Wednesday, December 13, 2006

On Rebellion

This was going to be a comment on a recent post at the insightful blog Heirs in Hope, on rebellion. But as I reflected upon it, it was getting too long for a combox, so I thought I’d just write it here.

Rebellion can take many forms, some obvious and grievous, others subtle or even trivial; some affect or direct one’s entire life, some are regular occurrences, manifesting daily weakness or snottiness. All sin is a form of rebellion, be it small or great. It has been that way since the first rebel angels fell, then Adam and Eve, and down to the present day. The many millennia that have passed since the original rebellions don’t seem to have imparted the necessary wisdom to live life in a different way.

When I speak of rebellion in your case or mine (giving us both the benefit of the doubt), I do not want to compare it to the arrogant satanic rage of the primordial fallen spirits. Rather I’d like to see us as we are: “poor, banished children of Eve,” who are mostly not inclined toward colossal evils, but who are culpable nonetheless for our sinful and selfish little rebellions.

Why did Adam and Eve fall in the first place? They didn’t share the kind of rebellious violence of the angels-turned-devils. St Irenaeus says that even though they were created free from sin, they were still as children, naïve and immature, not having reached the full stature of beings made in God’s image. They were free to choose yet were not smart enough to recognize a crafty deception. But they were still culpable. They had received a command from Someone who was both authoritative and trustworthy. They chose to disobey. Even children know they are doing wrong when they deliberately disobey their parents’ clear and serious commands. So Adam and Eve joined the ranks of the rebellious and handed down that tendency from generation to generation.

Just like the primordial rebels (whether human or angelic), our sin-rebellion is ultimately—or sometimes immediately—directed against God. It’s not always as simple as choosing to disobey a clear command. We rebel because God made us a certain way (or allowed us to be formed or to form ourselves in a certain way); we rebel because of what has happened to us, or because things are the way they are and not how they ought to be, that is, how we’d like them to be if the universe were here to serve our desires. Sometimes we rebel if the toilet backs up, or if our anti-virus module fails to initialize, or if a mouse has chewed through our spark plug wires, or if the furnace breaks down on the coldest night of the year. We don’t accept these kinds of things very well because somewhere very deep down there’s a lurking assumption that we ought to be gods. Then life would not be like it is. Our limitations and our powerlessness to manipulate reality make us angry. So then comes the temptation to rebel. But all rebellion is ultimately impotent. The serpent was lying to Eve, of course; they could never be gods like God, even if their eyes were opened to the reality of good and evil. Nothing will ever really “work” if it does not proceed from the will of God.

Some have much weightier matters about which to rebel, and they attract our sympathy and indignant solidarity. But that’s just one more reason for us to rebel. Job had perhaps the most solid case on which to rest his rebellion, but in the end he met God and repented in dust and ashes. His eyes were opened, but not like Adam and Eve’s. He did recognize his own less-than-perfect righteousness, but he also recognized a new level of relationship with God. He no longer limited his understanding to that of rewards for good deeds and punishments for evil ones. He began to love and serve God because God is God, and by that very fact (if it is well-understood) all rebellion is excluded.

But in choosing to renounce the delusional autonomy that spawns rebellion, and in submitting to God’s will, we are not steamrolled by Omnipotent Otherness; we simply awaken from our self-centered childish naïvete, or, if it has gotten that far, we flee from our own monstrous pride and arrogance. We just don’t want to rebel anymore; it doesn’t even give us that tormented satisfaction of saying “no” to something we are invited to accept for our own good—just because we can say it, because it vents a little frustration.

Our founder, Fr Boniface, began the custom here many years ago, that when we begin a new liturgical season (especially Advent and Lent) we ought to make some sort of resolution about how we plan to change for the better during this time. This year at the beginning of Advent I resolved to give up my adversarial relationship with God. Does that surprise you? Probably most of us have at least an element of this in our spiritual lives—poor, banished children of Eve that we are—and if we are honest enough we’ll recognize and then admit it. You don’t have to be an atheist or a murderer or a pervert (or even a politician) to be in rebellion against God. You only have to complain, or grumble, or get frustrated and irritated about what life brings, what God allows, why He seems far away, why He doesn’t remove your nagging liabilities, defects and quirks (not to mention everyone you find a hindrance) when you could otherwise serve Him so well!

Even though our own arguments against God seem airtight, and we can’t for the life of us understand why God can’t see things as clearly as we do (in this case or that), we will have much more peace and joy if we give it up—put down our dukes, drop our defenses, give up the self-image of the mistreated victim or the indignant rebel. Let Satan be God’s only adversary; that’s what his name means. If it is possible for God to get frustrated about anything, I would guess that it would be meeting with so much wrongheaded resistance, ridiculous rationalizing, and just plain stupid stubbornness, while He is pouring out his mercy and love all over us (OK, so it’s tough-love sometimes, but the goal is always our eternal happiness).

To let God be God in our lives is a life’s work, for we are prone to rebellion. But let’s call things what they are. Our regular refusals to repent, even in little things—preferring the “I’ll do it my way” approach—are nothing but so many small rebellions, by which we gradually insulate ourselves from the influence of divine grace. In Hell they eternally recount, to anyone who will listen (but nobody does), how they were right and God was wrong, and they are quite miserably satisfied with their arguments. In Heaven we will rejoice that we admitted we were wrong and God was right, and we’ll forever be supremely satisfied with the results of our repentance.

In case you were wondering, God and I are getting along much better now!