Paschal Providence

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I was lying awake unable to sleep last night, fretting about various uncontrollable circumstances in my life that I would love to control. Story of my life. Anyway, as I prayed to God I started theologizing about my fretting, as I often do. It’s my way of allowing my trials to give birth to insights I can (hopefully) later share with others. I was bouncing between Matthew 6’s “consider the lilies of the field…do not worry…” and David Bentley Hart’s stunning critique of those who say, “Everything that happens is because God wanted it that way.” As I have a Hart stack of books next to my bed, I opened to where he says:

There is, of course, some comfort to be derived from the thought that everything that occurs at the level of secondary causality – in nature or history – is governed not only by a transcendent providence but by a universal teleology that makes every instance of pain and loss an indispensable moment in a grand scheme whose ultimate synthesis will justify all things. But one should consider the price at which the comfort is purchased: it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of – but entirely by way of – every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines (and so on). It is a strange thing indeed to seek peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome.

Then I began to think about an insight I had a few years ago, compressed in this line I wrote in my journal back in 2012:

In what sense is ”God in control”? I’ve thought much of this over the last years and have concluded that the inner logic of God’s providential care for our well-being is revealed unambiguously in the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus. Trusting in the divine governance of history includes oscillating between ”My God, my God why have you abandoned me?” and ”Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” When I face the problem of evil in this world as a Christian, I should expect no better resolution than the one God offered Christ. Per crucem ad lucem, “Through the cross to the light.”

After all this thinking I was still awake, but who can I blame but myself as I was enjoying these insights and writing down my thoughts. My mind wandered back to a homily Bishop John Ricard preached one Good Friday in Tallahassee, in which he said (according to my journal):

St. Paul says, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” Trust in this promise that all “works for good” finds its truest expression not in those times of life when everything goes my way, but in the Garden of Agony when my will and God’s seem so distant. St. Matthew’s Gospel tells us, “And going a little farther Jesus fell on his face and prayed, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.'” And what was the Father’s response to Jesus’ prayer? Silence. Not an empty silence, but a listening silence as the Father inclined his ear to Jesus’ “Yes” — his mission to conquer death by death. The Father’s answer was not preventing Jesus from “loving us to the end” in the Passion (cf. John 13:1). His answer was raising Jesus from the dead. By doing this, and by not saving Jesus from our plight, God transformed the silence that envelops every human Passion into a space for trust and surrender. By raising Jesus God made it possible for our Passions to become sources of life, grace and mercy because the Crucified is risen and forever triumphant … The anchor of faith and hope must be dropped into the abyss of death in order to hook onto the Rock that is Christ; he who once was dead and is now risen forever and ever. To him be glory and power in the Church. Amen.

The next morning after my night of insomnia, I was reading an article by Protestant theologian Rodney Reeves. A line in the article knocked me to the ground. I’m sure you will see why. It was the perfect coda to wrap up my nighttime musings:

The divine comeback, God’s ultimate response to evil, injustice, sin, and death—what could be called the epitome of divine nonverbal communication—is the resurrected Christ. “God has not only raised the Lord,” Paul said, “but will also raise us up through his power” (1 Cor. 6:14). We may be tempted to believe that evil, suffering, and death prove God’s silence. But these are only ambient noises, and one day they will be silenced once and for all. God will have the last word when he raises us from the dead, when we ourselves are the embodiment of answered prayer.

All of this was most aptly summed up by an AME pastor in Tallahassee who chanted in his gravelly-voiced sermon once:

If you’s expectin’ any other way than Jesus’ way,
you always gonna make gripes and groans;
but if you join him on that ol’ rugged Cross
God’ll raise you up and roll back your heavy stones.

Ps 63-4

14 comments on “Paschal Providence

  1. Elizabeth Vaz says:

    I thank,praise and glorify our lord for making you an instrument to transform the world

  2. Joanna Brady says:

    Thankyou,I really love this,The anchor of faith and hope must be dropped into the abyss of death in order to hook onto the rock that is Christ.i often too turn over and over in my mind those things I can’t control,and have to learn afresh each time,to turn them over to God in prayer.there is always a journey of real fear,an experience of death of some sort,but then a new Dawn of peace and life……Praise be to Jesus.
    Thankyou for your blog,it has helped me so much in recent weeks.May God Bless you .

  3. n.o.S. says:

    WOW Thomas, WOW ,,,,,, WOW THOMAS!!!!

    P.S. Thank you and all for your prayers for Jerry. JOY oh JOY..

  4. Tony M says:

    What fertile ground your sleeplessness was!

    The Cross is not washed away in the torrent of evil but stands as a tentpole firmly planted in the center of it to hold up the Creation.

    • O Tony! Wow. How could your awesome words not remind me of the 6th century Latin hymn, Vexilla regis?

      The Royal Banner forward goes,
      The mystic Cross refulgent glows:
      Where He, in Flesh, flesh who made,
      Upon the Tree of pain is laid.

      O Cross! all hail! sole hope, abide
      With us now in this Passion-tide:
      New grace in pious hearts implant,
      And pardon to the guilty grant.

      O lovely and refulgent Tree,
      adorned with purpled majesty;
      culled from a worthy stock, to bear
      those limbs which sanctified were.

      Blest Tree, whose happy branches bore
      the wealth that did the world restore;
      the beam that did that Body weigh
      which raised up Hell’s expected prey.

      Thee, mighty Trinity! One God!
      Let every living creature laud;
      Whom by the Cross Thou dost deliver,
      O guide and govern now and ever! Amen

      • Tony Marco says:

        Awe! First time I have read this in its entirety! The joyful tone reminded me of your post. The ancient tension: we are forbidden triumphalism because the only triumph is through the Cross.

  5. n.o.s. says:

    Dear Tony M. ,thank you for the visual , now at HOLY MASS I n addition to the sacrifice I will be envisioning camping out under the big tent with JESUS and the boys .P.B.W.Y. nos.

  6. Mary says:

    AMEN! AMEN! THANK YOU! GOD BLESS!

  7. patrickriv says:

    Do you know where I can read more about Hart’s critique of those who think “everything that happens is because God wanted it that way?” I definitely often think that! Is that a bad line of thinking?

    • Yes, Hart has a book called Doors of the Sea where he deals with that question in some depth. No place for a serious answer, but let me say this to prime the pump. The fundamental problem with affirming without distinction or qualification that God “wants” things as they are is that God suddenly becomes a conspirator and prime actor in bringing about (willing) such things as rape, torture, children dying of excruciating illnesses or any other form of evil and corruption. Though we may say that God permits evil to, for example, open a “space” for human/angelic freedom or in view of the greater good he can raise out of evil, we would never say God “wants” evil in the sense that God ordains evil as somehow a good or necessary element of his providential will for creation. So, imagine in trying to comfort someone whose child was raped, tortured and killed by ISIS, a Christian who believes that “God wants things as they are” might say, “It was God’s will that you daughter suffer these things so that even better things could come from it.” We would (hopefully) wince if we heard that said, because we know that something in that statements is off. Rather, a Christian, who believes that God, in response to evil, became a man and suffered with us to redeem us, might say, “I weep with you. God is with you in your great sorrow and also weeps with you; and has taken your daughter to himself. Let’s pray to him for trust that in his great mercy he might bring good even out of this great evil.” So it’s about making sure we are clear what God does and does not want, and how one would qualify that in careful faith-language (i.e. theology). Hart also makes this point in his book I referenced above:
      “As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes”and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”
      I hope that helps a bit. Great and honest question.
      Thanks, Patrick. Godspeed.

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