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)?

We Were Promised Too Much and Not Enough

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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.

The (False) Gospel of Home Improvement

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You know that feeling when your clothes won’t dry, so you think your dryer’s broken and go buy a new one, only to discover that the problem was that the dryer vent was clogged? It’s a mix of rage and disgust, am I right? How could I be so stupid not to check the dryer vent? Why did I just pay $180 for a dryer when I could have stuck my arm up the vent and cleaned it out? So went my Saturday evening a couple weeks ago.

Being a good human, though, I didn’t stay mad at myself long. I’d like to say it’s because I was able to let go of my self-loathing and trust that whatever God brought my way with the dryer was part of his good plan. Psshh…I wish.

I’m a master of self-justification, and I was soon able to not only find a new target for my anger – the previous owner of the house – but also to raise myself to new heights of greatness and home-improvement mastery. My thoughts ran like this: Why didn’t someone ever clean the vent? Why was flexible vent used when solid vent pipe was required based on the number of turns and the distance from the dryer to the outside of the house? I would never do something that stupid. That thing was a fire hazard – it’s a good thing I caught it when I did! In fact, I see a bit of melting on the plug from where moisture from the clogged vent dripped back onto the dryer – this whole thing was about to go up in flames. I’m a hero for noticing the problem when I did and replacing the dryer right away – I have saved my family and possibly the entire neighborhood from certain disaster! … I wonder how many other pastors could do this. Gosh, not only is my family lucky to have me, my church is too. I wonder how many people know how awesome I am…maybe I should blog about this so they know…

Ok, so maybe that last part didn’t run through my head right away, blogging it was an afterthought. But the rest of it was there. And I’m sharing this not because I’m better or worse than the rest of you, but because we’re all in the same boat – seeking to justify ourselves by tearing others down (in this case the faceless installer of the previous dryer) and by exalting our own accomplishments. When we do that, we show that we are moving away from the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and embracing a different gospel – in my case, the Gospel of Home Improvement.

Now you might say ‘What’s the big deal? It was just a dryer, you got it fixed, you were a little pissed at first, maybe a little too arrogant afterwards, but really there was no harm done. Just relax.’ And I’d love to do that. But the fact is that if shifting away from the Gospel of Jesus were obvious, we’d see it easily and avoid it. But it’s not always that obvious. It’s subtle. It doesn’t seem like a big deal. It’s the normal/natural response. Sometimes it even seems respectable.

That’s what was going on in the Galatian churches that Paul was confronting. They had abandoned the Gospel of Jesus to pursue a gospel of respectability, of national and racial identity that seemed reasonable and right. ‘Yes, you need Jesus, we all know that,’ they were being told, ‘but you can’t stop there – you’ve gotta do what God requires – you’ve got to get circumcised, you’ve got to start living like a good Jewish person.’ And that temptation to add something – anything – to the work of Jesus, is the same temptation I faced (and completely caved in to) with the dryer.

Yes, I have Jesus, I know that. But in that moment, he wasn’t enough. I needed to be justified in my own eyes, and the eyes of my family, who I made sure to tell all about the clogged vent and my exploits in fixing the problem and how I had saved us from impending doom. I needed to prove that I was right to replace the dryer, and that I was better than whoever put the dryer in the first time. I have Jesus…but I didn’t believe he was enough for me.

Folks, it’s subtle. It seems the natural response. But tearing others down and justifying ourselves based on comparing our behavior, our decisions, our choices of dryer vent material…it stems from abandoning the Gospel of Jesus and embracing another gospel. Mine was the gospel of home improvement. What’s your false gospel of choice?

When Squeezing Joy Into Life Doesn’t Work

lightstock_232221_xsmall_user_3911910Yesterday, I took the first notes I’ve taken during a sermon in a long time. When I say ‘notes’ I really mean just one note – a 13-word phrase that really hit home. (Technically it’s 15 words if you count the ampersand as a word, and if you count a hyphenated word as two separate words). The sermon was on Psalm 91, which talks a lot about making God our refuge. The phrase that struck me was this: Trying to squeeze all the joy & experiences we can into a short life-span.

It’s exhausting trying to fit it all in

Why did that hit me? Well, partly because I see myself doing just that – trying to squeeze it all in – and I find it exhausting. When I take vacation I am usually frantic to pack so many joy-inducing experiences into the time that I end up needing a break when I get back home. I shared a couple weeks ago in a sermon I preached that I find everything interesting – everything. And that’s a blessing sometimes, because it means whenever I meet someone, whatever they do, whether it’s work in a paper-clip factory or stay at home with kids or sit in their basement playing video games, there’s some aspect of their life that I find fascinating and can engage with them about. But other times it’s a curse, because it means I want to experience everything there is to experience on earth. And no one can do that. I suppose, in a way, it’s another manifestation of the age-old problem of humanity: I want to be God. Instead of finding relationship with God to be the most satisfying thing, I try to cram as much as I can into my short days, always feeling that there just isn’t enough time.

Jesus lived a small life

Wait…what? Jesus’s life was small? Hear what I’m saying: His life was not unimportant – far from it. Jesus is the focal point of history. But geographically and experientially, his human life was small. Jesus didn’t travel very far and he didn’t experience very much. He didn’t visit white beaches in the Caribbean or the dark waters of the Bosporus Straights. He didn’t see the Parthenon in Athens or Stonehenge in the English countryside. His diet probably didn’t include Oreo Cheesecake or a Big-Mac and fries. Fireworks, rollercoasters, airplanes – nope. Apart from his journey to Egypt as a baby, I don’t think Jesus traveled more than 100 miles or so from his hometown.

While I haven’t seen the temple mount in Jerusalem and I haven’t sailed on lake Galilee, I have done all of those things I listed up there, and I’m almost positive I’ve seen more of the earth that Jesus made than he did when he lived on it.

My point is not to actually try to compare whether Jesus or I have experienced more in life – his experience as the second person of the deity pretty much trumps anything else I can come up with.  And I’m not saying that you or I shouldn’t travel – God called the Apostle Paul to travel extensively, for example. My point is that Jesus was sustained by something other than trying to cram as much joy and as many experiences as he could into his life. And if living a rather short life confined to a small part of the world was good enough for him…why isn’t it good enough for me? Why do I feel like I have to do and see more?

Refuge and long life

Psalm 91 has two voices in it – a human voice, and a divine. The human voice says ‘I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress.”’ The divine voice says: ‘Because he has set his love upon me, therefore I will deliver him; With long life I will satisfy him, and show him my salvation.’ I was struck by the phrase from the sermon because it exposed a deep brokenness in me: I seek refuge in stuff, in experiences, in food, in pleasure and comfort and laughter. Jesus was fulfilled because he sought refuge in the love of his Father in heaven. And though his life was short on earth, God satisfied him with long life – eternal life. That’s not to make what I experience here worthless; but it does mean that I can actually enjoy fewer experiences and not exhaust myself trying to cram it all in, because I know that God is my refuge, satisfaction is found in him, and I have a whole lot more time coming (way more than the 50+/- years left in my life on this earth) in which to enjoy him and his world.

When Fear Fuels Religion

lightstock_87161_xsmall_user_3911910As I’ve written before, I’m no stranger to fear. I live in one of the safest time-periods of history, in one of the safest places on earth, and yet I have a hard time remembering the last time I wasn’t worried about something. Even if I’m doing something I enjoy, sometimes I’ll catch myself having too much fun, and remind myself that there is always something to dread on the horizon.

In college, I was involved in a Christian group on campus, and one of our favorite sins to confess was fear of man. What we meant by fear of man was that people were more important to us than God, so we worried about the opinions of others and wanted them to like us. Being concerned about what other people think may seem like a natural inclination, and it might not appear on a top-ten list of ‘worst vices to struggle with,’ but it was a big deal to us. I remember sitting at a light on my way home from school one weekend, begging God to help me fear him and not people. But even as I prayed, it hit me: I still didn’t really care about God. I just hate the feeling of my stomach being twisted in knots, and I want God to make it better. I was using God as a tool to take away my fear. Fear was fueling my religion, and it wasn’t pretty.

That’s not the only way fear can fuel religion

I was talking with a group of people this weekend about the recent under-cover videos taken of Planned Parenthood staff and facilities. One of the women was very out-spoken against abortion, saying that abortion is murder. This isn’t unusual – many Christians believe that the life of an individual starts at conception. But then she said something striking: she said that if she found herself in the situation of being pregnant and un-married, that she might choose to end the pregnancy, even though she believes it would be wrong – and the church would be one of the factors influencing her to have an abortion. Her fear of losing her reputation, of being scorned or judged by others in the church, would drive her to do something she feels strongly opposed to. I have a lot of respect for this woman – her assessment of her own heart and motives is honest and refreshing. She said what others probably think, and what some may have experienced first-hand: the church’s strong stand for ‘what is right’ actually pushes people toward making decisions that are wrong.

In some ways that shouldn’t be surprising. In Romans 7, Paul says the darkness in me seizes on the law as an opportunity to produce more sin. But, he says, the problem is with me and not the law; and so the remedy is not to create a better law, a stronger set of rules. When the church makes a strong stance for what is right in the area of sexuality and reproduction, it is right to do so. But where we trip ourselves up is when we think that taking a strong stand for truth has the power to make people live better lives. Because when we do that, we end up providing more opportunity for fear to seize on our failures and turn what should be something good into something that actually drives us into more failure.

Grace trumps fear

Paul says the remedy is not more law, but grace. Grace to own my failures AND the forgiveness that comes in Jesus. Grace to let the Spirit of God connect me to Jesus for life. Grace to hear the Father’s voice without a drop of condemnation saying “You are my beloved one, I am pleased with you.” Grace has the power to break the cycle of fear fueling our religion.

What about you – how have you seen fear fueling your religion? Have you seen grace break the power of fear?

Is Your Faith Worth Sharing?

Faith Worth SharingI just finished re-reading A Faith Worth Sharing by Jack Miller. The first time I read it, Jack’s wife Rose-Marie had given the book to me as I was leaving for a mission trip to somewhere in Europe. I read it in one sitting on the plane and wept at the end. Now, nearly 15 years later, I re-discovered it as I was looking for resources to recommend to a friend. It was like stumbling onto a hidden oasis while dying of thirst in the dessert.

I know that sounds a bit dramatic, but here’s the thing: I didn’t even realize I needed a drink of water. Things have been going pretty well at the church where I work. I’ve been here three years and feel like I’ve settled into my role and am starting to get the hang of pastoring as part of a staff team in a large church. My family is doing ok: my wife’s job is stable; my kids are enjoying their summer activities. Even living with my parents while we renovate our new house hasn’t been too stressful. Things are clipping along nicely, and I have no real sense of need. Maybe a vague unease that I’m not seeing God powerfully at work in me, but no real sense of urgency. No desperation.

We Confess

I know the idea of ‘sharing your faith’ feels intimidating for many Christians, and is off-putting for some. At the same time, many of us feel this sense of underlying guilt, like we should be telling people about Jesus, even if we don’t really feel like it. So reading a book about a guy sharing his faith with people might seem like an odd place to find refreshment. Guilt and pressure, yes. But freedom, release, and life?

Toward the end of the book, Jack included a prayer that he often prayed for himself and others:

Father, we confess that we are naturally self-centered and self-exalting. Any humility we have is the gift of your Holy Spirit. Please, please touch us now with a humble heart, and break our pride and self-dependence. Make us feel our weakness and your strength. Then give us a loving boldness in witness that is only from you.

Jack’s sharing of his faith began with confession of his own sin. God was constantly reminding him of his weakness, of his need for Jesus. He was desperate for a savior. And in Jesus, he found one who brought him back again and again to the love of his Father. To the extent that God answered Jack’s prayer, his power was displayed in Jack’s life. It wasn’t that he shared his faith out of a sense of obligation. Rather, his faith in Jesus was all he had, it was precious to him, and through it God was changing him. Jack shared his faith because his faith was worth sharing.

I’m no different

The experience of desperation for God’s rescue in the midst of weakness is at the same time elusive and quite common. Elusive, because we are good at self-delusion, blind to our sin and lulled into complacency by the comforts of this life. Common, because God continues to pursue us with his love in the face of our blindness. As often as we will ask, he is the God who delights to answer prayers for conviction of sin so that his grace may be on display. The ancient Israelite poet-king David wrote this in Psalm 40:

I waited patiently for the LORD;

                        he inclined to me and heard my cry.

           He drew me up from the pit of destruction,

                        out of the miry bog,

            and set my feet upon a rock,

                        making my steps secure.

           He put a new song in my mouth,

                        a song of praise to our God.

            Many will see and fear,

                        and put their trust in the LORD.

David cried to God because he was desperate. He was in a pit of destruction, sinking in a bog that he couldn’t get out of, threatening to drown in the mud of his own life. But God rescued him – and that rescue was worth singing about. Many put their trust in the Lord because they saw a powerful God rescuing a desperate David. David’s faith was worth sharing. So was Jack’s. This is why the book was refreshing. It reminded me that I am just like them: desperate for God to work. I am a helpless, hopeless mess apart from Jesus – and even with him, I still manage to find ways to keep getting my feet sucked into the miry bog. The way to find freedom, life, and vibrancy in my faith is to pray for God to convict me of my sin and remind me of my identity in Jesus. I want God’s power on display in my weakness. I want my faith to be worth sharing – because I think that might be the only faith worth having.