Picking up where I left off on the topic of self-denial in the last post, I'll begin with a story.
There once was a girl named Catherine. As a 13-year-old, she wanted to devote her life to the church; however, she was deemed too young to become a nun. She's eventually set up with a guy who was, shall we say, not good. Like a surprising number of current celebrities who at one point wanted to become priests or nuns (here's one list: https://www.beliefnet.com/entertainment/celebrities/6-celebrities-who-almost-became-priests-or-nuns.aspx), when that didn't pan out, Catherine started living a life very far from that of someone in a religious order. This was largely her way of coping with a terrible relationship.
But one day during confession, the Lord made Himself known to her. She surrendered her life to Christ and, surprisingly, her husband did as well. He had nothing more to lose, having squandered all their (read: her) finances. Amazingly, instead of wallowing in self-pity, they devote their lives to service, even moving into a hospital and dedicating their lives to caring for others. Catherine became director of the hospital, navigating the healthcare workers through a plague. We know of her particularly through her writings that her followers compiled.
This is Catherine of Genoa, 1447-1510 A.D. This snippet from her Life and Teachings, particularly stands out to me:
Since I am determined to join myself to God, I find that I am also bound to be the enemy of his enemies. And since I find nothing that is more his enemy than the self that is in me, I am constrained to hate this part of me more than any other. Indeed, because of the war that exists between it and the Spirit, I am determined to separate it from myself and treat it as nothing.
While it's difficult for those of us in the midst of suffering to understand accurately the why behind it, sometimes in hindsight, the reasons are clearer. What a tragedy to be a young, devout girl whose faith is nearly destroyed by an unfortunate arranged marriage. Were the years of suffering with a profligate and promiscuous husband worth her successes later? And yet, it is these sufferings that helped provide her with such an incredibly profound understanding of prayer, work, suffering, and sanctification. According to her, this work of sanctification was an "inner fire," purging away what is evil and preparing room for Christ's love. Her personal experience of suffering made her aware of others' suffering, and she devoted her life to serving others in the most wretched of illnesses.
Where is our primary battle? Within, she taught unequivocally. Nothing is more God's enemy than ourselves!
This lesson is needed more than ever today. Even those with good intentions inevitably are blind to their own distorted biases, and every effort to counter evil gets turned back upon itself until all that we are doing is demonizing an opposing political viewpoint rather than focusing on the real spiritual battle within. If C.S. Lewis were alive today and updating his remarkable The Screwtape Letters, he would almost certainly be addressing this (also, as I've written before, those who like to quote C.S. Lewis would do good to fully read him. Shockingly, the saints of the past tend to not fit neatly into our current American political frame).
Wisely, Catherine of Genoa decided to tackle, with the help of the Spirit, her Self as the primary idol standing between her and God. Speaking of self-denial (and a bit of C.S. Lewis), Philip Yancey, in Open Windows, writes,
Self-denial first strikes at my basic identity. I am by nature a selfish creature, and I spend my time with a body and personality unique in all the world. It inevitably follows that I begin viewing the world through a viewpoint, making value judgments based on how things align with my perspective, and imposing my likes and dislikes on others around me. In his essay, 'The Trouble with X,' C.S. Lewis points out that we spot a fatal flaw in almost everyone we meet, even our closest friends. We say about them, 'He's a very fine fellow, and I enjoy his company. If only it weren't for his...' Yet we almost never see that fatal flaw in ourselves. We rationalize our weaknesses, explaining them away with references to our background or our good intentions.'
Denying myself starts with a full and repentant acceptance of the fatal flaw within me. Regardless of my accomplishments, my sophistication, my admirable traits, I must come to the humbling ground where I acknowledge I am not different from, but like every person who has ever lived. I am a sinner…
After going through the humiliating act of losing myself by letting go of that protective pride, I suddenly find myself with a new identity: the exalted state that Paul describes as 'in-Christness.'[Note from me, this means being "In Christ." See my post: https://www.christianmusingsfortoday.com/post/what-a-friend-we-have-in-jesus] No longer must I defend my thoughts, my values, my actions. I trade those in for the identity I am given as a son of God. I relinquish responsibility for setting my ethical standards and my worldview…
Previously, my main motivation in life was to do a painting of myself, filled with bright colors and profound insights, so that all who looked upon it would be impressed. Now, however, I find that my role is to be a mirror, to brightly reflect the image of God through me. Or perhaps the metaphor of stained glass would serve better, for, after all, God will illumine through my personality and body.
This one hurts! The problem with getting closer to the Lord is that inevitably self-pride and self-righteousness try to enter in. It becomes very easy to see oneself as more holy and righteous than others, and this can happen even among people who outwardly are pretty shy and self-effacing. Why do I spend any time at all focusing on the flaws of others? I have plenty to worry about within myself! Catherine and Philip are in alignment here, with the Holy Spirit guiding their conviction that the secret to growth is to remove the camera from the reality show that is our everyday lives and choose a different way of being. Such as living as a mirror or piece of beautiful stained glass, as Yancey describes.
I don't know that God needs more people pointing out the flaws of extremists on every side of the political spectrum. Maybe yes, maybe no. But, every line of Scripture points to the fact that for our own sake, we need to recognize and repent of the flaws within ourselves and join the Lord in this adventure to un-fill ourselves of these and be filled with the Spirit.
Why is this appearing in a blog about the suffering? Well, I had the sense of year (a tingly "Spidey" sense) that I had a bit of an odd response to suffering. I was surprised by it, taken aback by it. I was also surprised at some comments from others. Our collective attitude seemed to be, "This is wrong, and we will pray that it stop." Which is a perfectly reasonable and godly response to suffering. One of my first comments to my daughter after her diagnosis was, "This is not of the Lord. We don't understand His full plan, but be sure that severe illness and distress is never something that He wants to bring upon a child of His." And prayer is absolutely the right response. It's just that, I sensed in myself and others that we'd all be a whole lot more comfortable if, after a few months of prayer, everything just kinda went away. We could claim victory, hallelujah, amen! As if this was a temporary blip in life and when it was over, we could go back to the "real" work of kingdom business. As if suffering existed somehow outside of our walk as Christians--either as sufferers or comforters.
Maybe I misread this in myself and others, but perhaps not. Tim Keller opens the book, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, by declaring that contemporary Western people have a worldview toward suffering that is totally unlike anything that has come before us. Traditionally, suffering was ubiquitous and viewed as such. The right response to suffering, across times and religious views, was internal. Confession, purification, spiritual growth, strengthening, preparation for the afterlife. But today, we view suffering as an interruption to real spiritual life or life at all. We see sufferers solely as victims, and we want to rescue victims. Psychology (really, psychiatry), I have to admit, has medicalized mental suffering, and we extend that therapeutic approach across various types of distress. And, we are "outraged by our miseries." Keller says,
In the secular view, suffering is never seen as a meaningful part of life but only as an interruption. With that understanding, there are only two things to do when pain and suffering occur. The first is to manage and lessen the pain. And so over the past two generations, most professional services and resources offered to sufferers have moved 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...
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...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'...
Older cultures sought ways to be edified by their sufferings by looking inside, but Western people are often simply outraged by their suffering--and they seek to change things outside so that the suffering never happens again.
Note that Keller uses the term "secular" to describe this worldview. This is not the classic Christian response to suffering. And yet, through the dual threats of increased secularization and infiltration from the prosperity gospel, Christians too can display aspects of this view. I believe it is OK to be "outraged by suffering" to a certain extent. Jesus famously wept in front of Lazarus' tomb mere minutes before resurrecting the man. There is a wrongness to death and disease. This is not how it is supposed to be. And yet, since the Fall, it is The Plan for how we get from here to there--and I don't mean from Earth to Heaven. Rather, the Kingdom of Heaven within. It starts NOW, and suffering is a primary means for this, a significant way in which God can work in someone's life. Ancient Christians understood this well, hence the religion starting out with rampant martyrdom rather than rampant hiding, avoidance, and blending in.
But I sensed in myself an outrage toward suffering that wasn't exclusively due to the wrongness of it, but my mental assertion that I shouldn't--and definitely my daughter in particular shouldn't--have to experience this. It didn't fit the triumphant model I had painted of the victorious Christian life, this hobbling toward faithfulness. This reframing of victory to mean a day where I wasn't sobbing my weepy whiny prayers quite so much and could look beyond the pain to the needs of others. Or days when I could mix prayers of lament with praise.
Despite our denials of the ubiquity of suffering, billions of people are suffering everyday, in ways big and small. The Lord knows this, and He directly addressed others' suffering in His everyday ministry while He was physically on earth. How have many of us missed the message of His ministry, that His Good News is comprehensive and that it meets us exactly where we are in our pain, not despite it? Our secular/sacred, left/right, social justice/truth divides are all traps to divide and distract. All is ultimately under the Lordship of Christ and All will increasingly be under His Lordship in actuality. Sometimes some of us live out more apparent displays of the fight and triumph over adversity--but triumph is not simply the complete removal of the adversity. That will occur in the final victory of Christ in the future. How we navigate suffering now, with faithfulness and growth amidst it, can itself be a victory through the Lord's help and indwelling. And self-denial inevitably becomes a key component in navigating this difficult world, through problems big and small.
We're gonna need a bigger boat....I mean...another post on this topic of self-denial as we explore the subtle ways in which we deviate from Scripture and historic Christian practices when it comes to navigating the difficulties of this world.