Does Faith Create the “Problem of Pain”?


In this third installment on Unapologetic, Francis Spufford’s case for the emotional coherence of Christianity, we come to the problem of pain. Spufford writes “Without faith, there’d be nothing but indifferent material forces at work. It’s only when the idea of events having an author is introduced that the universe becomes cruel, as opposed to merely heavy…In the absence of God, of course, there’s still pain. But there’s no problem. It’s just what happens.” To be clear, I don’t think he’s saying that pain isn’t unpleasant for people who don’t believe in God – it’s definitely a problem in that sense – but as a challenge to their belief structure, he is saying that suffering in the world is uniquely an issue for God-believers.

I’m not sure I agree with him here. I’m left wondering on what basis someone who denies the existence of God can say that suffering or pain is evil or a bad thing – I think at best, they can say “I don’t like it.” And maybe Spufford agrees here – he says without God pain is ‘just what happens’ – it’s neither good nor bad, just a fact. But I have spoken with too many people who reject the idea of a God, and at the same time whose hearts break over the suffering in the world. We’ve worked together to care for the homeless and fight against human trafficking. They do not believe in God, but they are moved to action by the suffering of others, because that suffering is not right. So here’s the problem: If you deny the existence of God and at the same time want to call the pain and suffering of the world ‘evil’, or ‘bad’, or ‘cruel’ – then you have a problem with your belief system too – because there’s nothing on which to base that assessment outside of your own dislike of pain. Christianity does not have a monopoly on ‘the problem of pain’. It’s a problem for all of us, unless you’re really completely indifferent to pain and simply see it as a given, neither good nor bad.

But getting back to Spufford, pain is a problem for us Christians. And we’ve tried all kinds of arguments to solve the problem. “We suffer because God is refining us.” “We suffer because God has a plan in which our suffering is necessary.” “We suffer as part of a package deal that gives us free will.” “We suffer, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s only a momentary prelude to heaven.” Many of these arguments have an element of truth to them, but ultimately they all fail, because for Christians the problem of pain is not solved intellectually. It’s confronted relationally.

Spufford writes: as Christians, “We say: all is not well with the world, but at least God is here in it, with us. We don’t have an argument that solves the problem of the cruel world, but we have a story.” And that story is of Immanuel – God with us. What God offers us is not a defense of himself as creator, but simply himself to stand with us through it all. As I finished the chapter on the problem of pain, I was left feeling a bit unsatisfied – surely there is more to it than just ‘we have a story’!

But then I read the next chapter, and was reminded of the contours of that story. I can’t do justice to Spufford’s retelling of the story of Jesus; you’ll just have to read his chapter called Yeshua. But here’s how he ends it: one of Jesus’s friends has gone to his tomb after his execution, and finds the tomb already robbed and his body missing. She is in anguish. But then Jesus walks up to her. “Don’t be afraid, says [Jesus]. Far more can be mended than you know.” Folks, there it is. The Christian story that stands side-by-side with the pain of this world is not simply that God is with us in it (though he is, and that can be a great comfort). It is not an answer to solve the problem of pain, nor a denial that the world is, in fact, irreparably broken. It is a story that holds out hope that the death and resurrection of one man began the process, which is taking millennia to complete, of fixing the unfixable. “Far more can be mended than you know.”

The Impossibility of Christianity

Christianity does not work as a sustainable program for life. How’s that for a defense of the faith? Not exactly what you’d expect to hear from someone claiming to follow Jesus. In this second post on Unapologetic by Francis Spufford, I’d like to explore this line of thinking and see why it’s actually an incredibly hopeful view of the Christian faith.

First, a bit from Spufford: 

Christianity does something different [from the other monotheistic religions]. It makes frankly impossible demands. Instead of asking for specific actions, it offers general but lunatic principles. It thinks you should give your possessions away, refuse to defend yourself, love strangers as much as your family, behave as if there’s no tomorrow. These principles do not amount to a sustainable program. They deliberately ignore the question of how they could possibly be maintained. They ask you to manifest in your ordinary life a drastically uncalculating, unprotected generosity. And that’s not all. Christianity also makes what you mean by your behavior all-important…Not only is Christianity insanely perfectionist in its few positive recommendations, it’s also insanely perfectionist about motive…

Wow, sign me up now. But really, this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has listened to what Jesus had to say. Things like: ‘love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you,’ and ‘anyone who hates his brother is guilty of murder,’ and ‘you must be perfect.’ Sure, we can try to explain and hedge our way around, but at the end of the day it’s hard to miss the crushingly impossible nature of these demands. But wait, there’s more…

So far, so thrillingly impractical. But now notice the consequence of having an ideal of behavior not sized for human lives: everyone fails. Really everyone…Christianity maintains no register of clean and unclean. It doesn’t believe in the possibility of clean, just as it doesn’t believe that laws can ever be fully adequate, or that goodness can reliably be achieved by following an instruction book…

So of all things, Christianity isn’t supposed to be about gathering up the good people…and excluding the bad people…for the very simple reason that there aren’t any good people.

Do you see the hopefulness in what Spufford is saying? Far from leaving us without a way forward, the crushing weight of impossibility built into the Christian program points toward the only hopeful path. One that, first, says: ‘We’re all in this together’ (yes, my kids have been re-watching High School Musical recently), and second: points to the possibility that hope lies, not inside of us (because if we’re honest, we know it’s not in there) but outside of us, in the one who makes the demands in the first place.

Let’s leave it there for now, rather than wrap it up nice and tidy…that’s another thing I’ve appreciated about Spufford’s book – our emotions are not cleanly wrapped packages, and neither is his story of Christian faith. There is hope, and we are going there. But for now, what do you think? It is a relief that Christianity ‘maintains no record of clean and unclean’? Is there freedom in knowing that failure is kind of baked in from the beginning, and that maybe the point is bigger than knowing whether you’ve been bad or good (for goodness sake)?

Getting Outside the Doors

It’s a bit ironic that this post comes after a months-long hiatus from blogging (unintentional, I assure you – I just didn’t have anything I wanted to write).  Ironic, because it goes back to why I started writing in the first place, and why I called this place ‘outside the door’.  In an interview earlier today with local public radio station WYPR, the Artistic Director at Baltimore’s Center Stage theater, Kwame Kwei-Armah, mentioned a program that brings Center Stage productions to prisons and homeless shelters. He said that the program is designed to take art out of the building and bring it to people who wouldn’t ordinarily come inside the theater. By itself, a pretty cool idea. But, being the church guy that I am, I also immediately thought of parallels between Center Stage’s efforts, and attempts by the church to get outside of her doors and meet people where they are.

I heard a statistic recently that 82% of people in America would not come inside a church building. The implication is that if the church believes that Jesus has something to offer people through us, then we have to go outside our buildings in order to connect with the majority of those people. We have to take Jesus outside the building.

And in some ways, that’s kinda what Jesus did when he was here. He traveled from place to place; certainly teaching in synagogues when the opportunity was there – but also teaching in a boat, on a mountaintop, in homes and places of business. He met people on the road and in the towns where they lived. He went into their homes…and yes, occasionally had people break into someone else’s home to get to him.

It shouldn’t surprise us that 82% of people say they wouldn’t come inside a church. I mean, really, why would they want to?   Apart from a few structures with minor historical interest, most church buildings are not remarkable. I hope 82% of people who don’t know me wouldn’t feel comfortable getting a random invite to come into my house either – I actually hope that number is closer to 100%. And this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon – people like the Wesleys and George Whitefield in the 1700s knew that they had to go outside the walls of their buildings if they wanted most people to hear their message.

But it is a good reminder that most people in our communities are not going to be found inside our buildings. The majority of people never come inside our churches. So if we want to connect with them, it has to happen where they already are. And that makes sense, right? People who do come into my home are friends that I have made when I’m outside of it – classmates and coworkers and random crazies at the bar (you know who you are). So thanks to Center Stage for taking art to those who can’t come inside the theater. It’s a good reminder for us in the church to get outside our buildings too.

Lament for the World I Know


Have you ever noticed how much time and energy we spend trying to keep ourselves safe from other people? Both as individuals and as a society, we assume that somebody, somewhere, is out to get us, and we have to do something to stop them. We lock our cars and our front doors; we install panic buttons in our classrooms; we teach our kids how to call the police. We employ vast numbers of people to police our cities, defend our borders, and protect our interests abroad. We may argue over the right means of protecting ourselves, but the assumption is that we do need protection from other people. (For example, the gun control debate is about how to regulate the type of weapons people can have, not about whether people need some way to defend themselves). Even the virtual world of computers is filled with ‘bad guys’, as evidenced by the fact that companies can’t seem to hire and train cyber-security experts fast enough.

My individual life has been relatively free from violence. Apart from the occasional fight as a school-boy and a few petty thefts here and there, I’ve had it pretty easy. But I live in a country that has engaged in violent conflict on at least eight separate occasions on four continents in my lifetime. My children have lived their whole lives under America’s ‘War on Terror’. War is given. There is never a question of whether we need to employ, train, and equip some of our citizens to kill citizens of other countries – the debate only seems to be around when to deploy, and how much to spend on equipping them. The violence of our world is undeniable.

A favorite slogan of gun-rights advocates is: Guns don’t kill people – people kill people. While there may be truth to that slogan, have we ever stepped back to think how irrational, insane, and horrible it is that people kill people? Animals kill other animals to survive. But there is no rational reason why one human should ever kill another. Humans killing other humans is not a necessity for survival, or even for enjoyment of a full life. We kill because we are broken people who live in a world ravaged by evil. Even in the case of self-defence, violence is only a secondary necessity, made unavoidable by the violence of another; ‘it’s either him or me’ is only true if one of you is unwilling to walk away and let the other live.

I guess this is more of a lament than anything else. It makes me sad that so much of life is spent having to defend and plan for the reality of evil. And I’m not immune to the influence of evil in my own heart – I’m part of the problem too. I have been reading in the Old Testament book of Joel recently. Joel 3:10 encourages the hearers to make weapons out of farming tools and come and do battle. Not because fighting is good, but because God is about to respond violently to evil. But Joel gives only a partial picture of God’s response to evil in the world.  The prophets Isaiah and Micah paint the opposite picture, of a day when swords will be turned into plowshares. And we only discover that this latter vision of the future wins the day when we see that Jesus is God’s ultimate violent response to evil. Jesus takes God’s violent response to human violence on himself in order to put an end to all violence and guarantee a future where nobody has to fear anybody else.

So, what if armies and war and locked doors are only a temporary necessity? What if gun ownership is less an eternal right and more a temporary sad reality of our world? What would it mean to long for the day when there will be no more guns on earth, when all weapons are melted down to make works of art and tools for cultivating the earth? Can we even imagine a world where everyone can be trusted and nobody is out to get you; where you can plant a garden and not be afraid that someone will steal from it, or build a house and not worry that someone will break into it; where our daughters and sons are safe and violence is unknown? It’s hard for me to imagine that world. I know I want to, though.

We Were Promised Too Much and Not Enough


What if you keep all the rules and life still doesn’t turn out well for you? What if you make all the right choices and things still suck? Or what if you get everything you dreamed of and it feels empty? I worry that we have made promises we can’t keep; and that in the process we haven’t promised nearly enough. And I worry that I have bought into both sides of that bankrupt equation.

We Were Promised Too Much

I’ve been wondering lately if the struggle of faith for me and many in my generation isn’t centered around the fact that we were promised that if we followed the rules, life would turn out well for us. By ‘rules’ I mean everything from religious imperatives to social expectations: everything from “Don’t sleep with your girlfriend until you’re married because the Bible says so” to “You have to do well in school so you can get into a good college”. But when that turned out to be deceptive – either because A) we could never follow the rules anyway, and yet life still appears to turn out ok (maybe not great, but survivable); or B) because we did follow the rules (mostly) and things still didn’t turn out well (we went to a good college, got a degree, and that ‘great job’ never materialized; we didn’t party, didn’t buy into the hook-up culture, and yet God’s perfect spouse that we were promised hasn’t come along) – either way, we are left feeling empty and ripped off somehow.

We Were Promised Too Little

At the same time, what we’ve been promised doesn’t really hold our attention. A good job, a nice family, a comfortable life. Even if we manage to get all of that, we’re bound to experience a bit of post-purchase cognitive dissonance (my favorite phrase from college economics – it means ‘buyer’s remorse’). Because the third option is that we buy into those promises and they turn out to be true. What if keeping the rules does lead to the good life that’s been promised? What then? I think we discover that we’ve been sold an empty box…we went all-in for something we were told was worth it, when we should have held out for something better.

And so we have this nagging feeling that we’ve been duped. Maybe God failed us – I think some of us feel that way. Maybe the rules weren’t all that important, and even if they are; why bother following them because what they offer doesn’t sound appealing.   We have to change the terms of the conversation.

A Better Promise

My generation and the ones coming after us are often labeled as self-absorbed narcissists. And maybe that’s true, though I suspect that we aren’t that different from previous generations…we just have better tools for flaunting our self-love and receiving attention from all over the world. The call of Jesus to the self-absorbed in my generation is the same as it’s always been: Come die with me for the sake of others.

What Jesus promises is that we find life by losing our life for his sake. He promises a narrow and hard road. He promises sacrifice: his life for ours, sure, but also our lives for others. He promises the free gift of the water of life. Not rules that lead to a better life, but a free gift that is life itself.

Confessions of an ‘Always-On’ Worker

lightstock_179852_xsmall_user_3911910I saw a commercial last night that made me angry. Before I tell you why and you write me off as a basher of all things capitalism, let me say this: I like being an American consumer as much as the next guy: I buy clothes because they’re on sale at Banana Republic (not because I need them), I have multiple pairs of running shoes that all serve the same purpose, I eat food that I like whether it’s good for me or not, and while my car would never be mistaken as ‘flashy’, it is fairly new. So I have bought into ‘the system’. But there are some aspects of the American way that I find unhealthy, and sometimes commercials give us a brilliant and unpleasant insight into our collective heart. This TD Ameritrade commercial is one of them.

The basic premise is that a TD Ameritrade investment advisor is willing to talk to her clients any time of day, no matter what else she’s doing. Running errands, working out, playing with her son, even getting into bed with her husband. It would be one thing if this was portrayed as a woman having an incredibly hard day – I get it, we all have days where work can’t be left alone and there always seems to be more of it. But the message being sent is that this is the standard level of service offered by TD Ameritrade. I don’t fault the company, they’re just tapping into something they see in us – we expect the people working for us to be working all the time. And that’s because we expect ourselves to be working all the time too.

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert in their book When Helping Hurts point out that all humans experience a break in four relationships: with God, with creation, with other people, and with ourselves. Americans tend to see our lives through the lens of economics: each day the news reports gains/losses on Wall Street, and we even call people ‘consumers’. We see working hard as good – you’re contributing to the economy – and the harder you work, the better. The problem is that having a job doesn’t heal my relationship with God or others. In fact, having a job where I get no down time and constantly have to interrupt game-time with my children or bed-time with my spouse is just as much a symptom of the brokenness of my world as not having a job. The expectation that work is non-stop is often rooted in the need to find identity in our work.

I wasn’t angry with TD Ameritrade, I was angry with my culture for telling me the lie that work is my identity.  I was angry with myself for believing it.  The other day I was driving in the car, feeling overwhelmed with the amount of work on my plate, and I thought “Ok, I can’t take on any more.  I can’t fit anything else into my schedule.  Finally, I feel like I’m working hard enough.”  For a long time, I had been feeling like I wasn’t doing enough…but now, when I felt like I was at a breaking point and couldn’t possibly fit anything else in, I thought it was ‘enough’.  I was finding identity in my work, and the rest of my life and some of my relationships were suffering because of it.  But I was working ‘enough’.  That’s scary.

Jesus offers a different view of work, one that flows out of healed relationship with him. He says ‘Come to me all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’ I don’t think he’s saying ‘stop working hard’. Instead he’s inviting us to find our identity in him. To let work be something that we do well because of who we are in Him, and to be something that we rest from, because it does not define us.  I need to remember that.  Sometimes it takes a TV commercial to remind me.

The Dissatisfaction of Cheese

lightstock_231995_xsmall_user_3911910Cheese. It’s awesome. The runnier, moldier, smellier, the better. I once earned the nickname ‘The Stinking Bishop’ because I bought a hunk of cheese by that name. On the way home, we kept smelling dirty diaper – walking out of the cheese shop, in the car, in the elevator. We thought it was one of my children who needed a diaper change (sorry kids). It was the ‘Bishop’. Yum.

But here’s the thing: Cheese cannot ultimately satisfy me. I mean, I spend most of my week as a pastor either writing lessons or meeting with people, and my theme is pretty constant: Stop looking for life in yourself, in other people, or in things. Life is found in Jesus alone. So you’d think I would remember that cheese is not the source of life.

But when I’m home at night, and everyone else is in bed, this gnawing sense of dissatisfaction comes creeping in. I should just go to sleep. I know it. Nothing good happens after midnight. But I’m restless. I’m looking for something, anything, to make me feel better. I open the fridge, and there it is: a nice block of Cheddar, extra sharp (Stinking Bishop is no longer allowed in the house). Three official serving sizes later, and I can’t stop…I know I’m far beyond the recommended daily intake of full-fat dairy. I also know exactly what I’m doing: looking for life in cheese. Seriously? I know another bite of cheese won’t do anything for me – in fact, I’d rather not take that bite because I’ll just feel sick. But I do it anyway, because I’m looking for anything that will comfort/distract me from the vague feeling of being hopelessly unsettled in life

Cheese Is Not Crack

There’s an LA-Times article touting a study that outlines the Crack-like qualities of cheese. Part of me says ‘Yes! I know those qualities well.’ And part of me doesn’t want to minimize the power of drug addiction with a stupid story about cheese. So I’ll just say this: Cheese is not Crack. But Cheese is also not Jesus. And that is so hard to remember.

So where is the dissatisfaction coming from? I’m not sure, and that’s part of the frustration for me. I’m afraid that sometimes I give the impression that it’s easy to remember that Jesus is all you need. I worry that I act like it’s simple when I’m talking with other people about their issues, when in reality I know for myself it is neither simple nor easy. It is a life-long struggle to hold onto this thread of truth: The one who made me also loves me and gave his life for mine, and that is enough.

I was talking with a friend who jokingly asked if my dissatisfaction was caused by my recent move to the suburbs; playing into the caricature of the suburbs as the place where people have everything and are utterly bored with it all. But I really like living here, and anyway I don’t think the suburbs are the issue, any more than cheese is the issue. Stop eating cheese, and my heart is still restless. Move to a remote village or the dense urban jungle, and I still want more.  Life will never be as good or as easy or as exciting as I think it should be.

Finding Rest

I was on a weekend away with our young adults group at church, and one of the women led a devotion from Matthew 11:28 – Come to me all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. As she read the passage, I heard Jesus calling me to rest in him. Yes!! I want to do that. I know that’s what I need, deep down.

But there’s the nagging fear that resting in Jesus isn’t enough. That I’m missing out on something…I don’t even know what. So I eat more cheese.

Look, I know cheese seems like a trifling thing. What’s the worst that can happen from eating too much cheese at night? A stomachache? Crazy cheese dreams? A bigger waistline? But here’s the thing: resting in Jesus isn’t just about the big things in life – it’s about the day-to-day too. Everything I do gives a window into my heart and where I’m putting my hope. The fact that cheese is so trivial makes it that much sadder that I’m trusting it instead of Jesus. And still, pathetic as I am, Jesus says to me: ‘Come to me…and you will find rest’.

So what about you? Do you experience that restless dissatisfaction too? Do you think I’m making too big a deal out of cheese?