Walking up the steps and out of the tube station in London for the very first time when I was 11 or 12 and seeing the TDK and Coca Cola lights advertising on the board at Piccadilly Circus was one of the most profound moments in my life.
It caught me slightly off guard. It was exciting enough to be under the ground on a train and the emotions of being in London for the first time were pulsating through my whole body that it took me a split second to register what I was looking at. My mom, Sister and I walked up the busy steps of the tube station and right there, bang in front of us were the lights.
It was like catching Santa delivering the gifts once a year. The thing I knew existed, was actually real. I didn’t need to rely on others telling me about how amazing London was. I didn’t need a 2 D photograph to stare at. I was experiencing it for myself.
I had read about London in the book that my mum had bought for my sister and I before our trip and I had seen these very same advertisement boards in countless news reports and tv shows.
But there was something different this time. I felt it deep inside me and ultimately no images or words could express what it actually felt like to see what I only knew from second hand accounts.
I knew that Christopher Wren had designed St Paul’s Cathedral with it’s weirdly designed whispering gallery. I knew that if the ravens flew away from the Tower of London that it meant that something terrible was going to happen! But I didn’t remember any of that on that trip. It wasn’t important. All that mattered was that I was having an experience that was going to remain long in the memory, even now over 20 years later.
So don’t ask me when Christopher Wren designed St Paul’s Cathedral. It really doesn’t matter.
Some of us are lucky enough to have had experiences like this in our lives. Moments that we look back at can stop and appreciate the gravitas of the moment. Sometimes they are joyful wonderful moments that we hold dear, others are painful agonizing moments that we want to forget. But they are real and they are part of our collective human experience.
They shape us in ways that we may not even understand at the time.
Growing up in the church for my whole life I’ve experienced a few of these moments but honestly they’ve been rare. When my Father died and I felt my family and friends come round and support us in ways that I didn’t truly appreciate at the time. Or when I stopped looking at porn for three months one summer and every little thing about life seemed to come alive in ways that I had never experienced before.
Have you ever tried to describe to someone what it is like to fall in love? It’s really, really hard. That’s why we need poetry and music because only in these symbols and metaphors can we ever really come close enough.
Unless we experience it for ourselves. Which usually means we are unable to describe it.
As I have gotten older I’ve had a much deeper appreciation for experiences. Especially when it comes to having some sort of faith or belief. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it doesn’t matter what I believe anymore if it is doesn’t translate into some sort of felt experience.
When I was addicted to porn, I believed that I could be free. But I never became free. As a Christian I believe that God will provide for me financially but when I lost my job a few months ago I became afraid that I wouldn’t be able to pay my mortgage. When the light at a junction turns green I believe I can turn safely in my car but I always check just to make sure there are no other vehicles coming.
Almost on a daily basis there is a huge gap between what I say I believe and what I actually experience. Belief is a huge word in Christian circles and it is something that we crave more certainty in. But there is almost a weird pull away from certainty, the more we try to get it.
Why when I was addicted to porn did I constantly look at it, even though I claimed that freedom was possible?
The typical response to these kinds of questions are usually based in something about trying harder. You need to just believe more. You need to just have more faith. Trust more. Don’t give up. It will happen.
Then with my best Ron Howard narration impersonation from Arrested Development.
Or, another typical response is that God gives us these temptations or trials to keep us humble and teach us how to grow.
This is slightly better, because I believe (there’s that word again) that this is true on some level. I believe that we get stronger when we have to face tough situations. That perseverance eventually results in freedom.
But how long do I have to wait? When will I find freedom? How long does this trial have to go? Eventually it has to end right? I can talk about being free in Christ all day long; I can even quote scripture to back it up, but if I never experience it, so what?! That’s the question. Or do those of us who have faced these experiences in our lives, believe on some level that because it is a trial we won’t or even shouldn’t be free from it?
This was partly the problem Job had, a character in the Bible. Other than the sudden death of his entire family, livelihood and probably very near his sanity. The problem for Job wasn’t just that he was experiencing something horrible but that he didn’t know why.
We often give Job’s friends a hard time in this story but for the first few chapters they just sit there with him and allow him to vent. They do the thing that they probably should as good friends. They don’t try and fix his pain. Then eventually they get sick of his whining, they start to question why this is happening to Job and they decide that Job must have done something to deserve it.
This is the point where we like to turn on Job’s mates but as Peter Enns points out in his book, “The Sin of Certainty”, this lines up perfectly with what they’ve been told to believe about God. Over and over in the Psalms and other parts of Scripture, our behavior is linked with blessing or suffering. Act Godly and you will experience blessing. Act wickedly then you will be cursed.
Even Job is confused because he knows this is how it is supposed to work but he hasn’t done anything to deserve it.
So do we believe the lesson of Job that doing the right thing doesn’t always result in good things happening? (The bad things DO happen to good people effect). Or do we listen to the parts that tell us that we will reap what we sow? (Or is the Bible sometimes full of contradictions because it’s based on human experiences, That’s another blog post entirely).
I’m also acutely aware that as I write this in one of my favorite coffee shops where I am able to afford a nice coffee on a Monday that I don’t have to work and while later I am going to have left over Pizza that I paid for at a restaurant, where I spent time with good friends; in many ways I am severely under qualified to talk about suffering.
But I’m going to anyway.
Because maybe what I’m learning is that life is not a simple cause and effect affair. That my experiences don’t always line up with what is true. That in this moment the thoughts I have around all of this are likely to change as ironically, my experiences change. But that won’t negate what I am feeling now in this moment. It is in some very real way, true.
The truth ultimately is not what we say we believe, but rather what we experience. (Tweet This)
If you’re wealthy you may believe money will solve all your problems. If you live in poverty you may have a deep peace that money can’t buy. We tell rich people who are depressed that they have everything they would ever need, while the rest of us who worry about paying bills, really are suffering.
So suffering is subjective. And so maybe truth is too.
I think this is a big problem for the Church. We downplay emotions and feelings because we think that to truly feel everything is a sin. Especially, when we have emotions and feelings that don’t line up with what we’re supposed to believe. But in reality it is not that we down play emotions so much as we like to downplay the “negative” ones.
But if we don’t feel loved, in a very real way, we aren’t loved.
Think about when you reach out to hold a baby and the baby instantly starts crying. This happens to everyone right? Even still, we know that we are not going to harm the baby. We know that it is not in danger and that we’re not going to run away with it. But the baby doesn’t know that and it certainly makes it’s feelings known.
But we don’t get angry at the baby. We don’t yell at it to be rationale.
The reality is that Job’s friends were right and they were wrong. Imagine that. Fully right in how they react to Job by sitting with him and allowing him to be honest and fully wrong when they try and fix blame to him.
Imagine if we acted like this. Honestly we don’t have to imagine too hard because Job’s friends reactions later on are exactly how many of us in the church act now. We don’t allow people to be angry at God or upset or question Him because God is “ultimately good and trustworthy”. It’s a sin to be angry at God right?
There is something deeply spiritual and healing in the act of expressing pain though. Emotions attach themselves to our bodies and when they aren’t given the full freedom to be expressed we push them down. Even the good ones. This is why many of us find ourselves in pain. Sometimes our emotional pain even results in physical pain.
But when we express our emotions, something shifts and we start to crack something open. A crack that allows us to shine the light into.
But of course, you shouldn’t take my word for it.
Jesus wept, not Jesus wept but then got his shit together and manned up.
Jesus lost his temper, not, but then went back and apologized for his overreaction.
Or Jesus was scared, not Jesus was a brave warrior who didn’t let anything phase him.
When we say that God doesn’t love me, of course this doesn’t mean that God doesn’t actually love us.
But when we try to hold this pain in and grin and bear it, it only causes our pain to build up. Children get this. Children don’t have the (dis)advantage of experience to know that this pain they are experiencing is not all there is. But in expressing their pain they are able to heal and move forward.
I wonder if as Christians we need to take this approach. Maybe, this is partly what Jesus was getting at when He said that we need to be born again. Not simply we need to repent of sins, but perhaps we need to come back to that childlike honestly, and openness to the world that growing up understandably erodes.
And when we get uncomfortable with others’ doubts and questions and anger towards God, it exposes more about our own inability to experience pain than anything else.
So then, when Paul says that nothing can separate us from the love of God, He’s including doubt, anger, bitterness and hostility towards God Himself.
The question we really need to ask ourselves then is, do we truly believe it?