Saturday, March 10, 2012

How God is like your hypothalamus, revised (why we do and don't suffer)

Someone asked on fb the other day,
"What's so horrible about the possibility of a world without God?" To me, this query is only the aroma, the light fragrance of the deeper question: "what is God?" What attributes of this being make his absence a tragedy? For the God of the Bible does not linger out in space with super-god-powered binoculars, a cosmic voyeur, a scientist observing the experiment he established. He's not even up on a high mountain, like Mount Olympus, coming down every few years to rap a taste with the mortals. He's a lot more like your hypothalamus.

Did you know that your neurons are actually always sending pain signals up to your brain? You aren't writhing in constant agony right now only because your hypothalamus blocks them out. You're completely oblivious to everything except the comparatively rare, more extreme signals your hypothalamus lets through. The God of the Bible (specifically the Holy Spirit of John 16 and 2 Thessalonians 2) is like that: without him, we wallow in the evil we create, drowning in our own terrible decisions and in the pain of the things other people do to us. Not only is he the source of all happiness--without him, we would experience the consequences of everything we and others do to this planet and to each other, but "in his great mercy he has given us life." Hell is what happens when he takes his hand away, and lets us feel the entirety of a world without him (a world in utter sin and destruction). Hell is the removal of our spiritual hypothalamus.

What happens when your hypothalamus, or something else in the pain-train doesn't work, and you don't experience any pain at all? Something like this girl's disorder--you harm yourself over and over and have no idea you're doing it. We often consider suffering in the world as the root problem, but actually, it's the symptom, the warning pangs of the much deeper, spiritual problems that are eating us like a fungus, multiplying like a cancer, day by day within our souls. The mother of the little girl in the link says she wishes nothing more than that her little girl would feel pain, not because she hates her child, but because she loves her and wants her to keep herself safe. When God allows suffering, he allows it for the same reasons your hypothalamus allows it, and for the same reason that mother wishes her daughter knew suffering: so that you avoid harming yourself. God sometimes allows us to suffer the consequences of our sin so that we learn not to destroy ourselves and others by doing evil or stupid things--other times, he shows us generalized, non-specific suffering to make us consider the results of sin in creation, so that we might learn to defend ourselves from it (Luke 13:1-5). God does not allow earthquakes and tornados so we can say, "haha, you're suffering, you must be an especially bad sinner" but so we can protect ourselves from doing evil, for while suffering in the world exists because of sin, not all suffering results directly from sin. (John 9:1-3) Your hypothalamus also allows you to feel pain for things that are not directly unhealthy; likewise, especially for Christians, suffering's often that burn in your muscles as you're getting stronger, those growth itches in your legs that you have at night as you're getting bigger--symptoms of your immortal soul outgrowing this little world we live in. God allows Christians to suffer sometimes that they might become who they were meant to be (James 1:2-4): the humble "gods" of Psalm 2, the glorious overcomers of Revelation 1-7.

"If we let Him - for we can prevent Him, if we choose - He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said." --C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

It's a wonderful thing to have a hypothalamus. It's an even greater thing to have the One who made it.