Why Suffering – 1. The Natural and The Supernatural

My post “Jesus: On Our Side” generated a single question: Why am I so sure that the process of becoming like Christ’s idea of me will involve pain? Why will it not be, as it sometimes is, a delightful enfolding of love? I have been asked for a clear reason as to why I think the God of love will cause us suffering in the process of moving toward Him. Is God not the great healer? The great source of love? Why then shouldn’t God make the change one of, not suffering, but a kind of catharsis? When we are swallowed up in love, might we not weep away our sin until we are clean?

Intending to write a single blog post, I realized that this is in fact five posts. So I will be posting, perhaps once a week, a single reason why I believe the process of becoming like Christ involves suffering.

Week 1: The Natural and the Supernatural

Week 2: After Goodness

Week 3: Authority

Week 4: Spoken Aloud

Week 5: The Ever Higher Hill

The following is, I hope, if not a convincing argument as to why the process must involve suffering for us, a satisfactory explanation as to why I believe it must.

There is a debate, especially among my Catholic brothers and sisters, about the question of the relationship between nature and grace. If we can’t be fully satisfied by natural things, we are in some way owed God’s gracious gift of Godself (this is based on a philosophical concept from Aristotle). For a creature must be able to attain its own ends. However, if our own natural ends satisfy us so much, why should we care about God’s gracious gift? We could, it seems, reject it without any violence to our nature.

I find the debate to be difficult at best for a number of reasons, but primarily because, once you get into some of the higher philosophy and theology of it, it predicates of God distinctions that are not meaningful. The God presented in the debates is too anthropomorphic, making one decision “after” another, and setting divine freedom against divine necessity. (These are also the problems inherent in the philosophical debate about God’s freedom starting from Leibniz until today).

However, what is useful for our discussion is the focus on the distinction between human nature and God’s grace. I, siding with St. Augustine, St. Athanasius, C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and many others and hold firmly that the human being is made primarily for fellowship with God. Our hearts are restless until we do. Yet, I also hold that the divine call to grace is a supernatural one. Nature points us in one direction, and the gracious call of God pulls us in another. There is pain in leaving the natural path; a giving up of many of our natural inclinations for supernatural commands. Indeed, following the commands will bring joy, or, when we are at our best, are joy themselves. But that does not remove the fact that by doing them, we are giving up something we would also like to be doing.

Anyone who has come from a relatively happy family, or at least a family of love (for a loving family is not always happy), and gone away to college, knows the feeling. You know you are doing what you must, what you should; even what you want. You know that joy waits just around the corner. But there is a wrench, a tearing, and a suffering that comes from that parting. You are leaving something natural, the home, for something less natural, the dormitory. Those of us who successfully went through the process will say without question that the process is worth it, and that untold joys have been the result. But that does not make the suffering not suffering.

Indeed, all steps away from the natural involve suffering. Christianity, or even religion, is not the only one to lay claim to such things. Let us take marriage for example. The Christian position on marriage is varied, but I will consider here the view held by Catholics, Orthodox, and most Anglicans: that marriage is a sacrament. As a sacrament, marriage is called to a supernatural level. It not only puts two people together in a binding contract with all due legal rights, but calls them to an “unnatural” relationship. They “forsake all others” and swear that the union will end only when their mortal  lives come to an end. This is an unnatural state for humans to be in, as we are constantly reminded by our culture. On the other side, we can see the growing movement of polyamory and open marriages (two distinct practices). These lifestyles, as best I understand them, hold that having only a single partner is not the situation that makes human beings the happiest.

In the middle is the system of the old Roman Republic. Two people make a contract together, and remain together as long as that contract is profitable to them. Hopefully the profit is joy, children, and a richer life, but that is not always the case. Then, when the contract is done, they go their own way to make another contract. Breaking of the contract is forbidden, but happens too often anyway. This system is very much like our own, and is, from a natural level, preferable to our own as it acknowledges that this kind of marriage is a purely natural institution that can and should be left naturally without much in the way of suffering.

What the Christian and the Open Marriage positions have in common is that they both call us to deny certain natural tendencies. The person in the Open Marriage must find his way through the jungle of jealousies and natural reactions to his mate being with other people. Sex aside, one must deal with the touch of the cheek, the affectionate hand holding, and the private jokes that, if all is well, they will be let in on but not in the same way as the two originators. There is a killing of the self that takes place in such situations that is done with the hope that, when these parts are dead, something better will be achieved on the other side. The Christian is in the same position, but on the opposite side of things. There is a death involved every time we meet someone truly wonderful who we might have loved deeply with Eros. We look at what might have been and we say “no,” knowing that we have committed ourselves to a choice. Our partner might be the best person for us, or he might not. Perhaps he is too loud, too angry, too lazy. And yet the Christian call is a supernatural call, one that calls us to deny our natural desires at times. Instead of killing the part of ourselves that wants exclusivity, we must kill the part that wants choices after our decision has been made.

Interestingly enough, both positions claim to draw their adherents to a kind of arch-natural state. Those who insist that human beings do not naturally have only one partner are no less claiming a “rightness” to their position than the Christian who claims a “rightness” to sacramental marriage. Both say that on the other side of the death of the “natural” level, there is something more natural and more life-giving.

The differences between these two positions are obvious and need not be gone into here in detail. But where they are similar is what is important. They both draw us away from our natural state, and this involves a fair amount of self-sacrifice and suffering. For no one has seen the one they truly love looking deeply into the eyes of another with equal love and not felt pain. And, conversely, no one has looked into the eyes of another and though “he . . . he would have made me far happier” and not suffered the shock of loss.

Another way of demonstrating this natural/supernatural dichotomy is from Scripture. The story of the Garden of Eden contains within it a special commandment. The man and his wife are not to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is a commandment given in a mythical setting, and I am fairly certain that the tree and commandment represent some other commandment given to humanity at its inception. Perhaps it was “do not kill creature X, for in the day that you do, you will surely die”. Or perhaps it was even a command not to eat a certain fruit. But whatever it was, it was not a natural commandment. If it lined up perfectly with the nature of the human creatures, it would have needed no commandment. God did not need to tell Adam not to eat rocks, Adam’s biological tendencies had that well in had. Instead, the command was itself a call to supernatural life: trusting that God is good, and that there is more for us than the natural world.

Obeying the commandment would have been almost nothing, a small self-denial for something much greater. But the self-denial must have involved some small level of suffering, else it could not be self-denial. Something must die in the giving up of what we want, even if the desire is small. If God had told us, “you shall not wear the color yellow” it would be only a small loss for me (though perhaps for others a deep loss). Yet, on those days when wearing yellow might seem best, it would involve a small, perhaps almost (but not quite) meaningless leaving of the self.

This plays out more obviously when we think about the demon of competition. We consider a good that we want, and that is not unlawful or harmful: a job, a friend’s time, a particular book on a shelf. We reach for the thing and find that another wants it. If it is someone we love, we naturally want them to have what they want. If it is a stranger, we may feel quite magnanimous to them. If it is an enemy, we may feel exactly the opposite. But how, even in the first two situations, are we to want their good if it conflicts with our good? How can I wish you to have the same job that I wish for myself?

The commandments of Christ demand from us that not only are we to wish good for all three of these people, our enemy not less than our loved ones, but that we are to give them the very thing we desire if they desire it. It is a giving away that involves suffering because, if we truly desired the job, or the treasured hour with a friend, or the hard to find book, we cannot lose it except with some level of suffering. Having worked for years to be ready to take the job, we find that another has it. How can we not suffer? Having been parted for a year, and having endured many sorrows, we find that the coveted moment is stolen from us when we might embrace our friend, and for a time hear his laughter and bad jokes again because another needs his time more. How can we not suffer?

Yet, we are called by God to go beyond these natural inclinations into joy. They can’t help but be suffering for us, and yet we must let them go. We must not stamp our feet and insist that the job is ours, or that our friend turn his back on someone in need. We must kill that part of ourselves and grow. I do not mean here into “mature adults” who can simply bear the pain, but into sons and daughters of God who give thanks that another has received good. This all involves pain.

But the fact that it involves quite as much pain as it does is strange. Should these things not be small “almost-nothings” that we give away easily? The fact that they are not will require another blog post.

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One thought on “Why Suffering – 1. The Natural and The Supernatural

  1. Pingback: Why Suffering 2: After Goodness | A Christian Mind

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