Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christian Apologetic piece

Consider this situation: A married couple with 3 children appear to
be getting a divorce and have separated. The grandmother, a
Christian, writes a brief email, telling of her sadness about the
situation, where the divorce is concerned. She is especially upset
about its implications for the children, and the pain of possibly not
being able to see her grandchildren in the future, plus sad about the
breakdown of her own relationship with the son. In writing about the
terrible situation, she mentions both that "God moves in mysterious
ways", and that she is "thankful for her salvation in Jesus Christ."
The email is written to a cousin, and circulated to other members of
her immediate family, one of whom, while saddened by the news, reacts
negatively to the implicitly "Christian" tone of the grandmother's
reflection upon the situation as contained in the email. Especially
disturbing is the seeming implication that Christians think God, in
light of his "mysteriousness" has a kind of get-out-of-jail free card
from those who believe in him. Thus, Christians illogically thank him
for his faithfulness despite his seemingly unfair allotment of tragedy
upon those who deserve it little. How is the Christian attitude
different from one that would similarly treat criminal behavior as
though it were the product of "mystery"? Are Christians just
inconsistent, or do they simply wish to hold onto an idea of God
despite the evidence to the contrary? Etc. A fairly sensitive,
close-to-the-bone issue of "Why does God allow suffering?", but in the
context of dialogue between family members who simultaneously exist on
opposite sides of the "religious" coin and love each other. These
questions about the seeming peculiarities of Christian belief were not
raised with the writer of the email, but rather, with another
Christian member of the family. The circumstance regarding the
divorce/grandchildren/grandparents serves as a catalyst to bring up
the strong areas of tension that exist between this questioning
non-Christian member of the family and this other believer, areas of
tension that have been simmering for quite some time. The honest
questions about faith in this respect appear to be an important
opportunity for dialogue. Obviously the questions are not being asked
with purely divisive intentions, and the issue is not one of abstract
apologetics. Before entering into the conversation, having heard of
the situation, and the clear and intelligent questions put forth by
the non-believer, the Christian asks you for your opinion/thinking on
the matter. What would you say? Here is my own, off-the-cuff
response. I feel as though I have far from exhausted the matter, and
would welcome any thoughts along these lines from any of you out
there, reading this. What do think? (note: obviously the names are
fictitious, but, Marilyn = the non-believer, Caroline = the Christian
Grandmother, Oswald = the Christian Grandmother's husband, Randolph =
the Christian believer who has appealed to you for your own
reflections upon the situation):

Dear Randolph,

The email from your Marilyn was "heavy", and I didn't want to
write off too cursory a response. She asks some of the toughest
questions out there, and she seems to honestly be asking them of you,
which is pretty cool. So I write to you now, not with any kind of
real response, but instead with some of my own thoughts about the
matter and how I think about suffering in the world and the apparent
tendency of Christians to say the weirdest most incongruous things at
times. These are not my thoughts for this person, by the way, but
rather for you, in that they might help you to further think about the

Anyway, one thing about life is that I don't think we humans
necessarily have a very accurate view of when things are and are not a
"good" and/or "bad". There's the old story about the kid who breaks
his arm and everyone says, "Oh, that's terrible that you broke your
arm", but then, the next day, the draft officer comes to town, and,
because of the boy's broken arm, he does not have to go off to war.
Then everyone says, "Oh, how lucky you are that you broke your arm!"
Often life is full of things like that. The instance with Caroline
and Oswald and their son's family is not one of those though.

Clearly it is devastatingly painful for them, and not a "good"
thing for any of those involved. My hunch is that Caroline and
Oswald, despite their "trust in the Lord's plan", are still actively,
and rightly praying for their son and his wife to get back together,
children et all, and for the grandchildren to not remain estranged
from them as grandparents, and for their son's alienated relationships
on so many levels. That is most likely what Marilyn would like to see
as well, right? So I don't
think that Marilyn and Caroline and Oswald are on as different pages
as initially appears to be the case.

The next thing I immediately think of is this. The world, though
created by God, is also fallen. With the Fall things like death and
sin entered into the picture. To understand the outcome of events
simply as being God's plan is not really my view of things. When good
things happen, they, like God's introduction of his son into the
fallen world as reconciler, are reflective of God's active
intervention upon a scene that is so often bound for destruction. The
point is that tragedy is basically the fallen world's default, not its
exception. Think of how hard relationships are to maintain and keep
alive and harmonious. It's as though the battle is always uphill to
some extent. Such is the case apart from grace, which is God's love
in the world as a counteracting reversal of natural tendency. So
that's one thing.

As one training for ministry, I am struck by how little people
here Wycliffe realize just how tattered the fabric of human life often
is. As Sam Shoemaker said, "Everyone either has a problem, is a
problem, or lives with a problem." I think many will be flabbergasted
with the amount of real suffering that goes on in the lives of all
people. Alcoholics Anonymous has taught me a lot about that, and I
personally, both dread and expect it. I do feel that Christianity is
God's word to people in exactly that predicament. So I guess I don't
simply equate the outcome of events as God's will, but rather his
incorporation of the tragedy into a bigger plan of redemption as being
His will. Luther called this God's "Alien Work", that God has to
basically deal with situations that oppose him, rather than that
accept him or exist in some kind of neutral state toward Him. It's a
low anthropology and a high Christology.

Also, with Christianity, usually Jesus is understood to be His
(i.e., God the Father's) only clear expression of himself. Apart from
understanding God through Christ, the waters get murky indeed. Think
of pantheism, where God and Nature are understood to be the same
thing. It's very hard to find something loving in nature, though it
is possible to witness immense power in nature. Sunsets are gorgeous,
but with them come hurricanes and earth quakes and tsunamis. Where is
the God's love for humans to be found in Hurricane Katrina?! With
Christ, God's particular love for individual humans in the context of
rough, rough life on earth is found, and apart from that, it's a
difficult thing to find.

Another thing is that, as Christians, the world and/or human life
is not viewed to be an end point, but rather a kind of journey toward
an end-point. Their is an element of escape in the Christian view,
which is found in death. I know it sounds cryptic, but it's not if
heaven is real, and in light of how difficult life is. Paul writes
that "To live is Christ (i.e., suffering along side and for others),
to die is gain (i.e., heaven/paradise, existence unbroken and
unaffected by death)" (Philippians 1:21). So there are a few
immediate thoughts.

My hunch is that Caroline's comments about her "salvation in
Jesus Christ", while true and touching, also reflect her desire for
her family to convert, and was her attempt at not "forgetting" to be
evangelical. It is true that faith in times of trouble is baffling,
but also extremely profound. Clearly Caroline and Oswald don't view
their lives as simply being about their own personal enjoyment of
things, which says a lot. They view themselves to have a purpose not
of their own creation, which is unselfish of them to say the least.

One last thing: what is the alternative to Caroline and Oswald's
(Christian) position. It seems to me that it has to do with a
different understanding of personal power than the one Marilyn
espouses. Life without God, places a lot of weight upon
individual will power (i.e., that life is what you make it). Holding
that view often implies that failure is always a matter of personal
responsibility and assumes that the secret to success has to do mainly
with how hard you try. It is an intolerable burden and one which
collapses with the experience of suffering, which is usually the
avenue to seeing Christ's significance. He focused his much of his
ministry on those who tried hard and failed, and also taught in such a
way that revealed just how real is human need for God. "It is not the
well that need a doctor, but the ailing" (Mark 2, Luke 5, Matt 9).
The relief of
not having to be in charge of my success and life's outcome is
actually immensely freeing and I do hear some of that in the face of
Caroline's heartache. I found Marilyn's email so touching and her
words so clear and intelligent! They made me think.

Finally, when people say "God moves in mysterious ways", I think
they usually mean two things. One, that God's ways are not our own
ways, and the way he brings about joy (i.e., through suffering) is
very different from our own instinctive ways, which are ones that
would always avoid the suffering element, but, thereby, miss out on
the richness of forgiveness and redemption, ultimately missing out on
love, simply existing in a merit-based reward/justice paradigm ("eye
for an eye"). Two, the phrase "God moves in mysterious ways", is
often actually stated by people who mean: "Life moves in mysterious
(read: crushing) ways", which is true. In that context, they ask
"then what?", but it is a kind of premise, rather than a kind of
conclusion, the idea being that the outcome is not yet fully realized.

Is that helpful? What were your initial thoughts about your
Marilyn's line of questioning? I'm praying for you and your
relationship with her all the time. Remember, the answers are not
really found in logical argument, but rather they shine forth despite
the reality of life's hardship as love, which is a kind of depth that
you exude and is something that I value
about you. It's what some people call maturity or character. Marilyn
can't shake the fact that you are not an idiot, and that she does see
change in you, despite her own beliefs. Nicky Gumbel says that,
"Christianity is the rational, not the irrational, conclusion". I
think he is right.

...John Z


Anonymous said...


Dialogue demands the sensitive approach; you are right. In my experience, God's caring love has a profoundly attractive force. Thanks for the reminder.

Merry Christmas,


Lou Heron said...

Thanks for a very helpful piece. There is only one area which is problematic for me, and it may be entirely a matter of semantics. Critical observation of the world confirms your assertion that “misfortune” is the default state and that without God’s active intervention, all things in this deranged universe would lead to suffering. However, it also seems to make sense that an important aspect of our understanding of God as God is that he is the only entirely non-contingent being in existence. That is to say that it is God’s free choice to act or to be “passive.” In this sense, all misfortune we suffer is the result of God’s exercise of his free will. Thus, all the events of our lives result from the action of God’s will.

I am not arguing for an “inse Allah” attitude, one in which God is not truly an independent actor but an overblown person whose will is bound to reward or punish based on our behavior toward him. But, I think there is also a danger in underestimating God if we give him the credit for what seems good to us and not the credit for what seems bad to us.

Neither your argument nor my suggested hermeneutical alteration really addresses those bad things which are the direct outcome of specific manifestations of human sinfulness . . . or do they?
Simul iustus et peccator,

Anonymous said...

perhaps one should look to God's word for an answer...just a suggestion..we all have opinions, but what does God say? one of my favorite scriptures is Jeremiah 29:11..."For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope."and also Romans 8:28 "And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose." NOTE: IT SAYS ALL...that is the essence of true faith..knowing that God is in control, and when we mess up..God can use it for far as my you go..again only my is not God that "allows" us to is God that restores us and holds us when we take matters into our own hands and are lead to our own dismay..God is a God of "free will", it is our choice to live according to His will..and though God is capable of everything, we must seek his company for he is always there, it is that we turn away and then tend to blame God...

Anonymous said...

I tend to turn away from God, and blame myself. This "tends" to happen usually after I have not chosen to live according to His will. At what points do I choose to live according to my own will as opposed to His? At all points. It is through Jesus's death on the cross- and that only- that I suffer not the eternal consequences of my constant, sinful turning away and, instead, am drenched with grace and forgiveness. Free will exists not. PTL.

John Zahl said...

A related quote from Luther:

“…before he can be God he must first appear to be the Devil. We cannot reach heaven until we first descend into hell. We cannot be God’s children unless first we are the Devil’s children. Again before the world can be seen to be a lie it must first appear to be the truth.”