Talk Given at Our Advent Mini Retreat, 2011
For the sake of Jacob, my servant,
of Israel my chosen one,
I have called you by name,
giving you a title, though you do not know me.
I am the LORD, there is no other,
there is no God besides me.
It is I who arm you, though you do not know me,
so that all may know, from the rising of the sun
to its setting, that there is none besides me.
I am the LORD, there is no other.
I form the light, and create the darkness,
I make weal and create woe;
I, the LORD, do all these things.
Let justice descend, you heavens, like dew from above,
like gentle rain let the clouds drop it down.
Let the earth open and salvation bud forth;
let righteousness spring up with them!
I, the LORD, have created this.
Woe to anyone who contends with their Maker;
a potsherd among potsherds of the earth!
Shall the clay say to the potter, “What are you doing?”
or, “What you are making has no handles”?
Woe to anyone who asks a father, “What are you begetting?”
or a woman, “What are you giving birth to?”
Is 45, 4-10
I form the light, and create the darkness,
I make weal and create woe;
I, the LORD, do all these things.
Is 45, 7
As many of you know, I work as a mental health clinician. I’m employed by a service organization that provides care for those with ‘severe and persistent mental illness’. If we’re going to believe, as Isaiah writes, that it is God Himself who makes ‘weal and woe’, I can point you in a direction where He’s creating much of the woe. Individuals afflicted with psychiatric brain disorders, and those who love them, are probably among the most woeful people there are. Ours is a world of light and darkness, and I get to spend time with clients who have an intimate knowledge of the darkness.
Perhaps you’ve had the experience of being drawn into discussions with non-believers who take stock of the suffering that exists in the world and find that it poses an obstacle to their faith. “If God really exists,” they ask, “why do so many people suffer so much pain?” Isn’t that the big puzzler? Isn’t that the question that is constantly putting believers on the spot? Maybe it isn’t such a tough question, after all. As Isaiah presents the matter, the pain in the world shouldn’t make us doubt God’s existence, it should assure us that there really is a God – since He’s the one responsible for all the suffering.
Not so fast! Perhaps we shouldn’t take this passage at face value. We’re always in danger of misinterpreting scripture, especially if we evaluate one little bit of it in isolation. Does it really make sense to think that God is the one responsible for all the unhappiness in the world? Let’s consider what we already know about Him. We know that God is merciful and compassionate. We know God wills that justice should descend like dew from above, and that righteousness should spring up from the earth. God is good. God is good in every situation. Our understanding of God causes us to rebel at the thought that He could possibly be the author of darkness and woe. We’re aghast at the very idea. We want to think our way through to some other conclusion, but there’s no other conclusion to reach. Only one can make weal or create woe, only the LORD, there is no other. Why, then, do we have such difficulty accepting the idea?
We’d be better able to make sense of the suffering in the world if we paid a little less attention to the suffering we’re experiencing and a little more attention to the suffering of those who are depending on us, the suffering of those we’re neglecting. We all have a facility called ‘consciousness’ and consciousness is fine as far as it goes but it doesn’t go far enough to take us out of ourselves. Consciousness focuses our attention on the weal and the woe of one particular individual – ourselves. Consciousness leads us into a distorted view of reality, a reality that puts us at the center of the universe. The absolute truth of the matter is that everyone else’s woe matters as much as mine does, and I’d realize that if I could get past my own distorted view of reality. The LORD hears the cry of the poor, the cry of woe made by the poor; but the person who needs to hear that cry is me, because I’m the one the poor depend upon. When I stop focusing so much on myself, I begin to have the capacity to see what my response to another person’s woe needs to be. My response to woe is actually a response to God’s grace, God’s grace made manifest in woe. There can be no justice if there is no need, and if there can be need, there can be unmet need, and if there is unmet need there is woe. God’s justice is drawn from out of blessed darkness – but someone has to be willing to respond to God’s grace for that justice to be made manifest.
There are, I think, two different kinds of persons, with two differing beliefs and two differing attitudes or life orientations. In the first place, there is the person who believes himself to be the Son of God. This person is convinced that he is created in the image and likeness of God, that his destiny is to come, more and more, to resemble God, and that it’s his business to be busy about his Father’s business. The person who doesn’t believe himself to be the Son of God is the person who believes himself to be God. This person believes that, if he’s good, he’ll be rewarded with well being but that if he’s bad he’ll be punished with suffering. He believes that he himself makes weal and woe. He’s the one in control. Everything depends on his behavior and his choices. Life, for such a person, is his own effort to be always happy, always healthy, always prosperous. He’s always attempting to avoid punishment and earn reward; and the rewards he seeks are rewards we all can appreciate. He seeks love, and friendship, and family, and meaningful work, and recognition, and pleasure, and comfort and ease. Heaven, for such a person, is the state of unending weal, unending weal for him.
Conversion is the process by which we are transformed from someone who says, ‘My will be done’ to someone who says, ‘Thy will be done’; from someone who loves himself more than his neighbor to someone who loves his neighbor as himself, from someone who aspires to be God and take control of his life to someone who understands that he’s the Son of God and lives to serve the LORD’s purpose. While we’re still in the early phases of conversion we’re troubled to observe that, as often as not, the people we think are bad enjoy weal while people we judge to be good suffer woe. We long for a world where our concept of goodness always produces happiness and we long to be very, very good. While we’re still in the early phases of conversion it is impossible for us to believe that there could be such a thing as blessed darkness or that God could be the creator of woe.
How, I wonder, do we begin to make sense of the world, and make sense of life as the process of our conversion develops? What happens when we stop thinking of God is our errand boy, delivering up punishment and reward as is our merit? How does our perception change when it dawns on us that the splendor of God’s design for letting justice shower the earth like a gentle rain is infinitely superior to the ticky-tack enterprise of providing us with a treat when our conduct is correct and yanking our leash when it isn’t.
When conversion has transformed us, how do we make sense of this passage from Isaiah? Can we then, finally, accept that God Himself is the maker of light and darkness? That when we’re in the light, we’re in God’s light, and that when we’re in darkness, we’re in God’s darkness? Light is God’s revelation. Darkness is God’s revelation. Justice is about drawing creation into God’s plan. It has nothing at all to do with punishment and reward.
Perhaps we could begin to see the fallacy of striving to be rewarded if we took a minute to think about the phenomenon of regret. Let’s take regret apart so we can search for its roots, and study its effects. The only time a person is provoked to regret is when he or she contemplates their moments in darkness, their moments of woe. Regret occurs when a person determines that some action or inaction of their own has led them into darkness and woe. Regret serves a purpose – it props up the belief that, if only one manages to play their cards right, he or she could live a life of relentless happiness. Regret assures us that we’re in control. While we’re regretting we’re asserting that it is we humans who make weal and create woe. Obviously, if we’re inclined to regret, we would never consider looking for value in the parts of our lives that were shrouded in darkness or bathed in woe. The ‘regrettable’ parts of our lives are the parts we reject. They’re parts of life that never should have been. The idea of expressing gratitude for those parts of our lives seems ridiculous to us.
I’m thinking of a client of mine who has experienced many years of darkness and many years of woe. Lately she’s experienced some remission in her suffering, but this fortunate development has actually been troubling to her. Why, she asks, did she have to endure all of that horribleness? What if, at some earlier part of her life, she had gotten the proper treatment, what if the people in her life had shown her more kindness and understanding, what if she had gotten a few good breaks instead of an unending stream of bad breaks? Wouldn’t it have been possible for her to have avoided a great deal of her pain?
There is no flaw in her logic. She spent many years in darkness when she might have been living in the light. Why? What in the world was gained? This same client spends a lot of time referring to people of her acquaintance who have led ‘good’ lives, ‘happy’ lives. She’s not mistaken about them. In fact, she’s right on the money. There truly are people who knew weal while she was learning woe. God made their weal. Are we to understand that this same God created her woe? For what purpose? To what end?
We would get lost in confusion if we assumed that my client’s woe indicated that God was punishing her or that she did something bad. God does not create woe for that purpose. God is revealing Himself to us by offering us His grace and inviting us to respond. There’s no one ‘right’ way to respond to woe any more than there’s one ‘right’ way to respond to weal. What we have to keep in mind – and it’s a hard thing to accept – is that, either way, we’re responding to God’s grace. God’s grace, together with our willing response, is God’s revelation. The god who creates a world of perfect happiness, and puts us in it, is a god who lives only in our imagination. The god of our imagination can never satisfy us – that’s why we’re so hungry for the revelation of the LORD. There is no other, there is no god besides Him.
Happiness is different from joy because the cause of happiness is different from the cause of joy. God creates weal. When I’m the recipient of weal I’m happy. I’m happy if I realize that God is the cause of my happiness, I’m happy if I’m clinging to the delusion that I created my happiness with my own good action. To be joyful, on the other hand, requires faith. Joy is knowledge of the Father. I’m joyful when I’m accepting God’s revelation. God has a purpose in creating the universe and it isn’t to make me happy, it isn’t to shower me with unending weal, it certainly isn’t to empower me to shower myself with unending weal. God’s purpose is to make Himself known. God wants you to know the joy of knowing Him. God’s light is His revelation to you. God’s darkness is also His revelation to you.
As long as I devote myself to the pursuit of reward I’m going to resist the truth that God is the master of weal and of woe. As long as I devote myself to the pursuit of reward I’m going to be convinced that God is with me when I’m in the light and against me when I’m in the darkness. I’m sure to be confused until I undergo an experience of conversion. I’ve got to learn to stop developing strategies to control good times and bad and I’ve got to start learning to look for God in every experience. Instead of thinking that God veers from telling me He’s rewarding me for being good to telling me He’s punishing me for being bad I’ve got to get used to the idea that God is always telling me the same thing: “Now is the moment. This is your chance to see me. I am freeing you to become yourself by inviting you to become like me.”
The process of conversion enables us to exercise our will differently than we did when we exerted our will in an attempt to control our lives. As we progress in the process of conversion we find that we can use our will as it was designed to be used, which is to respond to God’s grace – and as we progress we can find God’s grace everywhere we look. In the light and in the darkness. In weal and in woe.
Tags: Advent Reflection, bipolar, blame, Catholic, consciousness, darkness, depression, duty, eating disorder, light, mental health, mental illness, pain, praise, psychiatric disorder, punishment, responsibility, reward, schizophrenia, self, social worker, suffer, transformation, weal, woe