God, Suffering and Salvation

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I have complete sympathy for atheists and agnostics.  I’ve wrestled with questions my entire life and whether or not there is a God is always one of them.  But the one thing that I can’t understand is being angry about human suffering, from a rational basis, if God does not exist.  If there is no ultimate good, no greater purpose or meaning to life, on what basis do we make a moral judgment about suffering?

Okay, let’s back up a second.  I’m here at my local establishment drinking another Long Island, one of many since the death of Uriah, and it hasn’t given me an answer as to why he would die of cancer at twenty-four.  The medical diagnosis is simple enough.  He had cancer.  The aggressive kind.  It started with the lump on his ankle during boot camp.  I still have the picture on my phone taken out of morbid curiosity and never dreaming it was a death sentence.

Uriah and I, despite our difference in age, got along in a way that only cousins do.  He was like me.  We didn’t simply accept those easy cliché answers.  He was someone who was both determined and also full of doubts.  He was also the six-foot tall and better version of everything I ever was.  The best part was that I could claim some of his success for myself given that I had encouraged him to continue his college education, telling him that it was better to keep going than to live a life of regrets.

Watching Uriah sacrifice a leg only to have the cancer be found in his lungs a year later. It was a gut punch.  I think I stopped praying, at some point, because I just knew what the prognosis was.  

The hardest part, however, is that Uriah was not the first of his family that I had to carry out of the church on a cold winter day.  His parents had already lost one of their children to a seizure disorder.  His two other siblings are severely disabled and will need constant care.  Judy, his mom, is an incredible woman and has extraordinary faith.  Ed too has great strength of character.  And neither of them wastes any time feeling sorry for themselves despite losing the one healthy child they had to this terrible disease.

Where was God?

When my little Saniyah died, unexpectedly, it was a really big struggle for me.  It took me years to get my feet back under me again, spiritually and emotionally speaking, and I had both doubted my own faith along with the existence of a loving God.  The death of Uriah, along with my disappointments with those whom I put my trust in, and my long wait for Charlotte, have really tested me the past few years.  But, I have those who need me to be strong this time around and, for this reason, have had to push back against falling into despair again.

Nevertheless, I totally get why someone who has encountered suffering in a personal way is angry and denies the existence of God on this basis.  I mean why would this kind of pain and loss be allowed if there is an all-powerful good in the universe, right?  Why would God not intervene and stop this all rather than let us go through such terrible experiences?  It doesn’t make much sense, does it, that we should be left so lonely and struggling if God is good.

However, if we eliminate totally God from the equation, then we dismiss religious morality and must acknowledge that there is nothing written in the fabric of the universe that says our existence entitles us to good feelings.  I mean, as far as evolution goes, pain is more or less a survival tool, a feedback system to tell us what to avoid.  Feeling sad about the death of a friend or family member is, by this logic, a malfunction. 

In this harsh environment, where everything is out to kill us, why would we ever expect anything more than suffering?

The moral reasoning that makes this bad, if you are truly an atheist, is nothing other than a construct.  In terms of pure biology, it is good that fire hurts or we might burn our arms off.  That is pain for a very practical and utilitarian purpose.  Undeniably good if there is such a thing.  But what reasonable good is there in mourning those already dead?  No point in crying over spilled milk, right?  A totally rational being would simply move on to the next social resource and not be so attached or sentimental.

Being upset over suffering and death, if there is no God, is irrational.  And, if there is a God, like that of Christianity, then suffering and death are exactly what we’re promised in this life.  Sheesh.  Did you read the story of Jesus and how he was betrayed, beaten, and then unjustly killed in the most brutal fashion all as part of a redemptive plan?  If you actually believe in eternity then why be angry about a few years living out this rich narrative we call life? 

At the very least, how can we judge anything, especially a fictional character, on the basis of a moral standard that doesn’t exist? 

If there is no God, then there is no basis for morality either.  That too, including the idea that suffering is bad or pleasure is good, is entirely a construct.  Pain is good in some circumstances, it protects us from injury and causes us to change behavior in ways that are beneficial.  In other words, without the discomfort of hunger or thirst, we would not correctly prioritize our life.  Pleasure can be bad when it makes us eat too many donuts and become diabetic.  So how does one truly know that their own interpretation of these signals is the correct one?

From what I’ve observed in myself and in others, unbelief stems from disappointment when things do not go as expected.  It is about who is in control.  We can cling, in our own arrogance, to this notion that the universe should bend to our will.  Or realize that our own perceptions, based on senses which are not very reliable and a brain prone to making mistakes in judgment, are not infallible or ever actual truth.

The thing is we only ever know if suffering is good or bad if it is properly contextualized if we understand the end.  For example, feeling the burn of exercise is good pain because it is what accompanies muscle development and so we embrace this.  So what is the real context of our life?  To what end, or for what reason, did we become conscious?  What is behind this ‘accident’ if it is one? 

How do we contextualize our existence enough to judge what is good or bad?

If there is such a thing as an eternal reward, that would change the calculus, right?  It would mean that all pain can be gain, and all suffering can draw us closer as much as it drives us away because defining the moral character of any experience depends on the end.  I am willing to subject myself to many hardships if the reward is big enough.  No, this doesn’t take away the question of why we must go through here to get there.  But seeing past our immediate feelings is pretty much the only way to make progress.

Angry is a feeling, not a guide for life…

I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.

C.S. Lewis

People don’t walk away from Christianity for rational or scientific reasons.  Sure, they may guard their emotion-based unbelief behind a wall of post hoc justification.  But the reality is that they’re upset about something.  They had expectations and are now disappointed and acting as wounded people do.  It’s just strange that anyone at all Biblically literate would suddenly lose faith over our suffering when that’s literally the only we’re promised in this life.

What really doesn’t make any sense is why anyone would rather suffer with no hope at all of eternity.  If God is dead, then nihilism is the logical next stop and that life has no real meaning or purpose.  But the suffering does not go away simply because we’re angry at the giver of life.  No, it will only intensify and become a spiral of despair.  Our salvation is in our understanding that, smart as we may think we are, we’re truly quite ignorant and even our most ‘concrete’ reality is not real:

The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you. 

Werner Heisenberg

For those who don’t know who that is, Mr. Heisenberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, in 1932, for the creation of quantum mechanics.  Materialism, despite the zombie corpse of this thing staggering on, died with the discovery of things in defiance of this entirely too simplistic conception.  Sure, this kind of physics is well-beyond most, but it does support a notion of reality that requires a Universal Perceiver (as described in this article) and we could call that God.

So, if you’re actually serious about science, then the hard science of physics is the place to start and, with its mathematical origin and proofs, is much less likely to be clouded by emotion one way or another.  We can’t run from God.  But we may need to leave behind the baggage of our own misconceptions and learn the value of true repentance.  Maybe Uriah died, and went to his reward, so some of us would have our flawed thinking broken and seek our salvation in Him?

Maybe some of us are just too stubborn, or too needing of control being in our own hands, to admit we can’t save ourselves?

I’ll tell you this.  The universe, without God, is an infinitely dark and lonely place.  It is that starring abyss of which Friedrich Nietzsche warned, the existential horror H.P. Lovecraft describes.  Highly intelligent men, both of them, and understood the implications that come with true unbelief in God.  You will not escape your suffering simply by denying that the Divine all-powerful good exists.  No, rather you will just remain in that hell of your own creation.

Postscript: Questions Remain

I still grieve Uriah, as I do Saniyah, uncle Roland, and others that seem to have been taken before their time. I’ve long struggled against sources of trauma much more basic, the lack of unconditional love in the church that could make up for my shortcomings, and much of that is unresolved. At the time of my writing, the impossibility is something yet to be fulfilled. I do not have answers for any of this nor do I expect to. I’m not the arrogant kid who argued with his high school biology teacher, not a Bible-thumping fundamentalist at all, and yet must believe.

Turmoil and Theosis

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There are those unsung heroes—those people to whom we owe a debt of gratitude and yet never could repay for their contribution to our lives. For me, there are many on that list. However, there is one woman in particular whose witness of few words was a seed. I wanted the peace that she embodied. But, at the time, I could not escape the turmoil in my heart. Only with the transition out of the church of my youth to a better place has the fruit of her influence has become clear.

A Bull In the China Shop

Years ago now I received an invitation to a new web forum. The site “MennoDiscuss” was created by a guy named Hans Mast and was dubbed “a place where Mennonites (and others) can discuss anything” in the tagline. I loved the idea. I was soon one of the first members of the board and was determined to make the endeavor a success.

I can’t recall exactly what I had expected going in. But early on it became very evident that MennoDiscuss would be a place where ex-Mennonites (and the otherwise) disaffected would come to argue with those of us still content with the denomination we were born into. And, being that I wasn’t afraid of debate (although, oddly enough, I dislike conflict) I jumped right in—playing the role of chief Mennonite apologist for some and being a real annoyance to others.

My zeal, both my desire to drive traffic to the site and need to defend my religious peers, led to me being one of the most prolific posters on the site and also often put me in the center of many controversies. My initial carefree (or careless) attitude soon led to a reputation and it is only a small transition from being engaged in conversation to feeling embattled. I took on the critics, yet I was not the “good Mennonite” who plays nice either, I believed turnabout was fair play and would often try to fight fire with fire.

Initially, despite being intense and a little too argumentative, my participation had mostly been fun and games for me. However that all changed when a personal tragedy knocked my spiritual feet out from under me and left me feeling betrayed by those whom I had assumed would be there for me and bitter at God. It was at that point things went very badly online as well. I was hurting and wanted answers for my pain. I needed help. But all I seemed to get was contempt and criticism.

The Calm In My Storm

There was one person different from the others. She offered me no advice. I can’t recall her saying much at all. But there was something about her spirit. She did not judge me. She let me speak without reminding me of all my past failures. I could open up and be honest with her in ways that I could not be with others for fear they might stab me in the back. She had been hurt by Mennonites yet didn’t seem to come in with an agenda.

Her name was “theosis” (or at least that was her screen name) and offline went by Martha. I do not know the details of her life, but she had been a convert to the Mennonite tradition before eventually finding a home with Orthodox Christians.

There were other Orthodox converts on the site. However, they were of the variety of converts who may have accepted Orthodox theology and practices, but have yet to grasp the attitude—or, in other words, “Ortho-fascists” as they are affectionately (or not so affectionately) known as by other Orthodox. Theosis, by contrast, was not aggressive or argumentative, she had a peaceable spirit and something quite a bit deeper than the judgmental ‘non-resistance’ or militant ‘pacifism’ of many Mennonites.

Mennonites tend to take the role of “peacemaker” and turn it into something forcible and even meanspirited. They might never pick up arms in defense of a nation or theoretically refuse to defend their families from a hypothetical attacker, but some will passive-aggressively resist and gossip about their real enemies while pretending that they have none. Mennonites are good at niceness, sometimes putting a smile on their face while harboring ill-feelings, because that is what the culture requires.

But theosis was different. She seemingly saw something in my antics others could not or at least she was peaceable. If I had to guess her perception was due to her own pain. But, unlike me, where I raged against fate, she accepted her lot in life and had faith. While fundamentalist Mennonites tend to see peace as something to shove down your throat, she embodied peace and embodied it in a way that would temporarily calm my storm.

I desperately wanted what she had and yet didn’t know how to get there.

What Theosis Means and My Journey Since

My first guess, as far as the meaning of theosis, would’ve been something like “theology” and “sister” going by the fact that the only theosis I knew was a female Christian. But silliness aside, given my respect for Martha, I finally did Google the word “theosis” and found an intriguing theological concept. Theosis, as it turns out, is the Orthodox description for the ultimate goal of Christianity and that being perfect oneness with God.

At the time the term intrigued me. But I had bigger fish to fry rather than try to sift through Orthodox theological descriptions and kept it filed under delightful (but otherwise useless) oddities. Becoming like God is a moot point when one is struggling to even believe in God. Besides that, theosis (otherwise known as “divinization” or “deification”) seemed way too tall an order for my Mennonite mind and was probably heretical. Still, it stuck in the back of my mind as a concept and that’s where it stayed percolating for years.

My turmoil began to subside as I came to terms with the unexpected loss of Saniyah and the hopes tied to her. During this time I made a brief return to MennoDiscuss (after a hiatus) and left after feeling that I had done my part to restore relationships there and could move on. And, more significantly, I had a spiritual experience, an epiphany about faith, that helped push me to this point where I could move on.

In short, I discovered faith is something God does, a gift of salvation, a mysterious “quickening” and spiritual transformation, rather than something proved through science, apologetics, and reason—it was not earned through my works of righteousness or religious efforts. I could finally rest in grace, be empowered by the Spirit and be changed from the inside out. That newfound confidence is what led me to pursue “impossibly” in faith and, after another period of turmoil when my “hope against hope” was not reciprocated, eventually took me beyond my Mennonite roots.

As I read through Paul’s writings, as one now spiritually alive and with eyes opened a bit more than before, a picture of theosis began to emerge out of the text. It was a marvelous thing, and a beautiful paradox of faith, that Jesus became man so that we could join Him in perfect oneness with God. That is what it means to be adopted as a son or daughter of God—putting on the divinity of Jesus Christ and being made into an incarnation of Him. This is not to be equal to or replace God, but rather to be in perfect Communion with Him and a true embodiment of His life-creating Spirit.

Theosis, the True Promise of Salvation

Theosis is a theological concept both simple and profound. God became man so that we could follow in the example of Jesus and go beyond what is possible through mere religious devotion:

“We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”’? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be set aside—what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father. (John 10:33‭-‬38 NIV)

To claim to be God’s son is essentially to claim divinity or equality with God and, unless you truly are God’s child, is blasphemous.

What Jesus promised the disciples:

“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. (John 14:18‭-‬20 NIV)

And the day he delivered:

I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are oneI in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:22‭-‬23 NIV)

How Paul explains this:

The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “ Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirsheirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Romans 8:15‭-‬17 NIV)

That is an extraordinary claim. It is to essentially claim the same thing Jesus did and led to his being killed. And, in fact, before Jesus died to make the impossible possible, our calling God “Father” would indeed be blasphemous. This theosis, this divine adoption, is not cheap grace nor earned by our works of righteousness, it is a mysterious transformation that comes from faith and a work of the Spirit—It is partaking in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Where is Martha Today?

Theosis, her full name Martha Ann Hays, passed from this life to the next on December 20th of 2010. She was terminally ill when I knew her and dealing with the same sense of loss all sane people feel when facing certain death. Yet despite this, and excruciating physical pain, she treated me with extraordinary kindness and a love that I did not deserve. Unlike me, constantly trying to figure everything out and win people through theological brute force, she was simply peaceable.

Her terminal illness, colorectal cancer, was very unpleasant and painful. She was still a young woman, in her thirties, when first diagnosed and was no doubt dealing with the weight of broken dreams and disappointment. That is probably why she understood me and had compassion where others did not. I knew she was not well. But she would never complain to me about the things going on in her life at the time.

Martha had never fit into the Mennonite culture and eventually moved on. She learned Russian while in university and later found Orthodoxy (Russian Orthodox) and a parish community in Toronto that loved her. She had many friends in her parish and that including a boyfriend who would be at her bedside. She died peacefully, as she had lived, surrounded by family and friends.

Her funeral, according to one non-Orthodox in attendance, had beautiful music and a worshipful atmosphere.

It is interesting how two people can see the same event through a completely different lens. Another friend (a conservative Mennonite who knew Martha) commented that her funeral was a “very sad occasion” because allegedly there were more Mennonites than Orthodox in attendance. But an Orthodox Christian knows that is not true. Yes, conservative Mennonites definitely have bodies in the pews at funerals. Yet, even if there are only a handful that can be physically present, an Orthodox funeral is always well-attended. Orthodox believe in the “Communion of saints” or basically the idea of that “great cloud of witnesses” expressed by the apostle Paul in the book of Hebrews.

[07/01: The friend who made the attendance claim has since wrote to make a retraction.]

I believe someone with Martha’s prognosis could greatly appreciate that she was not alone in her suffering and that there was that “great cloud of witnesses” there to cheer her on to the finish line. That is the beauty of Orthodoxy. The Chruch is bigger than the present suffering of those still “militant” and also includes those “triumphant” who have gone on to glory with God. The icons on the wall are there to remind us of that reality beyond us.

Being An Image (or Icon) of God

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. (Matthew 16:24‭-‬25 NIV)

As is well-known now, I have left my Mennonite religious culture and have become an Orthodox Christian. But until now I have not mentioned theosis and her contribution to that decision. Martha’s peaceable witness was a seed, it was later watered by Fr. Anthony with his similar spirit a and genuinely fatherly care and has been nourished by the Church. It is a life that continues to grow in me. There is a great beauty in Orthodox worship that I have not found elsewhere.

I do not go to church as a family reunion or to hang out with friends anymore. I go for healing and spiritual renewal, to experience God through worship, to be one with Jesus in body and Spirit. I go to be in that “great cloud of witnesses” of a Church that spans two millennia and those icons on the wall are there to remind us to remain faithful until the end.

Orthodoxy is not a “seeker-sensitive” church, we do not change with the winds of modern culture, we do not fill our pews with those seeking entertainment or easy answers. We believe that the Christian life is one of trials, tribulations, loneliness, hardships, suffering, and salvation by way of the cross. But we also find there is a great peace in knowing that our turmoil is temporal and eternal life awaits.

We die to self so that we can live in perfect oneness with God. Martha died, like Jesus, so that I might live. And I must die, so you whom I love may also live.

That is God’s economy at work.

That is poetic justice.

That is theosis.

The Day My Little Hope Died

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I was a failure in my own mind.
My engagement ended. I had hurt someone that I loved deeply. My lofty romantic ambitions ended in a grinding and painful defeat. I was not the hero that saved the day.

I was confused, embarrassed, disappointed and determined to make up for my failure to deliver as promised.

That feeling of obligation only intensified when my ex-fiance became pregnant to another man a bit later. The relationship with the child’s father had not worked out. I was worried for both mother and child.

I wondered how my friend would be able to provide and decided I would offer the best support that I could as a friend. When I met Saniyah for the first time my fears began to subside. Holding her filled me with a fatherly pride.

Eventually, as my friend and her child were sufficiently cared for in her community, my initial fears were replaced with a little hope. Saniyah was real living proof that something good could come out of failure and represented hope that my friend would have the lifelong companion.

Nothing could prepare me.

It was a normal sunny spring day, March 26, 2009, a Thursday. I was still getting adjusted to my life on the road as a truck driver and had run hard that week.

I was still on the road when I received a text message. The contents, something about my friend’s baby being in the hospital, really didn’t register for some reason.

However, the message that came a bit later, the one telling me something unthinkable, I did understand and it hit hard.

“Why!?!”

My mind screamed for an answer.

There was a moment of intense anger.

Saniyah, only eighteen months old, was no longer with us. She has been found in her crib lifeless and blue. Her death caused by a combination of asthma and pneumonia. There was nothing that could be done to save her.

My work week ended abruptly. I told my dispatcher (whose office I was in at the time) that I would be unable to finish the week and had decided I would drive to be there for my friend. Soon after I was on the road headed east.

A surreal night and a mother’s wail.

The morning sun had been replaced by dark skies and driving rain. I drove through the torrential downpour, at the edge of control, the worn grooves of I-80 filled with water, and at a higher rate of speed than safe.

I arrived in Brooklyn that evening not even sure how I got there or what to expect. I had left without any real plan where I would stay or what I would do. All that mattered to me was that I would be there for my friend if she needed me.

I was soon feeling a bit better. My friend was willing to see me, her composure was amazing and soon we were back at her apartment with the small gathering of family and friends.

I had settled down on the couch. My friend was in the other room, which was connected by a large opening, she was looking through pictures as I chatted and then came a moment that will probably be with me to my dying day.

My strong friend, whose calm had been my comfort until then, let out a groan, a wail only a mother could make, and it was a sound that penetrated me to the deepest depths of my being.

That night, while she cried, I bit my lip and held back trying to be strong. But in that moment something broke, something tore deep inside me, I stared through the hole down into a hopeless and terrible darkness that I had not known before.

That was the day my little hope died.

We buried Saniyah a few days later. I recall staring at that little lifeless body, feeling helpless, overwhelmed and knowing that I did not have the faith to bring her back to life. I would have traded my own life to give Saniyah back to my friend.

The hole that stared back at me.

I stopped talking to members of my immediate family who did not attend the funeral. Before then I had been frustrated with a couple of my siblings who always seemed too busy when I called and now were too busy to honor the life of Saniyah.

It was not fair to them that they bore the brunt of my feelings (nor was it fair to the online community that I was a part of then) but I had a deep anger raging inside that could not be calmed. They became the more tangible enemy that I so desperately wanted.

And then there was the guilt. My friend had told me about Saniyah’s health issue and how the doctor seemed more interested in scamming the state than providing quality care. Why had I not intervened then and insisted that she see another physician?

I was not thinking rationally.

I was trying to stay one step ahead of a monster inside of me.

But I could not always run fast enough and in moments where I felt helpless, things that would only cause a healthy person a bit of concern, my gaze would turn inside and the nightmare would catch up to me.

I would look deep into that hole that had opened the night Saniyah died and a despair that I cannot begin to describe in words would envelop me. It is that thing of Lovecraftian horror, the words of Friedrich Nietzsche come to life, a terror that would leave me in pieces and sobbing.

My religion, largely an intellectual project, failed to provide me with good answers. I was, despite regular church attendance, an agnostic for all intents and purposes. My inability to protect those who I loved or prove my way to faith, along with a string of other failures to realize my dreams, left me hollow inside and feeling totally helpless.

The return of a new hope and purpose.

Tears still well up when I talk about Saniyah and the circumstances of her death. Life is never the same after an experience like that. But those episodes of helplessness and profound loss, of reliving that moment from the night she died, have gone away.

My anger subsided. My estranged relationships restored and mostly better than ever. My faith now built on foundation more substantial than the book knowledge that had been so woefully inadequate to save me. I have a bigger hope now than the little one based in my own efforts.

After years of struggle and questions too big for my own mind, I realized that the hope Saniyah represented still lives on. It is a hope built on trust on faith not of my own works and found in the sufficiency of God’s grace.

My temporary loss is heaven’s gain.