Call me Icarus.
My God-given name is Adam, and what’s unfortunate is I’ve always lived up to that name. The miracle came when God broke my rebellion and named me Christian, but when I began to suffer, the miracle seemed like wishful thinking. As weeks turned into months and months into years, the suffering smothered me in shame and I forgot that I was anything but broken, sinful, doubting Adam. And as I charged ahead into the darkness, I earned for myself another name.
Icarus is a character in Greek mythology that represents hubris (youthful, foolish pride). The Greeks, renowned to be a people rich in hubris (read The Iliad and The Odyssey) would tell each other this story as a moral tale guarding against youthful pride. As the story goes, Icarus and his father were imprisoned on the island of Crete with no hope of escape, until his father constructed wings of wax and feather for him to fly away with. He tells Icarus not to fly too low or the water would drench the feathers and weigh him down, and not to fly too high or the sun would melt the wax, causing him to fall to his death. I bet you can guess what Icarus did.
How Long O Lord?…and Why, O Lord?
For the past four years I’ve been in a war, coping with chronic illnesses that have totally changed my life. I spent the first few years of my adult life visiting dozens of doctors and trying hundreds of remedies. I used to be an athlete, but now I’m thankful just to be able to sit upright in my chair at work all day. I used to be strong in my faith, but now I’m blessed to be able to write of God’s mercy and grace without my tongue firmly planted in my cheek.
I began strong, counting my suffering as pure joy because I knew that it was producing endurance in me that would earn me the crown of life (James 1:1, 12). It was a light, momentary affliction (2 Cor 4:17), that was replacing my passions with God’s (1 Pet 4:1-2). But after I’d spent more time in the bed than at college, my resolve weakened. I grew tired of shoving my head in the sand to avoid the screaming questions that haunted my soul. When pain is small, that simple faith is enough, but as it grows, so must your faith. There were dark holes haunting me which before had been totally invisible: ”Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence" (Leon Bloy). Those places present a problem.
A lot of problems—and a lot of questions. Which was fine, because I trusted God implicitly. Or, what I trusted was that He would give me answers, no matter how far my questions took me. The way I coped with my pain wasn’t just to cry out in desperation, like the infamous Heman of Psalm 88, but it was to overcome the pain—to understand it and agree with it. To put it to rest.
I realized what I needed was the wisdom Job sought for, that his friends thought they had, and since Proverbs told me that there was no higher calling than to pursue wisdom (Prov 3:13; 19:8), I embarked on my personal Odyssey into philosophy (the art and science of asking questions). And yes, I knew ultimately the book of Job ended with him clamping his hand over his mouth (Job 40:4), but I wasn’t ready to admit defeat. I had been wounded too deeply to give up without a fight. I set out to make sense of life (and pain), to connect all of the dots, so that I could 1) figure out why God allows pain to happen, and 2) be absolutely sure my pain wasn’t wasted.
For a couple years I became brave Ulysses, finding my way back home through the cyclops and shipwrecks of philosophy, back through the complexity of the created world, to that simple faith. I grew in breadth of knowledge as I read the classic works of Western Civilization, but as my knowledge increased, so did my doubt in God’s simple fairy-tale promises of Redemption and Eternal Life. From the perspective of human thought, God’s promises look like a big old pie in the sky. A separation occurred between answers I deemed too good to be true. I lost sight of my initial mission and began to see myself as a mix between Job (a victim of God’s irrational sovereignty), and Jacob (who struggled vainly with God for blessing).
In reality, I was becoming Icarus.
After three long years, my health turned. I came to see the light at the end of the tunnel again, and I was able to get outdoors and live a little. I felt like a newborn in a twenty-three year-old body. Trees seemed to defy gravity growing out of the ground like they do. Yet even as God worked miracles through my doctors and brought me some healing, something happened. My questioning didn’t fade away—it intensified. I shifted from weeping to gnashing my teeth, from asking questions to demanding answers. Bitter darkness overwhelmed me, and I began to shake my fist at God. I began to doubt not only His presence and Providence but His goodness. I couldn’t answer the question of why He let this happen to me, and so my motivation for questioning slipped from an honorable desire to solve life’s big questions to out-God-ing God.
The irony in this is that when God began to set me free, I used that freedom to incur even greater slavery. God showed me this as I read C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, where a single sentence opened my eyes: “No one is more likely to be arrogant than a lately freed slave.”
The Tragedy of Wasting Your Suffering
What’s interesting is Icarus didn’t fly too low, he flew too high; and he didn’t make this decision to fly too high in peace, but in war. He was reacting from suffering, over-reacting by taking the very means of his freedom and turning it into the means of his destruction. Suffering is a polarizing force, setting us up for either victory or failure—there’s no in-between. The only people who fly too low are ones living in prosperity who fall asleep at the wheel. And there is no sleeping when a knife is at your throat.
My error came when I lost sight of the full picture. I was right to voice my questions to God (Ps 88:1-2), to pursue wisdom, but I was wrong when I stopped pursuing the fear of God—and those two pursuits can never be separated (Prov 1:7). As I ascended the white tower of philosophy, my low view of myself ascended without my knowing, and naturally, my high view of God simultaneously descended. My mission in life changed from worshipping God to figuring Him out and critiquing Him, sitting in judgment over Him, and that led me to see life as totally futile, as King Solomon when he too exhausted himself on finding answers (Eccl 4:2).
Because I doubted that God could save me, I set out to save myself, and that led me down a path of mental insanity. Because I doubted that God would save me, I set out to critique Him, and that caused me to lose my fear and respect of Him—and all joy and purpose and meaning in life. It took God ruining me for me to see, way down deep where I’d never seen anything before, the limits of my own ability and the greatness of His grace—that He alone can save me, and He alone has saved me.
My wings were scorched and I fell, but I didn’t fall to my death. Someone caught me, someone sovereign enough to see not only my suffering but my reaction to it, and prepare a way for my escape. My name is certainly Icarus, but it’s not who I really am. I am actually Adam, a rebellious sinner who hasn’t been completely cured of his rebellion, but who is being Redeemed into a fairy-tale Life to come where there will be no more pain and no more doubt. What suffering has taught me is too great a lesson to capture in so many words, but if there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s how small I am and how okay with that I must be.
“The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.” (Eccl 12:13-14).
For the fuller story, see the first article of this two-part series on my philosophical darkness.