(Photo taken by Erik Johansson)

Written by Jonathan Toccoli

3/29/2017

(Scripture to read before, during or after: Psalm 139, Matthew 26-27, Romans 8:35-39)

I end—but am still with You
– Psalm 139

“Jesus I need you, be near me, come shield me”
– Sufjan Stevens

This world is hard; we can agree on that, right? Not only is it hard, but it’s often horrible. There’s good in here too; sometimes a lot of it. But no amount of good undoes the darkness, can make the hardness not have been hard. Darkness is dark and even when we stand before the Lord himself, that dark time will still have been dark. So what do we do? How do make sense of the hardness, the darkness of this life – if we even can?

“In the middle of our life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood.”
– Dante Alighieri, Inferno

I offer here no theodicy (the theological/philosophical defense of God’s goodness in the face of evil) because, to be honest, I don’t have anything like a definitive answer. And anyway, I think most of us decide God is or is not good for non-philosophical reasons. Even when living my pagan existence, I knew that if God was God, he was good – I mean, what is ‘God’ if he’s not good (great logic, right?)? When I look in my heart of hearts, ‘you’re not good’ just isn’t my complaint.

My complaint is far more basic – even primal – than doubting God’s goodness. I doubt that he’s there or, to say the same thing differently, that he cares. I know I’m not alone in this (all you kids of alcoholic fathers, raise your hands!) as this has been the complaint of saints and pagans for time immemorial.

Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?

“My pain is never over
Pills and potions fix me up”
– Vince Staples

Let me steal an idea articulated by an oft-gold-embellished-Turkish-born-icon-of-yesteryear named Irenaeus.

You are a child and learning to walk. You fall and it doesn’t hurt, you don’t skin your knee or your hands. What do you do? Do you figure out how to walk no-matter-what? Probably not. If you can crawl around without hurting your knees, why learn to walk? There’s no point. Likewise, if someone was to rob your house yet everything that was taken was ‘mysteriously’ restored, would you really care that someone robbed your house? Not at all. You might as well rob from anyone who has something you want since it wont hurt them in the end and you end up getting what you want in the present.

This Irenaean thought experiment helps us see that there has to be consequence in the world, that the world must be hard, for people to grow. What if we apply this thinking to our anger at God’s indifference? For people to learn to value goodness and hate evil and care about things like mercy and love and sacrifice, it may just be that those situations/things that tell us that God is no-better-than-an-absentee-father are in fact the exact things/situations that shows he cares to-the-moon-and-back for us.

And this, Irenaeus posthumously says, is where (your-and-)my ‘God-is-a-jerk’ ideas break down. The world is hard for a reasons: it is hard so that we are to be able to be made into people-worth-being (or as Irenaeus would say, the world is for making souls). It is almost as if whoever created the world wanted its inhabitants to work actively to eradicate evil and promote good. Go figure.

And it’s not just that the world is made for soul making, the world is really, really well made for soul making. Have you ever felt it? Have you ever seen someone smile honestly at someone who doesn’t get a lot of smiles? It’s not that they want anything from the person; they just treat them like a person worth knowing, and they’re know and it’s lovely? Or have you seen someone show real kindness when they didn’t need to, or when it cost them something? Think of those firemen on 9/11 or those parents who adopted the child with special needs or your grandma who gave you a tootsie pop after you stapled your thumb. I (and I think you too) have seen at least once that the world could be beautiful; that life with-all-its-ups-and-downs was, at least for that one moment in time, beautiful.

What allows life in those moments to be so beautiful, so right? Well, a lot actually. But let’s focus on two of the most important reasons. But before, note: it’s not that something horrible didn’t happen: the world is hard basically-all-the-time-and-in-every-way. So why/how beautiful?

First, someone did something they didn’t have to. Firemen get paid to fight fires, true. But to run into a soon-to-be-collapsing over-a-hundred-story building? No. Certainly, no. Doing good and doing it freely is the first step towards making beauty in this darkness.

Second, and the pre-condition for why people can act in their freedom to do something good, that someone has to be there. Presence. You may have wanted to give me a tootsie pop when I stapled my thumb and would have if you were there, but you weren’t. You were at home or work or school or daycare or not-alive-yet. It’s an obvious and odd thing, but only those present can make beauty in darkness.

Even though we feel in our dark times that God isn’t here or, in our slightly-better moments, he is in some vague sense ‘there’ but-still-not-here, we are wrong. He is here now and, what’s more, has always been. And here we find our great comfort: we not only worship a loving God who acts freely – both essential things – but we worship a God who freely loves all-of-the-time-and-in-every-way because he is all-of-the-time-and-in-every-way here. Our God, the God of Jesus is everywhere all the time; the trinitarian God is an omnipresent God. He is our haunting (think of Murph’s ghost in Interstellar). What seems to be the most boring and un-useful doctrine (the omnipresence of God), turns out to be the answer, not only to one of the toughest theological problems our poor minds ponder, but to our loneness, to our isolation.

And surely I am with you always
– Matthew 28

So when then those dark times come upon you and you are at the end of yourself, know you’re not alone and say in that moment what you need the God-who-is-near to hear. He will hear you. He is here with you. He is the God-who-is-near.

“I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
which shall be the darkness of God”
– T. S. Elliot, East Coker

Come quickly, Immanuel. Amen.

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Jonathan is Vice Principal at Jim Elliot Christian High School and leads the Lincoln Village CG with his wife, Emily. While he is a fourth generation Stocktonian, he’s spent 7 of the last 9 years in Chicago working on a couple graduate degrees. Now that they’ve re-relocated to Stockton, he says he loves standing outside in the sun in January and lazing with his dogs. He also really, really enjoys espresso.