How the Church Fathers Help Us Suffer Well
In recent years, there has been a resurgence in the popularity of the early church fathers, not just amongst pastors and scholars, but among the laity, of which the Paleo-Orthodox movement is an example. Multiple publishers have endeavored to make their works available to the common person, from St. Vladimir Press’s Popular Patristics Series to InterVarsity’s Ancient Commentary series. In the face of this resurgence, a number of questions have been asked: What good do people that have been dead for millennia have to offer us? They were fighting battles that we no longer are; how can they address our struggles? Why bother trying to understand the minute parsing of languages such as Greek that we no longer speak (such as the homoousios debate)? Would we be forced to convert to Catholicism or Orthodoxy after reading them? While I understand these questions, I would like to suggest to my fellow church leaders that we should encourage, engage in, and propagate this interest in the church fathers.
What at first seems to be a reason to not read the church fathers is in fact the very good they can offer us: they operate from a dramatically different culture, worldview, and time period from us. At first, it might seem that makes them irrelevant to us, but the fact they are so different from us allows them to confront us in ways we otherwise could not be confronted. They carry with them different cultural assumptions and values from us and that means as we read Scripture alongside of them, they point out the countless ways we have unconsciously allowed the values of the culture around us to shape how we read the Scriptures. The Gospel does not offend and confront our own idols and heresies because we have tamed it and allowed our culture to change the content of the Gospel. The church fathers do not share our cultural assumptions and provide a reading of Scripture that forces us to question our deepen assumptions about the world and the faith we have received.
I say this as someone who has been personally confronted by the church fathers. I still remember the first time I read them several years ago. They forced me to ask questions that I had never thought to ask before, questions that kept me up at night and that drove me to talk with everyone I knew who was reading them and to read even more than I already was. That anxious time of questioning led my faith to develop in countless ways. Even today, the church fathers continue to correct my thinking and deepen my faith.
Where the church fathers confronted me is exactly where they challenge American evangelicalism and modern culture: the subject of creation. How we understand creation dramatically shapes how we look at all doctrine and how we approach our own faith. The church fathers will open for us a door into a richer and a deeper faith.
The fathers confronted me in their writings against Gnosticism. This was one of the first battles the fathers fought so many years ago in a very different world from ours, but the debate felt surprisingly familiar. Gnosticism was a complicated view of the world that drew on ancient philosophy and adapted itself to serve as an alternative version of many religions, including Christianity. The Gnosticism that set itself against orthodox Christianity said something like this: there are spirits that exist with one another to form what is called the “Pleroma”. These spirits are split between male and female and all emit from the first father. The youngest spirit, Sophia, wanted to know the father, which was a bad desire, and so was cast out of the community in punishment. She was eventually healed, but as a result of her healing, evil matter was formed. Sophia than created a being called the “Demiurge” who went on to create the material world out of the evil matter. This is the God of the Old Testament. The first father eventually sent Jesus, who appeared as a human, but was not in fact in the flesh. Through him, those who are able can obtain a secret knowledge (called a “gnosis”) which can lead them out of the physical world into the Pleroma.
Now, at first, this narrative sounds ridiculous, until you realize some of the basic assumptions that lie behind it. Gnosticism assumes the physical world is bad and that salvation comes from accepting a secret knowledge so that we might escape the physical world. This sounds awfully familiar to what we say at funerals: “At least he is in a better place.” “This body isn’t actually her. She is in heaven.” Or what we say in Gospel presentations: “Do you know if you will go to heaven when you die? Accept this list of truths so that you will.” Our churches often assume that salvation is about leaving this physical world behind and enjoying an ethereal existence with God in some other place. We have accepted this dualism that rejects creation as bad and the spiritual world as good. We aren’t that different from the Gnostics!
What the church fathers emphasize is that creation is made good by God and is part of his plan. Sin does not occur because existing in this physical world is a bad thing, but because our wills and desires are immature. Salvation requires God finishing his creation by bring us to full maturity. God does that by himself becoming human. God the Son takes on human flesh to redeem what it means to be human. He lived a life in human flesh and showed us how we can live a truly human life. In his death, he took on the powers of sin and death, two things that work to undo creation, that distort creation, that separate our bodies and souls to make us less than we were made to be. After his death, he rose again, finishing his work by putting the physical and spiritual worlds together again, by reuniting and making whole what death and sin had undone. Insofar as we are united to his death and resurrection, we are made whole and brought to the full maturity God originally intended.
Now as we await the full consummation of our salvation, we are still left to deal with the occurrence of death, but in light of the work of Christ, particularly the way it was taught by the church fathers, we ought to handle it far differently from how we often do. When we talk about people being in a better place and emphasizing the goodness of the condition our departed loved ones are in, we give death too much credit. Death did not usher them into their salvation; it severed them into disparate parts. While the redemption provided in Christ creates the benefit of being present with Christ in death, salvation is still not complete. They still are not all they were meant to be; a mature flesh and blood person. The culminating act of salvation is our final resurrection. It is there that we are reunited into a whole person and made fully mature. Too often we treat “going to heaven” as the final chapter in the story of a person’s life with the resurrection serving as an epilogue when, instead, the resurrection is the final act of the play and the intervening time between death and resurrection is the intermission.
For me personally, this change in my thinking regarding death and the body has had profound ramifications on my life. My grandfather recently passed away and I found I could not mourn him properly until I recognized the tragedy of death, the undoing of creation that had occurred with his passing. Standing by the graveside, I thought about Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15. We were placing his body as a seed in the ground, awaiting the day it is raised up and he is made whole. It was only then I could shed my tears and begin to mourn.
This understanding of resurrection has not only change dhow I see death, but has changed how I see life lived in the body. If on the last day the body is raised up, that means the body is saved. Christ did not just redeem my soul; he saved my body as well. Because of that, what happens in the body has profound significance. What happens in the body matters to God so much so that he himself took on a body to redeem my body. Our health difficulties, the times we are abused or mistreated, the times we panic all matter and are all made new in Christ.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul indicates that we can only experience resurrection because Christ has experienced resurrection, which required him to take on human flesh. Redeeming what happens in the body was so important to God that he took on a body. The Creator made himself a creature. He experienced what everyone experiences in the body. The author of reality takes on the distortions of reality we all experience in order to show us they matter. They are real, tangible things with significance. And he took them on so that he can redeem and restore them in himself. Because of his incarnation, all the suffering we experience is dealt with head on rather than merely brushed aside.
Recognizing this changes the way we respond to these situations of pain and trial. For example, we all struggle with anxiety. So often, modern Christians who have accepted a quasi-Gnostic dualism respond to anxiety with Christ’s command in Matthew 6:34: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” No matter how well meaning, the implications of using this verse by itself are: “Stop worrying. Your anxiety does not matter. Dismiss it. Throw it out. It should have no place in the Christian’s life.” A person begins to work and worry about not worrying, dismissing the reality of what they are experiencing and exacerbating the problem by adding another expectation onto an already stressful load. Instead, this verse needs to be considered in light of the fact that God took on a human body and himself was anxious. Jesus himself sat in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his death and pleaded with God for another way to achieve salvation. The Gospel writer Luke emphasizes his anxiety by describing him as being in anguish and recording that his sweat that night was mingled with drops of blood. Luke as a doctor records for us a rare physical condition called “hematohidrosis” that results from a person being under such extreme stress that the blood vessels in a person’s sweat glands burst. God knows what it means to be anxious and stressed. When he tells us not to worry, he is not telling us to dismiss such anxieties as unimportant, but is saying, “I know what it means to be in anguish. I myself have experienced all that you are going through. I took on all of your worry in my body. Your anxieties have been redeemed. They matter so much to me that I experienced death and hell. I rose again so that you might know life beyond the things that disturb you. When I tell you not to worry, I am not saying they don’t matter. I am saying that they matter so much, let me be the one who deals with them. Let me give you a life beyond the anguish you carry.” Such words give dignity to our pain and comfort that passes all understanding rather than merely dismisses them.
Out of this come a multitude of questions those of us in church leadership must deal with. How do we preach in ways that address the entirety of the human experience? How do we plan worship services that confront the suffering of every day life head on and provide room of the Holy Spirit to deal with them before the cross and the empty tomb? In what ways do the sacraments address the needs of the body and the soul and administer the Creator’s grace through and to his creation? All of these questions have a different answer in the fathers’ view of creation than they receive in a modern evangelicalism that accepts our culture’s Gnostic dualism. The fathers confront us with the way we have sold the grand vision of God’s redemption in Christ to the culture around and give us a lifetime of questions we all are now forced to grapple with, and they serve as an excellent guide through Scripture as we navigate all of these questions.