Sunday, March 25, 2012

Passion and Spiritual Eczema

There's little more infuriating than having an unscratchable itch. Any sufferers from eczema will be more than aware of that itch which does not seem to be relieved even from scratching and yet the temptation is to keep scratching it more. The results are often quite horrendous. The only thing to do is not to give into the temptation of scratching that itch. One has to learn to suffer.

These days, of course, there are many over-the-counter remedies that can be used to soothe the itching that eczema causes and which calm the inflammation. One really does have to have these to hand otherwise that temptation to scratch just comes back and any good is undone.

So it is true with our habitual sins. None of us are at all perfect, but we are perfectible and indeed, if it is our firm intention to walk with God, we are in the process of perfection. Nonetheless, our imperfection has within it the potential for our bad habits to take over our lives. Very often we find ourselves back in the rut which our habitual sins have carved out for us and we go around the cycle once more. We scratch the itch until we are really quite sore and very damaged and in need of the restorative Grace of God to be renewed in us.

It is quite common for habitual sins to blight our lives quite profoundly and seriously. They can even cause us to despair of our very salvation, which is indeed a most serious situation. All sin is serious; some sins are most grave and require urgent attention; but all sins are forgivable - except one!

The good news about the Unforgivable Sin is that if you are really and honestly worried that you've committed it, then you haven't. The Unforgivable Sin is a continued wilful rejection of God's love and a hatred of the Holy Spirit. To some extent, all sin is a rejection of God's love, but for the soul that is open to His correction this is completely soluble. Those who can't be forgiven are those who just don't want to be forgiven either because they don't believe God, or because they hate Him. The choice to be forgiven is ultimately ours.

So what does this mean about our habitual sins? Well, they have to be recognised for what they are and worked on. The skill is in the recognition of old habits and doing something to counteract their effect. This takes some doing. The itch is deep, and insistent and we fall more often than we want. Yet, if our heart is true, we should not let this discourage us. We suffer much less than some.

Liturgically, we observe Passion Sunday, the beginning of the inexorable trip to Calvary. It's a time of mixed emotions for the Christian. One cannot have Easter Day without Good Friday and we cannot have Good Friday without Easter Day. Our Lord suffers, and suffers horribly voluntarily on our behalf. He knows that the only way to get to Easter Day is through Good Friday and so suffering is both inevitable and completely undesirable. How can any man want to be crucified?

Jesus doesn't want to be crucified - He is not some kind of masochist, as some modern critics rather ignorantly describe Him - but He does want to save from scratching ourselves to pieces for eternity. Hell is, after all, being left with an eternal, untreatable, irresistible and completely debilitating itch. This is where the fire of Hell comes in, for such sensation could only be accurately described as a burning. Crucifixion is the only remedy, and this is the price that Jesus is willing to pay on our behalf, freely, generously and lovingly. Those who wish to keep scratching their itch for eternity are free to do so.

The crux (literally!) of the matter is that Christ accepts something that He does not want to do, that no healthy human instinctively wants to do. The habit of humanity as an animal is to flee suffering, often at all costs. This is the origin of our innate impatience. Much of our sinfulness has its root in this primeval impatience. Anger often results from our impatience of another’s perceived faults, or of an inconvenience for ourselves. Sex occurs before marriage on the grounds that people cannot endure the physical separation from the other who excites them. Gluttony occurs when we cannot be patient with waiting for food or not having the food the way we like it. In fact much selfishness occurs because we are impatient with that which gets in the way of getting what we want. Impatience produces the itch – our instinct is to scratch. Stimulus – response, stimulus – response.

God made us more than just creatures of unthinking stimulus –response mechanisms. However, if we are to get to grips with the very nature of our humanity, then we have to rise above mere animal instinct, to rise above seeing ourselves as nothing more than biological machines that, if you press one button a specific response occurs. The reality of this transcendence is that of Passion in its original meaning of suffering.

If we wish to connect with all humanity as we are commanded then we must see the suffering in others and be impatient with their suffering to the extent that we suffer in order to help them. Christ may indeed have done something that no other human can replicate – the redemption and eventual salvation of sinners – but He has given us the pattern of taking up the cross to follow Him. This taking up of the cross is a very public thing. Those due for crucifixion were very visible, and to take up a cross willingly is also a very visible thing. If one is doing so to accept the concomitant suffering rather than for effect, then one is truly following Christ.

We should always take heart: if we firmly intend to follow Christ, then our habitual sins cannot prevent our growth and , provided that they are dealt with realistically, firmly with contrition, but also with recognition of our frailty as human beings, we can overcome them. However, this means accepting suffering and using that suffering to lift those more vulnerable up and out of theirs. We may have the tub of E45 cream – if we can’t reach the eczema on our own backs, why not apply it to the back of someone more needy than ourselves?

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