The Awful Grace of God

awful grace of GodToday is Sunday, December 29, 2013.

Wisdom comes through suffering.
Trouble, with its memories of pain,
Drips in our hearts as we try to sleep,
So men against their will
Learn to practice moderation.
Favours come to us from gods.   –Aeschylus

Aeschylus (525 BC – 456 BC) was a Greek playwright, one of three greatest Greek tragedians. (The others were Sophocles and Euripides.)  The quote as it is in text is probably a better translation, although the one in the graphic seems a bit more modern in tone.  Robert F. Kennedy used this quote in a speech announcing the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and in his version he also used the phrase “the awful grace of God.”

At first blush, this seems like an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.  How can grace be awful?  How can God’s love be awful?  It depends on what you mean by “love” and “grace” and what you mean by “awful.”  Let me explain.

First of all, let me tell you where I’m coming from, so my explanation will make sense in the context of my worldview.  Like many others, I believe that I am Soul, a child of God, a spiritual being, who is here in this physical world in order to have a human experience.  I believe that the whole physical universe was created for the education and spiritual maturation of Souls.  There are circumstances here in the physical world that make it easier for Souls to learn the lessons they need in order to advance, spiritually.   All Souls learn by experience, and in this physical world, we can learn some things by means of contrasting them with their opposites.  For example, we learn about light from its opposite, darkness.  We learn about health from its opposite, illness.  Since darkness and illness do not exist in Heaven, where all Souls come from, we can’t learn about the concepts of light and health quite as efficiently or effectively as we can here in the physical world.

I also believe that not all Souls are given the opportunity to come to this particular planet to have experiences.  It is a very difficult planet to live on, and therefore it is regarded as a particularly challenging life assignment, but the gains that Souls can make here are huge.  All those who are offered the opportunity to come here and who accept do so with some level of agreement.  (Think of it this way: When you take a little kid to kindergarten, he or she might cry the first couple of days, but once a child gets used to the idea of being away from home for a whole day, and once the child makes friends there, he or she will start to enjoy going to school.  Kids do complain about school, but they like being with their friends, at the very least.)

OK, so we are Soul and we are here in this physical world, interfacing with a physical body. We are having experiences, but some of them are not so pleasant.  Here in the physical world, we are exposed to intense heat and cold, pain, illness, deprivation, abuse, neglect, and heartache.  We scrape our knees, stub our toes, and break our bones.  We get into fights and car accidents.  We experience war, rioting and famine.  We suffer through hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and tsunamis.  We live with political turmoil, economic collapse, and military dictatorships.  We chafe under repressive governments and religions.  Our loved ones suffer and die.  None of these situations is pleasant, but believe it or not, these types of experiences can help us grow, spiritually, by allowing us (or forcing us, if you will) to acquire the necessary qualities to deal with them.  We learn patience, perseverance, humility, inner strength, discernment, self-control, detachment, creativity, compassion, forgiveness, self-reliance, flexibility, forgiveness, courage, and cooperation.  Among other things.

When we begin to “wake up” and realize that we are not the body, not the mind, not the emotions, but Soul, we realize that we are eternal and immortal, and that as Soul, we cannot truly be harmed.  As Soul, we don’t make judgments about our earthly experiences.  It’s our minds, our egos that put a label on the experiences, judging them to be “good” or “bad.”   When we decide that an experience is bad, we suffer.

There is a difference between pain and suffering.  Pain is a physical experience, something we feel in our bodies.  It can also be an emotional experience, something we feel in our hearts.  But Soul doesn’t feel pain.  It can only experience pain while interfacing with a physical body.   The mind and emotions are a necessary part of our survival equipment here on earth.  They help us (Souls) process our experiences while we’re here.  They help us understand that certain things are unpleasant, and to be avoided, if possible, or gotten through, somehow.

Suffering is what happens when the mind labels a painful experience as “bad,” or when it tells us that the experience was forced on us, with the result that we feel sorry for ourselves.  When we suffer, we are saying, in effect, “Poor me!”   We cry out, “I’m hurting!” as if we are the only ones.

The Buddhists understand this.  They have a list of 108 “defilements,” many of which sound like “sins” in Christian terminology, except that the Buddhists simply think of them as ways of reacting to our earthly experience that end up causing us a lot of suffering.  When we engage in any of these so-called “defilements,” we create suffering for ourselves.  For example, one of the defilements is greed.  When we’re greedy, we want more and more, because we are afraid we will never have enough.  Our fear of lack is what makes us suffer.   Here’s another example: anger.  When we’re angry, we feel that someone has done harm to us, or belittled us, restricted us, or taken something away from us. We feel disempowered and sorry for ourselves – in other words, miserable.

Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American Theravada Buddhist monk wrote,

The Buddha compares being afflicted with bodily pain to being struck by an arrow. Adding mental pain (aversion, displeasure, depression, or self-pity) to physical pain is like being hit by a second arrow. The wise person stops with the first arrow.

In other words, physical pain is one thing, but when our minds create emotions such as depression or self-pity, it only adds to the pain .  Ashley Pennewill, LCSW, a therapist whose self-help blog aims to help people achieve inner peace, wrote,

Pain is what happens. Suffering is the story that we layer on top of what happens. Drop the story, learn how to feel, and then handle the situation as best you can. Done. Continue living. 

Of course, nobody promised that dealing with the pain would be a picnic.  All we have to do is deal with it.  We don’t even have to be graceful about it.  Just deal with it.  Which reminds me… here I am, sitting in a very cold living room.  The temperature has dropped 36 degrees in the last 10 hours, and the wind is now out of the north at 24-36 miles per hour.  I have a north-facing window with blinds, but no curtains, and I’m freezing.  I just put on sweatpants and hoodie jacket over my slacks and sweatshirt, another pair of heavy socks and slippers over my regular socks, and a scarf around my neck, plus fingerless gloves on my hands.  I’m drinking hot water, and it does feel a bit better.  I’m dealing with the cold.  But… I’ve also been complaining to my friends on Facebook as I am writing this – that’s the part that’s making me miserable.  I need to stop, just stop complaining!

I knew I must have started on this topic for a reason.

So, anyway, the grace of God is that we are allowed to come here to learn something (fortitude, or how to deal with stuff without complaining which is my current lesson).  I’ve been given this chance to learn it here, and it’s my responsibility to accept the lesson and apply it.  It just seems “awful” because it’s not a pleasant experience.  The “awful” grace of God, see?  It’s really not so awful.  It’s actually awesome.  🙂


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