by William Deatherage, Executive Director
“It happened that seven brothers with their mother were arrested and tortured with whips and scourges by the king, to force them to eat pork in violation of God’s law. One of the brothers, speaking for the others, said […] ‘We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.'” (Mac) This week, we are presented with some rather gruesome and disturbing imagery, depicting seven brothers who are brutally tortured and killed, a fate which they choose over betraying God’s commandments.
The Psalms and Paul’s letter have a very different tone: “I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God; incline your ear to me; hear my word,” (Psalms) and “and that we may be delivered from perverse and wicked people, for not all have faith.
But the Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one,” (2 Thes). In both passages, God’s mercy and power are highlighted. Particularly, it is emphasized that by aligning ourselves with God, we will be protected from all evil and given immense strength.
At first glance, a shallow reading of this pairing can (as always), yield a distorted and confusing depiction of God that has devastated the lives of countless faithful. All too often, I come across people who tell me that surely God will deliver them from their pain if they just keep trying harder in their prayer and actions, implying that for some reason their faith just wasn’t strong enough: that if we just tried the formula a bit more, God would automatically reward us. This seems to reduce our relationship with God to that of a contract, rather than a covenant. It is important to remember that covenants are rooted in love and friendship, while contracts imply impersonal transactions.
If we equate God’s goodness to that of a contract, we plunge into even darker territory. Did God answer the prayers of the righteous sons as they surely pleaded Him for protection until their moment of death? Did God answer the prayers of countless martyrs who were beaten, burnt, stoned, and subject to terrors and horrors that most people reading this will never have to experience? Did God answer the prayers of those who spent the last moments of their lives pathetically gasping for air as they drowned in the floodwaters caused by the soon ending hurricane season?
How can we justify the promises of God in a world of immense pain? A world in which so many faithful, despite their best efforts, are rewarded with suffering and distress. A world in which the pain of the sick and dying can be swiftly ended by a the administration of a drug that they are forbidden from taking. Time and time again, it seems that when we ask God for deliverance, He throws us into the fires of Hell. At our darkest hours, when we scream for help, we hear nothing but the echoing cries of our own despair.
And yet, God is there. He always has been and always will be. And just as the Sadducees in today’s Gospel asked about the material justice of those who are restored to new life (who gets to keep the wife in Heaven if she remarried), we get caught up in the pursuit of worldly rewards for our worldly struggles. We do this so much that all too often we neglect to fight the greatest battle that happens, not in the material world, but inside our very souls.
The material is temporary. It ebbs and flows over time. And just as our body and soul are bound together during our time here on Earth, the state of spiritual evil is also bound to its material effects. But when we ask for strength, what are we asking for: strength in our fragile bodies against the temporary effects of evil, or strength in our eternal souls against the essence of evil, itself? The evil that the Maccabeans and martyrs successfully overcome is not as evident as overcoming a bodily pain. Though we may not see it, when a martyr is tortured, the Devil agonizes as he is tortured immeasurably more. Thus, the strength that God gives us is not concerned with the physical effects of evil themselves, rather it equips us to overcome the spiritual struggles and challenges that are brought upon us by the essence of evil. There are many kinds of material strength, and each kind is used for its own advantages. Remarkably, though, spiritual strength is universal and eternal. We can always count on it for every situation.
But where is the joy? Is such authentic and lasting happiness only to be found in Heaven? Are we condemned to lives of pitiful suffering with a utilitarian hope of reward? I would argue that our modern understanding of pleasure muddles what it means to be authentically happy. I propose this: a life without honor, courage, and strength to face our darkest fears, hardly seems like a life worth living at all. I would say that it is better to die with the authentic sense of fulfillment that such honor gives than to live the rest of one’s life in cowardice and regret.
That said, not all are called to die like the Maccabeans did. Martyrdom is not confined to death. In fact, to be a martyr means to give one’s life to God, and if such a life requires an honorable death for what is good, then so be it. However, such drastic deaths are not meant for everyone, and they are certainly not to be sought. To die a martyr requires a unique grace that is not manifest to everyone. After all, if there were no Christians to survive persecution in the early Roman Empire, there would be no Church to build the Kingdom of God. We are all called to give our lives, in both how we live and how we die, for the sake of standing in solidarity for what is good.
When we ask for strength, God will push us to our limits. It may not seem like God shows us favor through physical rewards, like a good grade, a Christmas bonus, or even the perfect friend. This is because God is not interested in material strength; He will push us until we hurt, but He will never push us past our breaking point. “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,” (Matt). In Christ’s darkest hour, He asked for spiritual strength, foreknowing that the physical challenges would be relentless and exhausting. Until the Resurrection, we have fragile and fallible bodies, so don’t expect God to reward us with fragile and fallible things. Instead, be assured that a peace that surpasses all understanding, an honor of the greatest magnitude, a strength and happiness beyond imagination will be given to us if we persevere.