Palm Waving

“There is a paradox about tribulation in Christianity,” Lewis says in The Problem of Pain. It’s certainly evident in what we hear Jesus speaking about in his mountainside sermons of Matthew 5, something that Lewis points out. We are blessed by being poor and being persecuted. “But if suffering is good, ought it not to be pursued rather than avoided?” Lewis asks. It’s a daunting question for us because we seek (and most often find) remedies from everything that afflicts us. If it’s the heat, we find air conditioning; if it’s hunger–for even a moment–we shovel in snacks; if it’s an offense, we hire a lawyer; if it’s an uncomfortable paradox, we distract ourselves.

Lewis answers his question immediately. “I answer that suffering is not good in itself. What is good in any painful experience is, for the sufferer, his submission to the will of God, and, for the spectators, the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads.” What God does then is paradoxical, or as Lewis says, it is complex. Our evil acts are simple. We are pulled down by all the gravity of our fallenness. We can’t get up without something that transforms our simple evil. Lewis calls out four things we know about our state of being: “(1) the simple good descending from God, (2) the simple evil produced by rebellious creatures, and (3) the exploitation of that evil by God for His redemptive purpose, which produces (4) the complex good to which accepted suffering and repented sin contribute.” 

The truth that God redirects our fallenness into an invitation to receive grace doesn’t excuse us of our evil. It simply acknowledges that we are benefactors of a wider mercy, a deeper love, and a longer arm that would rather be strung up on a cross to reach us than to see us fall. It’s the paradox of the crucifixion–”the best, as well as the worst, of all historical events,” says Lewis. 

The coupling of Palm Sunday on the same week in Jesus’ life as Good Friday (a name betwixt in paradox) is playing to our temptations as I’m sure it played for Jesus even more profoundly. The fanfare that might come with a noble life, let’s say, might give us gratification and notoriety. Jesus knew about fleeting applause better than anyone, but he also understands fickle hearts. He understands our hearts in the first order, given the turn of events that leads to his death. In a true sense, our lives must follow Jesus through his passion. We must see his suffering and our need. If we stay on the street corner waving palms, we won’t understand either one.

Lewis says in the same section from The Problem of Pain, “In order to submit the will to God, we must have a will and that will must have objects. Christian renunciation does not mean stoic ‘Apathy’, but a readiness to prefer God to inferior ends which are in themselves lawful. Hence the Perfect Man brought to Gethsemane a will, and a strong will, to escape suffering and death if such escape were compatible with the Father’s will, combined with a perfect readiness for obedience if it were not.” 

He continues, “It would be quite false, therefore, to suppose that the Christian view of suffering is incompatible with the strongest emphasis on our duty to leave the world, even in a temporal sense, ‘better’ than we found it. In the fullest parabolic picture which He gave of the Judgement, Our Lord seems to reduce all virtue to active beneficence: and though it would be misleading to take that one picture in isolation from the Gospel as a whole, it is sufficient to place beyond doubt the basic principles of the social ethics of Christianity.”

So, if we are to follow Jesus, our task is layered. We must realize that all things work together for good as Paul says in Romans 8:28, but all things are not good in and of themselves. They must be teased out and brought into the purview of what we know about God and what’s revealed through his son Jesus. Palm Sunday does produce an undertow that takes us to a rebel scene, but the cross brings us to resurrection and new life, even for the rebels.

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