Breathing on Job

Who reading this has gone through something big, so traumatic that it shook everything in their very core? A type of pain that has never been experienced before, so visceral that words can’t even muster anything close to describing it. Time may heal but right now, time is stuck.

Most of us have, or know someone who has. An unexpected death, a loss, a well laid out plan with months of preparation that was suddenly swept away from you.

As Christians we use our faith in those moments to remind people that God is bigger than our pain. That He has a plan for everything that happens. We may not understand it now, we may never understand it until “Heaven” but we can be sure that God is good and even this will be redeemed.

“God works in unexpected ways we tell each other. God’s ways are not our ways.”

Some of you reading this may be familiar with the ancient mystic tradition of Apophatic belief. I’m sure many of us wouldn’t disagree with the idea that God is love. That God is kind, gracious, peaceful, full of joy and we can experience Him intimately through our own experiences of those things.

The Apophatic Christian then says that God is not love. A contradiction? No. But rather the assertion that God can not be contained in a single adjective. God is love of course, but as sure as He is love he is so much more.

Then, and to really confuse us, the Apophatic Christian will turn around and say that “God is not, not love”. Wait, what?!

I am learning to feel more comfortable with this position not despite but exactly because of it’s confusion. This is the place that we can truly come to an understanding of our inability to understand God. He can’t be pinned down to certain beliefs or doctrines. He is not just a He. She is not simply spirit. There are many moments of grace where God does reveal himself to us but most of the time, God is simply, I am.

The Jewish people were onto something when they realized that it was actually impossible to say His name. That God is actually to be found in our breath. We’re all saying the name of God constantly.

The contradictions we often find in our faith don’t actually come from traditions such as the Apophatic tradition. Nor, does it even come from those parts of the Bible that say one thing then seemingly say something completely different later.

Our contradictions are usually far more subtle and more difficult to detect. Take our earlier example of comforting those in times of deep loss or suffering. When we insist that God is in control and that He will sort this all out, we’re often (not always, but more commonly than we think) using it as a comfort blanket of sorts. Where we don’t have to face up to the possibility ourselves, that God is not in control and perhaps this will never be healed.

It’s not in fact the other person we’re trying to comfort, it’s ourselves.

So we use cliches and phrases that may indeed be true but they aren’t healing. They just encourage everyone to avoid really shining a light on their doubts.

In fact, healing may not even be the point. We demand and desire some sort of lesson in this mess, when making sense is actually just our way of not wanting to experience pain.

Reading Job recently I noticed that initially his friends aren’t blaming him for all the shit that’s happening to him, but reminding him that it’s all going to be ok. He can trust God. But Job doesn’t buy it. So Job’s friend’s get frustrated and then Job gets frustrated and the whole thing goes back and forth for 42 chapters! job-bonnat

I believe Job’s friends had good intentions but Job’s suffering reminded them of their own doubts. They weren’t trying to convince Job, they were trying to convince themselves.

An alternative then is to help each other be ok with pain and doubt and questions and not be so quick to respond. Like the Jewish people, perhaps the best way to bring God into our doubt is not through saying His name out loud but allowing our breath and silence be places where God can break through in a far more intimate way.

Easier said that done. But perhaps that’s part of our problem. We’re far too quick to speak.

For Job, God was silent. And maybe that’s what we all should be listening for.

Why Christians should be a lot more like Stephen Fry

By now I am sure you have seen the Stephen Fry video where we was interviewed on Irish tv by Gay Byrne. In particular, the segment where we was asked about God and he revealed his deep hatred for a god who could let such horrible things as bone cancer in children or worms that eat through eyes, exist in the world.

I read a lot of responses to the video from Christians and there are a few things that stood out for me. In some cases, how alarmingly little grace there was shown towards Stephen Fry and in some really encouraging responses of understanding and thoughtfulness. Continue reading

The problem with “God’s ways are not our ways”

All of us at some point or another have questioned our faith. If you haven’t yet, don’t worry your time will come. Things happen to us that seem so unfair and beyond any reason, that we question how something like this could happen. How could God allow us to suffer in this way? In what way could this possibly be any good for anyone?

It’s not just limited to our very human experiences where we question God. It can be in theological beliefs that seem to contradict everything that we believe about God. We can’t get our head around predestination because how could a loving God willingly create some people knowing fully that they will end up in Hell? How could a God create a place like Hell in the first place? How can some people even start to suggest that someone like Hitler may get the chance to repent for all the horrible things he committed, so that even Hitler could end up in Heaven?

I’ve touched on a few but there are a thousand more different doubts that can manifest in our minds.

When faced with these questions and when we are honest enough to admit to others that we are struggling with some aspects of our faith, often we will bring these to someone we think will have some sort of answer. Many times, the best answer is to not have an answer. To allow someone the freedom to have questions and have that be alright. Yet, an answer that is regularly given, has become our default position for such questions.

It is this.

“God’s ways are not our ways”

This is a great answer because in one quick response we have given an answer that is intended to clear up everything and leave the person satisfied. If there are some things that we can’t understand about God and the ways things are (or at least perceived to be) then we can stop questioning. We can never understand. We will always have questions and we should just accept it and get on with things.

Except, this response and ones like it only leave us frustrated and with more questions that answers.

When someone we love is tragically taken from us, I wonder how comforting it is to know that God has some plan we can’t see.

If the idea of your friends going to Hell because there is nothing they can do to change it because God has already decided, doesn’t sit well with you; I wonder how we can continue to spread God’s love, when it seems so pointless.

As a human I am well aware of my frailties and I have experienced the love of God, even amidst suffering, (some self inflicted, some not) many, many times. There have been thousands of moments where I have just not “got it” only to see God reveal something magical and beautiful that only He could have seen coming.

So I understand that there are things that we will never understand but God’s love and Grace is big enough for us to still have questions, doubts and anger towards God. A reply like “God’s ways are not our ways” is only helpful to the person posed the question as it allows them off the hook from engaging with the person in their pain, in their sense of injustice. In their doubt.

We can wipe our hands clean, without actually entering into dialogue or sitting with someone who is dealing with a new world framed by tragedy.

It is actually in those times if we were just to allow ourselves to be with the person and accept their questions and doubts, that God can actually reveal Himself.

Even Jesus before He was killed had questions about why He needed to suffer. He, just like us, “didn’t get it”. He actually asked God if there could be another way other than what was planned. Yet, even in that place of despair and anguish, He was obedient.

Perhaps this is why we give such glib answers when confronted with others pain. If Jesus was obedient then we should just accept what happens to us too. Yet, the very real fears that Jesus held aren’t something we can just ignore. They are actually the way that we can bring our doubts to God honestly without fear of being rejected. We may not understand why this is happening, but we can understand at least in a purely theoretical way if not practically at first, that Jesus “gets it”.

After all, He had the same questions as we do. So we can be confident that our doubts are legitimate. Our pain is real and it is recognized. Telling someone that this is just the way things are, leaves us further from God.

But on the cross Jesus, grew closer to God. He understood that in some strange way, this pain was not unseen. So too, we can approach God knowing our pain is seen and known. And it is not glib to God.

The point of this post is not to give you answers in the pain you are deeply hurting by right now. I can’t and I may never be able to.

What I and we all can do hopefully though, is allow each other the love to deeply feel those pains. To be fully human. To not fob each other off with answers that simply exist to cause more hurt.

Much of this type of discussion is built around ideas of justice. When things happen to us that don’t seem fair we question how God can be just. Yet the very same people that tell us that God’s ways of justice are not the same as ours, will become defensive when we suggest that everyone may have a chance to be redeemed. Our views of justice tell us that people who do wrong need to be punished. That God can’t face sin and He needs to reject everything that causes sin. But what if God’s view is that those people need to be loved more than anything. Yes, that may mean that they are prevented from acting in evil ways again, but it does not mean we reject them fully.

Take predestination which I previously mentioned. The basic idea that God has ordained that only certain people, the “elect”, will be saved and everyone else will spend eternity in Hell. There are other slight variations on this but at the core is this belief. Yet, how does this idea of God fit into all the accounts of God and Jesus where They show incredible love for people.

At this point, the answer of “God’s ways…” answers it for us. We can ignore all the logical problems that predestination causes because we can’t know. Perhaps, we can’t but is there a chance that the way we have thought about this could be wrong? God is God but He was also fully human which means to ignore the very real human problems we have with such ideas, is to ignore some of the character of God.

Maybe, it is actually to these traditional points of view of predestination or God’s eternal justice, where we need to say “God’s ways are not our ways”.

We have it all figured out on who is in and who is out.

But maybe,

“God’s ways are not our ways”

We experience pain, we experience things that don’t make sense. Yet the point of Isaiah 55 is not that we should just suck it up, but that there is peace even in the pain. Often, we can’t see around it but God is offering us peace. Not just on the other side of suffering or doubt (if there is in fact ever another side sometimes) but in the middle of it.

If you are someone that thinks that those answers that leave us cold, are not the end, then this is good news. It’s good news because you have seen who God is. You are seeing God as Jesus, who understood doubt and pain more than anyone.

You are invited to open yourself to those questions. It will be painful and difficult. Occassionally, it will not make sense. Yet you will not be alone. You will be understood. God’s love is far bigger and wider than certain beliefs we hold onto. It is more welcoming and full of grace than we give God credit for.

Which is great news for everyone,

Because God’s ways are not our ways.