Personal Letter, dated April 11, 2004

Just a collection of random observations—as usual...

One. Not Everyone is healed...

This is a theme that has become so very, very obvious to me over the years, as I have sought/hoped/ached for healing in various aspects of my life (e.g., relationships, personal attitudes, social expectations and fears). The more I ponder and write about theodicy, the more obvious it becomes that God does not intend (or even desire) the universal healing of all His creatures within this mortal timeframe. Healing en masse is something 'scheduled for later' (clearly stated in the biblical data, of course), so there's no real doubt about God's heart concerning the matter. The very existence of a verse like “By His stripes we are healed...” indicates an overarching goal of wholeness and integrity of life on the part of the peace-seeking God.

But this came up again recently, as a co-worker asked me the question again: “Is it possible God doesn't want to heal His children on this side of death?”. It was interesting that it was worded this way—as if it were almost assumed that God DID WANT to heal us all now/immediately. [The guy had been raised in a Christian tradition that believed that healing was generally the rebirth-right and legitimate expectation of all New Covenant believers. And that it was only lack of faith or moral turpitude that prevented us from experiencing heaven-level-healing on earth right now.]

I had been thinking over the preceding several weeks about Paul's wrestling with some infirmity in 2 Cor 12:

“Therefore, so that I would not become arrogant, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to trouble me—so that I would not become arrogant. 12:8 I asked the Lord three times about this, that it would depart from me. 12:9 But he said to me, “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me. 12:10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” [NET Bible]

In this case, this infirmity—a very non-benevolent one (!), literally attributed to Satan—was 'given' by God (the opposite of healing, I would suggest). Granted, it was for Paul's spiritual benefit, and was a component in a much 'greater good', but it is clear that God's power was NOT 'made perfect in HEALING Paul of his weakness', but in Paul's behavior and life IN THE CONTEXT OF the infirmity.

Well, as I reflected on this, it slowly dawned on me (being a slow thinker and all) that IF God's power is magnified, or made more manifest, or made more actualized in weakness, THEN this would suggest that every Christian should have plenty of 'weakness'...In other words, the default case should be that we are more-plagued-than-healed, more-weak-than-strong, more-inferior-than-superior, at least in SOME area(s) of our lives (but not necessarily a MAJORITY of areas, of course—don't go morbid on me here--smile). And this is indeed somewhat indicated by the 'God chose the foolish to shame the wise...' type of passages (e.g., 1 Cor 1.26-27; Matt 11.25; Jas 2.5); and the “we are comforted in affliction so that we can comfort others” motif of 2 Cor 1 doesn't make a whole lot of sense if 'affliction' is to be an extremely infrequent and minute-duration aspect of Christian experience. If Paul would boast about his trouble—as a vehicle for the display of supernatural life in his ministry—then this should be our expectation as well.

One can also see this idea scattered elsewhere around the biblical text. 2 Tim 4.20: “Erastus remained at Corinth, but Trophimus I left sick at Miletus”. 2 Kings 13.14: “When Elisha became sick with the illness of which he was to die, Joash the king of Israel came down to him and wept over him.” Jacob's rise to mature spirituality is almost marked by the 'wrestling with God' incident, which culminated in a new name--and a limp (Gen 32). Isaac lost his sight (Gen 27), as did the faithful prophet Ahijah (I Kgs 14). Historically speaking, the mass of believers in the first few Christian centuries would have been under the influence of various diseases and disabilities of the common Roman world (indeed, the Church leaders contracted contagious plagues while ministering to non-Christians, and often died for this act of love). Miracles of healing—which have always been with us—are so spectacular because they are infrequent, not because they are part and parcel of every believer's daily life. [For an assessment of the differences between the healing ministry of Jesus and of subsequent figures in church leadership, see Jesus the Healer: Paradigm or Unique Phenomenon by Keith Warrington (Paternoster:2000).]

Now, a decade ago I would have slandered my current position as being 'defeatist' or 'paganly practical' or simply 'grounded in weakness of faith', but the implications of God's words to Paul, when coupled with the observation that the “greatest” men and women of God have been those with the most difficulty/challenge in life, have opened my eyes to alternate views of this...We are not to be complacent with this or to seek self-martyrdom, however—we ARE to SEEK health, growth, and peace—but when/if it is not granted, we are not to assume (a) our culpability or lack of faith –[cf. Paul's answer to Timothy's frequent illnesses in 1 Tim 5.23: 'drink a little wine', not 'increase your faith'--smile]; (b) God's callousness; (c) bad theology, or (d) anything other than 'may Your power be made perfect in this, Lord”...

A recent comment in a book preface brought this out most vividly to me recently. I am reading (albeit slowly, as everything else in my life at this point, it seems) a very helpful book by Hurtado [Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. Eerdmans:2003]. The human life/heart/reality of a scholarly author sometimes only shows up in the Preface and/or Dedication of a book (the rest being devoted to the objective, academic genre). I have always delighted in seeing how authors thanked their husbands, wives, kids, mentors, friends, parents, etc—and in so doing, gave a glimpse of their inner life and values. In Hurtado's preface, after all his thanks to the various contributors to his Herculean effort, his final paragraph reads thus:

“On a sadder note, one of those friends to whom this book is dedicated, Don Juel, did not live to see it in finished form. I admire Don's scholarship, and I am privileged to have known him personally. He will be missed greatly by all who knew him. I treasure an e-mail message from him, sent in the final days of his long and difficult bout with illness, in which he expressed his enjoyment of friendships and a moving confidence in the Faithfulness, to whom he entrusted himself. In the same spirit, then, not really 'good-bye', but 'Au revoir', Don!”

Strength (and beauty, I might add) made perfect in weakness...the Faithfulness...!

Two. Another reason atrocity is so bad.

In matters of theodicy, one of the possible positive after-effects of atrocity/calamity often noted/suggested is sometimes the community response to it. We often can see 'unintended benefits of evil' in the forms of community response to need (e.g., spontaneous efforts of relief) and/or response to aggression (e.g., spontaneous efforts to contain/isolate the aggressors). These responses can add a 'net good' to the overall 'mix'. Serious treachery can even produce programmatic efforts to contain and preclude future acts of treachery.

I remember thinking (and probably even writing) along these lines after 9/11. The response of most of the world—both West, East, and MidEast—was that of shock-to-action, in the forms of increased efforts against terrorism. The effect is/was likely a 'trimming back' of terrorist capability, at least for a season.

But I have noticed a negative aspect of this: that we (starting with me, where I FIRST noticed it—sigh) can make a subtle shift from “we must protect the innocent from such treachery” to “I am glad I am so much more morally superior to these terrorists, that I don't need to even worry about my own analogous crimes.”

I remember hoping and praying back then, that somehow people everywhere would become aware of how bad the blind, self-righteous, moral-high-ground treachery of the terrorists was, and then ask ourselves where and to what extent we ourselves are like that—analogously-- in our own lives, relationships, thoughts toward others, etc. Hoping that exposure of the ugliness of such self-centeredness and casuistry (e.g., human shields, hostages, targeting civilians – in the 'name of God or good'), would cause a greater consciousness/detection of smaller versions of that ugliness in, say, sacrificing others for personal protection, using others for personal gain/advancement, playing off kids against ex-spouses, misrepresentation of ourselves as 'better' than we really are, etc...

But I fear that didn't happen much—at least not publicly. I didn't see us in the West (nor moderate Islam—who also condemned the terrorists) publicly 'confess our own sins', in recognition of the moral imperfection of us all. And I found myself thinking about the Pharisee and the “Publican” in the story told by Jesus in Luke 18:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

This does not excuse treachery, of course—the terrorists are NOT in 'God be merciful to me a sinner' mode (!)—but my point is that BIG acts of atrocity in no way minimize the impact, ugliness, and destructiveness of SMALLER (but more consistent and more pervasive and more 'tolerated'--!) acts of atrocity toward our neighbors, family, selves, and God... would that we would make a new effort to find these 'terror cells' in our own behavior and attitudes toward others, and then focus on their isolation/containment...

Three. A couple of thoughts on “The Passion of the Christ”.

I cannot remember exactly what the circumstances were, but I had to wait a week or so before I went to see Passion. I remember thinking how 'cold of heart' (and/or distracted by mundanity!) I was at the time, and that I didn't want to 'soil' the viewing experience by seeing it with 'unwashed hands'. I also was concerned (based on adequate historical/statistical data—sigh/smile) that I might over-react to it, and adopt some over-kill Nazirite-level attitude, shading off quickly into legalism and idiot-zeal (been there, done that). Recommitment – okay; deeper sensitivity – okay; but emotional whip-lash experiences have too often given me occasion for personal-hyper-Phariseeism (of a kind most Pharisees probably did NOT have...sigh).

But I finally DID see it, and I didn't wig-out, but I was profoundly affected by one aspect of it—the extreme intensity of the violence, suffering, and rejection experienced by our Lord. There were two implications of this which I am having to think through:

First, none of our 'theories of the atonement' would require that level of intensity of pain. “Wounded for our transgressions”, “became sin for us”, “become a curse for us”, “taste death for every man”--all of these require some level of judicial abandonment by God the Father, but they don't require massive pain inflicted by us humans. 'Rejection', yes; 'despised', yes; even 'pierced', yes—but Crucifixion (even if/as prophesied by Psalm 22 etc), isn't logically demanded by our current understandings of Penal Substitution, Moral Exemplar, Moral Influence, Governmental, and Commercial theories of the Atonement. Even the Purification of the Heavens/Christus Victor understanding—though they 'scale up' much better than the others, perhaps—wouldn't necessarily require such intensity. Some of the 'satisfaction' theories (e.g. Penal Substitution, Commercial) could have been done without Christ even coming to earth—it could have been done in heaven. And the 'display' theories (Exemplar, Influence, Governmental) could have been done with a much, much smaller scale...

So, I conclude that there's more to this Atonement than we are aware of (as if that's a surprise to anyone!). It is a commonplace today that each of the Atonement theories is at least partially true, and that therefore the overall Cross-event is multi-faceted and complex. Our theories/understandings are true (they are, after all, taught by God in the biblical data—according to us Christians—precluding some necessary flight into pure mysticism), but they only explain perhaps 40-50% of what went on that Friday...For me, that means I have to recognize that my theology has to be 'less linear', and that it has to realize that there are more dimensions and depths and aspects and 'variables' to the process of healing the universe and reconciling us to a perfectly good-hearted and wonderfully pure-souled God than we have assumed in the past...That the problem of our sin was much greater than we thought, and that the fission-level of the Cross had to be more intense than we would have predicted, based on our understandings of what it would take to heal our history, our hearts, and our habits. So, I am more humble about my theological structures today...

Secondly, and possibly related to the first point, is the disturbing idea that some of the excess of violence was 'optional' and created by our own malicious hearts...If our Atonement theories predict a lower Richter-scale Cross, then some other variable should account for the 'overage'. I fear that perhaps the overage was just a free-expression of our self-deification and power-hungry propensities, and therefore was a special, atrocious case of 'gratuitous evil'. In other words, God the Father 'required' only an N-level experience by Jesus, but we made it an N+2 one...

This is paralleled in the OT/Tanaah, of course, in the judgment on Israel by Babylon (Is 47):

I was angry with My people, I profaned My heritage, And gave them into your hand. You did not show mercy to them, On the aged you made your yoke very heavy.

And on Israel by Assyria (Is 10):

Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger And the staff in whose hands is My indignation, I send it against a godless nation And commission it against the people of My fury To capture booty and to seize plunder, And to trample them down like mud in the streets. Yet it does not so intend Nor does it plan so in its heart, But rather it is its purpose to destroy, And to cut off many nations...So it will be that when the Lord has completed all His work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, He will say, “I will punish the fruit of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the pomp of his haughtiness.”.

In both these cases, these nations were doing the judicial role toward Israel God had assigned them providentially, but they went overboard in the intensity of the violence, and in the height of the malicious arrogance...this is the type of overage the movie made me think of... we exploited the situation to assert our superiority 'over God and over good'...This is a disturbing thought, of course, and only adds to my appreciation for His forbearance and commitment to us, in love...

More later, gotta crash...its already into April 12 ...

Headed for Easter—my most difficult time of the year, since 2000...


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