Foolishness, Sign of Election

This Sunday, the 3rd Sunday of Lent, we are about to hear the powerful words of Saint Paul to the Corinthians:

Brothers and sisters:
Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom,
but we proclaim Christ crucified,
a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,
but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike,
Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom,
and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

(1 Corinthians 1:22-25)

Riding on the heels of my reflection on Underdogs this week, I want to dedicate some time for a short reflection on this passage, and what it means for someone seeking the will of God.

Most Christians are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with Biblical language regarding “election”; that is, God’s free choice to save humanity, and particular humans, who will cooperate with his grace.  Because of our discomfort, we forget to emphasize that God’s love is pure gift to fallen humanity, which does not merit it.  Whether it’s because of the difficulty of reconciling human freedom and divine freedom, or because the whole language seems Calvinistic, most people, even Priests and Theologians, are unwilling to discuss it in a public context, for fear of confusing people.

Yet I think that as confounding and mysterious as the mystery of Divine Election may be, and although we have to affirm that God’s love is as unmerited as man is free to accept or reject it, it is still something which can bring us a great amount of comfort.

Why can this teaching give us comfort?  Because Saint Paul reminds us that if we are truly God’s chosen, there is always something about us that is going to seem “foolish” to most people.  There will also be something about us that will always come across as “weak”, because we are not operating according to the world’s standards.  To remember that adversity is a sign of God’s favor helps to steel us and comfort us in difficult times, because we see Christ’s Passion reflected in us.

Eastern Orthodoxy, especially in Russia, has the peculiar tradition of the so-called “Holy Fool”, or someone who is so possessed of the love of Christ, that they seem to take leave of their senses.  Although I think there is also an element of mental illness in this assessment, there is something to be said for this: St. Paul, after all, spoke several times of being a fool for Christ (1 Cor 4:10).

If God has chosen you, there is no better sign of your election than adversity.  If, in good conscience and in accord to the principles of faith and right reason, you know that something is right, and pursue it, expect to meet resistance.  Even then, that experience of suffering adversity is also part of acquiring that ‘foolishness’ of Christ which is wisdom.  Let’s consider two examples:

First, the example of King David and Shimei (2 Samuel 16:5-13).  This event happens at a key low point in David’s life, as his son Absalom has begun an open rebellion against his kingship, forcing him to flee with his companions.  Shimei curses David and throws stones at him as he is fleeing. His officers, incensed at this maltreatment of their King, offer to kill Shimei as a punishment.  David averts their wrath by saying, “Let him curse…it may be that the Lord will look upon my affliction…and repay me with good for the cursing of this day.” (2 Samuel 16:11-12)

David does not exact vengeance on someone opposing him, and even famously, when his own son Absalom dies in his insurrection, David mourns bitterly for days.  David was willing to be opposed and suffer evil, and even be cursed, rather than to do wrong or to lose heart.

The second example I would like to mention would be the famous shipwreck of St. Paul, found in the 27th chapter of Acts.  We forget sometimes that the very reason Sts. Peter and Paul were able to preach the Gospel in Rome was that they were there for trial.  Although there were other times in his life where St. Paul utilized subterfuge to escape being killed, such as when he was he was lowered through a city wall in a basket (Acts 9:25), both St. Paul and St. Peter demonstrate a distinct preference to go wherever Divine Providence truly leads them.

Now, on his way to Rome, St. Paul experiences a shipwreck, and much like when he was arrested before, he stops the Romans from killing all the prisoners, because he does not try to run.  Somehow, St. Paul knew that the experience of being brought somewhere in spite of his will and vision was something in the Divine Providence which he could not clearly foresee, but yet he was open to it.

I have one final thought in this vein.  In one of the more mysterious discourses after the Resurrection, Christ tells Peter, “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” (John 21:18)

It would seem from Christ’s own words that part of the total fulfillment of one’s own total self-abandonment to Christ is the willingness to be lead where one does not necessarily wish to go.

In all these examples above, a common thread is a willingness to follow the design of God into unknown territory, to choose the path of weakness and foolishness in the sight of men.

Why is this consoling, as I said it would be earlier?  Because it means that if we want a proximate sign of divine election for ourselves, the experience of crosses and difficulties is no doubt one of them.  We should fear rather to be without them, because God would be abandoning us to our own devices.  Far better to be in his hands, than in our own.