THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 119
One of the things that Christians sometimes get asked is how they are able to accept all the terrible things that happen to them and to other people and still believe in a loving God. There is no doubt that the existence of such illnesses as cancer and the occurrence of such events as the Asian tsunami last year - all these serve to turn people off the idea that there is a God who loves them. I therefore make no apology for revisiting this subject.
Put simply they ask how it can be that there is a loving God who is powerful when there are such terrible events happening. They say that either God must be all powerful but not loving or he must be loving but not all powerful.
The objections are very understandable - indeed all of us have stood in that place at some time or another in our lives - or will do, even if we have not done so already! It is a place of desperate doubt. A place where we may feel forlorn and even abandoned. Sometimes a Christian will move through that dark valley, clinging to a vestige of faith. But sometimes faith seems to be extinguished and a deep desolation settles in the heart as the person gives up the idea of a loving father who is caring for them. Sometimes faith and trust are never recovered - in which case the person may very well become anti-Christian and bitter about the ‘deceptions of religion‘.
So what can be said about his problem? Is there any help that can be offered when people go through this dark experience of the soul? What is the Christian defence in these circumstances? Perhaps it is as well to note here that it would be wise for us to tackle this subject while our path is still relatively peaceful and happy. It is more difficult to come to these realities when one is in the midst of family sickness crisis, or death of a loved one.
The key to the answer is that there is no answer. That is, there is no simple, pat, easy answer. When pain and suffering and death strike the human condition one is up against a reality that simple does not yield to logic and reason. Instead one has to fall back on one’s reserves of faith and trust. It may seem like a cop-out, but the fact is that life is full of mysteries and this is one of them. There are no answers to the many questions that arise in human life. There are many questions about the Cosmos that are completely unanswerable as yet. There are mysteries about the human life that may never be answered in this life. It is perhaps an arrogance for the human being to think that every question has an answer - and an answer that he can understand.
So what then is the Christian attitude to problems of suffering and pain? I think that the answer of the Christian has to be that despite not understanding, and despite feeling that there seem to be unanswered injustices in the world (why should one person have cancer and another be healthy? And why should one person be walking on the beach when the tsunami comes and another be ten miles inland?) But the Christian does not just stop there, shaking his head in puzzlement. No - he is able to move forward and assert that despite the appearances, he trusts in a God who is loving and just and all powerful - and that therefore in God’s own way and in God’s own time a higher justice and love will prevail. It may not be in this life but we don’t believe that this life is all there is. We believe that this life, real though it is to us, is only a prelude to a much richer fuller life beyond the grave.
Having made the Christian case - as I see it - I want to think about how a Christian looks at what happens to him in this life and how he responds to what happens to him.
First of all - a Christian’s attitude to what happens to him. I find that many Christians - including myself at times - sometimes treat what happens to them as a problem. That is very natural. They groan inwardly when bad things happen. They may ask, rhetorically, why this should happen to them and at this time. They get through the problem, but it is a struggle. Life seems difficult sometimes, and they battle through with varying degrees of success. That’s life, they think. Ups and downs!
I want to suggest that there is another way of looking at what life throws at us, and one that helps us (and other people) considerably. I call this different approach Active Acceptance. It is quite simple really - it needs neither brains nor brawn!
By ‘active acceptance’ I mean that we start by accepting everything that happens as being allowed into our lives by God. After all, that must be true if we believe in an all-powerful all-knowing God. If he is in charge of the universe and if he created all things then he must have foreseen exactly what would happen in our lives. And he went ahead anyway. So we can surely agree without too much difficulty therefore that everything that happens has been allowed into our lives.
The second step in Active Acceptance is to see that our God is indeed the loving father who was shown to us by Jesus when he lived on earth as a man. If our Father loves us and wants the very best for us, and if he has allowed these things into our life, then surely we can accept them on that basis? However bad the consequences or evil the results, this removes the feeling of victimization or that we are the subject of blind malevolent chance.
So we accept from the moment we wake up in the morning that God has purposed our day for us. All the people we shall meet. The accidents we shall be involved in. The pleasures we shall have. The deep sorrows that will afflict us. All of it has been allowed into our lives by God and - even what we see as the bad bits - all of it comes from a loving God.
Is that so difficult? If we can step over that threshold we can move into a different world from the one inhabited by most folks. This calls for no acceptance of absurd or illogical belief. It is entirely consistent with the bible. It accords with the experience of the Christian saints down the ages. In fact it is so obvious that we may have to ask ourselves why we have not thought of it before!
But now comes the very important bit! This is where the word ‘active’ comes in. It is needed because of a basic human trait. We all tend to give up at times - to become more or less passive. We switch our lives from active to passive - and this is particularly noticeable in people who feel powerless against some major sickness or other event in their life. But it also applies to Christians who sometimes resign themselves to what they term ‘fate’ (or ‘God’s will’) and give up trying.
I believe that such an attitude of passivity is contrary to how a Christian should live. I believe that we always need to be looking and listening for what God wants to do in and through our lives. We all need to be active in our awareness that every moment God has a plan and purpose for us.
This does not mean that we are continuously anxious to find ‘God’s Plan’ - as if there is some master blueprint that exists somewhere in heaven and which we must try to follow. No - instead it is a gentle reliance of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. That means in our brains and our bodies. In our thoughts and our feelings. Thoughts are one point of contact between the mind of God and the mind of man. We all receive inspiring thoughts. We don’t know where they come from. The Christian believes that God is perfectly capable of transmitting his thoughts and ideas to our minds.
I must break off here to deal with the truth that we often get things wrong! Famously George Bush is reported as saying that he consulted God before he invaded Iraq. There are many thousands - millions - who would say that if he did consult God then he misheard the answer!! And then there are the extremists who flew into the World Trade Centre, completely believing that they were doing God’s will. At times we all can think we are guided by God, but actually we may be guided by our own desires, emotions, past ideas and heaven knows what! So there is no certainty of getting it right when we seek to know God’s will.
But what is the alternative? To believe that there is an invisible barrier between God and us? Is that what Jesus showed us in his lifetime here? No - we have to proceed in the belief that God can communicate with us and does guide us and lead us in the way we should go. Indeed, that he also gives us the strength to go on along the path marked out for us. We walk by the light of reason, the truth received from the bible, and from what we understand - moment by moment - God wants us to do. And when we make mistakes - mishear him - the deals with that too. In a way that is beyond our understanding he is able to weave even our worst mistakes into his purposes.
But we must never sit back and become passive. Passivity - saying that God is directing everything and therefore we do not need to stir ourselves - is anathema to a Christian. As is a wrong motive - where we do not truly want to find and obey God’s will. There is always a way forward marked out by God for us in any and every situation. We accept the situation as from God and we look for the next thing he wants us to do.
So today try accepting whatever comes in your life as from God. Every person you meet as placed in your life by God. Every obstacle encountered there to be dealt with and overcome. Every opportunity to do good given you by God to take you forward in your own pilgrimage.
And to it all add thankfulness. Thank God for everything - the good and the apparently bad. Paul says it over and over again. Be thankful in all things (Ephesians 5.20). Indeed he once said that he rejoiced in his sufferings (Colossians 3.24).
As Christians we rejoice even in affliction because we know that in some way we don’t understand it has been allowed in God’s plan and therefore has its place in his scheme of things. That’s what active acceptance means.