Thanks to Chinglican and Captain Thin for adding necessary clarification, insight, and nuance to my rather terse critique of Driscoll. I wish they could be there to tell my students what I mean when I am lecturing. Sometimes I am too aphoristic.
Today, I want to talk about Lent, particularly about the motif of desert asceticism usually associated with it. I was at an Ash Wednesday service the other day, and the text was from Hebrews 3. What was interesting about it was its focus on the desert as a negative place. Among Christians of my generation, the desert has in a sense become crowded – we like the desert fathers’ radical critique of society, and we like the wildness it represents outside the walls of the staid established church etc. But in Hebrews 3, we see not an instance of noble desert asceticism, but an act of rebellion; Anglicans will be familiar with it from the “Venite” section in Morning Prayer:
“Today, if you hear his voice,
8 do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion,
during the time of testing in the wilderness,
9 where your ancestors tested and tried me,
though for forty years they saw what I did.
10 That is why I was angry with that generation;
I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray,
and they have not known my ways.’
11 So I declared on oath in my anger,
‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ”
This led me to wonder what the difference might be between positive and negative desert experiences. For Christ and for many of the Church Fathers, the desert brought them closer to God. But the desert experience here only distances Israel from her God and the land he promised her.
Interestingly, the contrast between these experiences is something we also know from our own experience. We can think of those whose faith has been greatly deepened by desert-like experiences of suffering; we can also think of those who have been hurt again and again and again until they collapsed under their wounds and lost their faith entirely. We can probably empathize to a certain degree with both. What I want to explore here is how we might take up our own suffering – our own desert experiences – in a way that is positive and faith building rather than negative and corrosive.
Particularly interesting to me are the verses following this passage in Hebrews 3; the author talks about the negative desert experience as being “hardened by sin’s deceitfulness,” and I think we all know what this means. “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,” says the old saying that so wonderfully sums up what such hardening is about. Betrayal – deceit – makes one more careful and more guarded; sooner or later, it causes one to trust no one but oneself. And I wonder if this is not what this verse is about, if Israel did not in the desert experience and enact the deceitfulness of sin so often that it trusted no one – including God. One does not get up one day and decide to rebel against God; it gradually happens as we experience fallen-ness – the deceitfulness of sin – and guard our hearts so tightly against its effects that not even God can get in.
But what can we do about this? We cannot pretend we are not sinners, and cannot pretend that we do not experience sin’s deceitfulness daily in its manifold manifestations in the world (I include here the experience of suffering). And what is one to do except become hard? How can we remain spiritually tender amidst the hardness of the desert?
My first thought is that we can’t – which is why Christ has done this for us and imparts this to us through his spirit. Christ is the only one who can both set his face like flint toward Jerusalem and still have the tenderness to forgive his enemies and make plans for the future care of his mother while on a cross. You see, the miracle of Christ is not simply that he endured excruciating pain – even Jack Bauer can do that. No, the miracle is that he endured excruciating pain and remained fully human, open to God and others, without hardening his heart like a stone. If I might put it this way, it takes One who is fully God to remain fully and openly human while one is suffering – and that One is Christ.
This of course is why the author of Hebrews encourages those in the church to encourage one another daily as a way of avoiding the hardening that comes from sin and suffering. It takes great faith to believe that God – and not the suffering, evil, and sin we see around us – is in fact the Sovereign of the universe. Yet it is precisely this faith that allows us to remain open, relational, and human when we undergo suffering. If evil is indeed the last word in the universe, we might as well just hunker down and do our best to survive until we die; but if the last word in the universe is a God who exists in an eternal trinity of self-giving, we can have faith that, at the end of the day, He (rather than our own hard shells) will ensure our ultimate protection, even when that is not immediately evident and demonstrable. Through faith in the Spirit of Christ, we face our suffering as humans capable of relationships with others and God rather than as stones. And it is through the church – through encouraging each other daily – that we remind each other of this faith and the way it leads us to God rather than rebellion in the desert.