The God Who Fights For Us

christ-crushing-the-head-of-satan

I was small for my age as a child, and quite thin at that. I liked to play, but was not particularly rugged and did not enjoy sports that involved getting knocked around. I grew up with another “Steve” next door to me, who was big for his age. Inevitably, I was nicknamed “Little Steve,” and he, “Big Steve.” I confess to being glad when he moved away, at least for my name’s sake. I was born in the post-War era of the 50’s and lived near an air base. War and military exploits were the daily fare of the playground imagination. It is difficult to cultivate a warrior’s mentality if you’ve lost every fight you were ever in. I wasn’t a “wimp,” but I could have been a happy pacifist.

I often think that my childhood experience has colored my adult love of Pascha. In my years as an Anglican priest, I was always careful that my favorite hymn be sung at all the Easter services:

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
The strife is o’er, the battle done,
the victory of life is won;
the song of triumph has begun.
Alleluia!

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
The powers of death have done their worst,
but Christ their legions hath dispersed:
let shout of holy joy outburst.
Alleluia!

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
The three sad days are quickly sped,
he rises glorious from the dead:
all glory to our risen Head!
Alleluia!

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
He closed the yawning gates of hell,
the bars from heaven’s high portals fell;
let hymns of praise his triumphs tell!
Alleluia!

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
Lord! by the stripes which wounded thee,
from death’s dread sting thy servants free,
that we may live and sing to thee.
Alleluia!

It is, I think, one of the most Orthodox hymns in the Anglican tradition, both in its tone and in its content. Pascha, in Orthodox thought, is described primarily in terms of battle. Christ “tramples down death by death.” That line, part of the primary hymn of Pascha, is sung over and over in the course of the feast.

God fighting for you and smashing your enemies is particularly good news if you’ve been on the losing side most of your life. It seems to have been the “losing side” that was most drawn to Christ during His ministry. He excoriated religious leaders but was exceedingly kind to harlots, adulteresses, and turn-coat tax-collectors. It is certainly the case that the religious leaders of that time bullied the poor and the “unrighteous.”

None of that suggests that we should become harlots, and the like. It certainly suggests that we should not be bullies. But it strongly suggests that we should identify ourselves with those who lose. This can be difficult for some, particularly in a culture that so values winners. There are versions of the Christian faith that are better suited to the culture of winning. I suspect that this is part of the attraction of those groups who speak of themselves as having been “saved.” To have found out the mechanism of salvation and applied it in your life easily feels like getting the answers right on the test. And I worry as well when I hear a discussion about the wickedness of sinners and their destiny in hell.

My worry is that my years of pastoral experience have taught me just how complicated and twisted are the souls of “sinners.” I have known a number of people who simply cannot manage money. When they do work, they have no common sense about how things should be spent and how things should be saved. And their lives are always complicated with money problems. I see the same thing in many lives with certain moral issues. I see far more people do “stupid” things than “evil” things. Indeed, I see very few people who actually want to do anything truly evil. They simply don’t know how to “manage” being good.

Historically there has been a behavior described as “middle-class” or “bourgeois” morality. Sometimes used as a pejorative by radical types, it nevertheless can be very telling. It refers to a form of public behavior, typical in moderate and upper income homes, in which people have interiorized a set of rules about “how decent people should behave.” They are the rules for how to get along with others, and how to keep your head down and slowly improve your lot in life. Many people have a deep sense of satisfaction and competency that accompanies this internal ability.

In point of fact, it’s no great effort. Sometimes it is nothing more than Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation.” There is nothing heroic, or deeply sacrificial. It’s religion is always taken in fairly modest, acceptable directions. It is the essence of “public” morality, the least likely to cause difficulty for anyone. At its worst, it simply becomes insipid.

I’ve often wondered if such people will ever be incompetent, weak or sick enough to be saved. They are more likely to subscribe to religious views that lauds their competence and protects their vested interests. They do not need a God who fights for them. They would prefer the fight to be polite and metaphorical, at best. In New Testament terms, they are the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Puzzled by the celebration accorded to their n’er-do-well younger brother.

Christ, the God-Who-Fights-For-Us, fights for them as well, but their lives may generally lull them into thinking that they really don’t much help. They manage to stay away from battles. Their lives may not be paradise, but their hell has become comfortable enough to suit them pretty well.

Pascha is radical good news. God not only fights for us, but has won. If it seems rather ho-hum to you, look carefully at your life. You may be in a sleepy corner of hell, too comfortable to want salvation. The secular utopia, along with its modest religious forms, is the true opiate of the people.

21 comments:

  1. Father Stephen,
    I relate to being a “loser” athletically. Sinner isn’t far behind. I think the quote you ascribe to Eliot is one from Thoreau. Blessed Pascha! And thank you for the wondrous hymn to our Savior this season of resurrection.

  2. – small typo alert – Should the next to last paragraph read: “really don’t [need] much help”?

  3. Pascha is radical good news.

    God grant that we may embrace it! I have been lethargic in my life throughout this, my first, Lent. God help me cry out and pray! Pray for me.

  4. As a former Roman Catholic, I still remember that hymn with perhaps slightly different wording. And I will never forget the final verse:
    Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.
    Blessed are they who have not seen
    Their Lord and yet believe in Him
    Eternal life awaiteth them.
    Alleluia!

  5. Very Lewisian, especially the last two paragraphs. It encourages me to pray for God’s mercy and to lead me on the Way that will lead to paradise, even if it first goes into Hell.

  6. I’ve often wondered if such people will ever be incompetent, weak or sick enough to be saved.

    As he said, But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” ~ Matthew 9:12f.

  7. …. but their lives may generally lull them into thinking that they really don’t [need] much help.

    Still in the throes, Father?

  8. Father Stephen, Blessed Pascha!

    As a long time Anglican, I too dearly love that hymn, pure joy to revisit it, but also too readily identify with a comfortable hell.

    Your comments re bourgeous middle class morality certainly resonate. A large longitudinal study of social attitudes across Europe asked the question ‘Which of the following eleven traits do you consider it particularly important to pass on to your children? Choose up to five’
    Amongst the eleven was ‘religious faith’

    The last time the survey was conducted (2008??) there were 505 self identifying Anglicans in the mix. 94% of whom thought it was important to pass on Good Manners . . . At the other end of the scale in tenth place was Imagination 27% . . . Trailing in last only 11% thought it Important to pass on their faith . . .

    One of my fellow commenters notes the Lewisian nature of your words, Lewis of course would know whereof he spoke

    On a far more joyous note as befits the Days, I’ve been reading John Behr on The Mystery of Christ, on the meaning of the Passiin. Like being plunged into a life giving Ocean.

    Thank you once more for your words

  9. [“Christ, the God-Who-Fights-For-Us, fights for them as well, but their lives may generally lull them into thinking that they really don’t much help”]

    Father, is there really a division between us and them here? And if so, how does one come to see themselves as the prodigal vs. the elder brother? In parish life, it seems that obtaining the perspective of the victim can become an end in itself, but not as a genuine act of love, but one of power. To claim solidarity with the oppressed has become just another way to assert righteousness or instant validity. How does one know they are being genuine when proclaiming to be like the prodigal son, righteous in their repentance, unless they have a model of who they believe to be the elder brother? Is it even possible to gauge our spiritual progress without a model of failure, and if not, does that always necessitate that we find an example outside of ourselves who represents that in our life?

  10. This article, the last several paragraphs in particular, brings to my mind the writings of Flannery O’Connor. Most of her stories involve moments of God’s grace and redemption which come to people in very *uncomfortable* (typically grotesque or violent) ways. A number of her characters fall into the class of, as Father put it, “decent” people who are quite satisfied with themselves, with a corresponding disdain for those less “respectable” – until grace breaks through and they are, themselves, healed in the midst of their shame or weakness.

  11. emotocoaster,
    We can obviously find ourselves in either role. However, there is the spiritual discipline of “holy foolery,” or, learning to bear a little shame. In that position, you are guarded against success.

  12. Father,

    How in the world do you find the time to write, let alone respond to comments, at such a time for an Orthodox priest?

    (No need to answer. I’m just astonished.)

  13. When I was in therapy many years ago it was called “being comfortably miserable”.

    Like myself at the time, many people go to therapy because they’re unhappy with their lives. They know it could be better and therapy is their chosen plan of action. But we all reached a point where the actual sources of our personal troubles were going to have to be identified and talked about. At that point many no longer returned to therapy (and who can blame them?). Why did they quit? Yes, their lives were a drag but predictable; you know how the script plays out because you and those around you have been playing their parts over and over again your whole life. That predictability makes for the “comfortable” part–there’s no mystery there.

    Struggling to live our lives as Christians also requires us to drag the various elements of our brokenness out into the light, point at them, and name them before they can be conquered, Christ being our helper. But for many, our sins, the source of our misery, are secretly known; we’ve existed with them all our lives–like old house slippers. Dragging them out and naming them for what they really are is the dreadful part. Oftentimes we retreat to avoid all that and resign ourselves to lives of comfortable misery.
    In both the secular and Christian scenarios there are those who avoid the difficult stuff by becoming experts on their brokenness. They know all the “lingo”–their conversations tend to be over-loaded with academic and technical jargon. They’ve read all the books. Some are better informed than the therapist or priest. But they still carry the baggage around with them and nothing has changed.

    The key in both scenarios is found in the words of our Lord when he said “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.” Mark 10:14-15. There is no mention of intellectuals or tough-minded adults–just weak children.

  14. Brian,
    Actually, the blog is mostly an “in between times” event in my life. I’ve honestly also known that having ADD is a bother, but also allows me to do small things here and there, which is what I do. It is also “integral” to my life. If I were trying to write about these that I’ve only read, etc., instead about the things that are truly mine, then it would be impossible. I also find it very relaxing, most of the time. Like now, I just finished Matins of Holy Saturday, nearly 3 hours in length. I just got home, and I’m cooking something to eat and then to bed. But first, a few minutes at the blog. God is good.

  15. I too have ADD plus diagnoses 30 plus years ago also diagnosed by a Clinical Psychologist as Manic depressive. 23 years ago in answer to my agonizing crying to God, He led me to an Orthodox Priest. I was Christmated on Holy Sat. in 1995 at the hand of FR. Thaddeus Wojcik at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Minneapolis MN. Glory to God for all things. YES, He fights for me as I try to live as a “Little Child” in His arms.

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