I want more: 2 Corinthians 1

2 Cor. 1.  I recently had the pleasure of driving a carful of teenage girls for five hours. First, we stocked up at Whole Foods.  There was tofu, chia seeds, greek yogurt and berries to be bought.  Some were weighing the merits of drinking apple cider vinegar before each meal to curb their appetites.  Others of us (me) asked why we couldn’t achieve the same purpose by putting vinegar in our salad dressing.  Why is diet and dieting a universal topic?  Because no matter what age or gender, we are all, always, trying to find ways to satisfy the human quest for more in bodies that have limits and so must make do with less.

Take comfort food.  Every one of us reaches for certain foods at certain points in our lives to satisfy needs that are so deep, so desperate and so obsessive they reach the level of the existential.  Some people believe in God.  Others don’t.  But we can all agree that humans have needs that run so deep we call them spiritual.  We all know a truly spiritual need could never be satisfied by a cream-filled donut.  So why do we all go on grasping at straws, trying to slake our insatiable thirsts with physical things?

Even water has limits.  Even though our bodies are comprised of at least sixty percent water, we can drink too much water.  It’s true.  A friend ended up in the hospital because in her anorexic quest to eat less, she drank so much water she poisoned herself.  A fraternity banned from making its would-be members binge drink alcohol made them binge drink water – and one poor boy died.

The problem with all physical things we use to try to slake our deepest thirsts is that we literally must stop or we will kill ourselves.

So is the answer to tell ourselves that one grilled cheese – one black and white milkshake – one glass of wine – one mac and cheese – one cookie is enough?  How can that work when we know we’re lying to ourselves?  One is never enough.  We make ourselves stop at one – or maybe two – because experience teaches us that if we overindulge we’ll feel ill.  But sometimes even the knowledge that having more will make us ill isn’t enough to stop us.  We deceive ourselves so easily.  Why?  Because we just want more.

There has to be a deeper comfort available to all of us than we can find in earthly things, people and places.  C.S. Lewis once reasoned that our insatiable appetites point the way to a God who can satisfy those needs.  I agree with him, although I’m not sure his logic is unassailable.  I don’t happen to believe in evolution, but I can come up with an evolutionary argument to Lewis.  Maybe the creatures who were destined to rise up out of the ashes of the apes were ones with insatiable appetites.  Maybe it’s man’s quest for more, more and more more that causes her to triumph over the “dumb” animals.  Maybe it’s our very insatiability that defines our success.

Maybe.

Because while our restless need for purpose, meaning and satisfaction causes us to scale mountains, build microscopes and sail the ocean blue, it also is part of the reason we humans have a tendency toward self-sabotage.  We know exactly what we should do to succeed in life, and all too often we don’t do it. We feel like we “just can’t stop ourselves.”  So is there a deeper and better answer than just putting ourselves on diets?  Is there a kinder gentler way than being strict?  Is self-control the only answer?  Is saying NO the solution?  Why can’t we find a never-ending YES?

Maybe the real answer lies in having a good hard look at what we’re really wanting. It’s a platitude to say we all want love.  But platitudes can be true.  So is the thing we truly deeply desperately want more of plain and simply love?  Is the Bible right when it says that what a man desires is chesed – unfailing love? No, I didn’t say cheese.  It’s chesed…

The Bible makes some dramatic promises about how God can satisfy our needs.  King David – a man who had such a deep need for sex that he had one of his most loyal supporters killed after he’d gotten his wife pregnant – made this extreme claim: “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you your heart’s desires.”  Psalm 37:3 (NIV).  Really?  Is that true?  Can we trust that promise?  And if so, how are we supposed to “take delight” in God?  How do we know when we’ve received our “heart’s desires”?  How do we know what our heart really “desires”?  Our hearts tell us it wants all sorts of things, and those things can shift moment by moment.  So how do we find the solution when our hearts seem to deceive us?

If we take our needs and questions and chia seeds and fling ourselves on the first chapter of second Corinthians, we find all the answers.  The question is whether we’re brave enough, open enough, and desperate enough to trust and obey what this chapter tells us.  Are we ready?

Saint Paul claims in this letter that God is the source of “all comfort.”  2 Cor. 1:3.  Really?  All comfort comes from God?  Even the comfort of a grilled cheese, such as it is?  Does Paul mean that in an abstract general way, because God created the whole world?  Does Paul mean that God comforts all humans, whether they believe or not, out of his loving merciful God heart, through what the Bible calls the general good that falls to all humans?  Do believers just get more comfort because they’re willing to know God in a deeper way?  I’m not sure, but I’d like to walk around inside this claim.  If God is the “source” of “all comfort,” then give me more God.

Paul goes on to say that God “comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others.  When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.  For the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ.”  2 Cor. 1:4.  Hold on.  We’re comforted “so that” we can comfort others?  Why wouldn’t God comfort us just because He cares about US?  What does our comforting from God have to do with others?  Apparently there is something in the very nature of God’s kind of comfort that is outward rather than inward focused.  There is something in this comfort that is inherently giving.  God gives to us “so that” we can give to others.  Of course God cares about us as much as he does the next person.  God loves each of us “best.” So the comfort God gives must itself give.

I think what Paul is talking about here goes to the very essence of love.  Love by definition gives.  Here is the thing the devil can never understand, because the devil is cynical about love.  The more suffering the devil throws at us, the more hurt we are, the more room there is for us to receive God’s comfort, and that comfort is so wonderful, we end up better off than we were before.  We might lose a toe.  We might even lose our life, or the life of someone so dear to us that life without them seems unimaginable. But whatever we suffer, if we turn to God in our need, we get the thing we most want and need.  We get God Himself.

This is what Job, the ultimate “sufferer”, got.  He lost his fortune, his children and his health.  But he found Jesus.  He sat on the ground, despised by his wife, taunted by his friends, and yet was able to say the words that are so beautiful, brave and resonant they are still read at most funerals: “I KNOW that my Redeemer lives.  And though my flesh wastes away, I myself will see him, I and not another.”  Job lost everything and found the one thing.  He had all of his “mores” taken away, and when all he had was “less than nothing” he found full satisfaction in his Redeemer.

That’s why Paul can calmly proclaim in this chapter that all the trouble he and his friends went through on their journeys, trouble that crushed and overwhelmed them “beyond” their ability to endure, brought about something so powerful no one could take it away: “as a result, we stopped relying on ourselves and learned to rely only on God, who raises the dead.”  2 Cor. 1:9.  Paul here hands everyone the key to unlock our restlessness.  He gives us the key to joy.  Ready?  It’s to stop relying on ourselves.  It’s to rely only on God.

The problem is that we humans find this hard.  It’s probably impossible.  We’re willing to rely on God when we have no other choice.  That’s why we say there’s no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole.  But how do we take the lessons learned by a mind focused by a hanging in the morning, and apply them to our everyday lives when we miraculously survive the hanging?

I don’t know what other people do, but speaking for myself I know only one way: to ask, ask and keep on asking.  What are we asking for?  More God.  More help.  More reliance on grace.  Less need for control.  Less of me and more of Him.  God says if we seek Him we will find Him, so we have to seek Him like we really mean it. We have to look hard.  We have to run after Him with passion.  We have to want Him, really want Him.

But how can we imperfect humans ever “have” a perfect God?  We can have God through the cross.  God’s sacrificial death covers the sins of anyone humble enough to admit their need of covering.  When God looks at a Christian, He sees Jesus.  That’s the good news of the gospel.  It’s what we mean when we say we’re saved by grace.  And a Christian can grow in purity only by clinging to grace.  We can’t rely on ourselves to get “better.”  We were never better.  We can only look deeper into the heart of the gospel and be melted by God’s mercy and love.  A melted heart is the only kind that can give expecting nothing in return.  A melted heart is the only kind that can be kind to even cruel people.  A melted heart needs nothing from anyone.  Because a heart melted by God’s gracious sweet love is already fully satisfied.  Only a heart full of unconditional love can give love, because that heart is giving out of its fullness instead of need.

Jesus is “God’s ultimate ‘Yes.'”  2 Cor. 1:19.  Everything and everyone else on this earth will one day say NO to us.  A donut will say no faster than a spouse might.  But at a certain point, everything has limits.  The only thing that is limitless is God’s love.  That’s why Paul can proclaim here with power and passion: “For all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding, ‘Yes!'”  2 Cor. 1:19.  You can hear Paul’s joy in that exclamation point.  That means that when David under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit sang about how if we “delight” ourselves in the Lord, He will “satisfy” the desires of our hearts, David was singing about Jesus.  If we delight ourselves in the gift of the cross, our heart’s deepest desire, our heart’s need for pure unadulterated limitless diet-less love, will be fully satisfied.

How do we know?  How can we be sure?  Paul rounds out this beautiful chapter by giving us a blessed assurance.  He says that God “has identified us as his own by placing the Holy Spirit in our hearts as the first installment that guarantees everything he has promised us.”  2 Cor. 1:22.  We have a “guarantee” in a our hearts.  That’s why a Christian can say with calm joy the same thing that Job did:  “I KNOW that my Redeemer lives.”  How do we know?  Because if we finally give up trying to satisfy our heart’s deepest desires with temporal things, and instead turn to God with arms outstretched and beg for forgiveness for running after any other lover than God to satisfy us, He will fill us with Himself.  God’s holy spirit will live inside us.  Cleansed by the blood of Christ, not by our good deeds, we become worthy vessels for God to live inside.

And that’s it.  We humans always want more.  Well, we can have most.  We can have God.  And when Love Himself dwells inside of us, even though we’re not so very loving ourselves a lot of the time, everything changes.  We become satisfied in a supernatural way.  We become filled with joy that is beyond understanding.  We become creatures who are incapable of receiving comfort without giving that same comfort to others, because it overflows from our unworthy grateful hearts.  We receive an “outpouring” of the Holy Spirit.

So take heart.  No matter what has happened to you, is happening to you, or will happen to you, there is peace, joy and love available to you on the soul level.  Your emotions may still roller coaster.  Your anxiety may still at times overwhelm you.  You will fall to temptation.  But you chafe under the weight of your humanity.  Because under it all a peace is available that passes all understanding.  It is there for the asking.  It’s free.  God doesn’t charge the exorbitant prices of Whole Foods.  God paid the ultimate sacrifice – His own life – His own son – so that joy everlasting could be ours for free.

So we can rejoice in our desire for wanting more.  It’s there for a reason.  That desire is God given. It’s God filled.  And when we run to God with our hearts wide open, He fills us to overflowing no matter how spiteful, small and mean we’ve been.

Because God is a God who comforts.  And He comforts us over everything, especially the parts of us we just plain don’t like.  When we take comfort in Him, we find we actually like ourselves.  We start to love ourselves.  And we become creatures capable of liking and loving others.  That is what grace is all about.

I don’t know about you, but I always need more grace.  The beautiful thing is that the more we realize our need of grace, the more room there is for grace.  So our very failures become like an ocean that buoys our vessels up on the wood of the cross.  We sail the ocean blue with the wind at our backs as long as we try to turn our sails toward the source of all light, the end of our restless quest, the person whose love we were made to crave relentlessly.

For He loves us back so relentlessly He will use even our inexpert steering to bring us home to Him.  Even every ill wind blows us closer to our one true home, if our shipwrecked hearts cry out to the living God for more.

posted on January 29, 2014

 

who you are, Reader: 1 Corinthians 4

The opening chapter of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is as ironic as a New York woman’s wardrobe of black. Calvino exorts the Reader to relax and lose ourselves, even as his words deny us that possibility.  How can we lose ourselves when the author has stepped out of his required role of being a silent tour guide, and intruded his presence on our solitary experience?  The narrator even has the nerve to tell us: “Dispel every other thought.”  But how can we dispel all thoughts when we’re wondering why an author is chatting with us as if he’s in the room?  We are confronting the nosiest of Stage Managers.  The fourth wall has been cracked apart, and we want it back.  “Adjust the light so you won’t strain your eyes,” the narrator tells us.  “Do it now, because once you’re absorbed in reading there will be no budging you.”  But is this helpful but bossy narrator ever going to let us get absorbed?

At the same time as Calvino blocks our ability to lose ourselves, he fans it by observing so accurately the joys, wishes, hungers, needs and travail of the reader.

Calvino continues to toy mercilessly with our desire to lose ourselves as the novel progresses.  He starts a fascinating mystery.  We are drawn in.  Then Calvino  interrupts us with readerly problems.  The pages are glued together.  He starts a new mystery plot.  After a few pages, where we feel a sense of loss about the prior story, we’re drawn in to the new one.  Then we’re told the Reader’s pages are blank.  The Reader gets a paper knife, and a new mystery plot begins.  Annoyed, we find ourselves drawn into a third story.  The Reader in the novel stops being us and becomes a character, someone who purses the Other Reader.  The Other Reader is attractive.  We seek out a crazy professor of a dead language.  A new story begins.  After beginning so many new mysteries, we grow weary.  We put the book down in disgust.

We start reading the new Harry Potter – oops, I mean Robert Galbraith – oops, I mean J.K. Rowling — novel.  It’s a mystery, a real mystery.  We sink our teeth into it.  We read it to the end without putting it down.  We feel a gleeful satisfaction in putting down the Calvino, clever as it is, and losing ourselves in the grittiness of Rowling’s novel.  Until, of course, even the J.K. Rowling ends and we’re left with that same old feeling of restlessness.

Now what?

There is an inherent problem here, brought to light so forcefully by Calvino.  He drags the paradox up out of the darkness of his book as if he’s caught a bat by the scruff of its neck.  How can we humans use our self to lose our self?  Our self has a memory.  How can we lose our self when every other time we’ve lost ourself, our self has reemerged?  But if we can’t lose ourself, how do we find joy in real life?  How can we hope for something good to happen in our lives, when it’s so often been dashed?  Calvino tells us: “It’s not that you expect anything in particular from this particular book.  You’re the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects anything of anything.  There are plenty, younger than you or less young, who live in the expectation of extraordinary experiences: from books, from people, from journeys, from events, from what tomorrow has in store.  But not you.”

Is that true?  Have we stopped expecting anything of life?  Have we become victims of cynicism?  Are we pessimists in disguise, masking our ennui?  Or has Calvin’s world weary description of us caused us to elide into the very person we are reading in order not to be?

Here is where we circle from Calvino into Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and come up just as seemingly dry as a child reading a novel under the covers by flashlight until the point that her eyes hurt from the strain and her body hurts from lack of sleep and she has to admit to herself but never out loud to her father that her father was right about reading under the covers.  Saint Paul seems to echo this world weary cry of Calvino when he excoriates his audience for behaving as if they were content.  Here’s the verse that jumps out of 1 Corinthians 4 like a live wire:  “You behave as if you are already filled and think you have enough.”  The Amplified Bible adds:  “you are full and content, feeling no need of anything more!”  1 Cor. 4:8 (Amplified Bible).

Hone in on that verse.  Because there’s a perilous way to read the Bible to which most of us tend, that would mean we’d avoid this verse.  All too often, when we encounter these sentences that don’t seem to make sense, we gloss over them.  We close our minds to the strangeness of them.  We think: “oh, the Bible is supposed to make sense so I’m just going to ignore this sentence because it’s too confusing.”  We block the seeming wrongness off the way we do entire sections of math problems.  Some statements seem too dense and thorny for our minds to solve, and so we skip to brighter lighter parts, like where math problems affirm that two plus two really does equal four, or where Saint Paul says that we should be stewards of the mysteries of God.  We like the implication that we alone know the mysteries hidden to the world.  We don’t like verses that are mysterious.  But there where the Bible gets the thorniest is the very place for us to focus our minds like freshly sharpened machetes.  Because we encounter God’s brightest lights in the darkest places.

Because perhaps the real problem that needs solving here is not the Bible but ourselves.

So why would Paul suggest it’s bad to be content?  Isn’t contentment good?  Didn’t Jesus say that he came to bring rest to the weary?  Didn’t he offer to heal the sick, give sight to the blind and open the ears of the deaf?  Didn’t Jesus say that the enemy comes to kill, steal and destroy but that he came so that we might enjoy our lives?  And what is enjoying life if not contentment?  Aren’t they the same thing?

Or is enjoying life different than being content?

Paul went on to warn the Corinthians about boasting about their leaders.  Paul told them not to brag about having the best minister and teacher.  He said that the only reason anyone has any talent is that it was given to them.  We don’t have our gifts because of our own efforts.  Everything is a gift from God, and Paul said this should exclude boasting.  Paul went on to say that while the Corinthians were behaving as if they were rich in spiritual gifts and graces, in their conceit they “ascended” their thrones without including Paul and his fellow travelers.

Paul said that he and the other apostles at that moment of writing were weak,  hungry and thirsty, shivering in cold, beaten and wandering around homeless.  He said, however, that when men reviled them, Paul and his fellow travelers blessed them.  When he was persecuted, he took it patiently.  When he was slandered he tried to answer softly and bring comfort.  He said that he was being made the rubbish and filth of the world.  He was being treated like the scum of the earth.  He concluded that the Corinthians should become imitators of him.

Is Paul saying we should all leave home, abandon our families, go hungry and thirsty, be hated and reviled and treated like scum?

Maybe.

Or maybe his point is that in some ways this is already happening to all of us, all of the time, and we’ve been trying to hide this truth from ourselves.  And if it’s not happening to us right this very minute, it is to people that we know and love.  So if suffering is an inescapable part of life on this planet for us and people we’re connected to, what is Jesus talking about when he says he came so that we may enjoy life in abundance?

Here is where the mysteries of God start to reveal themselves.  Apparently, there is something in our emptiness, dissatisfaction, rejection and discontent that enables us to enjoy life in the way Christ promises.  Maybe if we walk around in our loneliness instead of numbing ourselves, ignoring it or denying it, we will find a hidden treasure.  What do you find?  Who are you, Reader?  Are you alone in your dissatisfaction?  Are you sitting on the subway feeling more alone than ever?  Are you walking down a crowded sidewalk being rammed into by people who don’t care if you die?  Are you sitting at your desk feeling a sense of dread?  Are you the only one who feels slighted?  Are you the only one who is ignored?  Will nothing good ever happen to you?

Or did God Himself come down to earth and suffer alongside us?  Did God come down for real?  Did He suffer loneliness, isolation, rejection, slander and hatred?  And was God really murdered on the cross?  Did Jesus experience the rejection of God, something infinitely worse than the rejection of men?  Did Jesus suffer hell when God abandoned Him?

Those are the real mysteries of God.  That’s the truth God wants us to open our eyes to.  The mystery has been revealed.  God redeemed the loneliness of our world by becoming the loneliest of all.  God was excluded from God.  The great divide occurred.

And the gap has been closed forever.  The pages will never be blank again.  Self is reunited with self.  The Lord is our vindicator.  The cross has wiped away shame, loneliness, failure and despair forever.  We are all the ambassador of that truth.

And forevermore, we can step out into fields under an open sky and know, really know, majesty.  God will never leave or forsake us.  We find ourselves in Him.  We open up our emptiness to Him and cry out from the depths of our souls.  We surrender.

That’s who we are, Reader.