Suffering, Evil, and the Desires of the Heart (Eleonore Stump)
The heartbroken can attest to the pain of suffering. We all have our hearts set on something, often very good and valuable things. What should we say about God’s will and the meaning of suffering when we lose what our hearts most desire? Philosopher Eleonore Stump speaks on the interaction between desires of the heart, human flourishing, the problem of evil, and the desires of the heart.
The problem of evil is raised by the existence of suffering in the world. Can it be true that a world which has such suffering in it is also a world that is governed by an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good God as Christians believe? A theodicy is one way to answer that question in the affirmative. A theodicy is an attempt to show that there is a morally sufficient reason for God to allow suffering. In the history of the discussion of the problem of evil, a great deal of effort has been expended on proposing or attacking theodicies and the morally sufficient reason which those theodicies propose. Generally when a theodicy proposes a morally sufficient reason that explains why God allows suffering, that reason is centered on some benefit which could not be gotten without the suffering and which outweighs the suffering. And the benefit is most commonly thought of as some intrinsically valuable thing supposed to be essential to general human flourishing. So, for example, the very well-known theologian John Hick has proposed a soul-making theodicy. On his view, the theodicy he proposes justifies suffering as building the character of the sufferer and by that means contributing to the flourishing of the sufferer. Or to take another example, the very well-known philosopher Richard Swinburne, he’s argued that suffering contributes to the flourishing of sufferers, because in suffering, a person is useful to others and being useful to others is an important part of human flourishing. Scholars who’ve attacked theodicies such as these have argued that the proposed benefit could’ve been gotten without the suffering or that the suffering is not a morally acceptable means to the benefit. But these attacks on theodicy share an assumption with those vary theodicies. Both the attacks and the theodicies suppose that a person’s flourishing, in one way or another, would be sufficient to justify God in allowing that person’s suffering if only the suffering and the flourishing were connected in the right way. In this lecture, I wanna call that assumption in to question. I don’t think that human suffering can be justified only in terms of the intrinsically valuable things that make for human flourishing, however we understand flourishing. That’s because human beings can set their hearts on things that aren’t necessary for their flourishing and they suffer when they lose or fail to get what they set their hearts on.
And that suffering also needs to be addressed in consideration of the problem of evil. The suffering to which I wanna call attention can be thought of in terms of what the Psalmist calls the desires of the heart. When the Psalmist says, “Delight yourself in the Lord “and He will give you the desires of your heart,” we all have some idea what the Psalmist is promising. We’re clear, for example, that some abstract, theological good, which you don’t care about much, doesn’t count as one of the desires of your heart. Suffering also arises when a human being fails to get a desire of her heart, or when she has and then loses a desire of her heart. I don’t know how to make the notion of the desire of the heart precise, but clearly we do have some intuitive grasp of it. And we commonly use that expression, or others related to it in ordinary discourse. We say, for example, that a person is heartsick because he’s lost his heart’s desire. He’s filled with heartache because his heart’s desire is kept from him. He loses heart because something he put his heart into is taken from him. We say it would have been different for him if he had wanted only half-heartedly. But since it was what he had at heart, he’s likely to be heart-sore a long time over the loss of it. Unless, of course, he has a change of heart about it.
And so on. And so on and on. Those are regular expressions we use. So maybe we could say that a person’s heart’s desire is a particular kind of commitment on a person’s part. A commitment to a person or a commitment to a project. When that person or that project matters greatly to her, but isn’t essential to her flourishing. So for example consider the wife of Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King. Her life exemplifies flourishing on any ordinary measure of human flourishing and yet her husband’s assassination was undoubtedly heartbreaking for her. Think about it this way, sometimes philosophers talk about our beliefs as a connected web. With some beliefs peripheral and others central to the web. Maybe there is also a web of desire.
A desire of a person’s heart is a desire which is at or near the center of the web of desire for her. If she loses what she wants when her desire is at or near the center of the web, then other things which she had wanted, will begin to lose their ability to attract her because what she had most centrally wanted, is gone. You might say the web of desire starts to fall apart when the center does not hold. That’s why the ordinary good things of life like food and work, fail to draw a person who has lost the desires of her heart. She’s heartbroken, we say and that’s why she has no heart for anything else now. If things essential to human flourishing are intrinsically valuable for all human beings, then those things which are the desires of a person’s heart, can be thought of the things which have value for this particular person, just because she has set her heart on them. Think about the value that a child has for its mother, for example. A mother does not love her child because she thinks the child is intrinsically valuable. It’s the other way round.
The child is infinitely valuable in her mother’s eyes because the mother loves the child so much. In the same way, the value a heart’s desire has for a person, is derivative from her love for it and not the other way around. A loving father, trying to deal gently with his small daughter’s childish tantrums, finally said to her with exasperated adult feeling, “It isn’t reasonable to cry about these things.” Now presumably the father meant that the things for which his little daughter was weeping, did not have much value on the scale which measures the intrinsic value of good things essential to human flourishing. And no doubt he was right in that assessment. But my point here is that there’s another scale by which to measure too, and that’s the scale which measures the value a thing has for a particular person, just because of the love she has for it. And that second scale of value can’t be reduced to the first. We don’t care just about human flourishing. We also care about those things that are the desires of our heart, and we suffer when we’re denied our heart’s desires. I would say, that it isn’t reasonable to say to a weeping child that it’s unreasonable for her to weep about the loss of something she had her heart set on. Suffering which stems from a loss of the heart’s desire is, often enough, compatible with flourishing. I mentioned Coretta Scott King but there are plenty of other examples.
Think for example of women who were slaves at a time when slavery was legal in this country. Think of Sojourner Truth, for example, who was sold away from her parents at age nine. Or think of Harriet Tubman, who suffered permanent neurological damage from the beating she sustained as a slave. If any human lives manifest flourishing, the lives of those women certainly do. Most people suppose that each of those women is an exemplar of a highly admirable, meaningful, human life and yet surely each of these women was irrevocably deprived of something on which, at some time, she had set her heart. Now thinkers in varying culture, some stoics, Buddhists, many in the Christian tradition, some thinkers have been fiercely committed to the position that human flourishing is independent of the vicissitudes of fortune that cause heartbreak. On the Christian worldview, which takes flourishing to be a matter of union with God, most of the evils a human person suffers are compatible with flourishing.
That’s because a human being can be in a relationship of love with God and can also experience the consolation of that relationship even when she is afflicted with serious suffering of body or mind. Where those thinkers in the stoic, or Buddhists or even some of the Christian tradition, human flourishing is compatible even with such things as these, the depredations of other human beings, the torment of pain, the anguish of mental illness, the wretchedness of impoverishment, the misery of being unwanted, the affliction of pariah status, the brokenness of shame, the death of loved ones, even though any of these things is sufficient to cause heartbreak to the person suffering it.
The belief that flourishing is compatible with heartbrokenness is also common among reflective people in our own culture. So, for example, in a moving passage, borne of his long experience of caring for the severely disabled, Jean Vanier says this about the disabled and about himself. Jean Vanier says, “We can only accept the pain in our lives, “if we discover our true self beneath all the masks “and realize that if we are broken, “we are also more beautiful than we ever dared to suspect. “When we realize our brokenness, “we don’t have to find depression. “Seeing our own brokenness and beauty, “allows us to recognize hidden, under the brokenness “and self-centeredness of others, their beauty, “their value and their sacredness. “This discovery is a blessed moment, a moment of grace, “and a moment of enlightenment that comes “in a meeting with the God of love “who reveals to us that we are beloved. “We can start to live the pain of loss “and accept anguish, because a new love “and a new consciousness of self, are being given to us.” A particularly poignant example of this kind of view is given by John Hull in the memoir that he wrote about his slow descent into blindness. In that memoir, Hull spends many pages documenting his powerful aversion to going blind and the great suffering caused him by the blindness that finally enveloped him.
But then he recounts a religious experience he had while he was listening to music in a church. As he describes that experience, he summarizes his attitude towards his blindness in this powerful passage. He says, “The thought keeps coming back to me. “Could there be a strange way in which blindness “is a dark paradoxical gift? “Does it offer a way of life, a purification, “an economy? “Is it really like a kind of painful purging “through a death? “If blindness is a gift, it is not one “that I would wish on anybody, but as the whole church “in my mind are filled with that wonderful music, “I find myself saying I accept the gift, I accept the gift. “I was filled with a profound sense of worship. “I felt that I was in the very presence of God. “That the giver of the gift had drawn near to me “to inspect His handiwork. “If I hardly dared approach Him, “He hardly dared approach me. “He had, as it were, thrown His cloak of darkness “around me from a distance, and had now drawn near “to seek a kind of reassurance from me “that everything was all right. “That He had not misjudged the situation, “that He did not have to stay. “It’s all right, I was saying to Him. “There’s no need to wait, go on, you can go now. “Everything’s fine.” And everything is fine. In some sense having to deal with relationship to God and so is flourishing too. I have no wish to undercut anything in these powerful passages.
Hindsight, like the father Jean Vanier, seems to be to be as true as it is moving. But because things can be fine, in this deep sense, even for those who suffer greatly, there are stern-minded thinkers who suppose that a person who is suffering because of the loss of the desires of his heart, that person just needs to let those desires go. Now there’s something to be said for such a stern-minded attitude. Ordinarily a parent’s goodness is not impugned if the parent refuses to provide for the child anything that the heart is, that the child sets it’s heart on. A child could set it’s heart on things very destructive to him, or on evil things. In such cases, even if it were possible to do so, a good parent wouldn’t give the child what the child wants just because what the child wants is pernicious for the child. And the parent cares that the child flourish. And of course, an analogous point holds with regard to God and the suffering of adult human beings.
In cases in which a person’s heart’s desires are seriously inimical to his flourishing, then reasonable people are unlikely to suppose that some explanation is needed for a good God’s failure to give that person the desires of his heart. But if we exclude all cases of that so that there nonetheless remain many instances in which a person is heartbroken, in consequence of having his heart set in humanly understandable and entirely appropriate ways, on something who’s value for him is derivative because of his love for it. Even with regard to this restricted class of cases, stern-minded thinkers suppose that as long as flourishing is preserved, the desires of the heart should be abandoned, if clinging to them leads to suffering. For stern-minded thinkers, there’s no reason why a good God should provide whatever goods not necessary for her flourishing, a human person has fixed her heart on.
We can think about their position this way. Stern-minded thinkers take human flourishing to be a very great good. For those who think of flourishing as a relationship to God, it can seem an infinite good, a good too great to be commensurable with other goods. As they see it, if God provides this good, for a human person, then that ought to be enough for her. A person who doesn’t find this greatest of all goods, good enough, is like a person who wins the lottery but is nonetheless unhappy because she didn’t get exactly what she wanted for her birthday. So, in effect, the stern-minded attitude is unwilling to assign a positive value to anything which isn’t essential to a person’s flourishing. The stern-minded attitude is, at best, unwilling to accord any value to the desires of the heart, and at worst, eager to get rid of the desires of the heart themselves. The stern-minded attitude of this sort is persistent in the history of Christian thought from the Patristic period onward. It’s not the whole story the Christian tradition, it’s just one thread in it.
In it’s Patristic form, this thread can be seen vividly in a story which the great Patristic Christian, John Cassian, tells about a monk named Patermutus. I’m gonna say some mean things about John Cassian in a minute, so you should know that I am also an admirer of John Cassian. He’s one of my heroes. But, you know, you can be somebody’s hero and still get stuff wrong. [congregation laughing] I’m gonna tell you about the wrong stuff now. It’s worth quoting at length, the heartrendingly horrible story which Cassian recounts with oblivious admiration. So here’s Cassian’s story, which I hate. I love Cassian, but I hate his story. Here’s his story. [congregation laughing] Patermutus’s constant perseverance in his request to be admitted into the monastery as a monk, finally induced the monks to receive Patermutus along with his little son, who was about eight years old. To test Patermutus and see if he would be more moved by family affection, and the love of his son, then by the obedience to Christ, which every monk should prefer to all love, the monks deliberately neglected the child. They dressed him in rags and they even subjected the child to cuffs and slaps, which the father saw them inflict on the innocent child for no reason.
So that the father never saw his son without the son’s cheeks being marked by the signs of tears. Although he saw his child being treated like this day after day before his eyes, the father’s feelings remained firm and unmoving for the love of Christ. The superior of the monastery decided to test the father’s strength of mind still further. One day, when the superior noticed the child weeping he pretended to be enraged at the child and ordered the father to pick up his son and throw him off the top of the monastery into the Nile. And the father, as if the command had been given him by our Lord, ran and snatched up his son and carried him in his own arms to the river bank, to throw him in.
And the child would’ve been killed if some of the brethren had not been stationed in advance to watch the riverbank carefully. As the child was thrown by his father, they caught him. And thus they prevented the command, performed by the father’s obedience, from having any effect. That’s a terrible story. [congregation laughing] Cassian plainly prizes Patermutus’s actions but most of us would find those actions reprehensible, chilling. What Cassian admires in Patermutus is in fact the determination with which Patermutus tries to eradicate in himself, one of the most powerful and natural heart’s desires. In the interest of focusing all his care, solely on flourishing, spiritually understood. An attitude similar to Cassian’s, but less appalling, can still be found more than a millennium later in some texts, but not other texts, of the work of Teresa of Avila, to take just one more from the among the host of thinkers who could’ve been selected as examples. And Teresa of Avila was one of my heroes too. So just so you know. But this is a bad part, so writing to her sister nuns, Teresa says, “Oh, how desirable is the union “with God’s will? “Happy the soul that has reached it. “Such a sole will of tranquilly in this life “and in the next as well. “Nothing in earthly events afflicts it, “unless it finds itself in danger of losing God. “Nothing afflicts it, neither sickness “nor poverty nor death. “For this soul sees well that the Lord knows “what he is doing better than the soul knows “what it wants. “But alas for us how few there must be “who reach such union with God’s will. “I tell you that I am writing this with much pain “upon seeing myself so far away from such union. “And all through my own sin. “If my father died, I would feel it. “If there are trials or sicknesses, “I’m not sure I would suffer them happily.” Not feeling it, when your father dies, not weeping with grief over his death, is in Teresa’s view a good spiritual condition which she’s not yet willing to attribute to herself.
Teresa is here echoing a tradition which finds it’s prime medieval exemplar in Augustine’s confessions. Augustine says that at the death of his beloved mother by a powerful command of his will, he kept himself from weeping at her funeral only to disgrace himself in his own eyes later by weeping a great deal in private. Teresa’s attitude toward her father’s death, as she imagines it might be, if it were the attitude she takes to be ideal, that attitude can be usefully contrasted with the attitude of others in the Christian tradition.
So consider Bernard of Clairvaux’s attitude toward the death of his brother. Commenting on his grief at that death, Bernard says to his religious community, “You, my sons, know how deep my soul is, “how galling a wound it leaves. “Flow on, flow on my tears. “Let my tears gush forth like fountains.” Reflecting on his own unwillingness to repudiate his great sorrow over his brother’s death, that is reflecting on his failure to follow Augustine’s model, Bernard says, “It is but human and necessary that we respond “to our friends with feeling, that we be happy “in their company, disappointed in their absence. “Social connection, especially between friends, “cannot be purposeless. “The reluctance to part, the yearning for each other “when separated, indicate how meaningful mutual love “must be when friends are together.” So what I wanna say to you is there is a stern-minded attitude, you can find it in the Christian tradition, but the Christian tradition is of two minds here. Not all it’s influential figures stand with Cassian, and even among those who do, sometimes, like Teresa of Avila, they are still double-minded about it.
Now some of you may be thinking at this point, yeah but, yeah but. Isn’t it a part of Christian doctrine that God allows the death of any person who dies? Does anybody die, when God wills that that person live? So when a person dies, isn’t it the will of God that that person die? So in that sense, could Teresa be united with God in will, as she wants, to be if she grieves over her father’s death? How could she be united with God, if her will is frustrated in what God’s will accepts or commands? Now in my view, the position presupposed by these questions, rests on too simple an understanding of God’s will and union with God. To see why, assume that at death, Teresa’s father is united with God in heaven. Then the death of Teresa’s father has opposite effects for Teresa and for God. The death of her father unites her father permanently with God, but it keeps Teresa from union with her father, at least for the remainder of Teresa’s earthly life. So for this reason, love’s desire for union with a beloved, can’t be fulfilled in the same way for a human person as for God. If Teresa’s will is united with God’s will in desiring union with her father, then Teresa’s will must be frustrated at the very event, her father’s dying, which fulfills God’s will with respect to the same desire. And something analogous can be said about the other desire of love, the desire for the good of the beloved.
If Teresa desires the good of her father, she can only desire that her own mind sees as that good. But unlike God’s mind, her mind’s ability to see the good is obviously limited. To the extent to which Teresa’s will is united with God’s will in desiring the good of the beloved, then Teresa will also desire for the beloved things different from those desired for the beloved by God. Because Teresa’s ability to see the good for the beloved person is different from God’s. It’s easy to become confused here. I’m gonna give you just a little bit of philosophical lore to undo the confusion. So I’m gonna call on your patience. The phrase, the good, can be used in two different ways. Philosophers call these two different ways the attributive use and the referential use.
An expression like the good of the beloved, can be used to pick out particular concrete things which are conducive to the wellbeing of that particular person and then the expression, the good, is being used referentially. Or the expression, the good, can be used pick out or opaquely anything whatever as long as it’s under the description, the good of the beloved. A mother who’s baffled by the quarrels among her adult children and clueless how to bring about peace among those kids, she may say disparagingly, “I just want “the good for everybody.” She’s then using the phrase the good, attributively, with no idea at all of how to use it referentially. That’s a difference. If Teresa were tranquil over any affliction which happens to her father, it would be because she thought that by this tranquility, her will would be united to God’s will in willing the good for her father. But in this thought of hers, the good would be used attributively, to designate whatever God thinks is good.
But that can’t be the way the good is used in any thought of God’s. It’s not true that God desires as the good of the beloved person, whatever it is that God desires for him when God desires the good for someone, He desires it by desiring concrete, particular things as good for that person. Consequently when we say that God desires the good for a person, the expression, the good, is being used referentially to pick out something particular. For this reason, when, in an effort to will what God wills Teresa desires whatever happens to her father as the good for her father.
She thereby actually fails to will what God wills. To be united with God in willing the good, requires willing for the beloved particular things, which are in fact the good for the beloved, and doing so requires recognizing those things which constitute the good. Understanding this subtle but important difference in attitude between Teresa and Bernard, on the score of willing the good for the beloved, it helps to elucidate a very peculiar part of the Book of Job. In the Book of Job you may remember Job complains bitterly about what has God, what God has done to him and he’s got these useless comforters around him who keep telling him that what he has to say is just that God is just, God is good, God is terrific and so on. When God comes to talk to Job, he rebukes the comforters. He tells the comforters that they did not say of God the thing which is right. Unlike God’s servant Job, who did.
What the comforters said is that God is particularly good and justified in allowing Job to suffer as he did and what Job said with bitterness, is that suffering was bad and that God shouldn’t have allowed it to happen. And God sides with Job, he doesn’t side with the comforters. How can that be that in the story God says that Job was right and the comforters were wrong? The obvious and the paradox here can be resolved by thinking about this difference in attitude toward the good of the beloved and it helps, here, to see also the distinction between God’s antecedent and God’s consequent will. Roughly put, God’s antecedent will is what God would have willed if everything in the world had been up to God alone, and God’s consequent will is what God, in fact wills, given what everybody else wills. Again showing the distinction easily like this. You have a two year old, who loves pizza. [congregation laughing] And you got everybody around the table and the two year old’s having his favorite meal, pizza. And what he does with his pizza is throw it on the floor, yell and hit his sister. [congregation laughing] And his long-suffering mother says to him, “Johnny, if you throw your pizza on the floor one more time, “you’re dinner’s over. “You get nothing to eat and you’re gonna sit “in your room by yourself.” And he looks her in the eye and he throws his pizza on the floor and hits his sister. [congregation laughing] And then his poor mother picks him up and puts him in his room and closes the door and everybody around the table looks in disappointment at that cold pizza and listens to the two year old scream. [congregation laughing] The mother’s antecedent will is that everybody have a happy pizza dinner, her consequent will is that two year old scream in the room by himself. [congregation laughing]
So, that’s the difference between the antecedent and the consequent will. Whatever happens in the world, does happen only because it’s in accordance with God’s will. But that will is God’s consequent will and God’s consequent will is not the same as God’s antecedent will. Many of the things that happen in the world, in accordance with God’s will, are not in accordance with God’s antecedent will. So to try to be in accord with God’s will, by taking as acceptable, by taking as unworthy of sorrow anything that happens in the world, is to confuse the consequent will of God with the antecedent will. It’s to try to accept as intrinsically good even those things which God wills only in His consequent will. But the distinction between God’s antecedent and His consequent will, is meant to help us understand that God does not will as intrinsically good everything He wills. What he wills in his consequent will might be only what is the best available in the circumstances and the best available might be only the lesser of two evils. So to try to accept as good whatever happens on the grounds that it’s God’s will, is the wrong way to try to be united with God. You can desire as intrinsically good what your own mind pays to be intrinsically good, or you can desire as intrinsically good anything that happens on the grounds that it must be God’s will.
But only the desire for what your own mind can see as intrinsically good can be in accordance with God’s will for the same reasons only a desire of that sort is conducive to union with God. So although it appears paradoxical, it can happen that the closest to human being may be able to come in this life to uniting her will with God’s will may include her willing things, such as that a beloved person not die, which are opposed to God’s will, His consequent will. Now something here also needs to be said in this connection about the Christian doctrine which commands the denial of the self. There’s much understanding of the two different ways in which you can try to be united with God’s will, shows that there are also two correspondingly different ways of trying to deny yourself. Cassian and others who hold the stern-minded attitude, show one kind of understanding of self-denial. A person who shares the stern-minded attitude, such as Cassian, such a person will attempt to deny his self by in effect, refusing to let his own mind and his own will exercise their characteristic functions. That’s because a person who attempts to see as good, whatever happens, on the grounds of whatever happens as willed by God, such a person is trying to suppress his own understanding of the good.
And a person who attempts to will as good, whatever happens, on the same grounds, is trying to suppress the desires his own will forms or would have formed if he weren’t in the grip of the stern-minded attitude. To attempt to deny the self in the stern-minded way, is thus to try not to have a self at all. See, consider a women who says sincerely to her father, “I want only what only what you want, “whatever you think is good, is good in my view too.” She’s a woman who’s trying to be at one with her father, by, in effect, not having a self of her own. And the little reflection shows that contrary to first appearances, such a stern-minded attitude actually is incompatible with Christ’s command to take up your cross daily and deny yourself. That’s because you cannot crucify a self you don’t have.
To crucify yourself is to have desires and also to be willing to act counter to them. C.S. Lewis will argue for a similar position. He puts the point this way. He says, “It would not be possible “to live from moment to moment, “willing nothing but submission to God as such. “What would the material for such submission be? “It would be self-contradictory to say, “what I will is to subject what I will to God’s will “because that second one, what, has no content.” Someone who wills whatever God wills, cannot deny his self because he’s constructed his desires in such a way that whatever wills, he doesn’t counter to his own desires. He has only an overarching desire for whatever it may be that is God’s will and he’s attempting to stamp out of himself any desires that are in conflict with that overarching desire. He doesn’t want to let God’s desires take precedent over his own, he just wants to have no desires of his own.
And that is why, unlike the real Teresa who was very full of human emotions, such a person wouldn’t weep if her father died. For a person in the grip of such a stern-minded attitude, whatever happens is in accordance with that one overarching desire to will whatever God wills. And that is why, whatever happens, is not a source of sorrow to her. In virtue of the fact that she’s tried to stamp out of herself all desires except that one desire for whatever it may be that is God’s will, she has tried to have no desires which are frustrated by anything that happens. By contrast, a self-crucifying denier of the self, has desires for things his own mind finds good. So that he’s vulnerable to frustration, vulnerable to grief in the frustration of those desires but he prefers grief and frustration, to willing what is opposed to God’s will. In this sense, he wills that God’s will be done. His desire is that God’s desires take precedence over his own.
When Jesus says to God the Father, “Not my will but Your will be done,” He is not expressing a no-self position. On the contrary, he’s acknowledging that He has desires of His own and that they may conflict with God’s desires. But in virtue of preferring His suffering to the violation of God’s will, Jesus is willing that God’s desires take precedence over His. And that’s the sense in which He is willing that God’s will done. C.S. Lewis puts that point this way, he says, “In order to submit the will to God, “we must have a will, and that will must have objects.” Christian renunciation does not mean stoicism. It means a readiness to prefer God to other ends which are, in themselves, lawful. Jesus brought to Gethsemane a will, a strong will, to escape suffering and death, such compatible, if such escape were compatible with the Father’s will. And he also brought a perfect readiness for obedience, if it wasn’t.
To deny oneself is therefore a matter of being willing both to have desires of one’s own and to go contrary to them. Or put another way, it’s a matter of being willing to suffer the violation of your will. In so far as the stern-minded attitude seeks to eradicate all desires other than the desires for spiritual flourishing, it in effect refuses to have a self to deny. And so it is more aptly characterized as an extreme attempt to avoid suffering, than as self-denial and self-crucifixion. So for all these reasons, the stern-minded attitude, is to be repudiated even if it is one thread in the history of the Christian tradition. It’s just one thread and there are other contrary strands also. Whatever the ancestry of the stern-minded attitude is, many in the Christian tradition, do not accept it. And in my view they did well to reject it. It’s an unpalatable position even from the point of view of an ascetically-minded Christianity, determined to crucify oneself. That stern-minded attitude underlies the repellent mindset exemplified by Cassian’s story about Patermutus. And that stern-minded attitude is also clearly incompatible with love of one’s neighbor and consequently with the love of God as well. Contrary to the stern-minded attitude, there are things worth desiring other than the things necessary for human spiritual flourishing. And the desire for those other things should not be suppressed.
As Cassian’s story on Patermutus makes plain, the attempt to stamp out the desires of the heart does not lead to human spiritual excellence, as Cassian thought it did. Rather it leads to a kind of inhuman willing, even to harm one’s own child, in the service of a confused and reprehensible attempt at self-denial. So here’s what I wanna say in conclusion. For all these reasons, the stern-minded attitude should be rejected. And if it is rejected, it remains the case that some justification in theodicy is also needed for suffering stemming from the unfulfilled or broken desires of the heart. Theodicies that focus just on one or another variety of human flourishing as the more efficient reason for God’s allowing evil are, at best, very incomplete. Even if we give such theodicies everything they want as regards to relations between suffering and flourishing, there the remains the problem of suffering stemming from the loss of the desires of one’s heart. So the desires of one’s heart also need to be considered in connection with the problem of evil. And here, I have to disappoint you with just a promissory note.
I think it is possible to find a way to develop theodicy to include a satisfactory consideration of the problem posed by the desires of the heart. But that’s a complicated job and it needs a big, fat book and not just a lecture. So what I hope to ensure you today, is the nature of the desires of the heart and their importance in human life and so I wanna finish, just not with my own promissory note, but with the promissory note of the Psalmist, with which I began. Here’s what the psalmist says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, “and he will give you the desires of your heart.” And with that promissory note, I’m done. Thank you. [congregation clapping]
Okay, we have some time for questions and I’m just gonna leave it to you.
So, I’m wondering what you understand the heart to be? I wasn’t sure if you were using the term literally or desires or appetite, so if you could just expand on that a little bit? Thank you.
Often, especially in biblical texts, the heart is used metaphorically to indicate the appetitive powers of the human being in all their capacity. So as the medievals would say, both the sensitive and the rational appetite or just to summarize it, what philosophers would call the will.
Hello, to you. My question is that do you think the [mumbles] the suffering and the conflicting desires of the heart and how would you think about that?
Well, theodicy is an attempt to explain, not all the suffering there is in the world, but only some of it. So, for example, consider that story I told about the two year old who was sent to his room without his dinner, he suffered in his room. But we don’t say this, “How could a good God “allow that two year old to suffer?” We don’t say that. That’s because we feel he brought it on himself and he deserves it, serves him right, little guy. [congregation laughing] So, theodicy is an attempt to find some way to explain why God would allow the suffering of unwilling innocents. If you have conflicting desires of the heart, because you’re addicted to a certain kind of sin, then you’ll suffer because you’re divided within yourself, all right. But we don’t think we have to figure out some reason why God has justified in allowing that. We know why he allows that, that’s because that’s what you’ve done to yourself. It’s, you’re not an unwilling innocent in that case. You’re very much willing and you’re not an innocent. So it’s the suffering of unwilling innocents that poses the problem of evil and that’s what needs to be justified in theodicy.
So you mentioned that the self-crucified way being put onto grief and frustration when your desires don’t line up with God’s desires, is that your [mumbles] for being angry and disappointed in God that His desires aren’t lining up to ours or that our desires aren’t lining up to His, that we’re just angry and disappointed with Him then?
Well, you know, that’s a good question. I do hope you all heard it. He asked what does this line I was arguing for, what does it say about cases where a person suffers because he’s angry at God or alienated from God and there, see, we have, as I pointed out in the lecture, the interesting story of the Book of Job. So Job scandalizes his friends because he keeps saying “I’m innocent, my suffering is not fair. “It’s not fair, God shouldn’t have done this.” And the comforters say, “How can you talk like that? “That’s blasphemous, you know? “Here’s what you’re supposed to say, dummy. “You’re supposed to say God is perfectly just “and perfectly good, say that. “Maybe if you say that, He’ll stop hurting you.” [congregation laughing] When God comes into the story, he says to those comforters “I’m gonna get you for what you said. “Unless Job offers sacrifice and prays for you, “I’m gonna get you. “That’s the only thing that’s gonna save you “because Job said what was right “and you said what was wrong.” And now you think to yourself, oh wait, I must have been reading the wrong story because I thought what Job said was that God was unjust, this is the thing God says is right, and the comforters said that God was perfectly just and that’s the thing God says is wrong. What kind of story is this? Now the way you can understand it is just with those complicated, philosophical distinctions I was making in the lecture, see, Job, looking at the situation through his own mind, cannot see a reason for God to allow his suffering. And therefore complains bitterly against God for doing it because Job maintains his own righteousness. So Job is unwilling to bend the truth in order to flatter God. In being unwilling to take a stand away from truth, Job is more closely aligned with God than he would be if he took the comforters’ position. The comforters don’t care what the truth is, as long as they can flatter God, who is after all the boss of the universe. To flatter God as boss, is to align yourself not with truth and goodness, it’s to align yourself with power. And to throw truth and goodness away. As long as you can stand on the side of power, and that’s what God will not tolerate. So, in that way, you can be praised by God for being mad at Him. If that’s the best you can do in the circumstances, to understand what’s happening in your life, with Him. But the thing to notice is that in being mad at God, Job was hanging on to Him. So, I mean, I would think about it this way, if you’re married, and you’re really mad at your spouse, you connected to him, you’re connected. That person is ever present in your mind and thoughts. You’re connected. And the anger will drive you to that person, to sort it out. And as long as you’re connected, and you’re willing to sort it out, you haven’t made a breach with God. [congregant asks question]
That which Teresa intercepted on, let’s say that the death of a child, that child that has been [mumbles] full term, in utero. If a mother loses a child, who had no ability to decide whether it was willing [mumbles] or had survived, and the mother was doing everything perfectly right to take care of this child, this situation like that, what would abide by as God’s intrinsic will and the mother’s reaction. At what point would there be, say, [mumbles] but this is a familiar example of a woman in mourning that’s [mumbles] because obviously [mumbles] but where would you have to draw the line to accept God’s will in that [mumbles]
I’m not sure I’m understanding the question. I think this is what you’re asking. Suppose that a woman is pregnant with a much desired pregnancy, and loses the child in the pregnancy. And because she so longed for this child, she’s heartbroken at the loss of the baby, which never was properly born. How shall we understand what her attitude should be toward the God who will allow this to happen? That’s what I understand your question. So when I answer it, I’m pointing out to you an issue involving medicine, that I think may help us understand the point I wanna make. So, what do we think? We think smoking causes lung cancer. That’s not a wrong view, that’s a right view. There’s overwhelming scientific evidence. But everybody knows somebody who smoked all his life and doesn’t have lung cancer. Or, consider my father. My father was athletic, he ate healthy way before it was trendy to eat healthy. He exercised, he never had an ounce of extra weight on him and his cholesterol numbers and blood pressure numbers were always perfect and he had a heart attack. And why is that? Is that because it’s wrong that heart attacks are caused by high cholesterol, obesity and so on, is that wrong? No, it’s right. But what’s going on here? Here we have true generalizations and they seem not to hold true in particular cases. The answer that medicine gives us, is that medicine can give us general cases, general truths, general understandings of what goes on, but it can’t tell us why Aunt Sarah-Lee who smoked all her life, didn’t get lung cancer, while my uncle Joe and my father was in mint condition and had a heart attack. Medicine can’t tell us those things. So many particular things go into the health of a particular human being. Medicine can’t possibly figure that out. It’s in, the same is true of theology. So if theology can give you a general answer, to the question, why does God let anyone suffer? But that general answer is gonna give you no help whatsoever in a particular case. The general answer is God let’s people suffer because something about their suffering gives them a helping hand, an opportunity, a blessing and a gift to draw them closer to Him, in loving union. But that says nothing at all about this particular person in this particular suffering. How to understand the role of suffering in that person’s life, this particular session at this particular time for that particular person, requires a deep insight into the psychology of that person just like the issue about heart attacks requires a deep understanding of the details of the biology of a human person. And that kind of deep understanding of the human psyche is something that God can have, and we can’t. We can’t, we don’t see so deeply into another person and we certainly don’t see so deeply into ourselves. And we know that this is the case because in years later, after some suffering that was just heartbreaking, a person can look back and see that there’s something in that very suffering to be grateful for. Something you wouldn’t have believed possible while you were in the middle of the suffering. So the answer to your question is, I don’t know. But I can say what theology says in general, no one can love you more deeply, more powerfully than God can. And it is only a love so deep that will tolerate allowing you to suffer. So here’s my last story to share the point. When I was raising little tiny children, doctors had this view, which I hope they’ve given up on, that if a child has a high fever, that you have to do, have to do, have to do, is put that child strip naked in the bathtub and pour cold water over them to bring the fever down. Now if you take a little, tiny, sick child who can’t understand what’s happening and who is already so miserable, he just wants to be held by his mother, strip him naked and pour cold water over him in the tub, he’s gonna scream bloody murder. Mamma, mamma, mamma. So my little son had a high fever and that doctor said to me, “You know, if you love your child, “that’s the only thing, you got to do that.” I put him in the tub, I poured cold water on him, he screamed bloody murder and I said, “That’s it, I’m not doing that. “I don’t care, I am not doing that.” And my husband did it. [congregation laughing] I’m just saying, I’m just saying. If I had judge between me and my husband who loved that child more, who would it be? [congregation laughing] And that’s the point. [audience member asks question]
So, the answer you just gave, I’m attracted to the path that you have. But I’m uneasy about [mumbles] that seems like you’re kind of backing into this approach for your receptacle [mumbles] but I think that the advantage that you have is you have such a [mumbles] For example, one of the [mumbles] mom had this horrible cancer, it was just a horrible way to die. And it just led to a deep, spiritual disaster, for the entire family. And I don’t know it just seems like you have to say, “I don’t know,” right?
Well hang on just one minute, before you keep going, let me just clarify my position, so I didn’t say I don’t know, period. On the contrary, I said I do know in general. Just as medicine knows that smoking causes lung cancer, theology tells us God loves you more than any human being could do and designs anything that happens in your life, only for your ultimate good. Not your ultimate isolated individual good, but for a good in loving union with Him. What I don’t know, what no one can know, at least at the time of the suffering, is why this particular suffering at this particular time came to this particular person. All you can say is the general thing. And here’s the general thing. God would not do this, if it were not an expression of love. That’s how you can say it. Now it is also the case, as your example is gonna show us, that sometimes people in their suffering don’t draw nearer to God, they go further from God. But, you know, God couldn’t unilaterally bring about your drawing nearer to Him by any means. If He could unilaterally produce union, we wouldn’t have union. Union is the coming into one of two persons. And two persons requires two wills to unite. If the only will we have is God’s will, in God and in you, we don’t have two wills to unite. So in order for there to be union, you have to have a will of your own. And if have a will of your own, you can use it to draw nearer to God or you can use it to go further from God. And so nothing God does can guarantee your drawing closer to God. It can provide an opportunity or an enabling, a calling, it can provide something but it can’t unilaterally do it.
We have time for perhaps two more.
It’s related to the last answer that you just gave. [audience member asks question] [distortion drowns out words] Like you said before, like flourishing [mumbles] involves people knowing that these people be [mumbles] under this person will cost them this faith. But how does He allow it? Or why, I mean like how does that [mumbles]
I’m not sure I understand but this is what I think you’re asking me. Suppose you, looking at Job, suffering, lose your faith, then how am I supposed to understand what God has done, given that what he’s done to Job has caused you to lose your faith. Is that what you’re asking?
I think it’s more like God knows that Job, let’s suppose that Job lost his faith. So God knows that Job is going to lose his faith, if he allows evil-
Oh, I see, I see. I see, okay. Okay, now I think I’ve got it. So I think this is the question. So I said God loves you more than any human being could do, anything He does, He does out of love for you to draw you closer to Himself. And the question, and suffering has a role to play in this. And the question then says yeah, but suppose God can see in advance that your response to the suffering will be to lose your faith, then why would He let you have that suffering? Now I need to clarify a little bit that in traditional Christian theology, which I accept God is not in time. He’s outside time. A God who’s outside time doesn’t see things in advance, it’s a little bit complicated. So theological doctrine is hard to get your mind around but it’s lovely once you understand it and I do. [congregation laughing] So I need to just make a little correction in your question, but the question remains. The question remains just the same. Instead of saying if God knows that you will, God understands that you are, why doesn’t he keep you from the suffering, right? Because the answer is one of two things. Either because you are having that suffering keeps you from getting even worse than you otherwise might have been, or because, or because, it is, even so, a good for you to have it. That is, let me, because the suffering offers you a chance. See, think about it this way, suppose I’ve done something really vile and awful to you and it’s so bad that I can be humanly certain in this life you will never forgive me for it. Nonetheless I’m heartbroken and I’m stricken. So I ask Father Blake, should I ask you for forgiveness? I know you gonna spit in my hand but should I reach my hand out to you and ask for forgiveness? Father Blake, what shall I do? And now you can begin to get a sense, even if I know that my offering you the opportunity to forgive me will be met with nothing but hatred, it is still a better thing, for you, for me, for the world, it’s still a better thing that I ask you, even if the good doesn’t emerge. The opportunity for the good, is also a good. For you, for me and for the world.
One more. It is my antecedent will to take just all the questions. [congregation laughing]
But it is my consequential will that I let one more. [congregation laughing]
I guess you got that distinction, didn’t you? [congregation laughing]
Thank you for your time, I just have a question about your idea of stoic kind of nature of the traditional Christian stoic kind of like [mumbles] kind of quality to the- Let’s make sure we suppress a lot of the notions then we never have to deal with any of it. I do know about that because it seems to me that there is a, it seems to me that sometimes when you’re in a position where you’re in pain, or vulnerable, you can be tempted a lot easier to selfishness, self-pity, selfish actions even terrible things. So it is sometimes warranted to have a tern-minded view in situations where, you know, you lost self, that you have to suppress yourself? Is there a way to kind of mitigate that? Or is it always like a [mumbles] between self-loss and self [mumbles], or is it like a great? Because it seems to me it’s difficult to kind of see the difference.
Well see, what I seem to rule out is the stern-minded attitude which says you should have no desires for anything, except for whatever happens. Because whatever happens is God’s will and that’s the only thing you should will. God’s will is concerned to rule out. It doesn’t follow that any kind of reaction you have is okay. If, when you have a headache, you kick the dog, that is not okay. That’s not okay. And it’s okay to wish you didn’t have a headache, feeling that you can’t even wish you don’t have a headache, that’s not okay. So it’s okay for you to wish that you didn’t have a headache. It is okay for you to grieve, if your mother dies. It’s okay for you to weep if your father dies. But the fact that that’s okay, it doesn’t follow that anything you do is okay. I mean if what you decided to do, because you were weeping over your father’s death, is shoot the doctor, because you think he didn’t do a good enough job, that will not be okay. So what I wanna validate is that within the Christian tradition, you are invited to accept heartbreak. You are not invited to ward it off by having no heart to break. That’s what I wanted to show. And having heartbreak then, you need to figure out how to move forward in your life in a good and rational way, not in a way that is hurtful and destructive to other people. [congregation clapping]
Right, I thought I would end just with the final word of Eleonore’s book, Wondering in Darkness. She became familiar with this poem, written by an inmate at Auschwitz, an anonymous inmate. And what was written on that wall, is where the title of her book came from. And I thought I’d read that as a sort of closing meditation. There is grace, though, and wonder on the way. Only they’re to see, hard to embrace for those compelled to wander in darkness. Lord, we’re thankful for this opportunity, we’re thankful for the ways you lead us and guide us in our thinking, in our living and our loving. Thank you for the goodness of the words that you’ve brought through Eleonore. A blessing on her work and a blessing on all those people here, those unanswered questions, those mysteries. Lord, carry us. Give us your grace and wonder. Amen. Enjoy some refreshments and jazz right outside. Thank you again.