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A Book Review… Dispelling The False Images Of God

September 21, 2017 Featured Today No Comments

By MITCHELL KALPAKGIAN

The Light Shines on in the Darkness: Transforming Suffering through Faith, by Fr. Robert Spitzer, SJ, Ph.D. (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2017), 543 pp. $19.95. Available from www.ignatius.com or 1-800-651-1531.

For anyone who struggles to make sense of human suffering or to reconcile the unconditional love of God with the weight of sorrow that burdens human lives, Fr. Spitzer’s book justifies the ways of God to man with exceptionally lucid, cogent, and comprehensive reasons that put man’s mind, heart, and soul to rest.
Placing the weight of the argument on the image of God as the merciful, compassionate Father in the Parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, Spitzer explores in depth this theme throughout the book —God as the loving father addressed in the Lord’s Prayer, in the word used by Christ “Abba” (Daddy), and on the love of the Father for His Only Begotten Son offered in sacrifice for the salvation of all His children.
A Christian understanding on the meaning of suffering depends entirely on a true knowledge of God’s real nature, and all mistaken ideas about the existence of evil in the world derive from false conceptions about God’s essence. Spitzer begins with God’s own Revelation of His being: “God is not merely a ‘what’; He is a ‘who,’ a personal and interpersonal Being.” Christ’s references to His Father in the use of “Abba” communicate an “affectionate, caring, compassionate, understanding Father.”
In The Parable of the Prodigal Son the father welcomes his wayward son, rejoices in his return, attends to all of his basic needs with sandals and tunic, embraces him with affection, treats him with kingly hospitality by killing the fatted calf, and forgives his sins with a merciful heart. He mirrors the love of God the Father: “Jesus’ implication is clear: If God loves a completely egregious sinner . . . then He must love us in the same way — unconditionally.”
As Spitzer observes, in St. Paul’s letter on love in 1 Cor. 13, all the attributes of charity naturally apply to the God of love who is “unconditionally patient and kind” and never “irritable or resentful.” As Christ’s own miracles of healing further illustrate, “He and His Father are caring, compassionate, redeeming, saving, empathizing, self-sacrificing love.” The Beatitudes also reflect the same fatherly mildness that enjoins man to be meek, merciful, peace-loving, and poor in spirit: “The ‘logic’ of Jesus is the logic of love that says that power is humility, gentleness, affection, and ‘littleness’.”
When man’s mind grasps these revealed truths about God’s nature and love, they dispel all the false images about God that distort the purpose, value, and meaning of human suffering.
Spitzer identifies these common misrepresentations of God that result in a simplistic or twisted explanation of evil: The Payback God who exacts retribution; The Domineering God who oppresses and subjugates with hosts of armies; The Terrifying God who, in the language of Jonathan Edwards, holds man over the pit of Hell like an insect; The Stoic God who remains aloof and detached, “non-emotional, imperturbable, unsympathetic”; and The Disgusted God who disdains man for his mediocrity and failures.
All these contorted views of God do not reflect the loving, merciful heart of the father (“Abba”) of unconditional love who forgives and rejoices in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
The images of God’s fatherly love that abound in Christ’s teaching counteract the simplistic view of suffering as punishment for sin held by Job’s friends or as the consequence of the moral failures of earlier generations. The truth about God as “Abba” also surpasses the idea of Satan as the accuser who prosecutes man before God’s tribunal “to test a good person as a challenge to God” as Satan attempts to do at the beginning of the Book of Job.
Spitzer finds it irrational to view God teaching forgiveness of enemies yet punishing evildoers down to the fourth generation. The God who teaches man to forgive seventy times seven and lets the rain and the sun fall on the just and the unjust has nothing in common with The Payback God or The Terrifying God. The New Testament and Christ’s agony and crucifixion provide a new dimension into the mystery of human suffering that does not reduce it to mere legalistic punishment.
Suffering, Spitzer argues, can serve a medicinal and instructive purpose — not vindictive retribution — as in the case of St. Paul struck blind on the road to Damascus to learn humility and repentance. The role of suffering as medicinal leads to conversion and repentance that bring the spiritual health of salvation.
It serves the purpose of preventing “lifestyles and beliefs that are self-destructive and destructive of others” and of shocking the complacent “out of superficial meaning in life” dominated by a love of pleasure and wealth.
God uses suffering to create “hearts of flesh” to replace “hearts of stone” to use the language of Ezekiel. Thus, instead of God using suffering as retribution or as a test for the endurance of pain, God allows suffering for nobler purposes: “to reach for higher meaning, deeper love, and eternal salvation,” “to define our eternal identity,” and to contribute to Christ’s redemptive work in the world.
Using the story of Job who practiced fidelity and learned humility in his suffering, Spitzer explains that “suffering is a great mystery known to God alone” and that “we cannot possibly know how God is operating through our and others’ suffering.”
However, man needs to grant God the benefit of the doubt even in the crisis of loss and affliction. Though man cannot comprehend the mind of God and His unsearchable ways, man can know the heart of God as revealed in Christ’s Parable of the Prodigal Son that illustrates the unconditional love of a father’s unlimited mercy and compassion.
In this loving relationship with a father, man “can know the heart of the Father enough to trust that He would not do anything contrary to perfect love and our salvation.”
Spitzer identifies certain habits of the heart man needs to adopt during all the trials of suffering: to avoid impulsive false charges against God, to resist the presumption of doubting God’s love and wisdom, to accept God’s will with humility, to give the benefit of the doubt, and to make “a rational judgment to trust in the God of Jesus Christ, even when we feel completely alone, abandoned, depressed, and resentful.”
In these times of affliction man also needs prayers similar to the blind man Bartimaeus who pleaded to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Spitzer explains, “He wants us to choose His help freely.” Christ’s example in Gethsemane that petitioned the Father to let the cup of sorrow pass from Him provides the paradigm.
In these greatest of life’s sorrows, man’s clear understanding of God’s true nature leads him to remember that “God loves us without limit, and therefore His will is to optimize love, goodness, and salvation, for us and through us.”
Man never suffers alone without God’s presence and nearness. It is imperative to trust that “the Lord is working when we cannot perceive it,” to wait on the Lord without demanding instant results or exact dates, to persevere in patience, and to believe, in St. Paul’s words, that God makes “all things work together for the good of those who love Him.”
Spitzer argues that “God does not passively look upon our suffering” but allows it out of respect for man’s free will that gives man the capacity to love and to prove his worth and dignity that define themselves by the noble virtues of faith, hope, fortitude, and patience that shine in the midst of tribulations.
God permits a fallen, imperfect world that gives man an opportunity to be a Good Samaritan and to grow in the many facets of love from compassion, empathy, and forgiveness to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy: “Therefore, the imperfections of this world are opportunities to call us out of superficiality, egocentricity, and domination, providing a conduit to humility, empathy, compassion, contribution, and faith.”
In short, the fall of Adam and Eve does not explain the entire reason for the human sufferings of division, loss, tragedy, disease, and death. In an imperfect, fallen world, the hardships people endure “actualize the human spirit” and awaken “recourse to interior resources” that move the will to find “the spirit and energy to meet, fight, and overcome challenges.” Spitzer notes how superficial human life would be with no contributions, sacrifices, or good works to enrich the lives of other people and alleviate their sufferings.
This struggle fortifies man’s heart and deepens his conscience, often inspiring heroic acts of love. These trials define and develop man’s character and raise him above complacency, mediocrity, and sloth. They provide man “an impetus to choose piety, honor, respect, and reciprocal obligation” and “to choose our identity and eternity with Him.”
As Viktor Frankl’s sufferings in the German concentration camps taught him, man’s moral decisions in the cruelest circumstances form the basis of human character. Testing the heart, soul, and conscience of each person, suffering always carries the potentiality of an increase in faith and love.
Finally, this imperfect world creates an opportunity for man to imitate Christ’s redemptive love by offering human sufferings for God’s salvific work in saving souls. Just as He offered His life and death to the Father and St. Paul wrote that he wished “to complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body,” all persons can offer this sacrificial love on behalf of others. Someday man will know the great benefits of these gifts that will, “like the mustard seed, be turned into an abundance of grace available to those who need it most.”
Sufferings, then, are never wasted, useless, or merely tragic but carry with them the power of rebirth and resurrection. “Suffering plus faith equals extraordinary love.”
This book, then, gives comfort to all who sorrow and peace to all who struggle to make sense of life’s injustices and cruelties. It deepens a person’s faith and hope and offers an honest, realistic view of the human condition that is never devoid of the Father’s boundless love and inexhaustible mercy. The Light Shines in the Darkness gives more than ample reasons for resisting despair, depression, cynicism, and nihilism.
As Spitzer shows throughout the book, though life is often tragic, horrific, and desolate, it is never “ultimately tragic” because in the mystery of suffering God’s Providence can always miraculously bring good out of evil, and, in St. Paul’s words, can do more abundantly than man can ever imagine or think.

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Fr. James Schall passed away today. A Jesuit priest & Georgetown professor, he served as mentor & model to a numberless many (including me). With penetrating insight & wit, he pointed us to Christ & those great Catholic minds we mustn't forget.

Fr. Schall, requiescat in pace.

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