When the Stakes Are Highest
There is a place in my Bible that is prone to be frequently revisited. In fact, it is quite often the place I find in front of me when I open the book. And every time it happens, like a scent that uproots a potent memory, I recall the story behind the pages.
Some time ago, between classes in college, I was reading in a park when the skies shifted without warning and the pounding rain left a permanent bookmark on a chapter in John. The pages have long since dried, leaving the paper wavy and wrinkled, and easy to turn to upon opening. But something about the lasting impressions of the rain—no doubt, a fitting metaphor of life—has also impressed that day into my mind. The hardest rains always leave indelible imprints.
In The Problem with Pain, C.S. Lewis refers to pain as God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. Convincingly, he presents a careful theodicy, considering the problem of suffering from an entirely theoretical perspective. He presents the things we know to be true of suffering, pain, and evil, what we know of the suffering and death of Christ, and the strength we are given when the peripheral questions of life are answered by a good God. Twenty years later, in the pages of A Grief Observed, Lewis describes watching his beloved wife lose her battle with cancer and wrestling with God through the pain of her death. Here, he writes as a man who bitterly and intimately knows what he knows to be true of God and evil, suffering and Christ, even as his soul is breaking. Writes Lewis, “Your bid—for God or no God, for a good God or the Cosmic Sadist, for eternal life or nonentity—will not be serious if nothing much is staked on it. And you will never discover how serious it was until the stakes are raised horribly high.”(1) He continues, “Nothing less will shake a man—or at any rate a man like me—out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.”(2)
His words seem harsh—and right. The times I seem to have most truly and fearfully looked the object of my faith in the eyes was always while it felt I was pounding my fists against the chest of God, half-demanding, half-pleading. Those days gave new meaning to Paul’s admonition, “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling.” In Christian prayers we cry and in our hymns we sing, “Draw me nearer, nearer, nearer blessed Lord, To the cross where Thou hast died. Draw me nearer, nearer, To Thy precious, bleeding side.” But when the stakes were at their highest, those words ring with a frighteningly real cost.
In fact just before the apostle Paul admonishes the Philippian Church to work out their salvation in fear and trembling, he describes the cost of Christ, “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross.“(3) In his life, his body, his very attitude, Christians believe that Christ carried the cost of sin; he carried our dire need for hope in life and in sorrow, and our inability to draw near to God ourselves, and not necessarily for a lack of trying. There was a point in his pain from spreading cancer when a friend said soberly, “I had no idea how Christ suffered. I never thought of it.” There is something about our pain that can lead us to the heart–breaking beauty of the cross, to the utmost expression of love wrought with stripes and sorrow in violence. As the hymn continues, “There are depths of love that I cannot know, Till I cross the narrow sea; There are heights of joy that I may not reach, Till I rest in peace with Thee.”
It is fitting, then, that the pages marked by rain in my Bible tell the story of the death and resurrection of Lazarus. As Mary and Martha and Jesus wept, the rain seemed appropriate. But I remember clearly being struck with another thought: Surely, it was Lazarus who got the lesser end of the deal that day. To a crowd of people mourning death and loss, Jesus proclaimed radically, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies” (John 11:25). While Jesus spoke to the mourning crowd about true life, Lazarus himself was one hard step closer to living that mystery. I wondered that day how Lazarus felt about coming back. He was one great step closer to the heights and depths of the joy we know in part, the kingdom Jesus had told him about; he had been drawn, in some sense, nearer to the almighty God. For Lazarus, humanity’s deepest problem and loudest prayer had been answered. And then it began to rain, ever etching that thought into my Bible and my consciousness.
(1) C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: HarperCollins, 1989), 49.
(2) Ibid., 49-50.
(3) Philippians 2:6-8.
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