Last week’s blog attempted to explain why, on a natural level, there must be some level of pain, if only very minor, in the process of becoming like God. This week I want to look at why I think that in our present state, it must involve more than simply that small act of letting go of our natural desires and involve real suffering. But first I want to revisit that transcendence of the natural desire for a moment.
We might imagine that for the first unfallen humans, not killing a particular animal or not eating the fruit was as easy as any other task. I think we would be wrong in saying this, for there are two kinds of commandment. The first, which we are more familiar with, involves keeping us away from doing what is really evil. “Do not murder” is always true everywhere. “Do not lie in court against your neighbor” is never untrue. However, “do not slay the white hart, for in the day you do Camelot will fall” is a different kind of command.
On its surface, it is a kind of magic. As long as the fruit is uneaten, or as long as the hart bounds through the forest, the magical land holds. When the rule is broken, the magic fades. But there is a deeper reality to the rule. It calls creatures onward and upward into God’s life. Each time the first people saw the fruit or the animal or whatever they were forbidden, there must have been a process of putting down a natural desire for it. That denial would have been an effort. It would probably not have been very hard, but it would have had to have been conscious for the magic to work. For in denying the natural good of this one thing, they see the better supernatural good of God.
But they did not do this forever. They fell. They broke the magic, and the garden fled. Or, perhaps, it is better to say that the garden was only a garden and not a wild jungle of dangers because those who walked in it were immortal gods for as long as they were obedient to the command. Lions will be lions, but their fangs mean nothing to Apollo. We need not claim that the world became wild only after sin, but that we, after long ages of evolution, came to be men and women with the immortalizing of our spiritual and rational elements as they were given to our newly immortal bodies. To such ones even the saber toothed tiger would be no more dangerous than the housecat . . . even less so.
However we say it, the gods became mortal, and sin entered the world. This sin, which is no different than the sin that lives in each of us, takes from us the easy joy in the other’s good, and sets us in fierce competition with each other. It makes the desire for things a terrible lord over our hearts. It sets jealousies and desires where there should not be. The lusts for sex and pleasure are set in a kind of disorder, but terribly worse is the lust for power and domination. To set our wills above the wills of others, to engorge ourselves by making others slaves or mere extensions of ourselves, is the direct product of our sin.
To be in this state is to be in a state opposed to God. And how can it not be suffering to turn from all of this? One might say that it would be only joy to do so, and in the end I would agree. But in the beginning it involves pain. Firstly, because it involves the giving up of that which we desire with disordered longing. Strengthened by sin, this desire is not only disordered but ravenous. The denial of such ravenous desire must be pain. We have gone beyond the simple natural desire for the fruit that we imagine must taste good, or the animal which would give us hearty chase. Those desires might be overcome with only a small denial of self. But these desires, these lusts after power, possession, and dominance, can only be resisted with effort and pain. Secondly, because we have identified ourselves with these desires, to turn from them is to turn, in some ways, from ourselves.
For a sinless person, a turning from things that are bad would be ease and joy. But a sinless person need not turn from such things. Her trial comes in denying the good things which have been forbidden her because better things have been offered. But a sinful person suffers greatly when turning from her sin. She reaches once more for the old evil, pulls her hand back, kills the self again, weeps, and cries out for aid. The process involves tears. They are the tears of the desperate, the one in need of strength, not merely the contrite. The hunger for evil does not simply go when she has “cried it all out,” but remains until it is cut out of her.
Here we must remember the distinction between “a sin” and “Sin.” A single sin, or a bundle of sins, may be set aside with contrition (here I do not stand with my Catholic brethren, for I do not think that attrition is needed, or, if needed, is wholly dealt with by the cross). However, Sin, that destructive power that lives within us, cannot simply be wept away. No, remaking is necessary there, and that process must involve some level of suffering, for it involves death. Who and what we were will be unmade to be made again. The unmaking of a thing certainly is not a pleasurable process, and that must come first. Perhaps it will all come in the cancer or fire that take our lives. Perhaps.
All of this has been theology of reason. It takes what has been revealed and what is in our experience and considers its ramifications. I want to turn next week to the tradition of the church. For it does not seem to be the consensus of those who have gone before us that the suffering that will purge us from all sin is simply our natural death.
Image: “Garden of Eden” by Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1621