December 17, 2007

Why Does God Test Us?

The whole ground of the Christian life fascinates me because it seems there are two opposing threads to it even if they are not actually oppositional: love and testing. Family and employment contract. At the very kernel of it is the mystery of the Garden, of Adam and Eve and the temptation they would have to overcome in order to get from earthly paradise to heavenly paradise, just as the angels either passed or failed a test in order to become angels or demons. But emphasis on test leads to a contract-type relation, a worker-employee relationship between God and man. Do we test our lovers? Do we test our newborns? No, we love at first sight. We ascribe to them qualities they do not have at first meeting. We accept them unconditionally until proven wrong. There is no apriori testing. We may disown a son or daughter, but that is very hard for a son or daughter to accomplish. A test implies challenge, a bell curve in results. But there is no bell curve in parents disowning children. The curve would be ridiculously weighted with a bias towards passing. The mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich, whose visions some of “The Passion of the Christ” were based on and who is a standard-bearer of many a traditionalist, was not so traditional in her views of Hell. She couldn’t accept that anyone was in Hell but was told point-blank to drop-ski the Universalism-ski. She was presumably conflicted about how love and test could be married.

St. Faustina writes that Jesus told her, “If you don’t believe my words, believe my wounds.” She wrote that love demands reciprocity. If Jesus tasted bitterness for her, she must taste bitterness to prove her love for Him. How could man reciprocate to God if man had not test? God created us, and we would’ve had no way to even re-pay Him in the smallest way for that without the test of the forbidden fruit. Things spiralled down from there such that Jesus would go and die for us, but if we have it tougher than Adam did in Paradise, so does God! He had it far tougher in redeeming us than in creating us!

I get nuggets that GPS me a bit closer to Him, to understanding things better and I’m grateful though I regret how they slip through this sieve of my mind so quickly. “Given for you”, the words of the Consecration hit as if for the first time – given to you, that is me too. “This is my body which is given for you…” It seems a disassociation with His Body, to make a gift of it…the idea of being outside one’s body such to the extent one can offer it, as if hoovering above it already and giving it away while still in use of it. What more could He possibly do to establish his oneness with us and still nourish faith? To be present and still invisible?

Merely avoiding wrongdoing is not enough. Instinctively we know it’s not enough, because we think: “what’s the point?”. Love is not the avoiding of wrongdoing! It is some thing, some One, it’s not the negation of anything. So how can the testing and love be married? And yet how can they not be? For it is precisely in the testing that we experience need and thus dependence. Statis, the opposite of testing, is self-reliance. How can creatures love God and be self-reliant?

Don’t old soldiers relive their twenty months on the front for the rest of their lives? Why? Because it was the defining experience of their lives. One can’t help be lead to the thought that the test of war was a gift. And in that test there was love. They experienced love and self-sacrifice in the very midst of agony. And, as in war, God is our foxhole mate in the struggles. The tests may be from God, it’s true, but, oddly, but they are also experienced with God. He is both tester and testee, as he became tested like one of us, and then stuck around in the Eucharist to become one with us.

All this about testing seemed disloyal after reading some of Mother Teresa’s book and the Pope’s encyclical. The Pope’s encyclical implicitly emphasizes the truth of Peter’s words: “Lord, to whom shall we go?” When Don Imus was on MSNBC I watched too much of him and his favorite response to some egregious Bernard off-color, politically-incorrect and/or downright hateful statement was: “that’s just not helpful.” So naturally I liked the Holy Father’s straightforward IMUS-y line: “To protest against God in the name of justice is not helpful. A world without God is a world without hope (cf. Eph 2:12). Only God can create justice.” If we “steal a base”, in Jonah Goldberg’s phrase, and substitute testing with suffering and love with God, then we see Benedict saying later: “In the end, even the “yes” to [God] is a source of [testing], because [God] always requires expropriations of my “I”, in which I allow myself to be pruned and wounded.”

I also see that Benedict mentions the origins of the concept of Purgatory as from before Christ, in the Jewish thirst for justice, in an intermediate state between death and resurrection (which is the state of Abraham and Lazarus in Jesus’s parable). That’s a different impression I got from Leon Podles’ book, which basically said that Purgatory was doctrinally developed as a result of medieval woman mystics’ desire for mercy. Whatever my unease with testing, I would rather God test than man NOT test, for we know what man is capable of even in the "best" of "untested" families!

Steven Riddle mentioned helpfully that it's not so much testing as the idea of purification. The natural response to our unfinishedness is to ask why we weren't created finished but that's to abrogate to ourselves God's privilege, hence the crucial necessity of humility. Pope Benedict quotes St. Augustine in his letter about how deferral (or testing) is God's way of enlarging our hearts: "Man was created for greatness—for God himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched. 'By delaying [his gift], God strengthens our desire; through desire he enlarges our soul and by expanding it he increases its capacity [for receiving him]'."

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