfulness, the death of lust, no sense of attachment, death of worldliness, an end to gluttony, a foundation for theology, a well of discernment, a truce accompanied by tears, an end to talkativeness, and many other such things alien to most men’ (Pg.266).

This quality is one that is practiced both by monks who live in a community and those who are hermits. However, it is at best described as a waiting upon God in prayer because, in stillness, a monk can at least gain access to God via that communion. First, especially in the case of a hermit or “solitary”, there has to be a complete and utter renunciation of everyone and everything that would hinder prayer. Then there is the case of true prayer: ‘Those with a mind accustomed to true prayer talk directly to the Lord, as if to the ear of the emperor. Those praying aloud fall down in front of the Lord as if before the entire senate. Those who live in the world make their pleas to the emperor in the midst of bustling crowds’ (Pg.263). A third is an inviolable activity of the heart, in the case of the Orthodox, church the Jesus Prayer or Prayer of the Heart (which requires one to repeat a certain phrase “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner!” over and over again), and which helps to center the heart, mind and soul over to God (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_Prayer). Which is the reason why stillness is seen by Climacus as an important aspect of the monastic life.

However, like all the other virtues, stillness is not without its problems and temptations. Climacus warns that demons attack everyone, especially solitaries:

‘A man who is gripped by passions and lives in the desert listens to their prattle. I was taught this by that blessed elder, George Arslaites…. ‘I have observed,” he said, “that the demons of vainglory and concupiscence usually attack us in the morning. In the middle of the day, the attack comes from the demons of despondency, gloom, and anger; and it comes in the evening from the dung-loving demons of the miserable stomach.’

(Pg.269)

Therefore, the only way to ward off these temptations is to persevere in stillness. In the case of monks who live in a community, they have guard against gluttony, lust and avarice. Climacus’ advice to them in this way: ‘Some work to reduce the passions. Others sing psalms and spend most of their time in prayer. Some turn to the depths of contemplation. But whatever the situation is, let it be investigated in accordance with the ladder and accepted in the Lord’ (Pg.266). Climacus applies the same measure to idleness, saying that that vice can mar the quality of stillness. For the solitary monk, it is similar with the added threat of vices such as despondency, vainglory, pride, dejection and anger. Climacus himself recounts a time when he was in the grip of despondency, but, after he had received guests, he became aware of another sin, that of vanity and pride, which changed him in an instant. The only remedy that Climacus can recommend is simply to be mindful of God every day and every hour, keeping vigil for him during the night, being on the lookout for any attacks from both the body and demons, and being attentive at prayer.

Stillness, to a modern Christian, is probably not an unfamiliar topic. Especially during our prayers and services we should be always keeps our minds focused on God and not allow any hindrance to take precedence or even allow any noise to interfere with our prayers. This has become rather difficult, especially in modern churches where multimedia and loud music take place, so I think that we should try our hardest to gain a foothold on this practice. Some Christians even use retreats in order to cut themselves away from the world and focus their attention on God, in much the same way that Jesus did when he retreated away to pray. However, the idea of being still in mind can be something of a challenge, and requires a lot of time and effort. In the case of Climacus, the Eastern Orthodox Christian would also use the Jesus Prayer, something that could be more-or-less foreign to most Western Christians, but I do believe that Climacus’ advice about stillness has some value for today’s Christians, because of our world’s preoccupation with noise and interruption especially in relation to the next step: prayer.

Duerer-Prayer

Praying Hands by Albrecht Durer

Source: Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prayer)

Step 28

Climacus describes prayer as:

‘Prayer is by nature a dialog and a union of man with God. Its effect is to hold the world together. It achieves a reconciliation with God.

‘Prayer is the mother and daughter of tears. It is an expiation of sin, a bridge across temptation, a bulwark against affliction. It wipes out conflict, is the work of angels, and is the nourishment of all bodiless beings. Prayer is future gladness, action without end, wellspring of virtues, source of grace, hidden progress, food of the soul, enlightenment of the mind, an axe against despair, hope demonstrated, sorrow done away with. It is a wealth for monks, treasure of hermits, anger diminished. It a mirror of progress, a demonstration of success, evidence of one’s condition, the future revealed, a sign of glory. For the man who really prays it is the court, the judgment hall, the tribunal of the Lord – and this prior to the judgment that is to come.’

(Pg.274)

To the monk like Climacus, prayer consists of three parts. First is thanksgiving and praise to God. Next, comes confession of sins. Then, finally, any sorts of requests that can be made. Like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt.6:7-8), Climacus urges his reader to avoid using many different words, instead he tells his readers to keep things simple, and, if possible, to concentrate on a single word that can evoke prayer in anyway. The most important thing, however, is to avoid distractions:

‘The beginning of prayer is the expulsion of distractions from the very start by a single thought; the middle stage is the concentration on what is being said or thought; its conclusion is rapture in the Lord.’

(Pg.276)

Climacus also informs his readers to use the judgment of their souls in the back of their minds and to flee from any unnecessary thoughts that might prove a distraction to prayer. Above all, if you have any sins, confess them before God: ‘Total contrition is necessary for everyone, but particularly for those who have come to the King to obtain forgiveness of their sins’ (Pg.277).

But the final, and most important aspect is unceasing prayer. Earlier, I have already mentioned the Jesus Prayer and some like Climacus would have been familiar with it. The reason is because he urges monks to always have that in mind: ‘Get ready for your set time of prayer by unceasing prayer in your soul. In this way, you will soon make progress. I have observed that those who were outstanding in obedience and who tried as far as possible to keep in mind the thought of God were in full control of their minds and wept copiously as soon as they stood in prayer, for holy obedience had prepared them for this’ (Pg.278).

The type of deep and intense prayer that Climacus recommends is an interesting subject. Again, his book was written for monks and one has to be aware of this fact when dealing the subject such as the Jesus Prayer and the daily office, which would have been part of a monk’s life. Personally, I can understand if someone find Climacus’ advice on focusing on death and judgment can seem a little bit severe and might lead to some morbid introspection. However, his advice on the three part of prayer, thanksgiving, confession and request, are similar to the popular ACTS model of prayer (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication), with some variation. And, regardless of the difference between era and occupation, Climacus is right that prayer is the lifeblood of Christian everywhere and that we should try our best to be good at it. Always set some time out for God and also keep Him constantly in mind. That’s the best advice.

Step 29

In Step 29, Climacus focuses on dispassion, which he defines as a ‘heaven of the mind,’ and that the best way to achieve this is to have first ‘cleansed his flesh of all corruption when he has lifted his mind above everything created, and has made it master of all the senses; when he keeps his soul continually in the presence of the Lord and reaches out beyond the borderline of strength to Him’ (Pg.282). In other words, dispassion is the highest state of perfection any monk to achieve and enables him to become more enamored with God and will like to spend more time in His presence. Climacus urges his reader think of this virtue as a type of ‘celestial palace’ (Pg.284) where the beloved of God spends most of his time with God in a state of continual bliss. The result of this dispassion is that all good souls will be able to rise above evil and be able to perform all sorts of good: ‘The man deemed worthy to be of this sort during his lifetime has God always within him, to guide him in all he has to say or do or think. The will of the Lord becomes for him a sort of inner voice through illumination. All human teaching is beneath him. “‘When shall I come to appear before the face of God?’ ” he says (Ps.41:3). “I can no longer endure the force of love. I long for the undying beauty that You gave me before this day.” ’ (Pg.284).

It would be nice for Christians to each this state, but I think I can vouch for everyone that not will have possession of this virtue. For Christians are sinners who have knowledge of God’s sanctification and will be still liable to fall and sin. Therefore, I think the best thing we can hope for is grace, not just dispassion, to endure the trials and tribulations of life. On the one hand, Climacus does describe dispassion with such a gloss and veneer that it would be nice to possess this virtue, but I think we need to be realistic about whether or not we can possess this virtue.

Step 30

The final step is one based on faith, hope and love. Surprisingly, Climacus does not appear to speak much about faith much but he does talk about love:

‘ “God is love” (1 John 4:16). But someone eager to define this is blindly striving to measure the sand in the ocean.

‘Love, by its nature, is a resemblance to God, insofar as this is humanly possible. In its activity it is an inebriation of the soul. Its distinctive character is to be a fountain of faith, an abyss of patience, a sea of humility.

‘Love is the banishment of every sort of contrariness, for love thinks no evil.’ 

(Pg.286)

Perfect love, according to Climacus, drives out all fear, therefore leaving the monk able to love God perfectly. In fact, fear itself can help drive one to seek God more earnestly: ‘The growth of fear is the starting point of love, and total purity is the foundation for theology’ (Pg.288). Otherwise, fear would drive away all perfect virtue and turns a soul away from God. And God is portrayed in this step as a lover who will run to those who seek Him. It can also allow a monk to love his neighbor, perform prophecies and miracles and to stay in union with God forever.

As for hope, Climacus describe it as the power behind love itself. ‘Hope is what causes us to look forward to the reward of love. Hope is an abundance of hidden treasure. It is the abundant assurance of the riches in store for us. It is a rest from labor, a doorway of love. It lifts despair and is the image of what is not present. When hope fails, so does love. Struggles are bound by it, labors depend on it, and mercy lies all around it. The hopeful monk slays despondency, kills it with his sword. Hope comes from the experience must be ever in doubt. Hope is destroyed by anger, for hope does not disappoint and the angry man has no grace’ (Pg.289). Ultimately, though, Climacus is agreeing with the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:13 that a Christian has to possess faith, hope and love but the greatest of these is love.

As many Christians can attest to, we can agree with Climacus about these three virtues. Indeed, he even supplements them with grander spiritual elaborations that most Christians would ever add. My only quibble is that Climacus does not write much about faith, for we need to put our trust in Jesus in order to possess both love and hope. But he is right about having love and hope as well, because love helps us turn our focus unto Jesus and hope in our salvation helps us to fight through all the trials and misfortunes of life. That is what makes the Christian concept of faith, love and hope different from any earthy concept of the three.

Thank you for spending this time with Climacus! Join us next time as we discuss more books and ideas! HAPPY EASTER!

John Climacus. The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Trans. Colm Luibheid & Norman Russell. Paulist Press. 1982.

 

The Ladder of Divine Ascent – Fourth Week of Lent

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Hello and welcome, again, to the Ladder of Divine Ascent! Last time we looked at avarice and insensitivity and the advice that Climacus gives on how to overcome them. This week we continue with our look at overcoming further vices of the mind, in this case fear and pride, before we move onto some of the virtues for the “active life” and how to achieve them.

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Eugene Delacroix – Ramasseuses de coquillages surprises par la mare

Wikipedia (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Fear)

Step 21

In Step 21, Climacus touches briefly upon the subject of fear. He describes it as ‘childish behavior within a soul advanced in year and vainglory. It is a lapse from faith that comes from anticipating the unexpected. Fear is danger tasted in advance, a quiver as the heart takes fright before unnamed calamity. Fear is a loss of assurance’ (Pg.199). Climacus says that this fear may occur in the proud, where God uses this vice to teach them a lesson, but it can also attack the humble as well, especially those monks who live a solitary existence. The remedy he recommends is not to go near places where these fears can develop and grow in our minds and souls. However, if we cannot help avoiding those places, then the next best thing is to ‘put on the armor of prayer, and when you reach the spot, stretch out your hands and flog your enemies with the name of Jesus, since there is no stronger weapon in heaven or on earth. And when you drive the fear away, give praise to the God Who has delivered you, and He will protect you for all eternity. Provided you remain grateful. Just as one morsel will not fill your stomach, so you will not defeat fear in one move. It will fade in proportion to your mourning and the less we mourn the greater will be our cowardice’ (Pg.200).

Climacus goes on to say that fear takes place in two places, the soul and the body. It starts from one point before going to the other. ‘But if your soul is unafraid even when the body is terrified, you are close to being healed’ (Pg.200). In fact, Climacus says that fear in the soul is due to the soul being “barren” in some particular virtue and that God is the One Who is using that fear to teach that monk a lesson for not trying to grow in that virtue. For, to Climacus, it is God Alone Who we should fear because one day we have to give an account of ourselves on Judgment Day. According to Climacus, God can even provide for us guardian angels who help us fight our fears and master them.

It may seem odd to focus on fear and how it would affect the average Christian, but I think that overcoming our fears is a vital step in the Christian life. Too many of us can have fears that seriously affect our faith more than anything else, and can even be related to doubts which attack us and make us question ourselves and our motives. In fact, I can relate to this reading to the parable of the talents (Matt.25:14-30; Lk.19:12-27) where the last servant did not use any of his talents and simply hid his in a field. It is that fear that prevent us from growing in our faith and using it to spread the Christian message far and wide, and it is the most dangerous one of all. Like Climacus, I would recommend prayer to help us overcome it, but if it does persist, then I would also recommend counselling from a minister or priest to help us to overcome our fears in due time.

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Pride, from the Seven Deadly Sins by Jacob Matham, 1592

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pride)

Steps 22-23

In the next two steps, Climacus turns his focus to three vices of the mind, namely vainglory (or vanity), pride and blasphemy (the last two are both covered in Step 23). According to Climacus, some would often believe that both vanity and pride are separate sins, and that they should be treated as a small sin. But Climacus believes that vanity is still a danger for the monk to contend with, and without vanity no one can ever develop pride. Vanity is described by Climacus as ‘a change of nature, a perversion of character, (and) a taking note of criticism’ (Pg.201) in that the vain person becomes aware of his own achievements and only gives glory to himself. This vice is found in everyone, including both believers and non-believers: ‘Apparently honoring God, he actually is out to please not God but men. To be a showoff is to be vainglorious, and the fast of such a man is unrewarded and his prayer futile, since he is practicing both to win praise’ (Pg.202). The danger is in praising our own skills without realizing that they come from God alone: ‘A man who takes pride in natural abilities – I mean cleverness, the ability to learn, skill in reading, good diction, quick grasp, and all such skills as we possess without having to work for them – this man, I say, will never receive the blessings of heaven, since the man who is unfaithful in little is unfaithful and vainglorious in much. And there are men who wear out their bodies to no purpose in the pursuit of total dispassion, heavenly treasures, miracle working, and prophetic ability, and the poor fools do not realize that humility, not hard work, is the mother of all things’ (Pg.204).

As mentioned above, vanity can strike everywhere, including both the community and the solitary life, especially the latter when he receives guests and begins to entertain them. It is also dangerous in the sense that it can produce resentment in those who would feel slighted because they feel that their talents are not recognized properly, causing discord between one monk and another. Therefore, the answer that Climacus gives is to give honor and glory to God alone, avoid all people who seek to flatter us for this particular gift, and to use humility to abase ourselves and our talents, seeking the lowest place instead. To show how to answer vanity Climacus tells of this one holy man who was attacked by the demons of vanity and pride:

‘“I was once sitting at an assembly,” he said. “The demon of vainglory and the demon of pride came to sit on either side of me. One poked me with the finger of vainglory and encouraged me to talk publicly about some vision or labor of mine in the desert. I shook him off the words: ‘Let those who wish me harm be driven back and let them blush’ (Ps.39:15). Then the demon on my left at once said in my ear: ‘Well done! Well done! You have become great by conquering my shameless mother.’ Turning to him I answered appropriately, making use of the rest of the verse: ‘Defeat and shame on all who say, “Well done! Well done!” ’ ” ’

(Pgs.204-205).

Moving onto pride in Step 23, Climacus says that ‘Pride is a denial of God, an invention of the devil, contempt for men. It is the mother of condemnation, the offspring of praise, a sign of barrenness. It is a flight from God’s help, the harbinger of madness, the author of downfall. It is the cause of diabolical possession, the source of anger, the gateway of hypocrisy. It is the fortress of demons, the custodian of sins, the source of hardheartedness. It is the denial of compassion, a bitter Pharisee, a cruel judge. It is the foe of God. It is the root of blasphemy’ (Pg.207). In other words, pride is the mother of all sins, and is the most dangerous one of all, especially if it leads to other sins such ‘Anger, Calumny, Spite, Irascibility, Yelling, Blasphemy, Hypocrisy, Hatred, Envy, Argumentativeness, Self-will, (and) Disobedience’ (Pg.210). It comes after vanity, where we despise those who have fallen into some lapse and feel puffed up if we hear someone praise us. It also comes whenever one has had a lapse in behavior, ‘for a lapse is an indication of pride. And an admirable man said once to me: “Think of a dozen shameful passions. Love one of them, I mean pride, and it will take up the space of all the other eleven” ’ (Pgs.2107-208). Pride will lead to a monk to feel angry, rejects criticism, but, most of all, it will make a monk want to claim autonomy over his own life at the expense of God. To Climacus this is madness, since the proud monk ends up denying God the praise and honour due to Him:

‘While it is disgraceful to be puffed up over the adornments of others, it is sheer lunacy to imagine that one has deserved the gifts of God. You may be proud only of the achievements you had before the time of your birth. But anything after that, indeed the birth itself, is a gift from God. You may claim only those virtues in you bestowed on you by God. And you may claim only those victories you achieved independently of the body, for the body too is not yours but a work of God.’

(Pgs.208-209)

But Climacus cautions us to be on our guard on trying to avoid the sin of pride, because it can creep in unawares. For example, when ‘the demon of pride finds a place for himself among his own, he appears to them, in sleep or awake, and he looks like a holy angel or martyr and he hints at mysteries to be revealed or spiritual gifts to be granted, that the wretches may be deceived and driven utterly out of their minds’ (Pg.209). The only answer Climacus can give is for a monk to compare himself with the early Fathers for guidance. ‘If we do, we will discover that we have scarcely begun the ascetic life, that we have hardly kept our vow in a holy manner, and that our thinking is still rooted in the world’ (Pg.209). In other words, the best a monk can do is always remain in a state of humility and simply avoid being puffed up too much by pride.

As for blasphemy, Climacus treats this subject in the same step because it stems from pride as well. It is most apparent during worship:

‘This atrocious foe has the habit of appearing during the holy services and even at the awesome hour of the Mysteries, and blaspheming the Lord and the consecrated elements, thereby showing that these unspeakable, unacceptable, and unthinkable words are not ours but rather those of the God-fearing demon who fled from heaven because it seems, of the blasphemies he uttered there too against the Lord. It must be so, for if these dreadful and unholy words are my own, how could I offer humble worship after having partaken of the sacred gift? How could I revile and praise at the same time?’

(Pg.211)

To a monk, blasphemy can drive them mad and can seriously prevent them from continuing their spiritual life. Climacus even says that blasphemous thoughts can affect the simple monk, the novices, more so than the others because they are beginners and are not so firm in their faith. But Climacus says that monks who think blasphemous thoughts need to not pay too much attention to them, but focus their mind on God in prayer. This will make the demons who provide these thoughts deepen their attack and Climacus says, in answer, a monk should make light of these demons and tell them ‘ “Get behind me, Satan! I will worship the Lord my God and I will serve only Him’ (Matt.4:10)” ’ (Pg.212). To do otherwise, (in other words try to confront these thoughts and grasp onto them) would be useless and would lead only to despair.

Having looked at the advice Climacus gives concerning vanity, pride and blasphemy, I can only say, that in spite of difference between Christians who lead a modern life and those who live in monasteries, that he is on good ground here. Pride is the chief sin that, according to Christian doctrine, is the reason why the world is a fallen place. It was the sin that led Adam and Eve out of the garden of Eden when they desired to be more like God and is the cause of the world’s ills. In fact, all you need to do is look on the internet, especially in the social media, and see how people often invest their time and energy to build themselves up in terms of image and ability. The same is true with those who like to be critical of others who fail to be live to a certain standard, because it is pride that can make them feel better than others and criticize them. And, as Climacus points out, Christians as well as non-Christians suffer from vanity and pride. While Climacus’ advice against these vices may seem strange to modern minds, I agree that we Christians need a good dose of humility to keep us from being too full of ourselves. We should give God alone the praise that is due to Him and not to ourselves and our abilities, especially since the latter are gifts from God. As for blasphemy, it is true that, during our worship and prayer, our minds often wander from God and can become affected by doubt. I agree with Climacus that prayer is needed to combat blasphemy, but I would recommend counseling as well.

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Saint Francis in Meditation by Francisco de Zurbaran

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_of_Assisi)

Steps 24-25

In Steps 24-25, Climacus turns his attention onto the virtues. In this case he is looking at those practiced in the “active” life or praxis (Pg.12), which are virtues that are performed everyday. Here he looks at simplicity and humility and how a monk can practice them.

In the case of simplicity it is linked to meekness, which Climacus describes as ‘a mind consistent amid honor or dishonor. Meekness prays quietly and sincerely for a neighbor however troublesome he may be. Meekness works alongside of obedience, guides a religious community, checks frenzy, curbs anger. …. The Lord finds rest in the hearts of the meek, while the turbulent spirit is the home of the devil. “The meek shall inherit the earth” (Matt.5:5), indeed, rule over it; and the bad-tempered shall be carried off as booty from their land’ (Pgs.214-215). Simplicity is, in Climacus’s view, a habit that it is to be encouraged because it will protect the monk against being evil. In this case, evil is personified as malice, which is described as ‘honesty perverted, a deluded thought, a lying disposition, perjury, and ambiguous words. Malice is a false heart, an abyss of cunning, deceit that has become habitual, pride that is second nature. It is the foe of humility, a fake penitence, mourning depleted, a refusal to confess, an insistence on getting one’s own way. It is the agent of lapses, a hindrance to resurrection, a tolerance of wrongdoing, false grief, false reverence. It is life gone diabolical’ (Pg.215). In other words, it is connected with pride and even from being too full of knowledge and Climacus urges monks to fight against this pride.

Instead monks must approach (the Lord) as disciples to a master, in all simplicity, openly honestly, without duplicity, without idle curiosity. He (God) is simple and uncompounded. And He wants the souls that come to Him to be simple and pure. Indeed you will never see simplicity separated from humility’ (Pg.216). Climacus wants the monk to treat his spiritual director in the same light, to follow every one of the director’s orders without question. The individual monk must always fight against his own cleverness as well as avoiding taking pride in being ignorant. To become humble and meek will help monks to avoid the sin of pride.

Humility, Climacus sets above and beyond all other virtues, especially in the sense that it can lead the monk to be one with God. Climacus says that novices should practice humility alongside repentance for our past sins and mourning for our sins as well thinking that they are not worthy of the gifts that God bestows upon them. This will produce ‘a three-stranded cord (cf. Eccles.4:12), a heavenly rainbow coming together as a single power and energy, with its own effects and characteristics. Speak of one and we imply the other two. …. The first and principal token of this excellent and admirable triad is the delighted readiness of the soul to accept indignity, to receive it with open arms, to welcome it as something that relieves and cauterizes diseases of the soul and grievous sins. The second token is the wiping out of anger – and modesty over the fact that it has subsided. Third and preeminent is the honest distrust of one’s own virtues, together with an unending desire to learn more’ (Pg.220). On the other hand, humility is also different from contrition and self-knowledge, while often being used to help the others:

‘Contrition is the outcome of a lapse. A man who has lapsed breaks down and prays without arrogance, though with laudable persistence, disarrayed and yet clinging to the staff of hope, indeed using it to drive off the dog of despair.

‘Self-knowledge is a clear-eyed notion of one’s own spiritual advance. It is also an unwavering remembrance of one’s lightest sins.

‘Humility is a spiritual teaching of Christ led spiritually like bride into the inner chamber of the soul of those deemed worthy of it, and somehow eludes all description.’

(Pg.224)

Like meekness and simplicity, the humble monk should do everything he can to avoid pride and does not concern himself with matters too weighty and beyond him. Climacus even tells a story of a hermit who, when flattered by demons, would write down a list of all the virtues on the wall of his cell, read aloud to himself the whole list and, after doing so, would say aloud ‘ “When you have every one of these virtues within you, then you will have an accurate sense of how far from God you still are” ’ (Pgs.222-223). In other words, humility does require a sense of self-knowledge, but only of a sort that shows us how far we fall from God’s standard. For to Climacus, God is the only Person that a monk should fear rather than man: ‘For God is delighted when He sees us courting dishonor for the purpose of crushing, striking, and destroying our self-esteem’ (Pg.225). So, along with simplicity, a monk should always think less of himself, be mindful of his sins and failings and keep from being puffed up with pride.

As I have often mentioned before, Climacus is writing for a monastic audience, and, in the case of simplicity and humility, it would be necessary for a monk to adopt a communal spirit in order to live in a monastery. However, because pride and vanity are sins that even modern Christians should be weary of, Climacus’ advice on simplicity and humility become essential if we want to avoid our sins. Too often with our celebrity culture can we end up thinking of ourselves as number one, when in fact we are all sinners and, in spite of all our great gifts, we can end being tripped up by a fall and becoming shamed because of it. Therefore, a Christian should always keep reminding him-or-herself that he-or-she is the worst sinner and not to place him or herself above and beyond anyone. In fact, Climacus himself was a humble monk for the rest of his life and always resisted the call for a higher rank within the church hierarchy other than that of abbot (Pgs.1-6). If a modern Christian would like to achieve a sense of humility than he or she should always look to God for a knowledge of their failings and, if necessary, others to hold them accountable if their fallen nature gets in the way.

Thank you for reading this blog! Join us next time when we look at the final steps in the Ladder of Divine Ascent!

John Climacus. The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Trans. Colm Luibheid & Norman Russell. Paulist Press. 1982.

Next: The Ladder of Divine Ascent – Fifth Week of Lent

The Ladder of Divine Ascent – Third Week of Lent

Previous: The Ladder of Divine Ascent – Second Week of Lent

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Hello and welcome back to the Ladder of Divine Ascent. Here, Climacus continues with his instructions about conquering the vices that can hinder monks on their progress to holiness. Here, he continues on from last week, where he focuses his attention onto the physical passions, those of the flesh, in this case avarice. Then, for the last three days of this week, Climacus returns to the passions of the mind, focusing here on insensitivity in monks.

The Worship of Mammon

The Worship of Mammon by Evelyn De Morgan

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greed)

Steps 16-17

In Step 16, Climacus describes avarice as ‘a worship of idols and is the offspring of unbelief. It makes excuses for infirmity and is the mouthpiece of old age. It is the prophet of hunger, and the herald of drought’ (Pg.187). In Step 17 it is also described as leading to other sins such as ‘hatred, theft, envy, separations, hostility, stormy blasts, remembrance of past wrongs, inhuman acts and even murder’ (Pg.190). In other words, avarice stirs up greed within the monk for many things, such as money, possessions and etc. Back in Step 16, Climacus says that this vice starts via ‘the pretext of almsgiving and the finish is detestation of the poor’ (Pg.187). Against the example of avarice, Climacus sets the generous man who gives everything he has to the poor and needy. This generous man is one ‘who mourns for himself (and) has renounced even his body and does not spare it in due season’ (Pg.187), while a monk who lacks charity ‘is a stranger to tedium of the spirit. Always he turns over within himself the words of the Apostle: “The man who does not work does not eat” (2 Thess.3:10) and, “These hands of mine have served me and those with me” (Acts 20:34)” ’ (Pg.188). In other words, avarice can also extend to a monk who makes an idol out of using work to gain something for his own advantage. Therefore, a good monk has to do everything in his power to conquer this vice ‘and the man who has triumphed in it has either won love or cut out care’ (Pg.188).

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Saint Francis in Meditation by Francisco de Zurbaran

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_of_Assisi)

Climacus continues with this them in Step 17 by looking at poverty and how a monk can use it to fight against avarice. ‘The poverty of a monk is resignation from care. It is life without anxiety and travels light, far from sorrow and faithful to the commandments. The poor monk is lord of the world. He has handed all his cares over to God, and by his faith has obtained all men as his servants. If he lacks something he does not complain to his fellows and he accepts what comes his way as if from the hand of the Lord. In his poverty he turn into a son of detachment and he sets no value on what he has. Having withdrawn from the world, he comes to regard everything as refuse. Indeed he is not genuinely poor if he starts to worry about something’ (Pg.189). By being free of material goods, a monk is free of any idolatry and is also free of being pinned down to one locality: ‘I have seen monks content to remain in one locality on account of material possessions, but my praise is for those who are pilgrims for the Lord (Pg.189). The only way to fight against avarice and love poverty is to first think of heaven and not for any other motive:

‘A man who is poor for no good reason falls into a double misfortune. He goes without present goods and is deprived of these in the future.

‘We monks should be careful not to be less trusting than the birds, which are not anxious and do not gather into barns (cf. Matt.6:26).

‘The man gives up possessions for religious motives is great but the man who renounces his will is holy indeed. The one will earn money or grace a hundred times over, but the other will inherit eternal life.

‘The man who thinks nothing of goods has freed himself from quarrels and disputes. But the lover of possessions will fight to the death for a needle. Sturdy faith cuts off cares, and remembrance of death denies the body. There was no trace of avarice in Job, and so he remained tranquil when he lost everything.’

(Pgs.189-190)

Another virtue that can be used avarice is detachment, ‘which is a withdrawal from all evil desires, and which grows from an experience and taste of the knowledge of God and from a meditation on the account to be rendered at death’ (Pg.190). By focusing our attention on God and becoming removed from a love of money and other material things, we can not only stop avarice but also other sins that come in its wake, such as insensitivity which Climacus would look at briefly in the next three steps. Only then can a monk be truly free from being attached to material goods and progress in the spiritual life.

Having read these first steps, I have to confess that I fall short of it. In fact, very much so! But I have a feeling that most other Christians would confess to that as well. Above all, we should always remember that Climacus was writing to monks and they would either have to share material goods or even renounce them altogether. But in regards to the materialism in today’s Western world, I think that advice like Climacus’ could be heeded. A good habit for a Christian to fall back on would be to be satisfied with what we currently possess. In fact, last Sunday the minister at my Anglican church preached a sermon about the Israelites in Exodus Chapter 16, who grumbled of the hardship they were experiencing in the desert and God answered their prayers by raining manna from heaven. However, the proviso was to only use the manna for a day, and if any Israelite kept some manna for much longer than that, would only help having rotten food instead! Therefore, the point is to use only what you have already from God before thinking whether or not you should have more. But I think the real gist of Climacus’ advice is also the desire for material things, which itself is an enemy of charity and corrupts any pure motive. Therefore, a Christian should also hold him or herself accountable to God and others and decide if whatever he or she possesses has become an idol in his or her life.

Brick_wall_close-up_view

Steps 18-20

Climacus then returns to the non-physical passions. In Step 18, he turns his attention to insensitivity, which he describes as a ‘deadened feeling in body and spirit, and comes from long sickness and carelessness. Lack of awareness is negligence that has become habit. It is thought gone numb, an offspring of predisposition, a trap for zeal, a noose for courage, an ignorance of compunction, the gateway to despair, the mother of forgetfulness giving birth to loss of fear of God and, in turn, to a deadened spirit, like a daughter bearing her own mother’ (Pg.191). The insensitive monk is described by Climacus as a hypocrite because he praises some virtues yet does not actually practice them, usually complains about something and yet does it anyway, or even complain of tough vigils and fasts and yet is insensitive in other matters, especially prayer. Even Climacus himself confesses that he ‘is sorely tried by this vice and I would not have been able alone to analyze its wily ways if I had not laid hold of it, gripping it hard, examining it to discover what has been described above, scourging it with fear of the Lord and endless prayer’ (Pg.192). In this chapter, Climacus has insensitivity describe itself and those it affects in this way: ‘ “Those who are under my sway laugh when they see the bodies of the dead. At prayer they are stony, hard, and blinded. In front of the altar the fell nothing. They receive the Holy Gift (the bread) as if it were ordinary bread. And I laugh at people when I see them stirred by compunction. My father taught me to kill everything born of courage and love. I am the mother of Laughter, the nurse of Sleep, the friend of the Full Stomach. When I am found out I do not grieve, and I am the ally of Fake Piety.” ’ (Pg.192). Therefore, one way to combat this sin is to keep watch for this sin and to always think of death and judgment. ‘Pray often where the dead are laid out and paint in your heart an indelible image of them, traced there with the brush of fasting.’ (Pg.193). Otherwise, a monk will never rid himself of this sin.

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Agony in the Garden by El Greco

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agony_in_the_Garden)

Climacus continues his warnings against insensitivity in Step 19, which deals with sleep, prayer and the singing of psalms. He describes sleep as a natural state as well as an image of our death, yet it is also has many reasons for its presence. ‘That is to say, it comes from nature, from food, from demons, or perhaps in some degree even from prolonged fasting by which the weakened flesh is moved to long to repose’ (Pg.194). But the most dangerous aspect of sleep for a monk is the fact that it can become a bad habit and can take a long time to overcome. The worst aspect of sleep is how it affects monks who are often called to prayer:

‘Some [demons and temptations] stand by our bed and encourage us to lie down again after we have got up. “Wait until the first hymns are over,” they say. “Then it will be time enough to go to church.” Others get those at prayer to fall asleep. Still others cause bad and unusual stomachache, while others encourage prattle in the church. Some inspire bad thoughts, others get us to lean against the wall as though we were weary or to start yawning over and over again, while still others cause us to laugh during prayer so as to provoke the anger of God against us. Some get us in our laziness to hurry up with the singing, while others suggest we should sing slowly in order that we may take pleasure in it. Others, by sitting on our mouths, shut them so that we can scarcely open them.’

(Pgs.194-195)

The only answer Climacus gives them is to be always mindful of God when at prayer and to gain strength from prayer alone. This helps the monk to be almost like ‘a wrestler who was earlier trained and made eager for his enterprise’ (Pg.195). In fact, Climacus treats the one who is capable of uttering solitary prayer while ignoring the effects of sleep as a person who has achieved a great victory: ‘Everyone can pray in a crowd. … But solitary prayer is only for the very few’ (Pg.195). As for the chanting of psalms during both the mass and the daily offices, Climacus urges monks to pay careful attention to what is being chanted in order to efficiently pray alongside with what is being said. He even encourages monks to say some additional prayers during chanting, but to not take on any extra activity that might distract monks from their prayers. To Climacus, prayer is a weapon that can assist the monk in everything he does and ‘tests the zeal of a monk and his love for God’ (Pg.195). It is that virtue that would help the monk to conquer the demons of sleep.

This in turn brings us to Step 20. Here, Climacus praises the virtue of alertness: ‘Alertness keeps the mind clean. Somnolence binds the soul. The alert monk does battle with fornication, but the sleepy one goes to live with it. Alertness is a quenching of lust, deliverance from fantasies in dreams, a tearful eye, a heart made soft and gentle, thoughts restrained, food digested, passions tamed, spirits subdued, tongue controlled, idle imaginings banished’ (Pg.196). Here, Climacus contrasts the lazy, gluttonous monk with the one who is wide awake and ever vigilant, in that the former are always bedeviled by sleep and the need for food, while the vigilant monk is always eager and ready to stay awake in constant prayer for God. Other methods are to chant psalms, read, use manual labor, and to think of death and repent of any sins. ‘Of all these types, the first [constant prayer] and the last [thinking of death and confession] persevere in nightlong vigil out of love for God, the second [psalms, study, and work] do what is appropriate for a monk, and the third [thinking of death and confession] travel the lowliest road. Still, God accepts and judges the offerings of each type in accordance with their intentions and their abilities’ (Pg.196).

However, Climacus is aware that some temptations are cunning enough to find a weakness in a monk’s vigilance. Sometimes they attack beginners by suggesting that they should do manual labor instead of prayer, while make way for the temptation of fornication. The answer Climacus gives is to always be vigilant at common prayer and never be absent from it in anyway. Another temptation is that of pride, in that the monk feels a certain pride in having achieved a great level in their spirituality. To combat this, Climacus tells the monks to wait when prayer is over, and see how certain demons try to persuade monks to become puffed up in pride by various fantasies, then the monks should try to ignore these temptations. The same goes for a monk when he tries to memorize scripture when asleep because they are also in danger of being made proud, however, Climacus commends the monk who can constantly meditate on scripture when asleep: [I]n fact the soul endlessly preoccupied by day with the word of God will love to be preoccupied by it in sleep too. This second grace is properly a reward for the first and will help us to avoid spirits and fantasies’ (Pgs.197-198).

Before I can go on and appraise the virtues of Climacus’ teachings on insensitivity and sleep, I would like to add a note of caution. He has clearly written this book for monks so the idea of doing vigils would be foreign to most modern Christians. The same applies to study, chanting and manual labor. But I do see merit in his warnings. Sometimes we can feel ourselves becoming insensitive towards God and our church services/activities and we do need to warn ourselves against such sins. To ignore the possibility of insensitivity would be the first step to allowing hypocrisy in our walk with God. In fact, this warning can be derived from the book of Ezekiel where God mentions that He will replace the stony hearts of the Israelites with hearts of flesh that will love Him in return and reflect His love as well (Ezekiel 36:26-28). And while sleep is a natural state for our bodies, I can see why Climacus’ warnings against can be applied to our church services. The most obvious one would be during a midnight service, especially during Christmas Eve, where we can become too tired to participate in the service. Indeed, one is reminded of Jesus’ warnings to His disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane where He is encouraging them to remind vigilant and awake. However, I also think that the opposite temptation, getting caught up in more “modern” music can be just as distracting as sleep! In other words, we need a good balance between the two.

Thanks for spending time with us on Climacus. Come again next week when we look at Steps 21-25!

John Climacus. The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Trans. Colm Luibheid & Norman Russell. Paulist Press. 1982.

Next: The Ladder of Divine Ascent – Fourth Week of Lent

The Ladder of Divine Ascent – Second Week of Lent

Previous: The Ladder of Divine Ascent – First Week of Lent

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Hello! Welcome again to the Ladder of Divine Ascent. Sorry for any delays! This week we’ll be looking at steps 11-15, which cover different ranges of vices, and the methods that Climacus recommends to overcome them. The first three sins or “passions” are purely “non-physical” in the sense that they are situated within the mind itself. The last two, gluttony and lust, respectively, are physical in the sense that they are sins committed with the body. Climacus is focusing on both mind and body and urging monks to bring both under control so they can continue with their salvation unhindered.

Steps 11-13

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One winds on the distaff while the other spins by Pieter Brugel the Elder

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gossip

The eleventh step deals with the issue of talkativeness and how a monk should rely on silence to combat this sin. Climacus describes talkativeness as ‘the throne of vainglory on which it loves to preen itself and show off. Talkativeness is a sign of ignorance, a doorway to slander, a leader of jesting, a servant of lies, the ruin of compunction, a summoner of despondency, a messenger of sleep, a dissipation of recollection, the end of vigilance, the cooling of zeal, the darkening of prayer’ (Pg.158). The causes of talkativeness are manifold but Climacus says that it can either be a result of a lax attitude towards discipline, pride, or even from gluttony! Therefore falling into this habit would cause the monk to fall into a multitude of sins, which is the reason why Climacus strongly urges us to control it.

The best way to conquer this habit is by the use of silence: ‘Intelligent silence is the mother of prayer, freedom from bondage, custodian of zeal, a guard on our thoughts, a watch on our enemies, a prison of mourning, a friend of tears, a sure recollection of death, a painter of punishment, a concern with judgment, servant of anguish, foe of license a companion of stillness, the opponent of dogmatism, a growth of knowledge, a hand to shape contemplation, hidden progress, the secret journey upward. For the man who recognizes his sins has taken control of his tongue, while the chatterer has yet to discover himself as he should’ (Pgs.158-159). Climacus says that in silence a monk can draw close to God because the monk can ‘talk to Him in secret, and God enlightens (the monk)(Pg.159). Climacus uses both Jesus as an example of using silence to shame Pontius Pilate, and the apostle Peter as an example of talkativeness because he denied Christ three times and wept bitterly because of it. Again, it goes down to being mindful of death and mourning:

‘The man who is seriously concerned about death reduces the amount of what he has to say, and the man who has received the gift of spiritual mourning runs from talkativeness as from a fire.’

 (Pg.159)

This might seem extreme to some people, but Climacus says that it is necessary because if the monk allows talkativeness to have even the slightest foothold over him, he would be in danger of letting loose a flood of sins and have no end of trouble.

Collodi_Pinocchio

A giant statue of Pinocchio in the park Parco di Pinocchio, Collodi

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinocchio)

Among the other sins that talkativeness can lead to is lying, which is dealt with in the twelfth step. And Climacus is as much against lying as he is against talkativeness. He says that the one who spreads lies is in danger of God’s judgment: ‘Indeed the All-Holy Spirit pronounced the most dreadful sentence on this sin above all others; and if, as David says to God, “You will destroy everyone speaking a lie” (Ps.5:7), what will happen to those who swear to their lies on oath?’ (Pg.160). The reason why God judges liars harshly is because they lie under different circumstances: ‘So one judgment awaits the man who lies out of fear, another the liar who has nothing at all worry about. One man lies for the sheer pleasure of it, another for amusement, another to raise a laugh among bystanders, another to trap his brother and do him harm’ (Pg.161). Lying can also be a sign of hypocrisy and Climacus even describes lying as stemming from hypocrisy. But the main harm from lying for Climacus is the fact that it can lead the monk away from a contemplation of death. For Climacus tells of a monk who stays away from another who tells a funny story and yet is beset by temptation by demons who say that there is no harm in hearing this story. When a monk is besieged by this temptation, Climacus urges him to break away regardless:

‘Be off! Do not dawdle! Otherwise the jokes will start coming back to you when you are at prayer. but do not simply run away. Break up the bad company in a devout way by setting before them the thought of death and judgment, and if a few drops of vainglory fall on you, what harm? Provided of course, that you become a source of profit to many.’

(Pg.160)

Therefore, the only way to rid a monk of lying is to have both a fear of the Lord and a good conscience. This will in turn will make us lie only out of ‘fear and out of necessity’ (Pg.161). Indeed, there could be moments when it is good to lie for a good reason. ‘The inventor of lies declares that he is following the example of Rahab and maintains that his own destruction is the cause of salvation for others’ (Pg.161). But, on the whole, Climacus appears to be against lying and urges the monks to do everything in his power to avoid this sin.

La_Touche_Lennui_1893

Boredom by Gaston de La Touche, 1893

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boredom)

The thirteenth step deals with despondency. Climacus treats this as stemming from talkativeness itself, which is ironic since talkativeness deals with an energetic assertion of one’s own self while despondency deals with tiredness or tedium. However, one can suppose that, after spending some time, talking yourself up, a certain tiredness can set in. Climacus says that despondency itself is a danger to a monk, especially a hermit:

‘Tedium is a paralysis of the soul, a slackness of the mind, a neglect of religious exercises, a hostility to vows taken. It is an approval of worldly things. It is a voice claiming that God has no mercy and no love for men. It is a laziness in the singing of psalms, a weakness in prayer, a stubborn urge for service, a dedication to the work of the hands, an indifference to the requirement of obedience. An obedient person does not know such tedium, for he has used the thing of the senses to reach the level of the spirit.’

 (Pg.162)

‘Tedium loves to be involved in hospitality, urges the hermit to undertake manual labor so as to enable him to give alms, and exhorts us to visit the sick, recalling even the words of Him Who said, “I was sick and you came to visit me” (Matt.25:36). Tedium suggests we should call on the despairing and the fainthearted, and she sets one languishing heart to bring comfort to another. Tedium reminds those at prayer of some job to be done, an in her brutish way she searches out any plausible excuse to drag us from prayer, as though with some kind of halter.

 ‘At the third hour (9am), the devil of tedium causes shivering, headache, and vertigo. By the ninth hour (3pm), the patient has recovered his strength, and when dinner is ready, he jumps out of bed. But now when the time for prayer comes, his body begins to languish once more. He begins his prayers, but the tedium makes him sleepy and the verses of the psalms are snatched from his mouth by untimely yawns.’

 (Pg.163)

The only answer Climacus has for this malady is the same as prescribed for both talkativeness and lying: to be mindful of death and always use the tears of contrition to keep tedium at bay. He also says that tedium can also be overcome by both ‘hard manual labor and … the thought of the blessings to come’ (Pg.163) as well as prayer itself. Only keeping at these practices can a monk keep tedium from taking total control of his body and soul.

Having looked at these three vices and the advice that Climacus gives to deal with them, I would like to remind people that Climacus is writing this advice for a monastic audience. For instance, talkativeness is opposed to certain monastic values, such as a vow of silence, while a monk often is involved in a daily office, which is a set of readings, hymns and psalms that monks would recite throughout the day, and this is the reason why Climacus is warning monks against tedium. But I can appreciate the idea that trying to curb these habits can be something a nominal Christian can pursue. For both talkativeness and lying have something to do with our ego and even hypocrisy in that we pretend to be something we are not. Talkativeness is particularly harmful to prayer, especially if we cannot find a quiet place to concentrate solely on God. As for lying, it would appear Climacus is at least ambiguous towards it, for while he writes against it, he at least recognizes that some will use it as a self-defense mechanism in trying to ward off danger. However, lying for false pretenses is a sin that God is dead set against, especially in the Ten Commandments where “bearing false witness” is something that we should avoid at all times. The same goes for hypocrisy where we pretend to be something we are not, which is a sin Jesus castigated the scribes and Pharisees for. Therefore keeping up a façade of religiosity is not something a Christian should strive for. As for tedium, while most Christians would only attend church services on Sundays and holy days as well as specific prayer times in throughout the day, which are not as rigorous as a monk’s daily office, it is important that we fight against fatigue during these times. To allow a lapse in our daily habits of worship would often make lose touch with God and to even put off any duty that we do for God in our daily lives would almost be just as bad. So, while we may not be as rigorous as monks in our spiritual lives, it is nonetheless important that we be vigilant as God intends us to be.

Gluttony

A woodcut representing gluttony

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gluttony)

Steps 14-15

As for the physical or “carnal” sins in this case gluttony and chastity, Climacus goes into some detail in depicting these sins as well as how to avoid them. In the case of gluttony, Climacus writes about how this sin can lead to other sins:

‘Gluttony is hypocrisy of the stomach. Filled, it moans about scarcity; stuffed, and crammed, it wails about its hunger. Gluttony thinks up seasonings, creates sweet recipes. Stop up one urge and another bursts out; stop that one and you unleash another. Gluttony has a deceptive appearance: it eats moderately but wants to gobble everything at the same time. A stuffed belly produces fornication, while a mortified stomach leads to purity. The man who pets a lion may tame it but the man who coddles the body makes it ravenous.’

 (Pg.165)

Later, when this sin is put “on trial”, it reveals its children:

‘My firstborn son is the servant of Fornication, the second is Hardness of Heart, and the third is Sleepiness. From me flow a sea of Dirty Thoughts, waves of Filth, floods of unknown and unspeakable Impurities. My daughters are Laziness, Talkativeness, Breezy Familiarity, Jesting, Facetiousness, Contradiction, Stubbornness, Contempt, Disobedience, Stolidity of Mind, Captivity, Boastfulness, Audacity, Love of Worldly Things, followed by Impure Prayer, Distracted Thoughts, and sudden and often unexpected Catastrophes, with which is linked that most evil of all my daughters, namely, Despair.’

 (Pg.170)

Climacus says that gluttony can come even during feast days such as Easter, when all a greedy monk can think about is simply counting down the days when he can break away from his fast and feast to his heart’s content. A full stomach can also prevent a monk from mourning, which, to Climacus, is crucial for a monk to achieve spiritual perfection. Therefore, the only way a monk can overcome this temptation is to do two things. One is to eat simple, tasteless, fat-free food that is ‘satisfying and easily digestible, thereby counteracting endless hunger by giving yourself plenty’ (Pg.167). This would therefore fill our stomach while not being tempted by anything like an exotic taste or sensation that could lead it astray. But the second thing we could do to deal with gluttony is to fast:

‘To fast is to do violence to nature. It is to do away (with) whatever pleases the palate. Fasting ends lust, roots out bad thoughts, frees one from evil dreams. Fasting is the door of compunction, humble sighing, joyful contrition, and end to chatter, an occasion for silence, a custodian of obedience, a lightening of sleep, health of the body, an agent of dispassion, a remission of sins, the gate, indeed, the delight of Paradise.’

 (Pg.169)

Climacus admits that overcoming this sin takes a lot of hard work, but, because he believes that giving way to gluttony is a way to give into sin, it is necessary for a monk to fight this sin to the ground before moving onto the next rung of spiritual perfection. Otherwise, he will have no rest from this sin and will fall behind in his spiritual life.

Hans_Memling_-_Allegory_with_a_Virgin_-_WGA14896

Allegory of Chastity by Hans Memling

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chastity)

As for chastity, Climacus is aware of the monk’s need to fight against lust. Which is the reason why he spends a great deal of time in giving a lengthy chapter on both chastity and lust. ‘To be chaste is to put on the nature of an incorporeal being. Chastity is a supernatural denial of what one is by nature, so that a mortal and corruptible body is competing in a truly marvelous way with incorporeal spirits. A chaste man is someone who has driven out bodily love by means of divine love, who has used heavenly fire to quench the fires of the flesh’ (Pg.171). As for lust, Climacus is dead set against it and calls the flesh the enemy of the monk:

‘We carry a sort of death within us, a sin that is catastrophic, always with us and especially when we are young. I have not the courage to describe it, for my hand is restrained by him who said it is a shame to talk of, write about, or hear of the things done by them in secret (cf. Eph.5:12)

‘This flesh of mine, and yet not mine, this enemy and friend, was called death by Paul. “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” he asked (Rom.7:24). Another theologian (Gregory of Nazianzus) described it as passionate, slavish and nocturnal. For a long time I wondered why they spoke this way. If, as was said above, the flesh is death, then whoever defeats it will surely not die. And yet, who is the man who will live and not see death in all the impurity of his body?

(Pg.175)

The best way to fight against this sin is, in itself, a lengthy and painful battle: ‘The beginning of chastity is refusal to consent to evil thoughts and occasional dreamless emissions; the middle stage is to be free of dreams and emissions even when there are natural movements of the body brought on by eating too much; the completion of chastity comes when mortified thoughts are followed by a mortified body’ (Pg.172). It is also crucial to simply ignore any dreams that can lead to temptations, and not simply dwell upon during the day, for if the monk thinks about them, he is liable to sin. But, according to Climacus, a monk can also become tempted when he feels that he felt that he has achieved a spiritual victory. That monk can be undone by a number of things, such as soft living, an intimate conversation with a woman or anything else. Therefore, the best thing to do is to also fight against these temptations and strive ahead towards the goal. Climacus also advises that monks keep death in mind as well, because that would help combat the sin of lust and sensuality and can even use vigils and hard living to combat this vice. Therefore, the only answer is to remain vigilant when fighting this sin.

Upon looking at the sections on gluttony and chastity, again one has to keep in mind that Climacus is writing for a monastic audience, especially in regards to vows of fasting and virginity. However, fasting still has value for Christians, especially during a time like Lent where we remind ourselves of Christ’s passion on the cross. In fact, I know some Christians use something like the 40 Hour Famine in order to help raise money for the poor. Fasting also can be useful in wondering whether we have made something like excessive eating into idol and whether we should do something to make God have first place. As for chastity, I know that Christians are giving a choice between that and marriage. I believe that god created sex to be a good and wonderful thing, but, because of the fall, it has become degraded and also because of the influence of today’s sexuality, especially in regards to pornography, it would be vigilant against this sin because it can seriously undermine relationships in many ways. The sin of lust can also affect those in religious authority and seriously undermining their authority. In fact, this sin has affected priests and ministers ever since the days of Eli’s sons Hophni and Phinehas (1 Sm.2:22). Therefore, the next best thing to do is simply confess this sin and be open to a kind of accountability. It may not the same sort of vigorous practice that a monk like Climacus would recommend but, especially in regards to authority, it would help keep them from any charge of wrongdoing.

Thank you for spending time with me on Steps 11-15. Join us next time as we look at Steps 16-20!

 John Climacus. The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Trans. Colm Luibheid & Norman Russell. Paulist Press. 1982.

Next: The Ladder of Divine Ascent – Third Week of Lent

 

 

The Ladder of Divine Ascent – First Week of Lent

Previous: The Ladder of Divine Ascent – Ash Week

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Hello, and welcome again to the Ladder of Divine Ascent! Sorry for any delays, I’ve got bogged down in work last week, but I am back! This week we’ll be looking at steps 6-10. The first two (6-&7) deal with instilling virtues in the life of a monk, while 8-10 deal with helping the monk to control his vices, this week being anger, malice and slander respectively.

Cimetière_marin_de_Varengeville-sur-mer_(Seine-Maritime)

Death

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grave)

Steps 6-7

 In the sixth step, Climacus looks at how a monk should always keep death in mind in order to enable him to think more and more of his salvation:

‘The remembrance of death brings labor and meditations, or rather, the sweetness of dishonor to those living in community, whereas for those living away from turbulence it produces freedom from daily worries and breeds constant prayer and guarding of the mind, virtues that are the cause and the effect of the thought of death.’

 (Pg.132)

Among the objects of meditation for those who think on death are ‘the love of God, the remembrance of death, the remembrance of God, the remembrance of the kingdom, the zeal of the holy martyrs, the remembrance of the presence of God as described in the saying: “I saw the Lord before me” (Ps.15:8), the remembrance of the holy and spiritual powers, the remembrance of death, judgment, punishment, and sentence’ (Pg.134). Therefore, it also brings to mind a sense of repentance as in the case that Climacus relates of a monk called Hesychius the Horebite who, after a carless life, was struck by a severe illness and, feeling that his end was near, decided to stay in his cell for twelve years grieving for his sins.   Hesychius lived there without talking to anyone and lived mainly on bread and water. All the while, the other monks were in awe of him because of the change that came upon him. And when he died and they came to bury his remains, they couldn’t even find his body, which made the monks believe that God had accepted him for his act of repentance. ‘Just as some declare that the abyss is infinite, for they call it a bottomless pit, so the thought of death is limitless and brings with it chastity and activity. … Men like (Hesychius) unceasingly pile fear upon fear, and never stop until the very strength in their bones is worn out’ (Pg.135).

As for those who ask why doesn’t God actually tell us the time of death, Climacus claims the reason is because He does not want us to become slack in our activity. If anyone knew the hour of their passing before hand, they would ‘pass all his time in sin and would be baptized and do penance on the day of his demise. Habit would make him a confirmed and quite incorrigible sinner’ (Pg.133). At the same time, Climacus also chastises those who use the though of death for wrong motivations: ‘A habitual sinner prays humbly for death, but the man who does not want to change his ways may, in sheer despair, actually long for death. And there are some who out of conceit consider themselves to be dispassionate, and for a while they have no fear of death, while a rare few hunger to leave by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit’ (Pg.133).

The end result of a remembrance of death, apart from a sense of repentance, is that it would also enable the monk to avoid food and all sorts of physical pleasure as well. ‘To have an insensitive heart is to be dulled in mind, and food in abundance dries up the well of tears. Thirst, however, and the keeping of vigils afflict the heart; and when the heart is stirred the tears may run’ (Pg.133). Likewise, a monk will also will keep a strict control of his body and it would remain habitual, as an Egyptian monk told Climacus: ‘ “If it ever happened that I was inclined to offer some comfort to this carcass of mine, the remembrance of death that had been so firmly established in my heart would stand before me like a judge; and a – a wonderful thing – even if I wanted to push it aside, I simply could not do so’ (Pg.134). Some people in the secular world at the time of Climacus may be critical of not giving in to the senses, but Climacus says that the monks who are mindful of death and use it to discipline themselves are actually happier then those who are not mindful of death and give into their senses, whom Climacus depicts as depressed. In fact, Climacus even says that the highest aim in Greek philosophy is the thought of death, which shows that it is the end-all and by-all of all human thought.

Beweinung_Christi_Erfurt_um_1480_detail

Lamentation of Christ, Erfurt, c.1480

Wikipedia (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Tears)

Moving onto the seventh step, which deals with sorrow and weeping, Climacus is very adamant about one thing: it has to be VERY heartfelt! In fact it stems so naturally from the sixth step that it is not surprising that Climacus also encourages the monk to think of death all the time in every way:

‘Think of your lying in bed as an image of the lying in your grave; then you will not sleep so much. When you eat at table, remember the food of worms [corpses]; then you will not live so highly. When you drink water, remember the thirst of the flames; then you will certainly do violence to your nature.

 ‘When the father superior visits an honorable rebuke, reprimand, or punishment on us, let us not forget the fearful sentence of the Judge [God], so that with meekness and patience – a two-edged sword – we may kill the irrational sorrow and bitterness that will surely be sown in us.’

 (Pg.138)

Climacus says that true heartfelt sorrow can aid with our repentance, especially after a monk’s baptism where true tears can aid in cleaning any sins after baptism. The reason why is that, while baptism helps wash away the sins of a former life, tears after baptism help the monk to repent of any sins committed after baptism and would help keep the monk’s soul in check. At the same time Climacus also wants us to be genuine in our tears for, and, he gives many examples of those who faked their repentance. He writes against intellectual pride as well as having tears yet still persisting in sins such as anger and pride as well as avoiding any temptations from the demons. It would therefore do no good to appear mournful while still being proud of one’s tears while condemning others because it would make as much sense as a ‘man who asks the king for a weapon against the enemy – and then uses it to commit suicide’ (Pg.141). Perhaps, the most severe admonition that Climacus uses to help convey his message is that of a holy man named Stephen who, in spite of a holy life of withdrawal and fasting, was under condemnation by unseen spirits at the point of death. Stephen would look left and right at his invisible accusers and answer their questions with replies such as: ‘ “Of course it is true. That was why I fasted for so many years.” Or again: “Yes, that is correct, but I wept and served my brothers.” Or again: “No. You are accusing me falsely.” Or sometimes: “Quite right. No, I have no excuse. But God is merciful.” ’ (Pg.142). But the worst scene was when Stephen could not find any suitable answer to his accusers, only saying: ‘ “I do not know how to answer.” ’ (Pg.142). This terrible ordeal ended when Stephen finally died, but everyone around him did not know whether or not he received salvation and Climacus uses this story as an example of those who do not show a perfect depth of sorrow.

To achieve this perfect state of mourning, the monk needs to possess a real fear of God. On the one hand, the soul has to love God but it needs to keep in mind the idea that God, as Judge, would lead the soul to eternal punishment for any misdeeds. Therefore Climacus warns monks that God is not one who bestows mercy on anyone after they sinned, giving them an excuse to sin constantly! This would lead the monk be feel sadden and grieve for any sins they have committed in the past, as well any sinful temptation and/or thought they have felt recently. In turn this would also lead the monks to look away from earthly things and lead them into a state of dispassion where the only true source of contemplation is in God alone.

Having read these chapters, I would have to agree they are rather harsh for other Christians. In fact, if taken to an extreme, it might lead to some feeling depression. Indeed, one should temper the severity of God with His mercy as well; otherwise a Christian might end up with a one-sided portrayal of Him. On the one hand, our God is mentioned in the Bible as a “consuming fire” and He does inflict punishment on those who turn from His ways. At the same time, He does show mercy and He came down to earth to save our lives from sin and lead us to salvation during his First Coming, which is the main core of the Christian faith. So, it is always important that we should have a balanced idea of God in our minds, as represented in both the Bible and Christian doctrine. Having said that, it is always good to keep in mind that, as Christians, we can sin and therefore need to repent of any sins committing during our lives as well as those committed prior our conversion. Therefore, we need to show deep, heartfelt contrition for our sins and to avoid feeling too proud to need forgiveness. In the case of death, we need to be aware that we have only one life on earth and we need, therefore, to ask for God’s grace to help us continue His work on earth, and not to spend it just for our own enjoyment. And a time like Lent, with its focus on the passion and death of Jesus on the cross, is perfect for reminding us of our failures and that we need to confess our sins before God and, if necessary, with others in order to fully live the Christian life that God has given us. So there are moments when keeping in mind our death and mourning for our sins becomes necessary.

Schnorr_von_Carolsfeld_Bibel_in_Bildern_1860_093

Saul attacks David Julius Schnoor von Karolsfeld

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anger)

Steps 8-10

In the last three steps for the first week of Lent, Climacus turns his attention from virtues to overcoming vices. In Steps 8-9, he looks at the sin of anger and malice, and how monks should overcome this habit. In Step 8 Climacus says: ‘Freedom from anger is a triumph over one’s nature. It is the ability to be impervious to insults, and comes by hard work and the sweat of one’s brow’ (Pg.146). According to Climacus a quick-tempered person is in danger of getting caught up in pride because he is often full of his own self-esteem and is inclined to think himself in the right when bearing a grudge. However, this is contrary to the monastic spirit that Climacus is teaching and that the highest goal of a monk is to conquer anger by various stages:

‘The first stage of blessed patience is to accept dishonor with bitterness and anguish of soul. The intermediate stage is to be free from pain amid all such things. The perfect stage, if that is attainable, is to think of dishonor as praise. Let the first rejoice and the second be strong, but blessed be the third, for he exults in the Lord.’

 (Pg.149)

To reach these stages, Climacus gives many different kinds of advice. For example for those who are still under the influence of sensuality, Climacus says these individuals should take up the solitary life because it would work ‘like a scalpel to cut away sensuality and corruption of the heart’ (Pg.148). But, if they are still in the grip of these passions, then Climacus says they should abandon the solitary life and learn to obey their superiors in a task that would help them control their tempers. Yet the main purpose of these exercises is for the monk to learn humility which is the reason Climacus emphasized the need to learn and practise meekness and mourning because they will need it to conquer anger. The reason is because ‘tears act like a bridle, (in the sense that they) hold in the anger’ (Pg.150). And by learning austerity a monk will give way to pride. To clarify this matter Climacus cites the case of three monks who each receive a wound and how they responded to it: ‘The first felt it keenly, but did not speak; the second was delighted by the thought of the reward the injury would bring him and he felt compassion for the wrongdoer (who inflicted him); the third wept fervently at the thought of the harm his offending neighbor was suffering. At work, then were fear, the sense of a reward due, and love’ (Pg.150). Therefore, anger within a monk must be kept under firm control.

The ninth step continues with this theme by looking at one of the children of anger: malice. Climacus describes it as a dark and loathsome passion and can give birth to other sins like gluttony and lust. Malice not only destroys all loving relationships, it can also ruin religion as well, saying it can ‘twist the words of the Spirit to suit itself’ and that a ‘malicious hesychast (monk) is like a lurking snake carrying about its own deadly poison’ (Pg.153). The only advice Climacus gives is to use our malice to subdue our bodies; to use religious exercises such as the Jesus Prayer and the remembrance of Christ’s passion to subdue it when it appears in a monk, and finally to forgive and forget any wrongs. By forgiveness, it will stop monks from bearing any grudges so they can possess a forgiving spirit that will subdue all kinds of malice.

Pieter_Brueghel_the_Younger_-_Proverbs_(detail)_-_WGA03627

One winds on the distaff what the other spins Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gossip)

The tenth step is dedicated to stopping slander because it is a more subtle sin in that it can appear to be virtuous in that the one passing the slander says that he is trying to stop someone from sinning but, in the end, the slanderer is in sin because he is judging others more harshly then himself. As Climacus puts it: ‘Those who pass speedy and harsh judgments on the sins of their neighbors fall into this passion because they themselves have so far failed to achieve a complete and unceasing memory of and concern for their own sins. Anyone untrammeled by self-love and able to see his own faults for what they are would worry about no one else in this life. He would feel that his time on earth did not suffice for his own mourning, even if he lived a hundred years, and even if a whole Jordan of tears poured out of his eyes. Mourning of that kind has, as I know, no trace in it of slander or harsh judgment’ (Pg.156). To slander and defame somebody is to Climacus a usurping of God’s role because He alone can judge, and the slanderer is sinning because slander is a child of anger. The only remedy Climacus recommends is turning against the demon that causes slander, using humility as a means to see that we are all sinners, and concentrating mainly on the virtues of a person and not his vices. Doing so would rid us of slander and means that that we have finished the tenth step of Climacus’ ladder.

Upon reading these admonitions against the vices of anger, malice and slander I think that Climacus is at least in good company. In His sermon on the mount, Jesus Himself teaches against anger, saying it is worse than murder and that those who slander their brothers are in danger of judgment (Mt.5:21-26). Jesus also admonishes those who slander their brothers by trying to take the speck out of their brothers’ eye while ignoring the log in their own (Mt.7:1-6). And the apostle James teaches against the tongue saying that we should seek to control it because if left to its own devices it could cause great harm (Jm.3). As for the advice that Climacus gives concerning control of these passions, I think that it would vary for Christians living outside a monastery. However, like all sins, I believe that we should be accountable for any sins towards God and fellow Christians and that it would be useful for Christians living in the secular world because we need to leave a good impression in the name of our faith. We must also control any internal sins and leave them before God in order to prevent us from falling into sin. It is a lifelong struggle and it would take God’s grace in order to help us overcome these sins.

Thank you for reading about steps 6-10 in Climacus’ book! Next week we will be discussing steps 11-15. I will even release the final segment of our discussion of John Everidge’s Beautiful Outlaw.’ See you then!

John Climacus. The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Trans. Colm Luibheid & Norman Russell. Paulist Press. 1982.

Next: The Ladder of Divine Ascent – Second Week of Lent