Friday, July 10, 2015

Progressive Christianity: God's Potent Love

Rachel begins her last chapter, 'Living the Questions' with a very touching story.

Once, when I was small, my eczema flared up so badly that I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned in my bed for hours, frantically scratching my arms and legs until they bled onto the sheets. Every hour or so, I called for my mother or father, who rotated the task of lathering my body with lotion and putting fresh, cool socks over my hands. Sometimes they prayed with me. Sometimes they held me or stroked my hair as I cried into my pillow.
        At some point in the night, just as my father was about to leave me after another rotation, I asked him why God let this happen to me, why God didn’t make my eczema go away. I remember that he stood by my bedroom door, where the soft glow of my nightlight illuminated his face and the lines on his forehead. I remember that he had tears in his eyes.
        “I don’t know,” he said, after clearing his throat. “But I know that he loves you.”
        He turned away, gently closed the door, and I listened to his slow, heavy footsteps trigger creaks in the floorboards all the way to the living room. My father, who had committed his life to Christian education, who could read the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek, who had a shelf full of commentaries and a wall full of diplomas, who delivered beautiful sermons and wrote eloquent papers, didn’t know.
        At first I was angry; then I was fearful. But as I lay in the dark, scratching and crying and praying, I realized that no other answer would have been right. No other answer could do justice to the question. Twenty years later, I’m convinced it is the most important thing my father ever told me.

There is so much good reflected in what happened here. First, there is the example of good parents who cared about their daughter. I know that this should be a given, but to an increasing measure it is no longer. Then, there is Rachel's question about why God was letting her suffer with the eczema. That's the right question to ask. It reflects training (by her parents) to think in terms of what God is doing. Again, for Christians, that should be a given. However … Then, there is her father's response. It's not just the words, though they are important. He is concerned for his daughter and her suffering, and he lets her see that in his tears. Without this the words that follow could have been interpreted as just words. But the tears make clear that that is not the case. And then, there are the words. First, the admission of ignorance. How freeing it is to be able to say, 'I don't know'. Or at least, coming to the point of being able to say that was freeing for me. And then, those final words: 'But I know that he loves you.' This is her father's expression of faith which he wants his daughter to imitate. 'Hold on to the love of God.' I can understand why this stands out as a precious memory for Rachel. There is something of beauty here.

I hesitate to comment further on this. It really is beautiful. But I think that taking just one more step would have added so much for Rachel's benefit at that moment and for the rest of her life.

The notion that God loves us is simply astounding. And the amazement only increases as we discover again and again how we by no means deserve His love. Clinging to that love makes life work. But the way that that Rachel's father expressed it could lead someone to think that God's love is powerless. 'Oh yes, He loves me, but He can't help me right now. He can't actually do anything about my situation.' And that makes love mere sentiment. So, God really likes us, but He has no ability to bring about any change. That means that we are at the mercy of whatever it is that brings evil into our lives, whether eczema or worse.

As I read the Bible I have to conclude that God's love is more than mere sentiment. God's love is strong. It is powerful. It does bring about change. So, I think that it would have been that much better if Rachel's dad had also said, 'And because of His love, He is doing something in this that will bring about much good.'

Now how could he have said that? There is evil in this situation - and in so many other situations. How can good be associated with evil? I don't know how God does it, but He uses evil to bring about good. There are many examples of that in the Bible, but the best example is the cross.

Does anyone doubt that what Jesus suffered on that Friday was evil? And why was He there, suffering that evil? Because the Father wanted Him to. Time and again, Jesus talks about the Father as 'the one who sent Me', a sending that climaxed at the cross. And in the Garden of Gethsemane, what was Jesus wrestling with? 'Are you sure that You want Me to go to the cross?' The Father wants Him to go because it is through the cross that we will be rescued. He is going to use the awful evil of that day to bring about amazing good.

And that is what we need to tell ourselves and each other as we have to deal with evil. 'God will use this for good.'

And we know that for those who love God all things [including evil] work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28

The good that comes from the evil we suffer is for the sake of other around us as well as for ourselves. Enduring evil in this way is an act of love. And again, Jesus' suffering is the example.

Now, why is this important? It gives hope. Be careful here. Hope is not just wishful thinking. To hope is simply to wait for God to keep a promise that He has given us. It is His promise to use our experiences of evil to bring about much good. Hoping is simply waiting for that to happen. And that means that our suffering the evils of this world has a purpose. It is part of God's plan to bring about good in this world. And knowing that helps us to endure it.

So, when some evil has just hit we might wonder what God is doing. We might have to admit that we don't exactly know what He's up to. But we can cling to the certainty of His powerful love that is using that evil to bring about good - for others and ourselves - in some wise way.

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