I have been enjoying reading Notre Dame University theologian Dr. Laurence Cunningham’s recently published journal, Things Seen and Unseen. There’s an incident he recounts that I found to be particularly insightful. He says,
Once on a plane, when someone found out about my occupation, a pamphlet was whipped out with the opening gambit: “If you accept Jesus as your personal savior you will have peace of mind.” To which I responded frostily: “If I wanted peace of mind I would take Prozac.” I then went back to my reading after adding that faith should not be mistaken for therapy. Religious faith should serve, at the same time, to upset and give hope.
Even though that would not have been my style of responding, he makes an killer point. Funny that just yesterday I heard a speaker on our local Catholic radio say something life: “Trust God and everything’s gonna work out alright.” Well, it depends on what you mean by that. The speaker continued by saying, “No matter what happens, God’s gonna turn it in your favor if you trust Him.” Again, it depends on what you mean by that. Cunningham’s point is especially appropriate for so many American believers who are tempted by the seductive appeal of what has been called “therapeutic Deism.” This is the idea that God — who is really an unimposing, doting and distant grandpa who respects our autonomy and right to self-determine — only matters inasmuch as He makes me to feel good about myself, contributes to my personal happiness and promises that I’ll go to an Orbit heaven, “no matter what.”
Therapeutic Deism avoids placing faith into direct contact with the most brutal realities of life, just as it avoids internalizing the biblical idea of a God who, in the words of Pope Benedict, turns against himself, “his love against his justice” in the face of the monstrous evil of men and angels. Thus therapeutic Deism eviscerates the Cross of its meaning. Such a theology, as H. Richard Niebuhr famously said, leaves us with “a God without wrath who brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” For therapeutic Deists, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who is a “consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29), becomes a lackey of humanity who is happy to light our cigarette when we need a smoke to relax. Or, to quote St. John of the Cross, they are “extremely anxious that God remove their faults, imperfections and trials, but their motive is personal peace rather than God.”
Last November I was listening to a talk by Fr. Tom Hopko and he, as ever, made me laugh. His points were very similar to Cunningham’s, graced with his usual “unhinged” personal style. As I listened, I summarized it as best I could.
He recounted an encounter he’d had with one of his Orthodox parishioners. She said to him, “Father, I try to be a good person and say my prayers. So why do all these bad things keep happening to me?” He replied, “Well, let me ask you, what do the Gospels say good people who pray should expect in this life?” “Good things,” she replied. Father responded, “Yes, exactly.” After a pause, he continued, “and what exactly are those good things according to Jesus?” The woman didn’t dare answer because, he said, she probably sensed he was setting her up.
Fr. Tom continued,
Well, I told her Jesus tells us very clearly that good people who pray the way He told us to should expect to know what joy is in being poor, meek, hungry, thirsty, mourning and peacemakers in war-zones; in being hated and reviled and persecuted while going out like lambs among wolves. Christ promises we will be cross-carrying, persecuted, insulted, hated but merciful and enemy-loving, demon-beset disciples. Christians bring about God’s kingdom through absolute trust in a conquering King whose body was broken and blood spilled. Christians are ready to place their minds in hell itself and not despair. And to bring divine love there.
The psalm says that God lifts the poor from the dung heap [Psalm 113:7; 1 Sam. 2:8], but in Jesus God was crucified on a graveyard of skulls. Being Orthodox means learning to love with the very love of God in Christ, and not just loving nice people, but the inhabitants of a totally loveless and devastated world. For Jesus, according to His Beatitudes, these are the ones who are REALLY, exceedingly glad! They’re the most joyful of people on the planet because they share the lot of a God who was crucified and raised from the dead out of love for humanity. The lot of a deathless God who dies, an impassible God who suffers, a peaceful God who gets torn to pieces. That’s the paradoxy of orthodoxy that faith sinks us into.
So when you pray and try to be good, get ready! The whole thing’s an epic drama. Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your very last breath. St. Anthony of Egypt said it. He said, “A truly wise person knows the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, true and false and clings fiercely to what is good, true, and beautiful, but fully expects to be tested, to be tried, and to be tempted till his very last breath.” He said that without being tempted and tried, no one can enter God’s Kingdom—without temptation, no salvation. The whole life of a man on earth is a trial, according to Scripture. Job said it. So we are being tried every moment, we should expect it. We should never expect the trial to go away. We don’t ask God to take our crosses away. We ask for the power to carry them. We ask to interlock arms with Jesus as we carry it. Although it’s true to say God doesn’t tempt anybody, in the providence of God we are tested all the time so that our salvation can be ours; we can OWN it as our own and be co-victorious by the victory of Christ.
The Spirit that fell on Jesus at His baptism in the Jordan as the Father said, “You’re my well-beloved Son,” drove Jesus straight out into the wilderness to be tempted by the Temptor. To do combat! Well, the same Spirit fell on us at our baptism, so why should it be different for us? St. Paul tells us in Romans [8:14-17]: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” — Wow, that’s awesome! I love that! But Paul then says more: “provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”
So we Christians have joy to offer the world, yes. But Christian joy isn’t happy slappy joy. It’s the joy that comes when we can look into the darkest and worst parts of reality straight on, with no rose colored glasses; into the blackest dungeons and coldest hells and see God right there, dwelling in the tombs and raising Christ again and again and again in us, His Body…
So I told her, that’s why when you pray things seem to still be tough. But if you trust in God through all of this, you’ll share in the greatest human aspiration imaginable: divinization. Participation in God Hismelf. We can rework St. Athanasius’ words, “God became man so that man might become God” into, “God became the rottenest parts of human existence so that men and women, living in those rottenest parts, might become God.” THAT’S the promise…