Good Grief: Prevenient Grace and the Human Need for Death
Human beings were created for love–to share in God’s life of love and extend that quality of life to a world of ‘others’. The fundamental condition for love is freedom. We call this particular freedom the human will. But the very freedom which makes love possible is precisely what makes love vulnerable, because the freedom of the will to love is precisely the freedom not to, since love can only exist without necessity or coercion, indeed in freedom.
Whatever else can be debated about the fall of humankind and the doctrine of original sin, what cannot be debated is that the human condition is one in which the human will invariably finds itself bent in towards itself, freedom’s liberation from its true object–others–and therefore its essential energy–love. Since the true object of our freedom (others) has been exchanged for the self’s declaration of independence, the energy of our freedom (love) has been exchanged for the power of self-determination. And in this regard, nobody has better articulated the doctrine of original sin than the most formidable critic of the Christian faith, Friedrich Nietzsche, when he wrote that “A living being wants above all else to release its strength; life itself is the will to power.”
When the object of freedom is freedom itself, when freedom is not understood as the power of the will to love but simply the power of the will to act–self-determination as such–then the world is no longer good and indeed must die. Death, in this world, can thus be seen as the necessary first step in restoring the world for love.
Death, the judgment for this abuse of freedom, is intended to limit the destructive potential of human life and the will to power. However, it also serves to preserve the structure of human life, namely, the desire for oneness and our capacity to love, because the awareness of death has the power to awaken in us love’s eternal longing. It takes the mysterious experience of empathy (the objective basis for love and the subjective suspicion of self-sufficiency) and amplifies it, indeed immortalizes it, in the experience of grief. The nagging impulse to embrace others, however few, only swells in its gravity as the inevitable eclipse darkens final days over clinching hands. Nothing reveals the terrible power of love like the reckless desire to forsake all this world affords and dive into the infinite abyss just to remain with one’s beloved in death. But death affords no withness. So what does it profit a man to lose the whole world and then also his soul?
Thus death preserves the possibility of love in a world bent toward power by revealing the futility of all pursuits of power. It is the governor on the throttle of an otherwise infinite acceleration that drives even the most powerful men to create a place of respite where they can stop pretending, a place to be weak, to love and to grieve. This place is what we call home, which is the only place we are allowed to be human, because it is the only place where grief will find a permanent place to lay its weary head. A man may ascend to the “judgment seat” beyond the reach of even the gods, but Pilate is still under the judgment of his wife (Mt. 27:19).
The deepest human longings are disproportionate to human limitation. And thus it is the awareness of death that turns all human longing for love into the longing for God. It is the gift of sobriety that reveals to us that the true nature of our confused longing to become God is, in fact, the more intoxicated longing to become a small inclusion within God’s universal embrace. We long for a God who will dive into death and bring all life up from the abyss. We long for God who will not merely save us from death but save love from death. We long for a God who can unite all things back together in himself, a God who will restore for us a final liberation from our own power and allow us truly, and un-euphemistically, to rest in peace. We long for a God who will be powerful for us, so that we can be free to love.
Of course, all of this is either too good to be true or grief is God’s prevenient grace.
“In Christ we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:7-10).