Beethoven lay on the keys of his piano going deaf, shaking a fist violently toward the heavens. No longer could he hear the heavenly compositions of his youth.
There must be no god.
Grant Aschatz is less famous, but not less talented. After years as an award-winning chef in Chicago, Grant found a white lump on his tongue. It turned out to be cancer and he had to have much of his tongue and throat removed. The Michelin-starred chef couldn’t taste.
There must be no god.
I’ve had a sinus infection for weeks now and after two rounds of antibiotics, it doesn’t seem to be moving on. I can’t taste. I’m in one of my favorite Guatemalan cafes sipping my mocha, but for all I know it may as well be hot water. I taste nothing either, and the anger wells up in me. I’m contemplating smashing my half-drained mug of coffee against the wall.
Is there a soothing balm for this sort of anger?
There is situational anger which you can affect, but then there is anger because you don’t seem to fit right in this reality. It’s something you can’t escape and no matter how many holes you’ve punched in the walls, you can’t change your reality.
You can leave friends, jobs, houses, countries, and even spouses to change your situations, but there is still a God sitting sovereign on the edge of our experience calling the shots. As Beethoven’s eardrums weakened and deflated entirely, no amount of anger or tears would have restored his lost sense.
I often feel this sort of anger. It’s existential and big.
In the gospels, we often see Jesus interacting with the lepers—folks with leprosy—and I don’t think it’s an accident that this disease is singled out. For one, the reason they live in colonies is because the ailment is highly contagious. In 2010, I went to a leper colony in India and saw firsthand the effects of the condition.
The thing about leprosy is, it doesn’t necessarily destroy your body. What it does is ruin your nerves so you could be leaning on a hot surface or a sharp edge and not even know it until you’ve already burnt a finger off. The people in this colony had nubs for digits, missing eyes and noses, and a myriad of other physical defects. Leprosy had damaged their bodies by decimating their sense of touch, leading them into a world of odd physical confusion and ultimately destroying their own bodies without even realizing it.
And I don’t think it’s an accident these people are highlighted often in the story of Jesus. My present sinus infection serves as a reminder of how nice it is to have all 5 senses functioning properly and how often I take that for granted.
But I think there’s another type of desensitization: That of our souls and spirits.
Years ago, I met with a pastor and the topic of my struggle with pornography came up. He held his hand up like he was holding a glob of manure.
“The problem, Ethan, is that you’ve acquired a taste for crap,” he explained. “You literally prefer to eat shit than a filling meal and you don’t even know it. You’ve fried your senses.”
He was totally right. When we try to numb the pain of existence; to soothe the existential ache which sleeps in our bones with artificial comforts, we shouldn’t be surprised when things don’t improve. I think much of the problem with our current situation is a refusal to accept reality as it is, so we escape into a digital realm of Netflix, YouTube, porn, or substance abuse.
We’re lepro-fying ourselves.
We’re applying the soothing balm of desensitization because it’s easier than living with pain, discomfort or disappointment. Kierkegaard pointed out that just beneath the surface of each of us simmers a well of blocked and unmet desires. John Eldredge describes our angry outbursts in the line at the bank, or on the freeway not at the person before us, but at the existential anger at the fact that we continually go hungry. Our desires repeatedly go unmet.
We speak the language of desires as if they didn’t directly affect every iota of our lives.
Isn’t it easier to shove those desires under the carpet and settle for a temporary fix? We’re fine to eat crap as long as we won’t be hungry again for a few hours.
Often, that’s far less painful than accepting the fact that there’s a void between us and eudaimonia—satisfaction. I’m sitting here just wishing so badly I could taste my coffee and take pleasure in its warm froth.
I’ve spent most of my life wishing I could sense God in some way, big or small. I just want to hear a whisper or sense something supernatural and be reminded of the transcendent. But I haven’t. I’ve raged on, desire unmet, senses left thirsty. When Beethoven couldn’t hear, he shook his fist and spat at the sky. When Aschatz and I couldn’t taste, we break our saucers and clench our fists. But this spiritual leprosy is even worse. Rather than explode in anger, we simply replace the desire.
God hasn’t showed up to satiate my soul’s palate, so I’ll acquire a taste for casual sex or drunkenness. God doesn’t exist, so I’ll numb my desiring bits and fry them senseless with porn and Netflix.
It’s been overquoted a million times, but just in case you haven’t read it before, here’s what C.S. Lewis brilliantly wrote about our desires:
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
It seems like a hopeless position, waiting indefinitely for a whispering God to show up and alleviate our suffering. It’s almost as if we forget that God Himself suffered, and continues to. I mean, do you think Jesus was giggling as they tickled Him on the cross? Or was He asking His Father why He had turned His almighty back on Him and left Him to hang like pulp on a stick?
If anyone in the universe knows about suffering, it is our God.
I don’t know why Jesus seemed to have a big soft spot in His heart for the lepers, but if there is one group of people I can continually identify with, it’s them. They probably longed for a lifetime just to feel warmth or to know the touch of another human. I often find within myself longings which may well not be satisfied in this lifetime, and I’m left with the same option the lepers were handed: Go to Christ, or spit on Him. Shake my fist in senseless anger, or reach out just to graze the dirty edge of His skirt.
May we be healed. May we move toward Christ, even when our senses seem to differ. May we blindly grope about for Him, ultimately realizing it is He who has found us all along.