It was a lovely Good Friday this year. I left the morning service feeling profoundly comforted by the idea that I need not try and bend my emotions into a state of remorse, focusing more on accepting Jesus’ gift instead, and wondering about the meaning of sacrifice. I went for a walk, enjoying the obvious beginnings of spring.
For some reason, my attention had been captured by a very short sentence in the sermon: ‘when we fast, we sacrifice something in order to obtain wisdom’. My thoughts kept coming back to that.
For one thing, I enjoyed the idea that making sacrifices – working hard – in order to obtain wisdom, is a good thing. It is allowed. Nothing wrong with wanting to become wise. I wanted to let this sink in, because I have so often been warned that being ascetic is essentially very egocentric and wrong. I like the idea that it is not, I feel energized by the idea that I can channel my energy in a good direction.
Then, it occurred to me that perhaps God had been wanting to teach Adam and Eve this idea: sometimes you must limit yourself now, in order to obtain something better later. Maybe that was why he forbade them to eat the fruit of that one tree? I have always been bothered by the seemingly arbitrary command of God to Adam and Eve. But now I wonder if it reflects the idea that restraint can be a good thing. In that case the command is not (only) teaching us obedience, but it might be (also) teaching us something about limitations and sacrifices.
Ever since I read Josef Pieper’s essay on temperance1, I have been more aware that limiting ourselves can be a very good thing in order to achieve what is really of value. He writes: Without temperance, the stream of the innermost human will-to-be would overflow destructively beyond all bounds, it would lose its direction and never reach the sea of perfection. Yet temperantia is not itself the stream. But it is the shore, the banks, from whose solidity the stream receives the gift of straight unhindered course, of force, descent, and velocity. It is funny to think that we tend to object so strongly to a simple command not to do one particular thing. It is very difficult to voluntarily choose to refrain from something good. But by attempting to obey God’s command, Adam and Eve might have learned this truly important skill to live our life to the full.
However, the idea that limitations are useful is clouded by the pain we feel about all the hindrances that seem so fruitless. We are often limited by diseases, handicaps, accidents, very painful in themselves, and often made worse by the way we deal with them. As just one example: I see that people with autism are often misunderstood, and judged, and this hurts and wounds all involved. This extra pain could be prevented if we had humility and an attitude of accepting each other, knowing that we are all flawed one way or another, even if that is not immediately visible. And it is possible that these very limitations show us aspects of life that we would otherwise miss.
If there’s one thing we need to sacrifice, it is our simplistic ideas. While I was pondering the beauty of limitations, halfway on my walk, I met a friend in terrible pain. Very real and bitter. Difficult, if not impossible, to see any beauty in that. Continuing my walk I noticed how my heart hurt, and realized that it was made worse by my constant tendency to fight against feeling. Yet to stop fighting brings the fear of utterly collapsing and not being able to rise again. In hindsight, what probably bothered me most was that I wanted to help so much, but couldn’t. And doing nothing made me feel guilty. I think I bumped into another limitation here. Everyone has his own cross to bear, and we cannot take over for someone else. We must accept these boundaries, or otherwise we won’t be able to bear our own responsibilities.
When I was thinking about the beauty of limitations, I pondered how this is the one essential difference between humans and God (we are limited, he is not). And now, seeing how we are limited in how much we can help others, I suddenly see how that must be opposed to Jesus who can fully bear our burdens. Thus we can find comfort in the assurance that he did bear the pain completely. This gives me courage, because I also know that through his suffering he obtained our new life. If he can bear us through the suffering, he will also bring us to that new life.
I had started out to write something happy, but my story twisted and turned to sadness, again… Yet still I know, however feebly, that for those who love God all things work together for good. (Romans 8:28)