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A Rationale for Their Misery

Formerly, if men were miserable, they went to church so as to find a rationale for their misery; they did not expect to be happy — this idea is Greek, not Christian or Jewish.

– Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, p. 38

I heard this quote paraphrased by Carl Trueman in an interview recently. It resonated. Why? Because of my own testimony of how Christ called me to himself. It’s good to remind yourself of the mighty works of God in your life. So indulge me.

I wasn’t raised in a Christian home. My parents were divorced in my early teens. My dad and I were basically two bachelors trying to figure it out. I wasn’t ready for college life at 18. I failed big-time. And it was my own fault.

After a year of partying, skipping class, and getting put on academic probation, I came home with my tail tucked between the limbs I walk on. But, in God’s providence, I came home to find that my grandmother was ill. I came home in May. She died the following October. She asked me to come to her house and visit as often as I could that summer. She knew she wasn’t going to be around much longer.

I never heard my grandmother talk about Jesus. But I knew she went to church. I knew she read the Bible. She told me at some point that summer that she read the Bible through each year. She had a Bible reading plan. She was weak. Would I please read to her? So I did. Several times. It got my attention.

I didn’t know anything about the Bible. But now I wanted to read it for myself. So I started reading it on my own. What else could I do but begin at the beginning?

Again, I knew nothing about the Bible. But I remembered that when I was a child, my family took a trip to Natural Bridge, Virginia. While we were there, we went to their ‘creation’ show. They still do this. You can find it on YouTube. It involved a man and a woman playing the parts of Adam and Eve, with someone reading Genesis 1-3 over the public address system.

I remembered that, hearing those early chapters of Genesis, I asked my dad, “Why didn’t they know they were naked?” He didn’t know how to answer the question. He just shrugged and it was never spoken of again. [Note for parents: no how to explain sin to your child].

Fast-forward to something like twelve years later. I’m reading Genesis 3: “their eyes were opened, and they knew that they were naked.”

It was like sticking a paper clip into an outlet. Electricity. I understood it instantly. The Bible was talking about shame. For the first time, Adam and Eve experienced shame. And reading that, it was the first time I truly experienced shame. It gave a name to all that I had been feeling but couldn’t put into words or apply to my heart. It changed me on the spot. I was in church the next Sunday.

I had a lot of baggage from my parents’ divorce that I didn’t know how to deal with. I had a lot of pain from some things that happened in high school. And I was partying my way through those things. I was numbing myself. I was acting like an idiot. Only I didn’t know this. Reading that Adam and Eve realized that they were naked and hid themselves from God made me realize that I was naked and hiding myself too. I was looking for a covering for my shame.

Genesis 3 gave me a rationale for my misery. It cut open my chest and exposed the guilt and shame of my heart. Did joy come from this? Yes. Because it led me to Christ, who is my joy. But I needed my miserable condition explained to me. I needed to understand why I did the terrible things I did (and do). I needed to understand how sin, guilt, and shame were abiding in my soul and how to confront them. I needed to know that I was naked before Christ could clothe me with his righteousness.

People who downplay the necessity of talking about sin see it as something negative; something that will get people down and depress people. On that day in the summer of 2000, I saw it as the explanation for all that was going on in my miserable soul. It made sense of everything – my feelings, my actions, my confusion, my mistakes. It was a supreme act of God’s blessing that he showed me my guilt. It was a positive thing that God showed me my sin, guilt, and shame. It wasn’t a downer. It wasn’t depressing. It was the thing that made sense of my whole life.

I am a pastor now, but I still go to church each week seeking a rationale for my misery. I need God to remind me week by week that I am deeply sinful. And then I need him to show me what Christ has done as the ultimate remedy. Then I need him to show me how I am still continually rebelling against the lordship of the one who saved me. And I need to be reminded that indwelling sin is the cause of that rebellion. Then I need to be reminded of Christ’s cross once again.

And it’s only through this – the rationale of my misery – that I am driven back again and again to the rationale for my joy – the love of Jesus Christ. Skip the rationale for misery and you have no rationale for joy.

He looks at us in our suffering as he would have looked at Jesus had our sin not been imputed to him

I’ve written about this before HERE and HERE, but here’s another angle on it. Calvin on 2 Corinthians 1:5:

Verse 5

2 Corinthians 1:5 For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.

For as the sufferings of Christ abound This statement may be explained in two ways — actively and passively. If you take it actively, the meaning will be this: “The more I am tried with various afflictions, so much the more resources have I for comforting others.” I am, however, more inclined to take it in a passive sense, as meaning that God multiplied his consolations according to the measure of his tribulations. David also acknowledges that it had been thus with him:

According to the multitude, says he, of my anxieties within me,
thy consolations have delighted my soul. (Psalms 94:19.)

In Paul’s words, however, there is a fuller statement of doctrine; for the afflictions of the pious he calls the sufferings of Christ, as he says elsewhere, that he fills up in his body what is wanting in the sufferings of Christ. (Colossians 1:24.)

The miseries and vexations, it is true, of the present life are common to good and bad alike, but when they befall the wicked, they are tokens of the curse of God, because they arise from sin, and nothing appears in them except the anger of God and participation with Adam, which cannot but depress the mind. But in the mean time believers are conformed to Christ, and bear about with them in their body his dying, that the life of Christ may one day be manifested in them. (2 Corinthians 4:10).

Samuel Bolton states a similar idea in The True Bounds of Christian Freedom:

…God has mercy for ‘can-nots’, but none for ‘will-nots’. God can distinguish between weakness and wickedness. While you are under the law, this weakness is your wickedness, a sinful weakness, and therefore God hates it. Under the Gospel He looks not upon the weakness of the saints as their wickedness, and therefore He pities them. Sin makes those who are under the law the objects of God’s hatred. Sin in a believer makes him the object of God’s pity. Men, you know, hate poison in a toad, but pity it in a man. In the one it is their nature, in the other their disease. Sin in a wicked man is as poison in a toad; God hates it and him; it is the man’s nature. But sin in a child of God is like poison in a man; God pities him. He pities the saints for sins and infirmities, but hates the wicked. It is the nature of the one, the disease of the other.

The main take-away I got from Calvin today is that God the Father somehow views the sufferings of his people as their share in the sufferings of Christ. In other words, the Father poured his wrath out upon Jesus in his suffering so that he could sympathize with us in our suffering. He looks at us in our suffering as he would have looked at Jesus had our sin not been imputed to him. He sees our failings and pains as weakness, not as wickedness. In doing so, he is the “God of all comfort.”

They are More Evil than the Rest of us Walking Pavement

In his novel/novella, Ray, Barry Hannah has a preacher with suppressed urges murder the love of the main character’s life (The ‘flying’ is a reference to being a pilot in WWII):

In their secret hearts, such perversities as Maynard know there are things they can never have, things they have wanted with all their hearts. So they kill them. Most preachers are this way. Their messages seem benevolent, but they are more evil than the rest of us walking pavement.

When I fly again, it will be against the preachers.

-Barry Hannah, Ray, p. 54

I am a preacher, so I take statements like this, even in a novel, to heart. Hannah had a love/hate relationship with the church for a long time. He openly confessed Christ later in his life (and I’m thankful for this), but that’s not what’s important here. The issue here is actually taking such a statement seriously: Preacher, be careful what you do with your urges, and how you mortify them. Suppression is not enough. The Apostle Paul called himself the chief of sinners. Do you think that you’re better?

Seeing Your Ugliness in Others

I studied the man as he spoke; for all those years I’d handed my ugliness over to people and seen only the different ways it was reflected back to me. As reluctant as I was to admit it now, the only indication in my companion’s behavior was positive.

-Lucy Grealy, Autobiography of a Face, p. 222

A pretty good principle: When you see bad in others, be careful that you’re not just seeing your own badness reflected back to you. We tend to lash out at our own sins when we see them in others, while at the same time failing to see them in ourselves. This is the old splinter/log principle.

The Murder of the Soul

Oh, learn to pity your own soul, for he who sins offends and wrongs God, but also wrongs and destroys his own soul, or, as some read the text, despises his own soul (Proverbs 8.36). Oh, think of it! what! have you no value, no regard for your soul? Will you neglect and despise it, as if it were good for nothing, but to be damned, and go to Hell? Will you be felo de se, a self-soul-murderer? Shall your perdition be of yourself? Oh, look to yourself, for sin, notwithstanding all its flattering pretences, is against you, and seeks nothing less than your ruin and damnation.

-Ralph Venning, The Sinfulness of Sin, p. 37

The phrase ‘soul suicide’ has been banging around in my head for years. I couldn’t remember where I came across the phrase. Then I started re-reading The Sinfulness of Sin and there was the idea: ‘a self-soul-muderer.’