Posts Tagged ‘The New York Times’

Sermon 12-10-17: “Treasuring God and His Word”

January 3, 2018

In this sermon, for the Second Sunday in Advent, I contrast Mary’s response to Gabriel with Zechariah’s response. When it comes to treasuring God and his Word, are we more like Mary or Zechariah?

Sermon Text: Luke 1:26-38

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Recall last week that after Gabriel tells Zechariah that he and his wife, Elizabeth, are going to have a child, Zechariah asks, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”[1] He doubts Gabriel’s message. And what happens next? The angel zaps him! He makes him mute—and as we can infer from verse 62 later in the chapter, deaf as well. For the next nine months, until his son is born, Zechariah is unable to hear or speak.

Of course, Gabriel is only acting on God’s behalf. So it’s not that the angel did it so much as God did it. God punished or disciplined Zechariah.

What do we make of this?

Just last week, in the New York Times, Billy Bush wrote a personal essay about his experience being fired by NBC News this time last year. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can google Billy Bush. I’m not getting into it! All you need to know is that Bush—a member of the political dynasty—was a rising star at NBC News before he got in trouble. And he got fired.

But I bring it up because I found the last two paragraphs of his essay deeply moving. He wrote:

On a personal note, this last year has been an odyssey, the likes of which I hope to never face again: anger, anxiety, betrayal, humiliation, many selfish but, I hope, understandable emotions. But these have given way to light, both spiritual and intellectual. It’s been fortifying.

I know that I don’t need the accouterments of fame to know God and be happy. After everything over the last year, I think I’m a better man and father to my three teenage daughters—far from perfect, but better.[2]

As a fellow sinner saved by God’s grace alone, I can only say a hearty “Amen.” What I hear in Bush’s words, first, is an acknowledgment of the destructive, insidious power of sin—but in the same breath I hear the grace of repentance and the mercy of God’s discipline.

That’s right… I said “mercy.” God’s discipline of Billy Bush was merciful. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 11-12-17: “Being Thankful in a World of Evil”

November 15, 2017

Last week, in the wake of the Sutherland Springs shooting, more than a few tweets called into question the effectiveness of prayer. What good is prayer when these kinds of massacres become routine? After all, the victims were already praying when they were shot. What good is faith if God doesn’t seem to intervene? This sermon is, I hope, a Christian response to these kinds of questions.

Sermon Text: Philippians 2:1-11

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Last Sunday, around the time that we were gathered here at 11:00 for worship, some of our brothers and sisters in Christ were gathered at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, when a gunman, armed with a Ruger military style rifle, walked into the church and fired his weapon. Within minutes, 26 of our brothers and sisters, ranging in age from 5 to 72, including eight children, were dead. Another child, by the way, named Carlin Brite Holcombe, hadn’t yet been born when he and his mother, Crystal Holcombe, were killed.

They were not so different from us… Small town, like Hampton. In church worshiping, singing hymns. Praying. The pastor of the church and some of his family happened to be out of town that day. A guest preacher was filling in. This guest preacher and his family died. But one of the poignant details that stood out to me was this: the pastor’s 14-year-old daughter—who didn’t go out of town with her father—chose to go to church. Because, after all, that’s what Christians do on Sundays; that’s what her mother and father raised her to do; that’s what she wanted to do; because she loved Jesus, and people who love Jesus go to worship on Sunday. So that’s where she was when she was killed.

A day or two after the shooting, we Americans were arguing, as we always do in the wake of these tragedies, about gun control on the one hand and second amendment rights on the other—and I promise I have no interest in discussing these questions. But it was in this political context that Michael McKean, a talented actor and comedian whom I admire, tweeted a controversial message. He was apparently disappointed that so many politicians, including President Trump, urged Americans to pray for the victims of Sutherland Springs—while taking no further action. So he tweeted, “They were in church. They had the prayers shot right out of them. Maybe try something else.”

They had the prayers shot right out of them. A lot of people found these words insensitive, to say the least. He later retracted it, saying he didn’t at all mean to attack people’s faith. Read the rest of this entry »

A defense of prayer in the wake of the Sutherland Springs massacre

November 7, 2017

I have exactly zero interest in wading into the politics of gun control and Second Amendment rights in America. This blog is not about politics. I recognize, however, that politics is at least the subtext of complaints on social media about the ineffectiveness of prayer in the wake of last Sunday’s massacre of 28 worshipers at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas. Many politicians, including President Trump, urged Americans to pray for victims and their families.

In response, many critics said, in so many words, “These people were already praying! They were in church, after all. Fat lot of good it did them! We don’t need more prayer. We need action“–and, of course, the nature of this action is precisely what divides people on the left and right (which, again, I’m not talking about in this post or the comments section).

Actor and comedian Michael McKean, in one typical example, tweeted the following (which he has since been deleted):

His words, “They had the prayers shot right out of them,” were perceived by many as insensitive. He later clarified:

By “hypocrisy,” he likely means politicians who fail to do anything other than pray when it comes to dealing with mass shootings in America.

Regardless, one message from tweets such as this is, “Prayer doesn’t work. God’s not going to do anything. Let’s do something constructive instead.” Even an otherwise well-written, and heartbreaking, article in the New York Times on victims of the shooting included this headline:

Do you hear the message? “Even for people who were in church praying last Sunday, prayer doesn’t work.” Read the rest of this entry »

Tim Keller in the New York Times

December 23, 2016

kellerIn today’s New York Times, op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristoff interviews my favorite contemporary preacher, Tim Keller. You can read the interview here. While I would have pushed back harder on the resurrection and the Bible’s alleged “fuzziness” (Luke’s virgin birth story was “written in a different kind of Greek”? Huh?)  the interview was edited, as Kristoff indicates, so we can’t know what else Keller had to say.

Still, these are not softball questions. As a useful exercise, in the spirit of 1 Peter 3:15, you might try formulating your own answers to these questions.

I want to highlight a couple of Keller’s responses. First, when asked about the alleged inconsistency between faith and science, I liked his answer. I’m including it here mostly because I want to remember that Plantinga quote, which I’ve highlighted:

I don’t see why faith should be seen as inconsistent with science. There is nothing illogical about miracles if a Creator God exists. If a God exists who is big enough to create the universe in all its complexity and vastness, why should a mere miracle be such a mental stretch? To prove that miracles could not happen, you would have to know beyond a doubt that God does not exist. But that is not something anyone can prove.

Science must always assume that an effect has a repeatable, natural cause. That is its methodology. Imagine, then, for the sake of argument that a miracle actually occurred. Science would have no way to confirm a nonrepeatable, supernatural cause. Alvin Plantinga argued that to say that there must be a scientific cause for any apparently miraculous phenomenon is like insisting that your lost keys must be under the streetlight because that’s the only place you can see.

Next, when asked about Christianity’s exclusivity (Is Gandhi in hell?), Keller gets to the heart of the matter: Who can be saved by being good? Who is good? And if being good were the criterion, wouldn’t that also be exclusive? The alternative to a works-based salvation, as Keller notes, is universalism: everyone will be saved in the end. But where does that leave justice? Should evil go unpunished?

What I admire most about Christianity is the amazing good work it inspires people to do around the world. But I’m troubled by the evangelical notion that people go to heaven only if they have a direct relationship with Jesus. Doesn’t that imply that billions of people — Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus — are consigned to hell because they grew up in non-Christian families around the world? That Gandhi is in hell? 

The Bible makes categorical statements that you can’t be saved except through faith in Jesus (John 14:6; Acts 4:11-12). I’m very sympathetic to your concerns, however, because this seems so exclusive and unfair. There are many views of this issue, so my thoughts on this cannot be considered the Christian response. But here they are:

You imply that really good people (e.g., Gandhi) should also be saved, not just Christians. The problem is that Christians do not believe anyone can be saved by being good. If you don’t come to God through faith in what Christ has done, you would be approaching on the basis of your own goodness. This would, ironically, actually be more exclusive and unfair, since so often those that we tend to think of as “bad” — the abusers, the haters, the feckless and selfish — have themselves often had abusive and brutal backgrounds.

Christians believe that it is those who admit their weakness and need for a savior who get salvation. If access to God is through the grace of Jesus, then anyone can receive eternal life instantly. This is why “born again” Christianity will always give hope and spread among the “wretched of the earth.”

I can imagine someone saying, “Well, why can’t God just accept everyone — universal salvation?” Then you create a different problem with fairness. It means God wouldn’t really care about injustice and evil.

There is still the question of fairness regarding people who have grown up away from any real exposure to Christianity. The Bible is clear about two things — that salvation must be through grace and faith in Christ, and that God is always fair and just in all his dealings. What it doesn’t directly tell us is exactly how both of those things can be true together. I don’t think it is insurmountable. Just because I can’t see a way doesn’t prove there cannot be any such way. If we have a God big enough to deserve being called God, then we have a God big enough to reconcile both justice and love.

When do we Christians cease being “blessed,” hashtag or otherwise?

February 15, 2016

My daughter sent me a link to this heartbreaking op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times. The author, Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School, has Stage IV cancer. Her area of expertise is the prosperity gospel in America, and in this article she relates the promises of that movement’s theology to her terminal disease. Proponents of the prosperity gospel, she said, want to have control over their lives: they believe there’s no problem they can’t solve by reciting the right words and believing the right doctrines. In so many words, it’s always within their power to persuade God to do their bidding.

I’m sure she’s right, and you’ll get no defense of the prosperity gospel here. But there was one part of the article that bothered me. Her words are familiar from my own experience at a United Methodist-affiliated seminary like Duke Divinity, Emory’s Candler School of Theology. She writes:

If Oprah could eliminate a single word, it would be “luck.” “Nothing about my life is lucky,” she argued on her cable show. “Nothing. A lot of grace. A lot of blessings. A lot of divine order. But I don’t believe in luck. For me luck is preparation meeting the moment of opportunity.”This is America, where there are no setbacks, just setups. Tragedies are simply tests of character.

It is the reason a neighbor knocked on our door to tell my husband that everything happens for a reason.

“I’d love to hear it,” my husband said.

“Pardon?” she said, startled.

“I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying,” he said, in that sweet and sour way he has.

My neighbor wasn’t trying to sell him a spiritual guarantee. But there was a reason she wanted to fill that silence around why some people die young and others grow old and fussy about their lawns. She wanted some kind of order behind this chaos. Because the opposite of #blessed is leaving a husband and a toddler behind, and people can’t quite let themselves say it: “Wow. That’s awful.” There has to be a reason, because without one we are left as helpless and possibly as unlucky as everyone else.

Read the rest of this entry »

We are never “in the black” with God

September 2, 2015

I just read an extraordinarily good essay on marriage by Ada Calhoun in her “Modern Love” column in the New York Times. (It’s from July of this year.) But I’m less interested right now in the substance of the column—which, again, is excellent, and you should read—than in these three paragraphs:

One thing I love about marriage (and I love a lot of things about marriage) is that you can have a bad day or even a bad few years, full of doubt and fights and confusion and storming out of the house. But as long as you don’t get divorced, you are no less married than couples who never have a hint of trouble (I am told such people exist).

You can be bad at a religion and still be 100 percent that religion. Just because you take the Lord’s name in vain doesn’t make you suddenly a non-Christian. You can be a sinner. In fact, I think it’s good theology that no matter how hard you try, you are sure to be a sinner, just as you are sure to be lousy, at least sometimes, at being married. There is perfection only in death.

It is easy for people who have never tried to do anything as strange and difficult as being married to say marriage doesn’t matter, or to condemn those who fail at it, or to mock those who even try. But there is so much beauty in the trying, and in the failing, and in the trying again. Peter renounced Jesus three times before the cock crowed. And yet, he was the rock upon whom Christ built his church.

“I think it’s good theology that no matter how hard you try, you are sure to be a sinner.”

I love this, even though it grates slightly against something I profess to believe.

Within my particular ecclesial tradition, after all, we have this doctrine of perfection, that we can be “entirely sanctified” by the Holy Spirit, such that we’ll no longer sin—in this life, prior to death. In fact, we Methodist clergy tell our bishop, at ordination, that we expect to be perfected in our lifetime. It is, by far, Wesleyan Christianity’s most eccentric doctrine, and one that I hold to very—ahem—loosely.

According to my Wesleyan theology professor in seminary, Wesley himself didn’t know anyone for whom this had happened, and Wesley didn’t claim that he was yet perfected.

So maybe we can just concede that “perfection in love” is a remote possibility at best—and not something to get hung up on? Plus, I worry that this doctrine inflicts too much harm on people like me, whose consciences are already tender and easily wounded. Satan—whose name literally means “the accuser“—constantly whispers in my ear: “You are a failure. You are unlovable. You are a disappointment to others.” And now I have this other voice telling me, “You can be perfect. You should be perfect. What’s your problem?”

[I’m not saying that the doctrine of perfection, properly understood, inevitably leads to my particular struggle. And I’m happy to say that Satan’s “whispers” (no, not a literal voice in my head!) aren’t nearly as loud as they used to be. I’ve learned strategies to cope with them, thank God!]

All that to say, I mostly agree with this columnist’s view of what counts as “good theology.” And we need to keep this good theology in mind in light of the idea I expressed in yesterday’s post, “‘Learning to Love the Bomb’ of Our Past Failures.”

One thoughtful commenter, my friend Tom, said he struggled with the idea that we can be grateful, not merely for the tragedies of our lives that we don’t cause, but even for the tragedies that we do cause, usually in part through our own sinful choices. (In my experience, most “tragedies” are self-inflicted.) He wrote:

What a difficult issue for me!… It is true that everything “shapes us,” so if the ultimate result is a good thing, maybe we can even be “happy” for those bad things along the way. This is okay for the “mishaps,” but more problematic for the “misdeeds.” I mean I am really in conflict over this point you are making. I think on the one hand you could be right–on the other, should I acknowledge that I could have been even a better “specimen” had I gone straight rather than on detours? “Be not deceived, God is not mocked. For whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.” Should Samson be as happy about how he ended up as Daniel?

As I said in reply, it’s not a question of being “as happy as” someone who was more faithful to the Lord than we were; it’s a question of seeing, in retrospect—after genuine repentance for our sin—that God has indeed used the experience to help us, to heal us, to save us.

I can’t psychoanalyze Samson, but if his actions at the end of his story reflect genuine repentance, then, yes, even in his death, I imagine that he was “happy,” if you want to put it that way. He was at least at peace. His life had finally resolved all the contradictions that led him to that terrible place, and for that he could surely be grateful. He could take satisfaction, in the end, that he was finally getting his life right with God.

Who knows?

I continued in my reply:

I don’t draw as sharp a distinction between “mishaps” and “misdeeds,” simply because sin remains pervasive in our lives, regardless what is happening to us. God is always relating to us, as the late Dallas Willard memorably said, “on the basis of pity.” We don’t cross some threshold at which point our life is now “in the black.” We’re always in debt, always in need of grace and mercy at every moment—even as we are being sanctified.

It felt good for me to write that. Feel free to share your thoughts.

Here’s a wonderful song about being wrong by Colin Blunstone, from his masterful 1972 album, Ennismore.

Sermon 04-26-15: “Warts and All, Part 3: In Fear and Much Trembling”

May 5, 2015

1 Corinthians sermon series graphic We often judge ourselves against the standards of this world. And when we do, we often find that we don’t measure up. In today’s scripture, Paul talks about a different standard: the “foolishness of the cross.” How would our lives be better if we lived according to that standard?

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 1:26-2:5

[To listen on the go, right-click on this link to download an MP3 of this sermon.] Have you heard the news? According to no less an authority than the Wall Street Journal, God is not dead after all. Is_God_Dead Some of you were around back in 1966, when Time magazine had its infamous cover story asking, “Is God Dead?” By the way, I liked what Billy Graham said to a reporter when asked if God, indeed, was dead: “Of course not!” he said. “I was talking with him just this morning!” The point is, fifty years ago the conventional wisdom of well-respected “experts” assured us that science would soon prove that God doesn’t exist, or at least as we learned more and more about our universe, we would outgrow our need for God to explain things, and belief in God would soon disappear. And now, as I just learned a few weeks ago, a Wall Street Journal opinion piece published late last year, entitled “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God,” has become the most popular, the most widely forwarded article in the history of the paper. Among other things, the author, Eric Metaxas, convincingly argues that, far from showing that God doesn’t exist, astrophysics increasingly shows how incredibly unlikely it is that a universe such as ours, with a planet like ours that supports life the way it does, should exist at all. When I say “unlikely,” I mean this: astrophysics shows that in order for our universe to exist, it would be like tossing a coin and having it come up heads 10 quintillion times in a row—that’s a million million times in a row. Read the rest of this entry »

“My body is in prison, but my soul is free”

June 25, 2014

I recommend this article from the New York Times, a profile of a 32-year-old man in Afghanistan named Josef. He briefly escaped civil war in his home country by emigrating illegally to Germany, where many of his siblings live. At that point, he had already abandoned the Muslim faith he was born into. Out of curiosity, he attended a Protestant church whose services were in Farsi, his native language.

“When I threw away my Islamic beliefs, I was living in a space of spiritual emptiness,” he said. “During that time I was studying different religions — Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity. I was studying Islam as well.”

After 15 days in Germany, he turned himself in and applied for asylum, and was held in a refugee camp where the monotony was broken by visits from missionaries.

“I think I was impressed by the personality of Jesus himself,” he said. “The fact that he came here to take all of our sins, that moved me. I admired his character and personality long before I was baptized.”

After being released from the refugee camp, he later converted. His petition for asylum was rejected, and he was deported.

Today, back in Afghanistan, he’s hiding from his own extended family, who vow to kill him for renouncing Islam. A brother-in-law named Ibrahim even offered the New York Times reporter $20,000 to tell him where Josef is hiding.

“If I find him, once we are done with him, I will kill his son as well, because his son is a bastard,” Ibrahim said, referring to Josef’s 3-year-old child. “He is not from a Muslim father.”

The article explains that his wife and child are also in hiding, in Pakistan with his wife’s family.

As for Josef, his faith is unshaken. “I inherited my faith, but I saw so many things that made me discard my religious beliefs,” he said. “Even if I get killed, I won’t convert back.”

The article concludes:

For Josef, who has recently changed hiding places, the time passes slowly now, with little company other than his Bible. He can hear the muezzin calling Muslims to prayer, a reminder of danger’s proximity and the paradox he lives now.

“When I threw away my convictions, it was hard to speak with people about it,” he said, a red ember pulsing on the tip of his cigarette. “It was like an imaginary prison.” He paused, the light from his propane lantern casting a long shadow on the wall. “Now it is the other way around,” he said at last. “My body is in prison, but my soul is free.”

Sermon 04-27-14: “If the Lord Wills”

May 3, 2014


“God is in control.” We hear this so often that it’s become a cliché. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. And if it’s true, it ought to make a difference in our lives—especially when it comes to the problem of worry. [Please note: the last five minutes of the sermon video are missing—my iPhone battery died. 🙁 ]

Sermon Text: James 4:13-17

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

As a nation we recently marked a terrible anniversary: On April 15, 2013, terrorists detonated a couple of homemade bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, which killed three and injured 260 others. The New York Times profiled some of the survivors about how they’re coping. There was a lot of sadness, anger, and fear—understandably. But there was another emotion present among at least a few of the survivors they interviewed: gratitude. One of those was a bystander near the finish line, a lawyer named Katie Carmona, had this to say:

It was such a terrible tragedy that sometimes I feel guilty because it was a blessing for me. It made my life more rich, more full. I learned how to appreciate living in the moment. And I learned not to worry and stress about things as much. I don’t let work bother me. I don’t let piddling money issues bother me. It was not even a conscious effort on my part. It just changed my attitude.”

Did you catch that? Katie feels guilty because the experience ended up being a blessing to her. But see, if the experience was a blessing, that means that Someone is doing the blessing. And of course that Someone is God.

God is able to bless someone like Katie, even in the midst of the terrible evil and suffering, because God is in control.

Read the rest of this entry »

Another worthy David Brooks column, this time about suffering

April 10, 2014

Last fall, as I was shoulder-deep in Tim Keller’s profoundly good book about suffering and providence, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, I might have mistaken this column from New York Times‘s David Brooks for an excerpt from it. Brooks begins:

Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself in a bunch of conversations in which the unspoken assumption was that the main goal of life is to maximize happiness. That’s normal. When people plan for the future, they often talk about all the good times and good experiences they hope to have. We live in a culture awash in talk about happiness. In one three-month period last year, more than 1,000 books were released on Amazon on that subject.

But notice this phenomenon. When people remember the past, they don’t only talk about happiness. It is often the ordeals that seem most significant. People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.

“People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.” Exactly right! This experience of feeling formed is better and deeper than mere happiness, as most of us know, even if we wouldn’t ordinarily choose it. We would choose formation by some easier path than suffering, but God knows suffering is what we usually get. Jesus speaks to this paradoxical truth when he talks about “finding our life by losing it,” denying ourselves, and choosing the narrow, difficult path that leads to life. Jesus promises and delivers us an abundant life, it just doesn’t come the way we want or expect.

As C.S. Lewis put it in probably the best book about Christianity I’ve read:

I have seen great beauty of spirit in some who were great sufferers. I have seen men, for the most part, grow better not worse with advancing years, and I have seen the last illness produce treasures of fortitude and meekness from most unpromising subjects. I see in loved and revered historical figures, such as Johnson and Cowper, traits which might scarcely have been tolerable if the men had been happier. If the world is indeed a ‘vale of soul making’ it seems on the whole to be doing its work.[†]

But as Lewis and Brooks both know, the same potentially soul-making action of suffering can, for some people, be soul-crushing. As Brooks writes,

Now, of course, it should be said that there is nothing intrinsically ennobling about suffering. Just as failure is sometimes just failure (and not your path to becoming the next Steve Jobs) suffering is sometimes just destructive, to be exited as quickly as possible.

What determines whether it’s one or the other? I agree with Viktor Frankl, whom Brooks also refers to. Frankl said that all suffering—and by all, this Auschwitz survivor means all—can potentially be an opportunity for spiritual growth: it only depends on our response.

How does suffering do its soul-making work? Brooks offers this insight:

First, suffering drags you deeper into yourself. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that people who endure suffering are taken beneath the routines of life and find they are not who they believed themselves to be. The agony involved in, say, composing a great piece of music or the grief of having lost a loved one smashes through what they thought was the bottom floor of their personality, revealing an area below, and then it smashes through that floor revealing another area.

Then, suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, what they can control and cannot control. When people are thrust down into these deeper zones, they are forced to confront the fact they can’t determine what goes on there. Try as they might, they just can’t tell themselves to stop feeling pain, or to stop missing the one who has died or gone. And even when tranquillity begins to come back, or in those moments when grief eases, it is not clear where the relief comes from. The healing process, too, feels as though it’s part of some natural or divine process beyond individual control.

Who can’t relate to this?

In my recent experience as a Christian, a renewed awareness of my own sinfulness and God’s judgment—which might seem either depressing or terrifying to some—had the effect of thrusting me “down into these deeper zones” within myself—at which point I found a gracious God waiting for me.

Isn’t it interesting that Brooks describes sufferers as coming to grips with their own lack of control? That’s what I found, too: through sinful pride, I tried to wrest control of my life from God, and the results were disastrous. A part of repenting and turning back to God means surrendering control. Like the Prodigal Son, we surrender our rights as a son or daughter—”I am no longer worthy to be called your son”—only to receive them back again: “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet.” Repentance is a kind of death and rebirth.

Brooks refers to a “divine process beyond individual control,” a “larger providence,” and a “call” that comes from suffering. That’s right: the reason suffering is, or can be, good for us is because God is working in the midst of it, providentially.

Brooks concludes by saying, “The suffering involved in their tasks becomes a fearful gift and very different than that equal and other gift, happiness, conventionally defined.”

Imagine: David Brooks just told a secular audience in our present age that suffering is a gift fully equal to happiness. Could he have said anything deeper or more countercultural than that?

Regardless, it has the ring of gospel truth.

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 108-9.