Reading 2 Corinthians 1.1-11
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
St Paul begins his second letter to the Corinthians by launching immediately into what he calls ‘tribulation’. Why begin on such a down beat? Because he has emerged from a ghastly experience. We are not sure what it was. It may have been the riot in Ephesus described in the Acts of the Apostles, though his words suggests something more drawn out, like an injury or an illness, perhaps the condition he describes later in this letter as his ‘thorn in the flesh’. And we don’t know what that was. It could have been something in body or mind. His description here of being ‘weighed down’ (the word he uses could describe an overloaded ship in danger of sinking), ‘despairing of life itself’, is consistent with heaviness of soul, or depression.
Why has this trouble come upon him? Paul talks about suffering as a source of solidarity between believers and as a way of sharing in the sufferings of Christ, but fundamentally it was for Paul a means by which he (or ‘we’, as he puts it) might learn to depend not on self but on God.
This takes us back to where we were last week, when Joseph (he of the Technicolor dream coat) told his brothers that, though they had intended to do harm to him, God intended it for good. It’s the claim that bad things are part of the good purposes of God. Now to say that God precision-engineers each bad thing for your and my ‘benefit’ is to make our Maker into a well-meaning sadist; yet to say that God is uninvolved in suffering is to make God less than the God of everything; and such a God is not worth even an hour of our time on a Sunday evening. There is the problem.
Last week, we looked at how God might work with human perversity like a skilled jazz player, drawing the wayward notes of other musicians towards a resolution. But what if it’s not human perversity but illness, whether of body or mind? Where is God in that?
On Wednesday there was an unusual debate on Newsnight, refreshingly presented by Victoria Derbyshire (I presume while the dyspeptic Mr Paxman is on holiday). The question, prompted by the UK Government’s happiness index, was this: ‘Can success be measured beyond money and power?’
First up was Arianna Huffington, editor in chief of online newspaper the Huffington Post. For her, the two ‘metrics’ of success, as she called them, money and power, had created a model that was now ‘broken’. We should note here that she has done quite well out of the model, recently selling the Huffington Post to AOL for over $300m, but she nevertheless believed it was showing unhealthy symptoms of long hours, widespread depression and stress-related illness, and so we did indeed need a ‘third metric’, happiness.
But what is happiness? Huffington liked the ancient Greek concept of eudaimonia, the flourishing that comes with a life of purpose, ‘feeling good by doing good’. Professor Robert Winston located it in certain childlike qualities, which we tend to lose in mid-life but may regain later. Author and illustrator Giles Andreae, on a similar tack, associated happiness with ‘playfulness’.
We heard that Andreae had suffered cancer and experienced depression, and Derbyshire ask him,
‘Do you think that means that you are more able than others to know what happiness is?’
‘[With] Cancer less so,’ he replied, ‘but depression, I think, without question.’
Using language as powerful as Paul’s, he spoke of this ‘extraordinary, violent illness’ – quite unlike what people might imagine who have not had depression – and continued,
The one remarkable thing about it, which is an extraordinary privilege, is to recover from depression, which almost everybody does. And when you recover, you look at the world with new eyes, you regain your capacity to experience joy, as if for the first time, and I think that’s incredibly rewarding.
Winston quoted the French thinker Montaigne, in his Essay on Experience, who said that he thanked fortune that he had received the pain of bladder stones because when he was free of pain he knew what it is to be happy.
‘It’s almost as if,’ said Winston, ‘in order to be truly happy you need to have been unhappy at some stage.’
‘Without question.’ Andreae agreed, ‘It wipes your soul, and [then] it is a massive privilege… [that word again] …to experience joy.’
I was taken aback by the this firmly positive tone, and I am still uneasy about the ‘it’s-awful-but-good-for-you’ doctrine, but here is someone who has been there, who speaks with authority, and who seems to be saying that the would not now want to be without his experience of depression, because of the ‘privilege’ it has brought. Perhaps St Paul would say the same of whatever it was that so weighed him down: for one, it has brought true joy; for the other, a radical trust in the God of Jesus, who raises the dead. And if the God of Jesus is indeed the God of everything, it is God who is the instrument of every return of life and joy, whether known, or named or not.
Some lines of George Herbert, both a poem and a prayer:
How Fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean
Are thy returns! ev’n as the flowers in spring;
To which, besides their own demean,
The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.
Grief melts away
Like snow in May,
As if there were no such cold thing.
Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart
Could have recover’d greennesse? It was gone
Quite under ground; as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown;
Where they together
All the hard weather,
Dead to the world, keep house unknown.
And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing: O my onely light,
It cannot be
That I am he
On whom thy tempests fell all night.
Ephesus Acts 19.23-41
Thorn in the flesh 2 Corinthians 12.7
Happiness index Officially the Measuring National Well-being programme of the Office for National Statistics http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/guide-method/user-guidance/well-being/index.html
George Herbert excerpt from The Flower, part of his 1633 collection, The Temple. Complete poem: http://www.ccel.org/h/herbert/temple/Flower.html