Suffering, Discipleship and the Irresistible Power of Love
September 26, 2015
The following talk was delivered by Terryl L. Givens at the devotional of the 2015 Affirmation Annual Conference in Provo, Utah, on Sunday, September 20, 2015
Robert Frost wrote a magnificent poem about human preexistence. It is seldom heard, because everyone resonates to poems about woods and two paths and the end of the world. But most folks don’t know what to do with a poem that takes seriously the proposition that we lived with God before our birth into this vail of tears. The poem describes how “the angel hosts with freshness go, / And seek with laughter what to brave,” soon finding that “from a cliff top is proclaimed / The gathering of the souls for birth, / The trial by existence named, / The obscuration upon earth.” Two aspects of the scene dominate Frost’s narration: the exemplary courage of the souls who undertake earth life and the freely made choice to leave heaven behind:
The slant spirits trooping by
In streams and cross- and counter-streams
Can but give ear to that sweet cry
For its suggestion of what dreams!
And the more loitering are turned
To view once more the sacrifice
Of those who for some good discerned
Will gladly give up paradise.
And none are taken but who will,
Having first heard the life read out
That opens earthward, good and ill,
Beyond the shadow of a doubt;
And very beautifully God limns,
And tenderly, life’s little dream.
I love this poem, and the hard truth and wisdom that inspired it. Everyone of us gave up paradise, for a good we discerned. From across the veil of birth, the picture may have been blurry. But it makes sense to me that God fully informed us of the suffering in store. That is why he “gently limned” the life that awaited us. With what degree of specificity, I have no knowledge. But it has always seemed highly reasonable to me that the pain and anguish he advised us to anticipate was sufficiently terrifying to dissuade a third of our heavenly siblings to recoil in horror and choose another path. As one of history’s greatest clergymen suggested, in offering his explanation of the War in Heaven, “From pleasure, of course, there was no temptation to revolt, but from a discipline of suffering, such as they needed to fit them to be the founders of the universe with God, they could be tempted to revolt.”
I don’t fully understand the cosmic law according to which only pain can launch us on the path of growth. I think Darwin came as close as any to explaining the eternal principle that governs the inescapable process by which the universe and everything in it churns and writhes its stormy way to higher and better forms. It was an insight that first seems to have emerged in the decades before Joseph Smith, almost as if in preparation for a totally new cosmic narrative that made Eden’s loss and exile from heaven the essence, rather than the failure, of God’s plan. I think the prophet William Blake may have been the first to capture it with sublime economy: “Without contraries,” he said, “there is no progression.”
If I have learned anything as a father, as a bishop, as a friend and as someone who has broken bread and shared testimony and stories with fellow Saints in twenty countries, it is that we all carry crosses, which are almost always invisible to those around us. More than anything, we want others to see, to acknowledge, and to understand the crosses we bear. That, I believe, is the promise held forth in Yahweh’s words to Moses: “I know thee. [I know thee] by name.” Fiona has spoken beautifully on the baptismal covenant in Mosiah as a manual of discipleship that trains us to observe, touch, and share the cross that weighs down our neighbor. That is what discipleship calls us to do.
2. Loneliness of Discipleship
MATTHEW proclaims Jesus as the Messiah. It is written primarily to convince the Jews that Jesus is the anointed one, the Son of God, a being of majesty and power. The setting is always among multitudes and open places. Magis attend his birth and earthquakes signal his death.
LUKE is the poet. He proclaims the beautiful Christ. He gives us the nativity story, Mary’s Magnificat, the parable of the Prodigal Son, and the story of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus.
JOHN is the insider. He gives us an intimate Christ, and tells us in poignant detail what it was like to minister by Christ’s side, to see him in private dialogue with the woman at the well in Samaria, with Nicodemus in the dead of night; He spends five entire chapters chronicling the last hours of Jesus on the earth.
But MARK tells us how it is we come to know Christ. Where we find him, and the price we must pay.
I believe Mark’s entire gospel is written to highlight themes of seclusion, intimacy, loneliness, solitude, and the privacy of sacred encounter. He it is who teaches us the loneliness of discipleship. I can only touch upon a few examples.
Two instances stand out: the paralytic lowered into the house; and the blind man healed in two stages.
And again he entered into Capernaum after some days; and it was noised that he was in the house. And straightway many were gathered together, insomuch that there was no room to receive them, no, not so much as about the door: and he preached the word unto them. And they come unto him, bringing one sick of the palsy, which was borne of four. And when they could not come nigh unto him for the press, they uncovered the roof where he was: and when they had broken it up, they let down the bed wherein the sick of the palsy lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said unto the sick of the palsy, Son, thy sins be forgiven thee.
This is a magnificent story. It has two crucial points. First, the paralytic and his friends are resourceful, persistent, determined. They only find the Christ they seek when they are prepared to break down walls. Or in this case, ceilings. Traditional modes of address don’t work. Clearly, genuine discipleship will weed out those content to rely upon the mere forms of worship and easy ways of seeking. It’s not enough to stand on the periphery and wait for God to come to you. Like Jared and the sacred stones, we have to show initiative, energy, and courage in fighting our way through the throngs to ensure our sacred encounter with God. We have to break down walls, some of which may be of our own creation.
And then, astonishingly, we arrive only to learn we have the wrong petition in our hands. The paralytic’s friends risked everything to find the healing they thought the sufferer needed. They never questioned the rightness of their request. Was he not paralyzed? Was not Christ the Great Physician? But to their shock—and the shock of the watching multitudes, Christ presented the petitioner with an entirely different prescription. Thy sins are forgiven thee, he said. “But that is not what we came for,” they must have thought. “That was not in my prayer or petition.” My point is not by any means that sin is generally the real source of our suffering. My point, and I think Mark’s point, is that our healing seldom comes in the ways or modes that we envision. God’s ways are not our ways. And God’s way of healing, is not necessarily my idea of healing. That beautiful man of God George MacDonald put it this way: “That [person] is perfect in faith who can come to God in the utter dearth of his feelings and desires, without a glow or an aspiration, and with the weight of low thoughts, failures, neglects and wandering forgetfulness, say to him, ‘Thou art my refuge, because thou art my home.”
A second example from Mark, chapter 8.
And he cometh to Bethsaida; and they bring a blind man unto him, and besought him to touch him.
And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought.
And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking.
After that he put his hands again upon his eyes, and made him look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly.
Again, a rather astonishing story. And again, two morals I think Mark wants us to derive. 1st, notice the subtle detail: Where does the healing occur? “He led him out of the town.” Spiritual healing, our most sacred encounters, communion with our God and immersion in the sanctifying balm of the atonement, do not occur in public places or commonly traversed spaces. Not among groups or multitudes, not with friends or in church. It happens where Mark has taken us so many times before. As he indicated in his opening chapter, John—the true disciple—was in the “wilderness” and Jesus, our personal redeemer, was in “the desert places.” Remember, too, that just days before healing the blind man, Jesus was presented with a deaf mute. In chapter 7 we read, “And he took him aside from the multitude.” It is only there, aside from the multitude, in the wilderness, that the sacred ministry could unfold.
There is a second remarkable truth evident in the blind man’s healing. It doesn’t take the first time. This is nothing short of shocking. Christ the son of God fails to get it right in his initial attempt. This is a failure, is it not? We would not likely return to an eye doctor if after our prescription, men looked to us “like trees.” What can this mean? I believe this episode holds the key to one of the most pervasive puzzles, and frequent misunderstandings, in the Mormon—or even the Christian—world. How many times have your found yourself asking, “why does God allow…. X or Y?; Why doesn’t God just answer my prayer? Why doesn’t God just tell the prophet A or B?” But Mark may be asking us to consider, what if the real question, which I believe is the point here, is “why are we so incapable of receiving healing, revelation, enlightenment, wisdom?” Why are we so slow to get it right? Section 88 of the Doctrine and Covenants reinforces this unexpected root of the problem: In the eternities, we will all receive that which we are “willing to receive.” Or, “able” to receive, in Mark’s story. As the poet recognized, sometimes, God’s grace, like light, “must dazzle gradually, or every eye be blind.”
If we had more time, I would take you through the last three chapters of Mark, where we find Christ himself, the son of God, treading the path of unparalleled abandonment and loneliness. We would follow him as he is betrayed by Judas, left without the support of his three closest friends in the Garden, forsaken by them all moments later, denied by Peter, repudiated by his religion’s chief priests, and finally, abandoned by his Father on the cross. We can barely begin to fathom the agony in his recollection of treading the winepress, alone.
If we see in him our great exemplar, we must anticipate that our road back to God will be a lonely path through wilderness, not a humming expressway. That he why he beckons, “Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place” (Mark 6:31). As Thomas a Kempis counseled centuries ago, all disciples will know loneliness. Because as Thomas a Kempis wrote, “the more spiritual progress a man makes, so much heavier will he frequently find the cross, because as his love increases, the pain of his exile also increases.”
But “Be of good comfort. Rise, he calleth thee.” (10:49)
3. Love as Irresistible
Three things are true about love…The first is, that it always confers independence upon the object of its love. It gives, compelling no return; it goes on giving, though no love is given in answer. It is the one force in the world which does not bargain… Second, if love endows the recipient with formal freedom—with the right to accept or reject at will—it also, and it alone, confers upon the giver actual freedom…. In love and in love alone can [man] actualize the freedom … which God has given him…. Man becomes free as he learns to love. And finally, love is irresistible… And therefore whatever in the end opposes it must in the end give way…. The same power which confers freedom on its recipients also evokes from them—not by contract, not by force, but by the invincible suasion of a moral appeal—an answer of love freely given in return.”
Augustine may have expressed those sentiments but only Joseph Smith followed them to their astounding, ineluctable conclusion. The entire Christian framework of salvation, outside of Mormonism, is predicated on a contrary notion. In conventional soteriology, God’s love waits upon our response. His disposition to bless or punish, love or condemn, waits upon us. But Christ taught a different God. “He loved us first,” wrote John.
And in the story of the rich young man, we see the point made more emphatically, in Mark 10. The rich young ruler asks Jesus what he must do to be saved. He has, he boasts, observed all the commandments from his youth. With those in the crowd, we find ourselves waiting Jesus’s response. We find ourselves here in the midst of a high stakes human drama, with eternal consequences, and caught in that fraught moment of decision, of self-definition, which occurs between the launch of the faith-seeking enterprise, and the final revelation of the disciple’s true character.
Jesus is about to provide the final test. He will try the man’s heart by requiring everything of him. But here is the astonishing part of the story. It is into this space, in the time between an expression of naive good will and the man’s sad and tragic failure, that Jesus commits himself. He does not wait upon the outcome. For a love in which both giver and object are free, such a love must declare itself independently of conditions. That is why Jesus’s compassion manifests itself before the young man makes his decision. Jesus’s love erupts into the silence that precedes any possible condition of reciprocity or exchange. “Then Jesus, beholding him, loved him.”
Such a gesture, such an outward-facing love, assumes its striking power by what follows. Jesus lays down the challenge of full consecration, and the would-be disciple slinks away sad and defeated by his attachment to the world. Christ’s gesture of love now seems premature, or one of prescient pity. I think it is neither. What it tells us is that the love Christ has for us is individuated and situational. It is not a love in the abstract. In this story, one can see the gaze of our Lord meeting the earnestly entreating eyes of the seeker. Out of the thronging multitudes, this person has sought out Jesus, has approached him, and made his query. Jesus does not answer, without first looking upon the soul who has ventured to address him. His gaze apprehends him. He considers. He recognizes something familiar. And love takes hold. This is not a love in the abstract. This is not the love of which theologians pontificate and speculate, some passionless, eternally present condition of an impersonal, perfect being. It is a love that happens. Love happens, as an event, which Jesus feels and experiences. “And Jesus, beholding him, loved him.” Before he passes any test, before he proves his mettle, before he even knows what is in his own heart. “Jesus, beholding him, loved him.” This is the language of human interaction, which we all have known. As when you return from a mission. Or a stint at college. There you are, coming down the escalator. At the bottom are your mother and father. And beholding you, they love you. Or you step off the train station, for a visit to your best friend, or child or partner. And in that very moment, like a sun emerging suddenly from behind a cloud, beholding her, you love her. In reading these words, I am with the Savior in the moment of his beholding and in the instantaneous eruption of his love.
What it tells us is that God does not love us in spite of our struggles or failings, he loves us in and through and because of our struggles and failings. The outcome of the rich man’s story, his inability to sacrifice all, is no surprise to Jesus. He sees what is in the young man’s heart, as he sees what is in yours. But tellingly, it is in the midst of this trial of the rich man’s character and commitment, not at its conclusion, that the Lord “beholding him, loved him.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Lord’s love comes without condition. It does not wait upon proof of the young man’s own love. It is not reserved until he sees how the story ends. It is in this shadow ground of indecision, of heart-struggle and yearning, mixed with covetousness and pride, hope and doubt, that the Lord, “beholding him, loved him.” And who of us is not in this same no-man’s land, caught as we all are between our initial, probing, tentative steps toward Christ—and a life of total commitment and selflessness and faith. In this our own wilderness sojourn, though the end is not yet determined or perhaps even known, Mark seems to suggest, we can be assured that Christ, beholding you, loves you.
That is why, as Joseph said, God “will ferret out every soul,” and bring them home. He is not just a clever cosmic repairman. He is the master architect, and having set his heart upon us, he has devised from the beginning a way to draw us back to his presence, though tangled and tortuous the way always is. And in the end, none of us will be able to withstand the power of his irresistible love. However rapturous or imperfect, fulsome or shattered, our knowledge of love has been, we sense it is the very basis and purpose of our existence. It is a belonging that we crave because it is one we have always known.
Let conclude with a lesson taught me by my daughter Rachael, that comes from the parable of Matthew 13:
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field (Matthew 13:44).
Now let me tell you what I think the treasure in the field is:
Joseph Smith taught of a God who weeps over our pain and made it his work and glory to bring us to where he is, when the Christian world universally proclaimed a God without body, parts, or passions. He defied every other tradition when he claimed we are eternally existing children of God, whose destiny is to become like our Father, co-participating in the ongoing work of creation and salvation. He alone among Christian thinkers proclaimed a Divine Mother as a counterpart to an Eternal Father. He alone declared Eve a noble heroine when she was universally contemned by the Christian world. Finally, Joseph repudiated a God who played favorites, for One who put salvation within the reach of the entire human family, living and dead. That is the multi-part treasure in the field.
But the field is not sold by the square foot. That is the lesson of Matthew 13. It’s a package deal. We buy the whole field, because the treasure makes it worth it. I will gladly buy the only field in this or any world, that yields such treasures. Where else would I go, I say with the apostles who found some of the doctrines hard. And I see the flaws of my co-religionists and those who have led us, as Brigham Young did. With him, I say, “I never embrace any man in my faith. But the doctrine [Joseph] has produced will save you and me, and the whole world.” So I will seek to persevere with “all patience and faith,” as admonished by a Father who fully understands the frustrations and hardships of belonging to an organization staffed by others as fallible and imperfect as we are. Patience because he knew we would need it. Faith, because the treasure is worth it.