There are few things more common to the human experience than pain and suffering. Yet despite (or perhaps because of) their universality, there are also few things that seem more incompatible with the human experience. This is why a period of suffering, and especially a prolonged one, causes us to ask God why–to question the purpose behind our pain.
C.S. Lewis, the famed atheist-turned-apologist, was himself intimately acquainted with suffering–essentially orphaned at the age of 9 when his mother died and his father shipped him off to a strict boarding school, physically and mentally wounded while serving in the trenches in World War I, and tragically widowed when he finally married following a long bachelorhood. Unsurprisingly, considering his experience, his literary works are filled with references to, meditations on, and explanations of the problem of pain. How do we reconcile an omnipotent, benevolent God with the existence of pain and suffering? What possible purpose can pain have?
What’s interesting is that while Lewis agrees that pain is undoubtedly evil, he insists that it is sometimes a necessary evil (God in the Dock, 224-25). He goes even further in The Great Divorce, an allegory about the afterlife, when George MacDonald, his guide through the purgatory-like state in which the story takes place, tells him “that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory” (The Great Divorce, 69). He doesn’t actually explain how one’s pain results in glory, beyond saying that “the good man’s past begins to change so that his … remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven (The Great Divorce, 69), but based on the rest of the Lewis canon, there are at least 5 ways that this “momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17): Continue reading 5 Purposes of Pain in the Works of C.S. Lewis
As a seminary student who also preaches/teaches regularly, this is a constant, but necessary, struggle for me.
J. I. Packer on the importance of cultivating the inward disciplines of the Christian faith and not focusing solely on outward performance (from his book, Keep in Step with the Spirit: Finding Fullness in Our Walk with God):
The journey of our lives is a double journey. There is an outward journey into external confrontations, discoveries, and relationships, and there is an inner journey into self-knowledge and the discovery of what for me as an individual constitutes self-expression, self-fulfillment, freedom, and contentment within. For the Christian, the outward journey takes the form of learning to relate positively and purposefully to the world and other people–that is, to all God’s creatures–for God the Creator’s sake, and the inward journey takes the form of gaining and deepening our acquaintance with God the Father and with Jesus the Son, through the mighty agency of the Holy Spirit.
Now in the hustling, bustling West today, life has become radically unbalanced, with education, business interests, the media, the knowledge explosion, and our go-getting community ethos all uniting to send folk off on the outward journey as fast as they can go and with that to distract them from ever bothering about its inward counterpart. In Western Christianity the story is the same, so that most of us without realizing it are nowadays unbalanced activists, conforming most unhappily in this respect to the world around us. Like the Pharisees, who were also great activists (see Matt. 23:15!), we are found to be harsh and legalistic, living busy, complacent lives of conforming to convention and caring much more, as it seems, for programs than for people. When we accuse businessmen of selling their souls to their firms and sacrificing their integrity on the altars of their organizations, it is the pot calling the kettle black. Perhaps there are no truths about the Spirit that Christian people urgently need to learn today than those that relate to the inner life of fellowship with God, that life which I call the inward journey. (You could also call it the upward journey–that adjective would fit equally well.)
The Briarpatch Gospel: Fearlessly Following Jesus into the Thorny Places By Shayne Wheeler, Tyndale Momentum, 2013, 272 pp., $14.99 paperback.
It was a bad sign that I found myself echoing the Preacher’s lament that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) very early in Shayne Wheeler’s The Briarpatch Gospel: Fearlessly Following Jesus into the Thorny Places, the latest book in the Hipster-Christian genre of publishing (where authors condemn “Holier Than Thou” Christianity only to replace it with “Cooler Than Thou” and “More Tolerant Than Thou” versions). I know absolutely nothing about Wheeler or his church so I have tried to constrain my critique to his book, without extrapolating it to his person or ministry, but I must admit that it is difficult to judge the latter without assuming that the former must logically be influenced by the views the book betrays. Continue reading Book Review: The Briarpatch Gospel
I Am Not But I Know I Am: Welcome to the Story of God By Louie Giglio, Colorado Springs, Colorado: Multnomah Books, 2012, 176 pp, $13.99 paperback / $9.99 ebook.
If you don’t know who Louie Giglio is, you haven’t been paying attention. Not only is he pastor of Passion City Church in Atlanta and founder of the Passion Movement, but on January 8, it was announced that he would deliver the benediction at President Obama’s second inauguration in recognition of his work to stop human trafficking. Two days later, he withdrew under intense criticism for preaching (nearly two decades ago) what the Bible says about homosexuality. I had mixed feelings about both his initial acceptance of the invitation and his subsequent withdrawal, but neither made me question his motivations or his love for the Lord. Similarly, I experienced mixed feelings while reading I Am Not But I Know I Am: Welcome to the Story of God, the paperback release of his 2005 title, but nothing that would make me question his passion for Jesus and his desire to make his name known.
The book’s quirky title is, of course, based on Moses’ encounter with the burning bush, where God revealed his name as I AM. From this, Giglio builds a thesis that, “God’s name is I have always been and always will be God, and my name is I have never been and never will be God. My name is I am not.” The rest of the book is concerned with how this idea should assuage our feelings of stress and meaningless. Giglio assures his readers that relegating each of us to the status of an I am not is not an insult, but a recognition of our proper place in God’s creation. This then frees us to be everything we are meant to be by relying on everything that he is: Continue reading Book Review: I Am Not But I Know I Am
Lying (Kindle Single) By Sam Harris, 2011, $2.99 Kindle Edition.
One would not typically think of Sam Harris agreeing with Christians about something. Harris, after all, is the author of books such as The End of Faith and has made a career of being antagonistic towards Christianity, the Bible, and faith in general. However, in Lying, a Kindle Single on the importance of honesty, Harris promotes an idea that is very biblical: that lies (even small, white ones) are always wrong.
This principle of total and complete honesty that Harris tries to live out was instilled in him by a college course he took at Stanford called “The Ethical Analyst,” after which he was convinced that “lying, even about the smallest matters, needlessly damages personal relationships and public trust.” The rest of this short book is devoted to explaining exactly how lying causes those damages and explaining why being honest is always the better option. Continue reading Book Review: Lying
19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not drive it out?”
20 And He said to them, “Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.
21 [“But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”]
The disciples had to have been bewildered. They had cast out demons before. They had even done it without Jesus being present, when they were sent out by him in Matthew 10. Now suddenly they were impotent. This was definitely a blow to their egos. That’s why they approach Jesus “privately.” Their failure had been public, and they were determined not to continue that public embarrassment. Somehow they must have guessed that the problem was with themselves and not with the strength of the demon.
When they heard Jesus’ response, they must have been glad that they didn’t ask him publicly. He describes the disciples as having “little faith,” once again in contrast with the Roman centurion (Mt 8:10) and the Canaanite woman (Mt 15:28). If their faith had been adequate, “nothing will be impossible.” They would even be able to move mountains. Continue reading Cultivating Powerful Faith
And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 16:17)
This verse is incredibly humbling.
Someone I know declared himself an atheist over the summer and has spent the past few weeks belittling those who believe in God. One of his problems with religious people, and especially Christians, is that we reject reason and believe things without any (or even in contradiction to) evidence. If you talk to enough unbelievers, you’ll encounter that argument eventually. Continue reading Flesh & Bone Has Not Revealed This
Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:28)
We’ve reached the conclusion of this brief drama that has seen a Gentile woman beg Jesus to free her daughter from demonic oppression, the disciples try to just get rid of her, and Jesus not only twice deny the woman’s request but also refer to the Jews as his children and this woman as a dog. Yet the woman still had not given up, pressing Jesus for a 3rd time in the dialogue to grant her request: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (Mt 15:27)
So what are we to make of this? Did Jesus really not want to free this woman’s daughter? Did he really think Gentiles were dogs? Was the woman really able to change the mind of an immutable God? Continue reading The Mysterious Case of the Canaanite Woman