The Problem of Pain

Day 147

Numbers 29

Moses outlines the festivals that followers of the Lord are commanded to celebrate. Interestingly enough, celebration was the topic at last Sunday’s sermon, which… took place on the day after I was supposed to write about Numbers 29.

The problem with the sermon, as well-meaning as I believe the pastor to have been, is that it sounded a lot like “if you’re somber or sad, then you’re not being a good Christian.” This is a little too close to what has been called prosperity theology, or the prosperity gospel. To quote Wikipedia,

“Prosperity theology teaches that Christians are entitled to well-being and, because physical and spiritual realities are seen as one inseparable reality, this is interpreted as physical health and economic prosperity.”

It is also noted that followers and preachers of the prosperity gospel view poverty and sickness as spiritual ailments or curses that can be alleviated through faith. My partner has had some very negative experiences with churches that follow prosperity theology.

Poverty and illness are curses? Yeah, I mean it’s a damn shame to be sick or poor, and I believe that dedicated faith can lead to greater willpower and desire which can in turn lead to financial success. However, I don’t think that God’s plan for people involves or guarantees financial well-being. Poverty is not a sign of God’s disfavor.

Can poor personal habits and a lack of direction lead to poverty? Yes. But I don’t think that physical, material wealth has much to do with faith in Christ.

I see this situations as teaching surrender to God and His will, as opposed to undesirable curses. Does being poor debilitate a person? Damn right it does. I’ve lived with it for a long time, and sitting around that poverty line is depressing. It emotionally and spiritually drains you. Or it can.

But regardless, God can and will give you the strength to work through it, if you ask. “Thy will be done, in all things.” I seriously hate the phrase “Let go and let God,” but it’s important to ask that His will be done, that He may guide you to it.

Can the principles in the Bible teach you to be rich? Probably? I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but I’m willing to bet that if that’s the motivation one has while reading it, one will find a variety of implementable tips or lessons for financial success.

And just to be clear, I have no problem with people who want to be rich. I myself am determined to achieve some measure of wealth, to surpass my parents and my family, to provide for my own family and possible future children.

However, I think we, especially as Christians, have to see wealth as a means and not an end. Wealth as an end is idolatrous. But with wealth, one can do many things and help many others. We should seek to do our best as Christians even in poverty, but if we are wealthy, then our goal should still be to serve and glorify God.

Bill Gates is probably my favorite example of a wealthy person who does amazing things with his riches. Go to the website of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Read the 2014 annual letter. If that doesn’t restore some of your faith in humanity, I don’t know what will.

Wealth and power are responsibilities. Health and stability may be gifts if God intends them to be, but they may make us complacent.

“[A]s there may be pleasures in Hell (God shield us from them), there may be something not all unlike pains in Heaven (God grant us soon to taste them).”

— C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

In Numbers 29, the Israelites are commanded to celebrate, but every day of these festivals and celebrations involves sacrifices and offerings to God. Even, or especially, in our celebrations, we are told to humble ourselves to God, to supplicate ourselves before Him, and to glorify Him in all things.

In sorrow and in joy, do not forget the Lord.


Numbers 30

Oh my goodness, I went and looked at Matthew Henry’s unabridged commentary. It made my head hurt a little.

Numbers 30 concerns the making of vows, oaths, and pledges. Basically, at its core, this chapter states that a man who makes a vow must not break his word.

That’s a quote, by the way: “[H]e must not break his word but must do everything he said.”

This chapter also outlines how fathers and husbands have the power to override vows made by their daughters and wives, respectively. I think this is meant to be indicative of the Biblical position of fathers/husbands as the heads of households, which I think is intended to correlate with how God (the Father) is meant to be the head of the Church, both as a collective and as the singular body of worship that one human being offers.

Now, I don’t have the book in front of me, but I am reminded of the book Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill. If I recall correctly, he talks at some point(s) about the importance of keeping one’s word or speaking the truth. Or maybe I’m thinking of The Four Agreements, in which I know for a fact the author Don Miguel Ruiz outlines the importance of what he calls “being impeccable with [one’s] word.”

“Impeccable,” by the way, comes from a Latin word, meaning “not liable to sin.” An impeccable word is free of sin.

The way I see it, breaking vows erodes the strength of one’s soul. You make a habit of being disingenuous, of saying things that you have no intention of following through upon, of being careless in word and in deed. There is some Biblical support for this, I think:

“Better not to vow than to vow and not pay.”

— Ecclesiastes 5:5

Keep those words and deeds in line, dear readers! Keep that soul strong, exercise the power of your will, that you may have more dedication to offer to God.

Peace be upon you.

Day 107

Using the Holmes and Rahe stress scale, I figure I’m up to at least 200 units and counting for the past twelve months. And that’s a conservative estimate. I’ve gotten three new jobs, quit three jobs, started a new close relationship, changed a number of my personal habits and responsibilities at work, changed my sleeping habits, changed them back, had my sleeping habits challenged and varied, had issues with my partner’s family, had issues with my family, lost touch with a bunch of friends… the list goes on and on and on.

In the past week I have shouted in anger, I have screamed in frustration, and I have cried in despair. These events are not mutually exclusive. My throat is sore right now.

The only response I got from God was “pray for patience.” I felt a calming in my soul, ever so slightly, at the words and feelings that came to me. But I’m tired. I’m tired and I’m angry. Now I see why Wrath is considered a mortal sin. It can consume you.

I was supposed to go to bed early tonight, can you believe it? The one night.

My birthday is coming up, and at this rate it is going to be but a temporary respite from all this. Even my three days off this past weekend did little to help me in the long run. There’s just been too much. I’m still not accustomed to this much chaotic change. I do not like it.


Leviticus 17

There’s a lot more in here about blood being the stuff of life and what is used for atonement and so don’t eat it, you guys.

But at the end, there’s something about being unclean from eating an animal that either died naturally or was killed by beasts that struck me:

“But if he does not wash [his clothes] or bathe his body, then he shall bear his guilt.”

— Leviticus 17:16, NKJV

I have seen some New-Age-spiritual-type beliefs that speak of water as a conductor of spiritual energy. I am reminded of that sort of idea from this passage and those like it.

I can picture now a “running off” of water from one’s body, and the cleansing effect it is supposed to have. I want so badly to wash away this anger… to wash away these tears, to wash away the sleep from my eyes. But I know, like a dumb animal or an obstinate child, I will return to them sooner than I would like. My brain, my body, my fragile animal vessel can only handle so much. My soul is tired… I want to sleep.

I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’ confession in The Problem of Pain:

“You would like to know how I behave when I am experiencing pain, not writing books about it. You need not guess for I will tell you; I am a great coward.”

I am a miserable, wretched wreck right now. I have had revelations in the past about turning to God, and about Christ coming to us in the middle of the storm rather than making the storm go away.

I will tell you right now, for all I have said and done, for all I have read, though I know in the future I will appreciate what I have gone through… I will tell you right now: I have had quite enough. I have no interest in weathering this storm.

God forgive my blasphemy, but I would rather it simply went away.

Day 85-87

I really am terrible at this game. It’s hard; I’m not at that third level of yirah yet where sin is abhorrent. I’m still giving in to some pretty base impulses over here and neglecting my duties.

I’d like to take a moment to apologize to God and ask His forgiveness. What I really want (and what I think a lot of people really want) is the be living in a state of bliss, as best we can achieve it on Earth, anyway. The problem is, it sure does take a lot of work to get there. “I’ll do it tomorrow” doesn’t quite cut it. Tomorrow never comes.

That all being said, I did go to church on Sunday and it was a very pleasant experience. A friend of mine who is not actively religious asked me if I wanted to go and I said yes. I’m glad I went; I learned a lot again and got some good ideas. He got… I know not what, but I could see that it was good.

I think I shall have to go once in a while.


Temptation and Duty

Before I get into Exodus, I want to mention here something that I may have already written. In one of C. S. Lewis nonfiction expository books, he talks about how the writing of the book seems to have become a temptation: a distraction from God rather than a duty to God.

I’m not sure about this blog yet, but I know it’s definitely not a temptation in and of itself. I have plenty of those to go around, and this isn’t one of them. This is still a chore, for better or for worse. I think by the time I’m done with the Bible I might have to revise that statement.

I need to get cracking; I’m almost up to Day 100. From there it’s only about 20 days before I’ll have reached my first third of a year. Which will mean that I’m approximately 1/9 to 1/10 of the way done. Hooray for progress!


Christians and Christianity

Okay, another few things. My partner and I are going to her brother’s wedding this weekend and she informed me that I’ll be meeting her sister, who we’ll call “Rose.” Now, Rose is a very convicted (read: judgmental) person who tries to come off as being concerned for everyone else’s souls, but seems to me to be tooting her own horn and trying to show how much better and how much more devout she is.

I finally have to dig up this quote that C. S. Lewis uses in The Problem of Pain:

“You can have no greater sign of confirmed pride than when you think you are humble enough.”

— William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life

If there’s one thing I’ve learned so far studying Christianity and the works of Christian authors, it’s that we are not good enough. We never will be. I can no longer claim to be a good man; my heart just doesn’t believe that any more.

The good news is that God loves us anyway. He wants us to come to him, to accept His love, and to love others as He loves us. We can do good in the world, to some degree. We can alleviate suffering and elevate the human spirit so that it reaches out to God; these are things we can do. But we cannot be perfect.

So when some person comes along and tries to say that one sin is more or less than another, it makes me sad and frustrated at the same time. God loves you; He knows you will not be perfect but I feel that He wants us as people to make peace with the past and move toward a brighter future. That is the idea of repentance. We make amends as best we can (ish) and move on.

“Go now, and sin no more.”

Unlikely, but it is a nice sentiment. Lewis in The Problem of Pain compares it to giving a puppy a bath and having the puppy run right back out into the mud. That is how we are. Even when we approach God, when we surrender to God, we can forget Him in the next moment.

I guess what I’m saying is, keep your self-righteousness. I don’t want to hear it. There is more to Christ than Christianity.


A Mathematical Explanation of Sin

I want to share a little argument that I explained to my partner this morning; this is how I think of sin and the weight thereof.

Here on Earth we tend to see certain sins or certain things as being “worse” or “better” than others: a white lie is seen as “less bad” than a murder, for example. Divorce or infidelity might be seen as “less bad” than homosexuality. You get the picture.

So we keep little tallies in our heads: “good” actions add up positively, and “bad” actions or sins subtract. Let’s just start with some hypothetical baseline of zero as an “average.”

Person A goes to church, donates to charities, and tells a few lies here and there, as we all do. As humans, we might ascribe a low positive value to this person, let’s say around +12.

Person B is a pastor at a church; he spreads the faith, advocates for Christ, and does good works. He might get a higher score, maybe somewhere around +43.

These numbers are of course completely arbitrary. Let’s look at negatives.

Person C is an alcoholic who beats his wife and lies habitually. We see this person and we ascribe them something like -19. Below zero, clearly tainted by their sin.

Person D gets an abortion and has problems with depression. She might get a very negative score, depending on perspective. We’ll give her -35.

Remember, I’m not condemning anyone here. I’m just setting up some arbitrary examples of our human judgment that we pass on one another.

But whatever the case may be, you can see we assign scores to people: Stalin is maybe the worst, followed by Hitler, followed by X… all the way back up on the positive side to the Pope? I don’t know.

And then we have God.

God is an uncountable Good; His “level” goes beyond mortal understanding. So we signify God with an infinity symbol: ∞.

God is all the Good in the universe; He is an infinity within which resides all the mathematical and cosmological infinities, and whatever other ones you can think of. If we’re talking about some abstract “amount of goodness,” then God is ∞.

Let’s do some math. How far from God are my hypothetical people, A, B, C, and D?

Person A: Infinity minus 12 equals…

Infinity. ∞ – 12 = ∞

(For you math nerds out there, I realize one doesn’t typically use ∞ in operations. But I’m making a point.)

Person B: ∞ – 43 = ∞

Person C: ∞ –  (-19) = ∞

Person D: ∞ – (-35) = ∞

If you take away any value, no matter how large, from an infinite quantity, the quantity is still infinite. In this case, we are speculating that God is an infinite distance “above” all humans, and as such, no matter how “near” or “far” we think we are from God, we will never in this life be as good as He is.

My point with all this? We are all separate from God. It is not our goodness that brings us closer to Him but our willingness to surrender to Him. Once we acknowledge that we are infinitely distant from Him, we can reach out and allow Him to bridge that gap by touching our hearts.

I am reminded here of the criminal condemned to die alongside Jesus Christ. He was not, by our understanding, a good man. But in his last moments, he realizes what he has done and the price to be paid. He turns to the Living Word, the Incarnation of God Made Flesh, and says:

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

— Luke 23:42, NIV

This one request, made with all our hearts, is all God truly asks of us. Because when it is made with all our hearts, we will dedicate our entire lives to be sure it is fulfilled.

Have a good day, all.

Peace be upon you.

Day 67-80

Beware! I live!

Yes, dear readers. After a long, lazy, unproductive hiatus, I have returned. My camping trip ended a week ago and I still haven’t managed to get off my ass and update my blog. So I’m going to zip through everything and just get up to today so that I can start fresh with renewed commitment tomorrow. (Update: Also, most of Exodus is [forgive me Lord] boring as s***. I’ll get cracking on that tomorrow)

Actually, before I go ahead and write all this, I’m going to go draw a Medicine Card. Be right back!

I have drawn Raccoon, in the Contrary position. Let us look him up, shall we?

“If Raccoon has appeared in the reverse position, you may be robbing yourself of much needed strength at this time. Do you need an attitude adjustment?” Etc., etc.

Appropriate as always. It says a bit more about “feeling drained,” as well as giving energy to others that you may essentially revitalize yourself. Perhaps this is what I need. Perhaps the “other” in this situation is God, and my duty thereto.

Speaking of duty, I was reading C. S. Lewis while I was on my camping trip, and he is a positively amazing writer for those who wish to have a better understanding of Christianity. Granted, it is just one man’s perspective, but considering he was a former atheist, he has a great deal of insight and offers quite a bit of explanation. I shall have to list some of his books.

Anyway he mentions at one point that our worship our our devotion to God can itself become an object of worship. He at one point started to see his work on, I believe, The Problem of Pain, as becoming a temptation rather than a duty. I’m definitely not there yet, as evidenced by the fact that I couldn’t force myself to write this blog for a full week. So far, this is still duty. Which in a sense implies my lack of virtue, since I struggle against the Word and duty to God rather than rejoice in it.

If you’ve read my About page or some of my previous posts you know that I spoke of revelations that allowed me to grok the idea of “oneness with God.” My idea is/was that we and everything in existence are one with God, although I am no longer sure in what sense. We are reflections of Him, all good is His Good, all love is His Love, and all energy is His Energy.

If He is, as C. S. Lewis puts it, the Uncreated, and everything else (us included) is the created, then in a sense all of our matter and energy came from God in the first place. I guess this is sort of a roundabout argument that is going nowhere. The point is, I had this idea of oneness with God, of a spiritual and to some extent physical unity with some form of the Divine.

On my camping trip, I understood our separateness from God. I saw why this was so, and that it was, in its own way, Good. God, as one vast infinite Being could neither do nor love except to create. God, as an infinitely creative and loving force, could do nothing less. If God did not create anything, what would He have to love? Thus, the universe, I suppose.

And we had to be given free will because otherwise there would be no point. C.S. Lewis makes the point that God could have removed the consequences of the First Sin (the whole Adam and Eve thing) but then He would have had to remove the consequences of the second, and the third, and so on, and there would be no free will. But like prodigal sons all of us, we are allowed to leave in hopes that some day, some long day after we have been bruised and hurt, after we have hurt others, after we have lied and been lied to… we are allowed to leave in the hopes that after all this we will return. Return to our real “home,” so to speak, in the presence of and in a unity with God.

So how did all this come to me? Well, Mr. Lewis was a big help. My partner gave me some books just in time for me to bring them, and they were the perfect reading material on my trip. But also, in the form of a song! The following lyrics are to the tune of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, or if you prefer, John Brown’s Body.

Ahem.


In the creaking of the pine trees, I heard an open door

I have seen His praises written there upon the forest floor

Though I have eaten from His table, He keeps me coming back for more

His Truth is marching on!

(Chorus, if you like)

In the beauty of the briars, Man was born upon the Earth

He strains and pains, complains and blames; he wonders what he’s worth

But Christ who reaches out to him is heedless of his birth

His Truth is marching on!

(Chorus)

I grin, my skin is paper thin, my mind is like a sieve

I lie here in His loving arms that I shall never leave

Beneath the broken tree leaves lie the tangled webs we weave

His Truth is marching on!

(Chorus)

Here and there and everywhere, whenever we my ask

He is present with his children, regardless of our task

By His Grace we go about our days, in His Glory we may bask

His truth is marching on!

(Chorus)

As eagles fly down mountainside, my journey’s just begun

May my gaze be fixed upon His Grace until my days are done

May He burn himself into my eyes like the righteous setting sun

His Truth is marching on!

(Chorus)

The gift that You have given me exists beyond compare

The Glory You are showing me is more than I could bear

So You gave to me this human form to find You everywhere

Your Truth is marching on!


This is my anthem to God. I cannot think of any other way to describe it. He has given me and shown me so much. Part of me wants to discontinue this project but I know I will regret doing so. I must continue to work on this, and do “my best.”

This, of course, is laughable. I realize what “little” creatures we are, now. Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain

“Christianity now has to preach the diagnosis—in itself very bad news—before it can win a hearing for the cure.”

I finally understand the diagnosis. The cure has already been discovered; the prescription is written. But so many are in denial of the diagnosis that they will not accept the cure.

But as far as being “little,” as I have said… C. S. Lewis has this to say, from The Great Divorce:

“You weren’t a decent man and you didn’t do your best. We none of us were and none of us did.”

We are infinitely far from perfect; I grok that now. We are perfect in the sense that we could not in this moment be anything other than what we are, but what we choose to do with this moment and each successive Now is up to us. But in terms of being perfected, that is something we cannot and will not be, at least not in this life. Can we get close? Sure, in the sense that successively higher numbers appear to approach an infinitely distant point. But I have seen the truth in the old adage: nobody’s perfect.

Only God is perfect; all we creatures can do is trust Him.

Until tomorrow. Peace be upon you.

Day 57

Exodus 7

Now we get into the beginning of the plagues.

Moses and Aaron, 80 and 83 years old, respectively, confront Pharaoh about all this Hebrew-enslavement nonsense. Pharaoh, of course, has no reason to listen to them or to believe any of this voodoo. He tells them, as God knew he would, to show him a miracle. So Moses gives his brother the signal, and Aaron’s rod turns into a serpent. Yeah, don’t read too much into that.

Pharaoh sees this serpent and doesn’t think much of it, so he calls his magicians and sorcerers to do the same trick, proving that this is not a divine miracle. Holy crap, if the Bible is to be taken literally, then sorcery is definitely a thing. Who knew? Well, I knew… but true magic is worked through God. I’ll get into that some other time.

So yeah, the sorcerers get their rods out, and Aaron’s serpent and their serpents fight… and… all this talk of “rods” and “serpents.” God, why do you have to make it weird? Somewhere, the Almighty is giggling. Anyway, Aaron’s serpent-rod eats those of the sorcerers. Pharaoh is not amused and declines to let the Hebrews leave.

Moses and Aaron talk with God, or rather God talks to them, and they head back to see Pharaoh the next day, presumably, when he goes out to get water. Why the Pharaoh is getting his own water is beyond me. But Moses and Aaron are waiting for him by the riverbank. “Let My people go!” sayeth Moses in the name of the Lord. Predictably, Pharaoh refuses. Aaron proceeds to turn all of Egypt into a death metal album cover, and the river and all the water in Egypt is turned to blood.

river of blood

Easiest Google search ever.¹

Apparently, just to prove that this strange occurrence was not divine either, the magicians gather up some of what must be the last remaining water in Egypt and turn it into blood with their sorcery. Pharaoh completely disregards Moses and Aaron and holds out for at least seven days, since B-Day +7 is where Exodus 7 leaves off.

There is one interesting thing I got out of Matthew Henry’s commentary: He says

“See what changes we may meet with in the things of this world; what is always vain, may soon become vexatious. See what mischievous work sin makes. If the things that have been our comforts prove our crosses, we must thank ourselves. It is sin that turns our waters into blood.”²

This reminds me of something that was shared with me by my partner. She shared an excerpt from C.S. Lewis’ “The Problem of Pain,” an awesome book that discusses why humans suffer and examines human suffering from a Christian standpoint. My partner just bought it for me, actually, and I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading the whole thing for myself.

But the passage I am reminded of which is appropriate as God is just laying waste to Egypt by proxy goes something like this:

“Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Lewis says that pain drives us to action, as opposed to our comforting “sins and stupidities.” This to me rings true. The problem to me is that people can get so accustomed to pain that they ignore it or accept it as inevitable when in reality it is not. Our pain reminds us that something needs to change. Physical, mental, and spiritual pain all serve a purpose. When our waters turn to blood, we have to soften our hearts and become humble. We have to admit that something is wrong. Only then, in the name of God, can we create change.

(Almost there…)


¹ http://www.metal-archives.com/albums/Chainsaw_Dissection/River_of_Blood_and_Viscera/139596

² Henry, Matthew. http://www.christnotes.org/commentary.php?com=mhc&b=2&c=7