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suffering and human agency

I offer this as part apology and part explanation of my recent absence from this blog.  Last Thursday, we held the long-planned Veritas Forum at my school, for which I was the Forum Director, and, more terrifyingly, the emcee.  We brought in John Lennox from Oxford to speak to one of the hardest questions to answer: why suffering exists if there is a God who is both loving and powerful.  Why can’t He just stop that suffering?

I’ve spoken to several people about this.  Honestly, the answer that I give to most of them is that I don’t know myself, but if God is great enough to be in control, He’s also got to be great enough to have his own reasons for doing things.

I’m in the business of making connections and gleaning information, though, and Dr. Lennox pointed out several interesting things about this problem that we face.  Mostly, it brought up the idea of our own free will as a cause for much suffering.

Firstly, God is not a stranger to suffering.  He didn’t sit back and leave us to our own pain.  He has mourned over our suffering and sent His own Son – his own person – to a broken and needy world to take all of our pain onto Himself.  God understands suffering because He’s gone through it with us.

The next part.  Dr. Lennox mentioned that after an earthquake in New Zealand, he was reading a book about plate tectonics, and here’s the thing:  in order for us to survive here, the tectonic plates need to shift.  It’s a beneficial action.  However, the world is flawed, and when these plates grind against one another, you have an earthquake.  An earthquake isn’t just a fluke, but a malfunction of a necessary system.

And it hit me then that even this stems from the gift of free will.  When man fell, death, decay, and brokenness entered into our own flesh, yes – but they also permeated the fabric of our world itself.  Everything dies, and everything tends to entropy.

“For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Romans 8:20-21)

Creation groans to be freed from death just as we do, caught in our sinful decision.  “But couldn’t God have done better?” we ask.  “Couldn’t he have created perfect things that wouldn’t screw everything up?”

“Well, we can do that,” John Lennox responded.  “They’re called robots.”  Because eradicating the possibility of sin and suffering also eradicates the possibility of love.  We have free will so that love, one of our greatest gifts, can exist, extended from God to this world.  A mandated love is really no love at all.  C.S. Lewis, as usual, puts it beautifully:

Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.  A world of automata – of creatures that worked like machines – would hardly be worth creating.”

There can be no yes without the possibility of a no.  It’s beautiful, really.  John says that we know what love itself is by looking to Christ, who suffered so greatly on our behalf! (1 John 3:16)  If the only way to experience a world of love is to take a world of suffering with it, I choose to take them both.

 

This free will, however, leads us directly to the thought that has plagued me this past week, though: after the influence of society and the power of God, how much agency do I have as a human being, acting in my own power?  If God controls everything, then which of my choices are my own? How does this free will impact my own life?

I’m beginning to understand, perhaps a little bit more, now, that although God is omnipotent, He still allows me to make my own decisions.  Of course there are the ones that I can’t control – death, nature, information that comes to me.  But I choose how I react, and although God may tell me things, I may still rebel.  When He tells me to follow Him, I still have to follow.

And that’s hard for me, because I am prone more to inertia than to action, to stability than to change, and to indecision more than what I choose.  In part, I’m terrified of where I’m going, because I don’t know it.  I’m afraid that I will regard an opportunity with indecision until it passes and I live with regret after that.

Yes, I want God to be in control of my life; I submit it to him.  But I also have to stop using that as an excuse to stop making my own decisions.  He hasn’t given us a spirit of fear, but of boldness, and this is where that great paradox of humble confidence has its inception.  It’s hard to do anything purely, without an ulterior motive, and this includes seeking the Lord.  I want Him desperately, and I seek to serve Him – this is true.  But it is also true that I am human, and selfish, and frightened.

I don’t have agency figured out, and I don’t think I ever shall.  It’s one of those knotty paradoxes that I am beginning to conceive, a great and intriguing both/and.

The two givens of the theorem:

a) God is omnipotent and in control of our lives

b) We have been granted free will to shape our lives.

And although I cannot fully understand this, I accept is as the truth of the matter.  We are free to make choices but also controlled by whatever consumes us.  But we choose what it is that consumes us.

I choose my God, loving and powerful Creator and Sustainer.

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A note: I’m aware this is an incomplete rendering of both topics.  Talk to me about it.

xρόνος + καιρός = time

“Time is not inert,” says Augustine.  “It does not roll through our senses without affecting us.  Its passing has remarkable effects on the mind.”

So when I realized a week and a half ago that it was November, I had a bit of a situation.  How on earth has time passed so quickly?  It honestly feels like I just arrived back at school and set up my dorm room, reunited with friends, and started classes, and now I’m signing up for next semester’s work and realizing that I have only a month of school left.

Time’s been on my mind lately, as evidenced by the frequent, frenzied scrawls of “KAIROS!” in the margins of my class notes.  I know that as a still-teenager I have no right to say this, but I have noticed that time picks up the older that you get and does not stop.  Compared to the lazy, endless days of childhood, those summer stretches when I would play outside, read for hours, and not feel the pinch of passing time, the hours now hurtle forward, and I look up and weeks and months have passed without my assent.  That’s the trouble with clinging to the next weekend, the next break, the next year – it will arrive as quickly as you want it to.

My lovely friend texted me as I was writing this that she had just proven the relativity of time for her physics homework.  In certain calculations involving the speed of light, what should be perceived is very different from what is perceived.  Essentially, someone can have a perception of time that’s twice as slow as normal.  Although the speed of light doesn’t change, time does.  As permanent as it seems and as inconceivable as eternity is, time is a created function.  God made time, and everything created is mutable.  God, the Uncreated, is the sole immutable in our ever-shifting universe – which is why we must place our faith on His unchanging foundation.  Augustine says that God’s “years are one Today”.

Even that’s too much to comprehend for me.  God, the creator of time itself, is not subject to it.  He stands outside of time, because time is a mortal constraint.  In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis puts it beautifully, as usual: “God is not hurried along in the Time-stream of this universe any more than an author is hurried along in the imaginary time of his own novel. He has infinite attention for each of us.”

We are not so removed from the past.  I feel sometimes that we brush up against them.  I’ve realized as I’ve read texts from both sides of time (BC to AD) that no matter how different cultures might seem, people haven’t really changed.  Truth is truth regardless of chronology.

On the same note, the ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos (xρόνος)and kairos (καιρός).  Chronos is the root of our word chronological.   It refers to time as we know it – linear, sequential, normal.  Kairos, however, is the one that’s fascinated me all semester.  Ever since I reread A Wrinkle in Time, it’s been popping up in magically realistic Spanish literature, Greek philosophy, and English texts.  It’s an in-between, liminal sort of time in which something monumental happens, event-based and not chronologically based.  Although it’s sometimes referred to as “God time”, I’m not sure this is quite accurate, because God owns all time and isn’t bound by any of it.  It’s the time that God acts – His divinely ordained workings in light of Eternity.

Timing is everything, and God’s is perfect.  He has the ability to see everything as a whole, from the ancient past to the future that we couldn’t even imagine for ourselves.  We wonder why he does things when he does them, but honestly, the Creator of Time itself knows a thing or two about the way it functions in our lives.

Now, though, I am trapped under the weight of chronology.  Just as Death and Time are subject to God, I am under their jurisdiction.  The worst is when I feel that time is wasted, and I know I’ve done plenty of that.  After episodes on the BBC and endless scrolling through internet webpages, I realize that my free time has vanished.  I used to think that if I weren’t in school I would have time to do other things, but now I’m beginning to realize that I’m wrong.  If I were dying, I always thought, then I wouldn’t waste my time.  But I am dying.

There are moments when I am pulled out of chronos, slipping, fragile, into near-kairos until I fall back down.  A few weeks ago, as I sat outside on a cold bench, praying into the frozen air, I suddenly saw myself from the outside through the eyes of the future.  I saw myself as I will and knew that I will look back on that moment and think how young I was, and how much God still had to show me.

Our time here is limited, so we’d best use it well.  God has created time, and he does not create evil things.  He’s given us our perfectly allotted time so that we can fulfill our purpose on this planet.  Time spent living for Him can never be wasted, and so we need to keep in mind that our lives here could fold and wrinkle in a second.  Let us live in the mindset of eternity, fixing our eyes on God and his kairos as best as we can.  Because past, present, and future, God is.

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the human body

I was walking back and forth in my dorm’s elevator when I noticed the slight, contented ache of a good day of walking in my legs.  In that moment, I thought all of the ropy muscles in my thighs, calves, and feet, imagining them straining and relaxing, bunching themselves up and stretching themselves out with every step or shift of weight.  The fact that I can do something like walking is amazing.  Each muscle works perfectly with the others so easily that I don’t even have to think about what to do with each one and what’s pulling what in which direction.

Our bodies are absolutely fantastic.  I can’t even… just think of the complexity of it for a second.  There are so many different systems in the body, with the brain controlling the whole thing, and everything works together in delicate balance in order for us to even function.  It’s a miracle that we work so much of the time, really.  It’s beautiful, the way that we’re so specifically and perfectly knitted together.  I think this is part of the reason why I’m still struggling with the decision to be premed or not, because I’m so drawn to the magnificent beauty of the human body (more on this later, probably).

I was lying in bed this week, trying (somewhat fruitlessly) to fall asleep, when I slid my hand over my own heart and just felt my heartbeat for a while.  As I focused, I could feel it fluttering there in my chest, keeping me alive, pumping with each beat.  I noticed how one side beat harder than the other, how it was stronger on the left side than the right.  I could feel it sending my blood shooting out into my extremities, pulsing and circulating throughout my entire body and reaching my fingers until I felt the heartbeat in my hand and my chest.

But my first impression struck me the most.  As I lie there with my hand over my heart, I was suddenly reminded of a memory.  When I was younger, we found a tiny gray-and-white kitten that we brought home for a few short weeks before realizing that it was much too young to be with us.  We named it Mischief and cared for it very carefully, holding it, giving it baths, and giving it a stuffed animal to snuggle with at night.  As sad as my brother and I were to see the kitten go, we were glad it was back with its mother.

I remember holding Mischief to my chest, one hand underneath him and the other keeping him close.  As he nestled into the folds of my t-shirt, I could feel his tiny heartbeat in my fingers.  The skin, bone, and fur that separated his heart from my hand seemed paper-thin, and I could feel every quick beat through his delicate ribcage.

As I lay in bed, my own heart felt like that.  I felt so… vulnerable.  I was suddenly aware of my own fragility and of the delicacy of the thin layer of material that guards that organ that preserves my life.  My life is so brief.  I could be killed in a second.

It’s a marvel to be alive.  Every detail is so perfectly crafted… you’re fearfully and wonderfully made.  I was walking home from the library Monday night (more like Tuesday morning), praying as I trekked back to my dorm.  As I looked around, and thought about these same wonders of existing, I had to stop because I realized this:

God is the God of the entire universe.  He created everything in it, and designed it – I stopped for a while to look at trees.  How do you even think up trees? And the form helps it stay alive as well (google photosynthesis… haha). One of the things I really love about creation, too, is the way something can be both functional and beautiful.  Like our bodies.

So, God made the universe.  He designed everything specifically, including us.  As beings created in the image of the eternal God (!), we are the pinnacle of creation.  I paused while typing that, because it seems conceited… but people are more important than animals or nature.  We’re the only animals with souls.  And after God created us on the sixth day, he didn’t just call us good, but very good.

And this all-powerful, all-knowing Creator of everything we can and can’t see, this inconceivably wonderful and mighty God… loves us.

We can talk to Him. Just… just stop for a second.  We can talk to the God of the universe.  It blew my mind when I realized it.  I’m so unworthy of speaking to Him.  I’ve been praying for so long, and I whine and moan about tests and lost belongings and my shallow, petty feelings.  It’s infinitely crazier than going to up to the President and asking him to scratch that itch on your back that you can’t reach, or help you clean out your fridge or listen to you talk about your favorite TV show.

And He still listens, because He loves us so much.  Even when we whine about the stupid things that really don’t matter, He lets us talk.

I think that I need to start taking prayer more seriously.  Sometimes we get so carried away with the whole God-is-love, God-is-my-friend mentality that we forget how awesome He truly is.  Yes, of course those things are true.  But He’s also the ruler of everything, the God of everything that has been and will be, the Eternal Creator who created time itself.  He holds infinite power, and He still cares about us.

That’s a little bit mind-blowing.

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“So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:27

Anatomy of the Human Heart

Muscular System