Why doesn’t God magically sort out our problems?

Way back last time I was looking at miracles, and the problems both of being overly cynical about the miraculous or overly reliant on it. This follows on from a slightly different angle.

First, a question. If you knew God wasn’t ever going to fix your problems, answer your prayers, heal your hurts, bless you with nice things and generally sort things out and make things better for you, would you still bother with Christianity or religion?

I ask because I’ve realised that, for all my vaunted sophistication and scepticism, deep down I’ve still been clinging on to a view that God is basically magic and will (or should) do magic when I need it.

God our daddy?

I’ve been expecting God to be like a toddler’s mum and dad, a big all-capable provider and problem-solver who I can go running to and who will ‘kiss it better’. I’ve been hoping God will always make it all okay, will make all the pains and problems magically go away.

I’ve been fondly imagining that if I just pray enough and maybe try and do the right things, everything will always turn out fine and I won’t have to suffer regret, loss, disappointment, failure. And if God doesn’t act like that, I feel aggrieved and let down.

And I have a feeling that I’m not alone in this.

We know we can call God ‘Father’, even in a sense ‘Daddy’ (Hebrew ‘Abba’). We also know that he is love, and that he is full of kindness and compassion. And we know that he is all-powerful and can in theory do miracles (depending on our theology).

Put these together and it’s easy to assume that he is going to magically fix all our issues for us, make everything nice and easy, and spare us from all pain. And we (well, I) can get pretty annoyed with him when he doesn’t; when things go wrong and God doesn’t instantly step in to make it all better.

What’s the point of believing?

Let me state two apparently contradictory things up front.

Firstly, I believe that God does care and does answer prayers, albeit often not quite as we’d wish or expect. I believe that he does even heal, sometimes and in some ways, again not always the ways we want.

But secondly, the reality is that Christians (and people of faith in general) are not immune from problems, pain or suffering. Christians seem to get ill as much as the rest of the population. Christians appear to suffer relational breakdown and break-up pretty much as often as everyone else. Christians certainly suffer bereavement and loss just as much as any other group, and I can confidently state that the mortality rate among Christians is as high as among the general population. That’s even true for charismatic and Pentecostal believers who expect and pray for miraculous healing rather more than the rest of us.

So does that mean it’s not worth praying, or not worth being a Christian? If God offers no guaranteed magical protection against life’s ills and no guaranteed magic cure when they occur, then what’s the point of turning to him?

I’m beginning to wonder if the point may be that we need to grow up into a mature, adult relationship with God and leave behind our childish expectations of a magical, problem-fixing, pain-zapping super-Daddy. (Though as always, I may be wrong.)

Good-enough parenting

Almost every parent knows from experience that they can’t (or mustn’t) just give their children everything they want. Nor can they just jump in and fix every problem their child experiences, nor take away every pain they feel, nor shield them from the uncomfortable consequences of their own actions or unwise decisions.

A good (or good-enough) parent has to grit their teeth and let their child grow, and grow up, by learning to handle their own problems and feel their own pains. Obviously this is a gradual process, and a balancing act; parents don’t just abandon young children to sort out everything for themselves from the word go. But bit by bit, parents train their kids to be able to do things for themselves, to grow in competence, confidence and responsibility.

And parents even have to be a little bit mean at times, though I hope few enjoy it. There comes a point when they have to push their child away just a little bit, like an adult bird pushing the fledgling out of the nest when it’s ready to fly.

Crucially, the good-enough parent has to allow and encourage their child to separate from them, to stand on their own two feet, including making their own mistakes. Yes, at first they can come running back to mum or dad when things get too tough, but gradually they need to learn to be independent and separate.

And God, I’m pretty sure, is the same. He is not our eternal Daddy who will always make things better when we’ve fallen over in the playground or bail us out when we’ve got ourselves in trouble. He will be with us, support us and empathise with us, but he won’t always ‘rescue’ us from all our trials and mistakes and hurts. That would not be truly loving or even truly kind. It would merely infantilise us, create a cycle of dependence and discourage our growth to maturity and wholeness.

Growing up in faith

New Christians do often (not always) seem to experience more direct answers to prayer, more miracles, more divine intervention than others. If so, I don’t think that’s because they have greater faith necessarily (though some may), but because they are infant believers who need more hand-holding and spoon-feeding as they take their first baby steps in the ways of faith.

So if you’re experiencing pain as a Christian and God isn’t stepping in to make it all better, congratulations – looks like God thinks you’re mature enough to handle it. Though of course I realise that may not feel like much consolation. I only say this because I’ve wrestled with it too, shouting at God to make things better and take away various long-term pains and problems. But in the silence and apparent inaction of God, I’ve gradually started to learn a deeper lesson. I’ve started slowly and protestingly to grow up.

Giving up the need to rescue

Along with the need to be rescued, I think we may also need to grow out of the need to rescue others all the time.

It often feels like the loving, kind and ‘Christian’ thing to do, to step in and bail someone out when they’re struggling. It feels cruel to stand by and watch someone in difficulty when we know we could make it easier for them, could do the hard thing for them.

And sometimes it is right to help; but not always. Sometimes it’s just necessary to go through the struggles, the pains of trying and failing and trying again, or of waiting for something which is taking a long time to get better.

We want to rescue others because it feels unloving not to, but often the more loving thing long-term is simply to support and be with them as they keep struggling, keep trying, keep waiting, keep pushing until either their situations change or they do. I believe that’s what God does with us, and I don’t much like it but I’m starting to think he might just understand a bit better than I do. Annoyingly.

Posted in Divine intervention, Faith, Suffering, The faith journey | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

Cynical about miracles?

A friend recently sent me a miraculous news story reported in Christianity Today magazine. It tells of a modern day Road to Damascus conversion, an Islamist leader hell-bent on killing Christians until his life was transformed by miraculous visions of Jesus. I’ll post a link to the full story at the end.

I must confess that my first reponse to the story was to doubt it. And my next was to seek a non-supernatural explanation.

Which, for someone who claims to believe in the resurrection of Christ and the miracles recorded in the gospels and Acts, seems a bit strange.

There was a time when I’d have accepted a story like this unquestioningly, and seen it as proof of the continuing power and work of the Holy Spirit today. But I realise I’ve gradually become much more cynical and suspicious. I still believe in the possibility of miracles, and indeed that they have happened in the past, but I’m sceptical about modern-day miracle reports. Why?

Faith vs experience?

It’s partly just a case of experience triumphing over faith. Everyday life tends not to be outwardly miraculous. And though over my years as a Christian I’ve prayed a lot, and hung around with Charismatic miracle-believers, I’ve seen few things that I can point to as definite miraculous answers to prayer.

There have been a handful that I can’t easily discount, including one or two in my own life. And I’m certainly not saying there have been no answers to prayer – far from it. But for the most part I’ve experienced little that’s obviously miraculous, and I’ve come gradually to accept (rightly or wrongly) that this doesn’t seem to be the primary way God works in modern western society.

It’s also because I’ve eagerly believed quite a few miracle reports in the past, only to have them exposed as hoaxes. For a time I desperately wanted to believe in the supernatural operating here and now. But when time and again it’s turned out to be false I’ve grown increasingly cynical.

Doubting Thomas

When I expressed my reservations to the friend who sent the article, he responded with “blessed are those who believe” – a reference to Doubting Thomas.

Poor Thomas is always held up as a sorry example of lack of faith, but if I had to be one of the apostles I’d probably choose him. Okay, perhaps he could have trusted his friends more; perhaps he could have remembered Jesus’ promise to rise from the dead. But his desire for visible, tangible evidence seems eminently reasonable.

For without evidence, ‘blessed are those who believe’ can all too easily turn into ‘blessed are the gullible’.

And yet… might it not be preferable to be a tiny bit gullible than to be so cynical you miss what God’s doing?

I certainly don’t want to end up like the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’s Last Battle, ‘so afraid of being taken in that they can’t be taken out [of themselves]’. Healthy scepticism is, well, healthy, but I don’t want to become so hardened that I fail to see the genuinely divine when it does appear.

So with the father of the probably-epileptic boy in Mark 9 I say ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief’. Just adding the small caveat ‘but only if it’s actually true.’

The problem with miracles

Another issue is that even when I do believe in miracles these days, I often find them as problematic as they are marvellous.

If God really is appearing directly to an Islamist leader and changing his heart to follow Jesus then that is amazing and great. Yet it also raises difficult questions.

Why just this one particular leader and not all the many others who are persecuting Christians? Why would God get directly involved in this one particular situation and yet apparently leave so many others of equal or greater need? What about, say, the thousands of refugee children dying in horrific conditions?

And this is of course always the problem with any specific miracle. It seems so arbitrary and unfair, like a divine lottery. For each person who is blessed, liberated or transformed, thousands of others aren’t, many of whom are in equally dire straits and have been praying desperately for years. I find it hard to celebrate fully with the favoured one when I’m aware of the unmet needs of the many. (Though perhaps it’s my own unmet needs and unanswered prayers that bother me most.)

Of course, God is free to do as he chooses, with whom he chooses, when he chooses. He doesn’t have to give account of himself to me. And for sure, sometimes his answer to prayer (for whatever reason) is ‘no’ or ‘not yet’. Just because someone isn’t healed now, it doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be later – though of course many never are.

Perhaps my real underlying problem with miracles like the one that prompted this piece is that they challenge my safe liberal worldview and nice comfortable theology. Just when I’ve persuaded myself into a particular view of God and faith that suits me, something like this comes and shakes up the picture. I find it scary and unsettling. If this happens, maybe I’m wrong about everything.

Relying on miracles

Yet I think there’s an equal and opposite danger in placing too much reliance on miracles.

By definition, miracles are rare divine occurrences brought about in God’s timing and by his choice. I’m sure they do occur, but I think we’re wise not to look to them to solve all our problems.

In my experience, God seldom operates as a glorified fairy godmother with a divine magic wand. There are rare times and places when miracles are the order of the day – such as during Jesus’ earthly ministry – but otherwise God apparently prefers to operate quietly, gradually, behind the scenes, through natural means and flawed human agents.

Hidden miracles

So the kinds of miracles I care most about these days are the understated, often unrecognised miracles of forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration of ‘shalom’. And of course the claimed miracle that prompted this piece does partly fall into this category, and it’s that aspect of it that impresses me more than the claims of divine visions and voices.

And then there are the everyday, ordinary miracles of simply being alive in this astonishing universe; of being able to think and see and taste and touch, of giving and receiving love.

It occurs to me that there are two very different kinds of miracle even within the New Testament. In the gospels we have all the healings and wonders. But then in Paul’s letters we read that God wouldn’t heal him of his mysterious ‘thorn in the flesh’, saying ‘My grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in your weakness’.

This is the other, harder kind of miracle that God calls many of us to – not magically removing our troubles, but redeeming them to bring good from bad. I’d prefer magic, but maybe this is the more Christlike path…

And now here’s that miracle news story…

Posted in miracles, Scepticism and doubt | Tagged , , , , | 16 Comments

Salvation – an alternative take?

We’ve recently had Good Friday and Easter, when Christians believe that Jesus died to ‘save’ us in some sense. But in what sense? What does it really mean to be ‘saved’?

A few posts back I said there were many classic Christian terms that I was no longer sure about – words that had accrued meanings and interpretations I no longer felt entirely comfortable with. These include sin and hell, heaven, atonement, born-again, scripture, holiness, evil, the devil. Most of these I now see prefer to see as mysteries whose meanings we can only approach through metaphor, and then only ‘through a glass darkly’.

And ‘salvation’ (or ‘saved’) is another such term. In many ways it’s the other side of the coin of ‘sin’ and ‘hell’ which I’ve already looked at.

Rethinking salvation

Though a more positive concept than sin or hell, the idea of being ‘saved’ can still be pretty contentious. It’s often used in an excluding way – ‘I’m saved, are you?’, or ‘only those who believe in Jesus (and in the same way as I do) are saved’. The implied opposite pair-word that then goes with it is ‘lost’ or ‘damned’. If you’re not saved, you’re lost. If you’re not one of us, you’re eternally excluded. Bad luck.

But I don’t think it needs to be seen in those terms. There are lots of other ways of understanding the term ‘saved’, and I’ve looked at some of them before. I don’t want to re-cover old ground so do read those old posts alongside this one if you’re interested (I’ll put the links at the end).

In short though, I think that salvation is a multi-faceted mystery that encompasses aspects of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual healing, transformation, liberation, restoration, renewal and reconciliation. I believe it’s above all about becoming part of a community of mutual love, all and each filled with the love, life and light of Christ. And I believe that the primary means of salvation is incarnation – Christ being formed in each of us.

So I suppose there are elements of inclusion and therefore perhaps exclusion, but that’s not the main emphasis. And crucially I don’t believe anyone is ever excluded except by their own choice, as I looked at last time.

A computing metaphor

But there’s a specific alternative metaphor for salvation I’d like to look at more closely now. It comes from the world of computing – the idea of ‘saving’ a document or data.

It just sounds like a daft bit of wordplay – how can saving computer files bear any relation to the Christian concept of salvation? But it’s recently gained some theological credence through the writing of (among others) well-respected physicist and Anglican cleric John Polkinghorne. I’ve heard Polkinghorne speak and my impression was of the highest scientific intellect, coupled with a deep Christian faith.

Polkinghorne’s idea is that our physical bodies and brains are, in computer terminology, our hardware, and our souls, minds or spirits the software, or perhaps more accurately the data files in the computer’s memory.

When we die, the hardware fails and (after a while) corrupts, but the software or data – the essence of us – doesn’t have to. Just as when our old computer ceases to work we can copy all the files over to a new computer – so long as we’d already ‘saved’ them, backed them up. Otherwise they may be ‘lost’ and simply cease to be readable or usable (though we might possibly be able to recover some limited version if we know what we’re doing, or else they may continue to exist in a kind of data limbo).

Similarly with people then, our minds and spirits are linked with the physical hardware of our brains and bodies, but they can potentially survive beyond our physical death. But perhaps this can only happen if they have already been ‘saved’, backed up so that they can be transferred to a new system or platform.

Could this then be another angle on what Christians mean by salvation, being ‘saved’? That those who are ‘saved’ by Christ are not condemned to cease to exist mentally and spiritually when their physical bodies die, but are now able to be uploaded to new resurrection bodies in a new realm, the Kingdom of heaven?

In computer language we might speak of being ‘uploaded to the Cloud’ (which could maybe breathe new life into the old imagery of sitting about on clouds with harps). It certainly offers another way to understand the New Testament ideas that we are even now ‘seated with Christ in the heavenly realms’ and that our ‘lives are now hidden with Christ’ (Eph 2:6, Col 3:3).

The ‘unsaved’?

And we could also posit that those who are not ‘saved’ in this sense might simply cease to exist on death when there is no hardware to ‘run’ them – an entirely painless annihilation, like being simply switched off. Some would certainly see this as the most merciful option.

However, there’s also scope within the metaphor for those who favour a more classical view of Hades – the idea that ‘unsaved’ souls might remain in some kind of shadowy part-existence like unrecovered computer files. And in which case, I see no reason why such souls could not still be ‘saved’ at any point after death, should they desire it. This is certainly my own preferred belief, though I have little evidence for it beyond God’s inexhaustible hope to redeem as many as possible in the end.

But these are matters where we need to speak sensitively and tread carefully. Real people will have real loved ones who have died and I have no wish to speak casually or unfeelingly of their destiny. Please remember that this is all just an extended metaphor; it may bear no relation to experiential reality. And I pass no comment on who is and isn’t ‘saved’; I believe and hope that all may be saved, if not before death then at least after it.

As an aside, we can if we wish extend the computing analogy further, perhaps viewing evil as malware, or sin as a virus that corrupts our system and data, and sanctification as a process of cleaning up and restoring that which has become corrupted.

Souls good, bodies bad?

Now, all metaphors have limits. I’m aware that the hardware/software metaphor can easily sound dualist, as though our bodies and souls are entirely separate and our bodies are relatively trivial or meaningless, eternally speaking. That’s not the point at all – none of this is to say that our physical ‘hardware’ is unimportant or that what we do with and to it doesn’t matter.

While our minds are housed in our bodies, what we do to and in our physical bodies both involves and affects our minds, leaving its imprint. We can’t separate the two and imagine that our bodily and mental or spiritual life are unrelated; they are intertwined at all points. I’ve said before that our physical life is our spiritual life, in many ways.

And in addition, our future ‘resurrection’ bodies will surely be based at least partly on our current ones, though I’m hoping they’ll represent an upgrade. Jesus’s still apparently had scars, even though he was now able to walk through walls. To return to the metaphor, the data of our minds/spirits can’t be uploaded to a completely unrelated platform – just as you wouldn’t be able to use Windows files and software on a Mac.

But all this is only a metaphor of course, and if you don’t find it helpful, don’t worry about it. And it’s only one among many ways of trying to picture the complex mystery of salvation, which in the end defies definite definition.

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When God joined the optimists – an Easter reflection

Which is the proper attitude towards life and the universe we live in – optimism or pessimism?

For the pessimist, the world is ultimately ruled by Sod’s or Murphy’s Law, the principle that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. It’s a close cousin of the law of entropy. Things fall apart, things fall down, they break, they die, they come to nothing. In the long term, we’re all dead and entropy wins.

From this perspective all we can do is make the best of this bleak reality, grabbing what transitory enjoyment we can and joking in the face of death, like Eric Idle singing ‘Always look on the Bright side of life’ at the end of Life of Brian – a kind of ironic joke-optimism in the face of the unstoppable forces of chaos pulling us to our destruction. Life is a tragedy but at least we can laugh at its absurdity.

But for the optimist of course, all will be well and everything will work out in the end, despite any and all current evidence to the contrary. And perhaps this isn’t always as pie-eyed daft as it sounds. Life does so often prevail, staging miraculous comebacks in the face of impossible odds, bursting through the cracks in the concrete where there seemed no hope of anything growing. The mysterious, vibrant, subversive forces of life, light and love keep on re-appearing when chaos and death seemed to have had the last word.

Yet the laws of physics seem undeniable, inescapable – we will all come to naught in the end; ultimately entropy wins in the physical universe. No amount of optimism can stave that off in the end… can it?

On Good Friday the pessimists have certainly triumphed. I told you it would come to no good, going about trying to make the world a better place… Look where it gets you, trying to be good and help people… best leave well alone and let the world go to hell in a handcart like it’s going to anyway… Good Friday seems to vindicate pessimism, to show that in the end, darkness and chaos win.

But then comes Easter.

For me, Easter is God throwing in his lot with the hopeless optimists against the rational pessimists. It is the first tiny seed planted of a new order of things, barely visible as yet, but which will one day burst through the cracks in the ugly concrete of this present reality, bringing in life and light and love everlasting and unstoppable and undefeatable.

And this is faith for me – believing in the ultimate victory of life over death, love over hate, good over evil, light over dark, hope over despair, beauty over chaos, and believing it despite everything in this messed-up, self-destructing physical world that tells to the contrary.

I’ll admit that I’m a natural pessimist. When I look at the world and at my own life, it’s pretty hard to believe in Easter. It’s easy enough to believe in Good Friday, in the apparently hopeless and pointless death of all that is good and kind and lovely, the ruin of all the promises of hope and change and a better future. Easter by contrast just seems far too long a shot, the beautiful but impossible pipedream of the hopeless optimists.

Except of course that it isn’t really the optimists who are hopeless…

Posted in Easter, Salvation | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The cross as symbol and reality

The cross. Such a potent symbol, pregnant with a million meanings, yet at the same time so ubiquitous and universal that it loses its impact.

So what is the cross a symbol of? It is not a symbol of power, or strength, or authority, or victory, or glory… or rather it is, but in a new way that turns all of these ideas on their heads. What true power and glory and victory mean are forever changed, the old ways overturned by the cross.

The cross is the ultimate paradox at the heart of the universe and of human history. The Creator of all things, destroyed by his own creation. The Lord of Life, dead. The Great Healer, fatally wounded. The Prince of Peace, brutally and violently killed. The Mighty One, utterly weak and vulnerable, bleeding to death. The Glorious One, stripped in naked humiliation for all to mock. The ultimate Good, overcome by evil. How can this be? It makes no sense.

But this is our God. Not the Sovereign God of the Calvinists, who wields absolute power, arbitrarily determining the fate of all of his creatures according to his inscrutable iron will. But also not the absent God of the Deists, removed from the suffering of his creation. Nor the nice but slightly useless God of some ultra-liberals, saddened by human misery but unable to do anything about it except set an example that we won’t follow.

The God of the cross is the God who sees and feels the mess and pain of his world, and determines to do something about it himself – to take it on and into himself. It is the God who hates injustice and oppression and all the myriad evils which we inflict on each other and ourselves, but who is not willing to wipe out humanity. It is the God who must act, must do something about the mess, but to redeem not to destroy; to save not to punish.

The cross is the glory and wisdom and power of God. It is where God truly reveals himself and shows that he’s nothing like the God we’ve imagined. It is where he carries out his ultimate act to change the universe and us. And it is like nothing we’ve ever expected or dreamt of.

I get bored of preaching about the cross, because it so often focuses just on a narrow and transactional view where Jesus dies in our place to save us from God’s wrath at our sins so we can go to heaven. There may be some small truth in this, but it diminishes, dilutes and distorts the reality. We can’t explain what happened at the cross in some kind of formula; we can’t really explain it at all. And there is so much more to the cross, to God, than this picture allows.

Of course you may have a very different understanding of the cross to me, and that’s okay. As I say, I don’t claim to understand it, but I do still believe it. I believe in it as both symbol and reality, but by attempting to put that symbol and reality into words we do damage to it.

To me the cross has inexhaustible meanings. For a start it means that God is with us and for us; God is up close and involved; God is good and God is mercy; God forgives and so can we. The cross means that there is hope in the darkest situation and for the worst person. It means that evil can (and often will) do its worst but it won’t get the final say or the last laugh.

For the cross turns power and glory and victory on their heads. It turns even death on its head. I said that it was the Creator destroyed, the Healer fatally wounded, Life killed. But the end result of that the opposite becomes true – God’s death becomes the source of life; God’s wounds the source of our healing; the cross’s destruction the source of new creation.

How does this work, how does it happen? Who can say? Call it magic, call it miracle, call it mystery, call it what you will. It is the profoundest and most unfathomable work of the God of paradox, the God of surprises. But it has happened, and it is working. We can receive it and partake of it without understanding it or having to explain it.

For now evil still remains – for love cannot destroy evil by force – but now ultimately love wins. It wins by losing. It wins by dying. And that is what evil cannot understand, cannot destroy, cannot ever overcome.

God is dead; long live God.

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Why I might still believe in hell (sort of)

Or to give it a more accurate but less snappy title, Why I might still very reluctantly just about believe in some qualified form of what we might call ‘hell’, though nothing like the traditional fiery version.

Recently I talked about why I could still call myself a ‘sinner’ without signing up to particular theological interpretations of that term that I no longer find helpful. This post follows the same theme, looking at the related idea of hell.

These days I’m a ‘hopeful universalist’ – I desperately hope that all people will ultimately be redeemed and included in God’s good and eternal Kingdom of love and joy and peace. And I think God desperately hopes that too, and works his darnedest to achieve that. But I’m not 100% sure that it can be guaranteed.

Love can’t coerce

You see, the bottom line for me is that God is love. And love cannot coerce or be coerced, but can only woo. Love cannot force anyone to accept it, or to reciprocate it. The offer is always there, and I believe it is overwhelmingly appealing and persuasive – but it surely can be rejected.

There are two classic English proverbs (okay, clichés) that put it well. One is ‘You can lead a horse to water but you can’t force it to drink’. God can show people his love, his mercy, his goodness in every way possible. But he can’t force them to accept or receive him, to love him in return. It has to be a free choice, otherwise it wouldn’t be love.

None so blind…

But why would anyone deliberately reject God’s love and grace? That’s the other proverb: ‘There’s none so blind as them that will not see’. It’s the problem of human stubbornness and self-destructive self-blindness. We’re terribly, tragically good at shutting our eyes to things we don’t want to see, at blocking out or explaining away things we don’t want to accept – even things that would bring us life and freedom.

“Sons of Adam, how cleverly you defend yourselves against all that would do you good” as Aslan says sadly to Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew.

So I believe that God does all in his power to show us his goodness, but sometimes we just don’t want to see. And I don’t think God can force us to open our eyes or our hearts if we’re ultimately unwilling.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I longed to gather you as a hen gathers her chicks, but you were not willing.” God calls and calls, longing to save us from the things that trap us and destroy us, but sometimes we don’t want to hear.

But why do we shut out the light? Perhaps we fear that truly letting God in would destroy any control we have over our lives, or would threaten our status and security. Perhaps we don’t want our prejudices or lifestyles to be challenged, or to have to give up the dear, sweet, deadly things that we cling onto for comfort and pleasure, or to have to forgive people who have hurt us. Perhaps we don’t want to change, or the path to salvation just doesn’t look very appealing.

Self-imposed exile

So the version of ‘hell’ I just might believe in is something along the lines of a state of self-imposed exile from God’s Kingdom – not a divinely imposed punishment, and not physical torment.

At the end of C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, the treacherous dwarves have become so mistrustful of everyone else that they have made themselves unable to receive – or even see – the good things Aslan (Christ) offers them. He leads them out of captivity into wide spaces, but they think they’re still locked up in a dark stable. He offers them rich food, but they taste it as animal fodder. It’s a great image of the kind of ‘hell’ I’m talking about – not a divine punishment, but something we do to ourselves by our choice not to open ourselves in love and trust.

Rejecting others

So far I’ve only been talking about our acceptance or rejection of God’s love and goodness, but I think there’s more to it than that. We have to accept others (and also fundamentally ourselves). The kingdom is not about isolated individuals in relationship with God; it’s a community of love.

So to enter the kingdom, to belong there, we have to lay aside what we have against other people. We have to let go of dear grudges and nurtured resentments, of feelings of superiority or inferiority and all our human jockeying for power and position.

So again, I think it’s not that God shuts us out of heaven, out of his kingdom. It’s that we shut ourselves out by refusing to forgive and accept forgiveness, refusing to have mercy, to love and accept others who we deem bad or unworthy.

I don’t think the kingdom of heaven is a place with a door, with bouncers only allowing in people with the right tickets. I think it’s more like a state or condition that you find yourself in when you love and forgive, and when you accept love and forgiveness.

Letting go of what holds us

Similarly, I believe that there are ways and traits in us that need to be overcome or let go of in order for us to ‘enter’ or be part of heaven. This is not because heaven won’t let us in, but because these things make us unable to be at peace (shalom), to be in full loving relationship, which is the nature and basis of the kingdom.

So I believe we all have to go through a journey of spiritual growth, of facing and dealing with the parts of us or ways in us that militate against us being truly ourselves and truly Christlike. Until then, we are simply not fully able to enter into and experience Reality (aka the kingdom of heaven, aka God’s full presence). (Again, C.S. Lewis offers a compelling picture of this idea, in The Great Divorce.)

So it’s not that God condemns us to hell for our misdeeds, but rather that self-destructive and toxic ways in us have to be overcome before we can be whole and ‘real’ enough for the community of heaven. And I believe we need Christ dwelling in us for this (whether we know he’s there or not); we can’t do it entirely by ourselves, though I think we do need to participate actively in our redemption.

Please don’t think I’m saying that only professing Christians can be ‘saved’, or that anyone definitely ends up in ‘hell’. I’m not. I simply believe that one way or another we all need to be transformed by Christ’s love, and (though I hope not) it may be that we can steadfastly resist that and remain as we are, rather than entering into all his fullness and life.

God’s wake-up call?

Finally, if there is any such thing as hell, whatever it might be, I just wonder if it might not actually be God’s final desperate attempt to call us back to our senses and drive us back to him. I believe God is always seeking to draw us to himself in love, but if we finally reject him then perhaps (just perhaps) for our sake he changes tactic and uses our (self-imposed) pain as a wake-up call to drive us to the light. In which case, hell would not be a punishment but our salvation. Perhaps.

Posted in Hell, Salvation | Tagged , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Why Christian truth is messy

However carefully formulated, our written doctrines, theologies and moral codes don’t and can’t convey the fullness of Christian truth.

That’s partly because words aren’t up to the job, as I said last time. But even more it’s because Christian truth is never abstract or merely intellectual, and neither is Christian love merely a general principle. Both truth and love have to be made concrete in real lives, real situations, real communities. They have to be incarnated and enculturated (if that’s a word).

So God is love, but that love is never merely some grand idea that we look up to and try to fathom intellectually. Rather it’s a reality that may not be fathomable, but that we still can (and need to) receive and live and breathe and become.

And God is truth, but that truth isn’t merely a set of propositions or laws that we learn and promulgate. Rather it’s a truth that only becomes meaningful within real relationships and encounters and the mundane situations of our everyday lives.

Through a Bible darkly

In the same way, the Bible (and the understanding of God it presents) is rooted not so much in abstract philosophy and ideology as in real events, people and history. And of course this is primarily the history of the Jewish people and the person Jesus, who lived and died in a specific way at a particular time and place.

The Bible is such a troubling mix – profound wisdom and revelatory insight embedded in the cultural sexism, racism and barbarism of a different time. But it’s not that we can always simply extract the nuggets of good ‘truth’ from the dead rock; often the two are too mixed for that. Rather we have to accept it all as it is, and learn to see God through the dark glass – just as it is in our own lives.

There’s much in the Bible that I’m deeply uncomfortable with; lots in the story of the Israelites struggling with God (and vice versa) that I would personally prefer wasn’t there, or was very different. But perhaps it’s important that it’s as it is, not because everything in the Bible is necessarily perfect or ‘God’s Eternal Truth’ in the way Christians sometimes think, but because it is (and has to be) God’s love and truth made real in the mess and muck of actual human society. That’s simply how it works.

So we might prefer a more abstract view or idea of God as pure love, mercy, goodness or whatever (I certainly would) – but that wouldn’t really mean very much.

Over-interpreting the Bible

Similarly, I wonder if we sometimes get a bit too hung up on over-interpreting specific events and words reported in the Bible, reading too much into them. Perhaps we needn’t always treat them as perfect or ideal examples, as how things should be or the only way they could have been – as God’s unchanging Truth and God’s unquestionable Will.

Because again, I don’t think the Bible works like that. It doesn’t record how everything should have been, but simply how things were and are (broadly speaking, allowing for poetic licence, non-literal interpretations and perhaps the odd bit of misremembering).

So perhaps even with something as central and crucial as (say) the crucifixion, there’s a danger that we may get a bit carried away reading complex theological theories into the specific details as the only way God could have worked redemption. Whereas all we know for sure is that this is how God did work, under these circumstances, with these people and at this time.

I suggest this tentatively; perhaps this was the only way God could have achieved his eternal purposes; perhaps it was all minutely planned from before time began. But maybe what matters more is simply that God did choose this particular way at this particular time, for reasons we may never fully understand.

Imperfect expressions

And I think all this does tie in with the practical-symbolic understanding of Christian ideas I talked about last time. The point is that we don’t have to know the full, exact or technical meanings or workings of sin, salvation or atonement; the precise definitions of Christian truth.

Rather we experience these realities incarnationally as we on-goingly welcome Jesus to dwell in us by his Spirit. We struggle with actual sin (whatever it is) within ourselves with Jesus’ help; we receive his actual life and power within us, making real his atonement and salvation in us (whatever those are exactly).

We don’t need to know exactly what these terms mean or how they work; only that they represent realities that are at work in us despite being mysterious. We experience them empirically and participate in them practically, even if we don’t understand them intellectually.

In other words Christian truth has to be expressed and incarnated in concrete words that aren’t up to the job, just as (more importantly) it also has to be made actual in real situations and lives, however non-ideal and imperfect those are.

Theory and experience

Finally, I’ve written before about the difference between knowing God and knowing about God, and also the difference between imagination and logic. These are both part of what I’m getting at here.

I love theology and find the theoretical side of belief endlessly fascinating. But at heart and above all I’m a worshipper, and that’s what I really feel that I’m here for; that meeting and knowing God personally is the crux and nub of my faith.

It’s a bit like the difference between studying musical theory and getting completely caught up in a performance of your favourite music. The musical theory is good, useful and may even be vital if you’re trying to write, perform or analyse music. But in the end it’s the experience of the music itself that’s what it’s all about, what it’s for.

So it is with Christian truth, I believe. The theory and logic are important, but it’s only when these are made real in actual experience and relationship that they really come alive in all their beauty, glory and power.

So I sometimes feel I have two sets of understandings of God, a head one and a heart one, and they don’t always sit well together. The head one is logical and scriptural and strives to be ‘correct’; but the heart one is free and personal and poetic and uncontained and sometimes not scriptural or correct at all. And this is the one that really matters to me.

Different people will have different ways of approaching their faith of course, and that’s fine. If a more cerebral or more scripturally literal way work better for you, fine. But for me at the moment a more symbolic and mysterious approach, a way of the heart rather than primarily the mind, is what I find leads me most into the inexplicable, inexpressible and irreplaceable reality and beauty of God’s presence.

Posted in Bible, Incarnation, Spirituality, Theology, Truth | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Breathing new life into troublesome Christian ideas

Or, Rediscovering Christianity practically and symbolically…

…or why I’m still fine to still call myself a sinner.

These days, there are so many Christian terms that I feel ambivalent or uncertain about – sin, salvation, atonement, heaven, hell, Satan; God perhaps; even Christianity itself.

I’m just no longer comfortable with many of the traditional or historical meanings that have been placed on these words. I often find it hard to accept the ways these concepts are understood or explained within mainstream Christian orthodoxy. That’s not to say I don’t believe in these things any more, but I no longer view them in quite the same way.

And sometimes the words themselves can be problematic – they carry so much baggage, so many negative connotations, that at times it’s tempting to sweep them away and come up with shiny new terms. Except that the same thing would simply happen again eventually, so I’d prefer to try and reclaim the old, however tarnished. (I think that’s a divine principle too.)

But while I’m increasingly certain of what these terms don’t mean (for example that hell isn’t a literal place of eternal fiery torment), I’m far less certain of what they do mean.

Nonetheless, I still think they may have a meaning worth seeking, even if I’ve only yet the vaguest inkling of what that might be.

Practical symbolism

There are two main ways in which I still find these troublesome old words useful and meaningful, and they’re really two sides of the same coin. Let’s take the example of that highly loaded and unloved word ‘sin’.

1. Practically. I don’t know exactly what ‘sin’ means, how it works, whether or why specific behaviours offend or grieve God (though I have an increasing sense that it’s primarily to do with offending against divine love not law).

But I do know in a very practical or empirical sense that, despite my best efforts, I tend to follow patterns of thinking and behaviour that harm others and myself, that mess things up. I don’t need to understand all the theology to be able to describe myself practically as a ‘sinner’, or some of my behaviour as ‘sin’.

2. Symbolically. On the other side of the coin, as I say I’m no longer happy with some of the classic theological ways of understanding the concept of sin. But I can still use the term ‘sin’ as a symbol to stand for this reality that I don’t understand but do still see at work, and which I need a word for.

So when I use words like ‘sin’ or ‘salvation’ or ‘atonement’ I’m using them symbolically to represent mysteries that I don’t yet fully understand, rather than to explain them or sign up to particular existing theological views and understandings of them.

But I’m also using them practically, as labels for actual things that I see at work in the world, in my own life and other people’s lives.

Re-interpreting liturgy and the Bible

I’d also extend this to singing hymns and worship songs or reciting liturgy in church. I’m not always comfortable with all the church words and sentiments now, but I can still use them if I treat them less literally. Instead I can see them as symbolic of a deeper reality that they’re trying and often failing to convey, and which I do broadly believe in but don’t fully understand or have other words for.

A similar principle applies to reading the Bible. Often now when I read certain Bible passages I wince at their literal meanings which can seem harsh, barbaric, unenlightened or unscientific. But if I accept that the authors were imperfect and of their time, yet were doing their best in their limited language to convey glimpses of reality far ahead of their age’s understanding – then I can start to overcome my modern liberal antipathy.

The limits of language

Words are always blunt tools, and language is fundamentally limited.

There’s an argument that all language is inherently metaphorical. Even an apparently concrete noun like ‘chair’ doesn’t actually describe or explain anything – it just acts as an agreed label so we can communicate.

We have to take it on trust that what you mean by the colour ‘red’ is what I mean by it. But often we do have different experiences and understandings; we use the same words but don’t always mean the same things by them.

So with words it’s all too easy to miscommunicate or misunderstand. And it’s never going to be possible to convey in language all the nuance and complexity of actual reality – either as we subjectively experience it or as it objectively is (if we can even ever know that).

Speaking of the spiritual

And this is infinitely more so with religious language. Here we’re attempting to convey in words the ineffable divine, the invisible supernatural – that which lies beyond the realms of our normal experience, understanding and therefore language.

Life and the universe and God are so much more complex and mysterious than we can begin to comprehend. Our attempts to speak of God are like a 5-year-old trying to grasp quantum physics, or a stone-age person trying to describe a computer.

So when we use words like God, spirit, holiness, sin, evil, atonement, angels, salvation, heaven, hell, we’re speaking far beyond the normal capacity of words. We can only approach these spiritual concepts distantly, partially, tangentially and metaphorically, by reference to things which we have directly experienced.

By using these words we can give the false impression to ourselves and others that we’re speaking of concrete, understood realities. But the words are often just labels to mark out things we don’t (and maybe can’t) understand, like Dark Matter in science, or x and y in algebra to stand for numbers we haven’t yet worked out.

We do need these words so we can speak of spiritual things, but we must remember that they’re only symbols. We shouldn’t treat them as literal or complete, or cling too tightly to particular understandings of the mysteries they can only point to and hint at.

Taking things too literally

So I think there can be a real danger in taking biblical ideas or Christian terms too literally.

If people find it helpful to understand 6-day creation or hell or demons literally, that’s not necessarily a problem. We do have to approach and engage with spiritual things at our current level of understanding.

The danger comes when we move on a bit and discover that the literal versions don’t really stack up. The temptation then is just to reject them outright, throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Whereas I think that if we accept them as picture-language pointing to deeper realities, we can hold onto the words and allow them to take on deeper meaning as our understanding grows and changes.

C.S. Lewis famously said that people fell into one of two opposite errors regarding the devil – either getting obsessed with him, or else rejecting his reality entirely. I’d say we fall into similar errors with most areas of Christian or biblical ‘truth’ – either requiring that it be taken literally, or else chucking it out as not true at all. But there is always a third way.

So perhaps I do still believe in things like the devil, and hell, in some sense. Just not in the ways I used to.

Next time – why Christian truth is never abstract…

Posted in Bible, Liberalism, Theology, Truth | Tagged , , , , , , | 11 Comments

More things to hold onto in hard times

Picking up from where we left off last time

4. There is always hope

Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.

When we’re in the midst of the dark night it can feel like it will never end; the sun will never rise again. But the dawn always follows the night; spring always follows winter. Sometimes it may take weeks, months, even years for the darkness to fully lift, and the process of lightening may be slow and gradual, but in the end the new day will come. Nothing in this life lasts forever, even the worst sufferings and deepest sorrows. These troubles will pass.

There is always hope. Always. That’s at the very heart of the Christian message.

But how can there be real hope if you or a loved one have a terminal or degenerative illness from which there’s no chance of physical recovery?

I’m not going to say ‘expect a miracle’ – I believe miracles are possible but rare, and I don’t want to raise false hopes, though of course by all means pray for God’s intervention. But even if things don’t get better physically, there is still hope, albeit of a different kind.

This life is not all there is; death is never the end; even terminal illness does not get the final say. In the end, Love wins the day. Ultimately, on the other side of this vale of tears, in Christ all will be well. That’s easy for me to say. But with all my heart I believe it to be the truth nonetheless.

5. You can get through this

So however dark and desperate things are, by putting one foot in front of the other, one day at a time, you will get through this. Things will get better eventually. They may never be perfect in this life, or exactly as they were before, but they will be okay. You will be okay.

You may feel that you can’t do this, but you can. You can. With God’s help and if possible the support of a few good people, you can make it through pretty much anything life throws at you. It won’t be easy necessarily, but it will be doable.

6. Good can come of this

I’ve never liked that passage in James that asks us to ‘consider it joy’ when trials come. How are we meant to ‘rejoice’ at suffering?

But I’ve gradually, grudgingly sort of begun to see what he’s getting at. The trial itself isn’t joy, of course. But somehow, through it or as a result of it, joy can come. By God’s grace, good can be brought out of any evil. That too is at the very heart of the Christian message.

So we don’t try and pretend that the suffering is joyous (that’s either false or masochistic), but we can perhaps start to see something positive in it at least. Through these difficulties, God will grow us and build our characters, our compassion, our trust, our love.

That’s not to say he’s planned these trials for this purpose; but that he can bring good from this, for us and others. And when we’ve gone through it ourselves we may be able to help other people face their own trials.

7. Embrace the ‘negative’ emotions

In the dark times, we can feel overwhelmed by unexpected and uncomfortable emotions, feelings we’re not sure how to handle and which may even seem unacceptable for ‘good Christians’. We may feel raging anger, deep sadness, shame and humiliation, fear and anxiety. The temptation is to feel bad about them, adding guilt to our list of unpleasant feelings, and then to try and push them away.

But repressing emotions doesn’t get rid of them. They just go underground and give rise to other problems (headaches, insomnia, unpredictable outbursts). Best thing is to make friends with them, learn to accept these difficult companions and hear what they’re telling us. It’s okay to feel angry when everything goes wrong, and it may even be helpful. Sadness is exactly the right response to loss.

And whatever your feelings, you can express them to God in all their rawness. Look at the Psalms, full of despair, fear, lament, murderous rage.

So don’t be ashamed or afraid of your difficult feelings. They’re part of you, and you may actually need them.

8. Remember the bigger picture

When life’s hard, our horizons often close in and we can’t see past our problems. It’s like being shut in a small dark room with no window.

But outside our room is a world with light and colour and birdsong, teeming with possibility and wonder. If you can only somehow open a window – perhaps with someone else’s help, or God’s help – you can see it and start to remember everything else. There’s a bigger picture than these present problems. And there’s a longer term than what you’re going through right now. There is something better beyond these troubles.

9. Some practical things

Words of comfort and encouragement are all very well, but it’s the practical stuff that makes the most difference. And there are some things anyone can do, which may not solve all our problems but may at least make things better.

  • Express yourself. I find it incredibly helpful to write about what I’m feeling or struggling with. For others it will be talking about it, perhaps to friends, a pastor or counsellor. You may even need to shout and scream about it, to God at least.
  • If words aren’t your thing, try expressing what you’re feeling and experiencing in other creative ways. Draw pictures, write a song, dance about it. I find singing out loud – however out of tune –wonderfully releasing.
  • Listen to music. Maybe at first pick pieces that match your mood, rather than something overly happy to jolly you out of it (that can maybe come later).
  • When you’re feeling rubbish, I know it’s really hard to bother with exercise, diet and good sleep habits. But these simple physical things are hugely important to our physical and emotional wellbeing. You might need someone else to help with this.
  • Set goals – achievable things that you can feel good about having done. Tackle something you’ve been putting off, whether it’s DIY, phoning someone or starting to write your novel.
  • Try something new. Having a go at something a tiny bit challenging and finding you can do it is an incredible feeling. I’ve just joined a beginners’ ballroom dancing class and it’s really hard but it feels great when I start to master the steps.
  • Get involved in something outside your situation – maybe volunteering with a charity or an existing project to improve the local area. Things like this can broaden your horizons, connect you with people and take you out of yourself. And contributing to something that benefits other people can feel really good.

None of these are magic solutions of course. There will be better and worse days, and I can’t promise an immediate end to your difficulties. But by the grace of God you can get through this.

And I leave you with an adapted Serenity prayer which I pray most days:

Lord, there’s so much we’d like to be different in the world and in our lives. Give us the courage, wisdom and strength to change what we can ourselves; the faith to leave with you all that we can’t; and the grace to accept those things which will not change, trusting that you will bring good out of these in the end. Amen.

And here are some more posts about suffering in case they’re of any interest…

Posted in Dark night of the soul, Suffering | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment