scripture

The Violent Love of God

A Note from the Editor: I hope you had a wonderful 4th of July and got to spend time with family and friends! Due to the holiday, this weeks calendar is a bit different, thank you all for bearing with us and your continued support of CBC and the CBC Times! -Julia

There is a puzzling scene in the eleventh chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. John the Baptist has sent his disciples to Jesus to ascertain whether or not He is, in fact, the Messiah. "Art thou he that art to come, or look we for another?" It would seem that John had begun to waver in his resolution that Jesus was (by John's own label) the lamb of God. Perhaps Jesus was not all that the fanfare had made Him out to be. Perhaps John's own life and ministry had been a mistake, now approaching its anticlimactic demise. Perhaps, in a sick irony, that bruised reed would be broken, and the smoldering wick quenched, and all for naught. The Voice Crying Out becomes a whimper unto hollow silence.

This is one possible interpretation, but I believe it to be an unjust reading of the event. The behavior and cryptic words of John indicate to us that he unambiguously knew himself to be a prophet, and to take this role for himself was no mere dilettante accolade because anybody even vaguely familiar with the lives of the prophets must also be familiar with the manner of their deaths. Jesus makes reference to this common knowledge when he occasionally chastises the Jews for wanting to kill Him too: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you..." It is unreasonable to maintain that the man who had spent his life decreasing in order to magnify his cousin was turning tail now that the going had gotten tough.

 

Alternatively, Alban Goodier maintains that John sent the disciples to Jesus not for his sake, but for theirs. They needed reassurance because their own master was in jail facing death, they hesitated to follow the indications of John to abandon him for Jesus. John had pointed out the Lamb of God to them some time before, and two of them had left his side to walk at that of Jesus. But still, most of the disciples hesitated. they knew John and loved him. When they compared their master to this Jesus the Nazarene Whom they were apparently to follow, the doubted. From the beginning John had been unique among men: by his austere manner of life, his prayer, his preaching, the streak of lightning in his eye...in almost every conceivable way he seemed to exceed the carpenter from Nazareth Who had a reputation for ritual laxity, didn't seem to submit Himself with any regularity to the heavy yoke of penance, Whose disciples had a reputation for incompetence…

 

When they leave, Jesus turns to the crowd and speaks of His cousin John. He affirms that John is indeed the apex of all the prophets whose vocations were drowned in violence and uncertainty for the sake of the Reign of God. He asks the crowd, in essence, "what else did you expect? This is, in a sense, how it must be. One who would follow God in a world that hates Him must foresee travail and death if he would also persevere to the end of that vocation."

I think this scene from the life of Jesus is a great vignette for keeping in mind that the experience of suffering is not an obstacle to the abundance of life promised by the Savior to those who follow Him. In fact, it is necessary. Paul minces no words: “I wish to know Christ and the power flowing from his resurrection; likewise to know how to share in his sufferings by being formed into the pattern of his death. Thus do I hope to arrive at the resurrection from the dead.”

Jesus told the crowds that day that “…the Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.” The kingdom of heaven suffers violence on account of those who attack it (like Herod who puts the prophet John to death, the Pharisees who orchestrate the death of Jesus, the crowds who stand idly by and watch), and this is inevitable. Likewise, on all sides we feel ourselves beset by weakness, overwhelmed by the experience of our own hypocrisy and our inability (or simple refusal) to love God and neighbor; to forgive and bear wrongs patiently, to trust God. We cling to our idols the way John’s disciples clung to Him, even despite his own insistence to be abandoned for the sake of the love of Jesus.

But the prophets also illustrate that in the face of such circumstances, their obedience to God will be equally “violent,” or it won’t be adherence at all. “This generation is like children who sit on the street corners and call to one another: we played and you did not dance…” One who would not follow God isn’t capable of recognizing what following Him actually entails: the obedience of blind faith, the clinging to God’s mercy at the revelation of our filth and wretchedness, the humiliation and suffering-unto- death for the sake of the glory one day to be revealed in us; sharing and replaying in our own lives the death of Jesus in order to partake of His resurrection life.

In the business of loving God, there will be blood. “But be of good cheer, for in the world you will have tribulation, and I have overcome it.”

Suffering Makes Us Stronger...But Why?

They decorate colleges across America, my Facebook newsfeed is brimming with them, and for some reason, I’m always torn between fascination and annoyance when I confront them. If you’re thinking “political shouting matches” – well, you’re probably right – but this time I’m talking about motivational quotes, particularly motivational quotes about suffering. Suffering, and defeating it, are often the subject of catchy lines, in trendy fonts, across mountain-scapes. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Inspirational quotes offer us some variation on this theme. I think the appeal of these formulations has two parts:

First, it gives meaning and purpose to suffering. This sentence fosters the belief that suffering is happening for a reason, and, consequently, the world happens for a reason.

Second, it gives us a sense of control. We have power, not only over the suffering, but over our response to it. Hiding in this statement is another statement as well: We will make ourselves stronger by defeating suffering.

Perhaps the easiest answer to these inspirational quotes is dismissal. Try to power play with the universe, just try. The skeptic argues. Ultimately the universe wins. We die. I admit sometimes “the skeptic” speaks in my own voice. Like I said, I’m frustrated – frustrated with the pretty-packaged enthusiasm of “inspirationalism.”

Yet I’m still fascinated by inspirational messages.

But – why? Well, I have both suffered and watched others suffer. I want something to say. I want an answer. I can philosophize on “the problem of evil” or “the problem of pain” – but most importantly, it is a question that demands an answer from me.

Is there meaning in suffering? What about meaning in the world? Is there a plan? I experience these questions most when, selfishly I admit, I personally am the one suffering. But I also desire happiness for other people. 

And I’m not alone. This desire is a great human trait. We find it in history, in literature, in art, and in science. Seriously, who has browsed through “Humans of New York” and not wanted each person profiled to live a happy life? We want their lives to have meaning too. I’ve seen too much love for my voice to be the skeptic’s voice. Still, something nags me at the words “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Makes me stronger. 

Is that really what I want?

Well, no. Not exactly. I do want to be stronger, but only so I can have something else, like the admiration of my friends or recognition as a cool person. This realization has helped me understand St. Paul’s frequently quoted words about suffering from his Letter to the Romans. 

" . . .We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character. . .”

Exactly! You might be thinking. Suffering makes you stronger! But read on.

 “. . .and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5).

Suffering produces many things, but ultimately the most important is hope. St. Paul is clear. We don’t don’t become stronger and that’s it. We become hopeful because of God’s love.  This matches my realization that I don’t really want to be stronger for its own sake, I want to be loved.

Furthermore, St. Paul deliberately draws us back to God’s love which is “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” We are given the love that makes the hope possible. The love makes the hope not disappoint us. We are given these things. I think that’s important. Hiding in inspirational mantras is that second appeal I mentioned earlier: the sense of control. But St. Paul’s ideal is different. Suffering for a Christian is not just another power play. It is not simply another way for us to flex our muscles and create ourselves. 

God’s love poured into our hearts is radically different than the other options. It’s not a stronger, leaner, tougher me who can simply take more. It’s not a submission to the mindlessness of the universe. It’s a question of whether God’s love has given meaning to our suffering. Will he be with us, strengthening us through his outpouring of love to make us strong, full of character, and ultimately, hopeful?

For me, yes, but for you, I have to ask you, which do you prefer?