Tuesday, June 01, 2010

A Bit of Theodicy in Fight Club

Who would've thought Tyler Durden, the nihilistic antagonist in the movie Fight Club, could speak such wisdom to the wilderness that so many of us experience in our walk with God. The scene I'm referring to is when Tyler licks his lips, kisses the back of Jack's hand, and pours powdered lye on the hand, starting a chemical burn so painful "it will hurt more than you've ever been burned, and you will have a scar."

Many of us are hurting more than we've ever hurt, or wandering in a wilderness seemingly without end, and the worst part is not that we wonder why this is happening, but why God, our all-loving and all-powerful God, is allowing it to happen. He's the One we've put our trust in, the One whose kisses we've longed for and invited because we thought they would bring us comfort. Many times those kisses do comfort. But other times, those kisses resemble nothing like a kiss. Those "kisses" cause so much pain and burn so intensely that our very souls are set ablaze and we wonder if any amount of hope can douse the flames. Our hope may even dwindle to zero and if we're honest with ourselves, we may start to believe, as Tyler does, "that God does not like us. He never wanted us. In all probability, He hates us." As Christians, we know this is not the case. God is Love and He sent His Son to show us His love. But what kind of love is this that burns?

When Jack's hand begins to burn, the logical thing for Tyler to do would be to pour vinegar on it to neutralize the reaction and stop the burn. Instead, as Jack is writhing in unbearable pain, Tyler grabs his hand and arm and pins him down, forcing Jack to bear the pain. Every survival instinct is triggered in Jack, every pain management technique is activated, and what does Tyler do? He does not let Jack use them. He does not let Jack run away from the pain. In fact, he insists on the complete opposite, for Jack to look at the pain, to move towards the pain. Jack tries guided meditation to alleviate the pain since "it worked for cancer," but Tyler orders him to "stop it. This is your pain—your burning hand. It's right here. Look at it." Jack tries going to his cave to find his power animal, another way to manage the pain, to which Tyler yells in frustration, "Don't deal with this the way those dead people do. Deal with it the way a living person does!" Finally, Jack tries to run to the sink to pour cool water on the burn, which would only exacerbate the burn, and we begin to see Tyler's point: all of our obsessive habits of avoiding pain lead to only one end: more pain, and if we're not careful, death itself.

So why does God sometimes allow pain in our lives? We begin to see a glimpse of an answer. Pain forces us to respond, and it's the chance to respond, the chance to avoid or embrace the pain, that is God's gift to us. Before Jack meets Tyler, we find him putting his identity, security, hope in all the wrong places: in a consumerist culture, in an unethical job, in support groups he doesn't belong in. He's forsaken anything that might give him true life. But he's so mired in the filth of his idolatry that he can't rescue himself; and even if he could, he's too comfortable (or shackled) to even try. And so Tyler comes to Jack with his burning kiss. Jack can avoid it and run back to his idols and his insomnia, or he can embrace it and wake up and find new life. Put another way, if St. Augustine is right and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God, then our suffering hearts are prompts for us to search for the God we have abandoned for far too long. The pain merely invites us on another journey home.

Jack's journey is one we've all traveled far too often, yet seemingly never enough. We know that Jack's insomnia is a result of his idols, and we know Tyler's burning kiss is the antidote, and it works. Jack wakes up and frees himself from his idols of consumerism, dishonest security, and fake therapy. He can even laugh at them, mocking the Gucci billboards and the dead-end job that once enslaved him. But what does Jack do next? He merely runs to the next idol, this time Tyler himself. In Tyler he now trusts. And, as with all idols, this one comes crashing down when Tyler betrays that trust. This time, the consequences are far worse than insomnia; they're hate, rage, and the desire to destroy, and Jack nearly kills an innocent young man because of it. (The Devil is all too happy to bear the burden of our idols so long as we chain ourselves to heavier ones.) We begin to sense that if Jack doesn't figure it out soon, if he doesn't stop chasing vain idols, God only knows what evil he'll visit upon himself and the world. Tyler senses this, and, in one of the most compelling scenes of the movie, gives Jack one last chance to understand. Jack and Tyler are driving at night in the pouring rain when all of the sudden, Tyler lets go of the steering wheel, allowing the car to drift dangerously off the road. Jack screams at Tyler to put his hands back on the wheel, but Tyler ignores him. As Jack tries to take control by grabbing at the wheel himself, Tyler comes at him with these words: "Look at you! You're pathetic! Stop trying to control everything and just let go!"

And there's the answer we knew all along. We simply don't want to let go. We want to control our lives. Why? Because we think we know better than God. Or we don't trust Him and, like Adam and Eve, think He's really holding out on us. We somehow believe that the God who gave up His Son for us doesn't have our best interests in mind. So we keep trying to control, we keep working for our own peace and joy. When we fail at this impossible task, when we're depressed and in pain, we simply try again, chasing the next idol, maybe a new job or a new relationship or a new holiness. But it never works, and this leaves us in despair. And that is exactly as it should be. It is only when we despair of our ability to control our lives that we can finally let it go and put our trust not in ourselves, but in our Maker. This must be what Christ meant when He said, "Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." (Matthew 16:25) When we as Christians suffer pain, Christ is bidding us to lose our life so we can find it.

When Tyler decides that Jack has sufficiently bore the pain of the chemical burn, he ends the pain and says, "Congratulations. You're one step closer to hitting bottom." When we're in the throes of pain and suffering, the path to life is not up and away, but farther down, all the way down until we hit bottom. The answer is not a recommitment to more prayer or a redoubled effort at the spiritual life, but a letting go, a laying bare, a descent. Only then, at the bottom, can we be "congratulated" with new life. There is no resurrection without death. Christ is proof of this, and Christ is our hope in this. If we truly believe that He suffered, died, and rose again, and that He calls us to follow Him, suffering becomes the most tangible invitation to follow Him, to die and receive new life. If we are called to imitate Christ, then suffering invites us to imitate not just His death, but also His glorious resurrection.

Finally, lest I be accused of sanitizing suffering, I want to be clear. I believe suffering, by itself, is neither good nor God-glorifying. It is evil and God is not the source of it. I have no idea where it came from and why it exists. The Bible gives no clear explanation. But the Bible does give us a picture of what God has done with it. Through Christ, He's made an absolute commitment to redeem it, to use it for good. Consider the physical pain that Christ suffered when the nails were hammered into His hands and feet. Consider the emotional and spiritual pain He endured when His very soul was forsaken by his God and Father. He was scarred, infinitely more than any of us could ever be. But the startling fact is that when God raised Him from the dead in all His resurrected, bodily glory, we find the scars still glaringly present. The hope our Christian faith rests upon—the resurrection of our bodies and souls—seems to be found wanting. How can any hint of our worldly suffering dare cross the heavenly threshold? And yet not only do Christ's scars remain, they serve as markers of His new, glorious, and eternal identity. "Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself." (Luke 24:39) I am certain tomes could be written of this single verse, as well they should be. But all I can say is that this is God's final encouragement to us. That even in the new heavens and new earth, our scars will have been so redemptive that they will still be with us. Indeed, as with Christ, they will be the very reason we are there.


Chris said...

tough stuff... letting go of control is tough... in my book that takes faith given from Above

also, would be nice to be able to pay lip service to having to hit rock bottom, but i don't think it works that way...

thanks for the blog post! very well written

Anonymous said...

Thank you to share

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