Pastor's Blog

In my journey back from the brink of unbelief, I wrestled with three key things:  difficult Christian doctrines, making sense of tragedy, and making sense of evangelical Christians that expressed anything but love for me as a pastor.

According to evangelicalism, the Christian Church is a body of people who have tasted the patient, kind, and loving forgiveness of God when they believe in Jesus.  Each is given the Holy Spirit who empowers all of us together to show the same forgiveness, patience, kindness, love, and understanding, with one another.  The Church is the first taste of heaven itself, a little glimpse of the full inheritance that is coming.  This is what the Bible calls “the new testament” (or the new covenant).  It is God’s promise of blessing, His most powerful work in a dark and evil world.

When I trusted Christ, I believed God’s Word that this is what He is doing in the world and in people.  I trusted that He would do what He promised.  That’s what I expected to experience and lead as an evangelical pastor.  That was my vision – a growing community that would hear God’s truth from the Bible and respond to it – a community that was continually learning to practice selflessness, forgiveness, and mutual care for one another. 

But over the first twenty years of pastoral service I grew more and more disillusioned every year, shocked at the amount of abuse directed at me – not by atheists, secularists, and unbelievers – but by evangelical believers. 

I'm not talking about little tiffs or annoyances.
I’m talking about receiving verbal and emotional abuse.  I'm talking about extremely angry people yelling uncontrollably at me, sending me hostile emails, and leaving voice mails threatening to do me harm.
I’m talking about people refusing to try to reason things out, refusing to try to understand misunderstandings, refusing to hear two sides of a story, and insisting on believing the worst about me and the church I was called to serve.
I’m talking about people who smiled and feigned friendship and support to my face who then turned around, stabbed me in the back, and slandered me to others.  I would rather be threatened with bodily harm a hundred times than betrayed once by a friend.  Judas is the worst of the worst.

You may say I was naïve not to expect treatment like this.  I did expect it – but not from believers, and most certainly not from people who had been evangelical Christians for many years.  The more I experienced mistreatment, the more I questioned and doubted God’s promises or the reality of His new covenant “plan”.  If His Spirit wasn’t powerful enough to change hearts like He said He would, how could I (or why should I) believe in the promise of the new covenant?  And if the promise of the new covenant wasn’t true – what is left of Christianity?  What is there to believe in?

That thinking had led me toward unbelief and atheism.  When I started the trek back from the brink of unbelief, I knew that if I was going to be a Christian (and a pastor) I had to develop a different understanding of the new covenant, of the work of the Holy Spirit, and of the church.  If I didn’t, it would be just a matter of time before I headed once again down the road of disillusionment, disappointment, and unbelief.  You have to be able to believe what you believe, right?

One book in the Bible, Job, is devoted to the experience of tragedy.  Scholars say it is likely the oldest story in the Bible, an ancient account from one of the non-Israelite cultures in the Middle East, found noteworthy enough to be preserved in the Hebrew collection, perhaps by that great collector of wisdom, King Solomon.

If you remove the otherworldly backstory involving God and Satan, and just look at the life of the man Job, you see a successful, benevolent, and religious community leader who has his life slowly crushed by natural catastrophes and human violence.  His property is savaged and stolen by raiding tribes.  His children are killed in a violent storm.  Finally Job himself contracts an uncomfortable disease that removes him from society.  He sits in the trash heap of broken pottery outside of town, suffering miserably and alone.  His wife tells him to curse God and die.  But Job refuses.  He praises God.

Job’s friends come to comfort and counsel him.  Their conversations, recorded in flowery poetry, form the bulk of the book, and their explanation of his misery is the theological knee-jerk of the human race:  suffering is divine punishment for sin.

The more Job insists that he hasn’t sinned, the more his counselors charge him with guilt and denial, making Job angrier and angrier.  He finally demands (and gets) a court date with the Almighty.  And that’s where the story takes an unexpected twist. 

Instead of a loving, compassionate father taking Job into his lap, wiping away his tears, soothing him, and making everything alright, God comes at Job full-force in a blustery whirlwind and demands that Job provide a detailed explanation of the universe – how it got here, what holds it in place, and how it all works.  Then God asserts His own magnificence as the omniscient Creator of the universe about which Job knows nothing.  Job, quaking and cowering in a corner, apologizes for daring to question God’s wisdom.  Job sued God – and lost.

Though the story ends with the restoration of Job’s happiness, that ending is brief and anticlimactic.  It isn’t proposed as the answer to tragedy.  The solution provided – the acceptance of one’s own smallness and the recognition of one’s limited capacities when compared to an all-powerful and completely wise, morally good God – would have made sense Job’s suffering resulted in his demise.

The answer of the ancients to why we suffer tragedy is that we don’t know – and we don’t need to know.  It is only necessary for us to believe that God is good and all-powerful, no matter what.

Many unbelievers see this as a religious cop-out.  Maybe it is – if all questions have attainable answers.  But what if they don’t (as I have come to believe)?  The naked atheistic answer – “stuff happens, and nothing in your life, much less your suffering, has any meaning” – is not a better explanation of suffering and tragedy.  Even atheists don’t seem to think so.

Job may be an ancient story, but it is hardly a quaint superstition or museum piece.  The answer to the question of suffering and tragedy provided through the experience of these primitive desert people and preserved in Job resonates with people today because it fits the realities of human experience.

You don’t have to know everything to believe in something. 
Perhaps the ancients knew more than we think.

Over 30 years ago, hard questions about life led me to serious doubts about Christianity and I almost abandoned the faith.  How could a good and all-powerful God stand by and allow (or worse, cause) children to be born deformed?  How could He allow horrible illnesses that afflict and kill children?  How could He stand by and allow the abuse of children, sexually and otherwise?  How could He allow the death of innocent people in floods and hurricanes and earthquakes? 

I didn’t find the answers provided by Christians satisfactory.  Each answer raised more questions.  So, I pursued belief in a world without God – the purely material world proposed by science.

If there is only matter – randomly organized chemicals – and no soul or spirit, no such thing as mind;  if we’re just animals that do what our biology dictates – and if that is the case with EVERYTHING in our world – how can there be any such thing as tragedy?  The most that can be said of any event is that stuff happens.

Natural catastrophes happen.  If you die in a flood, your death is no more (and no less) tragic than that of any ant, rat, or dog, that perished in the same event.  Matter is matter, life is life, species are species.

In a purely material world, parasites, viruses, and bacteria are living things trying to survive, just as you are.  Everything must eat and viruses feed on you and me.  Side effects of their efforts can be fatal.  So what?  The virus survived and you didn’t.  What makes you so significant that your death is a tragedy?  Would the death of the virus be a tragedy?  Matter is matter, life is life.  Stuff happens.

In a purely material world, unusual DNA linkage may produce a snake with two heads or a child without arms or legs.  It is what biology dictated.  Stuff happens.

In a purely material world, everything, including sexual attraction, is controlled by inherited genetics.  There is nothing else!  Some are born attracted to the opposite sex, some to the same sex, and some, apparently, to young children (or even animals).  These are biologically pre-determined responses.  We do what our biology tells us to do.  And stuff happens.  Why is this tragic?

Tragedy involves injustice or unfairness.  How can things following natural processes be unfair?  Nature isn’t right or wrong.  It just is.  What sense is there in demanding that nature be other than what it is?

Why be morally outraged about anything?  Nature is what it is.  Stuff happens.  Accept it and move on.  Eat your next meal.  Enjoy the next mating season.  Pass on your genetic code.  Tomorrow you die.  That is all that life is about for every species.

This way of atheistic thinking made good sense to me.  I found a few atheists who proposed these views, but, was surprised to discover that most felt it too cold and calloused – even downright inhumane.  I proposed it to one atheist friend who shot back caustically that I was an evil human being! 

I began to suspect that atheists were trying to have their cake and eat it too – insisting that materialistic values are inhumane in a materialistic universe and preferring religious values instead.  Perhaps that indicated that the universe is more than matter.  Perhaps, underneath it all, at the root of everything, God really did exist. 

I didn’t turn back to Christianity because it answered all my questions. 
I turned back because atheists didn’t answer my questions.  And because atheists themselves, without trying, seemed to be subtly hinting at the existence of God.
I turned back because providence pushed me to a new thought:  that uncertainty – not having all the answers – is a component of faith, not a lack of it. 

Life is full of difficult questions and experiences.  Being able to explain those difficulties doesn’t help many people anyway.  Suffering with them through those difficulties is often all that is necessary.

And I can believe the ancient witnesses about the resurrection of Jesus without having answers for all of the hard questions of life.

 

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