Monday, May 17, 2010

City of Light

(I just wrote the last essay I will ever write for Great Books II. In honor of this momentous occasion, I decided to post the essay here. If I were you, I doubt I would take the time to read it. But I paste it here for posterity's sake ;)

Beauty is the shadow. Beauty is the night, and it is the darkness. Beauty is brokenness and struggle. It is tears and ache of heart. It is these things because they prove the sunshine, they reveal the light. They give hope for the triumph. Beauty is seeing and hoping for light in darkness.


Pain and struggle richly glorify the power and dignity of the Lord, who uses evil to intensify beauty.


Evil magnifies God and intensifies beauty in many different ways; this essay will explore four of those ways. One, evil shows how great God is, because rather than just prevent evil, he is able to turn it into good. Two, iniquity creates a stark backdrop for grace, for there is no grace without punishment, nor redemption without sin. Three, although he did not create evil, God uses it as a poet uses antithesis: for beauty. Lastly, the hardships of this life cause the citizens of the city of God to long for heaven.


God’s power is so great, that rather than just prevent evil, he can take evil and bring out of it good. In his perfect, mysterious wisdom, the Lord deemed “it to be more befitting His power and goodness to bring good out of evil than to prevent the evil from coming into existence” (Augustine, City of God, 811). Rather than create robotic humans who perfectly obeyed him, he gave Adam and Eve the ability to choose sin or righteousness. They chose sin. Because of this choice, a curse was cast upon them and all their descendants. Yet through this black curse, light shone. At the same moment sin entered the garden, a promise was spoken. Thousands of years before the Messiah was to come to earth, God promised redemption. In Genesis 3:15, the “proto-evangelium” (first Gospel) was proclaimed: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (ESV). This was an epically historic moment. God declared that even in the midst of the enmity between man and the devil, there was hope. The Lord spoke of Christ, who was to conquer the death brought to man by the curse. Clearly, evil does not exist because God was powerless to stop it, but because God “foresaw what good he himself would bring out of evil” (Augustine, City of God, 811). Through this existence of evil, greater glory is brought to God, for it emphasizes his almighty power, and highlights his perfect, sovereign goodness.

Evil also highlights grace. Without punishment there can be no grace, and without iniquity redemption could not exist. In his classic novel Les Miserables, Victor Hugo writes of an encounter between an infamous convict, Jean Valjean, and Bienvenu, a humble bishop. When Jean Valjean sought refuge for a night in the bishop’s home, the priest welcomed him with open heart. In spite of the kindness that was shown to him, the convict snuck into the bishop’s room in the black of night, stole a set of silver plates, and slunk out of the house.

Early the next morning, he was caught by the authorities and dragged back to the bishop’s. Walking slowly toward the gendarmes holding Jean Valjean, the old bishop greeted the hardened convict, saying, “I am glad to see you. But! I gave you the candlesticks also…Why did you not take them along with your plates?” (Hugo, Les Miserables, pg. 38) At the bishop’s affirmation that the silver was not stolen, but had been a gift, the gendarmes released Valjean. Overwhelmed by this act of astonishing grace, and encouraged by Bienvenu to “use this silver to become an honest man (pg 39),” from that day forth Valjean turned to God and reformed his life. If Valjean had not been a convict—if sin had not existed—this story of grace that has touched people for hundreds of years, would never have been written. As Romans 5:20 puts it: “but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” In the blackness of sin, light shines: bright, beautiful.

Although God is not the author of evil, he foreknew its existence, and preordained what good use he would make of it. As Augustine states: “God would never have created any…whose future wickedness he foreknew, unless he had equally known to what uses in behalf of the good he could turn him, thus embellishing the course of the ages, as it were an exquisite poem set off with antitheses” (City of God, pg 361). For example, the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in 2001 killed thousands and shook people across the country. In and of itself, it was a wicked tragedy. God, however, used that disaster for much good. Just months after those two buildings crumbled, smoke and flames billowing across the island, my mother went to New York City. Swaddled in a turquoise coat—a Floridian freezing in the New York cold—she passed out “survival kits” and shared the Gospel with anyone who would listen. Because they were so raw from the recent calamity, many people did listen, and reaching for hope, turned to Christ.

Because he had prescience of future adversity, God created people in such a way that the struggle of light and dark is an innate piece of humanity. In a daedal work of embroidery, a skillful embroiderer weaves in dark and light threads, for it is more pleasing to the eye to have a “lively work, upon a sad and solemn ground, than to have a dark and melancholy work, upon a lightsome ground” (Bacon, Of Adversity). This is also true in paintings and photographs, where artists use shadows to highlight the subject of the artwork. Artists’ use of the opposition of light and dark in art is merely a reflection of God’s use of evil and good in the story of life, a story made beautiful by conflict. As Augustine says, “As…oppositions of contraries lend beauty to the language, so the beauty of the course of this world is achieved by the opposition of contraries, arranged…by an eloquence not of words, but of things” (City of God, pg. 362)

Though the opposition of contraries creates a more glorious story overall, each long day is a struggle, and each moment wrought with a multitude of hardships. These tribulations cause God’s people to long for heaven, where “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Rev. 21:4). A biblical example of a life truly wrought with struggle is the story of Job. In that cosmic argument between God and the devil, everything was stripped from Job. Satan wanted to prove that Job only worshipped the Lord because he had been blessed with great wealth. Since God knew that Job worshipped him from the heart, he gave permission to the devil to torment Job.
First the devil took Job’s property: oxen, donkeys, sheep, and goats. Next he struck down his servants. Then he killed his family. Finally, he attacked Job’s health, causing great boils to rise all over his body. Amongst doubts and pleas to the Lord, Job remained strong in his faith. Despite his (mostly) unwavering trust in the Lord, he longed desperately to be released from struggle. As he sat in dust and ashes, he cried out: “Let the day perish on which I was born!” (Job 3:3). Because of the trials he suffered, Job greatly desired heaven. Of course, this is a dramatic example. For most people, especially in modern Western society, hardship comes in lesser forms. Yet life is still a struggle, and hope is in leaving this world behind and entering into eternal peace in heaven. As Augustine so grittily puts it, “From this hell upon earth there is no escape, save through the grace of the Savior Christ, our God and Lord,” the grace which will take the citizens of the city of God finally Home (Augustine, City of God, 848).

Some may think that since God uses evil to make the story of life more beautiful, it is unnecessary to feed the hungry, care for the orphans, and give to the poor. If struggle makes life beautiful, they may assert, then why attempt to reduce struggle? The answer is that God has clearly called his people to care for the downtrodden. In ancient times, God forbade the Israelites to strip their field completely bare; they were to leave gleanings for the poor (Lev. 19:9-10). It was also forbidden to charge a poor man interest on a loan (Ex. 22:25), or to take a necessity of life from a poor man for collateral (Ex. 22:26-27).
Throughout the Proverbs, God instructs his people to give ear to the poor and downtrodden, to "speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Prov. 31:8-9). God’s compassion for the oppressed, however, is not confined to the Old Testament. When Christ began his ministry on earth, he completely redefined helping the poor. Instead of simply defending their rights, he befriended them. Rather than just give them food, he ate with them. He laughed at their joys, and cried with their sorrow.

In fact, Jesus Christ loved the poor so deeply that he said to his disciples: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt. 21:35-40). The children of God are called to fight against evil and strive to breathe lives of love, grace, and compassion.

Even when God’s people are living lives of grace and compassion, darkness lurks on the edges of light. Yet the Lord uses this evil to magnify himself and intensify beauty in many different ways. One way is that evil shows how great God is, because rather than just prevent evil, he is able to turn it into good. Another was is that iniquity creates a stark backdrop for grace, for there is no grace without punishment, nor redemption without sin. A third way is that although he did not create evil, God uses it as a poet uses antithesis: for beauty. Lastly, the hardships of this life cause the citizens of the city of God to long for heaven.
But God does not only use sorrow and pain and struggle to magnify the glory of this story of life—he also uses his children, who he has called to fight against the evil. That is the beauty of the story: the struggle between good and evil, righteous and unrighteous, darkness and light. The overarching beauty is that the conflict has already been resolved. Good will triumph over evil, righteousness will defeat iniquity. And the story will continue forever in the light of Jesus Christ’s victory.

In this present time, however, in the struggle of the “already but not yet,” we wait for the revelation of total redemption. While we wait, we must engage in the struggle. God has not saved us to remain timid, passive Christians; he has created us to be warriors in a battle against spiritual darkness. This not a battle fought with a sword, but with hearts, by love. In Ephesians 5, Paul exhorts believers to “walk in love, as Christ loved us…” and to “…walk as children of light.” Let us live by these words. Let us enter into the conflict of the story of life bearing flames. Let us carry light into the surrounding darkness and live as strong members of the city of God, a city of light.

1 comment:

  1. i'll read it later - good idea! i almost did the same thing for one of my classes' essays.