Posts Tagged ‘C.S. Lewis’

Sermon 05-10-15: “Who Is Our Judge?”

May 26, 2015

1 Corinthians sermon series graphic

“But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court,” said the apostle Paul. How many of us could say the same thing? We usually think it’s a very large thing to be judged by others. And we often make ourselves miserable because of what others think of us. This sermon is all about the sin of pride and how our “puffed up” egos can be healed.

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 4:1-13

To listen on the go, right-click on this link to download an MP3 file.

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

worcesters

Worcester’s National League team once played before a hometown crowd of six people. Unsurprisingly, their franchise license was sold the next year to Philadelphia, where the team that eventually became the Phillies was started.

 

A couple of weeks ago, in Baltimore, the Baltimore Orioles set a new major league record, which had previously stood for 123 years. In 1882, there was a National League team from Worcester, Massachusetts, called the Worcester Ruby Legs—I’m not making this up. And the Ruby Legs played another National League team from Troy, New York, called the Trojans. On September 28, 1882, these two National League teams played in Massachusetts before a crowd of six fans. Read the rest of this entry »

Assessing the “problem of pain” with Dallas Willard

May 22, 2015

I’ve talked and blogged a lot recently about theodicy and the problem of evil—I even enjoyed a lunch conversation yesterday with a clergy colleague on that very subject. As if on cue, on his blog this morning, Scot McKnight summarizes the late Dallas Willard’s argument from The Allure of Gentleness. Willard is addressing the David Hume argument that if God were both all-good and all-powerful, he wouldn’t allow people to suffer.

Willard answers this argument, in part, by appealing to freedom—as everyone must. But his words about the necessity of freedom are powerful. They include:

They overlook the fact that by surrendering responsibility they surrender freedom and the capacity for virtue as well. The person who cannot be blameworthy cannot be praiseworthy either (121).

So what we must look at is the question: Did God do well to create a world in which there is free personality and natural law, such that it includes the possibility of a kingdom of God as well as the possibility of evil? (122)

A world that permits the development of moral character—one that makes it possible for persons to become the immeasurably precious and even glorious beings that they sometimes do become—is of much greater value than any world that does not (126).

But the moral development of personality is possible only in a world of genuine freedom (126).

This seems exactly right to me.

Here’s a thought I’ve been playing around with: At the risk of being self-centered, suppose that God wanted me to exist and to become this person that I am—understanding, of course, that I haven’t fully arrived as the person God wants me to be, nor will I until resurrection.

Still, if God wanted me to exist, this world, through which God has shaped me (and is shaping me), would also have to exist as it is. Otherwise, I would either not exist, or I would be an entirely different person. Therefore, if the world were any different, I wouldn’t be in it. Since I’m grateful to be here, how loudly should I complain?

Maybe somebody smarter than me can properly frame and defend that argument.

McKnight concludes Willard’s argument as follows:

Hence, many things happen that on their own cannot be good; God is not the author of these things; a world like ours is better than a world not like ours when it comes to pain; and there is no sorrow on earth that heaven cannot heal.

If your God is big enough there is no problem with evil — he claims here to be re-expressing David Hume (133).

Predictably, some commenters on McKnight’s blog dislike even attempting a justification for suffering and evil. We should remain silent, they say, and concede that it’s a mystery. I’ve blogged against that idea plenty of times. One commenter put the objection like this:

This is pretty standard Christian apologetic (free will, suffering somehow is “good” for us) and IMO it’s pretty weak. For starters, tons of suffering has nothing to do with free will. How is a 2 year old with bone cancer engaging in or the recipient of any free will? And how is that suffering “good” for her or her family? What about the wide majority of others who will never undergo such pain? Did they not receive the relative “benefit” of that suffering? Gapaul is right . . .trying to rationalize theodicy away just makes the problem worse.

My response? I would first ask this person if, in his own experience, suffering has “somehow” been good for him. If he’s honest, he would say, “Of course it has,” at least in many cases. We are often shaped in beneficial ways by our suffering. If his suffering had been any different—remember—he would be a different person (and remember, God wanted him to exist). It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that if his suffering were any different, someone else besides him would be experiencing it.

He then says, “tons of suffering has nothing to do with free will.” While I’m not sure how to quantify “tons,” especially relative to the rest of the suffering that happens in our world, I would first say we can’t know to what extent that child’s cancer is related to free will—and I’m not speaking of the child’s free will (to which he wants to limit the conversation) or even necessarily the parents. For example, we probably can’t say with certainty what causes someone’s cancer, but there are often environmental factors that likely contribute to it. Some of these factors are caused by the free choices of human beings, aren’t they? Air and water pollution, diet, pharmaceuticals, radiation… you name it.

Moreover, since I’m a Satanic realist, I don’t discount the role of demonic beings who have some measure of freedom to influence our world and cause great harm. God gave these angelic beings freedom, which they in turn abused, just as we have.

Finally, the Bible describes Creation, in general, getting out of joint because of initial human sin, and giving rise to pestilence, for instance. Again, this initial sin was freely chosen.

He asks how suffering could be good for the child or her family. Let’s first be humble and admit that we can’t know. For one thing, we can’t foresee the consequences on the world if the child hadn’t gotten cancer. I’ve been close to enough to people who have suffered and died with cancer—including my father—to know that God can and does bring good from it.

And as for our loved one who is suffering and dying, there is nothing that they’re going through in this life that won’t instantly be redeemed by heaven.

When we talked about theodicy in seminary, we tended to leave heaven out of it—as if it were “cheating” to smuggle that consolation into the discussion. Without heaven, I completely agree that the problem of evil can’t be solved. But since our hope for resurrection is the central tenet of Christian faith, why would we justify suffering on any other basis?

He goes on to ask: “What about the wide majority of others who will never undergo such pain? Did they not receive the relative ‘benefit’ of that suffering?”

Whether we undergo the same kind of pain as someone else, does any of us make it through life without a considerable amount of it? If so, I’m unaware of it. There are all kinds of pain, after all, and physical pain isn’t always or usually the worst, right? Regardless, I’ve experienced enough pain to know that God can redeem it.

Finally, every one of us will face our own death sooner or later. No one escapes it. Death is ultimately the worst kind of democrat. Is there potentially any crisis more potentially painful than that?

The early Christians used to be deeply concerned about “dying well.” Our generation would do well to recover their concern.

Easter Sermon 2015: “He Has Risen—He Is Not Here”

April 16, 2015

easter_sunday_2015

My Easter sermon for 2015 is one part apologetic for the resurrection of Jesus Christ and one part proclamation of what that resurrection means: forgiveness and reconciliation with God, eternal life, and God’s putting the world to rights (as N.T. Wright often says). This is the first time I’ve preached Mark’s version of the resurrection in nine or ten years—although I would hate to re-read my sermon from back then!

Sermon Text: Mark 16:1-8

[To listen on the go, download an MP3 of this sermon by right-clicking here.]

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

When I was a child, to my great shame and embarrassment, I was a crier. For whatever reason, when I was a kid, I cried easily and often. This fact embarrassed me greatly. I know I know There’s nothing wrong with crying, but I was mortified at the thought of crying in front of my classmates in elementary school. The prospect filled me with dread. Yet somehow it still happened, year after year. Year after year, from first grade through sixth grade, something would happen—I’d get in a fight, I’d get in trouble, teachers would yell at me—and tears would flow. I would cry at school, and I felt like the whole world saw me.

Here’s the worst incident: It was literally the last day of sixth grade. I had gone the entire year without crying even once. A new record. And back in those days no one did any work on the last day of school. We spent most of the day in class parties or on the playground. What could go wrong? It was such a happy day. What could happen that would cause me to cry? Well, we were on the playground. By one of the jungle gyms. And I said or did something to cross Doug Smith—the class bully, my nemesis, my enemy—and he punched me in the gut. Cold-cocked me. Knocked the wind out of me. And I promise you, it was as if my skin turned green; it was as if muscles grew and ripped through my shirt and pants. It was as if I transformed into the Incredible Hulk. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 12-14-14: “Amazed, Astounded, and Astonished”

December 23, 2014
This is the third part of my Advent series, which draws upon themes from Hamilton's new book.

This is the third part of my Advent series, which draws upon themes from Hamilton’s new book.

Much of this message is aimed at parents. In Luke 2:52, we’re told that Jesus “grew in wisdom” and in the “favor” of God. Among other things, this means that God’s plan was for Jesus to grow and learn and develop much like other children. If even Jesus—God from God, light from light, true God from true God—needed godly parents to shape him into the faithful person that he became, how much more do our children need us! 

Another part of this message relates to making Christ our highest priority in life.

Sermon Text: Luke 2:41-52

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

In his new book about Christmas, Not a Silent Night, pastor Adam Hamilton shares a frightening experience to which many of us parents can relate: the experience of losing a child temporarily in a crowded public place. For him it happened at Disney World. They were at a gift shop inside a Disney resort, waiting for the bus to take them to one of the parks. When the bus came, Hamilton and the rest of his family got on—or at least he thought they did. The bus pulled out and went about a half-mile down the road before they realized that their six-year-old daughter was not with them. Hamilton’s wife screamed. The bus driver stopped the bus, and Hamilton said, “I jumped off and ran like an Olympian back to the store to look for our daughter. There were thousands of strangers all around and I had left my little girl behind!”[1]

He said he found her in the gift shop, “totally oblivious of the fact we weren’t there.” He grabbed her by the shoulders and said, “What were you thinking? Didn’t you hear me say, ‘Come on let’s go’? Why are you still here? Don’t you know what could have happened? Don’t you ever do that to me again.”[2]

Of course, he’s the 30-something-year-old parent; she’s the six-year-old child. Should he be the one upset? But as I am myself a “yell first, ask questions later” kind of person, I can totally relate to Hamilton’s words! Read the rest of this entry »

Glenn Peoples asks, “What makes you doubt?”

October 17, 2014

Glenn Peoples, to whom I’ve referred often on this blog, is one of my favorite Christian bloggers, apologists, and theologians. In his most recent post, he asks his readers—both believers and atheists—to step into the “public confessional” and say what makes them doubt either their belief or lack of belief in God. It is surely for the benefit of “professional Christians” like me that he writes the following:

Don’t worry that you might be “giving away” too much [if you admit that you doubt]. If you think that non-believers really accept that you have no doubts at all, you’re kidding yourself. A lot of them, I am sure, think that really you know the whole thing is nonsense, but you pretend to believe it in order to dull your fear of death. The admission of one real doubt then is hardly going to be a great revelation. You may even demonstrate to people that you have honesty and humility after all, and that you are secure enough in what you know that you can admit what you do not know. What’s more, as a public defender of Christianity, your admission that you have some doubts will be encouraging to other Christians, who will be able to say “I’m not the only one! I don’t just lack faith after all. It’s OK to have doubts.” Lastly, while you might worry that admitting your doubts gives away too much information, any intellectually honest atheist who has spent much time thinking about the God question will have at least as much doubt about their view that God isn’t there. Anyone who can look you in the eye and say that there is absolutely no reason for pause at all, and that every piece of information that we have supports their believe that God does not exist is either a worse liar than our hypothetical scientist or else far, far more deluded than anyone suffering from what Dawkins called “The God Delusion.” C. S. Lewis recalls his own moments of doubt:

Now that I am a Christian, I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable; but when I was an atheist, I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable.

Dr. Peoples confessed that he doubts that petitionary prayer accomplishes anything—that what happens is what would happen anyway, regardless whether we pray or not.

Here’s what I wrote in the comments section:

Great post, Glenn! My biggest doubt has to do with this question: Why is God as difficult to believe in as he is? What I mean is: why doesn’t he offer more direct evidence of his existence—theophanies like those, for example, given to Abraham, Jacob, Moses, or Isaiah? I understand that nature bears witness to God; that there is excellent historical evidence for the resurrection, which itself confirms the truth of the gospel; that we have lots of good arguments for God’s existence, etc. I even have much personal experience that confirms my strong intuition that God is real. But believing still requires a lot of faith on our part. I trust that God knows best, but why should it be so?

Even as I write these words, I feel a need to defend my faith—to argue myself out of this doubt—but, in the spirit of Glenn’s post, I’ll let this question stand for now.

The point is, it’s O.K. to doubt. What did Tennyson say? “There lives more faith in honest doubt,/ Believe me, than in half the creeds.”

Sermon 08-31-14: “Bible Heroes, Part 4: Barak”

September 10, 2014

superhero graphic

One of the most difficult truths of scripture is that God permits suffering in our world, whether he causes it or not. The good news is that he redeems suffering too. He constantly uses it for our own good. He did so in the case of Israel at the beginning of today’s scripture, and he did so in the case of Barak. Suffering, as C.S. Lewis famously observed, is like a megaphone by which God wakes us up. But victory is always waiting for us on the other side of hard times, if we can only trust in the Lord.

 Sermon Text: Judges 4:1-22

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

The best-selling new atheist writer and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins got some bad publicity a couple of weeks ago from some remarks he made on his Twitter account. One of his followers said, “I honestly don’t know what I would do if I were pregnant with a kid with Down Syndrome. Real ethical dilemma.” It was no dilemma for Dawkins. He tweeted back: “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”

Dr. Dawkins received a ton of well-deserved criticism for this tweet, including from a thoughtful writer named J.D. Flynn in the Christian journal First Things. Flynn wondered on what basis Dawkins believed that knowingly bringing Down Syndrome children into the world was “immoral.” Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 08-24-14: “Bible Heroes, Part 3: Jacob”

September 1, 2014

superhero graphic

Jacob was afraid on the night before he reunited with his brother, Esau. Twenty years earlier, when he fled his home to settle far away with his mother’s people, Esau had vowed to kill him. Was Esau still angry? Was he still willing to keep his promise? Jacob had no idea. To his credit, however, in spite of his fear, he resolved to risk his life to meet his brother. That night, however, he risked his life for a different reason: to receive God’s blessing. Jacob resolved to hold onto God, even if it killed him!

What about us? Are we willing to hold onto God, even if it kills us?

Sermon Text: Genesis 32:22-32

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

sane_godI have a friend named John Alan Turner who’s a theologian and author, and his most recent book is about the seemingly crazy stories of the Bible, and he includes today’s scripture in that category. Since John and I are kindred spirits on most matters related to theology and the Bible, I was surprised and disappointed by the way in which he begins his description of this story. He writes:

I hate Jacob, and I hate this story. ¶ I’m not supposed to say that, am I? It’s true, though. Jacob was a schemer, a swindler, a manipulator, and a cheat. Frankly, it’s surprising to me that people still name their sons after him.[1]

Now, if you or someone you love did happen to name a son after Jacob, let me say that I disagree with my friend John. I love Jacob. And I call him a Bible hero because I sincerely believe that’s what he is! Yes, it’s also true that Jacob is a schemer, a swindler, a manipulator, and a cheat. But let me explain!

Back in ancient times, you had something called the law of primogeniture. This meant that the first-born son was entitled to inherit most of his father’s estate. I know this doesn’t seem fair to us now, and it didn’t seem fair to Jacob then, either. Jacob was the second-born fraternal twin of his older brother Esau. And on two occasions in his early life, Jacob schemes, swindles, manipulates, and cheats his brother, Esau, and his father, Isaac. First, he steals his brother’s birthright. Then, when his father is on his deathbed, Jacob and his mother conspire to trick the frail old man into thinking he was blessing Esau when he was really blessing Jacob. Read the rest of this entry »

The recent atheist meme about the ex-pastor

August 13, 2014

An atheist meme going around social media includes a picture of a pensive looking older man, ostensibly a former pastor, saying the following:

I’ve been a deep believer my whole life. 18 years as a Southern Baptist. More than 40 years as a mainline Protestant. I’m an ordained pastor. But it’s just stopped making sense to me. You see people doing terrible things in the name of religion, and you think: ‘Those people believe just as strongly as I do. They’re just as convinced as I am.’ And it just doesn’t make sense anymore. It doesn’t make sense to believe in a God that dabbles in people’s lives. If a plane crashes, and one person survives, everyone thanks God. They say: ‘God had a purpose for that person. God saved her for a reason!’ Do we not realize how cruel that is? Do we not realize how cruel it is to say that if God had a purpose for that person, he also had a purpose in killing everyone else on that plane? And a purpose in starving millions of children? A purpose in slavery and genocide? For every time you say that there’s a purpose behind one person’s success, you invalidate billions of people. You say there is a purpose to their suffering. And that’s just cruel.

I planned on ignoring this meme, wondering why it took a Christian pastor (assuming he’s a real person) 58 years to realize that this world for which God takes complete responsibility is also a place in which not only evil and suffering occur, but they also do so in ways that seem absurdly unfair and indiscriminate.

I changed my mind about responding, however, after a clergy friend linked to the meme on Facebook, with the words, “Amen!” attached to it.

What exactly was my colleague affirming? In the comments section of her post, she said that she doesn’t believe that God would permit one child to die of an illness while saving another.

Really? What’s the alternative? Either God permits evil or he doesn’t. If he permits it, that means he has the power to stop it but chooses not to. If he doesn’t permit it, that means that while God may hate evil, he’s powerless to stop it. The latter option absolves God of responsibility for evil at an unacceptably high price for us Christians: God is impotent in the face of evil, and the Bible isn’t telling us the truth about him.

There are several other problems with the ex-pastor’s words.

The first relates to gratitude. If we can’t thank God for being the sole survivor of a plane crash (to use the ex-pastor’s example), we can’t thank God for anything at all.

Here’s why: Whereas we’re extremely unlikely to be involved in a plane crash, most of us, at least in the first-world, eat three square meals each day (or have the opportunity to). How can we be grateful to our Father for giving us this day our daily bread when so many people in the world are starving? How is that not also, in the words of the ex-pastor, “just cruel”?

By this same logic, we should disregard Jesus’ and the Bible’s many words about the importance of petitionary prayer. After all, by this ex-pastor’s logic, it wouldn’t be fair for God to give me what ask for when he fails to give someone else what they ask for.

But suppose we still believe in petitionary prayer. Suppose God chooses not to give us what we ask for in prayer: Do we assume that God is capricious—and whether or not God answers prayer is a crap-shoot—or do we assume God has good reasons for not giving us what we ask for? All of us Christians would agree that God has good reasons.

To say that, however, implies purpose.

So, getting back to the plane crash, we would be theologically justified in saying that God has a purpose in enabling one person to survive even if all the other people die—many of whom were undoubtedly also praying for their personal safety.

The ex-pastor is wrong to say that if God enables one person to survive he therefore kills everyone else on board. No—the laws of physics, or poor judgment, or mechanical error, or some combination thereof, are likely what “killed” everyone else on board.

Nevertheless, since God has the power to prevent the plane from crashing and people from dying, God is still responsible. Let’s be tough-minded enough to say so. As the Psalms make clear, God can handle our anger, hurt, and disappointment.

lewis_bookNone of these words may be pastorally helpful in the midst of someone’s grief or suffering—which is why it helps to think things through before tragedy strikes.

To help us do that, I heartily recommend the following three books:

C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain,

Timothy Keller’s Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, and

Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

C.S. Lewis on resisting temptation

July 17, 2014

350_C.S.Lewis.348A clergy friend on Facebook yesterday linked approvingly to this article on the United Methodist Reporter website (an independent Methodist news service, I’m relieved to report), whose author is saying, in so many words, “Can’t we just stop arguing about sex and get on with doing the Lord’s work?” I wanted to say, “As if!” As if one thing isn’t related to the other! As if failing to be faithful in our sex lives won’t have negative repercussions in other areas of our lives and ministries!

Or maybe I’m “debating trifles,” as the author says. Maybe I’m a “sex-obsessed moral scold.”

Good grief! At least the writer isn’t Methodist—he’s an Episcopal priest.

No matter where we stand in relation to our church’s doctrine on human sexuality, can’t we at least agree that sin is a very big deal? Whatever sin is, it’s something that we need to resist first of all, and something which—for the sake of our souls—we need to confess to and repent of when we fall into it.

So long as we have life and breath, we know there’s grace and mercy available for us. But making sure that we understand what sin is is never a trifling matter!

All that to say, I love this excerpt from C.S. Lewis from Mere Christianity, which was included in the C.S. Lewis Bible in relation to Paul’s words about spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6:10-18. He’s encouraging us to work hard to practice the Christian virtues, what we Methodists like to call the “means of grace.”

A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He as the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means—the only complete realist.[†]

C.S. Lewis in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1339.

Spufford falters on the “problem of pain”

July 7, 2014

spuffordThere’s much to like about atheist-turned-believer Francis Spufford’s apologetic for Christianity, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. He’s a funny, winsome writer and sharp thinker.

In the chapter called “Big Daddy,” he offers an unconventional but compelling defense of God’s existence based on the way that we human beings so often experience God. By the end of the chapter, however, he raises the logical problem of believing in a God-of-everything, as we Christians believe, versus believing in many gods or no God at all. Believing in a God-of-everything means believing that God is ultimately responsible for evil and suffering. Without flinching, he states the problem as well as any hardened skeptic:

But one point at which you can know you’ve started to believe is the point at which the tentative houseroom or headroom you’re giving to the God of everything starts to have emotional consequences of its own. Problematic consequences; uncomfortable consequences; unpleasant consequences. Because if the bastard does exist, if the God of everything is shining patiently in every room, then you can’t escape the truth that He must be shining in some horrible places. He must be lending his uncritical sustaining power to rooms in which the vilest things are happening. There He must be, obligingly maintaining the flow of electrons through the rusty wires that are conducting 240 volts into the soft tissue of some poor screaming soul in a torture chamber. There He must be, benignly silent, as a migrant worker is raped at a truck stop. There He must be, shining contentedly away, in the overrun emergency room where the children from a crushed school bus are dying.

And when you’ve noticed that you’re ready for the next act in the emotional drama of belief we’re following here. Which is, of course, horrified disgust.[1]

What follows in the next chapter is his response to the “problem of pain.” I like this:

Lots of atheists seem to be certain, recently, that this ought not to be a problem for believers, because—curl of lip—we all believe we’re going to be whisked away to a magic kingdom in the sky instead. Facing the prospect of annihilation squarely is the exclusive achievement of—preen—the brave unbeliever. But I don’t know many actual Christians (as opposed to the conjectural idiots of atheist fantasy) who feel this way, or anything like it.[2]

That’s exactly right. Even as a pastor, no Christian doctrine seems less believable to me, in the face of senseless, tragic death, than the doctrine of heaven. It feels like pie-in-the-sky, like escapism. Don’t get me wrong: I come back around to believing in it eventually, but only through intellectual effort. In the face of death, I find comfort instead in the fact that Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died, even though he knew that he would bring him back to life.

No: death is hard on everyone—on Jesus, on ordinary believers like me, and on atheists. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

Beyond these words, Spufford concedes way too much ground to Christianity’s cultured despisers. He sets up many of the traditional defenses of God’s goodness (in spite of the bad stuff in the world) and knocks them down far too glibly. Take this, for instance:

I’ve seen a church newsletter in which the Almighty is thanked for fixing the minister’s car, via a miraculously cheap quote from a garage. But it only takes a little of the cold wind of adversity to blow this stuff away—and only a little thought. For if God was willing to exert Himself over the minister’s spark plugs, but wouldn’t get out of bed to stop the Holocaust, what sort of picture that draw? What sort of loving deity could have the priorities that the cruel world reveals, if the cruel world is an accurate record of His intentions, once you look beyond reality’s little gated communities of niceness.[3]

Not so fast, Mr. Spufford. First, reality is far more prodigal with its “niceness” than you let on here. As N.T. Wright once said, the problem of good ought to be a far bigger problem for unbelievers than the problem of evil is for believers. Why? Because there’s just so much goodness to go around!

When I was in Kenya last year teaching theology and doctrine to a group of indigenous United Methodist pastors, some of my fellow “short-term missionaries” visited a large garbage dump on the outskirts of Nakuru. They went to provide food, clothing, and medicine to families who were squatting there. This wasn’t, as my missionary friend Bill told us, Western-style garbage. No bourgeois “freegan” would be found there rummaging for day-old bread. Yet here were families attempting to sustain themselves in this place that was very nearly hell on earth. (The Bible’s word for hell is gehenna, literally a garbage dump outside Jerusalem.) It was horrifying, my friends reported. It drove them to tears.

But here’s what they also reported: young children in the midst of this garbage laughing, singing, and playing—experiencing joy. It doesn’t seem right, does it—in this place so far removed from any “gated community of niceness.” But there you are. Life is like that. Even at its worst, there’s still so much good. Why?

In his paragraph above, Spufford says that since God didn’t intervene to stop the Holocaust, why would God intervene to help this minister get his car repaired? Well, there it is: reductio ad Hitlerum. Is there anything we can say in the face of the Holocaust’s enormity?

I hope so—because by the standard of the Holocaust, nearly everything that happens in the world is trivial. Certainly, nothing in my little life rates God’s care or attention! Spufford complains about spark plugs, but please… he’s stacking the deck. “If God didn’t intervene to stop the Holocaust, why would God intervene to save the life of a child afflicted with leukemia?” “If God didn’t intervene to save the lives of six million people, why would God intervene to save 300,000 people from the Indian Ocean tsunami?” And forget about 3,000 in the Twin Towers on 9/11!

By this logic, if God didn’t intervene to stop the Holocaust, God doesn’t intervene to do anything. Ever. At this point, the New Atheist are nodding approvingly: “That’s what we’ve been saying for years!”

All that to say, I hope we have some response to Spufford’s logic. Because if Spufford is right, the idea that God answers prayer is a joke—despite what our Lord teaches us repeatedly about the subject. In the face of senseless tragedy in his day, Jesus said seemingly harsh things like, “Unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.” Needless to say, Jesus had a far more robust understanding of God’s sovereignty and providence—and, to say the least, he knew more about these matters than Spufford or I.

So, perhaps the second thing I need to say in response to Spufford is, let’s be humble about what we think we know about suffering and death. This is an important theme of Timothy Keller’s profoundly good book on the subject, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, which came out last year.

Third, we need to remind ourselves, as C.S. Lewis points out, that the scale of suffering is irrelevant to the question of God’s justice.

Suppose that I have a toothache of intensity x: and suppose that you, who are seated beside me, also begin to have a toothache of intensity x. You may, if you choose, say that the total amount of pain in the room is now 2x. But you must remember that no one is suffering 2x: search all time and all space and you will not find that composite pain in anyone’s consciousness. There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there ever can be in the universe. The addition of a million fellow-sufferers adds no more pain.[4]

Lewis isn’t minimizing suffering and evil; he’s merely pointing out that if you’re going to become indignant about six million dying in Hitler’s death camps, you have no less reason to become indignant about six people in a trailer park getting flattened by a tornado.

Also, before we become indignant on other people’s behalf, let’s ask ourselves about believers in God who actually suffered in the Holocaust. Read, for instance, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for MeaningDid these believers experience God as not “getting out of bed” to help them? Of course some did, I’m sure. But many didn’t. Why? What sustained them?

For that matter, what does it mean that the most comfortable suburban Christians (or ex-Christians) become the most indignant about the suffering of others? My pastor friends in Kenya see far more suffering and death there than most of us do here, yet they’re, in general, far more faithful. In fact, in my experience as a pastor, the most advanced believers get the least worked up about their own suffering, often perceiving God’s hand at work in their lives, answering their prayers, and blessing others through them. Would Spufford tell them they’re wrong to feel this way?

Besides, who says God didn’t “get out of bed” to stop the Holocaust? He did stop it, through men like Dwight Eisenhower and the fighting forces of the United States, among many others. “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored/ He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.” Amen! This hymn writer rightly understands how God works in history. “The mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small.”

Speaking of which, here’s another aspect of heaven (and hell) to which Spufford gives short shrift (at least so far): vengeance belongs to God, and he will repay. In eternity, justice will be fully and finally done. Those six million lives lost in the Holocaust will be avenged.

Finally, in my own experience, here’s what I know for sure: most of the suffering that I suffer I bring on myself. It’s not caused so much by external events as my response to those events. As a friend of mine reminded me earlier this year, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is a choice.” In my own experience, I can’t argue with that. Can Spufford?

Maybe he’ll answer that question before the end of the book. I’m not encouraged so far.

1. Francis Spufford, Unapologetic (New York: HarperOne, 2013), 84-5.

2. Ibid., 92.

3. Ibid., 94.

4. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 116-7.

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