In the Midst of Peril

Today is not an easy day for me, which I’m sure many can relate to. In the midst of difficulties questioning God’s goodness is not reserved to the Atheist and Agnostic. Every Christian I know, including myself, has at one point or another faced pain. And in the pain we’ve wondered where God disappeared to. If he is good and just, why does he allow certain things to happen? If he loves us, why doesn’t he step in and stop the pain? It’s a very personal question that touches us all. As an apologist, I wrestle with this not only intellectually, but spiritually and emotionally.

In this post I don’t want to give you all the intellectual reasons on why you can trust that God is good (though I will recommend you listen to Lee Strobel’s talk on why God allows suffering here.) Instead, I want to share with you a thought close to my heart and a prayer.

One of my favorite verses is found in John’s Gospel. On the night Jesus was betrayed, a few short hours before he went to the cross, he looked at his disciples and said something very profound. “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” This is a big promise from a man about to die. Yet it is a promise he can make and keep because he did not stay dead. He is alive. He has defeated, is defeating, and will ultimately defeat all that is wrong and evil; not only the evil out there, but the evil within me. He is my reason for hope and trust in the goodness of God, because he is God, the Word made flesh.

The prayer I want to share with you comes from a book called Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions. It’s not nearly as archaic and boring as the title sounds. It’s an amazing little book filled with prayers that beautifully show what it looks like to know God and to communicate honestly with him. Wherever you are in questioning God’s goodness, I hope it speaks to you as it has me.

Peril

Sovereign Commander of the Universe,

I am sadly harassed by doubts, fears, unbelief,

In a felt spiritual darkness.

My heart is full of evil surmisings and disquietude,

And I cannot act faith at all.

My heavenly Pilot has disappeared,

And I have lost my hold on the Rock of Ages;

I sink in deep mire beneath storms and waves,

In horror and distress unutterable.

Help me, O Lord,

To throw myself absolutely and wholly on thee,

For better, for worse, without comfort,

And all but hopeless.

Give me peace of soul, confidence, enlargement of mind,

Morning joy that comes after night heaviness;

Water my soul richly with divine blessings;

Grant that I may welcome thy humbling in private

So that I might enjoy thee in public;

Give me a mountain top as high as the valley is low.

Thy grace can melt the worst sinner, and I am

As vile as he;

Yet thou hast made me a monument of mercy,

A trophy of redeeming power;

In my distress let me not forget this.

All-wise God,

Thy never-failing providence orders every event,

Sweetens every fear,

Reveals evil’s presence lurking in seeming good,

Brings real good out of seeming evil,

Makes unsatisfactory what I set my heart upon,

To show me what a short-sighted creature I am,

And to teach me to live by faith upon thy blessed self.

Out of my sorrow and night

Give me the name Naphtali –

‘satisfied with favor’ –

Help me to love thee as thy child,

And to walk worthy of my heavenly pedigree.

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Mourning with Aurora, Colorado

This morning I woke up with the rest of the country to learn about the horror of the theatre shooting massacre in Aurora, Colorado. My heart breaks for the family and friends who have been devastated by the loss of loved ones. It’s in these moments of deep anguish and evil that I’m at a loss for words. There are no words that can comfort. Nothing I say or write can diminish the hurt or remove the intense emotions and questions that come in the wake of such tragedy.

I, like many, want to step in and help. I want to offer hope and strength. Yet I struggle to know how to do this knowing that in times like this help often feels trite and hope meaningless. What can I do? What can we do?

I remember a time a few years ago when I was studying the difficult topic of the problem of evil in Oxford. The day we happened to begin dealing with this subject was also the day that evil and injustice hit very close to home. It overwhelmed me to the point of breaking.  I burst in to tears in the middle of the lecture, ran out, and spent the next hour locked in the bathroom sobbing.  In my pain I had so many questions with unsatisfactory answers.

When the lecture ended, my tutor and a close friend came and found me. They sat with me and let me know it was ok to be broken. They didn’t try to fix me or give me answers to take away the pain. They simply loved me. They sat with me in silence, letting me talk when I was ready. They cried and prayed with me, sharing in my grief. And it was in that moment that God came near. He had been there all along, but through these two friends he clearly showed himself to me. He loved me through them. When life’s pain caused me to question the goodness of God, he demonstrated his love for me in the comfort they offered by their presence. They were a tangible demonstration that the Man of Sorrows had not abandoned me as I walked through the valley of the shadow of death. Through them God reminded me that healing is possible through Jesus, the one who was broken so that I could be made whole.

Today and in the days ahead the people of Aurora will need tangible demonstrations that hope is not meaningless. They will need us to cling to hope for them. Whether we know them or not, let us sit with them, cry with them, pray for them, and allow God’s love to pour out through us. The hurt and pain will not go away. Yet Jesus, who is acquainted with grief, offers strength and hope in the midst of sorrow. And for those who trust in him, he promises that one day he will wipe away every tear and replace every sorrow with joy. He sits with the hurting in Aurora. He weeps with them, just as we do.

Four Letter Words: Hope

“It is well we should become aware of what we are doing when we speak, of the ancient, fragile, and (well used) immensely potent instruments that words are.”[1]

So says C.S. Lewis in his less known, yet brilliant, work Studies in Words. This statement has captured my attention and imagination these past days.  I have this mental image of people spitting out words like bullets with no particular care about what they are saying or who they hit. Words, whether spoken or written, have the potential to wound like bullets or refresh like water on the parched soil of our souls.

This concept of words bringing a curse or a blessing has led me to contemplate the power of four letter words. But I’m not thinking of the four letter curse words that are most likely popping into your head at the moment. I’m not referring to the ones that are so flippantly spoken in everyday life, being the dominant vocabulary of movies, television, and music. I’m thinking of other four letter words which also have immense power to harm or heal. I’m thinking of words like hope, love, wait, and faith (I know that’s a 5 letter word, but it applies to this thought). These have become four letter words to me because while they are words meant to offer blessing, when used flippantly or at the wrong time they can feel like a curse. For example, for anyone who longs for marriage or parenthood, the often made comment of “Just wait on God’s timing,” while true, often rings hollow and does little to encourage in the midst of the wounds of longing. Or for the person going through deep suffering, to tell them to “not give up hope” or “You need more faith” may as well be like telling them to fly to the moon. It’s impossible.

This past week I’ve been immersed in conversations surrounding the four letter word Hope. We use it so haphazardly. We hope we make our flight on time. We hope traffic is light. We hope our favorite sports team beats their rival. And in the same breath we hope our loved one survives cancer. We hope we don’t lose our job in a struggling economy, or that we find a job. We hope our children grow up with strong character. We hope tomorrow is better than today. We hope we’re not wasting our life. We hope that whatever we are placing our faith in doesn’t fail us in the end.

So often we use the word hope and we mean nothing more than wishful thinking. It’s a word we use to communicate uncertainty and wish about the future. And when our hope shatters, we have no idea what to do or where to turn.

Into this concept of hope as wishful thinking, the Christian understanding of hope invades our hopelessness, shining brightly in what is often a very dark world. The Christian understanding of hope begins with an acknowledgement that the world is not the safe and good place we long for (which I think we can all agree on).  It does not ignore our pain. It confronts our pain at its very foundation of our own brokenness and inability to right what is wrong in our world and in us. It assures us that we can, with confident expectancy, look forward to the day when right-ness will replace all that is wrong and every tear wiped from the eyes of those who have looked to Jesus to mend what only He can fix.

Andy Bannister of RZIM Canada recently made this point so well. The Christian hope finds its stability in God’s reality and character. He is the only ground for, basis of, and object of true hope. Because its hope based upon the Person of God and knowing Him, the reasons for hope are as far from wishful thinking as one can get. [2] The uniqueness of this hope is that its founded on something outside of us and our world. All other worldviews look either within or without in the search for a better tomorrow. Only Christianity looks upward, acknowledging that there is nothing within us or in our world that can fix the darkness we live in.

As the Apostle Paul said, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” Yet the message of Christian hope doesn’t end here, because “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

Because of Christ, this four letter word of hope speaks a blessing and not a curse. We may use it carelessly, but the message of confident expectancy it communicates is anything but flippant.

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[1] C.S. Lewis, Studies in Words, Cambridge University Press, 1961,  p. 6.

[2] Notes from Andy Bannister’s talk, “Hope and Thinking,” at the RZIM Summer Institute, June 13, 2012. http://stayintheconversation.org/rzimcanada/

Is Faith a Crutch? You Better Believe It!

My four-year-old niece has a little stuffed panda named Pammy. Pammy is her “best friend” and the two of them do everything together. Even though this little bear is falling apart and almost as old as I am (she was mine as a little girl), she is my niece’s favorite toy. When she is sad, Pammy is there. When she’s afraid, she hugs Pammy for comfort. She shares her laughter, jokes, and kisses with this little stuffed animal. The joy and comfort she has received are legitimate. Yet in reality, my niece’s faith in Pammy’s ability to comfort her is a misplaced faith. Pammy is a toy that cannot offer her any real help.

For many, faith in God is similar to my niece’s relationship with Pammy the Panda. You may gain perceived comfort from it, but it’s a fictional comfort divorced from reality. Just as Pammy can’t really protect my niece from her fears, God can’t protect us, help us, or guide us because He’s not real. He may make us feel better, but in reality nothing changes because He’s just a psychological toy. He’s a crutch people use when they don’t understand what’s going on around them and don’t know how to cope with life.

If you had come up to me a year ago and told me my Christian faith in God was a crutch, the apologetic wheels in my head would have begun turning and I would have started sharing with you all the reasons why my faith has legitimate grounds. I would have delved into the evidence for God’s existence and tried to show you that my faith in Him is not wishful thinking. I might have looked at Freud’s understanding of faith as wish-fulfillment and compared it with how C.S. Lewis would respond. Maybe I would have taken you to passages in the Bible that talk about faith’s foundation being built on evidence for God’s existence and loving character. I definitely would have sent you to articles by apologists smarter than I am who have answered this question so well.[1]

But that was a year ago. A lot can happen in a year, and in my case a lot has. In a year I’ve gone through a period of depression, which in all honesty, I’m not sure has fully gone away. I’ve experienced the discouragement of unemployment in a struggling economy. I watched one of my closest friends lose the fight against cancer. I’ve worked through the pain of broken relationships and the loss of trust.  I’ve watched my family suffer and experience injustice that leaves me at a loss for words (which is saying a lot because I’m a very wordy person). When I’ve thought I can’t handle another wave of suffering without shattering into a million pieces, another wave has come crashing down. I’ve questioned my worth, purpose, and God’s goodness. I’ve gotten angry at Him, and agonized over how a good God can allow the personal suffering and injustice I’m experiencing. This past year I’ve had to wrestle through my faith in God where the rubber meets the road.  My faith’s been tested as I’ve had to wrestle through what, or who, I base my faith upon.

So what about today? If you came to me today and told me my faith is a crutch, how would I respond? Well, I still hold to and believe everything I would’ve said a year ago. I still believe my faith rests upon reliable evidence and not wishful thinking. But my response would be quite different.

Is my faith a crutch? You better believe it! In fact, it’s more than that. It’s my life support.  It’s what keeps my heart beating and my lungs breathing. My faith is an acknowledgement that I am utterly broken and weak. I can’t do this thing called life in my strength. My faith is kind of like that mustard seed Jesus talked about. It’s small and has no strength. But my God is strong! I desperately need Him and I have no one else to cling to but Him. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. Clinging to Him and not the brokenness of this world and my life is a safe place to rest.

My soul is bereft of peace;
I have forgotten what happiness is;
so I say, “My endurance has perished;
so has my hope from the Lord.”

But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”[2]

 

Unlike my niece who finds fictional comfort and friendship in Pammy the Panda, my comfort comes from choosing to trust that God’s steadfast love and faithfulness in the midst of life’s sorrows is real.  I gladly acknowledge that He is my crutch.


[1] I still recommend you read these articles: “Your relationship with God is just a Psychological Crutch,” http://www.rzim.eu/your-relationship-with-god-is-just-a-psychological-crutch  and “Is Christianity just a Crutch?” http://www.rzim.eu/is-christianity-just-a-crutch