A couple of days ago, Zach Hoag, who blogs over at The Nuance, posted the following tweet:
This really caught my attention because it encapsulates so well something I’ve been increasingly aware of in recent years: a tendency among Christians to make their faith into a kind of artificial reality field designed to protect them from the rough and tumble of life.
The clues that someone may be living in this kind of alternative reality are many and varied. In my experience, however, this version of Christianity is most often rooted in “Word of Faith” type thinking, which is all about exercising our faith to speak new circumstances into being. Whenever the response to a problem or challenge is along the lines that we just need to “claim the victory and walk in it”, my unreality detector throws up an alert. And when Christians start to “rebuke” their circumstances and determinedly state that they “refuse to accept” whatever difficulty life may have thrown at them, it goes into overdrive. (An extreme example is when parents refuse to seek medical attention for a critically ill child because they believe that to do so would be to deny God’s power to heal. Mercifully, this doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen.)
Now, I understand the power of positive thinking. And I understand that “victim” thinking can be very damaging, leaving us in the grip of self-perpetuating negative attitudes and behaviour patterns. But when faith refuses to acknowledge and engage with the harsh realities of life and is driven instead by a belief that, as God’s children, we are entitled to reject what we don’t like and claim something better, this is – for me, anyway – a detachment from reality and the beginnings of a departure into fantasy.
I’m sorry if you’ve been sold a gospel that says Jesus will put a smile on your face, keep you safe at all times and give you a ticket to your best life now. And I’m sorry if you’ve been taught that as Christians, we can expect to be immune from sickness, to automatically have blissful marriages and model kids, to have God smooth our career paths and to enjoy unlimited financial abundance. I’m sorry for two reasons: number one, I don’t find any of these things promised in the Bible; and number two, the chances are that one of these days, life is going to throw you a curve ball and it’s going to be hard to reconcile that sugar-coated view of life with God with the painful and messy reality that’s bursting in on your rose-tinted bubble.
You see, there are some things Jesus said that we prefer to forget. Like when he told his disciples “In this world, you will have trouble” (John 16:33). We’d rather jump straight to the next part, where he tells them he has overcome the world. But to interpret his overcoming of the world as a personal promise of protection from all physical harm and an assurance that we will always have smooth sailing is a gross distortion. (In fact, the first part of the very same verse gives us a clue as to what this overcoming looks like in the life of a disciple: “I have told you these things, so that you may have peace.”)
I fervently belief that God wants us to have a faith that is firmly anchored in reality. If I need to convince myself of this, I need look no further than the incarnation: God himself chose to take on flesh, to come down and join us in the joyful messiness of human reality, to eat and laugh and cry with us, and to walk by our side whether we’re marvelling at the view from the mountaintop or trudging along wearily in the bottom of the valley. And it was Jesus himself who prayed not that his disciples would be taken out of the world, but that his Father would protect them from the evil one.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying we should offer no resistance and simply wallow in negativity when life takes a turn for the worse. God’s intention is never to leave us floundering in pain and misery; he wants to transform our pain into a source of healing for ourselves and others, to turn our mourning into dancing. But sometimes we have to wade through the pain and the struggle and the questions and the tears before we can begin to emerge into easier terrain on the other side. And, of course, God doesn’t only take our pain and use it for healing; he also uses it to mould our character and to make us, little by little, more like Jesus. If we let Him, that is. When our default response to difficulty is to flee into our safe Christian castle, we rob Him of that opportunity and, in so doing, rob ourselves of the healing and growth that will ultimately make us into the people we are meant to be – people who radiate the light of God’s love and compassion and who bring redemption into seemingly hopeless situations, precisely because we have already walked that same path and are living testimonies of God’s transforming grace.
I enthusiastically believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. And I believe that the way to finding the truth that Jesus embodies does not lie in trying to escape from reality into a safer and more comfortable Christian universe. When we do that, it’s as though we’re holding up our hand in the face reality and shouting “La la la! I can’t hear you! Talk to the hand!” As my friend Zach suggests in his tweet, that’s not truth; that’s denial.
Poet and author Mary Karr, who is a recovered alcoholic (and thus knows at least a little about denial), puts it this way: “God is in the truth, even when the truth is bad”. Seek the truth of any situation, and that is where you will begin to find God. And perhaps, in finding Him there, you will begin to see a way through towards something better.
So by all means, have a faith that is strong and vital, that suffers all things and believes all things, that is prepared to hold fast to God and not let go of His word and His promises come what may. Be dissatisfied – be angry even – with all the suffering and pain and grief that is the common lot of human beings on this earth. Strive to turn the tide and not succumb in the face of suffering and evil. But please, don’t try to pretend adversity away. Be determined to meet the truth head on, with the sure knowledge that God is with you in that truth, holding you, guiding you and strengthening you, and committed to bringing you through to a place of deeper trust and enduring peace.