Monday, August 19, 2013

Do Not Envy the Wicked. Be Pure in Heart

A friend of mine doesn't believe in God.  While discussing the matter, he often refers to scientific evidences to support his claim of disbelief.  But, if he were to go to the historical beginning of his path towards disbelief, it would not begin in the science lab, but in the heart.  At a particular moment in his Christian life, he encountered an overwhelming experience of suffering and this moment caused him to evaluate not only his Christian beliefs, but also his very belief in the existence of God.  (In writing about this, I am in no way revealing anything personal or that he himself would not repeat).

I was thinking of my friend this morning as I prayed the appointed psalms for the Office of Readings today. The Psalmist writes "How good God is to Israel, to those who are pure of heart."  But then, as he continues, his eyes move away from focusing on the goodness of God and instead focus on evil.  He wonders aloud how it is that the proud and the wicked prosper.  He grows angry that the wicked inflict malice at every turn and do so with no fear of retribution.  It appears as though they are actually rewarded for their sinister ways. And God does nothing!  The Psalmist then wonders if he is a fool.  Is it useless to be innocent?  Is it useless to be pure of heart?  Why be faithful if God treats the wicked well while the innocent suffer?

My friend's experience is not all that different from that of the Psalmist.  The experience of evil and of suffering can shake our confidence in what is true, good, and beautiful.  I know this experience in my own life.  Several months ago, I found myself confronted with the same questions that are raised by the Psalmist. Why bother being faithful if, in the end, the wicked prosper?  This encounter with evil deeply affected me. And the more I focused upon it, the more the Psalmist's observations became my own.  Focusing upon evil runs the risk of undermining one's confidence in what is true, good, and beautiful.  A friend of mine once reminded me that "there is no logic in sin."  His point was that you shouldn't bother trying to "make sense" of evil because evil is inherently unreasonable.  The Psalmist also came to see this.  He says, "I strove to understand this problem, too hard for my mind to understand."  Making sense of evil is a fool's errand. Focusing on evil and wickedness necessarily means we take our eyes off of the Lord, and taking our eyes off of the Lord can never be good for us.

As is often the case in my life as a priest, it is in the unexpected ways that God instructs my heart. Yesterday afternoon, I met with a young man and woman who are preparing for marriage.  I've never met them before and was meeting them in order to fill out the boring paperwork that always marks the first meeting with an engaged couple.  There they were, two young people, preparing to begin their married life together.  In a world where there is so much suffering, sin, wickedness, war, famine, ideology, and hostility, these two young people are going to give themselves to each other in marriage.  Even though it happens every day, it still surprises me. What they are doing makes sense because love is supremely reasonable.  Somehow, wickedness and sin always seem to outweigh goodness and truth.  And yet, an ounce of truth and goodness and beauty contains so much greater power than all of the weight of evil combined.  This is a true miracle.

When our eyes rest upon that which is good, and true, and beautiful, we are reawakened as if out of a bad dream. The Psalmist said that the problem of wickedness and sin was too difficult for him to comprehend. But then, he "pierced the mysteries of God and understood what becomes of the wicked." Sin and wickedness and the apparent success that accompany them are, in fact, phantoms.  What is true and good and beautiful is where we should rest our eyes.

In the Letter to the Hebrews, we are instructed to "rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.  For the sake of the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God."  Jesus endured the shame of the cross because he knew what lay before him.  His disciples are called to keep their eyes fixed upon him; upon him "who endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart."

The experience of evil can come in many forms.  A spouse can be unfaithful, a friend can abandon us, a person in authority can abuse his authority, a child suffers from disease, somebody dies from starvation, or an unjust sentence is passed.  If we focus upon these things alone, they will never make sense to us.  They will cause us to grow weary and to lose heart.  They undermine our capacity to trust in goodness.  Instead, we are called to keep our eyes fixed upon what is true and good and beautiful.  This week, in looking at this young couple in front of me, I was reawakened to all that is true and good and beautiful. I was reminded that this alone makes sense.  Only love is reasonable. The Cross is only comprehensible because of love and because of the supremacy of love.

The wicked will one day see their own destruction.  This is because they set their hearts upon wicked things.  The more one sets his eyes upon wickedness, the more distorted his view of reality becomes. The pure of heart will see God.  They will see God because they set their eyes not upon wicked things but rather upon what is good, and true, and beautiful.  They set their eyes upon those things which reveal the way in which God made the world to be.  This is what it means to be pure in look upon what is good and true and beautiful.  It means to look upon a young couple preparing for marriage.  And if we look at these things, we shall see God.  I want to be pure in heart.

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