Sunday, May 02, 2004

Dying and the First Commandment

Thus you can easily understand what and how much this commandment requires, namely, that man's entire heart and all his confidence be placed in God alone, and in no one else. For to have God, you can easily perceive, is not to lay hold of Him with our hands or to put Him in a bag [as money], or to lock Him in a chest [as silver vessels]. 14] But to apprehend Him means when the heart lays hold of Him and clings to Him. 15] But to cling to Him with the heart is nothing else than to trust in Him entirely. For this reason He wishes to turn us away from everything else that exists outside of Him, and to draw us to Himself, namely, because He is the only eternal good. As though He would say; Whatever you have heretofore sought of the saints, or for whatever [things] you have trusted in Mammon or anything else, expect it all of Me, and regard Me as the one who will help you and pour out upon you richly all good things.

Lately, I have been with a lot of sick and dying people. More than usual. And it continues to occur to me that the dying process, as difficult as it is, is that aspect of the law (or that which is in the world because of the violation of the law) which drives us to God through despair of our own works and possessions. For example, I now know someone dying of cancer who is in extreme pain, and will continue in this condition until their death. Words of consolation in this situation can take a number of forms. 1) I'm so sorry, I wish he didn't have to go through this. 2) I pray that you will be able to put your trust in the Lord even in the midst of this suffering, for Christ participates in your suffering. 3) This suffering is simply the birth pangs of what is to come, for the pain drives us from hope and trust in our own lives and health, and towards complete trust in God. All good things come from God. Do not despair, but use these trials to build up your most holy faith.

There are many other trite comments I have heard made in these situations, the most painful of which is, "Well, at least he isn't as bad as so-and-so. There are people who have it even worse, you know." But as the psalmist laments, there is no sorrow like our sorrow. Sorrow and pain are personal in the extreme, and the sorrow and pain of others are not ultimately any kind of consolation for our own.

But the therapeutic form of faith in which we have been trained (at least, I have been trained) discourages option 3 above. We are supposed to sympathize/emphathize, and then remind those with whom we speak that Christ suffers with us too. But I find #3 increasingly consoling, and truer to the gospel and the witness of Paul. I thank God for my suffering, for it drives me from looking for good in anything else other than God.

There is a fourth option. Damn the devil for bringing this kind of illness on one of God's elect. In my prayers, that is what I pray. For faith for those in the midst of pain, and on the verge of despair, faith in Christ for everything good, the immeasurable riches that spring from the wounds of the resurrected Christ. Devil, be gone.

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