June 29, 2015

A few further thoughts on suffering

A few days ago I posted on the question of whether God is ever glorified in our suffering -- a response to a facebook friend whose own post asserted, in essence, that (a) God wants to heal everybody from everything, (b) the Christian life is supposed to look different than pagan lives and that means that we should not accept illness or suffering as our lot in life, and that (c) God is not glorified in our suffering. One thing that I meant to touch on in my response, but forgot, was the question of the Biblical and historical/traditional Christian understandings of suffering, illness, and death. R comes from a faith tradition that is fairly ahistorical -- you know, "Jesus, the early church, ~1500 years of darkness/nothing, and then the Pentecostals" -- and I believe that a look at the church's historic witness would be illuminating here.

First off, I would ask whether the view that Christians should never succumb to illness is one that lines up with the witness of Scripture. I firmly believe that the answer is "no". As I mentioned previously, everyone born on this earth either has died or will do so -- and some of those deaths will be caused by illness. Death is our lot in life and something has to kill us. To assert that we should expect to be healed of every single disease is to try to paint over the fact of our mortality. It's simply nonsensical.

But what, one may ask, of suffering that does not lead to death? The most obvious biblical example is that of Job -- who loses first his property, and then his children, and then his health, at God's allowance if not at his pleasure. Job and his wife discuss the proper response to Job's suffering:
Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die.” But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?”In all this Job did not sin with his lips. (Job 2:9-10)
Shall we receive good, and not evil? The implication is that to demand only good as our lot in life is foolish at the very least, and perhaps sinful. And although the context is different, this passage reminds me of Jesus' words in the sermon on the mount -- that God makes the sun to rise for both the evil and the good, and sends rain on both the just and the unjust (Matt 5:45). There are some things that are simply part of the human condition. The weather takes no notice of our righteousness or lack thereof. Neither do natural disasters. Why should disease, a natural disaster of a different nature?

At this point certain Christians might object to the example of Job, who, after all, lived pre-Christ. I believe that the Old Testament speaks to Christians just as much as the New -- but for those who may not, let us turn to the new covenant and see what it says about suffering. There are a few passages which I think it is helpful to examine.

1. 2 Corinthians 1:3-7
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.
There are a few things to note here:

(a) We remember that Christ himself suffered, suffered greatly, suffered even unto death. If God himself in human form suffered, is it reasonable to expect that we mere mortals will not?

(b) We see that when a Christian suffers, in some spiritual/mystical (but real) fashion he or she is sharing in the suffering of Christ. Suffering has the power to further unite us to our Lord. This is not insignificant.

(c) the prevailing assumption of the passage is not that God will deliver us from suffering, but that he will comfort us in our suffering. Those are two very different things, although one may at times encompass the other. Note also that sharing in Christ's suffering enables believers to both share in each other's suffering and facilitate each other's comfort.

2. Philippians 3:8-11
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
We see a similar theme here of joining in the sufferings of Christ. An interesting variation, of course, is that Paul wishes to become like Christ in his death so that he might be sure of attaining the righteousness that comes through faith and the resurrection from the dead. In some respects, suffering is (or can be, if we allow it to be) good for our souls.

3. Romans 5:1-5
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
Again, we see that suffering has a purpose: it is a refiner and a character-builder. It is well and right to pray that God will heal us of our afflictions. But we should not be focused so exclusively on that longed-for healing that we miss what God is doing with us and in us, in and through our suffering. Romans 8:28 assures us that God causes things to work for our good, and that he can bring good out of evil. Sometimes this will mean relieving us of our suffering. Sometimes it won't. We are assured that God is working for our benefit and his own glory in both of those cases.

4. In general, the New Testament is replete with instructions on how Christians are to behave and believe when they are enduring suffering and affliction. The presence of these instructions presupposes that Christians will encounter suffering and affliction; again, these things are part of the human existence.


An understanding that Christians should not suffer -- and that God is never glorified in our suffering -- is not only contrary to the biblical witness but is completely ahistorical. Christians have always suffered. Read any hagiography; I'll bet you double-or-nothing that the saint in question suffered, perhaps greatly. I will also bet that along with their suffering there is a testimony as to its value.

Let us consider the following testimony from our spiritual forebears:

St. Vincent de Paul:
If we only knew the precious treasure hidden in infirmities, we would receive them with the same joy with which we receive the greatest benefits, and we would bear them without ever complaining or showing signs of weariness.
St. Madeline Sophie Barat:
As iron is fashioned by fire and on the anvil, so in the fire of suffering and under the weight of trials, our souls receive that form which our Lord desires them to have. 
St. Ignatius Loyola:
If God sends you many sufferings, it is a sign that He has great plans for you and certainly wants to make you a saint. 
St. John of the Cross:
The road is narrow. He who wishes to travel it more easily must cast off all things and use the cross as his cane. In other words, he must be truly resolved to suffer willingly for the love of God in all things.
St. Teresa of Avila:
Suffering is a great favor. Remember that everything soon comes to an end ... and take courage. Think of how our gain is eternal. 
St. John of Avila:
Dear brothers and sisters, I pray God may open your eyes and let you see what hidden treasures he bestows on us in the trials from which the world thinks only to flee. Shame turns into honor when we seek God's glory. Present affliction become the source of heavenly glory. To those who suffer wounds in fighting his battles God opens his arms in loving, tender friendship. That is why he (Christ) tells us that if we want to join him, we shall travel the way he took. It is surely not right that the Son of God should go his way on the path of shame while the sons of men walk the way of worldly honor: "The disciple is not above his teacher, nor the servant greater than his master." 
To accept suffering with joy is difficult; to dismiss it as spiritually worthless is foolish. We are commanded to pray for healing; we are commanded to suffer with grace and in hope. Christian suffering is not an anomaly; rather, it is often the very means by which we are brought closer to God, and in which we give him all the glory.

June 27, 2015

Road trip with an infant: achievement unlocked

As I write this, the baby is upstairs asleep, Stan is watching the Canada-England soccer match, and the rain is falling steadily as it has done all day. We are all various degrees of exhausted, but also pleased with our accomplishment: three days and two nights in a hotel, just a few hours away, with fair success and no disasters. We're even unpacked.

This mini-roadtrip was the perfect practice for a longer trip we'll be taking this summer (and one that's probably going to be even longer sometime in the fall) -- so special thanks to my cousins A and K for getting married. Anselm coped with the hotel / disturbed nap schedule / extended family hoopla / etc. a lot better than we had anticipated, which is encouraging.

Some things for me to remember for next time (because I need to write them down somewhere ... and I can't lose a blog post):

1. Hotel rooms are cold. Bring socks for the baby!

2. Our car gets about five, five-and-a-half hours' of highway driving on a half tank of gas.

3. Sleeping: at home, Anselm sleeps on a mattress next to our bed. We didn't bring it with us because the hotel would provide a crib & we figured on using that mattress. We did so; but it was small and hard, and next time it might be easier to just bring the crib mattress. Bringing Anselm's sheet so that his bed smelled the same was probably helpful.

4. Next time, more snack food. Always more snack food.

5. I'm pretty sure it's true what they say: Ohio drivers are just the worst.

6. The best time to leave looks like immediately after breakfast. Pack as much as possible the night before, get up, shower and eat, feed the baby, nurse the baby, and go. He should sleep for a good hour or two if you get on the road soon enough. Otherwise he'll only fall asleep in the ten minutes before the next rest stop, leading to the eternal conundrum: wake the baby or pee one's pants? Both terrible options.

7. Don't forget to update the GPS. And be thankful for friendly park rangers.

8. You will feel bad because your baby cries in the night and hotel walls are thin. But then your bed will start shaking in sync with your next door neighbour's... athletic... activities, and you will shrug and call it even. In hotel living, nobody wins.

June 24, 2015

Is God ever glorified in our suffering?

An acquaintance of mine posted this on her facebook feed this morning:

The fact of the matter is we have come to accept sickness and illness as a normal part of life. The truth is Jesus Christ took every sickness and disease on His body so that yours could be whole....ALL DISEASE... That includes, colds, flus, allergies, arthritis, MS, cancer, measles, mumps, asthma, lupus... ALL. No exceptions, no exclusions. God wants you whole. Suffering with illness does not glorify God, equally, dying suffering does not bring glory to God or have people lining up to be a Christian. The Christian life must look different every way to the world. Time to get your current reality to line up with God's truth....By His stripes you were healed.

I was tempted -- sorely -- to reply on facebook itself, but I've recently given that up. It's just a bad venue for serious conversation, and I had a feeling that my response was going to be a lot longer than would have been reasonable for a comment. Good thing I have a blog.

Dear R,

I saw your post this morning about God's desire that we should be whole and healed. I love how passionate you are about praying for healing for the sick (and I thank you for praying for me as you have done in the past). I love your desire to encourage the body of Christ to seek God's healing. Those are wonderful things.

Your post also left me with some nagging questions. I offer the following points for discussion:

1) I agree with you on principle that God desires our healing and wholeness. I firmly believe that God will heal his people. But I don't believe that all of that healing will happen in this life -- in fact, most of it won't. Our final (physical / mental / emotional / spiritual / psychological) healing will not take place until we are united with Christ after our deaths (*and/or his return, should that happen first). In the holy city God "will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away" (Rev 21:4) ... but those things have not passed away yet. Christians live -- somewhat uncomfortably -- in what we call "the already-but-not-yet". The victory is won, but the mop-up battles continue. The kingdom is here, but it's not here fully. I acknowledge that there is a serious tension here! But to deny the "not yet" is as bad as denying the "already" -- to leave out either half is to deny the reality in which we live. How do we deal with the fact that some  of our healing is already, but some of it is not yet?

2) If God promises healing with "no exemptions, no exclusions" what do you say to those (many) who are not healed? I am exceedingly leery of a theology that proclaims, for example, that some are not healed because of a defect in their faith. Shall we tell our brothers and sisters who suffer with cancer or MS or what-have-you that they are simply not working hard enough? believing enough? praying enough? What will make them good enough to be healed? When Jesus was on earth he healed many, but he by no means healed all -- consider John 5, the account of the healing at the pool at Bethesda. The Gospel account tells us that there was "a multitude of invalids [there]—blind, lame, and paralyzed" (John 5:3). Christ saw the multitude, and he healed... one. Was this one so worthy, or the others so unworthy? Or are the plans and purposes of God simply more inscrutable than we wish they were? Does saying "no exemptions, no exclusions" make our healing a matter of Law, rather than Grace?

3) You quote Isaiah 53:5 at the end of your post: "by his stripes we are healed". Are we sure that this text refers to physical healing? Here is the verse in context, with some emphasis of my own:
4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
 we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
 so he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
9 And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
 he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
 he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.
I see a lot in there about our unrighteousness. I do not see anything about our physical healing. The context of 53:5 shows that the healing bought by Jesus' stripes is spiritual. (Again, I have no quarrel with the premise that God heals; I just don't think that this is the verse on which to hang your hat.)

4) One day, something is going to kill me. Ideally, I would like to die from simply being too old to live, expiring gracefully and peacefully in a well-appointed bedroom while a soft lavender-scented breeze blows through the window and my thirty-seven grandchildren sing Abide With Me in five-part harmony. That sounds pretty good (and pretty unlikely). More realistically, I might die quickly: have a heart attack, or get hit by a bus. Or I might die slowly: skin cancer, maybe, or Alzheimer's. I don't know what it will be (nor do I want to), but someday, somehow, I am going to shuffle off this mortal coil, and there is nothing -- save Christ's return -- that can prevent that. Christians die. Christians die suddenly and too young. Christians die by inches for years. Sin has broken us, the universe is entropic, and it's going to happen. Does a proclamation that all diseases and illnesses will be healed square with the reality and inevitability of death?

5) It's true that the Christian life is supposed to look different. But that difference is not found in the fact that we don't suffer, but in what we choose to do with that suffering -- and in that, absolutely, God is glorified. I will give you an example: This past winter, a (faithful, believing, Christian) professor at our school died of leukaemia. It was quick, as these things go: there was only about a year between her diagnosis and her death. And she absolutely glorified Christ in both her suffering and her death. Her steadfast faith -- even in and through her very real suffering -- was a testimony to her doctors and nurses, as well as to the many who knew her before her illness struck. Her life and death proclaimed that God is faithful to us in the midst of trial; that though trouble may come we are never abandoned. She praised God until the end, and reposed to be with him in glory. This is what it means to die with dignity. This is what it means for our suffering and death to glorify God. This is what it means for the Christian life to look different in every respect. To deny such a witness would be the grossest of errors. Can we really look at the Christians we know who have died, and died well, and say that there was nothing there? No redemption, no grace? Is there really no way for our suffering to bring glory to God?

R, I am so glad that you have known Jesus' healing power in your own life and that you are so eager to share that with others. I would suggest, however, that the issue of our earthly healing is more nuanced than your facebook post would suggest. I hope that this post will bring an opportunity for further reflection on healing, and not offence.



[also see follow-up post here]

June 19, 2015

What is the writer's function in society?

And then all the stuff about the writer's function in society! That kind of thing can only be dealt with from some angle which is not personal; but the whole questionnaire starts with this twaddling emphasis on the personal, and, dear Lord God! what is any honest craftsman to make of the appalling bit of blah presented at the end as a formula on which one is asked to comment? A general answer to all this stuff about standing for this and aiming at that is simply "as the man so is the work". If the work is sincere it will reflect both the maker’s opinions and his character with a ruthless fidelity; but if he self-consciously tries to make it reflect the opinions for which he thinks "Art" ought to "stand", then it will reflect nothing but his own self-consciousness and insincerity. It does not matter to any soul alive what my personal aims or satisfactions are. If I am required to tell people what in general the writer's duty is I could put the thing into very few words: don't write unless you have something to say; construct your piece of work soundly; write English.
-- Dorothy L. Sayers, letter to Dr. E. V. Rieu, 21 April 1944.

June 16, 2015

Thinking about habits

Something or other in my online reading (what? by whom? I don't recall) has lately gotten me thinking a lot about habits, and led me to both Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit and Gretchen Rubin's Better Than Before. Both books are very good, but they work especially well as a pair: Duhigg tackles more of the brain-science of habit (like the cue-habit-reward cycle) and Rubin focuses more on the social/personal factors of habit formation and change (like her "four tendencies" of personality, which determine how we respond to both internal and external expectations). Together they paint a broad picture of how we form habits and how habits form us. I was intrigued by Duhigg's more technical approach, but I appreciate Better Than Before's practicality, as well as the emphasis on knowing yourself -- since people tend to respond to the making and breaking of habits in predictable but different ways.

For example, Rubin broadly divides people into four categories: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. (Take the quiz here). I'm an Obliger; I find it much easier to live up to other people's expectations than my own. It's hard for me to form a habit without some sort of external accountability; I don't like to let people down, but can (too) easily shirk a habit if I'm the only one who knows or cares. It doesn't necessarily mean that I do everything for which I'm externally accountable ungrudgingly, of course -- witness most of last semester's homework -- but I still do it. (In terms of school work, I think this is why I struggle with courses that use contract grading; I don't feel driven to try the same way I would if I really had to earn a grade, rather than just meeting a minimum requirement of work done.) There are many other categories Rubin looks at; one that stuck out to me was the Opener/Finisher divide. I'm a Finisher; I get a bigger charge and sense of accomplishment over finishing something (a project, a jar of peanut butter, a blog post) than out of starting a new one. I like looking at something and being able to say "It's done!". By the same measure, I get stressed out when I have so many things on the go that I'm not finishing any of them, and it's hard to stay motivated when I have a long-term project that won't be finished any time soon.

This strikes me as really useful data. This summer I've started working on my thesis, which I'll have to submit and defend next April. But since I don't (have to) check in with my advisor particularly often, I'm not working with a lot of external accountability here -- and the long deadline doesn't help, because it will be many months before I can look at my thesis and say "It's done!". So how do I make sure that I keep working on it?

Right now, like this:

As it turns out, a sticker chart is pretty much ideal for me. Here's why I think it works:

1. I do love stickers. That's not enough on its own, but it surely helps.

2. The chart keeps me accountable. I'm not keeping track of whether I work on my thesis privately; I'm keeping track right there on my dining room wall, where my husband and friends can see it. Even though they're not checking up on me, they still know what's going on. Having my chart visible turns it into an external motivator.

3. I can easily see what I've accomplished. I put on a star sticker when I do thesis reading, and a happy face when I do writing. At the end of the week, if I have at least one sticker on at least six days, I get a big sticker. My Finisher tendencies motivate me to earn a sticker every day, and to keep the big sticker chain unbroken. Even though my thesis won't be finished for a long time, every day I get to "finish" a small step.

4. It's low-key: I don't have minimums for earning stickers. If I read anything at all -- even if it's just one paragraph -- I get a sticker for that day. If I write anything at all -- even if it's just one sentence -- I get a sticker for that day. For some people this might not be helpful since it could be a tacit encouragement to make a minimal effort. But for me, it's more important to establish the habit of working on my thesis every day (or nearly) than to worry about exactly how much work I'm doing. Some days I get quite a lot done; others, I don't. But I'm working on it regularly and that's what's going to make the difference in the long run. Slow and steady, etc. etc. (And since starting my chart I've read upwards of 800 pages and written one complete chapter and smaller chunks of others, so clearly something is working.)

Rubin also tackles the convenience factor in habit formation: if we want to establish a good habit, we need to make it convenient. And if we want to kill a bad habit, we need to make it inconvenient for ourselves (which could be something as simple as, say, storing the cookies in a lidded opaque jar instead of a clear unlidded one). This rings true for me. What finally got me flossing every night was moving the floss from inside the bathroom cupboard to a spot on the counter -- it's visible, so I see it and am reminded to floss, and it's right there so it's totally convenient. And now I floss! Who knew it could be so easy? (Gretchen Rubin might have known.)

This all has intrigued me greatly. I'm pretty sure that I'll be thinking about habits for many days to come.

June 2, 2015

Things I have said to my son this morning

Hey, bud. Good morning! I love you!

Let go of Mama's hair. Let go. Let go, please. Let go. Let go of Mama's hair.

Do you want to nurse? Here you go.

Stop picking Mama's nose.