Pain and Purification
“My house shall be a house of prayer” (Lk. 19:46).
Teresa of Ávila was once riding a horse through a riverbed. The currents got worse and she barely made it through. Finally, just as she reached the other side, she fell off the horse into a bed of mud. She looked up to heaven and cried, “Lord, I thought we were friends!” A voice responded, “My daughter, that’s how I treat all my friends.” Teresa grumbled back, “No wonder you have so few friends.”
We wonder sometimes why God allows bad things to happen to good people. More so, why does He allow His own followers to go through hard times?
Last week, a terrible event took place in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was a small microcosm of the polarization in our country and the violence that we are all capable of. Young people were injured, and a life was taken, and this was no anomaly. Over the past several years, we’ve witnessed a pattern of violence from every direction, whether it be from political camps or ideological stances. These are all tragedies without excuse. We have to wake up. Does it still surprise us? Is it really a wonder that people are violent? The message of the Gospel is clear. Whenever our hearts are impure, we are capable of committing every manner of atrocity. No politician, no ethical system, and no worldview imposed top-bottom can change the heart of man. That is like trying to clean a cup by just scrubbing the outside. Until the heart is cleaned inside out, it will be the same story again and again. There is one solution to the ugliness of man: the purification of the heart.
In the Gospel According to Luke, chapter 19, we read about Christ cleansing the Temple. The story begins outside the walls of Jerusalem. As He approached, He wept. Within sight of those walls, He knew everything that went on inside. He saw the noble deeds, the acts of kindness, the tender care of mothers for their children, the faithfulness of fathers to provide, and all the ventures to build community. He also saw the ugliness of the city, the injustice, the hypocrisy, the hate crimes and the abuse. Then he went up to Jerusalem and straight into the Temple.
“In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables” (Jn. 2:13-15). Jesus spoke to the crowd remaining, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer” (Lk. 19:46). The temple was purified. Now He could preach.
Is God violent? Yes, in the same way that a surgeon is violent. Imagine standing in a hospital room with a surgeon and his assistants. A patient is stretched out on the bed. His leg is infected with gangrene. The surgeon looks at the patient and says, ‘You know…I’m a pacifist. Cutting at the leg just wouldn’t be pleasant. Let’s discharge the patient and let him go about his daily routine.’ That would be crazy. The good surgeon sees the gangrene and puts the scalpel and saw to work, cutting away at the disease, and maybe even cutting off the leg, so that the patient can survive. In this way, Jesus Christ walks through the doors of the temple and pulls out the scalpel. He drives away the moneychangers and overturns their tables. “My house shall be a house of prayer.”
Today, the Temple of Jerusalem is no longer made of stones or mortar. The Temple is Us.
“We are God’s fellow workers,” Paul explains, “You are God’s field, God’s building…God’s temple” (I Cor. 3:9-17). “I beseech you therefore, brethren…that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God…do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:1-2).
With these words, Paul is describing the whole essence of the Christian life. To be Christian is to be in a constant stretch towards holiness, and this means going through seasons of purification.
Jesus looked at the temple. He entered into it, purified it of evil, and only afterwards taught the Good News. This is also how God works in our hearts.
He sees you and me for who we are. He doesn’t see those masks we put up. We can fool one another, and maybe even our own selves, but not God. As they say in Virginia, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” God looks at the heart. There is good there, but also so many blemishes. Then He knocks at the door, “I have come. Will you let me in?” He’s the answer to everything we’ve always wanted…but there is a catch. When light enters into a room it banishes the darkness. The moneychangers have to be forced out. God comes with a scalpel.
It isn’t easy being a real Christian. It takes work. Nowadays it’s probably even harder than ever, because when things get challenging we know we can always just leave and find some other community. Perhaps somewhere else you can hide more easily. In fact, many churches don’t even suggest you need to change. “Come as you are and stay as you are.” But that isn’t Christianity. Christianity is purification.
Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? C. S. Lewis once looked at this very honestly. He compared our relationship with God to a relationship between lovers. “Love may forgive all infirmities and love still in spite of them, but Love cannot cease to will their removal.” A good bride will always be jealous. She may forgive her lover for unfaithful thoughts, but she won’t be indifferent to them. She will slowly and patiently teach him to love purely. God slowly teaches us how to love, and this can be painful.
Lewis goes on to say, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: [pain] is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (Problem of Pain).
Love always comes with sacrifice. We have all seen the movies. The man comes home drunk from the bar. He is ashamed to look his bride in the eyes. It takes a slap in the face for him to snap out of it. Sometimes, that is what it takes for us to raise our gaze to God.
God wants us to enjoy the good things of life, but He also allows us to loose them. In the end, the only thing that matters is our complete devotion to Him. As we watch life slip between our fingers, we’re giving this opportunity. We can cling to the memories, the regrets, and the dust. Or we can let go, and reach out towards that which does not fade or corrupt.
God allows us to suffer. He also walks with us through the suffering, and all along will slowly train our hearts to love Him more fully.
I want to end by looking at a scripture in Paul’s 2nd Epistle to Timothy. “In a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and earthenware, and some for noble use, some for ignoble. If anyone purifies himself from what is ignoble, then he will be a vessel for noble use, consecrated and useful to the master of the house, ready for any good work” (2:20-21).
Being a Christian means making a lot of sacrifices. Prayer, fasting, giving to the poor, going to confession, forgiving everybody, being obedient to bishops and clergy...trusting God through good and bad times…in the end, it’s a death to the self.
Because God has a purpose for each of us. The purer our hearts become the more God can use us to do good.
First, the thieves have to be cast out. Afterwards, the temple can become a house of prayer. And that is when we really start to live. It is only at this moment that we can make any permanent difference in the world or experience the kind of joy and peace which no one and nothing can take away.
"I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.