Thoughts on Christian Suffering – Conclusion

This is a personal post to share something important to me. It is not intended as a sermon / instructional essay. I just pray it brings help to anyone going through a similar journey.


Back in 2018, I reviewed Open Heart by Elie Wiesel and, in the same post, expressed my frustration to understand the purpose of suffering, especially Christian suffering. Why would God allow people who are following Him with all their hearts to be burdened with ongoing pain and unhappiness? It’s a deeply personal question, not only regarding myself but also the lives of people I love dearly.

Since then, I’ve battled the question internally and at times sought out other perspectives. I found some interesting insights (specifically from Catholic and Orthodox priests), but nothing I heard truly satisfied or convinced me. I’ll be honest: I’ve been at times alternately unhappy and even angry. I have 3–4 pages of notes and half-rants which I’d been planning to share as an update this month, in hopes that at least writing it out would be some sort of progress.

Then yesterday happened.

Yesterday was one of the worst days in recent memory—in recent years, in fact. Let’s just say, I have recurring Personal Issues that can make even “good” days miserable… On the surface, everything was great, but inside I felt utterly awful, fighting back tears even at my grandparents’ house. Yeah, it was a certified Bad Day.

I woke up this morning still feeling icky and almost skipped my Bible reading. But it’s pretty much a habit now, so rather numbly, I opened it up to where I left off, hoping it was a short chapter. It was Hebrews 5.

So also Christ did not glorify Himself to become High Priest, but it was He who said to Him:

“You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You.”

As He also says in another place:

“You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek”;

who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him, called by God as High Priest “according to the order of Melchizedek,” of whom we have much to say, and hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.


—Hebrews 5:5-11 (emphasis added), BibleGateway

I’ve read Hebrews before but this was like reading it for the first time. It felt like the fog in my brain was clearing.

Wanting to make sure “it wasn’t just me,” I searched around for some commentary on this passage. I found this incredible video by John Piper, whose perspectives have been helpful to me in the past (obligatory disclaimer: this is not a blanket endorsement of Piper):

In a nutshell: what Piper highlights contextually is that Jesus, who was sinless, nevertheless had His obedience tested—proven—through the endurance of suffering. And my takeway was that if even Jesus’ obedience was tested, how much more necessary is it for mine to be tested.

I cannot describe how much peace and, strangely, joy this gave me. See, I had thought for a long time that life’s struggles would get easier, or at least plateau, once I had aligned myself fully with God’s will. But rather, I have realized today that that is not so. In fact, suffering has and will only increase, not merely because the world is a cruddy place (it is) but because God allows me to struggle in more incrementally challenging situations, for my own sake.

To make a silly analogy (but the first that came to mind): it’s like a game. When you pass a level, you are getting closer and closer to maximum excellence. But the levels get increasingly harder and harder. There is no easy sailing after you make it past beginner level. Feeling frustrated or discouraged with the harder levels doesn’t mean you’re a bad player—in fact, the opposite! Your skills are being stretched so you will get even better.

Bringing it back to faith…the endurance of suffering—as I understand the verses in Hebrews and Piper’s analysis—is our proof that we are loyal, obedient, and trusting in God and in the salvation Christ gave us. It does not earn us salvation; rather, it is “walking the walk” which is our time to demonstrate that, when push comes to shove, we choose God over idolatry, over lust, over despair, over anything that tempts us. And He promises never to allow us to be tempted beyond what we can bear (1 Cor. 10:13). But He does allow us to be tempted, often via suffering, so our untested obedience may be tested and proven true. It’s tangible evidence of our vow of faith. This is important for us personally and for those around us to see.

At the end of the day, Hebrews 5 brings me relief, because, while suffering continues, it isn’t purposeless, like some wretched Kafka novel. It is actually fully intentional, so what I’ve fought through so far, with the help of the Holy Spirit, is no longer a nightmare, but has become a blessing.

Song Reviews and Such

So – I mentioned back in September I was starting a second blog about songs, poetry, and writing. After much ado, I finally got around to actually launching it…

There is not much yet; soon there will be more, since I’ll likely be posting more frequently there than here. If that sort of thing interests you at all, feel free to check it out. 🙂 I may also start posting film reviews on that blog instead (haven’t quite decided on that detail yet).

Also, if you have any good ideas for songs or albums to review, I’m open to suggestions! I like many different genres, lately more on the acoustic side of things.

What I’m Reading (and More): May edition

Well, friends…this month’s edition of “What I’m Reading” is going to be a bit of a ramble.  You might want to grab something to snack on or drink.  I usually try to abridge, but this time I just feel the need to stream-of-conscious it….

Personal

For starters, a personal update. Though work and everything are going fine, I’ve been feeling very directionless lately and in need of a change.  The thing is, there’s so many things I would like to do – from buying a house to changing jobs – but no one thing that especially stands out as “yeah, that makes sense.” It feels like a big decision chart with lines going all over the place.
 
I’ve been through all the conventional wisdom – focus on others, not yourself; try to find what you’re passionate about; make small goals; etc.  But after all of that, I’m still in a maze, with too many ideas and hopes and doubts pulling me in different directions.  And in spite of everything being fine, that sense of possibility is making me feel like I’ve lost control of the situation and need to choose something.

First-world problems, for sure, but frustrating nonetheless.  I hope writing about it enough times might help me figure it out.

Reading

Psalms

A bit of a backstory: After finishing Revelation, I read Romans.  It’s perplexing, but I found Romans to be very heavy, difficult reading.  I didn’t want to carry that feeling into Corinthians, so I decided to switch gears to Psalms, which I’ve been meaning to re-read ever since reading Fear No Evil earlier this year.

'David' by Michelangelo Fir JBU013
Jörg Bittner Unna [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Psalms is deceptively familiar.  I remember some verses and of course Psalm 23.  But I can’t say that I actually know the book, all 150 songs/poems.   I am reading just two at a time and hoping, at this pace, to help it sink in more.  Also, I’m still using the lectio divina method of Bible reading, which works very well with smaller sections.

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos

Not sure if this warrants a disclaimer, but here goes anyway…

I fall into the peculiar category of people who neither love Peterson nor loathe him.  I’ve seen him in a few YouTube videos, but they didn’t spark enough interest in me to want to watch more.  What is most interesting is the effect he has on other people (his fans and enemies).  I thought I’d read this book, published just a year and a half ago, to see what the fuss is about.

That said, I did come into this 400-page tome with some bias:

  • Philosophy is still a fairly new genre to me, and I’m warming to it only very slowly.
  • I actually loved the movie Frozen, particularly as it features the strong relationship between two sisters, something I relate to personally.  Due to that, I doubt the judgment (literary or otherwise) of someone who writes Frozen off as “propaganda.”
  • I don’t care for self-help books as a rule (uhh no pun intended), so it takes a pretty good one to impress me.

So I’m about halfway through 12 Rules and, consistently enough, my feelings about this book are mixed.  There are many moments of wisdom, but some parts are also quite questionable, or even laughable.  Some reviewers are turned off by the many Bible references; they’re somewhat interesting, but I don’t really like his use of them, either (though for different reasons).  It’s also both creative and tedious that he doesn’t stick to his thesis the whole time, but rather weaves other topics into each chapter.

My favorite parts thus far were his anecdotes about growing up in a small town in Canada, in Rule #3 “Make friends with people who want the best for you.”  It had all the makings of a gripping memoir, or even a coming-of-age novel.  That was the book I wanted to be reading. 

Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age 

 

Another tome, over 500 pages!  Actually I powered through the first 60 pages, in spite of learning science-y things (gasp) about motors and such.  The book uses original diagrams from olden times (aka Tesla’s day), which makes my amateur graphic designer heart very happy.

More importantly, however, the writing is excellent: serious, yet approachable and very informative.  Tesla’s early life was largely positive, but after the death of his older brother, his adolescence was overshadowed by his tense relationship with his father and, at one time, a bizarre transition from workaholic student to gambling addict.  I didn’t know all of this, so those first chapters were especially fascinating.

No classics?!  What is this?

Yes, apart from Psalms, I’m not reading any classics at the moment.  I’m supposed to be re-reading The Time Machine and Ben-Hur, but lost steam somehow.

Also, can you believe I’ve only read two fictional books this year, and the rest have been nonfiction?  That’s some kind of record.  My challenges are getting rusty, too.

I do plan to get back into fiction reading soon, as I’m in line for a library copy of Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander…  I’m tentatively excited, because I love the movie and kinda hope the book is just like it, at least character-wise.

Other

Apart from Valkyrie, I haven’t watched any movies.  I do want to re-watch Cranford soon, though.

I also have an album review coming up later this week, since one of my favorite groups just released a new one.

Other than that… hope everyone is having a lovely week!

Catching My Breath – Christmastime, Dante, and Beyond…

After patiently saving vacation days, today I can at last disconnect from work emails and other stressors.  I really want to slow down even more over my almost two-week holiday, beginning with these last few days of Advent.

One of my favorite family traditions is putting up a tree with my brother and sister.  My grandparents gave it to me years ago, and over time the three of us have gathered a collection of mostly red and gold ornaments for it.  Some are old pieces from our family, and others we purchased ourselves, many from Hobby Lobby.  The tree topper is new this year and being from Dollar Tree was incredibly affordable!

I have a little white tree I decorate as well (not quite so elaborately).  This is probably its last year, as it is turning yellow.

As you might imagine, it’s this time of year I like to get a lot of reading and studying in, as well as planning for next year’s reading.

I’m still perusing the archives of The Word on Fire Show, the Catholic podcast I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, and today I listened to an excellent episode about Dante’s Divine Comedy.  I’ve been “unreading” this book for a year or two, finding it difficult to get past the first cantos.  Bp. Barron gives an intriguing overview of the entire story and symbolism, and now I’m itching to give it another try. 

I have the Longfellow translation, with illustrations by Gustave Doré.  Doré’s style can well be summed up as “dramatic,” which is one of the reasons I chose this edition.  And, you know how I LOVE those woodcarvings

I’m debating whether to participate in any reading challenges next year.  These are the ones which entice me:

  • Moby-Dick 2019Fanda mentioned that 2019 is the 200th anniversary of Melville’s birth, and that Brona of Brona’s Books is hosting a read-along!  I dearly want to re-read Moby-Dick, and it would be so much fun to do it with other bloggers.  This will likely start in February or March, so I have time to decide…
  • Mount TBR 2019 – This is about reading unread books you already own.  I’ve done this before and found it very satisfying, even when I didn’t complete it.  Plus, it counts books you start during Christmas break as long as you have 50% or more remaining in January.  *cough* Dante *cough* 
  • The Classics Club – Committing to 50+ classics in at most 5 years. For someone who is terrible at challenges, the idea of an “epic” challenge oddly appeals to me. 
  • Back to the Classics 2019I attempted this in 2014 and failed miserably.  Still like the idea, though! 
  • Complete Sherlock Holmes re-read – Yeah, another personal failure.  This one I attempted to host in the past couple of years, and embarrassingly I didn’t stick to it myself.  It probably makes more sense to restructure it as a marathon, rather than spread it out over a year… Still want to do it at some point.

The other thing I’m trying to figure out is whether I’ll have the time and energy to podcast next year.  It remains to be decided…

Slowing Down with Tolkien, Lectio Divina

With all that’s been going on in my life lately, I’ve been finding it necessary to take action to slow down.

I know, that sounds like an oxymoron.  But as a recovering perfectionist and incorrigible planner, I tend to labor over any life changes, even if it’s merely the quest to find a little peace and quiet.  I have learned a few things from this methodical approach, although in reality, just the awareness of trying to slow down has helped lead me into some more practical, if unexpected, steps.

Turning off the “TV”

Prior to all of this, I had (for other reasons) decided to take a YouTube fast for three weeks this past November.  For me, YouTube is the equivalent of cable TV, except that I get to choose the content through a very personalized subscription list.  Typically, I can spend hours just trying to keep up with each channel, and I actually avoid some channels in part because I can’t keep up.

Taking a break was really hard, but very good.  I did not feel particularly happy knowing I was missing out on all my favorite YouTubers, but at the same time, it forced to me do more reading.  It’s probably the reason I managed to finish Kirkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety, a book which was as dry as YouTube is enthralling.

Coming back to YouTube in December, I’d been dreading the “catch up” phase. What I didn’t expect was that my fast had changed my perspective.  Now I see a lot of videos I could watch, but viewed collectively, only some of them stand out as actually interesting.  I feel motivated by this to limit my viewing now and may even unsubscribe from some channels.

A Long-Expected Viewing Party

Something really exciting happened during my YouTube fast.

The local library had the full, extended-edition Hobbit trilogy.  More importantly, the DVDs all arrived for me at once.  Unheard of!

My siblings and I have been watching it over the past few weeks – it’s new to us.  “Extended edition” is by definition “slow,” but in a good way.  It gives you space to really savor each segment and talk about it.   

I don’t know if it’s the “extendedness,” but I love these three films more than ever and in some ways as much as The Lord of the Rings.  It’s really apples and oranges, yet I’m a child at heart, and The Hobbit especially appeals to my love of fairy tales.

You can read about my history with Tolkien here.  I have just started re-reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time.  I don’t know how long it’ll take me – and in the spirit of slowing down, that’s ok.  I just don’t want to wait for the “perfect time.”

The Bible and Lectio Divina

As a Christian, I’ve read the Bible through once or twice, in addition to studying sections of it.  But it’s been a while since I read it regularly, and I’ve found it difficult to get back into it.

During my break from YouTube, I listened to several episodes of The Word on Fire Show, a podcast by Bishop Robert Barron from Los Angeles.  He talks about books on occasion; I think I first stumbled across his talks on YouTube, possibly to do with Shūsaku Endō’s The Silence (a book I have yet to read).  I’m not Catholic, and I don’t agree with all of Barron’s views, but of the episodes I’ve listened to, I’ve found the podcast to be interesting, educational, and well presented.

One of his older episodes is about “5 Ways to Pray Better Today.”  In it, he talks about lectio divina, a method of prayer and Bible reading traditionally used by Benedictine monks.  It’s broken down into four steps (which I paraphrase from Wikipedia):

  1. Lectio (read) – Read a passage of Scripture.
  2. Meditatio (meditate) – Ponder over what you have read.
  3. Oratio (pray) – Speak to God.
  4. Contemplatio (contemplate) – A calm silence.  Bp. Barron describes this step as “contemplative listening to what God wants to tell you.”

Coming from a Protestant background, I had never heard of lectio divina before.  I tried this for the first time the other night, reading John 17

John 17 is one of my favorite parts of the Bible and certainly one of the most beautiful passages of all literature.  Absorbing it slowly and with prayer brought me so much peace.  I think I will continue lectio divina as I re-read the New Testament.

Looking to the New Year

As planned, I’ve read at least 40 books this year.  Much of that was for my podcast, which I highly enjoyed while I had time to do it.  I still want to bring it back next year, though it’s looking doubtful if I will have the energy for it.

I’ve shelved Flannery O’Connor‘s Complete Stories and Václav Havel’s Open Letters for the time being.  Same with Hawthorne’s Complete Tales and Sketches.  I love anthologies, but the best way to read them is at intervals, not all at once.  (I made the latter mistake with Kafka.)

Next year remains open.  How many books will I read?  I don’t know if I want to set a goal.  Ideally I’d like to avoid reading several books at once, which is what happened this year.  Focusing on one book at a time and avoiding multi-tasking – these are going to help me get more out of my reading and enjoy life.