Book Review: God Is Just Not Fair

Not FairWhen Jennifer Rothschild was 15 years old, she was blinded by Retinitis Pigmentosa, effectively killing her dreams of becoming an artist and cartoonist. Then, several years later, she experienced a time of deep depression which, as she put it, tore holes in her blanket of faith.

In God Is Just Not Fair: Finding Hope When Life Doesn’t Make Sense, Jennifer Rothschild explores from her Bible study and personal experiences the questions that often come up when experiencing some sort of trial or trauma: Does God care? Why did He allow this? Why did this person experience healing but I didn’t?

That last question, not only of unanswered prayer on my part, but of the very same prayer being answered in someone’s else’s life, can bring up questions of God’s fairness. Fairness doesn’t mean He does the exact same thing in every person’s life. We’re not robots or cookie cutter Christians: God works in our lives individually according to what He wants to do in us and how He wants to grow us and show Him forth in our own circumstances and sphere of influence. And Jennifer turns this around to ask if it’s fair that we receive mercy and blessings instead of wrath for our sin. If we got what we truly deserved, we’d all be in trouble.

But Jennifer doesn’t tell us to therefore stifle our questions. She encourages us to bring them to light. We might not find answers to all of them, but we will for a few, and for the rest we can trust Him. Where He doesn’t give answers, He gives Himself.

There is so much good teaching here, it’s hard to sum it up. But I’ll give you a few examples:

If God allows you to wrestle with him, it is not so there will be a winner and a loser. He doesn’t need to prove he is stronger and you are weaker. No. The point of wrestling with God is to give you an opportunity to cling to him. God wants you to hang on to him no matter what — and the result will be blessing. You are blessed when you bring your hurts and questions to God and struggle with them in his presence. In that divine wrestling match, you may feel wounded, but you will also receive a blessing you couldn’t have received any other way.

He sometimes allows something bad in our lives to prevent something far worse in our lives. That is a wondrous work of God I cannot even see, because sometimes I have no idea how God is working on my behalf.

Being willing to thank God doesn’t mean you ignore what bothers you. It just means you are willing to look beyond what bothers you and see the good in a situation also.

Paul positioned gratitude as a choice, not a feeling. My friend, even when we don’t feel grateful, we can still be grateful.

Your difficulty can be hard enough, but the resentment or anger you drag along with it can be even more debilitating than the difficulty itself.

When we are enduring hardship, perhaps the better questions to focus on are not about the whom of suffering but about the how: • How will God use this redemptively in my life? • How will he use this loss for my gain? • How can I cooperate with my loving God’s master plan through this current suffering? • How can this possibly help me grow or change? The why of suffering is sometimes never answered. But to ask the how of suffering allows us to begin to see the beautiful redemption of what God can do in and through our suffering.

God’s ways may seem strange to us, but his ways do not have to live up to our standards or our analysis. He is who he is, and we are who we are. He is beyond error, perfect in all his ways. If his ways confuse or disappoint you, guard against the temptation to re-create him into a god you like better. You and I are to humble ourselves before him and seek to conform to his standard, not the other way around. He is sovereign and good, compassionate and merciful. If we do not accept God in his wholeness, we will never experience our own.

Ultimately, I trust God’s will to be best. He knows more, sees more, and loves more than I do.

Faith is the evidence of things unseen; instant response is not the evidence.

Unanswered prayers and prayers with disappointing answers can be greater gifts that getting what we thought we wanted.

He may allow your suffering to remain because he is using that hard thing to protect you from something far worse, preserve you for something far better, or provide for you what you don’t even realize you need. His apparent inactivity is not a sign that he is forgetful or lacks compassion, but rather an indication of his deep compassion and higher purpose for you.

God allows you to struggle, even though his power could prevent it, because his wise and compassionate authority knows that the benefit of your struggle far outweighs the comfort you may experience from his rescue.

God delivers us in different ways. Sometimes he protects us from awful things so we never have to endure them. Other times God delivers us by rescuing us or healing us. Sometimes God brings us through hard things —that’s also a form of God’s deliverance. But then there are the times that God, out of his great care for his children, delivers us out of the horror and into glory.

Thomas’s questions and doubts could have led him away from the Christ he loved and away from his friends who followed the Christ. But what a loss that would have been. Your questions and doubt can take you many places if you let them. They can take you down a road of cynicism, despair, or loneliness. But, my friend, what a waste of your doubts and questions! When you are full of questions and doubt, might you respond like Thomas? Might you stay connected with your friends who follow Christ? Will you take whatever faith or curiosity you have and channel it toward Christ himself? He welcomes questions, and he welcomes the questioner. He already knows your questions, but ask him anyway. Jesus won’t just give you the lesser gift of an answer; Jesus will give you himself because he is the answer…It was in the midst of Thomas’s honest struggles that Jesus revealed himself to Thomas. He will do that for you, too.

Being too self-focused makes every sorrow deeper, every problem bigger, and every slight more personal. It harms us and makes us forget God and others.

Never stop seeking; never stop walking with and toward him. Jesus invites us to keep taking steps toward him, even if every stepping-stone is in the shape of a question mark. As you continue to seek, don’t let theological information become a substitute for faith. Don’t let knowledge become a substitute for wisdom. And don’t seek God only for the answers he gives —seek God himself. Pursue an encounter with the God who loves you. Don’t settle for mere answers, my friend. Be satisfied with nothing less than God himself.

Every difficult, confusing season in life offers a choice. You can either surrender your questions and sorrow to God so he can use them, or you can surrender to bitterness and the enemy of your soul, who will use them against you. Don’t give him the weapons to hurt you.

The only quibble I noted or can remember is one phrase near the end of the book about “forgiving God if you need to.” God does no wrong, so He has no need of our forgiveness, and whenever I see that thought, it strikes me as a little pretentious. But what I think Jennifer is getting at is, don’t hold whatever God has permitted in our lives against Him. She speaks in the rest of this paragraph of trusting Him, being patient, and humbling ourselves before Him. As Jesus said, “And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me” (Matthew 11:6).

Because Jennifer has gone to the mat with these questions and wrestlings in her own life, her words are authentic rather than empty platitudes. And because she has sought the Scriptures and bases what she shares there, she can offer the only real hope we have: that God loves us, has a reason for everything He allows, will use it to develop us, and will give us the grace to go through it.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Faith on Fire, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved), Wise Woman, Tell His Story, Woman to Woman Word-filled Wednesday)

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Protection for wounded spirits

img_0052As many of you know, I broke and dislocated my little toe about ten days before Christmas. I had never broken any bone before, and this has left me feeling very glad that I hadn’t and hoping that I never will again. Even though it’s just a little toe, the pain, discomfort, and inconvenience have had an impact on me as well as the rest of the family.

The first week I was to stay off of it as much as possible and keep it elevated as much as possible. When I saw the doctor for a follow-up visit a week after the injury, I was hoping for some specific directions for the next weeks. But the doctor was rather vague. He said it should heal in six or so weeks, and if it hurt, that meant I should stay off of it a bit. I was hoping to avoid hurting it.

One thing the doctor did emphasize, though, was protecting the toe. I didn’t have to “buddy wrap” it to the next one like the doctor did the first week, but he gave me adhesive tape to wrap lightly around the foot to keep the toe in place and told me to continue wearing the boot I was given or a good walking shoe. Thankfully we’re coming up on the six week mark, when it should be fully healed.

The emphasis on protecting the broken toe while it heals caused me to think of other injuries or wounds that we don’t really associate with needing protection: spiritual or emotional hurts. The protection for a broken bone involves supporting the broken member so the bone heals correctly. For an open wound, protecting it not only keeps other things from bumping it and causing pain, but covering it keeps it from infection. But we don’t usually think about protecting those who have been wounded in non-physical ways, except perhaps the first few days. And how would we even go about that, anyway?

You might think the answer would be that Christian community should surround and support the wounded member. “Community” seems to be the popular, go-to solution for everything these days. And, yes, we are to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2) and “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Community can do much to help and aid.

But what if community is part of the problem?

When you’re single, longing for someone to love, and there are no prospects on the horizon, but at a wedding people ask, “So when is it going to be your turn?”

When you’ve had four miscarriages, with only the first made public, and someone asks, “So when are you guys going to start a family?”

When you’re mourning on the anniversary of a loved one’s death, and a friend says, “Shouldn’t you be over that by now?”

When years later your family is still suffering the effects of a trauma that, to other eyes, seems to be all over, and someone says, “Shouldn’t you have moved on from that by now?”

When you’re visiting a new church in a new town with some trepidation, and the members of your small group or class aren’t cliquish in the sense that they deliberately keep others out, but they have all been friends for so long that anyone new feels out of the loop. When an observer mentions aside to the leader that perhaps they could take pains to reach out to the new ones, the leader says, “Well, the Bible says if you want to have friends, you should be friendly. They need to extend themselves.”

When people say the wrong things, we need to extend grace and assume they meant well. Thank God for sensitive, Holy Spirit-filled and led people who truly know how to come alongside and help, who know how to comfort as they have been comforted. Lisa shared a wonderful post recently on Invisible Band-aids and the need to be alert and attentive to those wounds which don’t show.

But other people can’t be there all the time, and in a sense it’s true that, as the old hymn says, no one understands like Jesus.

The best protection and support for wounded hearts, minds, and spirits is God’s truth, whether we apply it ourselves or share it with someone else..

When Hannah was childless and her rival provoked her and her husband didn’t understand the full weight of her sorrow, she poured out her heart to the Lord, knowing He was the only one who could meet her need.

When Joseph was betrayed, lied about, and forgotten, he trusted that God was sovereign and meant it for good.

When David’s men blamed him when the Amalekites raided their camp and kidnapped their families, to the point that they were going to stone him, David encouraged himself in the Lord.

When the psalmists brought problems and trials and anguish before the Lord, they eventually reminded themselves of His character, power, and love.

Paul was “troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair;  Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10).

All throughout the Bible, you see people in various troubles or problematic situations reminding themselves of what they knew to be true of God, staking their souls on what He said, no matter how things looked or felt at the time.

A few other parallels between physical and internal wounds came to mind. You often don’t realize what muscles are used where until something is injured. I didn’t realized my toes dug in to keep balance when I picked up something on the floor, or that I pushed off with my toes when reaching for something from a cabinet, or moved my toes when I stretched in bed, and I got some rude awakenings when I did those things. Years ago, recovering from an old-fashioned gallbladder surgery before they started doing them laparascopically, one of the things I had been told to hold off doing was vacuuming. I thought that was odd – vacuuming didn’t seem strenuous to me. But the first time I tried it, I discovered, wow, you do use abdominal muscles when you vacuum! Similarly, after the deaths of my parents, I was unprepared for being blindsided by waves of grief set off by the most innocent things.

Both of them passed away at Christmas time, so for the first few years, though we celebrated, rejoiced, and even laughed, we just weren’t into what a friend called the “froth” of the season. I remember thinking that I wished sometimes that we still wore mourning clothes for a season after the death of a loved one to let others know to be sensitive. With my “boot” now, or when I used a walker or cane after transverse myelitis, I’ve been glad that I had some way of conveying to others that there was a reason I was walking a little more slowly, and hoped those devices signaled them to be careful and not to jostle me. We don’t have any such signalers after a trauma or loss or heartbreak.

Even though the intensity lessens over time, that spot still may be tender for a very long time. One friend whose husband was in prison for several years is very sensitive to jokes about prisoners, or condescending stereotypical remarks about them, or things like baby onesies made to look like prison uniforms, and after her experience, I’m more sensitive to them, too.

We need to take appropriate measure to promote healing – setting a bone, resting, taking medicine for physical wounds; for spiritual ones, we might need to confront an offender, confess any wrong on our parts, forgive, and seek reconciliation. Both health and spiritual ills usually get worse when they are not dealt with. We do have to be careful that we’re not preventing healing or making things worse by nursing our wounds.

But we can no more tell someone with a broken spirit to “get over it” any more than we could someone with a broken limb. Healing takes time. Community can and should help. But ultimately we need to splint our souls to God’s truth, to prevent the infection of bitterness by resting in His love and care, to protect our broken hearts and spirits by trusting in His grace.

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. Psalm 34:18

He healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds. Psalm 147:3

Remember your word to your servant, in which you have made me hope. This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life. Psalm 119:49-50

Let, I pray thee, thy merciful kindness be for my comfort, according to thy word unto thy servant. Psalm 119:76

Unless thy law had been my delights, I should then have perished in mine affliction. I will never forget thy precepts: for with them thou hast quickened me. Psalm 119:92-93

The hymn “Still, My Soul, Be Still” has ministered to me since I first heard it, and the last couple of stanzas especially bring out the need to stake ourselves on God’s truth:

Still my soul be still
Do not be moved
By lesser lights and fleeting shadows
Hold onto His ways
With shield of faith
Against temptations flaming arrows

Still my soul be still
Do not forsake
The Truth you learned in the beginning
Wait upon the Lord
And hope will rise
As stars appear when day is dimming

God You are my God
And I will trust in You and not be shaken
Lord of peace renew
A steadfast spirit within me
To rest in You alone

~ Words and Music by Keith & Kristyn Getty & Stuart Townend

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Testimony Tuesday, Woman to Woman Word-Filled Wednesday, Tell His Story, Thought-provoking Thursday)

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Book Review: Eight Twenty Eight: When Love Didn’t Give Up

828Ian and Larissa were like many college-age young couples, getting to know each other as friends, moving on to dating seriously, heading toward probable engagement. But then the unforeseen and unthinkable happened: Ian was in a car accident, receiving various injuries, but worst of all, damage to his brain. Larissa details their story from first meeting to eventual marriage, with the accident and all that it involved inbetween. Ian has come a long way but is still not fully recovered, so Larissa had to face whether her love was enough to handle being the wife of a man with serious needs. She’s fairly transparent about the struggle and difficulties involved, but both she and Ian have experienced God’s grace in their relationships with Him and each other.

I think I first became aware of their story through an article on the Desiring God Web site. and saw this video:

Just a few quotes from the book:

It’s good to have hope as long as we build the foundation correctly. This was a delicate balance for my young heart to make, believing that God could heal Ian, but knowing it wasn’t guaranteed. But I needed to learn God’s promises, trust that He would remain faithful, without knowing what His faithfulness would exactly look like. And I had to learn these things quickly, because fear was chasing closely behind e and constantly nipping at my heels.

I tried to dig myself into the Bible on my good days, and bury myself in Spurgeon on the bad ones. Because on the bad days, I simply couldn’t understand a God who was okay with shunts and feeding tubes, so I read the words of those who had Him more figured out than I did.

Yet I let myself focus on the giving up, the sacrificing, and didn’t see that Gd was caring for me as well. He had storehouses of riches at His feet if only I would see them, if only I would reach out and touch His garment. He wasn’t asking me to keep giving and giving and choosing the uncomfortable life of vulnerability without prefacing it with grace.

While waiting, we know, is a good thing — like the nine-month anticipation God creates inside the womb — the living of it is long and impatient. We were each being forced to learn that it’s inside the womb of waiting where beauty and character grows.

Isn’t this what I have been called to? This life of dependency on the One who made me? This life that doesn’t make me comfortable, because the discomfort is exactly what I need to make heaven more irresistible?

The title Eight Twenty Eight comes from three factors: Ian’s father, who developed a brain tumor and passed away during this time, had a birthday on 8/28; their wedding was on 8/28, and Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

Besides letting God’s grace shine through their journey, another aspect of the book that Larissa might not have had in mind is giving us a window inside the mind of a person whose loved one is severely injured. For instance, she wanted to be with Ian as much as possible, even moving in with his family to be part of his therapy. When she went anywhere else, her thoughts and heart were back with him. She writes of attending a conference after his injury that they had previously attended together, and how hard it was to be in such a setting without him. Her world basically shrunk to his room and whoever else was there. I think these things help us when we have friends going through similar trials, to understand some of what they’re thinking and to avoid well-meant but glib advice.

All in all, my heart was encouraged and blessed reading the truth and grace they experienced on this journey.

(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

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31 Days With Elisabeth Elliot: The Hand That Hurts and the Hand That Heals

Elisabeth Elliot2
This is titled “A Dog’s Thanksgiving” and appears in the November/December 1988 Elisabeth Elliot Newsletter:

“I remember fixing the wounded leg of my dog. There was some struggle and a hurt crying but he kept licking my hand. The hand of the one who was hurting him and the hand of the one who was healing him were the same, and his endurance of the one rested in his trust in the other. Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord.” From This Cup, by Addison Leitch (my second husband, who died in 1973).

There are many lessons for us in the mysterious animal world. Have we ears to hear, eyes to see, hearts to learn those sweet lessons?

Our Heavenly Healer often has to hurt us in order to heal us. We sometimes fail to recognize His mighty love in this, yet we are firmly held always in the Everlasting Arms. The dog’s leg was hurting. Add’s ministrations were as delicate as possible, yet they hurt too, and the loyal dog accepted them and thanked him with his eyes. Have we the humility to thank our Father for the gift of pain?

“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). Let us give thanks!

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See all the posts in this series here.

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31 Days With Elisabeth Elliot: The World Must Be Shown

Elisabeth Elliot2This is from Elisabeth’s book Keep A Quiet Heart:

When Jesus was speaking with His disciples before His crucifixion, He gave them His parting gift: peace such as the world can never give. But He went on immediately to say, “Set your troubled hearts at rest and banish your fears…. I shall not talk much longer with you, for the Prince of this world approaches. He has no rights over me, but the world must be shown that I love the Father and do exactly as he commands” (John 14:27, 30-31, NEB).

A young mother called to ask for “something that will help me to trust in the Lord.” She explained that she had several small children, she herself was thirty years old, and she had cancer. Chemotherapy had done its hideous work of making her totally bald. The prognosis was not good. Could I say to her, “Set your troubled heart at rest. God is going to heal you”? Certainly not. Jesus did not tell His disciples that He would not be killed. How do I know whether God would heal this young woman? I could, however, remind her that He would not for a moment let go of her, that His love enfolded her and her precious children every minute of every day and every night, and that underneath are the Everlasting Arms.

But is that enough? The terrible things in the world seem to make a mockery of the love of God, and the question always arises: Why!

There are important clues in the words of Jesus. The disciples’ worst fears were about to be realized, yet He commanded (yes, commanded) them to be at peace. All would be well, all manner of things would be well–in the end. In a short time, however, the Prince of this world, Satan himself, was to be permitted to have his way. Not that Satan had any rights over Jesus. Far from it. Nor has he “rights” over any of God’s children, including that dear mother. But Satan is permitted to approach. He challenges God, we know from the Book of Job, as to the validity of His children’s faith.

God allows him to make a test case from time to time. It had to be proved to Satan, in Job’s case, that there is such a thing as obedient faith which does not depend on receiving only benefits. Jesus had to show the world that He loved the Father and would, no matter what happened, do exactly what He said. The servant is not greater than his Lord. When we cry “Why, Lord?” we should ask instead, “Why not, Lord? Shall I not follow my Master in suffering as in everything else?”

Does our faith depend on having every prayer answered as we think it should be answered, or does it rest rather on the character of a sovereign Lord? We can’t really tell, can we, until we’re in real trouble.

I never heard more from the young woman. I neglected to ask her address. But I prayed for her, asking God to enable her to show the world what genuine faith is–the kind of faith that overcomes the world because it trusts and obeys, no matter what the circumstances. The world does not want to be told. The world must be shown. Isn’t that part of the answer to the great question of why Christians suffer?

I started to just share the paragraphs with the sentences I highlighted, but then as I reread through the whole piece, I couldn’t leave any of it out. My tendency in any trial is to ask for it to stop, now please. But God not only works in and through the trial in my own life, it is also a testimony to others…and not just to others on Earth. Ephesians 3:10 says, “ so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” God shows His wisdom in His dealings with us even to creatures “in heavenly places!” When I think of it, I try now to pray not just for quick deliverance (though in my flesh that would still be my desire), but that others may see Jesus through it all.

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See all the posts in this series here.

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Book Review: The Problem of Pain

Problem of PainIn The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis sets out truths and speculations about why a wise, loving, kind, and omnipotent God would allow so much evil, suffering and pain in the world. It’s a question that troubles believers and unbelievers alike and one which was a major hindrance to Lewis’s own conversion.

Chapter 1, “Introductory,” traces three threads through human philosophy and development that lead to religion: an awe or dread of unseen beings, which Lewis calls the Numinous; a sense of some kind of morality; and the connection between the Numinous and morality. The Numinous is either “a mere twist in the human mind…or else it is a direct experience of the really supernatural, to which the name Revelation might properly be given” (p. 10). In Christianity there is one more thread: the historical event of the death and resurrection of Christ. Either Christ was “a raving lunatic of an unusually abominable type, or else He was, and is, precisely what He said. There is no middle way” (p. 13).

To ask whether the universe as we see it looks more like the work of a wise and good Creator or the work of chance, indifference, or malevolence, is to omit from the outset all the relevant factors in the religious problem. Christianity is not the conclusion of a philosophical debate on the origins of the universe: it is a catastrophic historical event following on the long spiritual preparation of humanity which I have described. It is not a system into which we have to fit the awkward fact of pain: it is itself one of the awkward facts which have to be fitted into any system we make. In a sense, it creates, rather than solves, the problem of pain, for pain would be no problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of this painful world, we had received what we think a good assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving (p. 14).

Mankind tends to think that “If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both” (p. 16). Lewis spends the next couple of chapters talking about God’s omnipotence and goodness. Some pain is inherent in nature: fire warms when used rightly but burns when one gets too close to it. Some pain arises when individual beings assert their own wills which then clash with each other. God in His omnipotence could have made it impossible for people to sin against each other, but He made man with a free will and the ability to choose his actions.

You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense. This is no limit to His power. If you choose to say ‘God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it’, you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words ‘God can’. It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God (p. 18).

But “if the universe must, from the outset, admit the possibility of suffering, then” wouldn’t “absolute goodness…have left the universe uncreated”? Lewis “warn[s] the reader that I shall not attempt to prove that to create was better than not to create: I am aware of no human scales in which such a portentous question can be weighed” (p. 27). But he goes on to offer some thoughts about “how, perceiving a suffering world, and being assured, on quite different grounds, that God is good, we are to conceive that goodness and that suffering without contradiction” (p. 27).

What we mean by goodness is not always what true goodness actually is:

By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness; and in this we may be right. And by Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness – the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven – a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’. Not many people, I admit, would formulate a theology in precisely those terms: but a conception not very different lurks at the back of many minds. I do not claim to be an exception: I should very much like to live in a universe which was governed on such lines. But since it is abundantly clear that I don’t, and since I have reason to believe, nevertheless, that God is Love, I conclude that my conception of love needs correction (pp. 31-32).

Even humans don’t want friends and loved ones to continue in a course that makes them happy but is hurtful or destructive to themselves and others, so we can understand that Divine love, so much above ours, will need to correct, halt, or discipline individuals and attempt to bring them to repentance, which will involve some degree of pain.

“We are, not metaphorically but in very truth, a Divine work of art, something that God is making, and therefore something with which He will not be satisfied until it has a certain character.” As an artist erases and reworks a drawing until it becomes as perfect as possible, “One can imagine a sentient picture, after being rubbed and scraped and recommenced for the tenth time, wishing that it were only a thumbnail sketch whose making was over in a minute. In the same way, it is natural for us to wish that God had designed for us a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love but for less” (pp. 34-35).

Similarly, when a man has a dog, “man interferes with the dog and makes it more lovable than it was in mere nature. In it’s state of nature it has a smell, and habit’s, which frustrate man’s love: he washes it, house-trains it, teaches it not to steal, and is so enabled to love it completely. To the puppy the whole proceeding would seem, if it were a theologian, to cast grave doubts on the ‘goodness’ of man: but the full-grown and full-trained dog, larger, healthier, and longer-lived than the wild dog, and admitted, as it were by Grace, to a whole world of affections, loyalties, interests, and comforts entirely beyond it’s animal destiny, would have no such doubts” (p. 36). Man cares for animals he loves: he “does not house-train the earwig or give baths to centipedes. We may wish, indeed, that we were of so little account to God that He left us alone to follow our natural impulses – that He would give over trying to train us into something so unlike our natural selves: but once again, we are asking not for more love, but for less” (p. 36).

The parent-child analogy is a closer one to spiritual truth than man and art or man and dog, but no loving father says, “I love my son but don’t care how great a blackguard he is provided he has a good time” (p. 37).

When we want to be something other than the thing God wants us to be, we must be wanting what, in fact, will not make us happy. Those Divine demands which sound to our natural ears most like those of a despot and least like those of a lover, in fact marshal us where we should want to go if we knew what we wanted. He demands our worship, our obedience, our prostration. Do we suppose that they can do Him any good, or fear, like the chorus in Milton, that human irreverence can bring about ‘His glory’s diminution’? A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell. But God wills our good, and our good is to love Him (with that responsive love proper to creatures) and to love Him we must know Him: and if we know Him, we shall in fact fall on our faces (p. 46).

Lewis then goes on to explain why mankind needs such alteration in the first place. He asserts this is necessary because in his time there was not so much a sense of sin as people would have had in the times when the Bible was written, against which the gospel appeared as very good news indeed. He gives various reasons for that to show that “Christianity now has to preach the diagnosis – in itself very bad news – before it can win a hearing for the cure” (p. 48) and then goes on to show how pervasive and deceptive sin is in our hearts.

It’s when he discusses how man became sinful in the first place in his chapter on the fall of man that I have my first serious problems. He regards the first few books of the Bible (at least, maybe more of it) as mythic. He believes in the evolutionary view of man’s development and as such believes that the “first man” could not have sinned as Adam did because he would not have had the intelligence, self-awareness, or conscience to, since he was what we commonly think of as a prehistoric cave man. At some point in man’s continued evolution, mankind as whole sinned against God by somehow preferring its own way rather than His, of somehow rejecting His reign, and thus the rest of human race was born in sin. He rejects the idea that we are responsible or accountable for or being punished for Adam’s sin. He has problems coming to terms with the statement that “as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Now, I don’t believe that believing in evolution disqualifies a man from salvation or heaven, but I think taking a great deal of the Bible as mythic is not only wrong, but creates new problems. It makes more sense to me that since Adam sinned and was corrupted, every ancestor of his was also corrupted, and thus we are all born sinners, than to try to imagine that the sin of a group of people somehow plunged the entire human race ever after into sin. I think it is quite dangerous to take plain statements of Scripture as mythic and symbolic. I have X marks (which I sometimes put next to statements I disagree with in a book) and question marks all through this chapter and can’t take the time or space here to delineate them all. I do understand that Lewis was speaking from the intellectual viewpoint of his day. He’s not afraid to contradict prevailing viewpoints with Scriptural truth where he see it clearly, but I assume he must not have heard a convincing argument in regard to creation and a literal interpretation of Genesis. He comes out at the right place in the end: “that man, as a species, spoiled himself, and that good, to us in our present state, must therefore mean primarily a remedial or corrective good” (p. 85), but the way he gets there is convoluted.

The next two chapters on human pain are the best, in my opinion. Lewis proposes that about four-fifths of the pain in the world arises from our own sinfulness, our bent as people created with choice and free will to use that will to sin against others.

“We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved: we are, as Newman said, rebels who must lay down our arms” (p. 88).

But there are other kinds of pain that do not come directly from other people’s sins against us.

The first answer, then, to the question why our cure should be painful, is that to render back the will which we have so long claimed for our own, is in itself, wherever and however it is done, a grievous pain… to surrender a self-will inflamed and swollen with years of usurpation is a kind of death (p. 89).

Hence the necessity to die daily: however often we think we have broken the rebellious self we shall still find it alive. That this process cannot be without pain is sufficiently witnessed by the very history of the word ‘Mortification’ (p. 89).

The human spirit will not even begin to try to surrender self-will as long as all seems to be well with it (p. 90).

If the first and lowest operation of pain shatters the illusion that all is well, the second shatters the illusion that what we have, whether good or bad in itself, is our own and enough for us. Everyone has noticed how hard it is to turn our thoughts to God when everything is going well with us. We ‘have all we want’ is a terrible saying when ‘all’ does not include God. We find God an interruption. As St Augustine says somewhere, ‘God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full – there’s nowhere for Him to put it.’ Or as a friend of mine said, ‘We regard God as an airman regards his parachute; it’s there for emergencies but he hopes he’ll never have to use it.’ Now God, who has made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in Him. Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can even plausibly be looked for. While what we call ‘our own life’ remains agreeable we will not surrender it to Him. What then can God do in our interests but make ‘our own life’ less agreeable to us, and take away the plausible source of false happiness? It is just here, where God’s providence seems at first to be most cruel, that the Divine humility, the stooping down of the Highest, most deserves praise (p. 94).

God, who made these deserving people, may really be right when He thinks that their modest prosperity and the happiness of their children are not enough to make them blessed: that all this must fall from them in the end, and that if they have not learned to know Him they will be wretched. And therefore He troubles them, warning them in advance of an insufficiency that one day they will have to discover. The life to themselves and their families stands between them and the recognition of their need; He makes that life less sweet to them. I call this a Divine humility because it is a poor thing to strike our colours to God when the ship is going down under us; a poor thing to come to Him as a last resort, to offer up ‘our own’ when it is no longer worth keeping. If God were proud He would hardly have us on such terms: but He is not proud, He stoops to conquer, He will have us even though we have shown that we prefer everything else to Him, and come to Him because there is ‘nothing better’ now to be had. The same humility is shown by all those Divine appeals to our fears which trouble high-minded readers of Scripture. It is hardly complimentary to God that we should choose Him as an alternative to Hell: yet even this He accepts. The creature’s illusion of self-sufficiency must, for the creature’s sake, be shattered; and by trouble or fear of trouble on earth, by crude fear of the eternal flames, God shatters it ‘unmindful of His glory’s diminution’ (pp 95-96).

Sometimes pain also serves as a reminder that this world is not all there is and isn’t meant to satisfy: when something painful happens – illness, bad news, etc. – “At first I am overwhelmed, and all my little happinesses look like broken toys. Then, slowly and reluctantly, bit by bit, I try to bring myself into the frame of mind that I should be in at all times. I remind myself that all these toys were never intended to possess my heart, that my true good is in another world and my only real treasure is Christ” (pp. 106-107). “Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home” (p. 116).

And though he doesn’t mention Romans 5:3-5 (“And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us”), he does discuss the principle that suffering develops these things in us.

Lewis said near the beginning that he was writing merely to explain the problem of pain, not to necessarily tell how to deal with it. Yet he does say, “If pain sometimes shatters the creature’s false self-sufficiency, yet in supreme ‘Trial’ or ‘Sacrifice’ it teaches him the self-sufficiency which really ought to be his – the ‘strength, which, if Heaven gave it, may be called his own’: for then, in the absence of all merely natural motives and supports, he acts in that strength, and that alone, which God confers upon him through his subjected will. Human will becomes truly creative and truly our own when it is wholly God’s, and this is one of the many senses in which he that loses his soul shall find it.”

He discusses the moral objection to hell in another chapter and makes several good points. I’ll just share this one:

In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: ‘What are you asking God to do?’ To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does (p. 130).

Lewis has a chapter on animal pain, which he confesses is primarily speculation since the Bible says nothing about what animals feel and they can’t tell us. But here is another place where his evolutionary thought comes in and contradicts clear Biblical truth. He says earlier generations felt that suffering of animals and all creation came about as a result of Adam’s fall. We get that from a few places, among them that Genesis 3:17-19, where God said told Adam: “cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” So apparently before this time there were no thorns and thistles and it wasn’t hard work to get something to eat. Then in the millennial kingdom, when Christ rules the earth, it is prophesied in Isaiah 11 that in that time:

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.

And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den.

They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

So we assume from this that the harmful behaviors which shall no longer be were a part of the original fall and not part of animal’s original creation, since they are set right here. But Lewis says this “is now impossible, for we have good reason to believe that animals existed long before man. Carnivorousness, with all that it entails, is older than humanity (p. 137). I have an X by that statement as well as a few others in this chapter.

Even more alarming to me is his thought that “it might be argued that when He emptied Himself of His glory He also humbled Himself to share, as man, the current superstitions of His time. And I certainly think that Christ, in the flesh, was not omniscient – if only because a human brain could not, presumably, be the vehicle of omniscient consciousness, and to say that Our Lord’s thinking was not really conditioned by the size and shape of His brain might be to deny the real incarnation and become a Docetist. Thus, if Our Lord had committed Himself to any scientific or historical statement which we knew to be untrue, this would not disturb my faith in His deity” (p. 137). It would disturb mine, and I don’t believe for a moment that Christ believed “superstitions of His time”! There were multiple incidences of His displaying omniscience even while in human form. I just discussed this recently in a chapter from J. I. Packer’s book Knowing God in this post.

Lewis closes with a short chapter on pain which is mostly speculative but does include the theme present in The Last Battle in the Narnia series, that it’s the place we’ve been longing for our whole lives.

If you’ve read this far, you deserve a pat on the back. I am sorry this is so long, but when I write about a book, I want to convey not only a glimpse of what it is about to those reading, but I want to record the salient points as well as my own thoughts and impressions to remind myself of in the future.

I was a bit frustrated that Lewis didn’t go into more of the Biblical reasons for suffering, but then I reminded myself that it wasn’t his purpose to write such a treatise: he was merely wanting to address the problem of pain from a philosophical viewpoint couched mostly in Scripture. I remember reading somewhere which I can’t trace now that someone who read this book then approached Lewis about making the talks which eventually became Mere Christianity.

There are a lot of really good nuggets in this book. But there are enough questionable things that this would not be my first choice to recommend to someone on this topic. That would be When God Weeps by Joni Eareckson Tada and Steve Estes. But I would still recommend this with caution about some of the problem areas.

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

It’s ok to say it hurts

Its-okay-to-say-it-hurts

Recently a friend shared a painful incident that had occurred in her life, and when a couple of us who were listening tried to express sympathy, her tone changed to one of upbeat cheeriness while she tried to assure us everything was ok and she was rejoicing in the Lord.

It’s not the first time that kind of thing has happened.

As Christians, when we face some kind of trial, we remind ourselves of Biblical truth: God is in control, this has not taken Him by surprise, He has a purpose for it, something to teach us in it; He wants to grow our faith by it; He will give us the grace and strength to deal with it. Those are comforting and do help us as we work through the situation.

On top of that, we’re conscious that other people are watching, and we want to be a good testimony and to glorify God in our responses. So sometimes we translate that into putting on a happy face before others and dealing with our confusion and pain in private.

I’ve mentioned that I used to do this after contracting transverse myelitis and finding an online support group of TM patients and caregivers. Honestly, at first I didn’t join them with the idea of trying to be a good testimony. I was just looking for answers in an era when I couldn’t find information anywhere else (thankfully there is a great amount of information available now). But as I interacted with the group, I did realize that I couldn’t help but share God’s grace in dealing with me and helping me cope. I wanted to represent Him well, so I shared only the positive and kept to myself the hard days and frustrations. Later on another Christian joined the group, and she was refreshingly honest and real about her struggles, yet still expressed faith and reliance on God. That was one incident that helped me realize that having joy in the Lord is not the same thing as grinning and bearing it or keeping a stiff upper lip.

The Bible is full of God’s people speaking honestly about their pain and trouble. The Psalms especially are balm for a weary soul. Lamentations shares the full emotion resulting from God’s judgment even while acknowledging God’s justice in His actions. Paul says, “ We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10). He admits to being troubled, perplexed, and cast down while still testifying to God’s keeping him from being distressed, in despair, forsaken, and destroyed. Even our Lord Jesus “offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death” (Hebrews 5:7).

I admit it’s hard sometimes to find the balance. We do want to honor the Lord in our trials and not sound like we’re complaining. But I think it helps people more to see us apply Biblical truth to our painful situation rather than acting like we’re above it all and unaffected. Thus, I’d rather hear, “It hurts that so many special things were stolen in the break-in, but it’s a reminder to us that thieves do break through and steal in this world, and we’re to store up treasures in heaven” than an attempt to brush it off. Or, “God, this disease really hurts today. I so wish and pray you’d take it from me. In the meantime, please give me the grace to deal with it.” Or, “I don’t understand why God took my wife home so early, and it hurts like crazy, but I depend on His grace moment by moment.” In one of Elisabeth Elliot’s writings, she said that even with knowing so many wonderful things God did as a result of her husband’s death, that still didn’t satisfy. God can save people and draw them to a closer walk with Him or into service for Him without taking someone’s life to do so. Yet she accepted it and trusted Him in the midst of it. The “peace that passes understanding” that God gives when we take our requests to Him with prayer and thanksgiving doesn’t deny the pain or problems: in fact, it’s all the more marvelous because it occurs in the midst of the pain and problems.

It doesn’t dishonor God to say that something hurts or confuses us. It might dishonor Him to wallow in it without looking to Him. But when we look to Him, honor Him, rejoice in Him, and trust Him even while acknowledging painful or frustrating situations, people see His grace is sufficient for any need.

For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. 2 Corinthians 12:8-10

Sharing at Thought-Provoking Thursday.