Subversive Sorrow, Shortsighted Grace, Superb Repentance ~ BitterSweetLife

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Subversive Sorrow, Shortsighted Grace, Superb Repentance

Shortsighted Grace

I hate pain and sorrow as much as the next guy, but when possible, I’m eager to turn it to subversive purposes. The obvious function of pain? To kick you in the teeth until you scream. Of sorrow? To make you wish that everything, or at least you, were different.

But suppose there was a redemptive option. I like to think that there is a lot of fine print attached to pain, if we would read carefully. A lengthy catch-22. Sorrow’s apparent trajectory may be misleading. We feel it curve down, but miss the ascending arc on the other side. A lot of us miss half the ride—the part of pain that swings back up.

HA! I’ll consider that idea after I’ve developed bluish bags under my eyes, nursed a bottomless cup of woe and riddled the wall with impressions of my clenched fists. What’s this you say about pain being redemptive? Go on and tell me so I can confirm the fact that you’re a sucker!

Right. But God has a way of redefining a lot of “undeserved, pointless suffering.” He implies, pointedly, that often there is a very real purpose for it: “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:11). That’s right, if you’re going through hard times, it may be because God wants to get your attention. He may want you to change something in your life.**

It’s at this point that the picture becomes strange, and the sorrow becomes subversive. If I was writing the script, I would pen in a gritty “heroic resolve” part here, something like, “-so suck it up, and get your act together, and then maybe things won’t be so bad.” God takes things in a different direction entirely.

He states that the training sorrow provides leads to something essential—repentance—which leads in turn to something beautiful—reunion. When pain prompts us to turn away from some personal evil, ditch our designer addictions, and turn back to God, our Father and Maker, God’s “discipline” has served its purpose. Peace arrives and grace sets in.

The grace is shortsighted and calls us to live in the moment—fervently running through these hard phases of divine discipline without dwelling on the fact that we have done this before and will undoubtedly (unless we are on our deathbeds) do it again. Every instance of repentance happens as though we are falling in love: there are no two instances the same, and the sweetness of repentance embraced retains the refreshing aura of “the first time”—but always, we are returning to the same God.

We repent, and we are following a pattern that is paradoxically formulaic, falling into a rhythm that is, like falling in love, “predictable”—but at the same time beyond our control.

It would be natural to feel a sense of heaviness and failed obligation because, if we are lucky, we have repented so many times before. We think that we should be past this, done bothering God by now. But if we take on this burden, we are forgetting the nature of repentance. If you had a perfect lover, you wouldn’t swear and get angry because you had to return to that person one more time. You would be relieved, beyond all measure, to have the opportunity to come back.

Only a few things in natural experience fall into this category: things which we experience repeatedly, but always with a kind of childlike joy. Spring, a favorite food, an enduring romance; basketball, books, coffee. Repentance had better be placed where it rightfully belongs—in this category of joys with staying power.

What if you could kick off Spring or March Madness or a decidedly romantic evening, merely by a “change of mind,” a voluntary self-humbling, a fit of bracing honesty? Isn’t this what repentance does?

But such a magical change of scenery, the rediscovery of a missing person (you), and the return to your own homeland (God)—has been so “worked over” that we flinch from even talking about it. When it comes to repentance, we assume that we’ve already been there. We forget what repentance really is, and immerse ourselves instead in the angry disappointment that is meant to lead us to it. We forget that when God walks in, everything changes—even the original sorrow.

Often, the most-feared joys are the best.

:: Related post: Contra Mundum Vision - Cultivating a tendency to turn the world on its head ::

** Wait a minute, AJ. Are you flat-out saying that if I am suffering, it’s because I screwed up somewhere? No, I’m not saying that. It’s certainly possible to suffer incidental harm or even to be hung out to dry for doing good. Seriously, though—the odds are against it. At least in my experience. That’s why I feel comfortable writing as if many, even most, of the pain in our lives is self-inflicted—and is intended as a flare to get us on back the trail toward Christ.

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Dustin said...

About five years ago, I went through the darkest time of my life, with sorrow, regret and guilt pervading every waking moment. Yet, as I look back now, it is quite possible that I would not be the man I am today if I had not went through that pain and suffering...which was because of my own actions. God is faithful, and now has helped me to realize just what that was all about, and how He's going to use it in the future.

Lily said...

ditch our designer addictions...

What do you do when you can't because THE designer dropped a little something in your design? When it's in your genes? Programmed, hardwired into the person that you are? When it has nothing to do with turning away from God and doing what you want to do and everything to do with daily crying out to God to DO something because you just can't do it alone and He does nothing?

Ariel said...

I don't want to imply that we can, in a moment, walk away from the addictions that we have been fighting for years. Try telling a chain smoker to stop. Stop NOW.

One paradox of Christian spirituality is that God tells us to do impossible things, and then holds us responsible when we don't. But this is because God is willing to take us in hand.

I believe that asking God for help, even desperately, when it seems like he doesn't show up, brings us a step closer to escape. Repentance doesn't have to do so much with our ability to quit, stop, change as God's willingness to bring us close to him again.

There are points in our lives when the willingness to turn away from addiction, the desire, is what God looks for.

I think most of us have the feeling sometimes of fighting tendencies toward "addiction" (I am using this as a synonym for "sin") that seem beyond our control. I do. At these times, my experience is that God does not change me outright, and wipe the slate clean - but he does respond to my cries for help and gives me grace to fight, and incrementally break free.

My addictive tendencies are still there, but as I grow, they become mere "foliage" instead of the central stem.

Best of all, Christ reminds me that I'm walking with him, that he's going nowhere. I know that he is gradually changing me. But the with him part is what's essential.

Andy said...

Ariel, have you been reading Bonhoeffer lately? Because this is exactly what he discusses in The Cost of Discipleship.

The willingness to obey is the 1st step. He'll help us towards full obedience...if we have faith that He will do it.

Ariel said...

No, I haven't read Bonhoeffer recently. But I would like to have!

John B. said...

Funny how one can read the right things--even things one didn't know one needed to read--at exactly the right time.

Thank you.


Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife