Saints: Dedicated to God

If you want to learn from the lives of the saints what complete dedication to the love of the Lord means and from Holy Scripture inspired by God, look to Job. How he gave up all he possessed, so to speak: children, wealth, livestock, servants, and everything else that he had, stripping himself completely to escape and save himself. He even gave up his very clothing, throwing it at Satan; yet all the time he never blasphemed in word, neither in his heart nor with his lips before the Lord. But on the contrary he blessed the Lord saying: ‘The Lord gave; the Lord has taken away. As it has pleased the Lord, so be it. Blessed be the name of the Lord‘ (Jb 1:21). Although it was true that he had many possessions, but tested by the Lord, he showed that God alone was his possession.

Just as the bodily eyes see all things distinctly, so also to the souls of the saints the beauties of the Godhead are manifested and seen. Christians are absorbed in contemplating them and they ponder over them. But to bodily eyes that glory is hidden, while to the believing soul it is distinctly revealed. This is the dead soul the Lord raises to life out of sin, just as he also raises up dead bodies as he prepares for the soul a new heaven and a new earth (Rv. 21:1; Is 65:127) and a sun of righteousness, giving the soul all things out of his Godhead.

(Pseudo-Macarius, The Fifty Spiritual Homilies, p. 71 & 203)

Contentment

If we received good things from the Lord’s hand, shall we not bear the bad? [Job 2.10].

Remind yourself of the good things from the past. Balance out the bad with the good. No person’s life is altogether blessed. Continual prosperity belongs to God alone. So if you are upset by these present circumstances, comfort yourself by remembering the past.

Now you weep, but you laughed in the past. Now you are poor, but you were rich in the past. You used to drink the limpid streams of life; be patient now as you drink these muddy waters. The waters of a river are not always pure. As you know, our life is a river, ever flowing and filled with waves one after the other. One has already flowed by, another is still passing, another has just emerged from its sources, another is about to do so, and all of us hasten to the common sea of death.

If we received good things from the Lord’s hand, shall we not bear the bad? [Job 2.10].

Are we compelling the Judge to supply us forever with the same things? Are we teaching the Master how he should arrange our life? He holds the authority over his own decisions. He directs our affairs in whatever way he wishes. He is wise, and he measures out to the his servants only what will profit them. Do not engage in futile investigations of the Master’s judgement; only love the ways in which he has dispensed his wisdom. With pleasure receive whatever he gives to you. In painful situations show that you are worthy of that joy that used to be yours.

(St. Basil the Great , On Christian Doctrine and Practice, pp. 179-180)

A Man Born Blind, Jonah, Job and A Believer

And his disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  (John 9:2)

The question the disciples ask the Lord Jesus in John 9 has taken on new and personal meaning with me.   When some hear that I have been diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer, they often ask two questions:

Were you a smoker?

Is there a history of lung cancer in your family?

The questions are logical – people trying to make sense of the lung cancer diagnosis.  Obviously if you were a smoker (you sinned), the lung cancer is the consequence of your behavior.   Or if your family has a history of lung cancer, then it is your ancestors who passed the gene along to you (parent’s ‘sin’).   What the logic does of course is put the person at ease, for if there is a clear cause and effect of sin to disease, my interlocutor can feel safe that the world is reasonable and logical.  People get lung cancer because they smoked/sinned or the inherited the sin from their parents.

Such logic helps people get through the day and helps them avoid thinking about their own mortality, but we all know the world is a bit more unpredictable than our reason allows.  The Holy Prophet Job  got his story in our Scriptures.  Retributive justice is not always at work, or the only force at work, or may not even remotely be the cause of the effect.

My history is I was not a tobacco smoker, and there is no known history of lung cancer.  There is no doubt some cause for the lung cancer, but as the doctors have told me, we will never know what caused my lung cancer to begin.

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Believers in the ancient world did not have an explanatory category of “natural causes.”  For me in the scientific world, I can see there are natural disasters whose causes can be explained by natural forces.  The right collection of natural forces will produce a tornado or an earthquake or an epidemic.  I don’t have to think that every event is caused by an angry God.   The ancients, lacking a “natural disaster” category tended to interpret all things as acts of God.  What was not ever certain was exactly what caused God to act in a particularly destructive way.  Many theories were proposed: sin, icons, lack of icons, unwillingness of people to change, people too willing to change.  The Prophet Jonah, one can recall, was distraught that God didn’t destroy the city of Nineveh.  He proclaimed the city would be destroyed, hoped it would happen, and then was disappointed that God didn’t do it.  Jonah laments what he knows about God: “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”   (Jonah 4:2)  Sadly many people today share Jonah’s lament and don’t want God to be merciful, abounding in love and ready to relent from punishing.  They prefer the God of retribution not the God who is revealed by Jonah or by Jesus.

I believe in a merciful and loving God.  I’m not blind to the suffering of the world. I’m experiencing it myself.  As a believer, I have to wrestle with the real world, and faith in the God of love.  I accept a modern scientific world that some events can be explained by natural causes.  I don’t always know where God’s hand is in these events.  I know God created this world.  God continues to love His creation, despite the many problems created by natural causes.  God could have created a different world, but He apparently finds this world a good world in which to love us.  Mortality is part of this world, God loves us anyway.  Our Christian faith is that God enters into the human condition and dies in order to save us.  God does not avoid death.  God does not ask us to suffer something He Himself is not willing to suffer.

This week I began my second round of chemotherapy.  Yesterday I received two different chemos aimed at destroying the lung cancer cells.  I’ve experienced many of the serious side effects of the chemo.  I reported that in a previous blog: Walking Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.  My first week after treatment was a whole lot rougher that what I’m currently experiencing, though I recognize that symptoms come and go throughout the chemo process. And while things are better this week compared to the first round, better is neither good nor normal.   Psalm 107 comes to mind again.

Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities suffered affliction; they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he sent forth his word, and healed them, and delivered them from destruction. Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to the sons of men! And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, and tell of his deeds in songs of joy!  (Psalm 107:17-22)

This week, though I experience that loathing of any food, I am thankful to the Lord for His steadfast love and His wonderful works.  Christ is present even in the suffering of the world.

And to the question the disciples asked at the beginning of John 9 and at the beginning of this blog,

Jesus answered: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.”  (John 9:3).

The story of Job is lived many times in the history of the world.

Sunday of the Blindman (2015)

The Paschal season in the Orthodox Church offers us several weeks to sing and absorb the message: Christ is risen form the dead, trampling down death by death.  And every year we read the Gospel of the man born blind in the context of our celebrating the resurrection of Christ:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him. We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”(John 9:1-5)

The Gospel begins with the disciples attempting to impose a moral order on the world they live in.  A man born blind – even before he had a chance to sin, he is already afflicted with disease.  Is the universe really so unfair, unreasonable and random that someone can be afflicted without having done anything wrong?  Doesn’t that very idea cast doubt upon not only the goodness of God, but God’s very existence?

The disciples endeavor to place a moral order on what they see – there must be a reason for the man’s blindness!  Perhaps forgetting that the story of Job is part of their scriptures.  The innocent are at times victimized by irrational forces in the universe.

The disciples expecting order in God’s universe, want to make sense of a baby being born blind – surely there must be a just reason which caused and thus explains such a tragedy.  God would not be so unjust as to inflict blindness of an innocent baby!  If a tragedy like blindness occurs it must be part of the moral universe: retribution for sin.   The book of Job, however, shows even a righteous man – not just an innocent man – can suffer, however unfair and unjust that is.   Suffering is not always related to retribution, but is always related to the distorted world of the Fall in which powers, some alien or hostile to God, do operate.

We cannot always know the reason for suffering.  Job never learns the truth about his suffering.  His faithfulness to God remains even without that knowledge.  Knowing God is enough for him.   He believes in God and that is Job’s righteousness

The book of Job is good Lenten reading.  It prepares us for understanding how it might be possible that Jesus is Lord and Christ, and yet God, His Father, allows Him to suffer.  There is no retribution there, no loss of love.   They mystery of incarnate love, revealed in Jesus Christ, gives hope and meaning to Job and to all who suffer.  Suffering does not mean or imply that one is forsaken by God.  That is a lesson of Job and Jesus and the man born blind from birth.

Christ is the light of the world, even for those physically blind.  Christ is the light of the world, even when we can’t quite see Him.  Christ is the light of the world even for those spiritually lost, or who are walking, whether fearfully or hopelessly, in darkness.

It does happen that our need for a moral order in the universe and for complete justice cause us to impose a meaning on events and an understanding of the universe that are not theologically correct.  It remains a fact that some things in the universe are beyond our comprehension.  Our effort to impose a moral order on events in fact take us further away from understanding God or the universe.   We who are so impatient, have to wait on the Lord.  Thankfully, God is not limited by or to our sense of justice, purpose and meaning.

Do not think that every affliction befalls people on account of sin, because there are some who are pleasing to God who are still tempted. It is written that the impious and lawless will be persecuted [Ps 36.28 (LXX)]; it says as well that “all who want to live a godly life in Christ will be persecuted [2 Tim 3.12].”   (St. Mark the Monk, Counsels on the Spiritual Life, Kindle 2137-2139)

The Prophet Job

During Holy Week in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition, excerpts from the Book of Job are read.   The Prophet Job is seen as a prototype of a righteous man who suffers at the instigation of Satan.

Job has three friends who show up to sit with him during his sufferings, and they advocate that Job drop the “self-” righteous attitude and admit that his suffering is just due to his personal sins and obviously is from God.   The Book of Job though offers a challenge to that notion of righteousness which demands that all suffering is the result of sin and shows God’s disapproval of the suffering person.  Jesus who is the suffering servant and messiah, like Job is blameless before God and yet suffers – not because He sinned but in fulfillment of God’s will.

“The three friends lecture Job directly and never speak to God. Job responds to them, but significantly he turns from them often in order to address God (the Almighty, or El Shaddai). It is here that the author is once again true to life. Job oscillates between despair and ardent faith. He argues with God, and even if he cannot find God (23:8-9), he never stops yearning for a confrontation (9:32-35; 13:3; 16, 22; 16:18-22; 31:35-37). This is the stuff of spiritual conflict, the dark night of the soul, which countless people have experienced.” (Roland E. Murphy, The Tree of Life – An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature, pg.38)