Crisis and Catharsis
Catharsis is a purging of our souls of emotions, the best outcome of a crisis. Aristotle described catharsis as what should happen to an audience upon watching a moving drama – our emotions go through the protagonist’s experiences with him and we feel inwardly the pain and resignation or the victory and exultation. It is the peace that comes to us when we are at the end of our tears and grief, when we have wept all we can and then say with sincere peaceful resignation, “So be it.” The emotional journey of life brings many such experiences but the spiritual side of life does as well. We may think of a catharsis as that desirable result in our hearts when everything we wanted has been taken away from us and we are at peace with it all anyhow. In Christ’s hands even our greatest fears may be realized but we are surprisingly at peace with it and even embrace it.
Our race lives in such a state of denial of the seriousness of sin that crises and catharses are inevitable. Human life apart from God is meaningless, that is, it simply does not make clear sense. Like a wild unruly tree, as soon as we are born and begin to grow we start to sprout limbs in the wrong directions with the wrong aspirations, looking for the wrong affirmations. Like an overactive undisciplined child in a kindergarten, sooner or later we will hurt ourselves and hurt someone else. Sin has tainted all of human life and no matter how pristine we seek to make our environment, no matter how moral our companions and situations are – and we are wise if we make them as good as we can – the carnal reality of our souls shows itself. Somehow, someway, the evil seeps in and a crisis of belief develops. Even in a church group with good intentions there is evidence of a moral slippage and sinful seepage.
So, inevitably, crises of faith come into our lives, moments when we must make choices, to go God’s way or man’s way, to choose to walk the broad road that leads to destruction where many tread or the narrow road that leads to life where just “Jesus and I walk,” though there will be others on this narrow road who join us on our journey, they will also walk by the same credo and to the same tempo.
The psalms often address a crisis and reveal the healing catharsis the inspired author experienced. Asaph wrote in Psalm 73 of his crisis of lust over earthly wealth. His feet had almost stumbled and his steps had nearly slipped because he was envious of the boastful seeing the prosperity of the wicked. His only relief came in a time of deep worship in the sanctuary of God. He came to no clear understanding of why there are wealthy sinful people, he left that at the throne of grace to sort out, but what he was sure of was that they would face the judgment of God and their riches would vanish. He realized that he had longed for the wrong thing and had rejected the best of God – mainly the reality that he was continually with God enjoying the assurance, the comfort, the guidance of God, being promised that after this life he would be received into glory. He concludes: “Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You. My flesh and my heart fail; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
The peace of spiritual catharsis is more than a sense of consolation, that second choice is not so bad after all. It is rather embracing the truth that God mysteriously orchestrates events on this earth and the result could not have come into our lives any other fashion but through the divine hand of God – permissively, perhaps, rather than intentionally but through His hands nonetheless. This is not to say that good is bad, that unpleasantness is actually pleasantness, that to live in pain, isolation, rejection, and worse could become, with the right attitude, a blessed thing. Rather it embraces the truth of Romans 8:28-29, that God is at work in all things to bring good into the lives of His people.
The Bible states that Jesus despised the shame of the cross. He could not think about Himself, as we might be able to think about ourselves, that He had done something to deserve some punishment – perhaps not that but something to someone else at another time. Rather Christ knew that the cross was entirely out of order, wrong, unjust, sinister, and inspired of evil. In the same way the slap on his face by the guard, the pulling of his beard out by the roots, the beatings, the ridicule, all were improper and inspired by hate and evil. Christ had harmed no one and He could not justify in any shape, form or fashion that He deserved any of this – not even in some round about ‘what goes around comes around’ type of thinking.
Yet He could embrace it as the path of obedience and endure it for the glory set before Him, specifically the redemption of the fallen human race. The crisis of the cross brought a catharsis of submission and joy. So the words from His mouth in those final hours revealed this inner peace: “Weep not for me … Father forgive them for they know not what they do … It is finished … into your hands I commit my spirit.”
Within Christ’s frame of thought was the realization that the crisis was inevitable, that holy incarnate God, laying aside His glory and living among human society in a vulnerable state, would eventually experience conflict and rejection with the fallen human race. But in so doing He was working out our salvation. He was walking the path of redemption. Oswald Chambers wrote the following:
What shall I say? Father, save me, from this hour? But for this cause came I unto this hour. Father, glorify Thy name.” John 12:27-29 (R.V.)
My attitude as a saint to sorrow and difficulty is not to ask that they may be prevented, but to ask that I may preserve the self God created me to be through every fire of sorrow. Our Lord received Himself in the fire of sorrow, He was saved not from the hour, but out of the hour.
We say that there ought to be no sorrow, but there is sorrow, and we have to receive ourselves in its fires. If we try and evade sorrow, refuse to lay our account with it, we are foolish. Sorrow is one of the biggest facts in life; it is no use saying sorrow ought not to be. Sin and sorrow and suffering are, and it is not for us to say that God has made a mistake in allowing them.
Sorrow burns up a great amount of shallowness, but it does not always make a man better. Suffering either gives me my self or it destroys my self. You cannot receive your self in success, you lose your head; you cannot receive your self in monotony, you grouse. The way to find yourself is in the fires of sorrow. Why it should be so is another matter, but that it is so is true in the Scriptures and in human experience. You always know the man who has been through the fires of sorrow and received himself, you are certain you can go to him in trouble and find that he has ample leisure for you. If a man has not been through the fires of sorrow, he is apt to be contemptuous, he has no time for you. If you receive yourself in the fires of sorrow, God will make you nourishment for other people.
So, where do the crises and catharses come in life? They enter everyday in some manner, with the potential to distract us from God’s path and attract us to the wrong path. But when I, or you for that matter, are able by God’s grace to recognize the right path to travel – despising the shame, accepting the consequence – we find the catharsis of relief and peace. There is no better place on earth to be than hanging on a cross if it is the will of God to do so.
Crises normally involve loss – loss of relationships, loss of opportunity, loss of prestige, loss of respect, loss of understanding, loss of possessions, and loss of life. But it is loss that by divine understanding we see as merely leading to a greater gain. We are like the seed that is planted and dies as a seed only to become something much greater and grander. We gain the whole world through Christ. We can say as Paul wrote: Therefore let no one boast in men. For all things are yours: whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or things present or things to come – all are yours. And you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s.
The catharsis of grace is understood only by those who traverse the crisis of loss. The Israeli pilgrims would travel for miles to reach the tabernacle. On the outside it was a drab looking tent, and for many years seemed old, dusty, dated, and tattered, but that was just on the outside. No doubt some wondered if the trip was worth it, until they caught a glimpse of the inside, where only the priests could enter. The tapestries burst forth in color and beauty and the gold shone with luster and the incense filled the space with heavenly aroma.
For those who desire to experience the Christian life as “bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh,” they will say with the Apostle, All is mine and I am Christ’s and Christ is God’s. The catharsis of grace is ours by faith and consists of the realization that whatever sacrifice was made was worth it. In faith we can say, I now stand with the world’s rightful owner and ultimate victor knowing that all things will work out to His glory. Then and only then does the beauty of the Christian life come more clearly into focus. Heaven and eternity open up before us. We enter into the face to face communication with God and His joy floods our soul, our spirits, our minds, and our bodies.
The startling reality is that we will either be tiny seeds pretending to be trees – perhaps boasting that we are a bit bigger than other seeds, or a bit more attractive, smarter, etc. – or we can die to our “seed-ness” and live life as a tree. Of course, the other seeds will talk and criticize and complain, but grown trees don’t really care what little seeds think.