Autumn 1990, Vol.42 No. 3, pp. 209-216.
Nathan R. Kollar:
Toward a Spirituality of Pain
Dr. Kollar is Professor of Religious Studies at St. John Fisher College and Senior Lecturer in the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the University of Rochester. His most recent book is Songs of Suffering (Winston/Harper and Row, 1983). ----
NO sane person desires pain, yet we cannot do without pain. Pain can turn us into mock images of ourselves, yet we need the warning signs of pain to prevent us from further harm to ourself. No one lives without some pain. Many, especially the frail elderly, live a life of incarnate pain. Until this century people had no choice about how much and how long they had to endure pain. Today, in the industrialized West, we do have a choice because we have developed a significant amount of pain control. Our Christian traditions and spiritualities come from a time when there were few choices about pain. These spiritualities took for granted not only that we could not do without pain but that we could do nothing about the pain we experienced except pray. Is it possible today to have a pain-free spirituality? Must our spirituality generally choose pain over non-pain? What is the role of pain in our spiritual life? How do we deal with expected as well as unexpected pain? Before answering these questions we must recognize the nature of pain.
THE EXPERIENCE AND LANGUAGE OF PAIN
Pain is more than a physical reaction to a physical stimulus. It is the body's response to our involvement with significant change. The change may be physical -- a rampaging cancer or stubbed toe; emotional -- an inability to love or be loved; social -- a sense of alienation from one's friends; mental -- an inability to understand what is happening.
Pain is the way our body warns us that significant change is occurring. We know that this change may be for the better a new tooth, friend, involvement, idea; or for the worse -- our last tooth, the death of a dear friend, or an idea resulting in the destruction of the environment. Pain is never neutral. It announces the advent of the good and/or the bad. Sometimes it is not a clear declarative announcement but a question that leaves us burdened with the anxiety of not knowing what is happening.
Contemporary pain control focuses on acute pain. Acute pain occurs in short bursts, its end expected. We have developed many ways to control it. Chronic pain, however, is only now gaining attention as the battle against acute pain is being won. Chronic pain is predictable, extended, and many times debilitating. It is arthritic pain, sinus pain, and pain associated with certain seasons or situations. Just as acute pain dominated the past, chronic pain dominates the present. But pain, whether acute or chronic, is dependent upon our social and personal environment. We respond to pain differently depending upon our past experience with it. If, as a child, for instance, we were encouraged to elaborate on our pain and consequently, become the center of attention, as an adult we will probably talk more about our pain and seek out those who will listen and respond.
If, on the other hand, our pain was cared for while we were expected to continue with our daily tasks, we will accept most ordinary pain as part of our life style. It is also well recognized that people in different cultures experience pain differently. Pain, then, has its own language. And, as with any language, it differs as to who is speaking and what language is spoken.
PAIN AS SACRAMENT; PAIN AS SACRAMENTING
A language is real only when it is spoken and heard, not in a dictionary or grammar book. A language is more than spoken and heard words; it is also the gestures of face, hands, and body. Languages are bridges which bind speakers and listeners together in shared meaning and belonging. Sacraments and language have much in common. They express a complex reality in a very condensed fashion while initiating a new dynamic into their surrounding environment.
When we speak we express our "selves." But "self" is never simple. We have a past, a present and a future resulting from a confluence of other pasts, presents, and futures. When we speak, our words do not hang there in the air, without effect. No, they encounter those around us -- to be experienced anew by the listeners. The sacrament of baptism is much the same as our words.
Baptism is a combination of words, people, music, and pouring water. It links Christians of the past, present, and future. Yet it results in specific changes among everyone present. In the language of the medieval texts, it causes what it signifies. Pain is a sacrament -- a sensible reality expressing and causing something unique, a bridge between change and our conscious self. Pain sacramentalizes significant change in self, society, and world.
The change is evident when we know the cause of the pain. For example, the pain -ouch!- occurs because of the change my finger's cut; the hunger pain occurs because I have no food (change: money to buy food to no money to buy food); the pain of alienation happens because I am not accepted where I work (change: accepted where I work to not accepted). The sacramentalization of pain is more difficult to sense as the cause becomes more unknown. We may be pain-filled, and know that change is occurring, but not know the specificity of change. Thus pain is the sacrament of change which is many times unknown.
When the cause is unknown we face pain as mysterious, A awesome, and overwhelming. Pain without a known cause plunges us deep into fear of the future and binds us to an eternal quest to resolve both cause and fear. In such an experience, pain touches the sacred which is also both fearful and attractive. Whenever we touch the sacred we realize our limitation. Alone we stretch out our hands to gain balance. But balance can come only by grasping the hands of those around us. Bound to them we can face that which is overpowering us. No matter how modern we are, unknown pain touches the primitive within -- we howl and beat the air in our vain attempt to control what is essentially uncontrollable.
In "unknown" pain we sense change but not direction. We know that change can be for good or ill. Unknown pain leaves the direction of change unknown. But so does known pain. The example of the tooth makes my point: a new tooth may come out for the young child but it may be lodged at the wrong angle or in such a way that thirty years later it wears the tooth next to it, thus causing undue decay. Some known pain, with seemingly devastating consequences, results in re-directing one's life -- a young man who is hurt in such a way that he can never play football, now gives more time to academics and goes on to be a famous teacher. We may think we know the direction and intensity of the change announced by pain, but we can never be completely sure of the direction.
Pain in the abstract, however, is never the sacrament. Painfilled people are: many elderly people filled with pain throughout the day and into the night; people who pain without end. These are the sacraments, and their pain is never ending -- it is always sacramenting. As sacrament and sacramenting the person expresses and bridges the worlds of change and consciousness as they respond to and are responded to as human beings. It is in these responses that we witness choice, love, justice, meaning, belonging, and a spirituality of pain.
FROM PAIN TO SUFFERING
We human beings are complex realities. Because we are complex, we experience freedom. We can never be reduced to one causality, one reason why we act or do not act. We face choice in all of our complexity and all the complexity of choosing. We experience pain with this same complexity. Pain is only one aspect of our life and our living, no matter how overwhelming it may be at times. Pain is the physical aspect of our life. The change that it marks is part of a larger whole -- the whole of suffering.
Suffering is a way of experiencing ourselves and our world. "Suffering is the painful consciousness of that within our world which is not what we expect it to be."(1) The human person manifests him or herself in many ways: physically, emotionally, socially, and mentally. Human pain is the physical marker of that suffering. Pain is always part of suffering but it is never equal to suffering because it is possible to accept a certain level of pain in order to reduce one's or society's suffering. A person in great pain, for instance, may be willing to put up with the pain in order to talk to those around them; or, a football player may endure great pain in order to score a touchdown; or, a parent to care for his or her children. Pain is not always equal to suffering but when suffering is present so is pain. Our choice of pain is tied up with our choice of suffering. Sometimes we face the pain of a situation in order to reduce the suffering present in it.
CHOOSING PAIN IN A WORLD OF PAIN CONTROL
A pain-free spirituality is impossible. As long as we are humans we will experience pain. Any spirituality which offers an escape from pain is offering an escape from our humanity and its responsibilities. This does not mean that we should accept or live with all pain. Bad pain is bad pain. To suggest that it is not bad is to close our eyes to social and personal evil. The pain of rape, of cancer, of malnutrition is wrong. To suggest that it is somehow good, some type of lemon from which the sufferers are to make lemonade, is to close our eyes to evil. To suggest that we accept these and similar pains as gifts from God is to make both God and the recipient into masochists. Bad pain, evil pain must be dealt with as we deal with any evil.
The role of pain in one's spirituality is both a question of choice and of representation. Let us first look at our possible choice of pain. The answers to the following questions aid in that choice.
Pain is many times associated with the suffering involved in rebuilding the human family. Does our pain-filled life form, or deform, community?
Does our pain-filled suffering improve our ability to live creatively with ambiguity, uncertainty, even chaos? After all, these are parts of life, so we must be able to live and work in their midst even though there are no criteria for judging with certainty that we are responding properly to them.
Does our choice contribute to our growth in the Spirit?
Does the choice result in a growth of love that is self-giving?
Does the choice result in a deeper awareness of God's presence in our own life and the life of the world? After all, ours is a suffering God and the world does groan in agony awaiting its completion.
Does the pain-filled suffering give promise of reaching its goal? Pain-filled suffering without a goal would be a life without a goal or direction. If we are not aware of the Christ-omega in our life, our pain loses its humanity.
Is our acceptance of pain-filled suffering faithful to gospel values and historical realities, for instance, the gospel value of justice for all and the historical realities of the Christian tradition to help the needy?
Are we willing to abandon our pain-filled suffering and what causes it? If the original reasons for accepting the pain into our life are not present, we must be willing to move on if we can.
A SPIRITUALITY OF SURVIVAL AND REPRESENTATION
Sometimes we have no choice; perhaps, chronic pain is our life or nothing can be done about the causes of pain. We can only be pain-filled. We cannot do anything about the pain. But who we are is very important. We are the body of Christ, dying and resurrecting to final glory when all will be in all.
The unity of this body is such that the suffering of one is the suffering of all, and the suffering of all is part of each. The one who is in pain is so because of our ignorance, our inability to know what to do. His or her pain represents our lack of knowledge or unwillingness to fund the necessary research. The one who is in pain is so because the whole world must change for life to be born anew. The one who is in pain is so because .... because we do not always know!
Pain is ultimately mystery. Suffering is ultimately mysterious. We are in pain. We share the pain of others knowing that we can never feel his or her pain. We encounter pain and touch faithfulness and faithlessness. Pain can destroy humans. Pain can destroy everything good. Those living a life of unchosen pain represent the mystery of life in general and each of us in particular as they daily attempt to survive as human beings. Their spirituality of pain is a spirituality of survival.
A spirituality of survival is one of hope to lessen the pain, the plea for sensitivity to what pain is doing to them, and to know they are still loved no matter how the pain transfigures them. A spirituality of survival is a spirituality of representation: a representation of our changing world, our inability or unwillingness to deal with the forces of change causing this pain, our unproductive love and concern.
When we speak of one who represents us we usually think of someone who does something "for" us, or acts "instead of" us. This view is not entirely correct. If we look at Christ, who ,,us. the representative of humanity, we can see the perfect exam ple of what representation is. Christ in his life, death and resurrection was not someone separate from the community of humanity, but what Christ did had a basic effect upon humanity as a whole. Christ was all of us in some mysterious way. In other words he did not so much act for the community or instead of the community but was the community acting.
As with Christ so too it is with individual Christians and the Christian community, Christ's body. The principle of representation is applicable among them too. Anyone who takes seriously Jesus' concept of "neighbor" must see in this concept the individual as a basic representative of Christ and in turn of the Christian community. Specifically it is Christ who suffers in us and for us in the process of resurrecting and changing this entire universe -- groaning in agony for change.
1. Nathan Kollar, Songs of Suffering (Minneapolis, MN: Winston, 1982), p. 81.
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The Shaking of the Foundations by Paul Tillich
This book was published by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, in 1955 and is out of print. This material was prepared for Religion Online by John Bushell. This book was published by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, in 1955 and is out of print. This material was prepared for Religion Online by John Bushell.
Chapter 18: Waiting
I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope. My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning. Let Israel hope in the Lord: for with the Lord There is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption.
For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it. Romans 8:24-25.
Both the Old and the New Testaments describe our existence in relation to God as one of waiting. In the psalmist there is an anxious waiting; in the apostle there is a patient waiting. Waiting means not having and having at the same time. For we have not what we wait for; or, as the apostle says, if we hope for what we do not see, we then wait for it. The condition of man's relation to God is first of all one of not having, not seeing, not knowing, and not grasping. A religion in which that is forgotten, no matter how ecstatic or active or reasonable, replaces God by its own creation of an image of God. Our religious life is characterized more by that kind of creation than anything else. I think of the theologian who does not wait for God, because he possesses Him, enclosed within a doctrine. I think of the Biblical student who does not wait for God, because he possesses Him, enclosed in a book. I think of the churchman who does not wait for God, because he possesses Him, enclosed in an institution. I think of the believer who does not wait for God, because he possesses Him, enclosed within his own experience. It is not easy to endure this not having God, this waiting for God. It is not easy to preach Sunday after Sunday without convincing ourselves and others that we have God and can dispose of Him. It is not easy to proclaim God to children and pagans, to skeptics and secularists, and at the same time to make clear to them that we ourselves do not possess God, that we too wait for Him. I am convinced that much of the rebellion against Christianity is due to the overt or veiled claim of the Christians to possess God, and therefore, also, to the loss of this element of waiting, so decisive for the prophets and the apostles. Let us not be deluded into thinking that, because they speak of waiting, they waited merely for the end, the judgment and fulfillment of all things, and not for God Who was to bring that end. They did not possess God; they waited for Him. For how can God be possessed? Is God a thing that can be grasped and known among other things? Is God less than a human person? We always have to wait for a human being. Even in the most intimate communion among human beings, there is an element of not having and not knowing, and of waiting. Therefore, since God is infinitely hidden, free, and incalculable, we must wait for Him in the most absolute and radical way. He is God for us just in so far as we do not possess Hun. The psalmist says that his whole being waits for the Lord, indicating that waiting for God is not merely a part of our relation to God, but rather the condition of that relation as a whole. We have God though not having Him.
But, although waiting is not having, it is also having. The fact that we wait for something shows that in some way we already possess it. Waiting anticipates that which is not yet real. If we wait in hope and patience, the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us. He who waits in an ultimate sense is not far from that for which he waits. He who waits in absolute seriousness is already grasped by that for which he waits. He who waits in patience has already received the power of that for which he waits. He who waits passionately is already an active power himself, the greatest power of transformation in personal and historical life. We are stronger when we wait than when we possess. When we possess God, we reduce Him to that small thing we knew and grasped of Him; and we make it an idol. Only in idol worship can one believe in the possession of God. There is much of this idolatry among Christians.
But if we know that we do not know Him, and if we wait for Him to make Himself known to us, we then really know something of Him, we then are grasped and known and possessed by Him. It is then that we are believers in our unbelief, and that we are accepted by Him in spite of our separation from Him.
Let us not forget, however, that waiting is a tremendous tension. It precludes all complacency about having nothing, indifference or cynical contempt towards those who have something, and indulgence in doubt and despair. Let us not make our pride in possessing nothing a new possession. That is one of the great temptations of our time, for there are few things left which we can claim as possessions. And we surrender to the same temptation when we boast, in our attempt to possess God, that we do not possess Him. The divine answer to such an attempt is utter emptiness. Waiting is not despair It is the acceptance of our not having, in the power of that which we already have.
Our time is a time of waiting; waiting is its special destiny. And every time is a time of waiting, waiting for the breaking in of eternity. All time runs forward. All time, both in history and in personal life, is expectation. Time itself is waiting, waiting not for another time, but for that which is eternal.
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by Ronald Goetz
Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois. This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 2, 1987, pp. 1083-1987. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies [Rom. 8:18-23].
When we read the Apostle Paul’s extraordinary claim that the "whole creation has been groaning in travail," we are likely at first to suppose that our difficulty with such language has to do with the deep, "ugly ditch" (Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s term) that divides Paul’s age from our own. Is it possible for us to think in such virtually animistic terms today? Surely we would not ask the astrophysicists who study the "noise" of the radio signals coming from outer space if it might be interpreted as a cosmic groan. One can imagine the derisive laughter that would greet such a suggestion. Yet do we not in our day-to-day pragmatic encounters with the world around us invariably presuppose, as we seek guidance through nature’s mysteries, the cosmic model that is foundational to modern science and technology?
Despite the 20-centuries-wide ditch that separates us from Paul, we would be mistaken to assume that his language about the anguish of the universe would have been more readily comprehensible to his contemporaries than it is to us. To be sure, many in those days would have responded favorably to what they might have thought Paul meant when he described the creation as being "subjected to futility," in "bondage to decay" and "groaning in travail." The Roman Empire of the first century was greatly influenced by a sort of dualism that regarded nature—the physical world—as being at best unworthy and at worst positively evil, the source of corruption, carnality and suffering.
The ancient dualist might have had some difficulty with what Paul says about the creation being "set free." If matter is evil, how could it be liberated? Paul’s words at this point would seem idiosyncratic to the dualist, although he might also feel that a person who could speak of the "futility" of the created order must somehow be on the right track. In fact, however, this seeming idiosyncrasy is not a quirk in an otherwise consistent dualism. Rather, it reveals that Paul was, at least in the usual first-century sense, no dualist at all.
Paul was what might be termed a " redemptionist." He might well grant that the dualist had a point in regarding the functioning of the material world in a negative way—as a world whose process necessitates the extermination of all sentient reality. It does indeed appear that matter supports our individual existences in much the same way that a conveyor belt supports the objects it moves. Objects on a conveyor belt seem almost to float effortlessly and securely—until the belt reaches its limit. Then suddenly it loops back upon itself, and they drop like lead.
Basic to all of Paul’s theology, however, was his insistence that only in its penultimate function is nature such a relentless conveyor of doom. Dualism could never provide a point of contact by which Paul’s contemporaries might have grasped his claim that the creation which presently is the ground of human suffering will one day be made the ground of human redemption! How could any dualist grant Paul’s seemingly paradoxical claim that though our sinful deeds are indeed works of the "flesh," our ultimate hope lies in "the redemption of our bodies"?
We come at the Romans text very differently than would have Paul’s contemporaries, though in our own way we are also dualistic. For us, however, the split between mind and body is not a moral cleavage—i.e., the notion that the body is evil, while the mind or spirit is good. For us the cleavage between mind and matter is simply the place at which our knowledge reaches its limits. What is the reality of things? Do our sense impressions actually correspond to the reality of the material world itself ? Curiously, though the discoveries of subatomic physics signal to some a breakdown of modern dualism, the implications of such discoveries have been slow to penetrate most people’s consciousness (including that of many scientists), and they may in fact merely lead to another sort of dualism. Dualistic impasse, as old as Descartes’s philosophy, stubbornly continues to affect the very philosophic air we breathe.
In ethics the dualistic uncertainty over the nature of "reality" and our perception of it is a major justification for modern moral relativism, or the claim that what is called morality is actually grounded in nothing but people’s emotive and purely arbitrary preferences. On the other hand, for the dualist of Paul’s day, ironically, the split between mind and matter was the basis of moral certitude. One knew what evil was: the body and its temptations. One knew what good was: the spirit or the mind in pursuit of the eternal verities.
The contrast with present-day attitudes is so extreme as to be almost ludicrous. Though we can be shaken by the fear of disease, today’s idea of "health" includes a physical perfection achieved through personal conditioning and control, along with an emotional state that accepts, without guilt, acquisitiveness and hedonism. Interestingly, to be psychologically healthy is to be fully in touch with one’s body. Presumably, if the body is functioning well and is uninhibited in its appetites, the psyche will automatically be "healthy." The ascetic, in contrast, is seen to be a repressed neurotic or, sometimes, a delusional anorectic who is unable to come to terms with his or her physical being. The unwashed, half-starved celibate saint of old would be written off today as a candidate for a psychiatric ward. Today’s paragon is yesterday’s pervert and vice versa.
Though modern dualism tends to lead toward a philosophic skepticism, it is skepticism with a bias. We are uncertain as to whether there is any truth or value. But we are convinced that whatever of either there may be is grounded in the material basis of things. Society’s materialist bias has been given a powerful impetus by the burgeoning success of the sciences and technology. We have nature by the throat.
To be sure, sometimes nature eludes our grasp, as in the case of the AIDS epidemic and the inadequacy of science to find an immediate cure. However, this instance offers only the barest of parallels with the overall non-scientific posture of the ancients toward the mysteries of nature and existence. People of the first century were fundamentally powerless in the face of any illness, since they did not understand the physiological basis of disease. Yet we think we basically know the cause of AIDS, and thus there is no stampede toward superstition or pseudo-science as a remedy. Science, we believe, will in time find a cure or a preventative. We are being assured that in the meantime we can take rational and educational stop-gap measures to slow the epidemic’s progress. In contrast, even as late as the 14th century the Black Death worked its ruin on a helpless Europe that could not even begin to understand and thus combat it. By the time the plague passed, nearly half of Europe was dead.
In view of earlier periods’ grim life-expectancy statistics and their harsh conditions of existence, is it any wonder that many ancients regarded the sex drive—the cause of souls being brought into this vale of tears—as a curse? When Marcion, the greatest of the second-century Christian dualists, insisted that the world was so fundamentally evil that the Creator God of the Old Testament, who was responsible for so immense a debacle, could only be a morally defective being, he was not speaking as some disillusioned idealist: rather, he was reflecting the hard, unsentimental realism of his time.
In Paul’s day, when modern technical and economic development could not be even remotely envisioned, the alternatives were few: one could indulge in the life of the body in a desperate gamble for creaturely happiness despite the odds, or one could opt for a life of self-denial, which by its studied indifference to earthly joy or sorrow was somewhat insulated from life’s tragedy. Just as we almost automatically try to address the problem of natural evil through the amoral pragmatism of technology, they, lacking the scientific knowledge to control nature, had only their moral capacity to say Yes or No to its ambiguities.
Though the ancients might judge us harshly as mere worldly hedonists, we might well protest that we are in fact Christian worldly hedonists. Furthermore, from time to time we even feel sated by the offerings of the consumer market and, irony of ironies, wonder if perhaps there is something more to life. Maybe Paul had something quite real in mind when he spoke of the longing of the whole creation to "be set free from the bondage to decay." Could it be that modern existence so tranquilizes our spirits that we simply cannot "groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies"? (We might wish that Paul could have broken with the patriarchalism of his age, as he did with its dualism.) However, as modern men and women we cannot long permit ourselves such pangs of unease—and for many reasons.
To begin with, we love what science and technology can do for us. We can scarcely imagine that a technologically primitive existence would be worth living. Therefore, on those infrequent occasions when we admit that even pleasure can cloy and we a experience fleeting desire for a richer spirituality, deep down we suspect that that desire is merely a matter of our looking the gift horse of modern life in the mouth. Having sold any other birth-right of ours for the rich stew of secular existence, we continue to desire a deeper spirituality. This desire is actually our hankering after one more pleasure—the pleasure of richness of soul, which, of course, can be turned on and off like a spigot—to go along with our well-tuned and richly satisfied carnal appetites.
Beyond these merely individualistic concerns, there is the more ethically serious matter of the potentially demoralizing impact of Paul’s vitalist theology of nature on the collective progress of modern life. If nature could indeed suffer, then our headlong, pragmatic exploitation of the natural order might not be value-neutral. Nature may kick back at us from time to time—with erosion, pollution, holes in the ozone layer and so on—but we like to think that these are simply impersonal matters of ecological imbalance. However, if creation were in some way actually to suffer pain—not in a merely metaphorical sense—would this give at least some of us certain pause?
We First World Christians can maintain a comfortable distance in contemplating the worldwide technological assault upon creation. We can afford to deplore the bulldozing of wildernesses, the extinction of various species. We have the luxury of being alarmed by the long-term effects of the destruction of the world’s rain forests upon the oxygen supply. Yet our concerns are conditioned by the fact that we already "have ours." Behind our supposedly responsible ecological worries about the planet is a parallel fear that perhaps we will lose some of what we have. We are not willing to vote for much ecological self-constraint; indeed, the administration we Americans have placed in power seems hellbent on a free-enterprise assault on nature. We are hoping that the ecologists, with their doomsday forecasts, are mere alarmists. But just in case they are right, we are always good for a donation to save the whales.
The majority of the world’s people, however, have yet to "get theirs." They do not have the luxury to worry about the long-term environmental impact of their attempts to survive. Their often desperate situations make our First World existential agonizing over the effects of our 20th-century hedonism on our 20th-century spirituality seem trivial and self-absorbed.
The success of democracy in the West serves as a beacon for many of the world’s wretched. Yet it is clear that the worldwide clamoring for democracy entails, among other ends, a right of access to material progress. Modern democracy does not envision as its goal mutually shared poverty and despair. The very logic of both liberal and socialist democracy, whatever their differences, inevitably involves a wider distribution of the world’s riches as democracy progresses. However, modern economic, social and medical progress can only intensify humankind’s terrible onslaught against nature. For the iron law of progress is that its cost necessitates the radical disordering of nature as we received it, and its rearrangement after the image of our perceived interests.
Human progress feeds on death, on the creation’s decay. The faster the progress, the higher the price that living beings must pay. For example, it is grimly apparent that the remains of aborted fetuses may have great value in medical experimentation, as well as being a potential source of medicine and even spare parts for transplants.
Even assuming that it were possible to do so, what moral right would we have to try to stop modern scientific development simply because our First World nerve had failed us? If we did stop it, the wretched of the earth would no doubt be condemned to countless generations of brief, brutal existences. We are confronted by a serious contradiction in our highest First World ethical values. We liberals are generally supportive of environmental causes, but our even higher ethical priority envisions worldwide social and material progress.
Such modern ethical dilemmas as these come to a focus in the realization that the Apostle Paul knew fully as well as we that we must live out our lives on the horns of a cosmic dilemma. On the one hand, it is our divinely ordained destiny to "populate the earth and subdue it." We were created by the Lord of creation to be creative beings, and if our destiny is eternal life, our creative accomplishments actually have eternal significance. On the other hand, for all our creativity and rationality, for all our spasms of virtue and wisdom, we are caught in the steel vise of evolution’s law. Nothing can be achieved without cost to other persons and other forms of life. Scientific and technical progress is fueled by bloody competition and suffering. Mutilated landscapes, extinct species, vivisection, slaughterhouses, fetal experiments are typical of "progress" when things are going well. On bad days we have wars.
Paul is not saying, "It’s a jungle out there, so let’s all be brutes. " His gospel entails sympathy, mercy, kindness, concern for the environment—in short, the whole bag of traditional Christian sentiments and causes applied to nature as well as to other human beings. The call for the careful, respectful, unwasteful use of our natural resources is the proper Christian stance. Christian ethics is not grounded in the law of the jungle, "nature red in tooth and claw." Christian morality is the attempt to combat the brute child of nature in all of us. To control ferocity, to heal the wounds that we inevitably inflict because of life’s pressure to be competitive, is the business of civilization, and it is the business of Christian social ethics to remind civilization of its civilizing obligation.
Having acknowledged all of this—and putting ourselves on the side of the angels, advocating the cause of the poor, plunging ourselves as wholeheartedly as any sated hedonists can into the cause of human liberation—we should also acknowledge that the best we can ever hope to accomplish is the amelioration of the carnage of existence. Apart from the fact that we are often wrong about what is needed—and apart from the fact that successful campaigns for good causes can breed corruption and themselves become a part of the problem—the larger reality is that we are all mortal and the world is finite. Everything in life necessitates tradeoffs, and finally the success of one person, group, class or species entails the defeat or demise of its rivals. Though Paul wrote in an era during which humanity was less able to deal with the deadly course of a creation groaning in travail, his basic point is confirmed by our very success in manipulating nature. In order to become less victimized by nature, we must become its victimizers. Death is not abolished; it is merely reallocated.
Paul’s theology was not grounded in nature’s decay. Instead of a natural theology, he was creating a theology of nature—a theology that viewed nature from the perspective of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Only from the perspective of that event, which decisively shows the limits of decay, does the ultimate purpose of God who raised Jesus begin to come into focus. Certainly nature nurtures life, but nature is neither the ultimate source nor the ultimate goal of life. God is the alpha and the omega.
Modern and ancient dualistic world views, in spite of their seeming incompatibility, share the conviction that if God existed, he could only be a monster. In the second century, Marcion saw creation’s evils as sufficient reason to reject the lordship of the Creator God in favor of a heretofore unknown God, who through Christ mercifully intervenes and saves souls from the clutches of creation and its God. We moderns, on the other hand, with our profoundly materialistic bias—a bias which leads many influential intellectuals to deny the very existence of a self or a soul—cannot reject the world, irrespective of its evil, for we would then have no metaphysical or moral ground on which to stand. From the materialists’ viewpoint, if there were a God, he would have to be Creator of the only reality we trust, the material world. Thus, our addiction to matter cuts us off from Marcion’s appeal to a totally spiritual God. Yet, to complete the circle of inconsistency, we cannot, because of the suffering inherent in the process of creation, believe in a God who is creation’s Lord. When things are going well, we love matter with an all-consuming passion and have no need of God. When things go badly, we reject the Creator of all matter and passion because of the suffering they cause. God cannot win for losing.
In contrast, for Paul the reality of God was so utterly a given that there was no question of making belief in God dependent on one’s ability to solve the problem of evil. For Paul, there was no escaping our eternal destiny with God. The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ had made it abundantly clear that God will not accept human sin as humanity’s answer to the anguish that creation experiences on its way to God’s ultimate goal. Paul knew all the reasons for atheism.
For Paul, the world as we experience it is not the final expression of God’s creative purpose. God’s ultimate purpose in creation is, and always has been, eschatological. To claim that the world is merely the purposeless vehicle of sin and death is a slander against the honor of God. The notion that life arises out of the nothingness of nonexistence and moves toward the nothingness of annihilating death is a nihilistic conceit. Were this notion true, then sin, death and the devil—and not the "God who loves in freedom"—would be the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega. To embrace an "eschatological" nihilism is finally to offer up all our civilization and sciences to the power of darkness. If there were no God, all our works would be as meaningless as the ground of nothingness out of which they arose and into which they would otherwise sink. The denial of eternal life which is so common among modern Christians is not, as its adherents often claim, a nonegoistic, mature, realistic willingness to face the brutal limitations of finitude; rather, it amounts to a tragically unbelieving denial of God’s honor—and thus of God’s very existence.
Many people are not affected by the pathos of the cosmos. A denial of eternal life violates God’s honor, yet an affirmation of eternal life can lead to a callous indifference to the world’s pain. After all, if the entire creation will eventually be redeemed, why be anguished now? This attitude is also a violation of God’s honor. Perhaps Paul was right; only those who have received the "first fruits of the spirit" have the ears to hear creation’s groaning. However, if passionate sympathy is the Spirit’s first fruit, then it is clear that the Spirit is not confined to the church. The Spirit is frequently anywhere but in the church. To be sure, Paul had a Spirit-touched sympathy, but so did the dualistic arch-"heretic" Marcion—and so too do those materialistically oriented, secular non-Christians who stand up for nature’s rights simply out of their abiding love for living things.
God has created an order in which all is passing away. Yet it is the resurrection faith that death is but a means to a very different end. The notion that the end justifies the means—which many find to be ethically appalling—provides the only way finally to understand Paul’s contention that "the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory . . ." God’s capacity to achieve "the glory" is the ground on which Christianity stands or falls. Can God indeed lure all things to himself through the reconciling fervor of his love?
Yet God’s honor is at genuine risk. For the price of glory is high. God’s own son must die to pay its price. The very Godhead is torn in anguish: the plea "Father, let this cup pass from me," is answered by the Father’s relentless No. And what are we to say of the Spirit’s strange selectivity? The Spirit shows the way, but in such diverse degrees that we are all liars even in our most earnest efforts to point to the truth. God is not detached in his creative commitment to the universe: His holy purpose will kill us all, even his son. Yet the death and resurrection of Christ demonstrate that the creation’s very pain is itself an image of God’s redemptive and re-creative commitment to the creation.
Can the end of God’s endeavor justify the means he employs? Christian faith is grounded in the confidence that "the glory" will justify its price. But we Christians must at least be able to understand how others find this faith too much to hope for, given the way life appears to be. Sometimes one feels that most of the world is made up of two kinds of people: those who believe despite their unbelief and, those who wish they could believe, but cannot—half-believers and half-doubters. We could expect nothing else with the stakes so high and the perils so great.
The Right to Hope
by Paul Tillich
Paul Tillich is generally considered one of the century's outstanding and influential thinkers. After teaching theology and philosophy at various German universities, he came to the United States in 1933. For many years he was Professor of Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, then University Professor at Harvard University. His books include Systematic Theology; The Courage to Be; Dynamics of Faith; Love, Power and Justice; Morality and Beyond; and Theology of Culture. Paul Tillich preached this sermon at Harvard's Memorial Church in March l965. Excerpted from Theology of Peace, a collection of previously unpublished articles by Tillich, edited by Ronald H. Stone and published in l990 by Westminster/John Knox. This sermon appeared in the Christian Century, November 14, l990, pp. 1064-l067. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions can be bound at www.christiancentury.org. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.
A few years ago the humanist and Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch became famous through a two-volume work about hope, the hopes of men in their, personal lives and as members of social groups and movements. He recognized to what degree hope is a permanent force in every man, a driving power as long as he lives.
We must agree when we look both into ourselves and at human history, and we may wonder why it is so seldom that philosophers and theologians speak about it, its root, and its justification. They don't ask what kind of force it is that creates and maintains hope, even if everything seems to contradict it. Instead, they devaluate hope by calling it wishful thinking or utopian fantasy.
But nobody can live without hope, even if it. were only for the smallest things which give some satisfaction even under the worst of conditions, even in poverty, sickness, and social failure. Without hope, the tension of our life toward the future would vanish, and with it, life itself. We would end in despair, a word that originally meant "without hope," or in deadly indifference. Therefore I want to ask the question today: Do we have a right to hope? Is there justified hope for each of us, for nations and movements, for mankind and perhaps for all life, for the whole universe? Do we have a right to hope, even, against hope? Even against the transitoriness of everything that is? Even against the reality of death?
Our text -- "In hope he believed against hope" -- refers to Abraham's faith in the divine promise that he would become the father of a large nation, although he had no son in his and his wife's old age. There is probably no book in which the struggle for hope is more drastically expressed than it is in the Old Testament. The men of the Old Testament tried to maintain the hope for Israel within the many catastrophes of its history. And later on, they struggled as individuals for their personal hope, and finally there grew a hope in them for the rebirth of the present world and a new state of all things. This double hope, for the universe and for the single person, became the faith of the early Christians, and it is the Christian hope up to today. It is the hope of the church for "the new heaven and the new earth" and of the individual to enter this new earth and new heaven
But these hopes, in both Testaments, have to struggle with continuous attacks of hopelessness, attacks against the faith in a meaning of life and against the hope for life's fulfillment. There are in the Old Testament outcries of despair about life. There is the despair of Job when he says, "For there is hope for a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease" -- but as "the waters wear away the stones [and] the torrents wash away the soil of the earth, so thou [God] destroyest the hope of man" (Job 14:7, 19).
There is also a tremendous struggle about hope in the New Testament. It went on during the whole lifetime of Jesus, but it reached its height when, after his arrest, the disciples fled to Galilee. Hopelessly they said to themselves, like the two in the beautiful story of the walk to Emmaus, "We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel" (Luke 24:21). They had hoped, but he was crucified. In order to regain hope; they had, as is said in I Peter, "to be born anew to a living hope," namely, by the spiritual appearances of Jesus which many of them experienced.
Later on, the church had to fight with hopelessness, because the expectations of the Christians for the early return of the Christ remained unfulfilled, year after year. So they became impatient and felt betrayed. To such members of his congregations, Paul writes (Rom. 8:24_25), "For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience." We wait. That means we have not; but in some way we have, and this having gives us the power to wait.
The Christians learned to wait for the end. But slowly they ceased to wait. The tension of genuine waiting vanished and they were satisfied with what they had, the Christ who has founded the church and given through it hope for eternal life. The expectation for a new state of things on earth became weak, although one prayed for it in every Lord's Prayer -- Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven!
This has led to new attacks on hope, first from the side of the Jews who believe with the prophets of the Old Testament in the coming of a new eon, a new state of things in this world. They ask, How can Jesus be the Christ, the bringer of the new, if the world has remained as it was? The demonic powers which ruled the world in the time of Jesus are ruling it still today. Our own century proves this irrefutably. Not only the Jews speak like this, but millions of critics of Christianity everywhere, awakening anxious response in many Christians.
At the same time, the hope of the individual for participation in eternal life was more and more undercut by the present understanding of our world through science and philosophy. Imaginations of a heavenly place above and a hell below became symbols for the state of our inner life. The expectation of a simple continuation of life after death vanished in view of a sober acceptance of the seriousness of death and a deeper understanding by theology of the difference between eternity and endless time.. In view of all this, most people today, including many Christians, have experienced the. attacks of hopelessness and struggle for hope against hope. They -- and "they" are also "we" -- have learned how hard it is to preserve genuine hope. We know that one has to go ever again through the narrows of a painful and courageous "in-spite-of." For hope cannot be verified by sense experience or rational proof.
This leads to something else that makes hope so difficult. Hope is easy for every fool but hard for the wise one. Everybody can lose himself in foolish hopes, but genuine hope is something rare and great. How then can we distinguish genuine from foolish hope?
We often feel doubt not only about others but also about ourselves, as to whether their or our own hope is foolish or genuine. We may clearly calculate the future and think our expectations justified; but they are foolish. And we may tenaciously hope against hope and begin to feel foolish about it. But we were right in our hope. There is a difference which does not remain hidden, if we search for it. Where there is genuine hope, there that for which we hope already has some presence. In some way, the hoped for is at the same time here and not here. It is not yet fulfilled, and it may remain unfulfilled. But it is here, in the situation and in ourselves, as a power which drives those who hope into the future. There is a beginning here and now. And this beginning drives toward an end. The hope itself, if it is rooted in the reality of something already given, becomes a driving, power and makes fulfillment not certain, but possible. Where such a beginning of what is hoped for is lacking, hope is foolishness.
If, for instance, a daydreamer expects to become something which has no relation to his present state, externally or internally, he is a fool. And he remains a fool even if, by some strange accident, he gets what he has dreamed of, such as sudden success, wealth, power, beauty, love. Fairy tales know this. The beggar who becomes king is in the beggar's gown, but he is of royal blood. Those who dream without such present reality never attain their dream, even if they try, often by evil means.
But there are many things and events in which we can see a reason for genuine hope, namely, the seed-like presence of that which is hoped for. In the seed of a tree, stem and leaves are already present, and this gives us the right to sow the seed in hope for the fruit. We have no assurance that it will develop. But our hope is genuine. There is a presence, a beginning of what is hoped for. And so it is with the child and our hope for his maturing; we hope, because maturing has already begun, but we don't know how far it will go. We hope for the fulfillment of our work, often against hope, because it is already in us as vision and driving force. We hope for a lasting love, because we feel the power of this love present. But it is hope, not certainty..
Hoping often implies waiting. "Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him," says the psalmist (Ps. 37:7). Waiting demands patience, and patience demands stillness within one's self. This aspect of hope is most important in the hope we have within ourselves and our own maturing and fulfilling what we essentially are and therefore ought to be.
There are two kinds of waiting, the passive waiting in laziness and the receiving waiting in openness. He who waits in laziness, passively, prevents the coming of what he is waiting for. He who waits in quiet tension, open for what he may encounter, works for its coming. Such waiting in openness and hope does what no will power can do for our own inner development. The more seriously the great religious men took their own transformation, using their will to achieve it, the more they failed and were thrown into hopelessness about themselves. Desperately they asked, and many of us ask with them, Can we hope at all for such inner renewal? What gives us the right to such hope after all our failures? Again there is only one answer: waiting in inner stillness, with posed tension and openness toward what we can only receive. Such openness is highest activity; it is the driving force which leads us toward the growth of something new in us. And the struggle between hope and despair in our waiting is a symptom that the new has already taken hold of us.
Let us now in brief consideration, turn to the hopes for nations, movements and mankind in human history and let us ask, What gives us the right to hope for them? A great example is the history of Israel, from the exodus out of Egypt to the present day. There are few things in world history more astonishing than the preservation of hope for Israel by Israel and the continuous fulfillment and disastrous destruction of this hope. No fool's hope can give this power; if Israel's hope had been wishful thinking, Israel would have disappeared from history like all the nations surrounding them. But the people of Israel had a reality in every period, an experience in their past, a divine guidance which saved them through overwhelming dangers, bound them together as a nation through the gift of the law by the God who is not a particular God but the God of justice, whose justice shows itself when he judges his own nation and threatens to reject it, if it does not keep justice within itself.
For there was and is in Israel, as in every nation, much foolish hope; national arrogance, will to power, ignorance about other nations, hate and fear of them, the use of God and his promises for the nation's own glory. Such hopes, present also in our own nation, are foolish hopes. They do not come out of what we truly are and cannot, therefore, become reality in history, but they are illusions about our own goodness and distortions of the image of others. Out of what we truly are, the hope for what we may become must grow. Otherwise, it will be defeated and die. World history is a cemetery of broken hopes, of utopias which had no foundation in reality.
But there is also fulfillment of historical hopes, however fragmentary it may be. The democratic form of life which has become reality is a fulfillment of old ideas about the equal dignity of men before God and under the law; it could become reality because there were social groups in which the idea was already effective, so that it could grow into reality. The social principle which is powerful today is the fragmentary fulfillment of the dreams of the poor: that they may participate in the goods of life. But the dreams could become genuine hopes only when a social class appeared whose nature and destiny were one with this aspiration and which could make a successful fight for it. The belief in the original unity of all human races became a matter of genuine hope for reunion in the moment when suppressed races arose with the will and inner power to fight for a real reunion. In these three great events of modern history, in the midst of one of which we live, the presence of a beginning became the power driving toward fulfillment.
Is there a right to hope for mankind as a whole? There is one idea which has grasped the imagination of Western man, but which has already lost its power because of the horrors which have happened in our century; it is the idea of progress toward the fulfillment of the age-old hopes of man. This is still a half-conscious, half-unconscious belief of many people today. It is often the only hope they have, and its breakdown is a profound shock for them. Is progress a justified hope for man? In some respects it is, because man has received the power to control nature almost without limits and there is daily progress in science and in technical production. But the question is: Does this progress justify the hope for a stage of fulfillment? Certainly. Progress is a justified hope in all moments in which we work for a task and hope that something better and new will replace old goods and old evils. But whenever one evil is conquered, another appears, using the new which is good to support a new evil. The goal of mankind is not progress toward a final stage of perfection; it is the creation of what is possible for man in each particular state of history; and it is the struggle against the forces of evil, old ones and new ones, which arise in each period in a different way.
There will be victories as well as defeats in these struggles. There will be progress and regressions. But every victory, every particular progress from injustice to more justice, from suffering to more happiness, from hostility to more peace, from separation to more unity anywhere in mankind, is a manifestation of the eternal in time and space. It is, in the language of the men of the Old and the New Testaments, the coming of the Kingdom of God. For the Kingdom of God does not come in one dramatic event sometime in the future. It is coming here and now in every act of love, in every manifestation of truth, in every moment of joy, in every experience of the holy. The hope of the Kingdom of God is not the expectation of a perfect stage at the end of history, in which only a few, in comparison with the innumerable generations of men, would participate, and the unimaginable amount of misery of all past generations would not be compensated. And it might even be that those who would live in it, as "blessed animals" would long for the struggles, the victories and the defeats of the past. No! The hope of mankind lies in the here and now, whenever the eternal appears in time and history. This hope is justified; for there is always a presence and a beginning of what is seriously hoped for.
And now we ask the question of our personal participation in the eternal. Do we have a right to hope for it? The answer is, We have a right to such ultimate hope, even in view of the end of all other hopes, even in the face of death. For we experience the presence of the eternal in us and in our world here and now. We experience it in moments of silence and in hours of creativity. We experience it in the conflicts of our conscience and in the hours of peace with ourselves, we experience it in the unconditional seriousness of the moral command and in the ecstasy of love. We experience it when we discover a lasting truth and feel the need for a great sacrifice. We experience it in the beauty that life reveals as well as in its demonic darkness. We experience it in moments in which we feel: This is a holy place, a holy thing, a holy person, a holy time; it transcends the ordinary experiences; it gives more, it demands more, it points to the ultimate mystery of my existence, of all existence; it shows me that my finitude, my transitoriness, my being, surrendered to the flux of things, is only one side of my being and that man is both in and above finitude.
Where this is experienced, there is awareness of the eternal, there is already, however fragmentary, participation in the eternal. This is the basis of the hope for eternal life; it is the justification of our ultimate hope. And if as Christians we point to Good Friday and Easter, we point to the most powerful example of the same experience.
The hope for participation in eternity is hope for a continuation of the present life after death. It is not hope for endless time after the time given to us. Endless time is not eternity; no finite being can seriously hope for it. But every finite being can hope for return to the eternal from which it comes. And this hope has the more assurance, the deeper and more real the present participation in eternal life is.
And a last remark: Participation in the eternal is not given to the separated individual. It is given to him in unity with all others, with mankind, with everything living, with everything that has being and is rooted in the divine ground of being. All powers of creation are in us, and we are in them. We do not hope for us alone or for those alone who share our hope; we hope also for those who had and have no hope, for those whose hopes for this life remain unfulfilled, for those who are disappointed and indifferent, for those who despair of life, and even for those who have hurt or destroyed life. Certainly, if we could only hope each for himself, it would be a poor and foolish hope. Eternity is the ground and aim of every being, for God shall be all in all. Amen.
"The Practice of the Christian Life: Patiently Hopeful"
Of all the virtues of the Christian life, the one that I have difficulty getting a passing grade in is patience. The Apostle Paul lists love, joy, peace, kindness, generosity, and faithfulness as qualities that are fruit of the Spirit. If only he had not put that word patience in the mix, I could consider myself a pretty fair student of the fruit of the spirit. Or if somehow the idea was that you had to do well on six or seven out of nine qualities to score a B+ or A- on the "Fruit of the Spirit" test, I could breathe a little easier.
Now my brother Michael... there's someone who has patience. Michael can sit in a traffic jam, do a Sunday drive behind a wagon pulling tractor for 35 minutes and get stuck in the longest line at the grocery store without even coming close to one of those "deleted expletives." When I look at that quality of Christian character "patience" which Paul names as one of the fruits of the Spirit, I can hear that teacher's voice from way back in grade school, "You should be more like your brother Michael." And sure enough, when I encounter people who take waiting with a grain of salt, and a traffic jam with calmness, I actually do wish I was more like my brother Michael.
All of this struggle with patience is common for many of us, but there is something in our scripture reading that takes us way beyond the ordinary, everyday struggle with patience. There is more to Paul's discussion of patience than wishing we had more of it in those time when we are stuck in a long line at the grocery store. Our reading from Romans drives us to the essence of what it means to be a person of faith. Patience in a traffic jam is one thing, but patience in the face of persecution and pain is something else entirely.
In fact, the biblical quality of patience goes beyond the simple idea of someone who is able to endure waiting. Patience in our reading today is a key component of faith and a hallmark of trust in God. It is not an isolated characteristic of one's personality but a result of a process in the life of faith. Indeed biblical patience is not something that we can develop on our own within ourselves. It is not as though we could try harder to become more patient. Patience in the life of faith grows by the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives as we are more fully united with Christ. The patience that matures is a hallmark of our trust in Christ.
Patience has roots in hope and hope has its roots in faith in God. Dr. Roberta Hestenes spoke to the graduating class of the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary last May about the role Christians have in bringing hope to a hopeless world. (5/11/02) She told of going to Africa and seeing a "scorched valley," where there was nothing but dust, decay and death. She and others had been asked to bring hope to a place of absolute hopelessness. "Children I took to be a year old," she told the graduates, "Were seven and eight years old." Children were dying, adults were sick, and there was no prospect of anything good happening in the foreseeable future. Dr. Hestenes returned over ten years later to see a green valley where famine had been erased, children joyously healthy and three new churches thrived. It was the faith and hope of Christian people who had come to bring hope that eventually transformed the people, the conditions and the life of the valley.
Now there is a really important concept in the story Dr. Hestenes told our graduates. She told them that, "...there was no prospect of anything good happening in the foreseeable future." The key term here is foreseeable future. When you and I run out of patience, it is frequently because we do not see a way out in the immediate future. Here is the bottom line for people of faith. Christian hope is based on trust in the God who sees around the corner and is able to promise a hopeful outcome for those things that are not foreseeable to us! The story of a troubled and then transformed land is a powerful testimony to the fact that the patience Paul speaks of is finally a gift that comes from God.
As we explore the text from Romans, it is clear that patience as a quality of Christian living is rooted in our spiritual lives. Paul takes us through this by showing us that we are first of all led by the Sprit of God because we are God's children. Next, he takes us back to the foundations of spiritual life by reminding us that God's very Spirit works in our inner lives to build our confidence that we are united with Christ. Finally, out of these two critical principles, Paul speaks about the unity of all God's creation and all God's creatures in the great hope of ultimate redemption when God reigns over all things. Because of this hope we are able to wait patiently because our redemption is certain.
1. Led By The Spirit (vv. 12-14)
Paul says that there are two ways to live and that the difference between these two ways is everything.
This is not a new concept in the biblical story. Moses spoke on behalf of God to say to the people that God was offering a way of living that leads to life. To love and follow God was a life giving way and turning away from God and following self was a way that leads to death.
"I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live..." [ Deut. 30:19]
Jesus taught the very same thing to the crowds that came out to hear him. he spoke of two roads that we can take. One road leads to life and one leads to death.
"Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it." [Matt. &:13-14]
Paul says that we can live, as he puts it, "...according to the flesh," or we can be, "...led by the Spirit of God..." To live according to the flesh is to live with self at the center. My impatience in the traffic jam is a self-centered thing. It is my schedule that is paramount and my destination that is most important. Everyone else on the road should yield to my needs. This self-centered way of living (living according to the flesh) is a way that leads to death Paul says.
There is another way to live and that is to be led by the Spirit of God. This puts God and God's interests at the center of our lives. God's Spirit is active in our lives and we are assured that we are God's children.
2. United with Christ (vv.15-18)
There is a critical concept in Paul's discussion of the role of the Spirit in our lives. It is the Spirit of God within us that gives us the deep assurance that we actually are God's children. This work of the Spirit results in a sense of "adoption" - a sense that makes God our "Abba Father." The term abba is word used in the everyday language of Jesus day. It is a term of endearment a child would use in speaking to his or her father. We might use the term "daddy." This is the term Jesus used when he cried out to God in the Garden of Gethsemane as he struggled with the impending crisis of crucifixion. [Mark 14:36]
Now if God is our "abba," as Paul says, we are closely bound to Jesus Christ. We are "joint heirs" with Christ. Everything that belongs to Christ in the intimate relationship between Christ and his "Abba," also belongs to us.
In light of our intimate relationship with God through Jesus Christ and because we are heirs with Christ of all the glory of God, Paul tells his readers that although they endure suffering in "this present time," the glory that is theirs is more than worth it all.
Although we may not go through the suffering and persecution those earliest Christians did because of their faith - our intimate relationship with God can give us the same sense of strength in the face of our own trials. The traffic jams and long waits in line at the store do not come close to the trials many of us will endure - but through it all, the Spirit of God working within us can lift our eyes to the glory of God that is our ultimate inheritance!
3. Hopefully Patient
There is a sense in which all of creation waits for that time when God will bring all things together under the authority of what we call the "Kingdom of God." We noted in our message last week that, "all of creation will rejoice as the hills sing and the trees clap their hands because God's people are reunited with their Maker! " Here Paul says that, "...the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay..." and that it will share the glory of the Children of God.
The overarching term used for the completion of all of God's good work - in creation and in all of us as Children of God is the term redemption. It includes salvation, wholeness and the sense of having been totally freed from all bondage because God has plucked us from everything that leads to death through the mediating work of Jesus Christ.
Now that's a mouthful - but there is a glimpse of the meaning of redemption in the work of Western Christians of various groups who have purchased the freedom of children and women who have been enslaved in the Sudan. Although this practice is questioned by many, those who have found freedom in these efforts express a joy which comes powerfully to those who have lived in hopelessness.
In an imperfect world, there is no perfect redemption, but Paul speaks of a redemption in which all of creation and the Children of God will finally share in the glory that belongs to Christ. The kingdom will come in all its fullness!
This is what it means to live with complete hope. Although we do not yet see the fulfillment, we claim God's kingdom and live by God's kingdom as though it were already here. Because we trust the promises of God, we are hopefully patient as we live out our lives in faith!
Connections in the Texts
The essential thread for this week's texts is the question, "Where is our hope for redemption?" When will the right prevail, righteousness win out over wrong and God's people be vindicated? There is a sense of hunger for consummation of God's intention for this world. Each of the texts has a slightly different slant of this theme.
Jesus' parable of the wheat and weeds in Matthew raises the issue of whether the "good people" can eliminate the "bad people" and bring about a "good" world. Jesus teaches that it is God who will bring about the elimination of evil and then the "good" will shine. The short passage in Isaiah is an affirmation that God alone is God and there is no other. It is the Lord who has told the people of God what will take place in the future. "There is no other rock" -- that is hope for redemption. Romans takes the issue to creation as well as the inner life of the people of God. The Holy Spirit within us puts the sense of "groaning" for redemption -- for the right. Even creation awaits God's righteous outcome. The Psalmist offers a song of one who cries out for vindication and who, in spite of trial and tribulation cries out to and trusts in God for justice.
The lectionary selection from Matthew makes more sense this week. Matthew 13 has a series of parables about the Kingdom of God which conclude with Jesus' doing a bit of private teaching with his disciples about the meaning of those parables. The parable of the wheat and the weeds and then Jesus' explanation to his disciples is a fitting pericope
It would be appropriate to say that in Matthew's 13th chapter, Jesus is teaching "Principles of the Kingdom". This particular reading addresses a question. "Is there anything "good" people (children of the kingdom) can do to eliminate the "bad" people (children of the evil one) so as to make a better world? Jesus' answer is clear. "No!" Separation of the "good guys" and "bad guys" is something only God can do. No one less than God has the perfect information and insight to accomplish this separation. Our full text sermon focuses on this theme and how we are to live faithfully in the face of injustice.
Observe that the clash of good and evil predates and postdates the lifetime of the wheat and the weeds. The seeds are sown by other forces and the harvest is accomplished by God. We live "in between." The raising of the question of ultimate justice by nature raises the issue of eschatology. As Jesus Christ is the Alpha, he is also the Omega.
"I am the First and I am the Last..." Here, the Alpha and Omega is clear. If you were to use this as your sermon text or include it's theme in your message, the text is best set in the wider, natural pericope in 44:1-8. There are several compelling images in these eight verses that connect with New Testament themes. "I will pour water... I will pour my Spirit..." (See John 4:14) God says to Israel, "I have formed you from the womb..." That is - God planted the seed which became the wheat - just a different image here.
Then, comes the affirmation. "There is no other God than me and that is given witness in the fact that I alone am able to tell you the end from the beginning." Thus, God's people are to be witnesses of the fact that "there is no other God!" Accordingly, there is no other source of true justice.
Even creation is groaning along with the children of God... groaning as a woman in labor pain... that's how strong the longing for redemption is in the hearts of those who trust in God! The cry for righteousness and hunger for justice is woven into the very fabric that runs through all of creation.. It is as though every ear, including the ear of the world around us, has this intense yearning to hear the voice of God once again -- "Indeed, it is very good!"
Paul points out that it the Holy Spirit within us that links us to and unites us with the heart of God -- namely a longing for the glory of God -- righteousness. There is a thread which runs through all of today's texts that has to do with the children of God. A possible message would identify the characteristics of God's children using Isaiah, Matthew and Romans.
As in Matthew we wait for the redemption. We can not bring it about in our own strength and we can not even loosen the shackles of our own bondage. It is as Isaiah said, "There is no other rock."
It is God who by grace, love and faithfulness, who gives us strength to live in the face of injustice. Once again, the clash between good and evil is resolved in the strength of God.
Call To Worship (Based on Psalm 86)
Leader: Lord we come with open, teachable hearts,
People: That you might guide our living.
Leader: We pray that you would give us clarity of spirit,
People: That we might revere your holy name.
Leader: We thank you, O Lord, from the depths of our being,
People: And we will glorify your name for ever and ever. Amen!
A Prayer of Confession
Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done you will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, we have not heard the cry of the needy. Forgive us, we pray. Free us for joyful obedience. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
Hear the good news: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God's love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ we are forgiven!
A Prayer of Thanksgiving
Our hearts are open before you, O Lord. There are no thoughts we can
harbor or fantasies we can hide from your presence. Wherever we go --
whether in thought or in deed -- you are already there.
And so, you know Lord God, there are times when we really, honestly
wonder why wrong seems to win out over the right. Good people die
young and bad people seem to live to a ripe old age. At least, it seems
like that to us. Our hearts long to see things right in our world. There is
so much pain and anguish that doesn't seem right. We fear for the safety
of our children and wonder when the next school will be subjected to the
horror of a senseless eruption of violence.
Yet -- you are everlastingly faithful and loving! O great God of our souls,
give us the grand grace of Job to resist the advice of the world to "curse you
and die!" We believe Lord -- help our unbelief. We trust you Lord -- help us
when that trust is crushed by the crisis of our days. Help us when the evil of this
world threatens to undo our faith in you. Give us courage to believe in your
ultimate triumph over the wrong. Infuse the hope of St. Paul into our hearts
that, "all things work together for good -- to those who love God..." Make us
worthy of your patience with us and give us hearts that are able to rest in
your promise that every wrong will be made right -- every injustice will be
transformed by justice and that every child who has ever wrongfully been
deprived of life, will find fulfillment of its potential in your loving embrace.
When all is said and done, O God of our hearts, we surrender to the love that
has won our lives from ruin. You are gracious beyond our merit, faithful beyond
our infidelity and loving beyond our wandering hearts. Now come and bless us.
Bless us with growth in faithfulness, courage in witness, liberty in graciousness
and above all things -- the ability to give into your hands the judgment we would
dearly love to apply to other peoples lives!
Help us to love others as you love us.
Prayer of Dedication (Also based on Psalm 86)
What a powerful impact your amazing love has on our lives, Lord God.
You are patient, gracious, faithful to every promise you have ever made;
and above all things your love is everlasting. We pray that the gifts we
bring today will enable us to reach out with your life-changing love. Amen.