Reflections on Illness and Naming
This is a collection of posts, originally published in three installments in late 2015 and early 2016. What follows is an edited version. What’s remarkable to me—writing in August 2021—is how much my views have changed, and how much consistency yet remains. I hope this collection of reflections benefits you in some way.
The way of the Son of God into the far country is the way of obedience. This is…the first and inner moment of the mystery of the deity of Christ. – Karl Barth
In October 2015, I attended a weekend-long retreat in Santa Maria, California, located in Santa Barbara County. My group and I trekked for three and a half hours in remarkably bad traffic to join twenty or so students who belong to UCLA’s branch of Reformed University Fellowship (RUF). We joined a larger group of students and campus ministers who belong to other RUFs located in Southern California at the Zaca Lake Retreat Center.
Once there, I listened to the retreat’s guest speaker, Chad Brewer, an RUF campus minister talk about (predictably) Jesus Christ; who He is, and what He wants from us — on Friday Night, Saturday morning and evening, and Sunday morning. Friday night’s message was centered on 1 John 1.
I doubt a more beautiful introduction to a letter has ever been written. I think something that adds to the beauty of the text is the tripartite vision John sketches for us in the first sentence of the letter. The Witnesses heard, saw, and touched the Lord. They touched the Holy One, the one who, “For our sake [was made] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). When we come to the Lord’s table in communion, we “taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Psalm 34:8a). We hear the word of God preached to us, and we touch the elements which signify the body and blood of Christ, of which we eat and drink in the Heavenly places by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Below are some thoughts and observations I gathered about myself and about the Lord while on this retreat.
A: “How are you?”
B: “I’ve been in a lot of physical pain recently.”
It’s not something the average person hears every day, thankfully. It would appear that all of my reflection on the theological literature discussing what an “ideal Christian response to pain and suffering,” should look like seems to come up short while I’m actually suffering.
When I have to lie down because standing up and walking around is too painful, I’m often overwhelmed when I think about Romans 5:3–5. Paul instructs that “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” I debate with myself whether or not rejoicing in suffering means the same thing as rejoicing while suffering. I have to lean toward “No,” simply because the latter is so uncharacteristic of the Christian faith. We aren’t supposed to do things the way the world does things, we do things in faith. We shouldn’t just suffer, but rejoice in our sufferings while we suffer.
In 2 Cor. 2:19, the Lord tells Paul, who is suffering from a “thorn in [his] side” (perhaps his declining vision), “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” If power is made perfect in weakness, then our suffering will produce Christian endurance — God will provide us with the courage to be, to borrow Tillich’s phrase. At this stage in Paul’s argument, we aren’t told what type of existence we will have as we continue to be, preserved by the tender, loving-kindness of our Lord. This alien endurance, our continued being (which is always united to Christ) must, from this juncture, develop “character.” Our resolve is strengthened precisely because God gives us the courage to be in the midst of suffering. We are sufferers held in God’s arms; our resolve in the midst of suffering (our character), which is inspired by the fact of our alien (i.e. conferred unto us by God) endurance, will bring forth hope in the God of the Gospel.
Suffering is deeply woven into the fabric of the eschatological promise of deliverance. We simply can’t be put to shame because we are clothed with the Lord’s righteousness. We have no basis to fear a final humiliation when the Lord returns. For it is in our Union with Christ that we belong to Christ, and are no longer our own. This knowledge allows us to perceive the wondrous reality of God’s love, which broke into the world through His Son. As we receive it, we know that we have received it, because the Holy Spirit has infused it into our spiritually lifeless bodies before we were conscious of the goodness of the Lord.
I have no desire to address the theodicy question here, but God’s goodness is not an abstract principle — it makes itself tangible in the way that God loves us in spite of us being ourselves. His love endures even while we curse him in the deepest, darkest lows of our suffering. He is in fact not only for us, but next to us as Friend and Advocate. Suffering prepares one to suffer more because of the hope of the Gospel.
Our great salvation, delivered unto eternal reconciliation with the one who pursued us first, is an ever-present reality. “Cheer up,” “the darkest hour is just before the dawn,” “God saves his hardest battles for his strongest soldiers,” etc. begin to sound like niceties while the grandeur of coming glory enraptures my consciousness to take hold of Christ What can be of more utility in the midst of unappeasable anguish than to know that the Lord God loves me? “For in him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28a).
I was surprised by my reflections concerning myself during this retreat. As it pertains to pain, I learned that I’m actually able to celebrate and enjoy other people being able to do things I’m not able to do without feeling bitterness or resentment. Being in community with people who aren’t particularly conscientious about the degree of pain I’m in (which is certainly due, in part, to me not talking about it) can be difficult — especially when there is an expectation for me to enter into fellowship with a posture of celebration.
There’s a song on Sandra McCracken’s new album, “Psalms,” called “All Ye Refugees.” She sings,
“Go out in joy and join the great procession / The mountains and the heav’ns all will rejoice / horizon to horizon, creation to creation / With one voice.”
So, there’s this image of joining the great procession of God with a joyful heart that started to resonate with me this weekend. I think I’ve gathered that it’s more than tolerating other people and trying my best to enjoy their company when they talk about things I’m not able to do, but to be sincerely, wondrously, joyfully, authentically happy for them. God’s children in Union with Christ belong to the Body of Christ: I trust God that He has a purpose for the way He’s arranged the members of His Body.
“We must acknowledge and lament the griefs of our losses, lest we turn our despair inward and drown in depression. But we are also freed to face our griefs boldly by the assurance of hope given to us through our faith in the Triune God.” – Marva J. Dawn, Being Well When We are Ill
God’s “being here” during my suffering is the grounds on which I grapple with the consequences of pain—for my consciousness, for my body, and for other people. However, all as addenda to suffering’s effect on my faith. I’d like to begin exploring what it is that happens at the intersection of suffering and faith.
Without completely agreeing with traditional Lutheran perspectives on the “Mortification of Flesh,” I found it extremely helpful to cite Tullian Tchividjian’s book, Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free, in which he observes the following,
We may not ever fully understand why God allows the suffering that devastates our lives. We may not ever find the right answers to how we’ll dig ourselves out. There may not be any silver lining, especially not in the ways we would like. But we don’t need answers as much as we need God’s presence in and through the suffering itself. For the life of the believer, one thing is beautifully and abundantly true: God’s chief concern in your suffering is to be with you and be Himself for you.
The notion of God’s being “with [me] and…Himself for [me]” is the centerpiece of a biblical theology of hopefulness, which I distinguish from Jürgen Moltmann’s “Theology of Hope.” The forensic (read: legal) merit of Christ’s work on the cross is sufficient to reconcile my ever-dying flesh with the vivifying breath of the Spirit. My old self is mortified (put to death), and I am invited, in Christ’s resurrection, to behold the promise of eternal blessedness—what we understand to be the distinctively Christian hope. Peter Lombard, more than 900 years ago, wrote that
Hope is the virtue by which spiritual and eternal goods are hoped for, that is, they are awaited with trust. For there is a sure expectation of future blessedness, coming from God’s grace and from merits which precede either hope itself, which charity by nature precedes, or the thing hoped for, that is, eternal blessedness. Indeed, to hope for something in the absence of merits may be called presumption rather than hope. – Sentences, Bk. III, Distinction XXVI, Ch. 1 (91)
Therefore, in the wake of the first Sunday of Advent, 2015—it is in joyful refrain that I praise the Lord for his First Coming, for his mediatory and intercessory work, and anticipate with much eagerness his Second Coming, in judgement and glory. The Hope of nations is coming soon.
My meditation on Romans 5:3–5 led to a realization: our resolve is strengthened precisely because God gives us the courage to be in the midst of suffering. Suffering is a mysterious universal in a post-lapsarian world. Even the Westminster Confession of Faith does not venture beyond “God’s Providence” as an explanation for why it was that Adam and Eve had the capacity to sin against God. Lombard, and therefore Augustine, teach that it glorified God more to bring out many a good work from free creatures, now fallen—than it did, in the ultimate wisdom of God’s Providence, to bring out variegated “goodnesses” in hypothetical creation narratives.
The universality of suffering means that it takes on, as one putting on a robe in the cold, more meaning when a Christian suffers. It is therefore of paramount importance to emphasize the validity of all human suffering—without respect to its deservedness. For example, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, in his outstanding book, Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine, writes,
There is nothing distinctly Christian about physical suffering: “If you prick us, do we not bleed? … If you poison us, do we not die?” However, when Christians suffer for their testimony to the truth of what is in Christ, or suffer as a Christ for others, they participate in the sufferings of Christ (1 Pet. 2:21; 4:13) and so make the reality of Christ visible. The church makes disciples in order to form a company of faith, a theater of martyrdom. For, in its life together, the church is more than a theater of morality. The gospel message concerns not just mortals but overwhelming mercy: it is the good news that God has overlooked our corruption and has poured out his own life to inaugurate a new creation, over which Christ has become king. The church is the “actualization of the realm of God/Christ in the ‘here’…and ‘now.’” In everything that it says and does, the church enacts a martyrdom of new life. Doctrine directs disciples in this new way of being-towards-resurrection. (218–219)
God is Yahweh-yireh, the Lord who will Provide. As expressed in Genesis 22:14, “So Abraham called the name of that place, ‘‘The LORD will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.’’” Calvin remarks upon this title “that God not only looks upon those who are his, but also makes his help manifest to them….” The one who provided, so many years ago, a ram—caught in a thicket by his horns as a shadow of the true sacrifice, that of himself, is the God of Ages. The Eternal One sends his Spirit to live within us, among us, and in His Son, for us. As Vanhoozer remarks, Christian disciples are reoriented, in our mortification with the church, towards of a posture of “being-towards-resurrection.”
Chronicity: Hope in a Diagnosis, Hope in a Name
Citing once more Marva J. Dawn, “What we lose perhaps cannot be restored in the same forms those elements of our lives once took, but we can experience diverse patterns of powerful healing that take us into wholeness and into new relationships with ourselves, others, and God.”
St. Paul reminds us in the twelfth chapter of his Epistle to the Church in Rome to, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Contemporary American churches don’t do a very good job at weeping. The contemporary “Theology of Glory,” has for the most part replaced the nourishing succor, the pure gospel, exemplified in the patristic, evangelical, catholic, and reformed, “Theology of the Cross.”
In an interview with Marketplace, Jonathan Franzen said to journalist Kai Ryssdal,
We have this notion in this country, not only of endless economic growth but of endless personal growth. I have a certain characterological antipathy to the notion of we’re all getting better and better all the time. And it’s so clearly belied by our experience. You may get better in certain ways for 10 years, but one day you wake up and although things are a little bit different, they’re not a lot different.
We’re not going to be getting better all the time; especially not in our walk with the Lord. Physical suffering brings us to a place where we can see God more clearly, but it will not always do this. Sometimes suffering will alienate us from God. The Hope of the Gospel is that in Jesus Christ, our alienation to and from God is nailed to the cross.
On the 22nd of November, I officially became a member of Pacific Crossroads Church (PCA) in Santa Monica, CA. I’m pleased to say that I, once more, have a body with whom I can weep. Recently, I visited a new rheumatologist. Barring the occurrence of a statistically insignificant genetic disorder, I most likely have a disease known as fibromyalgia. The Mayo Clinic Staff defines it as “a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory and mood issues… [It] amplifies painful sensations by affecting the way [the] brain processes pain signals.” It explains quite a bit; especially why several rounds of treatments have been heretofore ineffective.
God has truly given me a gift, if it is not indeed premature to understand it as such, in providing me with a name for my illness. Much in the same way, Christ’s interrogation of the Gerasene Demoniac (Mark 5:1–20) was a gift for the man who was exorcised. The unveiling of the name, Legion, was by no means accidental to Jesus’s subsequent dismissal of the demon into the herd of swine. I am not suggesting that my fibromyalgia is the result of “being spiritually oppressed,” not by any means at all. But the renewed strength I have in being able to comprehend and assess what is going on in my body does away with much anxiety.
The chronicity of fibromyalgia has brought me to my knees and has lifted up my eyes to praise God for his love and mercy. The adoration of the Lord and the great things he has done before the appreciation of the great gifts he has given us is the primary learning I’ve taken away from my daily battle with chronic pain. By the Lord’s progressive removal of my health, and the inauguration of this new journey back into healing with this diagnosis, perhaps not into complete physical healing, has reminded me of his goodness and mercy more than anything else in my life. My refrain can never again be, “I have decided to follow Jesus,” but it must be Psalm 66:5, “Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man.”
To paraphrase Marva J. Dawn, a posture of “being-towards-glory” as opposed to “being-towards-resurrection,” puts an undue focus on pragmatic gains from our Worship of the Lord. When (perhaps today, sadly, if) we articulate our devotional lives through exclusively emotional talk, instead of through the pure adoration of the Lord, we have both misplaced the meaning and misunderstood the message of the gospel. Dawn suggests that the aim of our devotional lives should be “the formation of our selves to become more like God.” In other words, mortification—or the subjective experience of our sanctification, should be the end of our devotion and worship.
My pain began escalating in July of 2015, and since then, I had been allowed to see just how deceptive emotions can be regarding the steadfastness of my confession. They will lie and cheat, beg and borrow, barter and promise, much more effectively than the Serpent ever could. Dawn, who describes this phenomenon in strong terms, notes that
This cultural fetish with feelings is profoundly disturbing to me. In working with young people I have noticed over the past 30 years that the question concerning moral issues has changed from “What do you think about it?” to “How do you feel about it?” Even more unbiblical is the fact that many people in our society judge a worship service by whether or not it made them feel “uplifted” or “excited.”
A posture of awe, amazement, bewilderment—among many other synonyms—is imperative in our spiritual walk. Enchantment transcends the visceral emotional response to worship. As one theologian has said, we are not entitled to religious certainty. The powerlessness that enfeeblement brings necessarily points us toward, of all places, the table of the Lord. Being fed by Christ in the heavenly places as we partake in communion is one of the most frightening yet exhilarating realities of the Christian faith.
Awe, especially from a paralytic, bubbles over and reveals the nexus of hope and humility. Consider the story of Luke 5:17–26: it is the happily incomprehensible dialectic of doubt in the midst of Christ’s faithfulness and faith in the midst of our doubtfulness. It is the reaction of the paralytic to Christ, the God-man’s declaration of cleansing—removing his sin before healing the malady that was tormenting him.
A sacramental amazement must seize our consciousness, it must grip our imagination, so that our sorrows might begin to see the linings of Joy in Christ.
A Sacramental Basis for Hope
James Bannerman, in his tome The Church of Christ, discusses the Presbyterian understanding of the benefit of the Sacraments, in particular the Lord’s Supper:
It is carefully to be noted that they presuppose or imply the possession of grace in the case of those who partake of them; but they are also made the means of adding to that grace. they are seals of a covenant already made between the soul and Christ,—attestations of a federal transaction before completed,—confirmations, visible and outward, of engagement between the sinner and his Saviour previously entered on both sides. They presuppose the existence of grace, else they could not be called seals of it. Just as the signature and seal of same human covenant necessarily presuppose that the covenant exists before they can become vouchers for it, so the seal of God’s covenant, affirmed by means of sacramental ordinances, presupposes the existence of that covenant as already subsisting between God and the rightful participator in the ordinance. But although grace exists in the soul before The Sacraments are made to those who rightly receive them the means of increasing that grace, and communicating yet more of spiritual blessing. They serve to strengthen the faith of those who already believe, and add to the grace of those who previously possessed grace. They become effectual means of imparting saving blessings in addition to those enjoyed before. (520–521)
Feeding on the Lord “[imparts] saving blessings in addition to those enjoyed before.” As I reflect on my baptism, and as I engage authentically and honestly with my community of Christian brothers and sisters, and as I, week by week, approach the throne of the transcendent God and do not die as I partake of his table, I rejoice in the hope of new life, and the hope of Advent draws near in my soul. The hope of Advent is near in my heart.
Therefore, I will celebrate the glory of the King, newborn so many years ago in that stable in Bethlehem. I pray for a heart like Mary’s, and consider Bernard of Clairvaux’s reflection on her humility,
And certainly no one prays for anything unless he believes that it exists, and hopes to obtain it. Bur God wills that what he has promised should be asked of him in prayer. And perhaps therefore he in the first place promises many things which he has resolved to give us, that our devotion may be excited by the promise, and that thus our earnest prayer may merit what he had been disposed to bestow upon us freely. This is what the prudent Virgin understood when she joined the merit of her prayer with the previous gift of the promise freely bestowed upon her, saying, ‘Let it be to me according to your word.’ Let it be to me according to your word concerning the Word. Let the Word that was in the beginning with God become flesh from my flesh. Let the Word, I pray, be to me, not as a word spoken only to pass away, but conceived and clothed in flesh, not in air, that he may remain with us. Let him be, not only to be heard with the ears, but to be seen with the eyes, touched with the hands and borne on the shoulders. Let the Word be to me, not as a word written and silent, but incarnate and living. That is, not traced with dead signs upon dead parchments but livingly impressed in human form upon my chaste womb; not by the tracing of a pen of lifeless reed, but by the operation of the Holy Spirit. Let it thus be to me, as was never done to anyone before me, nor after me shall be done. I desire that he may be formed, not as the word in preaching, not as a sign in figures, or as a vision in dreams, but silently inspired, personally incarnated, found in the body, in my body. Let the Word therefore deign to do in me and for me what he needed not to do, and could not do, for himself, according to your word. Yes, let it be done for the sake of the whole world, but specially let it be done unto me, according to your word.
In this season of Advent, as we await the Second Coming of our Lord, let us joyfully shout, “Let it be to me according to your word,” let our lives be examples of God’s saving power, such that we can say to our friends and family, “Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man.”
Come and see.
You Have Given Me a Story
Dear God, tonight [is] not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine. – Flannery O’Connor, A Prayer Journal, p. 11
Flannery O’Connor’s prayer thanked God for a fictional story, a creative spark. We must thank the Lord for His creative spark, for our stories, our narratives—which have been made new, sealed by the New Covenant made in Christ’s blood. God has baptized our paths into redemptive history, and our suffering is a constitutive part of the unfolding progression of the universe toward the Grand Unveiling.
The renewal of our stories is an unexpected benefit in the renewal of our being for God’s purposes. We are saved from damnation and placed into the bosom of God’s “Yes” to humanity. In Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, the author writes, “The Holy Spirit is the awakening power in which Jesus Christ summons a sinful [person] to His community and therefore as a Christian to believe in Him” (IV/1, p. 740). Faith does not rest primarily within our own, subjective experience of God, instead it “rests in God’s Word itself” (CD, I/1, p. 223). The Lord Jesus Christ is the Blessed Object and Divine Subject in, by, and through which we have faith. We know this about our God, “The LORD is exalted, for he dwells on high; he will fill Zion with justice and righteousness, and he will be the stability of your times, abundance of salvation, wisdom, and knowledge; the fear of the LORD is Zion’s treasure” (Isaiah 33:5–6 ESV).
As the Father ordains and the Son sacrifices and the Spirit gifts, we exult and praise our Triune God, and along with St. Paul we sing, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33 ESV).
Chapters one and two are about suffering and the beauty of the Father’s covenant love for us in His Crucified Son. In chapter two, I discuss my recent diagnosis of fibromyalgia. I ended the piece by considering a “Sacramental Basis for Hope.” Expanding upon the theme of hope, I’d like to discuss some of the thoughts I’ve had recently about God’s gift of newness of life through faith, in spite of living in the midst of a life in pain.
It is the Lord!
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this” (Isaiah 9:6–7 ESV).
Catholic theologian and Barth expert Paul D. Molnar, in his excellent new volume Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (2015, IVPAcademic), brings up a frequent argument brought up against Barth, namely that his “theological objectivity” makes the Christian faith a purely cognitive exercise. Molnar cites (p. 35) Barth himself to the contrary,
It is not their faithfulness which makes [Christian subjects, nonetheless] the event of their faith…is more than cognitive in character…. It is clearly the positing of a new being, the occurrence of a new creation, a new birth of these [people]. In their act these sinful [people] confirm that they are the witnesses of the alteration of the human situation which has taken place in Jesus Christ: not the [people] who are altered in it—for as such they cannot so far be seen—but certainly, and this is the astonishing thing—as those for whom it has happened and not not happened, as the witnesses of it. – CD, IV/1, p. 752
In our self-reflexive analysis, we as Christians are “witnesses of the alteration of the human situation which has taken place in Jesus Christ.” Indeed, as Barth observes, for the Christian, “there begins and takes place a new and particular being of man” (CD, IV/1, p. 749). While we can’t yet see with the eyes of eternity, the “[people]…altered in” Christ’s transforming love, we can certainly see progressive instantiations of our movement toward God. However, it is precisely in our movement toward God where we learn that we haven’t moved anywhere at all. As John said to Simon Peter, we say, “It is the Lord!” (John 21:7). The Lord Christ has brought us toward Him by coming closer to us. We are “awakened to faith and can live by it” (CD, IV/1, p. 750).
Michael Horton, in his Systematic Theology, argues (p. 47) that,
Against the image of either modern masters or postmodern tourists, the Bible identifies God’s covenant people as pilgrims. Neither having arrived nor merely carried along by arbitrary whim, we are travelers who “seek the city that is to come” (Heb 13:14). The Creation is also the Consummator, as Jesus declared in his revelation to John: “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty’” (Rev 1:8).
Jesus is the end and the beginning, and we must follow Him to the ends of the earth, because the Lord “daily bears our burden,” He is “the God who is our salvation” (Psalm 68:19 ESV). Calvin’s commentary on John 21:7 is a beautiful analysis.
The Evangelist shows, by his example, that it is our duty to raise our hearts to God, whenever we succeed in any thing beyond our expectation; because we ought instantly to remember that this act of kindness has flowed from the favor of Him who is the Author of every blessing. That holy recognition of the grace of God, which dwelt in the heart of John, led him also to the knowledge of Christ; for he does not perceive Christ with his eyes, but, being convinced that the great multitude of fishes has been brought to him by the hand of God, he concludes that it was Christ who had guided his hands. But, as John goes before Peter in faith, so Peter afterwards excels him in zeal, when, disregarding personal danger, he throws himself into the lake. The rest follow in the ship. True, all come to Christ at length, but Peter is actuated by a peculiar zeal in comparison of the others. Whether he crossed over to the shore by walking or by swimming, is uncertain; but let us rest satisfied with knowing that the act of leaving the ship and going on shore was not the result of folly and rashness, but that he advanced beyond the others in proportion to his zeal.
In 1898, Leila M. Morris wrote, “Nearer, Still Nearer,” one of my favorite hymns; the first stanza is reproduced below.
Nearer, still nearer, close to Thy heart,
Draw me, my Savior — so precious Thou art!
Fold me, oh, fold me close to Thy breast.
Shelter me safe in that “Haven of Rest”;
Shelter me safe in that “Haven of Rest.”
In Ingolf U. Dalferth’s Crucified and Resurrected: Restructuring the Grammar of Christology, the author writes (p. 25),
The question regarding the identity of the one who is proclaimed as the risen one in different confessions and in references to them may be answered by pointing explicitly to Jesus of Nazareth and his story. The theological nub of the story is Jesus’s disclosure of the nearness of God, which he revealed, in word and deed, as the saving accessibility of God’s mercy and forgiving, fatherly love. Jesus’s proclamation of God, and the testimony of his life to the availability, trustworthiness, and transformative power of God’s love, is the basis of the early Christian confessional statements.
Because of Christ, the nearness of God to us is not as the relation of an external object cooperating with an autonomous internal subject. Rather, as His new creations, God’s spirit is poured into our hearts as we draw nearer to Him. God’s ordination of our salvation precipitates the dawn of authorship: The Lord grants us new stories, and our stories are truly ours. The lens through which I understand pain and depression is unencumbered with the frantic search for meaning. As I argue elsewhere:
The English poet Robert Browning wrote “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” in 1855. The following stanza comprises lines 37–42:
Thus, I had so long suffer’d, in this quest,
Heard failure prophesied so oft, been writ
So many times among “The Band” — to wit,
The knights who to the Dark Tower’s search address’d
Their steps — that just to fail as they, seem’d best.
And all the doubt was now — should I be fit?
The speaker articulates notions of ethical uncertainty to non-existent interlocutors, suggesting a deeper, philosophical non-resolution to the superficial predicament of the quest narrative, which I believe is literally resolved by Roland’s arrival at the Dark Tower in the final stanza of the poem.
The tension between the resolved and unresolved communicates to the reader a sense of the Roland persona’s hopelessness and fatalistic outlook on existence and humanity’s interaction with the world around him. Seeing the human battle…as “the long suffering quest” misunderstands and fatally reduces the Gospel to its gifts. It fatally misunderstands the trajectories of the possible by delimiting our existence to sets of behavioral patterns and norms to be followed: what God can do instead of God’s self.
In granting us new stories, the Lord gives us materially real narratives that reëvaluate our categories of being and becoming. We remain ourselves, but we are ourselves differently. We are ourselves in the Body of Christ, and therefore we participate in the life of God through the mystery of God’s condescension. We do not constitute a part of God, rather, God saw fit to include us in His story by including us in the Divine. The gift of God is not in His gifts, but in the gift of Himself to us. How he loves us, no one can measure. What he gives us, no one can number.
We remember the words of St. Paul,
From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:16–21 ESV).
And once more,
[In] all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:37–39 ESV).