There remains a complication, however. The good (and very good) creation was marred (though not obliterated) by the fall, the curse on humankind and the world, and the expulsion from Eden. Rather than naturally joining the cherubim, fallen humankind finds them barring the way to paradise (Gen 3:24). How can we make sense of these tragic losses, in the light of our call to thanksgiving? First, it helps to imagine what the world, and what our personal lives would be like if we lived eternally in this fallen condition, and if we had been left in Eden to wreak havoc! C. S. Lewis has famously called death, which began with God’s judgment on Adam and Eve “a severe mercy.”1 Father Thomas Hopko (of blessed memory) agrees with him, saying,
There is a certain mercy in that, because if we could just sin and sin and sin and do evil and wickedness and grow forever without end, it would be just an endless hell, which some people still, God forbid, may choose, but the fact that we die gives us a chance, gives us a chance to be reborn, gives us a chance to start all over.2
The sentence of death, the curse of the land, the hardship in childbirth, and the expulsion from Eden are all severe, to be sure. They come, however, not as sheer punishments, but as mercies from God, driving us to him in our neediness, and reminding us that we have ceased to be what He intends for us to be. Without death, we might be tempted to continue worshipping ourselves, mere creatures, and never receive what God has in mind for those who love him.
Death and suffering, then, need not lead us away from a stance of thanksgiving, for they have a purpose, difficult though this is to remember when we are in the midst of them. The great act of humility, seen in God the Son, is the means by which we come to see how God has used all things, including tragedy, for our good. Our deepest thanks is directed towards Jesus’ passion and death on the cross, seen as a seamless part of his offering to the Father for our sake.
Sheldon Venauken’s, A Severe Mercy describes Lewis’ letter in which he speaks about the death of one of a loving couple as “a severe mercy.” Some have commented that Lewis here was applying the words of the blessed Augustine in Confessions 8:11, who spoke of God’s inner scourging, and stripping him of all support, in a similar way. ↩