Fickle Fairyland Faith

christian-magic_00412404I won’t share the convoluted audit trail that leads to this post, but a series of unrelated incidents all point me back to this particular story.  When I was in Nashville, I related to a young, well-meaning Christian who went from ultra-committed and ultra-pious to uber-atheist in the blink of an eye.  When I was going through my own divorce, he invited me to lunch to try to talk me out of it.  He patiently informed me that this was the most heinous of sins, I would never be forgiven nor forgive myself, that I was tempting God and risking eternal damnation.  I honestly believe he was doing this from a deep well of concern and a weird form of kindness.  He held a very clear and simple vision of Christian faith — do what is right and God will bless you; do what is wrong, and watch out!

It was not a full six months later that we sat together in reversed roles.  He and his wife lost two children in a very short period of time — one to illness, one to depression and suicide — and the strain was too much for their marriage.  They were engaged in a sad separation on their way to divorce.  My young friend spat out his anger and frustration: “The IS NO God.  If there were a loving God, He wouldn’t be doing this to me!”  I tried to temper his responses, but it was no good.  He was through with God, because God wasn’t treating him fairly.  His life, when placid, calm and stable meant God was blessing him.  His life turned upside down and filled with tragedy, pain and suffering meant there could be no God.  There was nothing I could say that he wanted to hear.  His myth of the fairyland called “faith” had been destroyed.

Faith as commodity exchange or a Skinnerian psychology experiment has never made sense to me.  Cries of “why is God doing this to me?” or “why does God allow this to happen,” simply make me feel like the people uttering such feelings haven’t really been paying attention (and they have certainly never read and reflected on the Book of Job…).  Certainly, we have always witnessed a simplistic and less mature faith of direct intercession, meddling and manipulation on the part of a slightly sinister grandpa-God in the sky, but that is caricature not Creator.  It is part of the human reality that the human brain attempts to simplify complexity in order to make things easier to understand and accept, but reducing God to a divine entity responding to each and every whim of the human race is nothing more than ignorant hubris.  It says much more about us that it does about God.

But before I get too carried away with “what everybody knows or should know” let me pull it back to what I believe and have experienced.  A deep and mature faith, in my experience, does not allow the believer to invoke magic powers and miraculous results, but gives the believer inner conviction and strength.  The prayers of those with a deep faith are less about having God perform to their satisfaction and more about preparing and equipping them to deal with whatever might come.  It isn’t that God magically removes the negative from their lives, but that they develop a faith-based worldview that allows them to rise above everything they face.  I have known people “miraculously” healed of cancer, and I have known deeply faithful and faith-filled people who died from cancer.  For me, the true miracle are those I have known with cancer who died with grace and acceptance, who witnessed to the real power of faith in the face of adversity.

I listened to a conversation in the next booth of a diner that made me both smile and feel a bit bad.  Two women were chatting, and one mentioned that she felt very guilty because she has been praying for rain to end our drought, and now we were having flooding and more rain is on the way.  Her friend told her that she should be more careful, and she asked if her friend had been very specific about how much rain she wanted.  The first woman burst into tears and confessed that, no, she just prayed for rain every day, and now she was afraid that she was responsible for terrible problems.  Her friend was at a loss for words, then said, “Well, maybe we should pray for the rain to stop.”  Quickly, the first woman responded, “But how will we know it won’t make things worse?”

These two women believe in the power of prayer, but it is a stunted and immature belief.  Prayer is a holy work-order, delivered from the lips of the believer to the ear of God — with a sense that God is a severe literalist, never employing common sense but acting like the magic in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, delivering much more of what is asked for than is healthy.  What kind of God would do this?  Does God keep a running tally sheet of all those who pray for rain versus those who pray for clear skies, granting the wish of the majority?  Does God really wait to hear the prayers of some in the path of a tornado in order to know the very best place to turn it to smite the sinners?

So many people base their faith or lack of same on how well God does what they tell them.  “God let my wife die, therefore there is no God.”  “There is so much suffering in the world, that proves there is no God.”  “If there were a God, the world would be a more loving place.”  “If you really loved me you’d let me eat candy for breakfast.”  Oh, no, that last one is a petulant 3 year old…

We live in a world that I believe God created.  In this creation are many marvelous things.  The natural order and all the governing laws of nature are phenomenal.  The complexity and intricacy of the created order is astounding.  And for it all to exist, some of it is fragile, and some of it is dangerous, and some of it is corrupted, and some of it can be easily manipulated to turn good into evil.  The creative potential of the human mind is not value neutral — some intentionally use what they have been given for good, some for bad.  Some choose to heal, some choose to injure.  There are some who see others and would never, under any circumstances, seek to do them harm.  There are still others who will take their creativity to make a bomb, and if they cannot make a bomb, they will buy a gun, and if they cannot get a gun, they will find a knife, a stick, a rock, or they will simply turn their own hands into a weapon.  Some exist to create; others to destroy.  Faith doesn’t change this.  Belief in God doesn’t make any of this less true.  What an authentic faith provides is a way to navigate the good and the bad, the holy and the evil, the positive and the negative.  It internalizes the Spirit so that we become less reactive.  We are able to stand firm and believe no matter what happens around us.  The ground of our faith allows us to NOT be tossed too and fro by the vagaries and chaos, but instead to stay strong.  Bad things will happen in life, even to the best among us.  Thanks be to God for a faith that immunizes us and allows us ultimately to proclaim “Thanks be to God.”

14 replies

  1. Kenda Creasy Dean (drawing on earlier work by others) refers to the image of God as heavenly butler or chambermaid. Sounds like you are running into that same thing.

    I notice you put quote marks around “miraculously” cured cancer. Is that an expression of humility that we don’t know if God cured the person or is it a discounting of the notion that God could or might?

    Does mature faith include room for the miraculous?

    • My quotes around “miraculously” is not to invalidate miracles, but to call the question on what many want to call “miraculous.” On one level, all of life is miraculous and the fact that we can function intelligently defies every measure of probability. Each sunrise in a miracle, as is each sunset, and everything on either side. Yet, usually people speak of miracle as that which defies the one in a billion odds. I listened to a man talk about it being a “miracle” that he wasn’t killed in the Boston Marathon bombing. Really? What does this say about people who were killed or maimed. Is it any less miraculous that some got killed? The odds of being injured by a bomb in the United States are incredible. In the Middle East, where bombs are exploded almost daily — there it is a miracle not to be blown up. No, my argument is that the arbitrary and irrational way we define miracles makes true miracles cheap and insipid. Speaking purely personally, the fact that I have broken my back, broken my leg/ankle twice, had a massive heart attack means I am a normal person living a normal life. It is not a miracle that I am still alive, and it would have been no more miracluous if I had emerged from any of the above maladies unscathed. The miracle is that I have a relationship with a Savior that helps me not to blame God for the bad that befalls me, nor to expect that God will exempt me from the same natural laws that govern us all just because I say the right prayer at the right moment. I simply will never believe that God bestows miracles on some while withholding them arbitrarily. What kind of God would do that?

      • Thanks for expanding on your thinking, Dan. I appreciate it. I do want to ask a bit more about your last couple sentences.

        I simply will never believe that God bestows miracles on some while withholding them arbitrarily. What kind of God would do that?

        The word “arbitrarily” describes our experience, not God’s motives, doesn’t it? Wasn’t it Jesus who pointed out to the people that only one widow was fed during the famine of Elijah’s day and only Naaman was cured when many others in Israel suffered.

        We wouldn’t call these things arbitrary would we?

        I’m not persuaded that the irregularity of miracles invalidates them.

        On a closing note, I pray I am spared the normal life you have lived (broken back and all). Stay well.

      • I use the word arbitrary to mean “subject to whim or discretion.” So, any miracle that is an intentional act of God is arbitrary. I do not claim to know the mind of God, but I do not hold a vision of God as divine tinkerer. The whole history of works-righteousness is based upon the idea that through our efforts we can get God to do for us what we want God to. I shudder every time I remember Pat Robertson taking credit for turning the hurricane away from Virginia Beach by his prayers and the prayers of all his viewers. To believe that I can save myself by having God send a storm to kill and injure others and destroy their property is the most heinous perversion of faith I can think of. Throughout history, faithful people have prayed that others might be punished or drop dead — and “miraculously” they did. Miracles happen, no question, but I believe that the miraculous is part of the natural order, that probability indicates that there will always be those things that defy the odds. This, in my belief, is God’s will, God’s plan, God’s design. But the idea that God will intercede on the behalf of one but not another? That goes beyond not knowing the mind of God. That is a primitive and premodern magic-mythic worldview that creates more problems than it solves and raises more questions than it answers (and is why the secular and scientific communities look down on the “religious”). I have known dozens of faithful Christians afflicted with life-threatening or terminal diseases. I know of two who experienced complete and total cures who credit God with the miracle and their faith and prayers as the cause. I also know one of the cruelest and spiteful women I have ever met who also experienced a “miraculous” recovery (who gets violent if anyone suggests God had anything to do with it). Did God cure the woman who didn’t ask for it, and by most accounts doesn’t deserve it? If faith and prayer are so powerful to combat illness and death, why are the results so spotty? I remember in my first church a young couple had a baby with a terminal condition. A well-meaning, wrong-thinking woman took them under her wing and told them that if they prayed hard enough, and truly believed in God, their baby would be healed. When the baby died, the young couple was devastated and for years they suffered under the guilt that their baby died because they had doubted, hadn’t believed hard enough, hadn’t prayed correctly. These are the fruits of a simplistic belief in miracles and ascribing directly to God that which occasionally happens. I am not sure we are discerning enough to KNOW what is miraculous and what is random and rare… I’m not persuaded that because a human being calls something a miracle, that validates it.

  2. A good post, Dan. Every “mature” Christian ought to have this understanding of the nature of God and the nature of life. Whether it’s a fairyland god, a fantasy land god, a balance scale god (more good than bad means I’m ok) or a Santa Claus god, it seems that the bulk of people’s expectation of God is that it’s all about them. It’s similar to the concept of fairness; as in it’s unfair in life if I don’t get what I want or think I deserve. I used to tell my basketball players, “as soon as you understand that life’s not fair, you will be much happier.”

    • Rebekah, my point here is that most people begin their faith journey with a concept of God “out there/up there” and that Christian scripture leads to an understanding of affective union — Christ in us, we are in Christ, by God’s Spirit we are tranformed into a mystic communion, the incarnate Body of Christ. So many people look for Christ to serve them and for God to do what they want God to that they miss having become “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in service to all the world.” Through a maturing of faith, we move from served to servant, from follower to leader, from student to teacher, from receiver to giver. Faith in God simply isn’t all about us — it is about God’s will and living from the divine center so that what seem massive and tragic from a worldly point of view loses all negative power from a spiritual perspective. Death is not evil or to be feared. Death simply is part of life. Pain can be overwhelming in the moment, but in the grand scheme of things — even the span of a single lifetime, it is relatively insignificant. I’ve known people who suffer chronic, debilitating pain — with some, it is all they can focus on and talk about; with others you can barely tell. Some allow the pain to define them, while others define themselves by their faith. When we embrace God’s Spirit within, the second option is much easier and our lives are much better.

  3. You have said this so very well, Dan, as you do so often. I thank God every day that I am not treated fairly, that God does not dole out what I deserve, but instead in grace gives me one more day of breath and sunshine and love of people whom I failed before and will fail again. We pray at dinner each night, “may the love and grace you have poured down on us slow through the lives we live to reach others.” It’s all a gift and thankfully, we don’t get what we deserve.

  4. Thank you. I am in the midst of a time of suffering and pain, and these words echo my heart: this is not because God is “bad” but this is what it is, and I get to discover in this the depth of character that has been shaped by faithfulness to God.

    • Christy, I’m sorry to hear that you’re going through suffering now. I pray that you will know the solace of God’s presence with you in the midst of the pain.

  5. “For me, the true miracle are those I have known with cancer who died with grace and acceptance, who witnessed to the real power of faith in the face of adversity.” I know what you mean. This is a good piece of writing about maturity and discipline in our faith lives. Thanks.

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