A Thorny Theology

The following is a sermon preached over two Sundays, exploring the existence of pain and evil in the world.

FROM THE EPISTLES – 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

“When God’s Word Gets Thorny” (Part I)

“…to stop me from getting too proud I was given a thorn in the flesh, an angel of Satan to beat me…”  (2 Cor.12:7)

Last week my sermon was about flying – flying with God – so continuing on the subject of flight: do you know that New Zealand is the home of more species of flightless birds than any other country?  There’s the kiwi, the kakapo, the penguin and the weka rail.   Fossils tell us that these birds had useful wings at one time in their evolution, but lost them by neglecting their use.  The reason??  Because food was always abundant, so they didn’t have to travel far to find nourishment, and there are no natural predators in New Zealand – no fearsome beasts or reptiles – so there was no danger from which they had to escape.  They had no necessity to fly; now they have no ability to fly.

You heard a few moments ago that Paul prayed and prayed to God to take away whatever it was that he called a “thorn in his flesh,” but to no avail.  Why wouldn’t God remove it?  Jesus prayed with tears of blood the night before his crucifixion that he be spared the ordeal, but the crown of thorns was his to wear.  God did not remove these thorns either.

Why the thorns in the life of Jesus?  in the life of Paul?  And, more to the point, why the thorns in your life, in my life, in lives in which thorns are part of the daily routine as people suffer famine, oppression, grief, et al.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  

We are left with a thorny problem as we are faced with the inexorable logic of life: there is pain in the world; therefore, God is either powerless to prevent it or God chooses to have it.  We are faced with the nettlesome conclusion that either God is not all-powerful or that the existence of pain in his world is God’s choice.  The logic even allows the possibility that God is both helpless and sadistic.

But where would we be without pain?  We would be like the flightless birds, stripped of our ability to expand on the wings of the Spirit.  The first of the “Four Noble Truths” taught by Buddha was “Life is Suffering.”  It is a called “noble truth” because once we truly know the truth we can transcend it, i.e. we gain life because it enables us to grow beyond where we are.  Anthony de Mello illustrates the value of pain with story – another bird story:

Each day a bird would shelter in the withered branches of a tree that stood in the middle of a vast deserted plain.  One day a whirlwind uprooted the tree, forcing the bird to fly hundreds of miles in search of shelter, till it finally came to a forest of fruit-laden trees.  If the withered  tree had survived the storm, what would have induced the bird to give up its security and fly?

Now I do not believe for a moment that someone ‘up there’ decides it is time Bob Thomas had some pain in his life in order to get him out of his rut, and then sends a car accident or an illness or a violent crime to jolt him out of his lethargy.  However, it is very evident pain has been, from the start, incorporated as part of the on-going process of creation.  Indeed, it is a driver of evolution. This doesn’t mean one should seek pain, or be grateful for it; indeed there are times when it is appropriate to feel outraged at God for the pain that has dropped upon us.  But the people who get the most out of life are the ones who make best use of the pain in their lives.

A coal-miner’s son in Corbin, Kentucky was the oldest of many children and, with his father working in the mines and his mother having to go outside the home to work in a shirt factory, he was assigned the task of cooking for the family.  For a young, athletically-inclined boy who would much rather be outside playing football, the family’s poverty, and his particular chore, was a real thorn in his side.  But he made the most of it, and got to be quite a good cook, especially in frying chicken.  The young man’s name was Harland Sanders, and you and much of the rest of the world now know what Colonel Harland Sanders did with his Kentucky Fried Chicken.

There is a second, and thornier, aspect to this theology of thorns.  It is relatively easy to understand pain as a means by which we are encouraged to grow.  We may not like it, but we can see the value, the necessity, of pain.  However, this understanding does not extend to an explanation of why some people have such devastating pain in their lives, calamity after calamity, and others have a comparatively smooth ride through life.

Here we are not so much in the realm of theology, but of psychology and sociology.  Yes, life is a series of problems.  That’s God’s fault and we can pray about it, moan about it and rail against it till kingdom come and it won’t change anything, because that is just the way it is.  But we do have the choice to either sit and moan about these problems or to deal positively with them. This is the human choice we have been given to go with the pain.

Life is difficult because confronting and solving problems is painful.  It evokes frustration or grief or sadness or loneliness or guilt or regret or fear or anguish or despair, none of which is particularly comfortable.  Life calls forth our courage and wisdom to face the pain, and if we dare to face the pain we grow mentally and spiritually.  As Benjamin Franklin said, “Those things that hurt instruct.”  And as M. Scott Peck added, “For this reason a wise person will not dread, but actually accept problems.”

The trouble is that most of us are not so wise.  Fearing the pain, almost all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, attempt to avoid problems.  We procrastinate, hoping they will go away.  We ignore them, forget them, pretend they do not exist.  We take drugs to help us ignore them.  We attempt to skirt around problems rather than meeting them head-on.  We attempt to get out of them rather than suffer through them.

This tendency to avoid problems, and the emotional suffering inherent in them, is a primary barrier to life.  The tragedy of this avoidance is that whatever we use as a substitute for facing pain becomes more painful than the original problem.  Not only does that mean that our own lives are lessened, but that we spread what was originally solely our own inner pain, a pain of the soul, outside to those around us.  In other words we create pain for others, often all out of proportion to the original pain we would have felt had we dealt with the problem in the first place.  

One of the great questions of humankind is where does evil come from.  Well, here is the answer, folks.  There is no devil, no demons wreaking evil upon the world.  There doesn’t need to be.  We have plenty to go around, and it starts right here with good people, with you and with me.  

There is a bit more that needs to be said on this, for it is not an easy concept to grasp, yet it is one that is intrinsic to the understanding of human psychology.  So I will continue next on the topic next week, and explain how evil gets its start in us.

For now I hope you will take away the knowledge we were meant to fly with God, and yet we live constantly with the danger that we will lose our wings, just like the Kiwi, because we don’t continue to exercise them.  The thorns that God gives us are painful pointers – they have to be painful so that we take notice – painful pointers to God’s grace, which lead us on the path to growth that is both the salvation of the soul and the salvation of the world.  That which enables us to face pain is the faith that God is there with us in the pain, giving us all we need to grow through it, and guaranteeing a new creation at the other end.

FROM THE GOSPELS – Mt.7:1-6; 15:16-20

 “When God’s Word Gets Thorny,” part II    

“But what comes out of the mouth has its origins in the heart; and that is what defiles a man.” (Mt.15:18)

I have departed from the lectionary this morning to continue on the theme from last week in which we  were reminded that being a good Christian is not simply living a good life: loving God and neighbour.  Simply put, it is not enough to do good, but we must avoid doing bad; that is, we must deal constructively with the pain that comes our way and we must love ourselves as God loves us, because if we don’t – if we hate parts of ourselves, or if we avoid our pain, unconscious we will cast this hate and pain into the world where it will turn to evil, running rampant through God’s creation.

This is not an easy concept to grasp, but one which is intrinsic to an understanding of human psychology and sociology.  We can point to particularly evil individuals like Hitler, Josef Stalin, Big Daddy Amin, Sadam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, et al, and see the damage which emerges from their distorted personalities, but particularly evil individuals and grossly distorted personalities are not the world’s major problem.  They can be dealt with because they stand out, and so they inevitably come to a bitter end. They may attract a lot of notice, cause heaps of visible pain, and get big headlines but, relatively speaking, there are not that many of them, and they account for only a tiny part of the evil which has afflicted the world over its lifetime.  The real worry is people like you and me: basically good, church people, people with no axe to grind; the great silent majority.  It may come as something of a shock to learn that we, average good citizens, are the greatest source of evil in the world.

In the reading from Matthew 15, Jesus names the human heart as the source of that which defiles.  So more specifically, our hearts – our hearts – are the source of evil in the world. Our hearts, each one not quite pure and perfect, are each capable of being toxic; polluting the world with our fears, prejudices, insecurities and apathy.

This happens in many ways; innumerable ways.  One of the obvious ways we release evil into the world is in our complicity with the powers and principalities of the world, sometimes intentionally, but most often naively, unthinkingly, in which we trade our allegiance to the Good for a reduction in personal discomfort; discomfort that is rightfully ours to deal with. This reality was behind the statement by Martin Luther King, Jr: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Who is really to blame for the holocaust?   Adolf Hitler or average God-fearing Germans who brought Hitler to power and followed him?  Without them, people just like you and me, Hitler would have ended his days painting houses. 

Hitler is an extreme example to be sure, and perhaps you can’t imagine yourself ever supporting such a man.  Let us reflect on a hypothetical situation in order to make this concept a bit more concrete and personal. Imagine that there is a government that enacts a policy of indefinitely imprisoning innocent people, including children, without trial; a government which chooses to go to war for false, manufactured reasons, a government that modifies the tax and welfare systems so as to shift wealth from the poor to the already rich, a government which chooses to contribute to untold future suffering of the poor of the world by its refusal to act responsibly on environmental problems.   (Any similarity between this hypothetical government and actual Australian governments, either current or past, is entirely coincidental, of course.)   

All these actions I’ve mentioned are clearly morally indefensible, so one might expect that, at the first available opportunity, the electorate, because it is made up of essentially good people who naturally will have found the actions of their leaders ethically repugnant, will vote the government out of office. But they don’t. In fact, they may give it even more power by giving it control of both houses in the legislature. Why? Why would good people do this? Because they perceive the incumbent party as the best choice to avoid a certain amount of personal discomfort; that is, to help them feel more safe and secure, or have more esteem, or add to their wealth – not everyone, of course, but a hair over 50% is all that is needed.

This is exactly what happened in the 2004 U.S. election, which I had the sad misfortune to be on hand to witness. It is hard to imagine a more morally bankrupt regime that the one that came to power in the U.S. in 2000, except for the current one, of course. Its re-election in 2004 is a good example of what I am talking about because, in a large measure, it was due to the votes of people who wore the label “Christian”, and who considered themselves to be moral and upright citizens.  These are also the people who brought Mr. Trump to the White House 12 years later. Whilst I point the finger at Americans here, I dare say there are more similarities to the Australian electorate than you would choose to admit.  The reason why supposedly good people overlooked the blatant and gross immorality of the U.S. government in 2004 was attributed by most commentators to fears for their personal security.  It is a good example of how great evil flows from the failure of good individuals to constructively address their own fears, anxieties, insecurities and discomforts.  It happened in Germany in the 1930’s, it happened in the U.S. in 2004 and again in 2016 and, despite the warnings of history, it happens still and it happens here.

Take our society; gather the hate and fear of non-Europeans, especially Muslims, from the followers of people like Pauline Hanson; add that to the hate and fear of homosexuals which has filled the letters-to-the-editor column of Crosslight as well as the secular media in recent years; throw in a few radio talk shows where ignorance, hatred and prejudice are placed on a pedestal, mix in a bit of self-righteousness indignation about welfare cheats, dole bludgers, drug users, people who drink too much, bad drivers and pedophiles, then top it off with religious fundamentalism of whatever faith, and you’ve got enough evil to propel the worst of human atrocities – all from upstanding people like you and me.

Herein lies the explanation for the excessive ravages of pain in the world.  It is what Hanna Arendt, in her book about the Adolf Eichmann trial, called “the banality of evil”: the cowardice of ordinary human beings like us to name evil for what it is, and their propensity to avoid their own legitimate, natural pain, and to pass it off, or project it, on others, which then multiplies that pain so as to rain destruction upon those least able to handle it.  

It is a cowardly avoidance of pain that all people share in some measure; an avoidance that guarantees that there will be more suffering in the world than God intended. Ah, if only we each faced up to, and took responsibility for, the problems which trouble our souls as they arise, instead of dumping them, through crisis after crisis, onto a world already prostrate with need. The example of how we vote is perhaps too obvious and simplistic. It only comes up every few years, so to focus on it may obscure how we fail to constructively deal with our own every-day issues.  There are many examples – too many examples, in fact – in which we choose to avoid a bit of discomfort and put it on to others. Each is small and apparently harmless on its own, but when added to the small choices of billions, the accumulated pain cum evil is sufficient to turn the light to darkness. 

Despite the multitude of questionable conscious choices that good people make every day that shifts their pain upon others, they pale into insignificance when compared to the unconscious choices that power the evil in the world.  You see, being essentially good people, we may not always make the best conscious choices, but we try, and we try to atone for our mistakes and minimise the damage when we recognise them; however, unconscious choices not only are beyond our control, we don’t even recognise them when we see their effects.

I don’t think for a moment that Germans in the 1930s and 40s, people no different to you and I, consciously chose to stand by when Hitler began exterminating Jews, communists, disabled people, retarded people, homosexuals:  all of them innocent people, whose only crime was to be good targets for the projected fear and hate of good people.  If pre-World War II seems too far away, consider the moral blindness of the majority of otherwise good Australians who, in this 21st century, have watched, and even condoned, the indefinite incarceration of innocent men, women and children in concentration camps. There was, and is, a mechanism at work that allows the general populace to rationalise these horrors; that make them seem like appropriate, even necessary, actions.  

I hope that you have had the experience of love at first sight, not only because it feels good, but because is an example of an unconscious choice to see a part of ourselves in another human being. Psychologists call it projection.  Like a movie projector casts the tiny, hard-to-see image on the film onto a screen where it can be seen from many metres away, we unconsciously see aspects of ourselves, unknown to our conscious minds, in others.   Love at first sight is unconsciously seeing an unknown, but attractive and loveable aspect of ourselves in another, resulting in a strong emotional response.  Essentially, when this happens, we are falling in love with ourselves.

The same things happens with negative aspects.  Have you ever met anyone to whom you took an immediate dislike, even though you knew nothing about them?   This is what Jesus described as seeing the speck in your neighbours eye, but ignoring the log in your own; hating some aspect of ourselves unconsciously, but hating it consciously when seen in others.

There are traits or qualities that we long ago repressed into our unconscious because, for some reason, we believed them to be bad.  We feared them; we hated them so much that, so that we filed them away where we no longer had to face them; where we even were able to forget that they existed at all.  BUT we still see these traits when they appear in others, and so we put all of our stored hatred for them onto these poor people; people who have done nothing to hurt us except remind us who we are.  

A common example is the way some people get very emotionally engaged, in a very negative way, over homosexuality.  Their response seems irrational, even when they try to create rational arguments against it.  Why does so much hate spew forth?  Why do people seem so threatened by something that poses no actual threat to them at all?  One plausible explanation offered by psychologists is that these people repressed their own, quite normal, homosexual tendencies long ago because, for any number of reasons, they were feared and hated, so that this part of their sexuality now lies completely hidden and unknown to them.  Rather than having dealt constructively with their own sexual tendencies when still part of their consciousness, they repressed them, and now only see them when projected upon others, where they are then hated.  I stress that this process is totally unconscious, i.e. one has no control over it, and no blame is attached to it.  The first inkling one has is the sudden, surprising dislike for someone whom they do not know. There is no blame attached to this dislike – remember, it is an unconscious process – however, once we act on this emotional response, it does become a moral issue, for we are most certainly responsible for our actions.

God knows there is no shortage of hate in our world. When you add up all these apparently small choices, conscious and unconscious, over the billions of good people in the world, it becomes easy to understand why the “creation groans in travail,” as St, Paul said.  Psychologist Eric Neumann once wrote that “It is more important in today’s world to be non-infectious than creative.”  He agreed with Jesus that the human heart was the source of evil, which when not dealt with by the individual, spread into the world, infecting it, defiling both the individual and all creation. The real solution to the world’s evil is not so much the elimination of the bad people, but the repentance of the good people.  

I don’t say all this to make anyone feel guilty; rather to illustrate how close we are to a solution to the world’s evil, which otherwise often seems to us to be beyond any solution.  It is as close as the repentance – the metanoia, or new outlook -to which we are all called; as close as opening ourselves – every part of ourselves – to the loving acceptance that is always on offer by God even to the parts of ourselves that we consider unloveable, that we may indeed love God with our whole heart.

The gospel makes this possible in a way that the law never could, for the message of Jesus is that all are loved and accepted by God; that all of the all is love and accepted.  We don’t have to change in order to be acceptable to God; rather, the fact that we are loved as we are allows us to face whom we are, even the darkest parts.  In embracing the shadowy parts of our being, in accepting and loving all of ourselves, we are able to offer even these to God, so that God can make us – and our hearts – whole.  The person thus saved is no longer infectious and the world becomes a step closer to being healed.

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