A Lost Letter to Wormwood

My dear Wormwood,

Based on your recent report, I gather that distracting the patient with small pleasures and vanities has not been successful. As you know, the key to temptation is not to lead the patient completely astray, but rather to distract him. It is far easier to adjust the focus of the patient’s good desire than it is to get him to move entirely against it. His natural desire is something he will slip in to, like wagon wheels into a rut. He can be convinced of it being an endeavor he was created to do (because it is). Your task is to alter the patient’s way of pursuing it, so that he is not really pursuing it at all, only in name. You then achieve the greatest of all things for your patient: you harness his natural desire given to him by the Enemy. The patient has a desire to be home and will expend his energy to get there, but if you give him a map to prison instead, you use that desire and energy toward your own end.

One method that I am proud to say I developed myself, and has proven quite effective at times, is a way of corrupting repentance. Especially in America, a focus on “brokenness” can be an especially fertile ground for this. Let the patient think himself broken. Encourage the usage of that term. Let the patient focus on it, believing himself to be confronting his own sin in doing so. Especially if the Enemy is seeking him, the wheel will seek that rut. Let that happen. Reinforce it. He is broken. He does seek things other than the Enemy’s design. Let him sit in that. Tell him that he’ll always be broken.

This is subtle, but powerful. For him, there is a seductive appeal to focusing on his brokenness, and a path that you can lead him down which will be painful for him and delicious for you. First, he may start to consider that he has no agency. Not explicitly, of course, but practically. He’ll begin to consider whether his brokenness is without hope of redemption. He will be tempted to give up hope. You see, in this way you redirect his attempt at repentance away from it, because he believes himself incapable of change. Shift focus to the sin itself and away from the Enemy. Our Father Below is not called “The Accuser” for nothing! The Enemy, above all, wants the focus of these hairless bi-pedal monkeys to be on Him. This is your task: to ensure that it’s on anything else. His sin will do nicely.

If you’re able to accomplish this, you may achieve another stage that is seductive to the patient. The patient knows that his current state isn’t permanent. That his sin and pain are not beyond relief. But he simultaneously believes that it is. You see, what he knows and what he believes are contradictory. Reinforce the belief that he’s the kind of person who is broken, and he won’t fight his own sin: he’ll give up. He does, after all, want to give himself permission to keep doing it. Alongside this, whisper to him also that his current state, the results of his sin, do not have to be permanent if only he changes his circumstances. A new partner, perhaps, who does not criticize him quite so much. A new occupation where they truly appreciate him. Friends who truly encourage him. Perhaps even a better church! Yes, this might work nicely for this patient. Use his repentance against him to make him hopeless. Use his hopelessness to get him to blame something else and desperately seek a solution.

There is danger here, of course. A patient desperately seeking a solution may be driven to seek comfort in the Enemy. If you are able to reach this stage your effort needs to be to focus the patient on something outside of Him. At this point the patient’s sin is of no use to you. He is desperately fighting against the belief that his pain is beyond relief and his sin beyond redemption. He believes he’s worthless but knows this isn’t true. Direct the patient’s attention therefore to other people and circumstances as the cause of this feeling. If the patient can be made to believe that his sin is outside his control, while simultaneously believing that he is a victim, he will be tempted to seek relief. But he’ll do so not by seeking the Enemy: he’ll do it by attempting to change his circumstances.

If this happens you have concocted a delicacy that you can enjoy for the rest of the patient’s miserable days: his endless, painful search for relief that only brings about more pain. A promotion would certainly be in order.

Your affectionate uncle


Vocation In A Pandemic

Note: I am a board member in an organization named KIROS, a Christians in Business group in Seattle aimed at connecting, encouraging, and equipping Christians to integrate their faith with their business and career. This is a letter I sent to the community regarding my thoughts on the crisis.

One of the things I appreciate most about KIROS is the diversity of vocation present in the community. We are often siloed in our vocations while we’re at our places of business. Engineers work with engineers. Accountants work with accountants. In our churches we have a diversity of vocation, but a singular focus when we worship together. KIROS gives me a way to think of what it means to be a Christian at work alongside people of different vocations.

But recently, it seems to me, we have a different kind of diversity in our community: many of us have had our vocations radically changed, and in short order. Some of us are not able to work like we used to. Some of us were accountants, but are now homeschool teachers. Some of us still work in the same vocation, but what our work entails looks entirely different. Instead of trying to expand our businesses, some of us may be looking to keep it afloat. We are all having to make hard decisions about our career, our business, our customers, our employees, and how we help our community.

This reminds me of a sermon by CS Lewis in Weight of Glory named “Learning in Wartime”. The sermon was given to students at Oxford in the thick of World War II, attempting to answer some of the basic questions we often have when trying to persevere through a crisis: Do I continue on as if this isn’t a big deal? How do I keep focused on what is in front of me? I wish this had never happened, why am I going through this? What about all of my plans, when can I get back to them?

These are very real concerns, and Lewis doesn’t dismiss them. He writes that

A more Christian attitude… is that of leaving futurity in God’s hands. We may as well, for God will certainly retain it whether we leave it to Him or not. Never, in peace or war, commit your virtue or your happiness to the future. Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment “as to the Lord”. It is only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.

That is, he suggests that the Christian walk is about doing our vocation, whatever that may be, dutifully in the present. That is in fact exactly our duty in all circumstances, crisis or not. As to the questions “Why me? Why us? Why now?”, Lewis has an encouraging word:

The work of a Beethoven, and the work of a charwoman, become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly “as to the Lord”. This does not, of course, mean that it is for anyone a mere toss-up whether he should sweep rooms or compose symphonies. A mole must dig to the glory of God and a cock must crow. We are members of one body, but differentiated members, each with his own vocation. A man’s upbringing, his talents, his circumstances, are usually a tolerable index of his vocation.

Our backgrounds, our talent, and our circumstances were ordained by God for all moments, certainly, but also this one. The decisions we make regarding our families, work, and community were given to us by God, and we should be encouraged that this was done with a purpose. We should remind ourselves that even though we, like those terrified students at Oxford in 1939, may wish this wasn’t our burden it was nonetheless given to us for a reason. God prepared us for our part to play in it.

Whatever your vocation looks like now, I think we should heed Lewis’ advice and remember that all of our work becomes “spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly “as to the Lord”. This is true even, and maybe especially, if it wasn’t the work that we planned to be doing.

Meaning And Pain, Final Thoughts

This is a continuing series about meaning and pain. To read from the beginning, start here.

So what am I to do with all of this? My wife and I have lost a child. This pain can’t be denied, ignored, or found trivial. It’s meaningful to me, but in a negative way. Shall we stop there? Is that all there is?

To ask whether the universe as we see it looks more like the
work of a wise and good Creator or the work of chance, indifference, or malevolence, is to omit from the outset all the relevant factors in the religious problem.

Christianity is not the conclusion of a philosophical debate on the origins of the universe: it is a catastrophic historical event following on the long spiritual preparation of humanity which I have described.

It is not a system into which we have to fit the awkward fact of pain: it is itself one of the awkward facts which have to be fitted into any system we make.

In a sense, it creates, rather than solves, the problem of pain, for pain would be no problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of this painful world, we had received what we think a
good assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving.

CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain

I’m attempting what Lewis is suggesting here. To square the facts that I know with the pain that I feel. If you’re reading this and experiencing something like what we have, know that my attempt may not be adequate. In fact, if you’re looking for something to make you feel better, I can guarantee it won’t be. This is a post about grief and pain, and the fact that it matters. I am not trying to fill all of the silence.

The day we received this news, I came across Stephen Colbert’s interview with Anderson Cooper, where he paraphrases a certain quote from Tolkien:

I thought this a good word in itself, but this quote does a little better with some extra context. Tolkien was answering questions about death in his writing. In Lord of the Rings, men were given the “gift” of death. Elves were immortal by design, but men had expiration dates. Men in Tokien’s tale, as they do here on earth, dreaded death. So why did the elves call this the Gift of Ilúvatar (God)? Tolkien answers this question in an unpublished letter with this statement, which Colbert is paraphrasing:

“A divine ‘punishment’ is also a divine ‘gift’, if accepted, since its object is ultimate blessing, and the supreme inventiveness of the Creator will make ‘punishments’ (that is changes of design) produce a good not otherwise to be attained”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R Tolkien

There are two things that stick out to me about this:

  1. He refers to it as a punishment, but I don’t think that’s necessarily what he meant. It’s more like suffering that must be endured. Men didn’t cause mortality in Tolkien’s world, at least explicitly. They were given it from the beginning. They simply had to endure it.
  2. Ilúvatar never gives the answer to what happened ultimately in death for men. It remained a mystery, even to the reader.

So if we make a leap and grant Tolkien his point: that suffering is also a gift, and if we accept it it comes with something that could not otherwise have been attained, the natural response, in my mind, is “Okay, let’s assume that’s true. Why should I believe that the gift is worth it in the end? I might be willing to accept this bargain if the pain is small. But what about the loss of a child? I’m just supposed to move forward in the definite and visceral pain with the promise that there’s some gift that is worth enduring all that?”

And this is where Christian faith comes in. Faith is often, in the modern debate about religion, construed as “irrational belief”. That is, belief without (or in spite of) reason. Interestingly enough though, it’s not often how we use the term “faith” in everyday life outside of the religious context.

I believe my wife is faithful. In other words, I believe she’s worthy of trust. A parent might have faith that their children can find the right spouse, make the right decisions, and otherwise grow into functioning adults upon leaving the home. We trade paper for goods and services “in good faith” that the paper isn’t counterfeit and neither are the goods purchased. When we use it in this context, “faith” seems more like trust. Rational trust.

So, then, if we’re to take Tolkien’s position that this suffering comes hand in hand with a gift, why should I have faith (trust) that the gift is worth it? In any bargain, any trade of this manner, the real question has to be “Who is this gift giver? Why should I trust this exchange? Why ought I have faith in this system of immense suffering?”

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize…

Hebrews 4

This is where I find only the gospel has an answer to that question. The scandal of God becoming man, entering into this suffering, was done for us. God Himself being hungry, tired, seeing friends die… himself being beaten, tortured, and ultimately killed… It was all for us. If that is the God giving the gift that accompanies the suffering, that’s a God I can trust. That’s a God I can have faith isn’t exposing me to suffering that’s not worth it, despite how painful it might be, because He’s been through it. Despite the fact that in times of immense pain, I wonder if my faith is justified.

I will end my thoughts on this topic with a story that has always stuck with me: A lawyer named Horatio Spafford wrote the words to the 19th century hymn “It Is Well With My Soul” while on a boat traveling to Europe. He was supposed to meet his wife and four daughters, but the ship carrying his family sank and all four of his daughters were lost.

When he set out to meet his wife, he asked for the boat’s captain to tell him when they were crossing the approximate location where his daughters perished, and that’s where he penned his famous hymn:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

The pain I am feeling regarding my unborn child is real. I won’t diminish it. The meaning behind that pain is real. I won’t deny it. The fact that in a very real sense this Should Not Be is indisputable. I won’t trivialize it.

But the reason that Spafford could write those lyrics are as true for me as they were for him: My Savior loves me. He knows all this. I will have faith that this suffering comes with something truly good that could not have been attained without it. I won’t minimize the pain, but I’ll endure it as best I can. Because He has earned my trust.

Meaning And Pain, Part 2

This is Part 2 of a post about Meaning and Pain. Part 1 can be found here.

So I didn’t leave that last post wrapped tightly in a bow, and to be honest I don’t really know if this one will be either even as I write it. It is my firm conviction that we don’t leave enough space for things like silence, pain or unanswered questions.

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not
afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same
fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the
yawning. I keep on swallowing.

At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or
concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be
about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.

There are moments, most unexpectedly, when something inside me
tries to assure me that I don’t really mind so much, not so very much, after all. Love is not the whole of a man’s life…

CS Lewis, A Grief Observed

It’s my observation that we, perhaps both intentionally and unintentionally, tend to speed right past suffering. We often say things like “This reminds me of the time when I also went through…” or “Everything happens for a reason.” This may all be well and true, but it seems to me to serve often as a way to say “Don’t let this get to you. This is bad, but it happens to everyone, and either way it’ll all work out in the end. You’ll see. Now can we stop talking about this?

And this brings me back to the meaning question. It seems to me that there’s an inseparable link between meaning and suffering.

In my view, one of the areas of silence we should more often allow ourselves, and others, to sit in a little more is the experience of pain and suffering, and the fact that those things are real, and omnipresent, and meaningful. I mean by “silence” the solemn contemplation of this reality: we are all in pain. We all experience that fear-like-grief that accompanies this life. The meaning and suffering dimensions are, as Peterson suggested, completely intertwined. We cannot deny that the suffering is meaningful, and if it’s meaningful it needs to be meaningfully engaged.

So what to do, if we can’t race past it toward a distraction? If we can’t ignore it? We all have questions in times like these. We want to know the “why”. We want to demand an answer, or find who (perhaps even God Himself) is to be blamed for this catastrophe. What do you do when you experience that kind of pain?

I’ll apply these questions next to myself. I am in pain. I miss the child I never knew. This being I love and would gladly give my life for, even though he or she was scant the size of a blueberry. It is impossible for me to think this pain isn’t meaningful. And I don’t want to ignore it. If the world should be Shalom, if children should live to grow up before their parents eyes, and it’s not, we SHOULD be suffering. Because that isn’t the world we live in. And it means something.

Continued in Part 3, final thoughts.

Meaning and Pain, Part 1

This post will be personal, in a way perhaps that many blog posts I write won’t be. It’s also going to be a little raw, and less structured than I normally write. It’s more like a blog post crossed with a diary. Forgive me. It is hard to write about a painful subject when you’re actively going through it.

I want to tell you a story about a recent experience, the pain it has caused me and my wife, and why I think we ought to take life far more seriously, in all its suffering, joy, mirth, and despair, than we do.

“Is there meaning in life? That’s a stupid question… that’s not a question you ever ask yourself if you’re in pain. Because if you’re in pain you know that life has a meaning. And it’s the pain. And you can’t argue yourself out of that. And so when we’re asking about whether life has meaning, that’s not what we mean. What we mean is “in the face of life’s pain and suffering, does life have any POSITIVE meaning”

Jordan Peterson (emphasis mine)

My wife and I were married 10 years ago, roughly, and we both wanted children. It was baked into the cake, us being Card Carrying Christians and all. We wanted a family. But she had studies to attend to, and so for practical reasons we put off having kids for a while. To be honest this wasn’t such a big deal to me. I’ve never been much of a “kid person”. Or, in fact, a “person person”. I wanted a family, but there was no urgency, really, in my mind. It could wait.

In her final year before she graduated (#1 in her class at the University of Washington, btw, she’s soooper smart), we started trying to have our first kid. It was time, and we knew we wanted multiple. Basically as soon as we started trying, we were pregnant with our first, little Liam. My life would never be the same. Maybe I wasn’t a kid person, but I was a MY kid person.

Soon thereafter, we had a second child. This one took longer. Months went by. We were starting to wonder if something was wrong: Do we need fertility treatment? This was hard. What’s different this time? Does God want this for us? What is He trying to teach us? We didn’t expereience, really, a sense of loss, just one of delay. Why is God putting us through this?

But ultimately without treatment, and not really that long of a time (9 months of trying), we received yet another gift: little Teddy.

Words can’t express how much joy these two little boys give us. I never thought I’d want more than 2 kids until I had them. Now I wanted 3 for sure. Maybe more.

At this point you might be suspecting that what is, so far, a happy story has a dark turn. And you’re right. This post does have the title “Pain” in it, and not for nothing. We started trying for kid number three. And once again, just like our first, we were pregnant pretty much immediately. Whew! Teddy’s delay with just an anomaly. Getting pregnant was easy. And so, a few months later, we went into our first doctor’s appointment. This was supposed to be the first time we’d see our little one. We were happily talking about whether we wanted another boy, or a girl? Is this going to be the last kid for us? Do we want a fourth?

We were chatting away about these things as the ultrasound began…

….something isn’t quite right…

…this baby definitely isn’t that far along…

And then we were told the pregnancy wasn’t viable. Our baby would never be born. Within seconds, we went from joy to… well… that hollow feeling you get when something horrible has just happened, and you’re struggling to believe what you just heard.

It’s hard to describe the emotions we felt, and I’m not one to be good at such a description even if it were easy. But a soul, our child, was both here and not here. We’d not see his or her face. No hugs or bedtime stories. Just a canceled due date, and a procedure in a cold hospital room the next week to finish off what we were so eagerly anticipating.

Continued in Part 2