This series explores what we don’t believe — and why — in order to help us understand what we do believe, and why we do.
Many years ago, I saw the Umberto Eco movie, The Name of the Rose, in which Sean Connery played a monk-turned-sleuth who had to investigate a series of gruesome murders in a medieval monastery. The murders were not the only thing in that monastery that was disturbing; it was one of the least joyful places I’ve ever seen depicted on film. There was even a confrontation about whether Jesus ever laughed — something that was inconceivable to the elders there. You can see the clip here, if you wish to:
We’ve all heard joyless versions of Christianity. They go something like this: Life is a vale of suffering. The role of a faithful person is to endure without complaint. He who endures to the end shall be saved. And yet, this set of teachings, which has been widely espoused, is not the teaching of Scripture itself.
It is true: Scripture makes it clear that suffering is present in every life, and that it will come to anyone who tries to follow Christ. We are told to take up our cross, to endure persecution. We are told not to allow ourselves to be controlled by passing attachments to what will fade, but to keep our sight fixed on the glory that will never fade. We are warned that we will be divided from the closest members of our families, that we may be imprisoned, that we will need a strong relationship with Christ to hold fast until the end.
And yet, the call of Christ is not to endure these things with passive acquiescence, but to resist them. And the tool we are given is not brute endurance, but joy: the joy of living in a redeemed creation, the joy that comes from the hope of resurrection, the joy that comes from the deep conviction that the worst is not the last.
To despise the world is to hold it of little account. The Stoics, who were popular thought-leaders at the time Christ lived, taught that it granted a kind of freedom: freedom from passion, freedom from care, freedom to act without fear of being brought into shame or dishonor or death. And some of this teaching did get imported into Scripture and into the church.
But Jesus did not despise the world. He was born among the poor, worked with his hands, traveled and begged and taught and prayed and suffered and died because he loved this world. God so loved this world that he did not allow its suffering to go unchecked forever. God redeemed it.
And so our model as people who try to follow Jesus is one of deep tenderness: tenderness for creation, tenderness for all human beings, tenderness for the sick, the suffering, and the sorrowful, as well as for those who are rich in joy. And this tenderness will cause us pain, because we live in a world in which horrible things happen. And it will give us freedom to act: not the freedom of apathy, but the freedom of a great and terrible love. For the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Rom 5:5)
I want to leave you with a poem today; it’s by Jack Gilbert, and it’s called “A Brief for the Defense.”
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
“The worst is not the last” is borrowed from John Claypool.