God With Us

God is with us, but why?

God is with us, but why?

As a Franciscan, Christmas is the celebration of the most terrific moment in human history: God became like us to be with us. Being born into poverty, surrounded by animals and filth, and visited by those who were far from being ritually clean (shepherds and foreigners), it is a time to recognize how the triune God works in and through the mundane, gritty, material aspects of our existence, appearing to us in the least expected of places. It is an act of humility, love and justice.

Which brings up a pretty significant question if you ask me: Why? Why did God choose to lower himself by taking on an imperfect form and nature? Why did God “empty himself, taking the form of a slave”? Why did God come to be with us?

My guess is that the majority of people would answer this question having been largely influenced by some form of atonement theology. “Jesus came to save from our sins/to offer a sacrifice in our place/to pay our debts.” For many, Christmas is significant only in its relationship to Easter as it is the foreshadowing for what is to come, for what really matters. This is evident in the way most answer this popular medieval question: “Had humanity not sinned, would Jesus still have come?” The answer that I most often get, and the one that is most popular in the history of the Church is “no”. Without even realizing it, Jesus is relegated to utilitarian role in which he is a use to us.

But as Franciscans have said for centuries, and as I would like to humbly remind, there is more to Jesus than just some divine “get-out-of-jail-free” card. Jesus is the second person of the triune God, existing before all creation, and the one through whom all was created. Jesus existed well before we did, and his coming to be a part of creation was not some afterthought of God to fix a mistake. Rather, it seems to me that he would have come, even if humanity had never sinned, for the sole reason of being in relationship with us. God taking on flesh is certainly a way to make a blood sacrifice, but it is also a way to become our brother, our teacher, our example of holiness, and our king. God planned from the beginning of time to be with us in this very intimate way, to know and love us, and for us to know and love him.

May you have a blessed Christmas as we celebrate together the mystery of the God with us and yet who is still yet to come.

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“I think of it like a…”

Christ is the light of the world.

I like to think of God’s presence as being similar to light. It is source by which we can see and know things; it is brighter in some places than others; and one would have to search high and low to find a place void of it completely. God is most everywhere, yes, but concentrated in certain places more than others.

 

This used to be a huge body of water.

 

Sometimes I have to remind myself not to follow the examples of Death Valley or the Dead Sea. The former gave so much of itself without replenishment that it ended up dry and withered, incapable of giving any longer; the latter took so much from others without sharing that it became so salty that it cannot support life.

Letting go can hurt more than holding on.

 

Purgatory is like a powerfully clenched fist refusing to let go. The only way out is accepting, forgiving, and releasing one’s will. There is no outside force violently ripping the hand open and causing pain. There’s only the inside pain caused by the slow realization that the thing it’s holding isn’t what it truly wants anymore, and finding a way to let it go.

Same thing, three forms

 

 

Trying to wrap my head around one God as three persons is difficult. The best I can do is remember that ice, water, and steam are all the same chemical but each take different forms.

 

We are the "Go Between" God and the world.

I think we’re each like an individual GOBO, an apparatus placed on the front of a light with a specific shape or color for use in theatre (literally a “Goes before optics” or “Go Between”). By itself, it projects nothing; it needs a light source. Each Gobo comes with its own individual angles, colors, and levels of transparency through which the light must pass, causing the same light source to be projected in different ways. For me, it’s better than the image of empty pipe that connects God to the world because it accepts that we can’t ever be objectively unbiased; how we accept God, interpret him, and transmit him are all biases we bring to the world.

Why Do We Suffer? Pt. 3

Where is God in our suffering? Right here with us.

After a long and busy week that allowed me almost no time to write, I finally present to you my concluding reflection on theodicy: the existence of evil as a source of suffering. As I outlined in the previous two posts, I believe that suffering can be caused by a number of sources, both good and evil, and that God can certainly play a role in the former category. But what about the latter? Is the Holocaust all a part of God’s plan for humanity? Do people get murdered, raped, or abused because God willed it? In situations like these, and in others that are much less dramatic, e.g. gaining or losing money on the stock market, I refuse to accept that God has even an ounce of responsibility in the suffering that ensues.

My conclusions are based on what I come to know as the definition of evil and sin: any act, whether fully realized by the actor or not, that breaks from the divine will of God for the sake of one’s own will. The original sin was the choice by the primordial humans to disobey God and eat the fruit of the tree. In doing this, they brought into the world something that God did not create: a “no.” Like a stone thrown into still water, this act of disobedience caused a ripple in human history than could not be contained. Each act of saying “no” to God offered the same possibility to the next person, leading humanity to live in a culture of sin and separation from God. This is the imperfect world in which we live, and this is the world in which suffering is caused by evil.

If we accept this foundational thought, the next logical question is, “Even if God didn’t bring evil into this world, why doesn’t he use his omnipotence to get rid of it?” Those in the midst of suffering often ask this in their despair. “Where was God when X happened?!”

The problem with this demand is that it in order for God to intervene, he would have to remove the very thing that separates us from the rest of creation: our free will. Without it, we become like animals, working within a system of instincts and stimulus/response, unable to truly love God and one another. Of course it feels really bad when a friend or family member hurts your feelings, but would you rather them not have the ability to do such things? In the same way, God respects our autonomy from him and allows us to act against his will, hoping that we will choice to love him as he loves us.

But just like his creation in the last post, this does not mean that God stands idly by, refusing to intervene. On a very basic level, he has intervened in human history by inspiring his priests, prophets, and kings to act out of justice and to reorient the people of God back to their Lord. He continues to do so today as he inspiring each one of us through our consciences, his living word found in the Bible, and the sacraments, each of which are channels of God’s grace in the world.

In a much more climactic way, God intervened in human history by becoming part of it in the person of Jesus. How could he have possibly intervened more than becoming human himself? Through the incarnation, God not only shepherded his lost sheep in a concrete, physical way, he actually took on suffering himself. This is an incredible revelation of which we must remind ourselves every time we ask in disgust, “Where is God when X happened?” The answer is that he suffers allow with us. In situations such as these, we might be better off asking, “Where is humanity when X happened, and why did we let this happen to our brothers and sisters?”

Unlike suffering that comes as a result of God’s will, I do not believe that there is any divine purpose or ultimate plan for suffering caused by evil. It is not true that anything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger: evil causes despair, hopelessness, and loss of faith, none of which God ever wants us to experience. I believe that God has, and will continue to intervene on behalf of humanity, but will always respect us as autonomous beings created in his image. This is the only way that we can truly love and be loved by God.

Why Do We Suffer? Pt. 2

Natural disasters are a huge source of suffering

As I concluded in the last post, I think it’s important to differentiate between those sufferings caused by God and others caused not by God. Even though suffering is suffering, manifesting itself in a similar way no matter the source, the reason I separate the two is because they require completely different responses. This post will deal specifically with sufferings caused by God.

The very idea of God causing suffering may be very hard for some to accept because it contradicts the image of a “loving God that just wants you to be happy.” Part of the problem in this field of study is that we often believe that suffering, no matter the source, shouldn’t exist. I don’t think that’s true. What sort of world would it be if we only ever experienced happiness, joy, sunshine, and success? What sort of superficial love would we have for God if we never experienced sadness, sorrow, or disappointment? Without the ability to experience all of these emotions we lack an ability to experience God. In some cases, God not only allows suffering to occur, but is also the one who sends it. How do we know the difference?

Like I said before, the approach has to be both/and, not either/or: I think God can manipulate natural forces and send them specifically to an individual in a miraculous way, e.g. the plagues in the Exodus, but I think that it’s more likely that creation exists as an ever-moving machine, always acting within the laws that govern it. For example, God could send a lightning bolt to target your house specifically, but its more likely that the answer is that your house was the tallest in the area, containing materials conducive for the flow of electricity between the earth to the sky. God created the laws of physics, and lightning abides by it, indiscriminate of whether or not humans dwell nearby.

In a way, this explanation is simply splitting hairs: either God is directly responsible by sending it specifically to a given people or place, or indirectly responsible because he allowed his creation, which never acts outside of its intended nature, to cause suffering. If we are to believe that God is all-powerful, why would he let things like this happen?

God created and loves all creation, not just humanity. If he were to intervene in every instance where we had the opportunity to suffer, there wouldn’t be anything left of creation but us! Cancer causes suffering, but it is a creation of God just like dogs, and so sometimes God allows life to work itself out the way it was created. (Other times, he works miracles.) Doing so allows us to more deeply understand God by understanding the nature of creation.

Other times, suffering can be the result of incorrect expectations. In the case of cancer, we experience suffering because we have the expectation of not receiving it; the same can be said about loss of property and death. In cases like these, it’s sometimes helpful to reorganize our priorities and better focus on God: a life in Christ is not free from harm, but it’s one of eternal joy upon rebirth into heaven. Sometimes, we just need to say, “that’s life,” understanding that suffering is just a part of life that we can endure. Can we really say, “I want to follow Christ, but I’m not willing to suffer?”

As crazy as it sounds, suffering may very well just be an experience that God wants us to have. It better prepares us to appreciate the good, it forces us to be dependent on him, it facilitates a society of caring and uplifting, and it opens us up to a more complete experience of God and the fullness of life. God does not send suffering upon us that we cannot endure because he is ever calling us back to him. Sometimes it’s like a parent that punishes a child: the child needs to learn the difference between right and wrong. Other times, God lets us venture out to explore, knowing that we’re going to experience hardship: a parent takes off the training wheels even though there’s a high probability of a crash in the future. Do either of these situations negate the goodness of a parent?

The problem is that a child can experience suffering caused by others, some of which a parent would never wish upon them. Pt. 3 will look at suffering caused by our free will that is completely separate and against the will of God: evil.

Continue to Part 3

Why Do We Suffer? Pt. 1

Where is God amidst suffering?

Poverty, war, ecological disasters, abuse, death, cancer, famine. Why do we experience suffering and evils? It’s a question that I’ve thought about for a few years now, and the lack of a concrete answer begs one of the oldest and most popular theological questions: if we are to believe that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and comprising all that is good, what does the existence of suffering and evil do to God?

There are two very common, and incomplete, answers to this question that attempt to justify God. The first is the claim that “everything happens for a reason.” If there is suffering, it is because God made it so. There is no such thing as coincidence: everything that happens, good or bad, is either a gift or burden from God based on his plan for each of us. This paradigm upholds God’s omnipotence and omniscience, but it also accepts that God permits, even sends, evil and suffering to the world. This is an unacceptable paradigm.

As a reaction to this cold-hearted God that sends despair, others will characterize God as a “watchmaker,” forming all creation as good but then stepping away and taking the role as compassionate observer as it is set into motion. This paradigm upholds God’s omniscience and goodness, but it asserts that God is distant from us in our suffering, and powerless to effect change in creation. This, also, is an unacceptable paradigm.

Though technically complete opposites, both of these explanations share the same flaw: neither is willing to accept that there are different forms of suffering that may have different origins. They both attempt to protect God by saying that he is EITHER in complete control OR completely innocent of any harm. The truth is, God is BOTH just AND merciful; BOTH respects our autonomy AND values our connectedness; and through the incarnation, BOTH separately divine AND similarly human. God is at once in our lives, articulating and inspiring his plan to us through word and deed, responsible for some of our suffering, and also autonomous, allowing for the world to work itself out, free from his every command or desire.

The true question in theodicy, thus, is not whether or not God causes suffering, but rather which acts of suffering are at God’s hand, and which are not (and what are other possible sources)? Part two of this series will deal with understanding how and why God causes suffering, how this suffering does not negate his goodness, and how we are to respond to it. Part three will recognize the free will God grants us, the inevitable consequences of such an act, and how God then responds to us. Taken together, I hope to create a more complete paradigm through which we may see and understand God, refusing to accept easy answers and half-truths. There is no doubt that my synthesis is incomplete and will need further adaptations, but I hope that it may add to each of your own perceptions of God.

Continue to Part 2