Archive for the ‘Problem of Evil’ Category

Forgive Everyone for Everything

September 3, 2011

In Dostoevsky’s great last work, The Brothers Karamazov, the story is told of Markel, brother of the Elder Zossima. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, he is dying. In those last days he came to a renewed faith in God and a truly profound understanding of forgiveness. In a conversation with his mother she wonders how he can possibly be so joyful in so serious a stage of his illness. His response is illustrative of the heart of the Orthodox Christian life.

 ‘Mama,’ he replied to her, ‘do not weep, life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we don’t want to realize it, and if we did care to realize it, paradise would be established in all the world tomorrow.’ And we all wondered at his words, so strangely and so resolutely did he say this; we felt tender emotion and we wept….’Dear mother, droplet of my blood,’ he said (at that time he had begun to use endearments of this kind, unexpected ones), ‘beloved droplet of my blood, joyful one, you must learn that of a truth each of us is guilty before all for everyone and everything. I do not know how to explain this to you, but I feel that it is so, to the point of torment. And how could we have lived all this time being angry with one another and knowing nothing of this?’ [He spoke even of being guilty before the birds and all creation] …’Yes, he said, ‘all around me there has been such divine glory: birds, trees, meadows, sky, and I alone have lived in disgrace, I alone have dishonored it all, completely ignoring its beauty and glory.’ ‘You take too many sins upon yourself,’ dear mother would say, weeping. ‘But dear mother, joy of my life. I am crying from joy, and not from grief; why, I myself want to be guilty before them, only I cannot explain it to you, for I do not know how to love them. Let me be culpable before all, and then all will forgive me, and that will be paradise. Am I not in paradise now?’

As difficult as it may sound, the reality described by Dostoevsky can be summed up very simply: forgive everyone for everything. Stated in such a blunt fashion, such a goal is overwhelming. How can I forgive everyone for everything? This life of forgiveness, which is nothing other than the life of Christ within us, is our inheritance in the faith. The life of blame, recrimination, bitterness, anger, revenge and the like are not the life of Christ, but simply the ragings of our own egos, the false self which we exalt over our true life which is “hid with Christ in God.”

The rightness of a cause, or the correctness of our judgment do not justify nor change the nature of our ragings. For none of us can stand before God and be justified – except as we give ourselves to the life of Christ, who is our only righteousness.

The question of forgiveness is not a moral issue. We do not forgive because it is the “correct” thing to do. We forgive because it is the true nature of the life in Christ. As Dostoevsky describes it: it is Paradise. In the same manner, the refusal to forgive, the continuation of blame, recrimination, bitterness, etc., are not moral failings. They are existential crises – drawing us away from the life of Christ and Paradise, and ever deeper into an abyss of non-being.

I have lately spent some of myprayer-time each day with a modified form of the ‘Jesus Prayer.’ It runs, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner, and forgive all those who hate me or do me harm. Forgive them freely without reproach and grant me true repentance.” I offer no great authority for this prayer – indeed, as I pray it, I find that it changes from time to time. But it is a way of offering prayer for my enemies – of teaching my heart to “forgive everyone for everything.”

There is a further thought that is of great importance. Forgiveness and unforgiveness are not private matters. As Christ taught the Apostles, “Whosoever sins you loose are loosed, and whosoever sins you retain are retained.” This, of course, has a particular meaning for the Apostolic ministry given to the Church. But it also alludes to another reality. My refusal to forgive is a force for evil in this world – binding both myself and others around me. It may not be an intentional binding – but bind it will. In the same manner, forgiveness is the introduction of Paradise into this world – both for myself and for others around me. Whether I intend it or not, Paradise comes as a fruit of such love.

Forgive everyone for everything. Will we not be in Paradise?

This week I have been in Dallas, Texas, for the funeral of Archbishop Dmitri, beloved Apostle to the South. At the conclusion of the funeral vigil (as is normally the case for all Orthodox Christians) the primary celebrant of the service comes to the open coffin of the deceased. Placing his stole over the head of the body, he reads the words of the final absolution (this same prayer is used in the sacrament of Holy Unction).

May our Lord Jesus Christ, by His divine grace, and also by the gift and power given unto His holy Disciples and Apostles, that they should bind and loose the sins of men (For He said unto them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whosoever’s sins you remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosoever’s sins you retain, they are retained” (John 20:22-23). “And whatsoever you shall bind or loose on earth shall be bound or loosed in Heaven” (Matt. 18:18) and which also has been handed down to us from them as their successors, absolve this my spiritual child, N., through me who am unworthy, from all things wherein, as a human, he has sinned against God, whether by word or deed, wheher by thought and with all his senses, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, whether by knowledge or in ignorance. And if he be under the ban or excommunication of a Bishop or of a Priest; or if he has brought upon himself the curse of his father or mother; or has fallen under his own curse; or has transgressed by any oath; or has been bound, as a human, by any sins whatsoever, but has repented of these with a contrite heart, may He absolve him also from all these faults and bonds. And may all those things that proceed from the infirmity of human nature be given over unto oblivion and may He forgive him everything, for the sake of His Love for Mankind, through the prayers of our most-holy and most-blessed Sovereign Lady, the Theotokos and ever-Virgin Mary, of the holy, glorious and all-praised Apostles, and of all the Saints. Amen.

We who expect to receive such great mercy at the time of our own death – should we not extend the same mercy to all while we are yet among them?

The Mystery of Goodness

July 14, 2010

Beloved, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God (3John 1:11).

One of the most common affirmations in Orthodox services is the goodness of God. Many services conclude with the blessing: “For He is a good God and loves mankind.” The goodness of God is utterly foundational to our faith – and yet that goodness is itself a mystery: it is not always apparent and remains a conundrum to those who are outside of the faith. The so-called “problem of evil” with which non-believers frequently assault belief in the existence of a good God points to the problematic character of goodness.

God is good – but not in a way that is obvious. The goodness of God can be known – as God can be known. Neither, however, are readily apparent.

In some of the early patristic writings, particularly those that can be described as “apophatic” (“unable to be spoken”) God is not only affirmed as good but as “hyper-good,” that is, His goodness is beyond anything we know – it is a transcendent goodness. The God made known in the Incarnation of Christ is indeed “unknowable.” It is the Incarnation of Christ that has made Him known.

No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him (John 1:18).

All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him (Matt. 11:27).

We come to know the attributes of God in the same manner. The goodness of God is the goodness we see in the Incarnation of Christ; the power of God is the power we see in Christ; the kindness of God is the kindness we see in Christ; the love of God is precisely revealed in Christ.

St. Paul writes of the “attributes” of God being clearly seen through the things He created – but the passage is not necessarily the grounds for a “natural” theology (a knowledge of God derived from contemplating nature).

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:18-23).

St. Paul, I believe, is here describing the “fall” of man and the ignorance of God which it brought. The passage is consistently placed in the past tense. “Although they knew God,” etc. This is much different than saying that “knowing God” they are not thankful, etc. Instead he describes the long history of mankind before Christ as people who have become “futile” in their thoughts, and having their “foolish hearts darkened.”

However, it does seem to suggest that this knowledge can be restored as our hearts are enlightened – which is an inherent part of our living communion with Christ. But this knowledge is one that is seen only through an enlightened heart, again made possible only in the Incarnation of Christ.

It is important to approach the mystery of goodness in such a manner. The goodness of God is a goodness made known in Christ and not an intellectual category or philosophical concept that can be described apart from Christ. Such a separate concept is the secularization of goodness – ultimately a blasphemous approach (“There is none good but One, that is, God” – Luke 18:19).

The mystery of God’s goodness is most especially to be found in the mystery of the Cross. In the gospels Christ is described as “going about doing good” as well as healing the diseases of people. But the depth of that mystery is found in His death and resurrection.

The mystery of the Cross is the triumph of foolishness over man-made wisdom; the triumph of weakness of man’s perceived power; the ultimate victory of good over evil. The most common image of the death and resurrection of Christ in the Eastern Church is the icon of Christ’s Descent into Hell – for it is this icon that carries the fullest expression of the theological content and reality of His death and resurrection. It not only depicts his victory over death and evil (shown as the devil bound in chains), but also show the cosmic and timeless element of His victory as He grasps the hands of Adam and Eve to lead them out of the bondage of sin and death.

The Christian definition of good is the goodness of God. In the world in which we live we do not see that goodness in abstraction but in the fullness of its conflict with evil and its ultimate triumph. The Gospel presumes and acknowledges the presence of evil while at the same time affirming that goodness, in Christ, overcomes that evil.

In the classical teaching of the Fathers, evil is not a something, a force or a presence: it is an action driven by a distorted will. It is an opposition to God, but without meaning or substance except as an opposition. Evil is thus not a presence, but a tragic movement towards absence. It is not communion with God but a self-ward movement towards non-being.

The great struggle within our world, as presently constituted, is not between ourselves and the forces of a blind and rudderless nature, but a struggle with the consequences of that relentless challenge. The Cross is not an image that excludes the brutal forces of wicked powers – it is the triumph of love and forgiveness in the very heart of those struggles.

Goodness cannot be abstracted from the human tragedy – it is known and experienced within the very context of that tragedy in the fullness of the Cross of Christ. This is a radical departure from the philosophical discussion of the problem of evil. Christianity is not a set of ideas that compete on the playing field of philosophical systems. It is event and relationship neither imaginary nor abstract. This occasionally leaves classical Christianity at a disadvantage – unwilling to grant the givens of an alien philosophy – and thus seeming silent or weak in the face of a serious intellectual challenge. But Christianity is a language that is spoken in the tongue of the Logos, whose incarnation, death and resurrection speak with the eloquence of the true and living God.

St. Paul recognized that his preaching of the Cross of Christ would either make him seem weak or foolish. It is a weakness and a foolishness that modern Christians should not disdain. For the weakness of God is stronger than death. The foolishness of God is wiser than all men.