A few years ago, after being politely asked to depart early from yet another speaking engagement for giving the wrong answer to a question about the limits of God’s mercy, I decided it wasn’t fair to keep sneaking up on unsuspecting Evangelicals. Strange as it seems to me, I know all too well that to promote a God both loving enough to desire the salvation of all His children and powerful enough to accomplish it is a dangerous scandal to such folks. After all, without
the fear of their unsaved loved ones’ eternal damnation, how would they motivate one another for outreach and missionary service?
And yet, almost everywhere I go, I meet people –especially young people – who are not motivated at all by such fear. On the contrary, these people are utterly horrified by the notion of a Heavenly Father who essentially says to His
children, ‘I love you, but if for any reason you fail to accept that fact before your mortal body expires, I will kill and torture you for all eternity’. Especially if that same Heavenly Father holds in His hand all the reasons His children do
or don’t accept Him in the first place. These are the people who ask me the questions that used to lead to my early departures, and who write me letters and emails like this one:
This might be kind of weird, but I have a question for you. I did Mission Year
last year and when you came to visit my team you told a story about how when
first started working in the inner-city, you got to know a girl who was gang-
raped as a 9-year-old and, after her Sunday School teacher told her God must
have allowed it for a reason, rejected God forever. Because you believed God
was indeed in control, and because you believed that girl’s lack of faith
doomed her to eternal damnation, you decided that God was a cruel bastard.
You sort of said the words inside my head out loud, words I had wanted to say
for a long time.
Anyway, after putting this off for almost a year, I want to know how you
reconciled that. How did you make it from, “God is a cruel bastard” back to “I
can trust Him”? I can’t seem to make that leap. Sometimes I begin to really
trust Him, but as soon as I think about my past abuse and those I know and
love who are bound for Hell…it just doesn’t add up. I want to know the God
you know- who apparently allows for horrible things in this world to happen,
but remains pure and holy and trustworthy and faithful and loving.
I don’t know if any of this makes sense to you, but as I was wrestling with it
again today I was reminded of you and hoped you might be of some help.
Thank you for writing to me. Over the past few years, I have become convinced that yours is actually the single most important question in the world. As Rabbi Harold Kushner observes, “Virtually every meaningful conversation I’ve had with
people about God has either started with that question or gotten around to it before long” While I am sure my answer will not be as eloquent as his, I will do my best.
First of all, while I certainly believe my most cherished ideas about God are supported by the Bible (what Christian says otherwise?), I must admit they did not originate there. On the contrary, most of these ideas were formed during that difficult time I described to you, when I was suddenly disillusioned by the suffering and injustice I discovered in the inner-city, and did not trust the Bible at all. At that point, for the first time, I realized that a person’s life does not depend on whether he or she believes in God, but rather on what kind of God he or she believes in. I also realized, for better or worse, that the only evidence I was could rely on was that which I saw for myself.
What I saw then, and still see now, is a world filled with dazzling goodness and horrific evil, with love and hate, with beauty and ugliness, with life and death. In the face of such clear duality, it seemed to me then, and still seems to me now, that there are but a handful of spiritual possibilities:
*There are no spiritual forces. The material universe is all. Our lives bear no larger meaning, and those who hope for more hope in vain. In this case, considering that 9-year old rape victim, I despair.
*There is only one spiritual force at work in the universe, encompassing both good and evil. This world is precisely as this force wills it to be, and everything—including the rapes of children—happens according to its plan. In this case, again, I despair.
* There are two diametrically opposing spiritual forces at work in the universe, one entirely good and loving and the other entirely evil. Satan (or whatever one chooses to call that evil force) is most powerful and therefore will utterly triumph in the end. The suffering of that poor little girl is but a foretaste of the complete suffering that is to come for us all. In this case, of course, I despair.
*There are two opposing spiritual forces at work in the universe, one entirely good and loving and the other entirely evil. God (or whatever one chooses to call that good and loving force) is most powerful, and therefore will utterly triumph in the end. The suffering of that poor little girl – Satan’s doing – will somehow be redeemed and she herself will be healed as part of the complete redemption and absolute healing that is to come for all of us. In this case—and in this case alone—I rejoice, and gladly pledge my allegiance to this good and loving God.
I cannot prove or disprove any of these possibilities, of course, based on the evidence of my experience. What I know with certainty, however, is the one that makes me want to go on living, the one I choose for my own sake, the one I deem worthy of my allegiance. I may be wrong in this matter, but I am not in doubt. If indeed faith is being sure of what we hope for, then truly I am a man of faith, for I absolutely know what I hope to be true: That God is completely good, entirely loving, and perfectly forgiving, that God is doing all that He can to overcome evil (which is evidently a long and difficult task), and that God will utterly triumph in the end, despite any and all indications to the contrary.
This is my first article of faith. I required no Bible to determine it, and—honestly—I will either interpret away or ignore altogether any Bible verse that suggests otherwise.
This first article of faith was the starting point of my journey back to Jesus, and it remains the foundation of my faith. I came to trust the Bible again, of course, but only because it so clearly bears witness to the God of love I had already chosen to believe in. I especially follow the teachings of Jesus because those teachings—and his life, death, and resurrection—seem to me the best expression of the ultimate truth of God, which we Christians call grace. Indeed, these days I trust Jesus even when I don’t understand him, because I have become so convinced that He knows what He is talking about, that He is who he is talking about, and that He alone fully grasps that which I can only hope is true.
Unfortunately for me, God may be very different than I hope, in which case I may be in big trouble come Judgment Day. Perhaps, as many believe, the truth is that God created and predestined some people for salvation and others for damnation, according to His will. Perhaps such caprice only seems unloving to us because we don’t understand. Perhaps, as many believe, everyone who dies without confessing Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior goes to Hell to suffer forever. Most important of all, perhaps God’s sovereignty is such that although He could indeed prevent little girls from being raped, He is no less just or merciful when He doesn’t, and both those children and we who love them should uncritically give Him our thanks and praise in any case.
My response is simple: I refuse to believe any of that. For me to do otherwise would be to despair.
Some might say I would be wise to swallow my misgivings about such stuff, remain orthodox, and thereby secure my place with God in eternity. But that is precisely my point: If those things are true, God can give my place in Heaven to someone else, and go ahead and send me to Hell. For better or worse, I am simply not interested in any God but a completely good, entirely loving, and perfectly forgiving One who is powerful enough to utterly triumph over evil. Such a God may not exist, but I will die seeking Him, and I will pledge my allegiance to no other possibility, because, quite frankly, anything less is not enough to give me hope, to keep me alive, to be worth the trouble of believing.
You can figure out the rest. I don’t hate God because I don’t believe God is fully in control of this world yet. Heck, God is not fully in control of me yet, even when I want Him to be, so how could I possibly believe that God is making it all happen out there in the street? I don’t hate God because I believe He is always doing the best He can, within the limits of human freedom, which even He cannot escape.
On that last point, consider for a moment the essential relationship between human freedom and love, and then consider the essential identity between love and God. If God is love, if He made us for love in His image, then He had no choice but to make us free, to leave us free, and to win us for His Kingdom as free agents (which, evidently, is a long and difficult task). So He did, and so He will.
I don’t hate God because, although I suppose He knows everything that can be known at any given point in time, I don’t suppose He knows or controls everything that is going to happen. I also don’t hate God because I really believe in Satan (and also in my own, moving-in-the-right-direction-but-still-pretty-doggoned-sinful nature). I don’t hate God because it seems to me that this world is a battleground between good and evil, not a puppet show with just one person pulling all the strings. I don’t hate God because the God I have chosen to believe in isn’t hateable, and because I refuse to believe in the kind of God that is.
Now here is the good news: I may be entirely wrong, but even in my darkest hours, my God of love hasn’t stopped speaking to me. On the contrary, I hear His voice in places I never did before, always saying the same things, one way or another: I am with you. I’m sorry about all the pain. It hurts me too, especially when my little ones suffer. I have always loved you and I always will. Do the best you can, but don’t worry. Everything will be all right in the end. Trust me.
And I do. And I hope you will too, sooner than later.
Of course, to believe in God the way I do is to change the rules of ministry, and especially of youth ministry. I still convince young people to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Saviour, but not because I’m afraid God will damn them to Hell if they don’t. On the contrary, I want kids’ to follow Jesus because I genuinely believe it’s a better life. Eternity aside, I want their lives to be transformed by God’s truth right now, for their sakes and for the sake of all the hungry and broken people out there who need them to start living His disciples. After all, the sooner we all start following Jesus by feeding the poor and freeing the oppressed, the sooner God’s will will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. But most of all, I evangelize people because I know they are my loving God’s beloved children, and I don’t want them to live a minute longer without knowing too that most wonderful fact of life.
And I stay in the inner city, in spite of all the suffering and injustice I see here every day, because I can. No longer do I blame God for what is beyond His control, or hate him for visiting so much pain on His little ones. Even in the midst of such ugliness, I can stay here because I am full of faith. I may not be sure of what I know anymore, but I am absolutely certain of what I hope for, and most of the time I manage to live in that direction.
I stay here for one more reason, of course: In places like this, nobody asks you to leave early because you can no longer find the limits of God’s mercy.
There are a couple of deeply meaningful lessons that I’ve learned that have become even more salient to me recently as these issues are at the heart of a current interpersonal conflict. So, for my sake and yours, dear reader, I offer these nuggets:
1) My first big psychological breakthrough came about a decade ago, when I learned that if I’m really upset about something and my reaction seems at all disproportionate to what is happening right now, I’m probably not just reacting to the present situation. As someone who experienced significant childhood abuse, this is a particular challenge for me. What it means is that I, like most people I would argue, am driven by often unrecognized "junk" from my past. In my case, because of the way my mother abused me, I learned early on not to share much information with her. I would come home from school and she would ask me how my day was, and I would give the classic "fine" response- and no more. However, in my case the stakes were much higher, because I wasn’t just giving the usual male adolescent cursory answer. I knew that any piece of information I gave her might some day be used against me, in ways I will not describe here. So I tried to walk that fine line between giving enough information not to cause offense, but only just enough so that I didn’t provide extra ammunition that I could later be hurt with. All of this happened when I was a kid. Now, in my 30’s- ten years into my marriage- I still have to muster great courage to tell my wife anything that she doesn’t ask for. I do it because I love her and it’s important for our marriage, but if anything happens to disturb that process- like a minor interruption after I’ve begun talking, the compulsion to "shut down" and not give anything else, and my related feelings of fear and anger, are still hard to manage. This is why the old adage to "know thyself" is so important. Because I know this about myself, when that situation occurs and I start to get overwhelmingly angry at the minor interruption, I can immediately connect the psychological dots between past and present, remember that I’m not really upset about the interruption, and- Lord willing- choose better behavior, especially/even if it takes a little while for my feelings to come in line with what I know I should do. This is a related and equally vital point. Feelings are wonderful and amazing tools. Like any good tool, however, it is important to know what they are for. Feelings are not, for example, a comprehensive guide to reality. One’s feelings in any given situation do not tell them everything they need to know about what’s happening externally. If I feel angry at or threatened by an individual, for example, that feeling probably doesn’t give me all the information I need to be able to respond well to that person and whatever they are doing (or not doing) that is stirring up those feelings. In fact, it is my ever-more-deeply-held belief that more than anything else feelings are useful as an internal tool rather than an external one. They tell me a lot more about what’s going on inside of me than they do what’s going on outside of me. If I’m careful to "listen to my life" by taking a hard look at myself- at those feelings- I can probably trace them back to a past wound that is being re-opened (if it ever healed in the first place).
2) All of the above led to my second, more recent breakthrough. For a long while I did the hard work of looking at my life and making all kinds of connections between present and past pain. I even did the further hard work of not only being aware of those connections, but newly armed with the knowledge of them, I did my best not to let that past pain drive my current behavior. Rather than being stuck in the cycle of old patterns, I tried to break free and chart a new, better course. However, those good intentions often devolved into something a bit less noble. I would realize in the moment that the nasty old feelings that were being stirred up in me as a result of the actions or words of another weren’t only about what was happening now, but then I would blame the other for their impact on me- an impact they wouldn’t or couldn’t even be aware of. So, for example, when present conflict with my mother-in-law stirred up the emotions of past conflict with my mother, I would blame my mother-in-law, whether I realized it or not, for how I felt, demanding that she stop whatever she was doing that resulted in dredging up that old "junk." This was my fatal flaw, and it took a while for me to "get" that I couldn’t hold the other responsible for causing me to re-experience, through their current actions, my past "junk." It’s my "junk," after all, not theirs. Now, inasmuch as whatever the other was doing was hurtful or wrong in its own right, then sure, there was something for us to talk about, but we couldn’t even get to that conversation until after I had taken a really, really hard look at myself in which I made all the necessary connections between past and present and then did my best to "keep ’em separated."
Sadly, I am currently dealing with some folks who I believe are making the same fatal (as in relationship-killing) mistake that I did. Those folks have suffered abuse both in their personal lives and particularly in their personal lives as a part of the Church, and for whatever reason have made me the focus of all their anger at God, the Church, Christians, etc. I act and speak in a way that dredges up that "stuff" for them, and I am being blamed for how threatened and attacked they feel as a result, but there is a deeply significant sense in which this isn’t really about me. Being a deeply flawed fellow myself, I am sure that I have done some hurtful things in my own right, and I recently acknowledged and sought forgiveness for this. This effort did not become reconciliation, however, because it was not mutual, and the latent issues, as far as I can tell, remain submerged. In the meantime, these folks are- again as far as I can tell (which is an admittedly limited view) are ready to throw out Christ with all the nasty old Christians. They’ve learned that Scripture isn’t useful (or trustworthy) as a science textbook, for example, and seem to be rejecting its usefulness for "teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" as well. They seem to have embraced postmodernism, but fail to recognize the trappings of Modernity and the manner in which the Church permitted the Bible to become ensared in them. After all, what is "truth?" Is it something that must be subject to the proofs of the scientific method? Must it be observable, verifiable, repeatable, etc.? Is the Bible only "true" if its ancient writers- inspired by God or no- got all of their facts straight according to the point of view of Modern science? Is it only true if it can be viewed like the transcript of a videorecording- as a recording of observed happenings- and that only? Like my seminary professor was so good to ask: "Is the story of Jonah the story of a whale, or a whale of a story?" Does it matter? Honestly, I don’t really care; there’s no way on this earth that I’ll ever know. In the meantime, it tells me much of what I need to know about running away from God- about how God is gonna do what God is gonna do anyway, and he may even use my rebellion to bring about what God is gonna do (so I’m "okay" either way), but it’s probably better for me to just go ahead and (literally, in Jonah’s case) get on board with God’s agenda in the first place rather than pursuing my own. This is the lesson of any good children’s story. It may not describe an observed historical event, but the meaning behind it all is no less real- or true. It’s like one of my favorite quotes from the movie version of V for Vendetta: "artists use lies to tell the truth while politicians use them to cover the truth up." I think this isn’t altogether different from what Jesus did when he spoke so often in riddles, parables, puzzles, etc.- and consider, just for a moment oh Modern Westerner- that some larger parts of the Biblical narrative may function this way as well. Does this, then, make it any less "true?"
Now, there are some events depicted in the Bible that I think you cannot do without- like, obviously, the resurrection for example. Jesus just isn’t Jesus without it. He may be a great teacher, a miracle worker even, a revolutionary- whatever. But without the resurrection when he comes along and says "follow me" I’m sure that I would have difficulty rousing from my endless consumer slumber. I think what is so threatening about this to some "Christians" is that they base their faith on the Bible, rather than on the person of Immanuel- "God with us." They’ve become "bibliolatrists." They’re afraid of having a real relationship with a real, living God, and so they reduce the relationship to a set of rules- a series of checklists regarding belief and behavior. As long as they check everything off, they know that they are "okay" (and not coincidentally, they can label/judge everyone else according to how they measure up). Sadly, by doing this they ignore the teaching of Jesus in the very Bible they say they revere. Jesus said that he would write his law on our hearts. He said that he came to fulfill the law, and to build a kingdom in which love is the only law. Many so-called Christians sadly don’t get my favorite credo- that "rules are for relationship." The "rules" are a means to the end of right relationship, but the rules aren’t the thing, the relationships are. What, then, of faith? How can one be sure without an "inerrant" Bible? Well, I won’t speak for everyone, but I will say that I am sure because, however failingly I do so, I believe Jesus. I didn’t say I believe in Jesus in the sense of lending intellectual assent to a series of propositions about him (though this may be true as well). Rather, I believe Him- so that when he comes to me and says "follow me," I do. This doesn’t mean I do it all right or well, or that I don’t run the other way or get mad and scream at him sometimes; it simply means that, by the grace of God, I have the courage still to scream– to question, to pound my fists on his chest before burying my head in his arms as I sob….and then finally rest in those arms, knowing that I am safe, and loved, and that it’s not all about me. Like Bart (see my last post), this at least is what I hope for- and that hope is what I am "sure" of.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure if the folks I’m currently having a hard time with "get" a lot of the above, and as far as they’re concerned, our relationship is very much in jeopardy because some of the "rules" and unacknowledged-emotions-related-to-deep-seated-"stuff" are getting in the way.
Being careful not to misrepresent the truth, let me say that as a 1995 Kingdomworks (click on "1988") alum Bart Campolo is someone that I have had the privilege to know and be loved by. We had occasion for several wonderful individual talks that summer, and I did my best to stay in touch over the years since then. I know of course that I am but one of thousands of lives that he has touched- lives who have come away better from the experience, but I am still glad to be able to count myself among the lucky ones. I’ve copied below something he wrote about the experience of touching another life in regard to what it means to be a Christ-follower these days. His approach may not be "orthodox," but I cry when I read it because it deeply resonates with my experience, understanding, and hopes. Here’s the link, and here’s the article: