The Ebola crisis and the abode of Christ

I had what I’d like to think of as a divine mishearing at church the other day. I was sure at first that the person leading the prayers had said ‘Let’s pray about the abode of Christ’. It took me a second or two to realise that what he’d actually said was ‘Let’s pray about the Ebola crisis’.

The odd juxtaposition of sounds and ideas got me thinking. Could the Ebola crisis be the abode of Christ, in some sense?

The Ebola crisis fills most of us with abject dread, bringing out the worst in many of us. Most of us probably want deep down to lock our doors against the victims, shut them out there, somewhere a long way from us. We might look on with a kind of horrified sympathy all the while we’re not under any direct threat ourselves, but as soon as there’s a possible case of Ebola on our own doorstep we react with panic. I’m pretty sure I would, at any rate.

Which is all completely understandable, even to a degree reasonable. Who would want to risk infection from such a terrible disease? Who would want to risk their children being infected? Yet I’m convinced that this isn’t how Christ would react – even if he were at equal risk of infection to the rest of us. I’m fairly certain he’d be there among the sufferers, touching them and treating them as equals, not as mere victims or charity cases.

Where is God?

When we look at cases of terrible suffering and disease like the Ebola crisis, if our thoughts turn to God at all it’s often to blame him, to demand of him how he could let such horror happen. “If you’re God, if you’re all-good and all-loving and all-powerful, what on earth are you up to to allow this? Where are you – what are you doing?”

Again, these questions are understandable, even reasonable. But I think they miss the point. Because maybe, just maybe, the Ebola crisis is the abode of Christ.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that God caused the Ebola crisis or that it’s a form of divine retribution – absolutely not. Nor am I saying that he’s sadistically enjoying it – quite the contrary. But I believe he is in it.

Where is God? He is there, among the terrified, sick and dying victims of this terrible disease, in them and with them. And he is in and with the incredibly courageous medical staff and aid workers doing their best to help and heal the afflicted.

For I believe God is always where the need is greatest and where the love is least. God may be everywhere, but he is surely most of all with the outcast and exile, the despised and rejected, the leper and the untouchable, the unwanted and unloved, those who others shun or have given up on. Those who the rest of us see (even if we don’t want to admit it) as the dregs of society, or as lepers and pariahs to be avoided at all costs – these are the ones upon whom God places the highest value and emphasis.

Lord of the disreputable

Shortly after my friend prayed about Ebola, I had to read out the week’s Bible reading, from Luke 18:35–19.10 – the stories of the blind beggar and of Zaccheus. And it struck me that there was a more-than-coincidental link here with the thought about the Ebola crisis being the abode of Christ.

For again, here were two people who their society despised and shunned. The crowd tried to shut the blind beggar up and stop him from bothering Jesus. And when Jesus announced that he must stay at Zaccheus’s house, the good people of Jericho were incensed – “Jesus is going to stay with this terrible sinner?”

But Jesus himself clearly cared nothing for these social norms and niceties. He cared – and cares – for real people with real needs, regardless of how it might affect his reputation.

I’ve said before that Christianity is not primarily for good people, for the beautiful and respectable, those who’ve got it together, the movers and shakers, the great and the good. I’m not saying it’s not for these people – Jesus is for everyone, of course. But I believe that first and foremost Jesus is for losers, and Christianity is for bad people.

For of course Jesus himself came as one who was ‘despised and rejected of men’ (Isaiah 53). He had every right to live in luxury; he could have wielded power and demanded our worship; but instead he lived on charity, made friends with the disreputable and got under the skin of the establishment.

Kingdom of the rejects

For the God we see in Jesus is a God of compassion not condemnation. He cares deeply for real, damaged, flawed, messed-up, hurting people. God’s kingdom is the place where the lonely and isolated and rejected can finally belong, where the broken can finally be healed, where the worst and least can find their place.

And of course the truth is that we’re all losers really, and we’re all bad people. It’s just that some of us are better at hiding it than others. But Jesus wants our whole, real selves, not just the politely polished-up presentable parts.

If we refuse to accept the ones we view as bad or undeserving or embarrassing, untouchable or contaminated, we risk excluding ourselves from the all-inclusive society that Christ is creating, a community in which all can take their place and all be welcomed – if they’re not too proud. It doesn’t pay to be too snobby about who’s included. On God’s guest list there may be prostitutes and pimps, pornographers and paedophiles, drunks and junkies, estate agents and politicians, con artists and second-hand car salesmen, slave traders, racists, bigots, fundamentalists, terrorists… and you, if you still want to be there.

Of course, in the world to come all of these people will be redeemed and renewed, washed clean and made new. They will no longer be what they were, and nor will you or I, thank God. But in the meantime the kingdom-in-bud is quietly filling up with all manner of deeply undesirable sorts, and we’d better get used to it. Following the Spirit where he leads may just bring us into all kinds of places we’d rather avoid, and into contact with all sorts of people we fear, despise, dislike, distrust, or don’t want to be associated with.

So perhaps the Kingdom of God looks more like a rejects pile than a royal palace. And maybe the Ebola crisis is the abode of Christ.

(None of which of course is to say that Ebola sufferers are in any way wicked – just people who most of us desperately want to stay away from.)

And after all that, am I about to leave my comfortable safety and security and head off to help people dying of Ebola? No, I’m not. Which maybe shows what a long way I still have to go in the journey towards being fully Christlike

Posted in Incarnation, Suffering, Theology | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Should we accept reality or should we fight it?

…that is the question: whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?

God grant me the courage to change the things I can,
The serenity to accept the things I cannot,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
The Serenity Prayer

So, should we accept reality as it comes to us, hard and unpleasant as it often is, or should we seek to change it, fight it even?

Mostly, I’m with the Serenity Prayer. So many of us waste so much of our lives trying to change (or at least refusing to accept) a reality that simply won’t be changed, because it is reality. As Jesus apparently put it to Paul on the road to Damascus, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” When we try to change things that are unchangeable we kick against the goads; we bash up against the hard, immovable edges of reality and we merely hurt and exhaust ourselves in vain.

The wildcard of faith

Yet of course this isn’t the whole story. There is that disturbing and exciting wildcard element in Christianity that throws a spanner into these neat works – i.e. the tantalising possibility of the miracle that changes reality.

There are some situations that we cannot change, yet where everything within us cries out that we cannot lie down and accept them either. So we bring them to God in prayer, in the desperate hope against hope that despite all natural appearances and indications the situation may yet be changed; that the sovereign God will consent to perform a reality-altering miracle of healing or liberation or transformation or reconciliation.

I’ve said that reality simply is reality, and as such can’t be changed. Yet of course (the wildcard again) for believers there is another, deeper Reality that we believe exists though at present we only experience it in rare glimpses. It’s the Reality of God’s coming kingdom, one which operates according to a different set of rules from the reality we currently inhabit. When we pray for a miracle, in a sense we’re praying for the breaking-in to our current reality of this other kind of reality – a reality where some impossible things become possible.

Faith that moves mountains?

The gospels are of course jam-packed full of the impossible. Liberals and sceptics among us may wish to query whether any of these miracles really happened, and rather put them down as mythical accretions to the historical accounts, or as symbolic rather than actual events. But for myself, I still incline to believe in the overall factuality of most of the miracle accounts, even if I think their symbolic significance may be at least as important as the miraculous event itself.

And if any of these apparently impossible events did in fact take place, then all the rules of reality as we understand them get thrown up in the air. If the power of God can at times raise the dead, make the lame walk, restore sight to the blind, turn water into wine, multiply food to feed a multitude, or allow human beings to walk upon water, then surely anything can happen. The walls of reality are no longer quite so solid; a chink has appeared.

After all, what could be more solidly real, more geographically fixed than a mountain? Yet Jesus speaks tantalisingly of the ‘faith that moves mountains’. Maybe some realities that appear to be utterly fixed and concrete are not, at least not for God.

Nonetheless, I’m not saying that we can expect the rules of reality to be rewritten at our whim. There’s the old joke about someone coming out of an exam and praying ‘Please God, let Paris be the capital of Belgium’. On the whole God’s pretty unlikely to alter the facts of world geography in answer to our wishes. Furthermore, it seems that he won’t ever turn back time or change the past – though he may well redeem it.

So with God all things may be possible – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all things are going to actually happen.

Which does leave us with something of a dilemma. In any given situation where we long for change that we can’t bring about ourselves – say a relative dying of cancer – how much can and should we expect a miracle? I don’t have an answer to this. The miracle/faith element is a wildcard. We can pray our socks off and we can trust God, but I don’t think we can ever be certain of a particular outcome (short of direct divine revelation).

The problem of hope

Oddly then, hope can be something of a problem for Christians. The possibility – however remote – that God might do a miracle can leave us hoping and praying for years for things which aren’t ever going to happen in this world. In such cases we’d surely be far better off accepting and learning to live with the imperfect, non-ideal reality, however painful.

Knowing that God can (and sometimes does) do the apparently impossible, we can go on hoping and hoping when all real hope is gone. Sometimes such hope can be cruel not kind, holding out before us a tiny tantalising possibility that almost certainly will not be realised in this life; keeping us from achieving closure and moving on.

And yet… who am I to say what God will and won’t do, and what his timescales are? Miracles do happen. The naysayers and sceptics are not always right. Perhaps after all it’s better to be a bit hopeful, even gullible, and open yourself to disappointment than it is to be cynical and close yourself off to hope and grace. I don’t know.

The in-betweeners

The thing is, we currently live in an in-between time. The current order of things, governed by natural laws and subject to entropy, is still the dominant reality; yet it is gradually falling apart and passing away. Meanwhile the new order of God’s Kingdom is coming, is growing, pushing up between the cracks; but for the moment it remains largely hidden, waiting, in bud. We live in the age between the ages, what some have called ‘the now and not yet’ of the Kingdom.

In this awkward in-between age then, the breaking-in of the Kingdom will mostly occur in rare, partial, patchy, incomplete ways. We can’t always expect mountain-moving miracles every time we pray; perhaps most often we have to accept that our situations are not going to change, but rather that we are going to change within them.

Yet there will still be those rare glimpses, moments when the clouds part and the Kingdom breaks through in power and glory, and for a brief time all the world – all our world – is transformed.

And I think the last word should go to the Senility Prayer:

May God grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway,
The good fortune to bump into the ones I do,
And the eyesight to tell the difference.

Amen ;)

Posted in Faith, Prayer, The faith journey | Tagged , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Why it’s (not) important what you believe

Writing this blog I get to interact with a lot of people with widely differing beliefs – ranging from straight-down-the-line evangelicals to deists, agnostics, atheists and even the occasional pagan, with pretty much every other shade of belief and unbelief in between.

While I occasionally feel uncomfortable with some of the views and ideas expressed by those who take the trouble to comment, and I sometimes disagree with them quite strongly, I welcome this diversity. I think it’s healthy to engage with people who think and believe differently from yourself.

Not too long ago I’d have felt obliged to ‘correct’ views which seemed too heretical to me, out of concern for the safety of the thinker’s soul. These days though, it’s equally likely to be me who’s straying off the straight path of orthodoxy. And while I still challenge theologies I disagree with, that’s not generally because I fear for the other person’s salvation.

But… surely it does matter what you believe – for example what you believe about Christ, or the Trinity, or theories of the atonement, or the resurrection or Virgin Birth, or the inspiration of Scripture, or the baptism of the Spirit, or whether hell is real, or whether homosexual relationships are ungodly?

Yes and no. To put it in frustratingly Rollins-esque terms, of course it does (not) matter.

Yes, potentially it can matter hugely; but no, it also may not matter at all. It rather depends on how you believe what you believe, and crucially what effect those beliefs have on your life, your relationships and the way you view and treat other people.

Why it doesn’t matter what you believe

I certainly no longer think that what a person believes or doesn’t believe is the most important thing about them, or even about their faith or their spiritual life.

As I’ve written at the top of my own Creed, doctrinal statements aren’t really what it’s all about. What counts, to paraphrase the apostle Paul, is a changed life – a life of commitment to reality and to love.

It doesn’t really matter a hill of beans whether you accept a particular theory of the atonement or favour a particular version of End Times theology, so long as you have love – to paraphrase Paul again.

I’m fairly certain that a person’s acceptance or otherwise of ‘correct’ doctrines or theologies makes little or no difference to whether or not they are ‘saved’ (in whatever sense you mean that). Intellectual assent to particular doctrines is a side issue, in many ways an irrelevance. Some people, for example infants or adults with severe learning difficulties, may simply not be capable of understanding the finer points of Christian doctrine, but I’m convinced that they can nevertheless experience a redeeming relationship with Jesus.

In so much of what matters in our lives, the specifics of our beliefs are supremely unimportant and irrelevant. What matters when we come across a person in need is not what we believe about eschatology or creationism, it’s whether or not we respond with compassion. Or when someone hurts us, it doesn’t really matter which theory of the atonement we subscribe to, it matters whether we’re able to forgive or not. When faced with tragedy in our own lives, our theology of suffering may not help us much (though it may a little), but the friendships we’ve invested in might.

Better or worse than your beliefs?

I know many people whose beliefs I strongly disagree with and even find abhorrent – perhaps most obviously Christian fundamentalists. Yet I’ve often been chastened to discover that these same people are often deeply kind, compassionate, and Christlike – far more so than I am. I would say these people are better than their beliefs, better than their theology.

In Jesus’ day, the Scribes and Pharisees were the guardians of correct biblical doctrine. Interestingly, Jesus tended not to critique them on the content of their beliefs (as he did with, say, the Sadducees who didn’t believe in resurrection). Rather he critiqued them on their attitudes, their cold hearts, their legalistic approach to religion, their arrogance and self-righteousness, their lack of compassion towards ‘sinners’ and the poor.

So I don’t worry too much now if I encounter people with off-the-wall beliefs, or if I find that I can’t any longer accept some standard mainstream doctrines. What I worry about more is people claiming to be doctrinally sound yet appearing to be deeply emotionally immature, lacking in love and self-awareness. And I worry about my own shortcomings in these areas.

Why it does matter what you believe

Yet at the same time it does matter what you believe – to the extent that what you believe impacts on how you live and how you treat people.

I’d say that what really matters is not what creed you sign up to but rather what beliefs underlie your actual life and relationships, underpinning who you are and what you do. These beliefs may well be hidden, even largely unconscious, and often aren’t directly theological or doctrinal. They probably wouldn’t be things you’d recite in a creed or sing hymns about.

For example, you may believe deep down that certain types of people are better or worse, worth less or more than others. Or you might believe that the world owes you something, or that you’re exempt from certain rules that only apply to others. You might believe that intimacy is best avoided, or that it’s better to hide certain truths about yourself, or that things will always go wrong for you however hard you try. Or all sorts of other things, many of which may be deeply unhealthy and unhelpful.

What you really believe

So what you say you believe often matters very little. You can believe pretty much anything you like in your head and still remain the same person at root. But what you really believe in the deepest place, the deep-rooted, foundational ideas and views and assumptions that form and shape your attitudes and thinking and behaviour – this does matter a lot. Because that’s who you really are.

Theological beliefs may of course impact on your attitudes and behaviours. You might believe that people who suffer have brought it upon themselves and deserve no kindness, or that people with particular ‘sinful’ lifestyles should be shunned and excluded, or that as you’re going to be Raptured to heaven you can exploit the hell out of the planet now.

But even then, these theological beliefs often arise from a person’s preferences and prejudices rather than the other way round. I’d lay odds that the ‘God hates fags’ brigade adopted their particular hateful theology because it suited their pre-existing beliefs about the world and about themselves. The same surely goes for Islamic State.

And perhaps a similar process applies to all of us. We arrive at our beliefs for a mixture of reasons, but mostly because they suit our deep-rooted view of how things are or should be, or our view of ourselves. So our intellectual, theological beliefs and creeds often follow from who we are, rather than forming us.

Conversion and paradigm shift

But what of our belief in God him- or herself? The kind of God we believe in – angry and vengeful / distant and aloof / friendly and fluffy – surely does affect us deeply, and impacts on how we view ourselves and treat others.

Following from this, there is something which potentially overturns everything I’ve said so far – the possibility of conversion. By which I mean a radical change of heart and life, usually brought about by encounter with something beyond the self, something greater than the self. When people genuinely encounter the divine they often change deep within, or are opened up to the possibility of change.

At this point the deep self with its prejudices, preferences and preconceptions – its underlying, unconscious belief system – is challenged to the core, and a new deep-level paradigm is offered which has the power to shift the person’s entire way of seeing and thinking and relating.

But this does not generally come about from accepting a set of beliefs about God or Christianity. Rather the set of beliefs follow on from the encounter which brings about the internal paradigm shift. Not all these resulting beliefs will necessarily be exactly ‘correct’ or accurate, and in some ways their precise content isn’t what matters. It’s what they point to, and where they come from, that matters more.

Christian doctrines were never meant as things to pin on us as a sign of our belonging. This kind of badge-wearing belief doesn’t change anything. You have to really believe – to accept and believe in God’s grace and redemption in the core of your being, and really let them change you; to let them become incarnate in you.

So again I repeat – what counts is a changed life, not a set of correct doctrines. If I think I believe all the ‘right’ things but have not love, I have nothing. But if I truly have love, I have the basis of everything that counts, even if my theological views are decidedly unusual.

Which isn’t a particularly comforting thought from where I’m standing right now…

Posted in Atheism/agnosticism, Controversies, Fundamentalism, Heresy/blasphemy, Liberalism, Psychology, Theology | Tagged , , , , | 46 Comments

Three cheers for an Archbishop who admits doubts

In a light-hearted but personal interview in front of hundreds of people in Bristol cathedral last weekend, [Archbishop] Justin Welby said: “There are moments, sure, where you think ‘Is there a God? Where is God?’”.

So Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby admits to occasionally doubting whether God is there, or what he’s up to if he is there. In another quotation from the interview, he said:

“The other day I was praying over something while I was running and I ended up saying to God, ‘this is all very well, but isn’t it about time you did something, if you’re there,’ which is not probably what the Archbishop of Canterbury should say.”

Healthy doubt

Like many others, I applaud the Archbishop’s honesty and echo his sentiments. The only thing I disagree with him on here is that I don’t think there’s any ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ about it. Rather I think it’s exactly the sort of thing any honest, normal Christian does at times think, and I also think it’s right and healthy – perhaps even vital – to do so. I have a much higher opinion of him as Archbishop for admitting his occasional doubt.

There will be some both within and outside the church who look on his admission as a sign of weakness or failure, perhaps even a sign that he shouldn’t be in his position of leadership. After all, isn’t the Archbishop of Canterbury paid to believe in God? Shouldn’t he be above such lay-person’s questioning, and if he does ever experience doubts shouldn’t he keep them to himself? No, not in my view.

For sure, if Justin Welby became a committed atheist, no longer able to believe in God at all, then he’d have to step down as Archbishop. But to have moments of uncertainty, and occasions when you doubt the existence or goodness or capability of God – these are simply part of being a Christian, indeed of being a human.

Faithful doubt

Doubt is a vital component in honest and healthy faith. Without any doubt of this sort, it’s questionable whether faith can have any substance or reality, or can grow and develop at all in a living way. Faith without any doubt, uncertainty or questioning is merely fundamentalism; I’d even suggest that it is in danger of being arrogant, short-sighted and seriously out of touch with reality. Without doubt and uncertainty and questioning, I’m not sure there can be any real faith at all.

Given the messy, messed-up reality of the world we live in and of our own lives, it’s pretty much inevitable that there will be times when we question God’s reality or his goodness or his ability to do anything useful. Faced with terrible and apparently meaningless disasters and tragedies and cases where evil seems to prosper, we can hardly help but ask what God’s doing.

Biblical doubt

As Welby himself pointed out, the Psalmists and Prophets of the Old Testament all experienced and expressed serious doubts along these lines. Welby referred in particular to Psalms 88, 44 and 22, all well worth reading in this context. He could also have mentioned Job, Ecclesiastes, Jeremiah and Habakkuk among many others:

“How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralysed, and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.”
(Habakkuk 1:1-4)

And of course such questioning is not limited to the Old Testament. Jesus himself quoted Psalm 22, in his darkest hour on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Useful doubt

So I applaud both Justin Welby’s doubts and his honesty and courage in expressing them. What I think he could also usefully go on to doubt and question further are some of the doctrines of Christianity, and particularly of the evangelical wing Christianity from which he hails – biblical inerrancy, eternal hell, penal substitutionary atonement, homosexuality; some of the implications of the sovereignty of God. Questioning and coming to a different position on these has enabled me to keep my faith in a good and loving God, a God who I struggle to see in some versions of evangelical Christianity.

Finally, and as an aside, Welby commented very honestly about theology’s inability to deal with some of the difficult questions of life, including that of suffering:

“We can’t explain all the questions in the world, we can’t explain about suffering, we can’t explain loads of things but we know about Jesus…”

I agree. What I would say is that though Christian theology can’t fully explain suffering – and is generally wiser not to make the attempt – it can still maybe offer some meaningful insight into the subject

Anyway, good on you, Justin Welby. One of these days I might even be able to forgive you for not being Rowan Williams;)

Posted in Faith, Scepticism and doubt, Suffering, World events | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

God bless you, Vicky Beeching

For those of you who are thinking ‘Vicky who?’ let me give some brief background.

Vicky Beeching – acclaimed Christian singer-songwriter, worship leader, Oxbridge-qualified theologian, contributor to BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day programme. Currently in her mid-thirties, Vicky has long been one of the bright stars of the charismatic evangelical rock-worship scene, and her albums have sold millions worldwide, particularly in the US.

As an aside, in all of this Vicky Beeching has represented many of the things I myself once aspired to. I’ve long been a worship leader in a similar tradition to hers; I’ve written a number of songs; I’m passionately interested in theology. Don’t tell anyone, but secretly I might well have been tempted to envy her the success, the popularity and the song royalties.

Then just a few weeks ago Vicky announced to the world, via an interview in the UK’s Independent newspaper, that she was (and always had been) homosexual. Unsurprisingly, all hell broke loose in the Christian world – or at least the charismatic evangelical world of which she was such a well-known and well-loved part. And sadly, but again unsurprisingly, many in the church were quick to attack and criticise her, to write her off as a sinner and deceiver, and to consign both her and her musical back catalogue to the garbage.

St Vicky…

Meanwhile Vicky’s response has been unfailingly gracious, thoughtful and Christian – I would go so far as to say Christlike. She has refused to respond with anything but grace to the venom and prejudice directed at her by so many fellow Christians. She has refused to give up on the church, though parts of it have given up on her. She has spoken out calmly, reasonably, rationally, intelligently and with great dignity.

To my mind Vicky Beeching has emerged from this unenviable situation little short of saintlike. I’d guess she must have suffered considerably through this whole episode, both emotionally and financially. I know she has suffered physically – the stress of concealing her sexuality led to a life-threatening auto-immune condition in which her body started attacking itself, soft tissue turning into scar tissue. (As I understand it, it was this in the end that led to her decision to come out publicly, to stop concealing and repressing the truth of her sexuality. You might even be tempted to wonder whether, just maybe, God might have forced her hand.)

Unity in uncertainty

I still can’t honestly say that I’m sure for myself on the whole homosexual question. I don’t know for certain whether all (or any) homosexual orientation is innate. I don’t know whether any form of homosexual relationships can ever be ‘okay’ in Christian terms. My strong personal feeling now is that it can, but I don’t know.

What I do know is that I’m in no position to judge, condemn or write off anyone on the basis of their sexuality, or of the choices they make before God according to their own conscience and understanding.

And what I also know is that people like Vicky Beeching – fellow flawed human beings doing their best to follow Christ – need and deserve our full support and kindness, not rejection or condemnation. We can still have fellowship in our difference, and unity in our uncertainty.

God’s paradox – power in weakness

There’s also a profound irony and paradox in this whole situation to my way of thinking – which suggests God’s hand in it, because God is nothing if not a God of profound irony and paradox.

Vicky Beeching is a highly talented, intelligent, successful person who has dedicated all her considerable gifts to God’s service over the years, to general acclaim and doubtless to great effect. She has had a highly successful international ministry which has probably impacted countless people’s lives for good.

Yet (and here is the irony and paradox) it may well be in her brokenness that she is of greatest service to God. It may well be in this very public and painful situation which was not of her making or choosing that God uses her most powerfully. Her most enduring legacy to the church and the world may arise from what for years she was taught to view as shameful and unacceptable.

I think there’s an important truth in this for each of us. Many of us may secretly hanker after the kind of successful career or ministry Vicky Beeching has had up till now – whether because we want to serve God in the most effective way, or simply because we’re attracted to the money, acclaim and popularity. (It may well be a bit of both.) And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being successful in using our God-given talents.

But God does seem to like to do things in upside-down, expectation-confounding, convention-upsetting ways. He seems to enjoy working precisely how we would never imagine or choose. ‘My power is made perfect in your weakness’ is a favourite motto of his. So rather than it being our great successes and gifts that God most wants to use, it may well be our weakness and woundedness, our areas of brokenness and rejection, of shame and pain and humiliation.

Even with Jesus we can see this to be the case. Jesus had the most amazing ministry of healing and teaching that the world has ever seen. Yet it was in his final few hours of utter humiliation and loss, of rejection and agony, that he truly changed the world. I believe that there is much more to Christ than just the cross, and I no longer subscribe to evangelical understandings of the atonement; but I’m convinced that the cross of Christ is in some way central to the redemption of the cosmos and all humanity.

All in this together

Of course, Vicky Beeching is human like the rest of us, flawed like the rest of us. I’ve no wish to make her into a plaster saint. But the point is that she is no more flawed than the rest of us. For sure, we shouldn’t put her (or anyone else) on a pedestal, but nor can we put her (or anyone else) in a cage marked ‘bad Christian’ or ‘fallen woman’ where we can dismiss and condemn and scapegoat her.

We’re all a mess in different ways, and we’re all in this messy world together. Together we can also be part of the redemption of the world, but only by acknowledging our own flaws and not trying to put them onto other people who we dislike or disagree with, who we think are the problem. The problem is always us; the solution always starts with ourselves.

Which also means, annoyingly, that I can’t just dismiss and condemn those who have reacted so negatively to Vicky Beeching’s story. I disagree with them, but I can’t afford to judge them. There but for the grace of God go I.

I remember when the highly-regarded evangelical minister and Bible expositor Roy Clements came out as gay about 15 years ago and started arguing that homosexual relationships were okay for Christians. At the time I was convinced he had gone badly wrong and was leading others astray with false, unbiblical teaching. Now I’m far less certain; I think it was probably me that was wrong – certainly in my attitude, if not in my thinking.

Saving evangelicals?

So I applaud and marvel at Vicky’s decision to remain within the evangelical church, a decision which seems to me both courageous and generous-hearted. The evangelical church desperately needs the presence and support of people like Vicky; needs voices and stories like hers. And maybe, just maybe, through people like her, the upcoming generation of evangelicals will be more open to diversity and difference. Maybe, just maybe, Vicky Beeching is God’s ambassador and apostle to the evangelical church.

Vicky Beeching used to lead worship at Soul Survivor and New Wine; it may perhaps be too much to hope that these organisations will welcome her back again in this capacity. But maybe one day that won’t be such an impossible dream.

I have to admit I’ve never bought one of Vicky Beeching’s albums, and I don’t know many of her songs. I have a feeling that much of the theology they express would be too conservative for my current tastes. But still, I’m half wondering whether to buy one now anyway, as an act of solidarity and support.

You’ll probably never read this, but God bless you, Vicky Beeching.

Posted in Evangelicalism, Homosexuality, Sex and sexuality, World events | Tagged , , , , , , | 27 Comments

Suffering IV – Why doesn’t God just rescue us?

One of the hardest questions around suffering is why God often doesn’t rescue us from our troubles when we so desperately want and ask him to. We plead with him and implore him, with tears and sometimes for years on end. Yet for many of us, all too often we just experience the divine silence, the feeling that God’s not even listening; perhaps (we wonder in our heart of hearts) not even there.

The Old Testament is full of both prayers for and promises of divine deliverance, particularly in the Psalms. Are these promises simply not true?

It’s hard to understand. After all, he’s God; he’s meant to be all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving. So if this is true he sees our pain, has the power to end it instantly, but doesn’t. Why? Is it perhaps not true after all, and he’s just not really capable or caring enough? Is he actually weak, or even nasty?

Nasty, non-involved or non-existent?

That God is nasty is certainly the conclusion that many come to after experiencing pain that he doesn’t fix. A while ago I wrote a post on Hating God, and to my surprise it continues to generate responses from angry people who hate God for not saving them or their loved ones from suffering. I understand this viewpoint, though it’s not one I share.

Others have responded by concluding that God never gets involved in the world or in our lives, and so have opted for a form of deism. Again I understand this but don’t find it satisfying, and it doesn’t tally with my own experiences.

And of course others have simply decided that God doesn’t exist and have turned away from belief altogether – again, not an option for me.

So might there be other reasons why God often doesn’t leap in to rescue?

No easy answers

The first thing to say is that we live in a complex world and there are probably no simple, single answers to questions like this. There are likely to be multiple factors, and an element of mystery that we may never be able to penetrate.

I wrote a while back about the well-known Christian ‘Footprints’ poem, which attempts to answer the related problem of why God often seems to desert us in our darkest hours. (‘My precious, precious child, I love you and would never leave you. Where there was only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.’) I’m sure many find this helpful; I don’t. I think it’s a well-meaning but misguided attempt to answer what may be unanswerable.

Nonetheless, as humans we will continue to seek answers, and that’s okay so long as we recognise them to be partial and provisional.

The commonest answer put forward for God’s apparent hesitance to intervene is the same as that for the whole problem of suffering – i.e. human free will. The angle here is that God can’t intervene to rescue without limiting our free choices, which are essential if we are to be responsible, loving people. I do think there’s some mileage in this. But there are times when I feel like crying out ‘Bugger my free will! Intervene anyway!’

The other common answer is the intertwining of good and evil in this current world. The argument here – put forward by Jesus so worth a listen – is that the evil cannot be eradicated without destroying the good, and crucially then without destroying us. Or in other words, we can’t expect more than a partial rescue because the brokenness runs too deep and is within us as well as out there.

Not always right to rescue

Another related answer which I find helpful comes to me from parenting, though it applies to all healthy human relationships. It’s simply that rescuing people from pain is, counter-intuitively, very often not to their long-term benefit.

When we see someone suffering, we emotionally feel that the loving and kind thing to do is to rescue them, immediately and unquestioningly. But in many cases, that’s precisely not the best thing for them.

Similarly, when we’re in pain we often look to someone – ultimately God – to rescue us, to take the pain away and make everything okay again. But again, so often that isn’t the path to maturity and wholeness.

All too often, simply rescuing – or being rescued – can do more harm than good, and can have unintended negative consequences.

Being rescued can turn us into passive, helpless victims who believe we’re incapable of helping ourselves. It therefore often leads to dependence on our rescuer to save us again whenever such situations arise (as they tend to).

Being rescued robs us of some of our responsibility and moral autonomy. Sometimes we do just need to feel the pain of our situation for a time, especially (but not only) when it’s the consequences of our own actions. Sometimes that’s the only path to inner growth, healing and freedom.

A child won’t usually understand why its parents don’t always make things better straight away when they could. Nor will a child understand why parents require him or her to do difficult things which the adults could so much more easily do themselves. But of course it’s done for the sake of the child’s long-term character and emotional health, part of their journey to becoming a mature human being.

Of course, with very young children who can’t yet save themselves, sometimes parents will have to rescue quickly. Perhaps the Old Testament, with its many promises of deliverance, reflects this; it’s God dealing with the Children of Israel like a parent of infants. But even then, his deliverance often came only after long periods of non-intervention, of oppression, defeat and exile.

None of this is to say that we should be callous or uncompassionate in the face of genuine distress. It’s simply that we have to be careful about trying to rescue people, or seeking rescue ourselves. We can offer, and can ourselves look for, support and kindness; we can stand with others in their need. But we often can’t fix the problems in the short term without making things worse. And nor can others – or God – fix ours.

Building the new creation

So I’m no longer sure that God always acts to minimise suffering, at least not in the immediate short term. I don’t believe that God generally wills our suffering, but nor do I think that removing our present pains is necessarily always first on his agenda. Rather I believe that God’s higher priority is to bring long-term good out of suffering.

God’s ultimate purpose for creation is, I believe, a fully redeemed, restored cosmos and humanity, with each of us fully who we’re meant to be, fully integrated with the reality of God, of ourselves and each other. It’s the vibrant, loving community of the Kingdom of Heaven. Suffering will not be part of that order of things, for suffering has to do with brokenness, incompleteness, wrongness. But building that order cannot be painless, and for now suffering is part and parcel of the current state of things.

Redemption through suffering?

Furthermore, it’s just possible that suffering turns out to be one of the primary means by which God brings redemption to a broken world. It’s the pattern of Christ, redeeming the world by suffering and dying for it. It’s Martin Luther King and Gandhi assassinated but bequeathing the world their great dreams, their way of non-violent resistance; Nelson Mandela in prison for years before South Africa could be freed from Apartheid…

It’s an odd paradox that sometimes only suffering can bring healing. Our sufferings can become the source of other people’s healing, and theirs the source of ours.

‘Compassion’ literally means ‘feeling with’ someone else; suffering with (and for) another, sharing their pain, and out of that shared suffering bringing healing into being. It’s how Jesus works; how love works. Jesus takes no pleasure in our suffering; what he does is call us, with him, to suffer with and on behalf of others who are suffering, for their healing and ours. In so doing, our sufferings and theirs are given meaning and hope.

Finally, we often ask to be rescued in the sense of being liberated from our present difficulties, our current painful circumstances. But often I think God prefers to liberate us within our circumstances. Rather than changing our problematic situation – financial, relational, whatever – he works through it instead to change us. Because so often it’s not the rest of the world that needs changing; it’s us.

Posted in Divine intervention, Faith, Suffering | Tagged , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

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.

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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.

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