yesterday in church we continued our "when Christians get it wrong" series by talking about how Christians act when bad things happen. we talked a bit about our theology of suffering and evil, because what we believe about those things will affect how we behave. and, i believe that how we behave in times of tragedy and suffering and difficulty has often been a formative reason for people rejecting the church and her beliefs. based on the book by rev. adam hamilton, this series is suggesting that we sometimes get some things very wrong in Christianity, and that this is at least partly responsible for the mass exodus from our churches today. there are, of course, a myriad of cultural factors that help explain the failure of american mainline churches, but one of the key ones is that we have not lived our faith in ways that truly reflect the Christ whom we follow.
"i like your Christ," Gandhi once said, "i do not like your Christians. they are so unlike your Christ."
thank you, Gandhi. that's what i was trying to say.
so when it comes to what Christians believe about evil and suffering, i simply wanted to challenge people to think about how much God controls all of the details of our lives. We seem to behave like God is pulling levers and pushing buttons and controlling everything that happens all day long, from the other drivers on the road to the results of whatever sporting event we're watching. if there is an accident on the road up ahead, Christians have often been heard saying how grateful to God they are that God caused them to leave a few minutes late so that they wouldn't be in the accident. do we really believe this? that God loved me enough to save me, but didn't love the other drivers enough to protect them? i guess i'm more lovable? if we believe that God is orchestrating every little event, then we have to admit that God is causing many gruesome deaths and terrible accidents. if this were true, God would be causing diseases and torture and abuse, and saving others from these very things. do we really believe this? i think not.
we also have to get away from the belief that bad things happen because God is trying to punish us. i am so exhausted from trying to defend Christianity from the lunacy of some Christians who want to turn every tragedy into the acts of a mean and vindictive God who punishes the sin of some by wiping out and hurting many. some have said that 9/11 happened because God was punishing america for our loose morals, homosexuality, the aclu, and feminism. and hurricane katrina was a result of gambling and promiscuity. and, of course, homosexuality. oh, and the earthquake in haiti? you may have thought that it was the result of movements in the earth's crust along a fault line but, according to pat robertson, you'd be wrong, you simpleton, you. actually, that earthquake happened because the haitians had made a deal with the devil to get the french out years ago. so they are being punished. so, here's where Christianity gets a bad name and comes off looking ludicrous: we say things like,
-God is love,
-love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength,
-Jesus loves you,
-God says, "I will never leave you or forsake you,"
and so on.
but then we talk out of the other side of our mouths and say that God is punishing america for her lack of morals, or punishing the poor in haiti because of something some witch doctor ancestors of theirs did.
excuse me while i take a second to cool down.
okay. i'm back. i apologize for the delay, but it really infuriates me. we tell people that they can believe in a loving God, but then we act like that God is anything but loving. i once counseled a couple who was miscarrying a baby, after having already miscarried numerous others, and while they were grieving for this lost child, they were more scared that God was going to be angry at them. how much have Christians failed to do their job if people think God is going to be angry at them for miscarrying a baby? beyond measure, that's how much.
"by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you condemn sin." -Jesus. (nope).
"by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you correct sinners." -Jesus (nope).
"by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you change people's minds." -Jesus (nope).
"by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." -Jesus (there it is.). (john 13:35)
see what i mean? God is not a good that sits around and thinks of creative and violent ways to punish us, nor does God desire for us to be broken and diseased and nearly killed just to teach some important lesson or make us stronger.
and yet, that's what we sometimes tell people who are suffering. we may mean well, but we say, "this is all part of God's plan," or, "God is testing you, or making you stronger." and that is not helpful. it only causes people to (understandably) reject this so-called God of love who seems to mostly love pain and suffering.
instead, Christians should try and get it right. we get it right by saying things like, "i'm so sorry. so sorry." and, even better, "i am here for you. whatever you need. i'll be right by your side as you go through this." that's the best possible witness to someone who is suffering. it's not to tell them about God's love. it's not to try and convince them that God still loves them even though they are hurting. and it certainly isn't to tell them that God is using this to strengthen or punish them. no, the best possible thing we can do is suffer with them, which is called compassion. that's what love does. And God is love.
let's get it right.