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Sin, chastisement, punishment and suffering


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#21 Owen Jones

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Posted 06 September 2008 - 11:18 PM

In response to Mr. Golding, I hope I did not say that all suffering is God visiting punishment on us for our sins. Heaven forbid! We know that is unBiblical, and untheological in the extreme. But there is a paradox at the heart of all suffering.

#22 Jonathan Golding

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Posted 07 September 2008 - 07:03 PM

Dear Mr. Jones,

I was delighted to read your response. Perhaps I was misunderstanding what you were saying. Could you expand on what you mean by paradox?

Peace to you,

Jonathan Golding

#23 Owen Jones

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Posted 07 September 2008 - 11:28 PM

I'm not very good at quoting Scripture to demonstrate a point, partly because I am a Biblical ignoramous -- I tend to rely on certain texts that are significant to me that I keep going back to -- and I tend not to study it as a whole like a should -- I'm spiritually lazy -- but also because I think it is more important to draw from the Bible in its totality the spiritual point of it.

With that said, my sense of the entirety of the New Testament is that everything is there in the Old Testament necessary for our salvation, were it not for our hard heartedness. Had we the eyes to see and the ears to hear, then we would know exactly what we need to know. I think of Deut. 30 as a passage that is complete in every sense as to what we need to know and do. Another significantly revealing passage is 1 kings 19.

So God sent his Son in the flesh as a recapitulation of all that had come before and been revealed before, so there would be no excuse whatsoever that we could fall back on that somehow we can't see or hear exactly what God's will is for us, and to be able to fuse our minds and our wills with His.

As for paradox, reality is paradoxical. God created a world that He knew he would have to save. There is no explanation or analysis that can dissect that. It is something that we accept and know by faith.

Every attempt to overcome the paradoxical nature of reality is a form of idolatry that is doomed to failure. Among them, extreme literalism or fundamentalism, forms of superstition that try to bribe God into expiating our guilt, rationalizations designed to get God off the hook by saying that he really doesn't care about us or can't really do anything to help us, substitutes, like the ideological mass movements that claim that they can save us, etc.

#24 Jonathan Golding

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Posted 08 September 2008 - 07:59 AM

Dear Mr. Jones,

I certainly would agree that life, and particularly our life in Christ, is indeed paradoxical in the sense that you are using the word, though I would prefer the term mysterious. We live in the Shadowlands, as C. S. Lewis once put it, where much is unclear and we have only candle of our faith to guide us on our journey home. We must go on with the knowledge that certain things lie forever beyond our knowledge.


And perhaps I was guilty of reading too much into what you said regarding the fact that God knows ahead of time all that we will suffer. It seemed to me in context that you were arguing for St. Augustine's view of the rape of the nuns at Rome, and I see that this was in error. Perhaps we are merely examining opposites sides of the same theological coin.

For when we speak of the sufferings of this life that are the result of the fall in quite a general way, and the fact that God chastises us I think an implication can often creep in that is, as you say, contrary to scripture. Many of the things we undergo in the world are the result of human evil in general.

When someone is genuinely victimized by another person, say in the case of a rape, or a some other brutal assault, the most common question asked by the survivor is "Why did God allow that to happen to me?" I think the question is really unanswerable. Or perhaps it can only be answered by saying that God has allowed men free will, and that we live in a fallen world. Which is no answer at all.

It seems to me that suffering in itself is really quite meaningless. I am speaking here in particular of the kind of suffering I mentioned above, that perpetrated by our fellow human beings, but I suppose the same might apply in a broader range of circumstances. I have an acquaintance who fell asleep at the wheel of his car driving home from a family vacation. The accident killed his wife who was pregnant with their third child and their thirteen year old son. I have since lost contact with this man, but I can only imagine that the guilt and sorrow of that event will probably haunt him for the rest of his life. Such horrific things happen, and the resulting trauma could only be excacerbated by language about the chastisement of God.

People in such circumstances seek for meaning, they seek to construct a narrative that will explain what has happened. But it seems to me that pain is meaninglessness. It evades our reason, cuts through all our assumptions, and defies our hope. At such moments, as the Psalmist says, darkness is our closest friend, and all we can do is cry out brokenly, "I hurt!"

But as you said, Our Lord has "given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that
hath called us to glory and virtue."(2 Pet. 1:3) And because he is good and loving, he is able, by means of a mystery, to fashion that which is meaningless of itself, into meaning. He is able to bring good out of the evil that we endure, and use the sorrows of this life to educate the soul that seeks hard after him. And perhaps also in a mystery when the human will is set to do the will of God and participates in the energies of God the suffering one may be said in some sense to fill up the sufferings of Christ.

It may be that the ascetic is correct who asserts that what he suffers at the hands of other men is the chastisement visited on him for his hardness of heart. Such men by their holy lives and prayers see much farther than I. I can only say that this does not seem the proper "hook" (to use your term) for me, and I think it would confuse most people.

To me there is a great difference in saying that God can use such painful events and saying that God is chastizing us by means of them.

I said earlier that to answer someone in anguish with an argument regarding free will was no answer at all. What I meant was that in the moment of distress a person needs comfort rather than explanations which may wind up sounding like platitudes. We are to weep with those who weep as the scriptures says.

But I think in another sense this is the only real answer. And it the answer which gives me the most hope. I feel we often fail to consider the truly radical implications of free will. God so desires beings that will freely choose the good, freely choose to be in a relationship to him, that he has gambled the entire universe on this.

God does not cause evil, but he permits it, and takes responsibility for permitting it. I believe many of the statements in the Old Testament that Mr. Kaliss was referring to, which seem to imply that God is the author of evil, are merely expressing that he takes to himself accountability for constructing a world in which beings are truly free to make moral choices. Moreover in Christ's passion he has, in a mystery, taken sin upon himself.

We live in a time which is ever more dominated by a kind of scientific determinism which seeks to explain the human person in terms of material causes. We are told we act a certain way because of genetics, or heritage or chemical changes within the brain. While there may be a certain limited truth in such explanations it seems to me that the ability to choose good over evil is being written out of the equation. Human beings are much more than the sum of their pasts, or a collection of biochemical circuits. We are made in the image of the one true Holy and infinite God. And he has given us the unique and astonishing ability to make choices. And since we are truly free we may also choose the good.

There is a scene in a popular movie that I like very much. The hero has been beaten to the ground and his foe stands over him and says, "Why do you persist?" Rising the hero replies quietly, "Because I choose to." To me this simple exchange typifies the Christian life. Ground down by sorrows, afflicted by disease, perplexed by innumerable obstacles, we may still rise and with God's grace reply to our great foe that we choose to persist in our foolish attempts to act toward the good. And if we do persist someday we may stand with that vast company pictured in the vision of St. John and sing the praises of the one who brought us into being and allowed us to choose him freely.

So hidden within the question of why we suffer, I have found a treasure of great value. Perhaps this is not an explanation for everyone, but I felt obliged to share it since some may hear and find hope.

In Christ,
Jonathan



#25 Owen Jones

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Posted 08 September 2008 - 12:29 PM

The whole point of Christianity is that suffering is not meaningless and pointless. We don't have the right to pick and choose either, to say that this suffering is meaningless and pointless, but that suffering isn't. It sounds much more like Buddhist doctrine to say it is meaningless and pointless. There are too many examples from our Orthodox saints and others that refute this idea. One example, which is non-Orthodox, is to be found in The Diaries of Etty Hillesum. Another example, which is Orthodox, is the description found in Gulag Archipeligo, of Solzhenitsyn's conversion experience. Another non-Orthodox example is The Power of the Powerless, by Christopher de Vinck. The issue is not how we analyze the meaning of suffering, but how we respond to it.

#26 Owen Jones

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Posted 08 September 2008 - 12:38 PM

There are only two explanations for why we experience the world as messed up. Either God messed up (the implication being that had we gotten there first we would have done a much better job) or that we have messed up. This is the great breakthrough in theological understanding provided by Genesis -- that God did not mess up. Prior to that, gods were portrayed as whimsical and unreliable, subject to manipulation by human sacrifice. Later, much later, in the Greek world, you have a much greater noetic differentiation of the Creator in the Timeaus with essentially the same theme: there is one God who has created a harmonious cosmos and that discord is the result of a disharmony and disorder -- a sickness -- in our souls which is our responsibility. Which is why the Timeaus is the most often quoted book by the Fathers, other than Scripture of course.

Of course, there is the bogus new age solution: everything is just as it ought to be at this moment.

#27 M.C. Steenberg

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Posted 08 September 2008 - 12:42 PM

Dear friends,

There are two quite distinct discussions that have emerged out of this initial thread: one on suffering, etc., arising out of the narrative of sin; and another on revelation old and new. As they are distinct topics, and to allow them to progress more easily, I'll be moving posts around later today, to place them into their own threads.


NOTE: The above has now been done. Members will find the two threads as follows:
If you're having trouble finding a post that was formerly in the 'narration of the fall' thread, you should find it in one of the above.

INXC, Dcn Matthew

Edited by M.C. Steenberg, 08 September 2008 - 12:58 PM.
Added note on completion of move


#28 Owen Jones

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Posted 08 September 2008 - 12:45 PM

Just as a sidebar, it is not so bad a thing to be a fool for Christ. I could be wrong in many ways, and often am. Also, I could appear to be wrong to my peers and to the world around me. I could be the subject of ridicule. So what? I can wear my bohemianism proudly on my sleeve. Or I can be humble.

There is a story about St. John Maximovitch who, when eating a meal of soup with some of his flock, was subjected to the rantings of a woman who was indulging in gossip. His response was not to shut her up but to pour the soup down his beard back into his bowl and continue doing same. Everyone there got the point but the woman.

#29 Jonathan Golding

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Posted 09 September 2008 - 05:21 AM

Dear Mr. Jones,

I think you are misreading me. There is nothing particularly “Buddhist” in what I am saying. Actually I am following and somewhat extending the thought of St. Gregory of Nyssa. St. Gregory's writing's are often fairly philosophical in character, and in a certain place he writes that evil is non-existence.

Since God is the ultimate ground of all being, he reasons, and since God is good, then only the good can be said to truly exist. While evil is permitted at this time in the world, its existence is transitory and contingent. It is a phantasm without substance. As St. John says in his epistle "the world is passing away and the lusts of it, but one who does the will of God abides forever." Many of the fathers and doctors of the church have spoken in this way, and I think this is probably the basis of St. Maximos' statement regarding non-being to which you referred earlier. Viewed in this way man is set in the world between an abyss of nothingness on the one hand, and eternal reality on the other. By his own free choice, in Christ, he may either move away from or toward being.

I would further argue such a position implies that evil actions are, in and of themselves, senseless. For how can something be said to have significance which is unreal. Only that which tends toward the good, tends toward actuality, can be said to have meaning. And therefore our experience of the evil actions of others which we call suffering must in its essence be void of any real content. Perhaps it is this sense of emptiness that underlies much of human experience that caused the preacher to cry out so often “Vanity! Vanity!” in the book of Ecclesiastes.

To speak as I have been doing in no way implies that saints and even average Christians have not gained immeasurable and everlasting benefits when they have suffered patiently at the hands of evil men. It is only to say that the benefit is not in the suffering itself but rather in God the Father of Lights. The significance that the suffering takes on in the mind of the believer comes from his relationship to his creator rather than some inherent quality in the experience of pain.

I see Christianity as simply a description of the way things actually are, therefore I am not sure that it has one single "point" in the sense you are attributing to it. My relationship with my creator and fellow men seem much more complex and multivalenced than that. But if I had to focus on one particular thing that is the "point" of Christianity I would affirm it to be the Worship of God. Worship which is coerced is not true worship, and goodness which is compelled is not true goodness. Only that which is offered freely is that which delights the heart of our creator.

When I spoke of choice in my previous post I was not asserting that we choose which kind of suffering is to have meaning. I was actually exploring what seem to me the radical implications of our ability to choose good over evil.

Perhaps a fuller account of my thinking may clarify what I am saying. In pondering the reasons for the things which distress us in this life, I have to conclude that a good number of them are caused by the evil actions of others, as in the example of the rape of the virgins in Rome. St. Augustine's answer as to why such things happen was that the victims must have brought these sorrows upon themselves. I found this explanation to be dangerously close to ascribing evil to God, and reminiscent of Job's comforters. I believe it more helpful, and indeed more wholesome, to consider the matter from the perspective of free will. God does not coerce men to evil actions in order to fulfill his plan and chastise his saints. But the opposite is also true. He does not compel us to the good. He has allowed us liberty to choose the good for ourselves. And if we may freely choose evil, we may also freely choose the good.

I think it all too easy for us as human beings to feel that our actions are the result of forces beyond our control. But in reality we make the choice as to what we do and who we are. I think the problem with St. Augustine's view is that it leads to a kind of determinism in which God is controlling our actions. But in reality we have the gift, the dignity, and the responsibilty to choose the good.

If my previous post was unclear I apologize. Perhaps my enthusiasm led me to say things in a manner which was cryptic or easily misinterpreted. I hope this clarifies my position somewhat.

Peace,

Jonathan



#30 Jonathan Golding

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Posted 09 September 2008 - 06:58 AM

Postscript. I wasn't quite sure what to make of your comments regarding being a fool for Christ in the context of our discussion, but I found the anecdote delightful. Keep postin'. You say good stuff.

#31 Owen Jones

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Posted 09 September 2008 - 05:48 PM

Thanks for the further explication by Jonathan. It's very helpful. And I agree that Christianity is not just one thing. On the other hand, how Christians respond to suffering -- our own and others, is strikingly unique and it is this that really sets us apart. And yes, it is inextricably linked to glorification.

I think what St. Gregory means is that we cannot speak of existence as a fact. Nothing just exists. But this is particularly, especially true for evil. Something exists only in relation to something, or in a contingent sense. Something only exists only insofar as it points to something beyond it. And what could evil possibly point toward beyond itself? Especially now that Christ has demonstrated the victory of -- yes, suffering and powerlessness over evil. He chose not to resist evil and he counsels that we should also follow this course.

But I think we should always be careful then not to absolutize this into suggesting that somehow pain and suffering are illusory. That was what I was concerned about. Christ suffered, physically and psychically. On our behalf, for us, as a demonstration of how we are to suffer -- not because we are being punished for a particular sin, or those of others, but to demonstrate God's glory, His victory. And so a Christianity that promises the end of suffering is a false god. Christ promised just the opposite.

So suffering is quite real, and so is the evil behind it, but it has no enduring substance, if you will, whereas Christ was, is and ever shall be.

Regarding being foolish, a recently departed member seemed offended that he was being treated like a fool, as if we did not appreciate his intellectual powers. How dare we?

#32 M.C. Steenberg

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Posted 11 September 2008 - 06:57 AM

Dear Jonathan, Owen and others,

While I've not really contributed anything save a few thoughts at the beginning, I just wanted to say that I've very much enjoyed reading this thread as it's been unfolding. I very much appreciate the thoughts both of you are sharing - there's a great deal of food-for-thought for many.

INXC, Dcn Matthew

#33 Alice

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Posted 11 September 2008 - 08:31 AM

Regarding being foolish, a recently departed member seemed offended that he was being treated like a fool, as if we did not appreciate his intellectual powers. How dare we?


Forgive me for saying this, but I don't think that this is very charitable. As Christians we are called to respect each other, are we not? Again forgive me, but such attitudes disturb me, and as Orthodox, the way we treat others and the openness of our hearts will determine the essence of our faith more than intellectual discourse.

Alice, a sinner

#34 Owen Jones

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Posted 11 September 2008 - 12:08 PM

Perhaps I went too far with the sarcasm. But I am more interested in the principle at stake than the personality. Being thought of as a fool is not necessarily a bad thing...If I am more interested in my reputation, then I am in trouble.

#35 Jonathan Golding

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Posted 11 September 2008 - 03:47 PM

Dear Mr. Steenberg et al,

Thank you for your kind words and for providing a place where Orthodox Christians can meet and discuss such issues. I am enjoying the conversation and have some other thoughts on this topic, but am having a rather busy week. I will hopefully have some time over the weekend to respond to you, Mr. Jones.

Blessings,

Jonathan

#36 M.C. Steenberg

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Posted 12 September 2008 - 09:44 PM

Dear Jonathan, Owen, and others,

I've spent a little time reading back through this thread this evening, and have again enjoyed the content. I thought I might contribute a few thoughts along these lines:

One of the issues that enters into this topic is the relationship of suffering to evil, which is a recurring question all throughout history. Is suffering evil? If so, it poses an essentially impossible problem to theology. Either God creates or directly permits suffering and so wants evil; or God is powerless to thwart evil, since suffering clearly exists. This dilemma, in a specifically Christian context, goes back at least as far as the early second century - exemplified in the ornate cosmologies of the 'Gnostics' (such as Valentinus), as well as the radical theological dualists (such as Marcion).

An issue that I see recurring in this thread (sometimes explicit, at other times seeming to be a subtext to other comments), is the relationship of the suffering and response to suffering that comes from our own sins, to that which is not 'visited upon us because of our specific sins' (if I may quote you, Jonathan). Regularly, this latter kind is seen as more problematic: a 'punishment' wrought not in immediate response to a misuse of free will - which, while it may at times seem harsh, is at least understandable. And so it has a tendency to 'throw a spanner into the works' of a view of freedom and suffering, as well as God's responses to both.

This was hinted at recently in the course of discussion of a thread in the Casual Discussions area (see 'Consoling Platitudes'). There, I wrote:

"Perhaps what troubles us most is the suffering of innocents - and rightly so. My own sin is well known to me, even if I may every day, every minute, delude myself into thinking it less than it truly is. Still, I know at least that I sin, despite my lies and self-deception as to extent. I can see that suffering has an origin in my own actions. But what of those whose suffering comes not from themselves, but from elsewhere. The example that often most touches us [...] is of a child, innocent, suffering even unto death. Clearly, it is not the transgression of this child that has brought on this pain; it is, rather, the sin of the world, of each person, of me. Our sins, in the words of the fathers, 'spread out' beyond ourselves: let this be a lesson for our repentance.

"If we pit suffering against God, divide and divorce them in our mind, such a tragedy becomes hopeless. We can try to explain it, but our explanations become feeble excuses: did God back away? Was he absent? Was the child being punished on behalf of someone else?

"This death is part of the fallen life of the world. The specific 'whys' may not be known, but the person for whom least sadness should be shown is the child herself. Death is not the end of life: it is its renewal in resurrection - and God will care for this innocent, just as he cared for the child-innocents in Egypt in the days of Moses, and in Palestine in the days of Herod. The struggle with suffering comes, instead, to those who remain in this life, who are confronted with the age-old mystery of suffering itself. It is we who must look at this event, this experience, feel anguish in our hearts at the sight of sin, rearing its head as death, and attempt to see it in the true nature of the Gospel. The suffering is real, it is painful; but the proclamation of the Gospel is that 'a light shone in the darkness - and the darkness could not overcome it'. Indeed, the light transforms it. We cannot escape from suffering; but the mystery of the life in Christ is that we ought not even wish to. Christ has reclaimed suffering for good. The road to paradise is the road that leads through Golgotha."

There is a complex mystery to suffering. Owen has called it a paradox: 'There is no explanation or analysis that can dissect that. It is something that we accept and know by faith.' This mystery enters into its most ineffable dimensions in its cosmic scope. Owen also alluded to this: 'Our theology says that nature has also been corrupted as a result of man's disobedience.' It is the dimension of suffering beyond the self, beyond me and my acts, that is the most bound up in mystery. Our desire is often to find a science of suffering: some system that explains the ins-and-outs of freedom, will, deception, disobedience and response that can give an almost mathematical apparatus to suffering. But reality is a mystery of living engagement with God, including the ruptures of that engagement. The Christian faith does not give us, nor attempt to give us, a science for explaining the structures of suffering and pain. What it does give are the essential contours that prevent false explanations of it: that it is related to freedom, even if freedom is at times cosmic, beyond the self; that it is not the creation of God, who longs only for good; that it has a beginning, an origin, a cause, and thus that it has an end, etc. And above all else, the life in Christ gives us that which gives these observations meaning: the experience of suffering's transformation precisely there: in Christ, in the conqueror of death.

The challenge of the life in Christ is not to 'overcome' this mystery, to do away with it, but to live within it in the experience of Christ. Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia is fond (as have I become, largely through his influence) of pointing out the problem with the common phrase, 'the problem of suffering': a 'problem' implies a 'solution'. It is something with an 'answer' that eliminates it. But suffering is a dimension of a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved. This Owen summed up in a perceptive comment:

Every attempt to overcome the paradoxical nature of reality is a form of idolatry that is doomed to failure. Among them, extreme literalism or fundamentalism, forms of superstition that try to bribe God into expiating our guilt, rationalizations designed to get God off the hook by saying that he really doesn't care about us or can't really do anything to help us, substitutes, like the ideological mass movements that claim that they can save us, etc.


Getting back to the question earlier in the thread, of a distinction between 'punishment' and 'chastisement', I do think this needs to be connected to the matter of our vision of suffering. One of the challenges that often faces people is the question I see summed up in one of your comments, Jonathan:

To me there is a great difference in saying that God can use such painful events and saying that God is chastizing us by means of them.


There is something absolutely right in this. Surely, it would be utterly incorrect to state, for example, that someone is murdered or raped so that God 'could teach them a lesson'. This is not so much a flawed distinction between 'punishment' and 'chastisement' as it is a very basic failure to understand the nature of true freedom -- the age-old attempt to 'blame everything on God'.

We know with certainty that evil comes from human transgression. Disobedience yields death. The full dimensions of this are a mystery, yes; but the basic concept is simple and straightforward. What is important is that it clarifies rather than confuses the nature of all God's activities towards man as chastising rather than punitive. This is not to say that God causes all acts of suffering - far, far from it (God forbid!). Rather, that in the face of all manner of suffering, rebellion, death, disobedience and pain, God acts always in a life-creating manner. His aim is always chastisement: the correction unto life of the wayward sinner.

When the full Paschal dimension of the life in Christ is experienced, it adds the full nuance to this vision. The passion and resurrection of the Lord are the essential testimony that suffering is not trapped in the realm of evil. It may arise out of our sin, but it is not forced to be a thing of death. Christ has transformed suffering into life. So the chastisement God offers can - and does - take full account of what suffering can bring, as well as what its absence may bring. Nothing is outside God's arsenal of 'tools' for redemption.

INXC, Dcn Matthew

#37 Jonathan Golding

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Posted 17 September 2008 - 02:19 AM

Dear Fr. Deacon Steenberg,

I am in wholehearted agreement with you when you say that we cannot approach these matters as though they were a science or something that may be proven or disproven by means of human arguments. The nature of suffering and the character of our interactions with the One True God is not the same as a proposition in Euclidean Geometry, and it seems to me that the Orthodox Church wisely sets limits on what may be acheived by human reason. Nevertheless, I find great joy in continuing to discuss these things with you, not only from the pleasure of hearing what you have to say, but also because the scriptures enjoin us to think on those things which are noble. And what could be more noble a subject for our thoughts than the dealings of our wonderful gracious Lord with the human heart in the midst of all its tribulations?

Let me say as well how much I appreciated the content of what you have said. It seems a very balanced view. And I have been slow to respond in part because I have been very busy, but also because you have given me a great deal to think about. I am not sure that I am disagreeing with you at this point, so much as I am laying the emphasis in a slightly different place.

I hope it is clear by now that my purpose in this conversation has been guard against thinking of God as the author of evil. For if we call all the hardships that we endure the Chastisement of the Lord I think an error can very naturally arise in our thinking about God. Namely that he causes all the things which bring us misery.

I have also been concerned that we not think of our salvation in overly juridical terms or as some form of operant conditioning. I take it that this is also the motivation behind your distinction between chastisement and punishment. And while it may be in the economy of God that he permits some things and not others for our benefit it seems to me not entirely healthy for us to spend a great deal of time thinking about this. It is I think enough for us in the moment of our trial to believe that God is good.

There are many passages in scripture which if read in a cursory or over literal way might give the impression that God grows angry or indignant over our sins. The Fathers of the Church in defending the impassability of God have wisely explained these as referring to our experience of the Goodness of our Lord at such times. In other words if a man has committed an evil act, the Love of God at that moment seems to him a hateful thing, he experiences it as wrath. But just as the sun does not cease to shine when we close our eyes, so God does not change toward us when we sin, but continues in steadfast lovingkindness.

When I consider the words of scripture where it says "My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him," I wonder whether a similar interpretation might not apply. After all when a Father chastises his son he acts in a certain way toward him. Yet it seems from what we have been saying that the chastisement of God has more to do with the fact that he permits evil. And although I do not think it would be correct to think of this as a kind of passivity on the part of our creator I am equally convinced that we must not think of God as acting through the agency of evil men.

The question for me then becomes what does it mean not to despise the chastening of the Lord. I think that the answer lies in our attitude toward God when we suffer.

Sometime ago I decided to read through St. Cyprian's Treatise On the Advantage of Patience. As it is a short work I thought I would take my time with it and attempt to reflect on his words. But I found myself confused after a only a little while. I had presumed that patience had to do with waiting, but I found the saint had very little to say on this subject. Rather the treatise deals with various men of renown in holy history who suffered hardship. I have little Latin and less Greek, as the poet once said, but after much head scratching and some trips to various scholarly resources I came to the conclusion that what is meant by this virtue is something wholly other than I had at first supposed. For St. Cyprian and doubtless for the writers of the New Testament "patience" meant the ability to suffer without undue agitation, and perhaps even with peace and tranquility. How may we do this? I think that in the midst of horrors we must affirm that God is good.

What is it that commends Job to us? Certainly he laments his distress loudly and vehemently. Yet in all this he does not charge God with wrong. To me this is the essence of what it means not to despise the chastening of the Lord. Job sees through the changeability of his circumstances to the unchanging Goodness of God, and affirms this even in the midst of his great anguish.

And I think that when we suffer and are found to be stronger and more devout afterwards it is not due some inherent virtue in the experience of pain. For all men, the virtuous and the vicious alike, undergo hardship and tribulation in this life, and few are made better by it. In fact I think many are made more bitter, grasping, and angry when they live through privation. But when the good things of this life are removed from us we are in a unique position. We are able to see how transient such things are and forced to look beyond the mutability of time and circumstance. We may at such times see that there is a person behind all things who is eternal, changeless, and good beyond all that we count goodness, a person who has made all things yet considers our sorrows and has compassion for us in them.

If we endure deep distress with this attitude in our hearts we find we have been immeasurably improved. But it is not, I think, the suffering that has improved us. It is rather our experience of God.

Peace,

Jonathan






#38 Paul C.

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Posted 25 September 2008 - 12:10 AM

Dear Fr. Deacon Steenberg,

I am in wholehearted agreement with you when you say that we cannot approach these matters as though they were a science or something that may be proven or disproven by means of human arguments. The nature of suffering and the character of our interactions with the One True God is not the same as a proposition in Euclidean Geometry, and it seems to me that the Orthodox Church wisely sets limits on what may be acheived by human reason. Nevertheless, I find great joy in continuing to discuss these things with you, not only from the pleasure of hearing what you have to say, but also because the scriptures enjoin us to think on those things which are noble. And what could be more noble a subject for our thoughts than the dealings of our wonderful gracious Lord with the human heart in the midst of all its tribulations?

Let me say as well how much I appreciated the content of what you have said. It seems a very balanced view. And I have been slow to respond in part because I have been very busy, but also because you have given me a great deal to think about. I am not sure that I am disagreeing with you at this point, so much as I am laying the emphasis in a slightly different place.

I hope it is clear by now that my purpose in this conversation has been guard against thinking of God as the author of evil. For if we call all the hardships that we endure the Chastisement of the Lord I think an error can very naturally arise in our thinking about God. Namely that he causes all the things which bring us misery.

I have also been concerned that we not think of our salvation in overly juridical terms or as some form of operant conditioning. I take it that this is also the motivation behind your distinction between chastisement and punishment. And while it may be in the economy of God that he permits some things and not others for our benefit it seems to me not entirely healthy for us to spend a great deal of time thinking about this. It is I think enough for us in the moment of our trial to believe that God is good.

There are many passages in scripture which if read in a cursory or over literal way might give the impression that God grows angry or indignant over our sins. The Fathers of the Church in defending the impassability of God have wisely explained these as referring to our experience of the Goodness of our Lord at such times. In other words if a man has committed an evil act, the Love of God at that moment seems to him a hateful thing, he experiences it as wrath. But just as the sun does not cease to shine when we close our eyes, so God does not change toward us when we sin, but continues in steadfast lovingkindness.

When I consider the words of scripture where it says "My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him," I wonder whether a similar interpretation might not apply. After all when a Father chastises his son he acts in a certain way toward him. Yet it seems from what we have been saying that the chastisement of God has more to do with the fact that he permits evil. And although I do not think it would be correct to think of this as a kind of passivity on the part of our creator I am equally convinced that we must not think of God as acting through the agency of evil men.

The question for me then becomes what does it mean not to despise the chastening of the Lord. I think that the answer lies in our attitude toward God when we suffer.

Sometime ago I decided to read through St. Cyprian's Treatise On the Advantage of Patience. As it is a short work I thought I would take my time with it and attempt to reflect on his words. But I found myself confused after a only a little while. I had presumed that patience had to do with waiting, but I found the saint had very little to say on this subject. Rather the treatise deals with various men of renown in holy history who suffered hardship. I have little Latin and less Greek, as the poet once said, but after much head scratching and some trips to various scholarly resources I came to the conclusion that what is meant by this virtue is something wholly other than I had at first supposed. For St. Cyprian and doubtless for the writers of the New Testament "patience" meant the ability to suffer without undue agitation, and perhaps even with peace and tranquility. How may we do this? I think that in the midst of horrors we must affirm that God is good.

What is it that commends Job to us? Certainly he laments his distress loudly and vehemently. Yet in all this he does not charge God with wrong. To me this is the essence of what it means not to despise the chastening of the Lord. Job sees through the changeability of his circumstances to the unchanging Goodness of God, and affirms this even in the midst of his great anguish.

And I think that when we suffer and are found to be stronger and more devout afterwards it is not due some inherent virtue in the experience of pain. For all men, the virtuous and the vicious alike, undergo hardship and tribulation in this life, and few are made better by it. In fact I think many are made more bitter, grasping, and angry when they live through privation. But when the good things of this life are removed from us we are in a unique position. We are able to see how transient such things are and forced to look beyond the mutability of time and circumstance. We may at such times see that there is a person behind all things who is eternal, changeless, and good beyond all that we count goodness, a person who has made all things yet considers our sorrows and has compassion for us in them.

If we endure deep distress with this attitude in our hearts we find we have been immeasurably improved. But it is not, I think, the suffering that has improved us. It is rather our experience of God.

Peace,

Jonathan

Jonathan, I agree with you wholeheartedly!

And just to add my two bits to this - We suffer not from God's punishing us but from our love, desire and attention for what is not God. Basically from idolatry, tangible idols or intangible. Only those people who are striving to unite with God suffer most when they stray away from God. Many saints endured great undeserved chastisement and persecution for Christ's sake, yet they showed no outward sign of suffering in the modern sense of the word (for in the NT, suffering simply meant tolerating or allowing). So the saints "suffer" by gladly enduring chastisement for the sake of Christ, not through painful and unwanted punishment.

Unbelievers suffer too, but their form of suffering has changed the meaning of the word to what it is today, namely "to undergo (something painful or unpleasant, an injury, grief, a loss, etc.)." They suffer for what they desire of this world and not for unity with Christ. Some of them are so far removed from Christ that they have chosen in their hearts to defer their suffering to the next life in hell (Matthew 8:12), because they do not believe in the Word of God and think it foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:18). They laugh at the suffering of others who are believers and even cause them more suffering still.

If we can learn to suffer (patiently and willingly endure undeserved chastisement for Christ's sake) like Christ suffered on the cross for us, we can become like Christ. We can become His children by adoption. This is one reason why we should love our enemies - they assist us in the process of becoming Christ-like. Remember - (Matthew 5:11-12) and love our enemies. They are doing us a big favor.

For what it's worth.
Paul

Edited by Paul C., 25 September 2008 - 01:00 AM.
added (-) to christ like


#39 Peter S.

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Posted 11 November 2008 - 09:25 PM

If we can learn to suffer (patiently and willingly endure undeserved chastisement for Christ's sake) like Christ suffered on the cross for us, we can become like Christ. We can become His children by adoption. This is one reason why we should love our enemies - they assist us in the process of becoming Christ-like. Remember - (Matthew 5:11-12) and love our enemies. They are doing us a big favor.

For what it's worth.
Paul


It doesnt seem as they are doing us a favor but maybe it is so.

Peter

#40 Jonathan Hayward

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Posted 08 May 2009 - 01:15 AM

For what it's worth, How to Survive an Economic Depression was something written to explain the Orthodox theology of suffering, and offer a glimpse of its riches, to economic worries now in the air.

Christos Jonathan




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