Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Where Real Pain and Real Pleasure Lead Us

"A heart that is broken is a heart that is open" (U2, Cedarwoode Road)

"One day you're waiting for the sky to fall,
"The next you're dazzled by the beauty of it all" (Bruce Cockburn, Lovers in a Dangerous Time)

Through lots of my years, I've sought to live a placid life. I don't suppose that's so different from most people. We all want, in the words of another song, this one Paul McCartney's Too Much Rain, "a happy and peaceful life."

But I realize that much of the placid life I sought was actually a lifeless life.

I tried to avoid confrontation, often when it would have been best to take it on, because I didn't want upleasantness.

I held most people at arm's length, despite a surface friendliness, because, after all, I could be moving on and goodbyes to those you really care about hurt. Besides, some people turn on you and cause you pain.

I would even avoid things of great beauty for the grief I projected they would someday bring me when they were no longer there. ("You're gonna make me lonesome when you go," Dylan sang in his 1974 song.)

What I have come to realize--what I am still coming to realize--is that while a person may achieve a stale, lifeless placidity by staying away from the pains and pleasures of human existence, there is less of life, less of love, and less of God in a life of avoidance.

In his book, The Screwtape Letters, a work of fiction that purports to be the correspondence of a senior tempter with a junior tempter, C.S. Lewis has his evil protagonist advise his charge to keep his patient--the human being the junior tempter is trying to dislodge from relationship with God--from experiencing any real pain or real pleasure.

Real pleasure only comes from God.

It's God Who created the gift of sex, for example. It can bring authentic pleasure to men and women committed to one another and respectful of one another: physical pleasure, emotional pleasure, a sense of being loved and accepted no matter what the rest of the world may think or say.

It's God Who created the gifts of food and taste. It's a wonderful pleasure to bite into an apple and taste its sweet tang, feel the crunch of of the fruit in your teeth. And it's good for us.

But pleasures like these can be marred by misuse or overuse or abuse.

Sex can be seen as an end in itself that doesn't bring the whole package of pleasure God intended it to bring.

Food can be candied and processed and perverted and overeaten, an object that results not in pleasure but dullness, addiction, and obesity.

Lewis' devil concedes that only God can create real pleasure and that hell has found no way to replicate it in its pure form.

Real pain, on the other hand, comes from really living in the depths of life.

There are some who manufacture faux pain in order to call attention to themselves or to invest their lives with drama that makes them feel as though they're living. ("Suffering was the only thing that made me feel I was alive," Carly Simon sang in Haven't Got Time for the Pain.)

We live surrounded by such people: drama queens and drama kings. They parcel out gossip to make themselves seem important. They're people who are, if not in the center of some drama, real or imagined, in the know about it.

They crow about the offenses, real and imagined, perpetrated against them on Facebook, at the water cooler, in the packed dockets of courts, and in church fellowship halls.

But contact with real pain, a real consequence of this world's enslavement to sin, death, and darkness, is very different than contact with fake pain: The news that we've had a major heart attack, when we receive a diagnosis of cancer, when a loved one dies, when a friend deserts us, being physically abused, being persecuted. Those are occasions of real pain.

Real pleasure and real pain can have the same effect on us though, says Lewis. They can bring us back to reality, out of our dream worlds, away from our selfish attempts to insulate ourselves from reality, to deny our mortality, our finitude, and our need for the God Who made us and Who came to our world to save us from sin, death, and darkness and to give us the life with Him for which we were made.

In Psalm 8, King David sings: "O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens." Pleasure in looking at the skies, which are only part of God's creation, led David to the truth that this amazing universe has a creator and He is to be praised. (I find myself looking at and taking pictures of the skies all the time these days.)

Then, David, considering God's goodness, is led later in the psalm to wonder: "
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?"

Real pleasure often leads people to praise, even those who may not consider themselves especially religious. In his 1971 song, Duncan, Paul Simon has the lead character sing, "
I was playing my guitar/Lying underneath the stars/Just thanking the Lord/For my fingers."

Praise, I believe, in fact, is the truest, most real thing that human beings can ever engage in because through it, we acknowledge the fundamental truth of the universe: God is God and I'm not and that's good.

Real pain too, will lead us into the precincts of real truth--and the author of truth, the One Who is truth Himself. This, as we've mentioned here many times before, was the experience of a first century Christian named Paul. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul talks about the many wonderful things God had shown him. But, he said, to keep him from getting too full of himself for being so blessed, God had allowed an unidentified thorn in the flesh to remain in his life. Paul asked for its removal three times. But God had told him no, "My grace is sufficient." "I'm all you need," God is telling Paul. "Your real pain will pass one day. But I love and am with you now. That's enough. Life with me is all there is of reality, now through the fog of pain and death, but one day in eternity, in its fullness and beauty and peace."

So long as we live in this world, we will be susceptible to real pain and real pleasure. We can't pretend they're not there. But I'm convinced that it's only in the midst of them that we can become either grateful enough or desperate enough to know God and experience His presence in our lives. Real pleasure and real pain break us open to His grace and love, if we will open the door from our sides. The risen Jesus says in Revelation 3:20: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me."

Real pleasure and pain usher me into reality and truth, the place where I can most clearly see and know God.

That's because neither real pleasure nor real pain leave me feeling that I am in control.

And that's good, because, despite my efforts to create a false placidity, I never was in control in the first place.


Jesse Harmon said...

"Real pleasure and real pain...can bring us back to reality, out of our dream worlds, away from our selfish attempts to insulate ourselves from reality, to deny our mortality, our finitude, and our need for the God Who made us and Who came to our world to save us from sin, death, and darkness and to give us the life with Him for which we were made."

No kidding!!!! I was a complete mess last year. It seemed like something bad was happening to me every day. I told God, "I hate you. I hate you with every bone in my body. I can't believe you did this to me. I can't believe you would let me go through this." Just when I hit rock bottom, I knew the only place to go would be up. And up I went. After a while, I was on top of the world again. Then, just like before, I would be heading downhill fast. I knew from my experiences last year that "the darkest time is just one hour before dawn."

When I left the church to find myself and to find out who I really am and what I really believe, I knew I would be in for temptation from the devil. I was prepared for that...at least I thought I was. I realized that the devil isn't in the darkness. He's running around inside me...

Mark Daniels said...

Evil is in us and all around us, Jesse. Remember the Catechism talks about "the devil, the world, and our sinful selves" as sources of evil. Thankfully, Christ is bigger than all that.

Thanks for your interesting comments. God bless you!