Suffering III – the man born blind

‘As Jesus walked along he saw a man who had been blind from birth.
“Master, whose sin caused this man’s blindness,” asked the disciples, “his own or his parents’?”
“He was not born blind because of his own sin or that of his parents,” returned Jesus, “but to show the power of God at work in him.”’ (John 9:1-3, J.B. Phillips translation)

I love this story. I love the way Jesus cuts through theological speculation with compassionate practical action. And I love the character of the man who’s been healed and the forthright, sarcastic wit with which he deals with the pompous Pharisees.

Theological speculation vs compassionate action

This story has, I think, so much to say to us about suffering and theology. And perhaps the first thing it has to tell us is that in the face of real and present human suffering, theological speculation is tremendously unimportant.

Jesus and his trainee crew are walking past this man who from birth has been completely unable to see. The disciples don’t seem at all concerned for the man himself; to them he’s merely an interesting theological conundrum. Indeed, their theology (mis)leads them to assume that his condition is the result of sin, and therefore deserved and not meriting any compassion. They’re strongly reminiscent of Job’s ‘comforters’, whose simplistic karma-like theology leads them to assume that Job must have sinned, because otherwise he wouldn’t be suffering.

Jesus by contrast doesn’t stop to engage in theological debate. His spoken response is pithy, fascinating and enigmatic, open to a variety of interpretations. But perhaps the crucial purpose of Jesus’ response is to bring a summary halt to his followers’ theologising, declaring it null and meaningless, an empty exercise in missing the point.

Instead his primary response is one of practical, compassionate action. Instead of treating the man as an object for debate or a social pariah, he responds to him as a real person with real needs. He instigates the process of healing – apparently without being asked. But then crucially he does involve the man; he tells him to go and wash the mud off his eyes in the Pool of Siloam (‘Sent’), which will complete the healing. Jesus gives the man the dignity of choice; he gets to be an active participant in his fate, not merely a passive subject.


So Jesus’ action is what really counts. Nonetheless, his words are still fascinating and worth pondering.

The disciples are asking the age-old question in the face of human suffering – ‘Why?’ It’s what most of us ask when suffering happens to us or when we see it in the world. But in the framing of the question they mistakenly assume a particular kind of answer.

So firstly, Jesus rejects outright the idea that the man’s ‘suffering’ or ‘problem’ (or however we view it) is caused by sin at all. When ‘bad’ stuff happens or things ‘go wrong’ (as we see it), we’re so often tempted to assume that it’s because we (or whoever the victim is) must have done something wrong. Jesus emphatically says that’s not the case here, and therefore may well not be in other cases of suffering and difficulty.

Now, we might well want to argue back – but we live in a fallen world, things aren’t as they should be, and it’s a mess because of sin. That’s surely the original root cause of all suffering, of anything that isn’t right in the world. I’ve argued along these lines myself. I’m not sure that Jesus’ words completely disallow this theology, but they do at least put a fairly large question mark by it.

That the works of God be shown?

Jesus then says something enigmatic and very hard to interpret. Our translations mostly render it to imply the man was born blind in order that the works of God might be shown in his life: ‘this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him,’ as the NIV puts it. I’m uncomfortable with this. It suggests that God may have deliberately chosen to inflict blindness on the man in order that he might be glorified in the man’s healing.

I’m not convinced this is the best reading, but if it were would it really be such a problem, in the light of eternity and the bigger picture? The man is ultimately not only physically healed, but spiritually healed too; and he gets to play a fantastic role in the unfolding story of God’s redemption, one which will be remembered through the ages. Perhaps this is a case where the happy ending really does overwhelmingly redeem what has gone before, rendering it (in the final analysis) almost negligible. Perhaps.

However, some suggest an alternative rendering along the lines of: ‘Neither he nor his parents sinned. But now let the work of God be shown in his life’. If so, Jesus isn’t saying that God caused or allowed the blindness for his greater purposes; indeed, he isn’t offering a theological explanation at all. The question for Jesus is not ‘why?’, but ‘what now?’ What matters is not the cause, but the outcome – and our response that helps or hinders the outcome God desires.

Consider it joy?

So the story suggests that we may be looking at our problems and troubles (and those of the world) through the wrong end of the telescope. When we bring them before God in prayer, we quite naturally focus on the negative. We assume something has gone badly wrong – that this bad thing shouldn’t have happened. And of course it’s a short step from there to complaining and then to blaming God, to feeling that he shouldn’t have let this happen and he’s not running things too well.

But Jesus seems to challenge us here to take a different view. Rather than these things being problems which require blame, they can be seen (paradoxically) as positive opportunities for faith and action. They are situations in which God’s redemption and healing and mercy and goodness can be revealed; entry points for the heavenly Kingdom to break into our world.

I’ve always struggled with those words in James’ epistle, ‘Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials’. But in light of this story, I can maybe begin to see a little of what he might mean. The troubles themselves are not joy, but through them God’s grace can come, and that can ultimately transform them into sources of blessing and redemption. ‘My power is made perfect in your weakness…’

The question of healing

This story also raises the vexed question of healing. Can we expect God to heal miraculously today? If we’re faced with a problem (in our lives or someone else’s) as intractable as blindness, can we actually do anything about it, and if so what?

This is a large and difficult issue, and I don’t have the answers. All I will say briefly is that I do believe God can and sometimes does heal physically, but that isn’t universal and may not be the norm. What we can do is bring the situation to God in trust, and let him be God. And whether or not God chooses to heal physically, we can show practical compassion.

Physical healing is a wonderful thing, but it isn’t the be-all-and-end-all. In the NT, the Greek word for physical healing – sozo – is the same as the word for ‘salvation’, the spiritual healing of the whole person. In both the story of the man born blind and the one of the paralytic man lowered through the roof, Jesus makes a specific link between physical and spiritual healing, or forgiveness of sins. The physical healing is a visible sign of the inner transformation that has taken place.

But the inner healing doesn’t require an outward manifestation. We can be healed in the deepest sense and yet still remain physically sick or broken; we can be given spiritual sight yet still be physically blind.

“Your guilt remains”

So the man whom everyone has always dismissed as a sinner and pariah is healed and justified. By contrast, the official theologians and good churchgoers (as represented by the Pharisees) are sent off with a flea in their ear.

The Pharisees have, as usual, got all hung up on the fact that Jesus apparently ‘broke’ the Sabbath to heal the man – though what he’s really doing is fulfilling the Sabbath. They can’t see past their righteousness code to the bigger picture staring them in the face in the person and action of Christ. Outraged both at the healing and at the impudent cheek of this ex-blind ‘sinner’ who dares to lecture them, they miss the point and miss what God is doing.

So when they flippantly or incredulously ask “What? Are we blind too?” they are ironically pronouncing their own judgement. “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin,” Jesus replies, “but as you claim you can see, your guilt remains”. They think they see and so have no need of healing, but they’re actually far blinder – and in a much more spiritually deadly way – than the person with physical blindness ever was.

It’s a salutary warning for me, and perhaps for all of us who see ourselves as Christians or theologians. We’re ‘saved’ – healed, restored, made whole – by grace, and we need to extend that same grace to all, particularly those who are excluded or marginalised by our religion and theology, our church structures and cultures.

Suffering and sin

So this story neatly ties together the two topics of sin and suffering. Sin does create suffering, but we can’t assume that any given case of suffering is the result of someone’s sin. And furthermore, we’re all broken; we all need healing in some sense, and we dare not either write others off as sinful and unworthy of healing, nor view ourselves as too ‘sorted’ to need it.

Posted in Suffering | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Suffering II – extraordinary suffering, and ‘good’ suffering

“The thread of suffering runs so deeply through the fabric of our existence that were it pulled free the remnant would unravel beyond recognition.” Judy Hirst, Third Way Magazine

Last time I suggested that some suffering may simply be a normal and necessary (albeit highly unpleasant) part of life, not really requiring in-depth theological explanation.

Extraordinary suffering

However, where I think suffering does become a theological problem is in the extraordinary and exceptional cases, those which go far beyond anything most of us will experience in the normal course of our lives.

These are the terrible cases of human brutality and evil – the Rwandan genocide or the Nazi holocaust; the Sandy Hook school shooting and the Dunblane massacre; the child abuse scandals in the Catholic church and currently in the BBC; the abduction of Madeleine McCann. These – and countless other – cases of human evil defy our comprehension. And worse still, they nag away at us that deep down we may all have greater capacity for evil than we care to admit.

In a different category, because not clearly human in origin, there are the terrible natural catastrophes which wipe out countless thousands of people, often the weakest and poorest – the Philippines Typhoon; earthquakes and volcanoes, hurricanes and tsunamis, famines and floods. There are the terrible disease epidemics which lay waste to whole populations, and also the preventable diseases which kill thousands of children every year in poorer countries. (These last, if not human in cause, may at least be in our power to solve.)

It’s these terrible cases of suffering which defeat our neat theology and leave us without answers. Yet in a sense even these are just the extreme manifestations of the pains, sufferings and losses – and yes, evils – which are naturally built into our world, apparently as a necessary part of it.

The evils are a little different, I’d suggest. These are by definition not good; however, they are inextricably interwoven with good and for now cannot be removed without risking that good. That’s certainly what Jesus seemed to suggest in his parable of the wheat and tares. Evil has got itself into everything, including us, and it mostly can’t be taken out, only gradually overcome.

Who’s to blame?

When we undergo or witness suffering, we tend to look for reasons for it, or for someone to blame. This is entirely understandable, but not I think fruitful. Even if we can successfully locate a cause or a culprit, that generally doesn’t solve anything. What we can more helpfully do is seek ways to redeem the suffering, to bring good out of it.

Nonetheless, I do think that we all bring much (not all) of our suffering upon ourselves – unwittingly and unintentionally of course, and this is not to apportion blame. But we are all too often our own worst enemies, following patterns of thinking, behaving and relating that do not lead to our happiness or health or freedom.

Is human sin the root cause of all suffering? I don’t know. I’d rather say that human flawedness is a contributing factor in a lot of suffering, both self-inflicted and other-inflicted, but I’m not sure that it’s the sole cause (again, Genesis notwithstanding).

How we experience suffering

But at the risk of sounding glib or judgemental (which I really don’t mean to), one contribution our human flawedness may make to suffering is in how we experience and respond to it.

I think we have at least some measure of choice in how we respond to suffering – to wallow in recrimination and self-pity or to accept and seek to transcend the suffering. Far easier said than done I realise, and we may have to go through the self-pity stage before we can get to the redemptive one. (Also I’m talking here only about ordinary, low to moderate suffering – I’m in no position to say how anyone facing extraordinary suffering ‘should’ respond.)

On a deeper level, our flawedness can I think profoundly affect how we experience suffering in the first place. If we’ve never trained ourselves in the ways of delaying gratification and of living through minor discomforts and disappointments, we’ll find it hard to accept even ordinary suffering as anything but evil. And if we’ve tended to avoid or anaesthetise all our small pains and losses, we won’t be ready to face greater suffering when it comes.

This isn’t to point the finger. It’s just to say that I think we can make our inevitable sufferings harder or easier to bear depending on how we’ve prepared ourselves throughout our lives.

Good suffering?

I’ve long been suspicious of theological attempts to justify suffering or why God might ever ordain it. When we look at terrible disasters or unthinkable human holocausts and genocides it seems ridiculous and blasphemous to imagine that God might be in any way involved, except in healing the harm.

Yet I am beginning to wonder if there may be at least some times when pain and suffering may simply be the only way to make certain kinds of changes to the world and to our hearts and lives. Perhaps this is in part because of sin and evil – our blindness and inherent flawedness means that we often cannot take the easier, more pleasant paths to fulfilment and flourishing. Or perhaps it’s just how things have to be at this stage in our development.

I mentioned recently that we seem to be oddly mis-adapted so that we crave unhealthy things and don’t tend to enjoy what’s most good for us. So there is inherent ‘suffering’ in following a healthy path.

I also think it’s true (though I wish it were not the case) that there are certain things that only pain and suffering can teach us; certain necessary changes that only these hard realities can bring about in us.

What suffering can teach us

Suffering can work profound transformation in our souls, developing in us unparalleled depth, strength and maturity of character and faith.

Suffering can teach us to trust, and can make us truly compassionate, kind, loving people who understand and care about the sufferings of others.

Suffering also puts things in perspective. It teaches us the hard way that we are not in control, and we are not the centre of the universe. It shows us that all we have is a gift and privilege, not a right or a possession.

Our human tendency is of course to flee pain and to do anything we can to avoid it, given half a chance. Unfortunately sometimes we need to face and even embrace pain in order to change and grow. All too often we shy away from what would bring emotional growth because it means facing up to painful realities about ourselves or about our parents or childhoods. But in so doing, we remain less than we can be – less real, less whole, less ourselves.

We all know the well-worn phrases ‘No pain, no gain’ and the Christian equivalent ‘No cross, no crown’. These are clichés; yet it’s probably true that few really worthwhile things can be achieved or significant changes be made without a degree of difficulty, even pain. But if we know there is a point and purpose to the pain, that at the end of it is the prize of what we’re hoping to achieve or become, then we can perhaps more easily bear the difficulty along the way.

All this doesn’t mean we should masochistically seek out opportunities for pain, nor that we should never seek to alleviate or end suffering – quite the contrary in many cases. It simply means that if pain does come our way, particularly emotional pain, we might do well not always to flee from it, but rather to face it.

I would suggest then that preparing to face suffering may be one of the most important tasks of our spiritual lives. For a degree of suffering will come to every one of us. If we’re ready for it (or as ready as anyone can be), then we may be able to live through it and come out stronger at the other end. If not, there’s a danger we may be crushed by it.

How the universe works

As I started to say last time, I suspect that a measure of pain and suffering are simply necessary corollaries of a universe set up to produce consciousness, relationship, love, and moral autonomy. It seems that this is the only way for these good things to emerge.

So we appear to have a universe that is set up to evolve from simple to complex, from immature to mature, from incomplete to complete. And this process – evolution, development, growth, maturing, learning, becoming – inevitably seems to involve a measure of difficulty, adversity, pain, suffering, and perhaps even at times evil.

Yet ultimately these things are swallowed up in redemption, in restoration, in the glorious fulfilment of the renewed cosmos that we call the Kingdom.

And above all, we do not worship a callous God who metes out and observes our suffering from a safe distance like a lab experimenter. Rather we worship the crucified God, the one who has become one with us, who has suffered and suffers for us and with us, and who brings good and hope and meaning out of our sufferings.

The cross is in part about God identifying with us in our sufferings. But I believe it’s also about the only way evil and harm can be overcome by love and goodness. Love doesn’t fight evil with violence or power; rather it takes evil upon and into itself and disarms it. The answer to the world’s sufferings is the cross, where God suffers because that’s what love does in the face of evil.

And the cross is also an example for us of how to respond to evil. Often we have to overcome suffering and pain and evil by bearing with them and going through them; not avoiding or escaping them but learning to master them, turning them to the good.

Ultimately, love is both the cause and cure of our deepest suffering. Without love, we would have no heartbreak, no bereavement, no sting of rejection or loneliness. Yet without love we would not be truly alive; and in the end, love is what redeems all our pains.

Posted in Evil, Good Friday, Suffering, Tragedy | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

What (and why) is suffering?

“What sort of world is this? It is a world shot through with matchless beauty yet witness at the same time to intolerable pain.” Judy Hirst, Third Way Magazine

The undeniable fact of suffering in the world – and in our own lives – is troubling to everyone, and most of all to those of us who believe in a good, loving and capable God. The question of how a God of love can allow – even perhaps ordain – suffering is one of the oldest and most enduring theological conundrums (see the book of Job), and one that has driven many people away from faith. (Not that atheism has a huge amount of help to offer on the subject as far as I can see.)

There are of course many different religious and theological responses to the conundrum. There are those who maintain that the existence of suffering disproves the existence of God, or else renders him a monster – or at best powerless and useless. At the opposite end are those who believe that all suffering is ordained by God for his glory and our ultimate good. And there are even those who deny the existence of suffering, seeing it as an illusion that we need to somehow stop believing.

In between the extremes are those like me who aren’t sure what to think, who don’t want to believe that God deliberately inflicts suffering yet do see that some suffering can sometimes be redemptive and may be used by God for good.

The whole topic is a minefield. Suffering is a terrible reality for many people, and any attempt to discuss it runs the risk of coming over as either glib and platitudinous or else callous and judgemental. So perhaps it’s a subject best left alone, accepting that suffering is something that cannot fruitfully be analysed or explained. Yet I find I can’t just leave it alone.

Framing the discussion – what is suffering?

One dictionary definition of suffering is: “to experience or be subjected to something bad or unpleasant”. However, this is deeply subjective – we all have very different ideas of what is ‘bad’ or ‘unpleasant’. I would find it unpleasant to sit through several hours of football; others would feel the same about opera or poetry or church. And what is unpleasant is not necessarily bad, and vice versa.

So one of the difficulties in talking about this subject is that people in different places and times have very different views and definitions of suffering. One person’s great suffering may be another’s minor inconvenience, and vice versa. And as life goes on we learn to bear more, so things we experience as suffering now we may not later.

We in the modern, affluent, comfortable Western world need to recognise that we have a historically atypical understanding of what constitutes genuine suffering or deprivation. What others have had to put up with through the centuries as a routine part of daily life, we might see as a terrible or extraordinary ordeal – but they might not have. Conversely we might consider it suffering if we have to forego one meal or one favourite TV programme, which people of other times would boggle at.

We also often have unrealistic expectations of a largely pain-free, problem-free life, and when we experience pain and trouble we may doubt God or feel let down by him. I suspect that Christians in other times may have been more resilient – which is not to say that suffering wasn’t a problem for them. But it was, I think, more of an accepted fact of everyday life.

The problem of pain

Another problem is that we often tend to conflate suffering, pain and evil, thus muddying the waters. There is of course an overlap between these three things, but they are not the same and cannot be dealt with as though they were.

All pain arguably involves a degree of suffering, though not always high-level or long-term. But there are forms of suffering that involve no pain – certainly no physical pain. Oppression, deprivation, enslavement or abandonment may involve emotional or psychological pain but not physical pain. Loneliness and friendlessness involve no physical hurt but are the some of the worst conditions humans can experience.

Similarly, some forms of hardship or deprivation are hard to categorise as pain in any sense, but they may be experienced as suffering nonetheless. And there are irritations, physical or mental, which are not painful but extended over long periods can become almost unbearable.

Furthermore, not all evil involves pain or suffering (at least in the short term), and conversely not all pain or suffering are necessarily evil nor the result of evil. Some evils are highly enjoyable, and some pains – while clearly unpleasant – are ultimately beneficial, such as the pain of the dentist’s drill.

Useful pain

Indeed, the phenomenon of pain is originally intended (whether by nature, God or both) as beneficial, though by definition never pleasant. It has a good and vital purpose – to warn us that something is wrong and urgently needs addressing. If we touch something hot or sharp, pain tells us to move away fast. Continuing pain tells us of deeper damage that needs healing.

Removing our sense of pain is not a blessing. Leprosy causes its terrible maiming precisely by taking away the awareness of pain, thus leading victims to inflict accidental self-damage without realising.

It’s a strange and perhaps significant fact that life cannot come into being without pain. Childbirth is one of the most painful processes any human can go through – one no man can understand – and yet without it, none of us would exist and the human race would perish. Why or whether it has to be so painful I don’t know (literal readings of Genesis notwithstanding); but it certainly is.

Perhaps the real problem with pain is when we can do nothing to stop it – when the damage cannot be healed, or the pain message cannot be switched off and continues to scream at us intolerably. This is certainly a kind of suffering, and hard to see as beneficial in any obvious way.

Necessary suffering?

But the problem of suffering is not quite the same as the problem of pain, and neither are the same as the problem of evil.

Even suffering is clearly not always evil. We all know the ‘suffering’ of delayed gratification or of having our will thwarted – of not getting what we want when we want it. Every child knows the ‘suffering’ of being forced to eat their greens or stop playing/watching when it’s time for bed. Though these are clearly trivial examples, we nonetheless experience them as real suffering. But it’s generally only our ego that suffers, often to the long-term benefit of our character.

We sometimes use the phrase ‘cruel to be kind’ to describe these experiences – things which are unpleasant but beneficial. Which is not to justify genuine cruelty, nor to condone child-beating. But sometimes I think that in our desire to avoid physical pain we’ve forgotten that there can be worse things.

Emotionally, one of the most piercing pains many of us will suffer is the experience of unrequited love; the feeling that life has no meaning outside of this desired, beloved person, but they have no interest in us. We might feel at the time that it’s ‘evil’ that the world is set up in such a way, but it’s surely just a consequence of our essential freedom. Love cannot be forced, thank goodness; yet this good reality is the cause of much pain.

Different kinds of suffering

Another complicating factor in the discussion is that there are so many different kinds, causes and degrees of pain and suffering. These very different kinds cannot usefully all be lumped together when we’re talking about why God allows suffering.

So there is self-inflicted suffering and that which is brought about by other people, or that deriving from natural causes. There is accidental suffering and there is suffering caused deliberately. There is apparently meaningless or random suffering and there is suffering that clearly has a redemptive element. There is everyday suffering and there is exceptional suffering.

Humans are fragile beings with many needs, and if these are not met for a while then we start to suffer. We’re also adapted to quite a small specific range of conditions (e.g. temperature, pressure, oxygen level) and if these change then we start to experience suffering. This is just part of life. But we can’t realistically expect all our needs to be met all the time nor conditions always to be optimum, so we will inevitably experience degrees of suffering.

Everyday suffering

So there is, of course, a normal level of pain and suffering that we all experience just as part of being alive in this world. We all suffer minor knocks, scrapes and bruises – both physically and emotionally. We all suffer small inconveniences, frustrations, disappointments and losses. We all catch colds or get headaches. We all experience growing pains, and the necessary pains of falling over and grazing our knees as we learn to walk.

For the most part we cope with these daily low-level ‘sufferings’ and don’t let them affect us too much. It’s only when they mount up or our resilience is low that these low-level issues become really problematic. Yet their very existence shows us that some pain and suffering is necessarily built into the fabric of the world and of our lives, and while unpleasant and inconvenient is not necessarily always evil.

Then there are the larger but rarer troubles, some of which we are all going to face at some point –serious illness, financial difficulty, unemployment or loss of work, relational problems or breakdown. There is the loss of loved ones and pain of bereavement which we will all inevitably experience. And we must all face our own mortality and ultimately death.

When we experience these things – or when we see others experiencing them – we may feel that they are evil; certainly terrible and awful and tremendously difficult. But they should not really come as a surprise to us; they are just part of life, of all life. They seem to be a form of inevitable and necessary suffering – perhaps the price we all have to pay for the privilege of being alive and conscious and free. We may wish the world was ordered differently, and I believe we can trust that one day it will be, but I think we are better off accepting that this is how things are and perhaps how (for now) they have to be.

But then there are the exceptional cases of extraordinary suffering, which are far more theologically problematic. That’s where I want to start next time.

Posted in Suffering | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Does liberal theology undermine Christian morality?

I’m currently working my way through Susan Howatch’s ‘Starbridge’ series of novels – a 20th-century Barchester Towers about the inner workings of the Church of England and its motley clergy in high places. The novels (starting with Glittering Images) won’t be everyone’s cup of tea with the vicar, but they’re well-observed and packed with psychological and theological insight. Not to mention some fairly frank depictions of clerical sexual misdemeanours.

Two of the novels centre on the Rev. Neville Aysgarth, a liberal churchman much enamoured of the ‘radical’ theology of Bishop John Robinson’s controversial 1960s book Honest to God. In particular Aysgarth eagerly espouses Robinson’s idea of the ‘New Morality’ – a situational ethic based on love rather than traditional rules. However, the married Aysgarth uses this idea to justify to himself what ends up as an all-but fully sexual affair with a young woman with whom he has fallen in love.

Now Aysgarth is clearly deluding himself and twisting theology to suit his ends. But Howatch does strongly suggest that abandoning traditional theology opens up the danger of falling into grave moral error. Is she right?

Journey out of evangelicalism

This matter is fairly close to home for me. Over the past few years I’ve been (as they say) ‘on a journey’ out of mainstream evangelical theology and practice into what I see as more ‘open’ forms and expressions of Christian belief.

I’m still not really a liberal or a progressive. I haven’t jettisoned all my former beliefs, just reinterpreted and re-imagined them in light of my own thinking and experience and thinking. True conservatives would certainly see me as liberal, but true liberals would see me as conservative. Hence ‘Evangelical Liberal’.

Nonetheless at times I do wonder whether I’ve gone too far, strayed too much off the beaten track. In particular I worry that I may be blithely and blindly leading others into a theological and (furthermore) moral morass. Hence the question at the head of this post, which is of genuine concern to me.

So I suppose my real underlying question is: is it possible to reject (or at least radically reinterpret) traditional understandings of biblical theology without completely undermining Christian morality? Is it inevitable that espousing more liberal or progressive theology will ultimately lead to Neville Aysgarth-style moral misdemeanours?

Or to put it the way around, what basis is there for Christian morality (on sex, death, abortion and all the other hot topics) once you question the underpinnings of a fully authoritative, inspired and inerrant Bible or else an infallible church tradition? Does the whole lot simply collapse like a house of cards?

Fearing the worst

That’s certainly the view of many more conservative Christians, both evangelical and Catholic. They fear that if you start to tinker with theology and ecclesiology, if you remove the absolute moral authority of the Bible or Church, and if you start to question traditional beliefs and values, then you are on course to moral anarchy and freefall. Remove these ancient, solid foundations and everything will fall apart, they warn.

And I don’t wish to write off these fears and warnings as unfounded or merely reactionary. I think there is a valid concern here. I think there may well be a real danger that what starts out as legitimate questioning may end up with abandoning all Christian belief and morality.

But I also don’t think that’s inevitable, nor is it even necessarily the entirely logical and natural progression that some imagine. I think it is possible to reinterpret scripture and Christian theology in fairly radical ways without taking away the foundations of morality. For example, accepting the biological theory of evolution and rejecting traditional doctrines of hell or biblical inerrancy do not I think logically lead to adultery, theft or murder.

The crux of morality

One thing we do obviously need to ask here is what we actually mean by Christian morality. For of course this is one of the very things which we may need to re-investigate if we are reinterpreting Christian theology. And herein lies some of the conservative fear – if we re-interpret morality, might we not end up with anarchy and adultery? Perhaps – but not I think without losing the essence of Christianity, which is the person and character of Christ himself.

For this as always is the crucial point for me. In re-interpreting Christian theology and morality, I suggest that we still need to cling on to the reality of Christ – otherwise it is no longer ‘Christian’ but something other.

Conservatives and traditionalists worry that if we query the Bible and/or the Church, we lose our primary sources of moral and spiritual authority. I do see this, but for me Christ alone (including the Father and Holy Spirit) is the ultimate and primary source. For sure, Christ is mediated to us both through the Church and the Bible; we cannot I think lose these things completely without cutting off the branch we sit on. But we can to quite an extent reinterpret the Bible without losing Christ, for Christ comes first. Yet I think we always need to reinterpret in the light of Christ (as we receive and understand that).

So even if we do query doctrines like inerrancy, that doesn’t mean we have to throw out everything the Bible says about (say) sexual morality, for these teachings are founded on deeper principles merely than ‘what the Bible says is right’. They are founded on the fundamental reality of God’s character of love, goodness, faithfulness, mercy and integrity. The Bible helps reveal God’s character to us, but God’s Spirit is not limited to the text of the Bible.

So there are elements in traditional morality that I think we can at least legitimately question without losing the whole wider Christian framework and plunging into a moral abyss. We can surely query (I don’t say jettison) traditional views on matters like homosexuality, or assisted dying, without that becoming a carte blanche for moral collapse into free-for-all sexual license and libertarianism.

Faithful re-interpretation

The liberal approach to Christianity rejects the idea of a changeless, set-in-stone revelation of truth for all time. Rather it always seeks to re-interpret Christian ideals within current cultural contexts. Evangelicals object that this merely ends up as kow-towing to culture and being pulled along by endlessly shifting fashions and moral mores.

I think there’s some truth on both sides of this. I believe that Christianity does (to an extent) need to be re-interpreted and above all re-incarnated within our real contexts. Some things that applied to 1st-century Jews and Greeks may not hold for 21st-century Christians in, say, Europe or the US. Some theological understandings and biblical metaphors may no longer be meaningful for us.

Yet at the same time we cannot merely re-make Christ in our likeness nor simply cut our morality to match our culture. Rather we have to welcome the creative spirit of God into our changing situations and let him be what he is, ever-ancient and ever-new. He must lead, and our task is to discern and follow. And that means we cannot slavishly follow either ‘what the Bible says’ nor ‘what modern culture demands’.

The way of God is often messy and complex, and demanding of both intellectual effort and moral courage. There are usually no easy one-size-fits-all answers.

So, does ‘liberal’ theology, or re-interpreting the Bible, undermine Christian morality? I think it can do, but it needn’t. Not if we’re careful and faithful to the spirit of Christ in our re-interpreting – though I’m aware that’s easier said than done…

Post-script: levels of sin?

Before finally leaving this whole topic of sin, there’s one more evangelical view I’d like to query. It’s a common teaching that all sin is equally sin and you can’t speak of some sins as being worse than others. According to this view, it’s equally as hell-deserving to utter a mild profanity as it is to commit mass genocide.

On one level this is nonsense – it’s clearly worse to commit murder or rape than it is to swear or watch a rude film. (It’s also arguably unbiblical – for example, the writer of John’s letters distinguishes between sins that do and don’t ‘lead to death’, whatever exactly this means.)

However, I think I see what the teaching may be driving at. All ‘sinful’ acts are merely surface manifestations of a deeper problem, so in that sense it doesn’t really matter whether that manifestation is minor or major. What matters is the underlying sickness that we all need healing of; the innate ‘wonkiness’ or crookedness that runs through every one of us, whether we’re decent citizens or lawless criminals.

I’ve said that we shouldn’t write people like Rolf Harris off as merely ‘monsters’ and therefore not like us. What they’ve done is terrible, but the potential for such evil lies in each of us. In this sense the evangelicals are right – we’re all sinners in need of grace. Fortunately that grace is always available through Christ.

So I don’t wish to downplay sin; perhaps we’re actually all worse than we think we are. But we’re also all more loved and accepted and forgiven than we think we are too. Even the worst of us is ultimately redeemable. Amen?

Posted in Evangelicalism, Grace, Liberalism, Sin | Tagged , , , , | 52 Comments

Sin III: the positive side of sin?

Let’s face it, all this talk about sin can be a bit gloomy and depressing. So let’s change the mood a bit and look at the bright side of sin… well, at least of confessing sin.

Christianity has a bit of a bad press over this, I think. Because of its focus on our sins, there’s a general view that Christianity wants us to feel miserable, guilty and bad about ourselves. If I was sure I believed in the devil, I’d be impressed at how far he’s managed to twist the truth on this, because I believe that the real Christian message is the precise opposite.

No more guilt

For surely the whole point of confessing our sins is precisely to release us from burdens of guilt and shame and self-hate. The purpose (and effect) of bringing our sins out into the open before God is never to bow us down with shame, but rather to buoy us up with gladness. When we truly experience divine forgiveness, it’s a wonderful thing – a sense of being set free, of burdens lifted, chains falling off and all that sort of thing.

So I don’t believe that all the biblical talk about our sin is ever meant to make us feel that we’re miserable worms who can do no good and who God only loves because he has to (and then only just). The focus is not on how guilty and depraved and generally awful and worthless we are, but rather on how utterly fantastic God is and how much he loves us and wants to free us to be fully ourselves.

Christianity emphasises sin not so that we might wallow in our guilt and shame, but only ever that we might be free from these things. It’s a hugely positive and reassuring thing. God isn’t waiting by the Smite button; he’s waiting like the prodigal son’s dad to rush out and welcome us home with open arms.

In light of this, asking us to look at our sins, to confess them, even at times to focus on them, isn’t a morbid or unhealthy thing – quite the contrary. And it’s not about beating ourselves up about these unpleasant realities, nor about God wanting to do that.

Knowing and owning our sins

The point is rather that these are realities in our lives, and if they’re not brought out into the light they have the power to go on doing harm, eating away at us, even destroying us from within like a cancer. Until we bring them out into the open, the process of change and healing and liberation cannot genuinely begin. But as soon as we do face them and honestly bring them before God, that process can and does start.

A sin confessed may not yet be a sin resolved, but it’s at least a start. The point of confessing is not so that God knows about what we’ve done, but so that we do. It’s so that we own and accept our failings and flaws and misdemeanours as things that come from deep within us, that are ours and not someone else’s. This isn’t about blame and shame, but about honesty and reality.

And sometimes it’s helpful to confess our sin not just to God but to one another, because that gets it properly out into the open where we can’t pretend it’s not a problem. Of course, it has to be people we can trust, and in an appropriate and safe context.

The positive side of sin?

We clearly all have flaws, weaknesses, problems and sins; that’s the human condition. So when we stumble and commit an obvious sin, there is at least the one sort-of positive consequence – that we can now know that this particular sin is one of our problems, something that we need to deal with. And knowing that, we have the chance to do something about it.

The more dangerous sins are the ones that remain hidden, that we’re just not aware of. For these maybe we just need to pray that something will bring them out to the light. That won’t be pleasant of course; it’s never nice to discover a new ‘bad’ thing about yourself, a new aspect to your dark side. But once it’s discovered, the process of redeeming or overcoming it can begin.

Of course, it is sadly all too possible to confess some fault and then just learn to accept and accommodate it, rather than seeking to change. We’re masters of self-deception and spiritual inertia. So we have to really see our ‘sin’ as a problem and genuinely want to change.

Yet at the same time we do need to have compassion on ourselves (and each other). We’re not going to be rid of our faults overnight. And God still completely accepts us in our deeply imperfect state, while always calling us on towards the full, whole persons we one day can be. And we also need to realise that our sinful behaviours are generally only the surface symptoms of deeper underlying issues that need locating and healing.

So let’s stop beating ourselves up for being sinners. We’re human beings; of course we’ll mess things up on a fairly regular basis. And while that may not be something to celebrate, what is to be celebrated is that no sin of ours is beyond Christ’s forgiveness, no darkness in us is too great for God to redeem – if we’ll only bring it into his light. And furthermore we can change if we genuinely seek to, and by God’s grace we already are changing.

Postscript: sin and God’s holiness

Now there’s a common evangelical view that sin separates us from God because God is Holy and cannot look on sin, nor be in its presence. And God’s perfect righteousness and justice also requires that sin be punished.

This underlies – yet I think also undermines – the evangelical gospel that the entire purpose of Christ’s death was to take the punishment for our sins, make the proper sacrifice for them to propitiate God, and that now that they’re legally dealt with God can accept us again.

I say undermines, because this makes little sense to me. If God can’t look on nor be in the presence of sin, then just because it’s ‘paid for’ surely makes no difference here and now. I still sin sometimes, and there is still some sin in me, so by that argument I must still be separated from God, even if that sin no longer results in my punishment. Evangelicals get round this by saying that God sees us ‘in Christ’ and therefore not as sinful, but this just sounds to me like divine self-deception, which I don’t buy.

While we’re here, I’d also query the evangelical understanding of sin and forgiveness as the incurring and payment of a debt. I don’t think sin and forgiveness are best understood as a financial transaction or an accounting problem. Forgiveness can’t be bought or earned, nor can all losses and wounds be ‘paid’ for in some way, nor recompense be made and restoration achieved simply by means of sacrifice, payment or penalty. No payment can restore a dead loved one; nothing can cover the cost of something truly priceless.

Now I do think there are truths buried in these teachings, but they’re metaphorical ones that have been read literally. Sin can (in a sense) separate us from God, but I think the shutting out is primarily on our side, not his. And there probably is a kind of reality that the debt metaphor points to, but the main point is that Jesus has swept all such guilt-debt away.

Shutting out reality

I’ve said I don’t believe sin to be primarily about breaking a moral law and incurring the penalty. Rather it’s about ways of thinking and behaving and relating that militate against reality and relationship, against life and love, against emotional and psychological health. So when we follow ways of sin we become less real, less human, less ourselves, and less able to relate to others and God; less able even to recognise God.

But in the light of Christ and of Easter, I don’t believe our ‘sins’ any longer shut us – any of us – out of God’s presence. What they may perhaps do is blind us to God’s presence, or make his light seem dark to us. For God is reality and he is love, and unless we can learn to accept reality and learn to love then I suspect we cannot fully enjoy or experience his presence.

Finally, God meets us where we are and uses us where we are. We’re not perfect yet and we don’t do things perfectly. Even our best and most Christ-directed efforts at the moment will have elements that we could call ‘sinful’ – less whole, less real, less good. But God still accepts them and makes good of them; accepts us and makes good of us.

And by the same coin, he accepts and uses those others who we dislike and disagree with, who are doing things the ‘wrong’ way, whether they be fundamentalists, liberals, heretics, and (dare I say it?) people of other faiths and none

Posted in Sin | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

Sin II – the inner struggle

So as I started to say last time, there seems to be an essential, elemental struggle within us between what we want to do and who we want to be; between our good aspirations and our innate and often unhelpful drives.

I want to be good, loving, Christlike and whole, but I also want pleasure and popularity. Physically and biologically I desire to enjoy all the delights that the world offers, but spiritually I don’t want to be the kind of person that that would make me. And when I try to live according to my moral principles, I find myself constantly derailed by internal instincts and traits that seem to come out of nowhere.

Of course, this is exactly the condition that Paul describes in Romans 7:19: ‘The good I want to do I do not do, and the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing’.

Look at King David. He’s probably just finished writing an inspired psalm of worship when he looks out of the window, sees beautiful Bathsheba bathing, and animal instinct takes over. Before you know it, he’s committed adultery and is on course to commit murder to cover it up.

So we have within us the potential for greatness and beauty, but also the potential to become something terrible, an abomination.

I’ve said it before – the biggest battle we fight is with ourselves, with the parts of our natures that militate against health and wholeness, against maturity and reality and love. We’re our own worst enemies, and we carry the seeds of our downfall around in us, the things that if unchecked will ruin us and wreck our lives. We have to master these parts of ourselves, conquer them, tame them, learn to control them.

It’s an inner fight between the chaotic forces of entropy, gravity and inertia, dragging us down and pulling us apart, and the redemptive forces of love, light and life.

Nice vs good?

Part of the problem is that the way of growth and health is just so much less immediately attractive and appealing than the alternative. All things being equal, who wouldn’t want to choose pleasurable indulgence over self-restraint, comfort and ease over hard work, power and control over quiet service? For whatever reason, that’s how we’re programmed.

And to complicate matters further, pleasurable things are clearly not always or inherently bad. If we could just say that sex and money and chocolate and alcohol and entertainment were always sinful (as we imagine the Puritans did, though they didn’t really), then we might face a fun-free existence but at least our choices would be straightforward. But of course these things aren’t always wrong. It’s often a question of context, and priority, and whether we’re master of these things or they of us.

The hard and easy paths

Annoyingly, it also turns out that almost everything good and worthwhile requires effort and commitment. But unfortunately humans seem to be fundamentally lazy, inclined to take shortcuts and easy paths that don’t lead anywhere good – again, it’s part of how we’re programmed. I mentioned psychologist Scott Peck’s idea of ‘original sin’ as the innate spiritual laziness that holds us all back from growth, from facing and tackling our flaws.

Often we’re faced with what Dumbledore in Harry Potter calls ‘the choice between what’s right and what’s easy’. It’s the choice between short-term and long-term gain, between immediate benefit and that which we have to work and wait for. It’s a right pain, to be honest. And it’s no surprise which way most of us choose much of the time.

It’s a bit like the classics – we want to have read them but not actually to read them. We want to have achieved goodness and wholeness, but without the effort and pain of the process that gets us there. We want to have reached freedom, but we don’t want to walk the demanding path that alone leads there. So we take shortcuts, but they don’t work because the process is the point; the journey is the means. There’s no quick route to redemption.

And of course, conversely, the unhealthy and unhelpful things are what we want to do but not to have done – because they leave us in a worse position, and we feel guilty to boot. We desire them, and then regret them. And of course they’re also almost always the easier, quicker, and more attractive option.

Living through discomfort

So part of the process of growing up is learning (constantly) to master those innate impulses which often unhelpfully push us towards unhealthy ways of thinking, behaving and relating.

We all have to keep on battling our many compulsions and addictions, including (counter-intuitively) some which seem ‘Christian’ – for example the compulsion to ‘be good’ in order to gain approval or make ourselves feel okay. And we need to keep challenging all our lazy thinking – including much of what we assume to be good religious thought.

As part of this process, we have to learn to live through all manner of discomfort in order to reach the goal of freedom and wholeness. We have to keep on facing down our irrational fears and anxieties, not letting them bully or control us as they wish. We have to keep on facing down our impulsive desires and sweet temptations, not letting them seduce or master us as they wish. And the childish, selfish part of us will protest every step of the way, like a toddler who no-one has said ‘no’ to before.

Often it will be a matter of taking a step back and short-circuiting our default response cycle, the almost unconscious reflex which would lead us to act impulsively out of fear or anger or lust. I think of the children’s book character Mr Jelly who learnt to master his fears by counting to ten, giving him breathing space to realise that what he thought was terrifying was really only something innocuous.

Facing the dark side

And as well as facing down our fears and desires, we also have to face up to our inner darkness and all the parts of ourselves that we’d far rather hide or ignore. We can’t overcome our darker impulses if we won’t acknowledge they exist, and we can’t master our shadow side if we pretend it’s not there.

For the truth is that unfortunately every one of us has some elements of aggression, lust, greed, boastful pride, prejudice, envy, desires to control others, meanness, enjoyment at others’ misfortune. Sadly we’re just not unmitigatedly good or lovely, but we spend much effort and energy trying to project the impression that we are, creating a ‘false self’ with which we try to fool even ourselves; even God.

So we often tend not to learn from our sins because we’re so desperate to cover them up, like a cat burying its faeces. We try to conceal them not only from others but also from ourselves, not wishing to face the painful reality they tell us about our fundamental flawedness. The human capacity for self-deception is almost endless.

We try to get rid of those things which we feel bad or ashamed or uncomfortable or unhappy about. We either bury them deep (where they remain like unexploded bombs), or else we put them onto other people who act as scapegoats for us, bearing the darkness that we can’t face in ourselves. Neither of those ways really works; neither leads to growth, wholeness or freedom.

And perhaps most dangerous are the unhelpful traits within us that we’re either not aware of at all, or that we actually think are fine and right – that familiar custom has habituated us to accept. Until we realise we have a problem, we can’t change.

Were Rolf Harris or Jimmy Savile monsters? Yes in a sense, but let’s not kid ourselves that puts them in a different category from us. They acted out of dark traits that lurk deep within all humanity and which they found they could indulge – and then cover up, perhaps even from themselves.

Letting God in

So within all of our psyches are areas which don’t properly reflect the nature and presence of God, and which indeed militate against his action and presence, pushing him away. I believe that rather than hiding these areas away, we urgently need to invite God into the very places that we most wish to keep him out of; the parts of us that most violently hate and reject his influence. These are the places that can all too easily become ‘hells’ for us, yet they are also the place where Christ’s greatest work can be done.

But of course facing up to our darkness is almost always deeply uncomfortable, and our strong inclination will usually be to flee back into comfortable, self-deceiving safety.

Can we change?

So can we ever really change? Yes, surely. But can we change ourselves? Perhaps to an extent, but we can’t ever do the whole thing on our own (regrettably for a recluse like me). We need the long-term support and patience and honesty of friends and counsellors, and ultimately the unfailing and limitless grace of God.

And of course it won’t be quick. It will be a lifetime’s work of slow, gradual, painstaking and sometimes painful redemption of our characters, retraining of our habits and responses, reprogramming and rewiring of our minds. There will be many setbacks and failures; but even these can be redeemed and turned to the good.

We’re like wonky-wheeled trolleys (shopping carts to my US friends), always tending to veer off the straight course, bashing into people, knocking things over. We need God’s grace constantly nudging us back onto the right track. But in Christ, even the wonkiest wheels can be righted in time.

So yes, sin is surely a reality, whatever exactly it might be and wherever exactly it might originate from. But the Christian message is that sin doesn’t have the final word, and nor is it the most important thing in our lives, not by a long chalk.

Posted in Evil, Grace, Psychology, Sin | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

What is sin (and does it matter)?

Over the next few posts I’d like to take a closer look at two of the most troubling and controversial topics in Christian theology – sin and suffering.

As a recovering evangelical, I hesitate to talk about ideas of ‘sin’ and ‘depravity’. I’m not convinced by the (alleged) Puritan/Calvinist view that humans are utterly depraved and evil to the core, incapable of any good thing. I certainly don’t believe that enjoyment of dancing, games, theatre, cinema or sex is inherently bad. Nor do I believe that we’re less moral than we used to be.

Yet I have to acknowledge the reality of persistent moral failure in my own life, and failure to be all that I could be. More than that, I have to accept the dark side of my own nature which is with me all the time like my shadow.

So I’m convinced from my own experience that sin is a significant reality; but I don’t always find traditional understandings of ‘sin’ particularly helpful. I’m not sure they go deep enough for a start. So I’m looking for new ways to express some of the old truths on which fundamentalist religion doesn’t have a monopoly.

Rethinking sin

Forgive the implied obscenity, but one way I look on sin is as the innate human propensity to **** things up. This includes our propensity to **** up our own lives, relationships and anything else we’re involved with for any amount of time. I use this wording to convey something of the intensity of the problem – the ‘offense’ of sin. It’s not just that we occasionally mess up a little. It goes far deeper than that, and has far more destructive consequences.

If we reduce sin merely to ‘sins’ – prohibited acts or behaviours like adultery, fornication, drunkenness, violence, theft etc – then we’re only dealing with surface symptoms and we miss the darker heart, the real roots of the problem.

So I don’t find helpful the understanding of sin merely as disobedience to a divine command or the violation of God’s law – at least not when that’s understood as anything equivalent to human law. If it is a violation, it’s more like a violation of a law of nature, indeed of a fundamental law of our own natures – of who we’re meant to be on the deepest level.

Sin is not an abstract concept, nor is it merely the breaking of an arbitrary law or moral code. It is rather the marring of the divine image in ourselves and others. It’s whatever leads to our becoming less truly human, and to viewing or treating others as less than fully human.

So sin is not so much about individual acts and words as about a deep inner brokenness. This manifests itself as an orientation of the soul away from reality, from rightness, from wholeness and health, from life, from love, from true intimacy, from openness, from mutual loving relationships. It is a self-destructive path that leads to increasing inner dis-integration. It’s an addiction to ways of being and behaving that makes us less real, less whole, less integrated, less able to give and receive love.

Failing to love

One way of looking at sin then is as the failure to love, to embody and live out of love – love for God, for ourselves, for fellow humans, and for the world and cosmos. Love is the overarching divine law (and divine attribute); sin then is whatever we do (and are) that militates against that.

Alternatively, Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga defines sin as the ‘culpable disturbance of shalom’. In this understanding it’s the shattering or violation of God’s intended peace, order and harmony, and in such a way that we bear responsibility for it.

Failure to be ourselves

I’ve written that our primary purpose in life is to become truly Christlike (i.e. completely good and loving) and fully ourselves.

So perhaps one of the most helpful definitions I’ve heard for sin is that it is ‘an addiction to being less than truly ourselves’. In this sense it is a ‘falling short’ as Romans 3:23 puts it; falling short of our real, full selves; the people we were created to become.

Sin is whatever gets in the way of human flourishing. Similarly, M. Scott Peck writes of ‘original sin’ as the spiritual entropy or innate inertia that holds us back from doing the hard work of growth, of becoming who we’re really meant to be.

For the point is who we’re becoming more than where we’re coming from. I’m no longer convinced that humanity was created perfect and fell. Rather, following Irenaeus I think that humanity was created incomplete and immature, needing like a baby to grow and develop towards wholeness and fullness. The ‘fall’ in this view was not from original perfection but was rather an attempted false shortcut to maturity, bypassing the all-important journey of growth.

Good aspirations, unhelpful instincts

So, like most of us, I have genuine aspirations to be a good, kind, loving, compassionate and ultimately Christlike person. I also want to be a truly happy, healthy and whole person. I believe that these two things are inherently bound up together; that goodness and wholeness are two sides of the same coin.

Sadly though there are also desires, drives and fears in me which militate forcefully against these good aspirations. And these unhelpful drives seem to be entirely natural, instinctive and innate – fundamentally part of who I am. They include the desires to be universally wanted, loved and admired; to experience pleasure and avoid pain; to be safe and comfortable and have an easy life; to be in control. They also include the instinct to hit back when I’m hurt, and to seek to blame others when things go wrong.

Many of these stem from perfectly natural, reasonable instincts. But if I let them rule in me, overruling my conscience, they can lead to harmful, addictive patterns of thought and behaviour. I can all too easily let myself be mastered by my urges, desires and fears, to the detriment of my character and my relationships. I know, because that’s what tends to happen a lot of the time.

Doing what comes naturally

Unfortunately, ‘what comes naturally’ – the default impulse or response – is very often the one of selfishness, greed, thoughtlessness, rage, fear, spite, envy or lust. It’s as though we’re fundamentally mis-programmed.

Our bodies crave unhealthy high-fat and sugary foods rather than the fruit and veg we need. Our souls long for love but we struggle to form meaningful lasting relationships. We find it so much easier to be hurtful than kind, critical than encouraging, destructive than creative. We find goodness boring and evil entertaining. We prefer ease to effort, comfort to character development. All in all, we just don’t seem naturally predisposed to Christlikeness.

Focus magazine ran an article a few years back which suggested that we’re biologically programmed towards the ‘7 deadly sins’ – rage, greed, gluttony, lust, pride, sloth, envy. These were all useful (even vital) for survival in our pre-human pre-history, but now they’re largely baggage – occasionally useful in specific situations but generally anything but.

Furthermore these responses are supposedly hardwired into an evolutionarily ‘primitive’ part of the brain which starts kicking into action before you’ve had time for rational thought. This doesn’t mean we have to act on these impulses or can’t overcome them, but lasting change requires long-term re-training.

It’s easy to see all these traits when we look at the instinctive behaviour of animals. Humans are not just animals; but from animals we were taken and to animals we can return, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis.

Cognitive biases

Another similar explanation relates to cognitive biases – unconscious, unquestioned patterns and habits of thought which we’re generally unaware of. We’re programmed this way in order to make sense of a chaotic, confusing world, filtering out things that aren’t useful and taking cognitive shortcuts to facilitate decisive action.

These mental shortcuts can sometimes be helpful. But they also include traits that are anything but – prejudices against anyone different from ourselves; stereotyping people who belong to particular groups; jumping to conclusions based on unquestioned assumptions rather than rational thought; and so on. We all tend to believe that we’re right and therefore others are wrong, and we all assume that we have far greater knowledge and understanding than we really do.

Emotional baggage

Then there are the unhelpful psychological traits which again we’re often largely unaware of. Again, these are often things we’ve learnt in order to deal with pain or troubling emotion in childhood – perhaps in response to fears of being rejected, abandoned, unwanted. We learn to project our ‘bad’, dark, unacceptable feelings out onto other people and things rather than owning them. This may turn into irrational hatred of particular groups or kinds of people, or a tendency always to blame others when things go wrong. Or it may turn inward into neurotic self-hate and self-blame.

We learn unhealthy patterns of relating to other people, perhaps manipulating them to get our needs met or clinging on to them to avoid abandonment. And all of these things lurk within our psyches, disrupting and derailing our attempts to be good, whole, happy people.

Or to put it another way, we’re all to greater or lesser extent messed up by our imperfect parents who were messed up by theirs. Call it original sin if you like, or call it evolution or psychology. Either way, we’re damaged and damage-causing people, receiving and spreading toxicity. Yet that’s never the whole picture, for we’re also made in God’s image and we bear his likeness, however blurred and blunted.

Posted in Psychology, Sin | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Authenticity vs obedience?

Should we do good, serve God and love others as a duty because we owe it to God? Or should we only do it if we can do it gladly, authentically and ungrudgingly, out of genuine love and gratitude?

Should we pray, read the Bible, attend church, share our faith, give to the poor, feed the hungry and all the rest whether we feel like it or not, out of obedience to divine command? Or should we do only as we feel called or led, following our passion and our heart rather than the law?

There are two main schools of thought on this, and I’m not sure either of them is quite right on its own. I’m calling them the ‘duty’ and the ‘grace’ schools.

The duty school

The duty school says that we should do all of these things regardless of whether we feel like it or feel called to it. We should do it because we are commanded to, and we owe it to God our creator and redeemer to obey without protest, whatever the cost. ‘Authenticity’ is a false idol in this view; it matters not whether we feel we’re being ‘true to ourselves’ but only whether we’re being true to God’s word.

In this view, we may not feel like it but feelings will eventually follow obedience. We may feel no love for a particular person, but as we obediently act lovingly towards them, the feelings of love may come over time. We may have no desire to perform some deed of Christian duty, but as we do it we will grow in gladness and joy. We may feel no gratitude to God, but as we faithfully express gratitude for God’s provision we will eventually start to feel it.

So the duty school is perfectly happy with the words ‘should’ and ‘ought’, because there are some things which are simply our Christian duty and obligation – end of. And the duty school can of course quote endless Bible passages to support its view.

The grace school

The grace (or really grace-only) school by contrast dismisses the duty school as an old-covenant, legalistic, letter-of-the-law way of doing things. Instead, the keystones are God’s grace, Christ’s freedom and our honest authenticity to who we really are. Obeying out of duty is (in this view) a compulsive and childish behaviour based on the need to win parental approval.

So according to grace-only, we obey God and serve others out of honest gratitude and love, or we don’t serve at all. We love because we’re overflowing with Christ’s love, not because we’re told to love; and if we’re not overflowing, then we don’t love until we are. We serve freely and out of freedom; if there’s a whiff of guilt or compulsion, or of seeking to appease or win favour, then we’re better off not serving at all.

In this view the words ‘should’ and ‘ought’ are dirty words; they are burdensome and guilt-inducing, leading not to freedom but only to burnout and breakdown.

Grace-schoolers can of course also back up their position biblically. ‘If I give all I have to the poor… yet have not love, I gain nothing’. This verse suggests that merely doing good dutifully – even great good – is of no benefit if it is done out of compulsion rather than freely out of love. Or again, ‘It was for freedom that Christ has set us free’ – we are no longer bound by codes and laws, by have-tos and shoulds.

Uniting the two schools

So which school has got it right? Both and neither, I think. There’s a truth on both sides of the coin, but the whole truth comes only in a marriage of the two, in which both are slightly changed.

So I think there is a truth that certain things are right and good and necessary, whether we feel like them or not. I think there is a truth that in many cases feelings will follow if in faith we start to act in ways that we know to be right – and that if they don’t, that’s not the be-all and end-all. And I think that we do sometimes need to set aside our ‘authenticity’ for the sake of others.

Yet I also believe very strongly that the heart of Christian living is love and joy and freedom and genuine gratitude – things which cannot be imposed or commanded or worked up, but which have to come in their own time and under the right circumstances. I believe that Christ wants us to be free friends, not compelled servants.

And I believe that guilt and fear and compulsion and appeasement are not good motives for Christian service, and that sometimes it may be better to desist from such service for a time rather than to continue in these life-sapping ways. I do believe that ‘should’ and ‘ought’ are generally unhelpful words.

I also do believe that it’s important to know who we are and to live out of the truth of that. In the apostle Paul’s body metaphor, if we’re an ear we do not need to feel guilt that we’re not a hand. We’re not all evangelists, or pastors, or teachers, or worship leaders, and that’s okay.

Above all, I believe in grace. But that doesn’t mean we don’t bother or try, that we sit back and make no effort. On the contrary, it means that we do try but that it’s okay to get things wrong, to mess things up, to fail – and then have another go, and another. It means we don’t have to be perfect all at once. It’s one thing at a time, one day at a time, with lots of setbacks and lapses. We have a lifetime’s journeying to complete, and we need to learn to be human before we can even start to become saints.

So duty on its own can be (though isn’t necessarily) merely legalistic or compulsive. But grace-alone can be merely lazy, a theological excuse for not doing anything that we don’t feel like. Like the liberal love vs evangelical truth dichotomy, the better way is in the marriage of the two sides.

Faithfulness vs obedience

Rather than the word ‘duty’ or ‘obedience’ then, I’d prefer the word ‘faithfulness’.

Obedience implies a master-servant relationship, or an overly authoritarian parent-child relationship. Faithfulness however suggests a more equal and free relationship, that of friends or even lovers.

Furthermore, faithfulness suggests a degree of personal sacrifice and effort (even obedience), but on the basis of love rather than mere law-keeping duty.

I love the biblical line ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice’. This is often read by the grace-only school as meaning that God doesn’t need dutiful obedience; it’s rather all about our hearts. But I read it differently. As I see it, it’s not abolishing obedience or duty, but rather changing the character, nature and basis of obedience and duty. Our ‘duty’ is love, which cannot be compelled. It is mercy, which has to be offered freely – but which may cost us dearly.

The greatest command then is a huge paradox, something I think we’ve often missed. ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart… and your neighbour as yourself’. Love is the most important thing in the universe, and it is our greatest duty. Love can be and is required; yet at the same time it cannot be compelled, coerced or even commanded in any normal sense. Love can only be asked for, and offered – or withheld.

And that, I think, is the nub of Christian faith.

Posted in Love of God, Religion, The faith journey | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

What use is Christianity?

 “But what manner of use would it be ploughing through that blackness?” asked Drinian.   “Use?” replied Reepicheep. “Use, Captain? If by use you mean filling our bellies or our purses, I confess it will be of no use at all. But as far as I know we did not set sail to look for things useful but to seek honour and adventures.”
C.S.Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

One criticism that’s often levelled at Christianity is that it’s just concerned with ‘spiritual’ and non-practical things – with life after death, and theories of salvation, and mysticism. In this sense, the argument goes, it’s not a practical, real-world, real-life faith.

But it seems to me that Christianity is very much concerned with real life, and with the whole of life. It’s by no means only interested in the ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ aspects but also with eating and sleeping, work, sex, relationships, leisure time and so forth.

I love the Message paraphrase of Romans 12:1 ‘Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering’. This is an intensely practical, physical, even earthy, understanding of worship.

Yes, praying and singing songs of praise can also be worship. But where the rubber hits the road is in the moment-to-moment details of our daily lives – that’s where we’re really becoming Christian, becoming Christlike, or really not. It’s where we make the little decisions and choices that over time form our characters. Christian salvation doesn’t happen only in heaven or in our ‘spiritual’ lives, but is enacted and embodied and worked out in the nitty-gritty of the daily grind.

Way of life

So Christianity is very much about the here and now of our practical lives. It’s just that it doesn’t necessarily prescribe exactly how we should do all these everyday things. It doesn’t give us practical, step-by-step instructions for every aspect of life, because that’s not the point.

I once met a Muslim convert from Catholicism who said that he’d been attracted to Islam by the rules. ‘There’s a rule for everything!’ he enthused. ‘Even for how you go to the loo and wipe your bottom’. I don’t know if this is true, but if it is I can sort of understand the appeal – though personally I’d find it deeply restrictive.

The most ‘practical’ religion is arguably Witchcraft, or at least the forms of witchcraft which seek to control and manipulate supernatural forces in order to achieve practical goals – e.g. cursing enemies or healing friends, making crops grow, assuring fertility or victory in battle and so forth. In some ways, it’s a very technological approach to religion – essentially using it as a mechanism to get what you need. (Of course, quite a few people do approach Christianity this way, but I think they miss the point by doing so.)

For Christianity certainly doesn’t have rules for everything; nor does it offer specific techniques which you can follow to achieve particular desired ends. Rather it’s a broad framework in which to place all of life’s practical situations. It’s a ‘Way’ to follow – but we each have to find the specifics of the way for ourselves.

Rather than giving us specific rules and techniques for everything we’ll ever encounter, Christianity is concerned with transforming our hearts and renewing our minds. For then the right way will be ‘written on our hearts’. Then we’ll approach all aspects of life with the right attitude and in the right spirit. We don’t need to be told exactly how to do the washing up; rather we need the Christ-renewed heart that will do it with a good grace, as an act of worship or service and not under compulsion.

What use is Christian faith?

So to go back to the original question, what actual use is Christianity?

For many people, if Christianity can’t guarantee you happiness, or health, or victory over enemies, or security, or freedom from trouble, then it’s not worth bothering with – it’s of no practical use. I can sympathise with this view; sometimes it feels like Christianity makes a huge set of near-impossible demands but (in the short term) gives little in return. But again, I think that’s to miss the point.

I quoted C.S. Lewis’s Narnian mouse Reepicheep at the start, reminding the Dawn Treader’s crew that adventures and heroic quests are not undertaken for their practical value, but for their spiritual. Their purpose is not to prolong life nor to make it comfortable, but to enhance and fulfil it. There’s no practical ‘use’ in the adventure they’ve embarked upon – it won’t bring them food or wealth. It’s possible that it may even cost them their lives; yet it will (paradoxically) make them more alive. It will make them more whole, more real – and more human; more themselves.

We could similarly ask what ‘use’ is love, or music and art, or story and poetry, or sport, or conversation with a friend? What use is climbing a mountain or running a marathon or swimming the Channel? Or what use is writing a song, or watching a sunset? No use whatsoever – yet these are precisely the kinds of things that make life worth living. They don’t keep you alive physically, but they keep your spirit alive. They feed your soul, not your stomach.

We could also ask what use is prayer, especially if we don’t get answers (or not the ones we want). It’s all too easy to treat prayer as merely a practical exercise to get what we want from God, but as I said before I believe that’s to miss the point. Prayer is, in a sense, a waste of time – but it’s a glorious waste of time. Prayer may often change nothing practically, but in another way it can change everything.

Love divine

It’s a bit like romantic love. When we fall in love, the world doesn’t objectively change one iota. But for us it changes beyond recognition. Suddenly everything is full of colour and beauty. Our senses are sharpened; we see and hear afresh. Life has new meaning and purpose.

As I mentioned in a recent post, I think Christianity is very like falling in love. It’s something that makes no sense from outside. But to those caught up in the divine love, it changes everything; it changes us. Nothing’s changed, yet everything has changed.

That’s why I don’t think we should ever seek to completely eradicate the ‘magical’ element in Christianity, however embarrassing or awkward that is for sensible, scientifically-minded modern people. Without its strange, supernatural, numinous core, Christianity just becomes yet one more moral and ethical system for living a decent life. Which is frankly a bit dull.

And the greatest and most numinous and most central mystery of all is the mystery of divine love. It is the mysterious love we cannot earn or explain but only experience; the love which welcomes and transforms and redeems us.

What’s the use?

So how practical is Christianity? It depends what you mean by that. As I’ve said, in one sense it’s entirely practical, focusing on the details of our everyday bodily lives and relationships as the locus of redemption.

And what use is Christianity? Again it depends on what you mean. It is of very little use in many of the senses that we humans value – filling our bellies and purses, guaranteeing us health and wealth, happiness and security. The ‘use’ of Christian faith is simply that it is the way of reality, of redemption, of healing, of life, of love, of becoming real and whole and human and alive. And there are no rule-books or technique-manuals for that.

Posted in Incarnation, Salvation, Spirituality | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments