The Federalist God is a psychopath

Yesterday, after the mass shooting at baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Lutheran pastor Hans Fiene wrote: When the Saints of First Baptist Church Were Murdered, God Was Answering Their Prayers.

I gave Fiene the benefit of the doubt. Authors often don’t choose their titles, and editors are always looking for clicks, so maybe he didn’t really mean what the title said.

I read it. He meant it. I’m not familiar enough with Lutheran theology to say whether he’s describing it accurately, but it sure isn’t Catholic theology, and he makes God sound like a psychopath.

First, let’s discuss what Fiene probably meant to say. He meant to say that God can bring good out of any evil; that good will always triumph over evil; that evildoers can kill the body, but not the soul; and that this world is fleeting, but salvation is eternal. He perhaps meant to say that suffering can be salvific, and that physical suffering is not the greatest evil that can be. All true, if perhaps not as comforting to the grieving as he seems to believe.

And he was responding to some awfully cruel and boneheaded comments from the Twitterverse. Snarky atheists are saying things like, “If prayers did anything, [the murdered victims] would still be alive.” They seem to believe that people of faith expect God to leap in like a Jedi and mow down evildoers on behalf of anyone who prays. They betray a complete failure to understand the much-abused divine gift of free will.

Unfortunately, so does Pastor Fiene. Let’s look at what he actually says, what it implies, and how wrong he is.

ERROR #1: The world is evil

When those saints of First Baptist Church were murdered yesterday, God wasn’t ignoring their prayers. He was answering them.

“Deliver us from evil.” Millions of Christians throughout the world pray these words every Sunday morning . . . we are asking God to deliver us out of this evil world and into his heavenly glory, where no violence, persecution, cruelty, or hatred will ever afflict us again.

This is gnosticism. In Genesis, it says, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” Although creation has been tarnished by original sin, the world is still good, and goodness and holiness can be achieved in this world, in this life. When we pray “deliver us from evil,” we are not asking God to hasten our deaths. We are asking Him to draw us closer to Him in this world so we can be with Him forever in the next.

If death were an answer to prayer, then murder, including abortion and euthanasia, would be the greatest act of charity.

 

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ERROR #2: Everyone who calls himself “Christian” goes straight to Heaven

So the enemies of the gospel can pour out their murderous rage upon Christians, but all they can truly accomplish is placing us into the arms of our savior.

We certainly pray and hope that this is what happened. But we cannot assume that every human who finds himself inside a church is automatically heaven bound. The victims may very well all be saints and martyrs; but the murderer may also very well have shot someone mired in mortal sin. When we sentimentally and carelessly declare all dead people “saints,” we deprive them of what all the dead deserve from us: prayers for their souls.

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ERROR #3, and the worst: Evil has a place in God’s will

Sometimes, God’s will is done by allowing temporal evil to be the means through which he delivers us from eternal evil.

and

We also pray in the Lord’s Prayer that God’s will be done. Sometimes, his will is done by allowing temporal evil to be the means through which he delivers us from eternal evil. Despite the best (or, more accurately, the worst) intentions of the wicked against his children, God hoists them on their own petard by using their wickedness to give those children his victory, even as the wicked often mock the prayers of their prey.

Pastor Fiene comes very close to saying that God wills evil. This idea is so outrageously false, even coming close to saying it is nearly blasphemy.

If God wills evil, He is not God. 

God can bring good out of evil, and He does. God can use suffering to save us, and He does (if we let Him). But listen to me now.

When a man mows down a pregnant woman and her children, this is not God’s will. Not even sorta kinda God’s will, not even God’s-will-by-way-of-man’s-screw-ups, not even a little ugly streak hidden inside the much nicer and larger kind of God’s will that we like better.

God does not and cannot will evil to happen, not even so that good may come of it. God allows evil to happen, because He has given us actual free will. He accepts that evil is in the world because of original sin. But He is the only source of good, and He is the source of nothing but good. Evil cannot come from Him, and He cannot will evil to come about. This is who God is.

When horrible things happen, there is always a contingent of Christians — sometimes even of Catholics — who insist we must breathe shallowly, stretch our eyes open very wide, stare fixedly into the shiny distance, and declare all things good-fine-happy-triumphant-wonderful-terrific and joy-joy-joy-now-now-now. There is always a contingent who will say these things even to the faces of people who have just suffered immense, incomprehensible grief.

It is blasphemy. Christ wept when Lazarus died. Christ begged for his suffering to pass in Gethsemane. Christ cried out in agony and desolation on the Cross. Why? Because suffering is real. Death is horrible. It is not from God. He accepted and allowed and used all the evil and suffering that came into the world through sin, but it was not His will that there should be evil and suffering. He wept.

This is why we hoist a crucifix front and center in our churches, and not a risen Christ: Because this good, great, beautiful, lovable world is soaked with real suffering and real grief. The Christian thing to do is to weep with the ones who mourn, just as Christ did. Not to tell them that a tricksy, winking God somehow wills it, somehow doesn’t mind our blood being spilled, and it’s really all right their babies are riddled with bullet holes, because God, that bastard, willed it to happen.

The crucifix means salvation. The crucifix also means that an immortal God knows what it means to suffer, bleed, and die. It means that God, the source of all that is good, has been pierced for our sins, and that salvation flows from his hands, feet, and side to wash away sin. Only goodness flows from Him. He pours out Himself. He does not, cannot, pour out death.

If you think there’s no difference between what I said and what Pastor Fiene said, then the God you worship does not know pain and is not truly human. He is not, in short, Jesus.

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Pain and pleasure, God and the fly

We always ask why there has to be pain in the world, but how often do we ask why there is pleasure? The sleeping fly will wake with a start and buzz off to another day of his meaningless life, driven by impulses, unaware that he is even alive, until one day he suddenly dies.

But I wake up . . .

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Real suffering isn’t photogenic

In The Lego Movie, the prophetic minifig Vitruvius spurs the hero on to greatness by feeding him a cliched line about being special. “I know it sounds like a cat poster,” Vitruvius admits, “But it’s true!”

Lately, I’m rediscovering the truth of a cat-posterish idea myself: change hurts. We all know this is true, yes? We’re all familiar with a whole panoply of phrases that express this idea linking progress and suffering: “No pain, no gain;” “You have to break some eggs to make an omelet;” “No guts, no glory;” “No cross, no crown,” and so on.

But the problem with living with a world in love with cat poster ideas is that it’s easy to click “like” or “up” or “favorite,” but somewhat harder to be the actual cat.

When we’re the cat — when we’re the one actually living through the suffering or pain, and enduring our circumstances beyond the quick freeze frame that captures our predicament — we often end up feeling dismayed, discouraged, even betrayed when we find ourselves genuinely suffering, and it genuinely hurts. We think we are prepared for the idea that change and progress only come through struggle and sweat, but maybe subconsciously we expect that struggle to look — well, photogenic.

There are many popular styles of romanticized pain: the gritty warrior with corded neck muscles squinting toward the coming battle; the elegantly wilting emo chick collapsing in a puddle of rosewater and mascara; the sepia-tinted mother with her chin held high against the world as her shabby chic children cling to her capable thighs; the robed faithful servant on his knees in anguish, just as muscular and splendid as the angel who comes to comfort him; the sleek long-distance runner powering through the rain, baring his perfect white teeth and lovin’ that burn.

These are all half truths about suffering and growth, pain and progress. Here’s the actual truth:  growth and change usually cause suffering, and suffering is ugly. Really ugly, not poster ugly.

If someone you love actually betrays you, your tears aren’t going to wend their way down your cheek like so many liquid crystals; you’re going to cry until your skin is blotchy, your nose runs, your teeth ache, and your sinuses fill up with snot. Being a soldier is, from what I hear, less often about guts and glory, and more about boredom, rashes, diarrhea, and fear. The true action of change is less like sprouting glorious wings and more like dissolving into horrible, stinky soup. Just ask any former caterpillar.

So, what’s the solution? Well, first of all, if what I’ve said above isn’t true for you, then carry on! If you truly gain inspiration and strength and encouragement from a poster or a meme, then that is great. If it works, it works. Sometimes an attractive image is what helps us to embrace necessary change instead of shrinking away from it.  Sometimes picturing ourselves as warriors instead of victims really does give us that extra oomph we need to push forward instead of giving up.

But if you find yourself suffering real pain, pain that just plain hurts instead of “hurts so good,” then don’t add to that pain because you feel like you’re somehow doing it wrong. You’re not a poster, you’re a person; and true suffering isn’t photogenic. So if you find yourself suffering and you feel stupid, or ugly, or confused, or exhausted, then realize that this is what true suffering looks like. Change hurts, and it’s not supposed to look nice. That’s what makes it painful! Don’t make yourself even more miserable than you have to be by expecting to be gorgeous in your misery. That’s a subtle and insidious temptation to despair.

Yes, some suffering is unavoidable. Yes, it’s usually necessary for growth and change. Yes, we are often at our best when we choose to be strong in the face of suffering. Yes, it’s often worthwhile, and there is often glory and joy on the other side.

But no, it’s not going to look good when you’re in the thick of it.

Does God get off on seeing us suffer?

A Facebook friend posted this status:

Rule of thumb: Use NFP as often as you must forgo Sunday Mass.

His point was this: Just as we have to have serious reasons to miss Sunday Mass without sinning, we should have serious reasons to postpone pregnancy.

First, the obligatory clarification: When he said “use NFP,” he meant “use NFP to avoid pregnancy.” In fact, infertile couples trying to get pregnant may also “use NFP,” and even abstinent women use may “use NFP” to diagnose and treat a whole host of health issues.

That being said, the statement he made is technically true, but disastrously misleading. Here’s what I mean:

We have an obligation to go to Mass on Sundays unless there’s a serious reason not to do so. The catechism says:

2181 The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor.119 Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.

We go because we are obligated to go; and we are obligated to go because it’s good for us to be there. Okay.

But some people believe that you must be at death’s door before you’d even consider foregoing Mass, and it never occurs to them that it’s selfish and wrong to drag your germy, spluttering, sneezing, infectious self into a building full of babies and old people. You shouldn’t skip Mass because you have a slight headache or you’re not in the mood; but you shouldn’t force yourself to go to Mass if your physical presence would be bad for other people. Some of your fellow parishioners are medically fragile, but, unlike you with your flu, they won’t be stronger next week. For their sake, out of respect for their desire to be at Mass, you need to consider staying home for now. If you make a decision in good faith to stay home, then you are not sinning by skipping Mass, even if you could physically survive the hour.

In the same way, choosing to forgo conception is not just about your personal willingness to suffer. You have to take other people’s legitimate needs into account. You may be willing to have another baby now, but is it just and fair to the rest of the people you’re responsible for? If one of your other kids in in crisis and needs attention badly, is there anything holy about deliberately becoming barely functional for several months? Can you ask your already-overburdened husband to unwillingly take up even more slack, and call that “being one flesh?” Or can you ask your already-exhausted wife to unwillingly do even more than she’s already doing, but somehow call it “generosity?”

Sometimes selfishness masquerades as piety. I’m not afraid to suffer! Well, that’s nice for you, but what about the suffering you’re causing to other people as you pat yourself on the back for your selfless heroism?  You don’t live alone in a hermit’s cell. Your choices affect other people, and you’re not allowed to ignore them because it strokes your spiritual pride. You’re not entitled to be generous with other people’s lives. You can ask them to be adaptable (and oftentimes, that’s all that another baby requires: adaptability); but their lives are not yours to sacrifice.

So that’s the first complication to what seems like a tidy little aphorism. It’s true that we need a serious or just reason to postpone pregnancy or to skip Mass, but those reasons are not all about us.

The second problem is that the “Try harder! Suffer more! Lemme see you sweat!” approach has to do with how we perceive God, and goes beyond NFP. The “agony = holiness” approach assumes that God is only truly pleased when we’re in horrible pain all the time, and the only way to tell if we’re following God is if we’re falling apart. If life is tolerable, we must be doing something wrong.

This is, if anything, worse than the first problem. The first problem shows that we don’t have sufficient love for other people. The second problem shows we don’t have sufficient love for God.

The second problem, the “agony = holiness” approach, portrays God as barking, sadistic drill sergeant of a deity, hellbent on whipping us into shape by smacking us down the minute we blink like the sniveling, puling weaklings we are.

God.
Is.
Not.
Like.
That.

He doesn’t despise us. He’s not out to get us. He’s not itching to see us squirm between the screws of the torture device He calls “morality.” I understand that the 21st century is not chock full of Catholics who are too strict with themselves, but neither is it chock full of Catholics who truly look to Christ as the source of love and solace in our sorrow.

God is not a sadist. God doesn’t relish watching us torment ourselves. He sometimes lets us fall into suffering — and make no mistake, pregnancy, or going to Mass, can be a form of suffering!  But when we do fall into dark times, He jumps down into that pit with us, to help us dig our way out, to help us become stronger, and to keep us company while we’re there. He doesn’t stand at the edge looking down, jeering and cheering as we writhe in pain below. He is the Lamb who was slain, not the drill sergeant who gets off on pain.

We must be willing to suffer, but we’re not required to seek suffering out. We’re not required to constantly ratchet up our own pain. 

We are required to seek love out. We are required to constantly ratchet up our desire to see God in everyone and everything.

And guess what? Sometimes God looks like joy. Sometimes God looks like peace. Sometimes God looks like prudence. Sometimes God even looks like contentment.

So be obedient, pray often, and seek God and His love in obedience, rather than focusing on the rules themselves. If God is giving you a way to take care of yourself and take care of others, whether that’s making a spiritual communion while drinking tea at home, or whether that’s looking prayerfully at your family and thanking God for the size it is right now, then you are pleasing the Father who loves you.

Reassess your decisions as necessary. But don’t assume that the thing that appeals to you must automatically disappoint God. Obedience doesn’t always bring agony. Sometimes it brings relief. Be content to be loved.

Only a rightly-ordered heart feels grief

Fra_Angelico_053

 

 

e know some couples who don’t fight very much, but they don’t seem to really enjoy each other, either. They more or less leave each other alone, with a sort of low-level, courteous disdain for each other’s enthusiasms and flaws alike. They never experience the agony of rupture because they’ve carefully cordoned themselves off from any passionate unity. They are indifferent, because it’s easier. And this indifference is a tragic waste of marriage.

Read the rest at the Register. 

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At the Register: True Suffering Isn’t Photogenic

Don’t add pain to pain by expecting it to “hurt so good.”

PIC emo tears and mascara