A Greatly Troubled Heart

And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. (Genesis 6:6)

The Scriptures and Orthodox theology are clear that God is not just a super human being – God is not merely an omnipotent and omniscient human writ large.  God is totally other, and whatever words we might apply to us humans – being, nature, person, existing – cannot then rightfully be applied to God.  Or, conversely, if we use words like being, existence, nature for God, then we can’t also use them for humans or any part of creation.  God is clearly a transcendent being, not limited by space and time, but rather we all exist within God (Acts 17:28).

And yet . . . Scriptures also contain images of God which are quite anthropomorphic – in which God is quite humanized.  Or, at least our experience of God and our description of the encounter with God is put purely in human terms.  For the transcendent God is also immanent and in God’s closeness to us we experience God in ways we understand – as Father and mother, as love and lover.   We come to realize that when God says that we humans are made in God’s image and likeness, we are closer to God than we imagine, and God is much closer to us than dogmatic theology can ever reveal.

The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18)

Praise the LORD! For it is good to sing praises to our God; for he is gracious . . .   He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds. He determines the number of the stars, he gives to all of them their names.  (Psalm 147:1-4)

The same God who creates the heavens and the earth, the stars and the entire universe, is also near the brokenhearted.  And, there may be good reason for God’s being near the brokenhearted, as we see in the opening Scripture verse of this blog: for God experienced grief from, through and in the humans God had created.

Some probably are not much impressed with a God whose reaction to human sin and violence is inner grief and brokenheartedness.   “Why doesn’t God just fix what’s wrong with humans and creation!?!”

The God who not only loves creation but Who is love, suffers because of and with and in creation.  The transcendent God who lives in all eternity who is incomprehensible, ineffable and indescribable, still reveals Himself in terms that we can relate to and experience.   This is all part of the great mystery of God.  God doesn’t have blood vessels or a stomach or a throat or a blood-pumping heart, and yet God’s reaction to fallen creation is described in visceral terms.   God knows our pain and still loves us.  God is willing to suffer pain because of us and with us and for us.  Jesus, the incarnate God, experiences this pain and brokenheartedness.

And they went to a place which was called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I pray.” And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch.” And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt.” And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:32-38)

Jesus wished that the hour of His death might be avoided and was troubled to the heart of His being.  Yet in love, He knew He would endure such heartbreak to deliver humanity from slavery to sin and death.  He took upon Himself the sin of the world, and suffered.  Yet, He said to His disciples:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.  (John 14:27)

Even though Christ experienced pain in His own heart, brokenheartedness, grief and distress, He tells us not to let our hearts be troubled.   We are to trust in Him . . . which we find on a daily level to be very difficult to do because we do not see how that trust will alleviate the pain and suffering and problems we must endure.  Christ did not tell us that our lives would be trouble free.  Rather, He promised us tribulation – that tribulation which grieved God at the beginning of creation and which distressed Christ in the garden of Gethsemane.

I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)

When we grieve and are brokenhearted because of the world, God is near to us.  And God’s promise is that the pain and sorrow of this world are not the last word, for God promises us Good News.

And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 35:10)

“Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”  (Revelations 21:3-4)

St. John the Theologian

On Monday, September  26 we remember in the Church the death of St. John the Theologian.  John is the “disciple whom Jesus loved.

St. John writes to us:    “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.

In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit.  And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.   In this is love perfected with us, that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because he first loved us. If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also.”  (1 John 4:7-21)

Brothers Cain and Abel
Brothers Cain and Abel

Sleeping, Resting, Rising and God

Papa bear growled, “Someone’s been sleeping in my bed.”

There may be many reasons why we don’t get the perfect night’s sleep, or even why we can’t get to bed!   “For the bed is too short to stretch oneself on it, and the covering too narrow to wrap oneself in it.” (Isaiah 28:20)   There indeed are many things that can bug you in bed and keep you awake.

Following my surgeries and chemotherapy, sleepless nights were common, so I had time to consider God’s word regarding sleep.  If you find yourself having trouble falling to sleep, you might remember the scripture:

In bed I remember You; as I lie awake I reflect on You, mindful of how you helped me, and I rejoice in the safety of your wings.  (Psalm 63:6)

It is a verse from the Psalms that Christians for centuries have been saying as part of morning prayer.   St. John Chrysostom said that in his day, that is, the 4th Century, saying Psalm 63 in the morning was already part of the ancient tradition of the Church.    You can join Christians from the first centuries of the Church in praying this psalm.

If sleep escapes you, take the time to remember God and all God’s contact with you during the day.   You don’t even have to have lots of words, you can remember God and keep yourself in God’s presence.  And though it may be hard to do, work on rejoicing in the night, especially a sleepless night, as the verse 63:6 says.   It helps to remember the words of St. Paul: “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (I Thessalonians 5:16-18).  Always and in all circumstances includes the middle of the night when sleep frustratingly eludes you.

Monks for their part came to see sleep as something to be avoided and even included sleeping on the hard ground as a virtue.  But Christ promised to give us rest, and the Scriptures do say God gives the ones He loves sleep (Psalm 127:2).  Ill health deprives us of sleep, which is not good, but on the other hand can increase our prayer life.  God’s creatures do enjoy the rest in sleep that God bestows on us all.

Whenever you lie down to rest, pray:

Into Your hands, O Lord, do I commend my spirit: Bless me, have mercy on me and give me eternal life.

If you wake up in the night, you might remember Psalm 3:5 –

I lie down and sleep; I wake again, for the LORD sustains me.

You awake – whether after a long night’s sleep or in the middle of a disrupted night –  because the Lord sustains you.  Can we be comforted by this thought?  And be thankful for that awakening?   It takes some doing to believe that we are awakened again in the night because of the goodness of the Lord.   In Muslim countries the early morning call to prayer reminds the faithful that prayer is better than sleep.

And if there are just too many things on your mind, too many things you have to get done, so you shorten your sleep, remember these words:

It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep. (Psalm 127:2)

Being unable to sleep, frequently awakening in the night, or being jolted awake in the middle of sleep make one weary for sure.  When the morning arrives and we need to get up, the sleep which tauntingly escaped us all night, often comes upon us, and we drag ourselves into the morning.

And again the words of the Psalms can come to mind:

As for me, I shall behold thy face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with beholding thy form. (Psalm 17:15)

 

God’s Love and Our Free Will

St. Ephrem the Syrian (4th C)  gives a wonderfully artistic metaphor to help us understand free will.  He says it would have been a whole lot easier for God if God had simply created us to obey Him – if God had created automatons or robots, rather than bestowing free will on humans.  God could have forced us to do His will, but God didn’t will that.  God created us to co-create with Him.  God gave us free will so that we might create beauty.  If God had forced us to do His will then we wouldn’t be in God’s image.  Instead of God “painting” our portraits as He determined, He gave us the gifts to beautifully create self-portraiture.  We get to choose the colors adorning our portraits, creating unique beauty which is the way to please God.

Christ is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15)
Christ is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15)

“For this is the Good One, who could have forced us

to please Him,

without any trouble to Himself; but instead He toiled

by every means

so that we might act pleasingly to Him of our free will,

that we might depict our beauty

with the colours that our own free will had gathered;

whereas, if He had adorned us, then we would have

resembled

a portrait that someone else had painted, adorning it

with his own colors.”

(Sebastian Brock, The Luminous Eye, p 61)

 

Enveloped in God’s Love

“Everywhere and in every endeavor remember the Lord your God and His holy love for us. Everything that you may see in heaven and on earth and in your house awakens you to the remembrance of the Lord your God and His holy love. We are enveloped in God’s love.

Every creature of God bears witness to His love for us. When you see God’s creation and make use of it, say to yourself thus: This is the work of the hands of the Lord my God, and it was created for my sake. These luminaries of the heavens, the sun, the moon, and the stars, are the creations of the Lord my God, and they illumine all the world and me.

This earth on which I live, which bears fruit for me and my cattle, and all that may be upon it, is the creation of the Lord my God. This water which waters me and my cattle is a blessing of my Lord. This cattle which serves me is the creation of my Lord and was given by Him to serve me.

This house in which I live is God’s blessing and was given me by Him for my repose. This food which I taste is God’s gift to me for the strengthening and consolation of my weak flesh. This garment with which I am clothed the Lord my God gave me for the sake of covering my naked body.” (St.Tikhon of Zadonsk, Journey to Heaven, p 9)

God’s Love and Judgment

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev shares a theological truth, which he learned from St. Isaac the Syrian. He encountered the teaching while reading the works of Vladimir Lossky.  It was an idea that stood out in Metropolitan Hilarion’s heart and mind.

“I was particularly struck by some words of Isaac, quoted by Lossky, about the suffering of those in hell. According to Isaac those who endure torment in gehenna are chastised, not by divine anger, not by any desire on God’s part to exact retribution – for there is no cruelty or vindictiveness in God – but ‘with the scourge of love’. The sorrow which takes hold of the heart that has sinned against love is more piercing than any other pain. It is not right to say that sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God…But love acts in a double way, as suffering in the reproved, and as joy in the blessed. Lossky comments:

‘The love of God will be intolerable torment for those who have not acquired it within themselves.’

Once more, as with Isaac’s description of the compassionate heart, it was as if someone had suddenly opened a window in my mind and flooded my whole interior world with light. Here, I felt, is the only interpretation of judgment and hell that makes any sense. God is love, and his love is inexhaustible; and this inexhaustible love is present everywhere, even in hell. But ‘love acts in a double way.’” (The Spiritual Word of Isaac the Syrian, pp 9-10)

The Icon of Unlimited Love

We do know what unlimited love looks like.  People saw Him.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:12-14)

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

“But if any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth. By this we shall know that we are of the truth ”   (1 John 3:17-18)

 

God’s Eternal Mercy, Love and Compassion

“Just as an abundantly flowing fountain is not blocked by a handful of dust, so the Maker’s mercy is not overcome by the wickedness of those whom He has created.[…]

In love did God bring the world into existence;

in love does He guide it during its temporal existence;

in love is He going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and

in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all these things.

In love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally compromised.

Just because the terms ‘wrath’, ‘anger’, ‘hatred’ and the rest are used of the Creator in the Bible, we should not imagine that He actually does anything in anger, hatred or zeal. Many figurative terms are used of God in the Scriptures, terms which are far removed from His true nature. Among all God’s actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and end of His dealings with us.” (St. Isaac in The Wisdom of St. Isaac of Nineveh  by Sebastian Brock, pp 18 & 38)

The Greatest Form of Love: To Love One’s Enemies

“The highest expression of love, and the surest criterion of Christian truth, is love of enemies, says the Saint [Silouan the Athonite]. True love cannot suffer a single soul to perish. For Christ there are no ‘enemies’, for the very word implies rejection. They are brothers and sisters who need our love and prayers. Christ prayed for those who crucified Him. Saint Stephen the First Martyr prayed for those who stoned him.

So we must urge ourselves to love those who revile or injure us. If we can not love, at least let us not revile. A person who reviles or despises those who are against him, brings spiritual injury to himself and shows that an evil spirit is working in him. But divine love cannot be attained by human beings without divine grace. We cannot love our enemies without having the Holy Spirit. When we humble ourselves and pray for those who affront us, God works the impossible things in the heart.

On one occasion Silouan states that the soul is so wounded by divine loves that it ‘loses it wits.’ Even devils can rouse its pity because they were once God’s creatures now fallen from the good.” (Theodore G. Stylianopoulos, The Way of Christ: Gospel, Spiritual Life and Renewal in Orthodoxy, pp 122-123)

In the Love of God

“The love of our Divine Savior, Jesus Christ, of God the Father, and of the Holy Ghost to us is so great, so immeasurable, that, in comparison to it all human dislike, enmity, and hatred against us become insignificant, and seem to vanish entirely. It is because of this boundlessness of God’s love towards us and the insignificance of human enmity that the Savior commanded us to love our enemies, bless them that curse us, do good to them that hate us, and to pray for them which despitefully use and persecute us (St. Matthew V. 44). We are in the love of God; does it greatly matter to us if men are not well disposed towards us? What can they do against us when God has so loved us?”   (St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, p 229)