Wednesday, April 25, 2012

"To Be Fair"... About Rob Bell and Universalism

Inside my copy of Love Wins is a page I ripped out and kept from the January 2012 Christianity Today. It recounts the "Top 10 News Stories of 2011." At the very top--in other words, at #1--I see a picture of Rob Bell (that very picture is now to your right). The description begins, "Rob Bell tries to legitimize universalism...."

As I've gone deeper with Rob Bell's Love Wins, I realize that it's easier to be misunderstood... or frankly mislabeled. I've now read at least Love Wins three or four times, and despite the assertion of CT, I cannot conclude that Bell is a universalist. In fact, he even denies being a universalist. (See In the Love Wins Companion, which Bell co-edited, it confirms that he "teaches that hell is real, both in this life and in the life after death" (47).

In fact, in Love Wins, he writes this,

If we want hell,

if we want heaven,
they are ours.
That's how love works. It can't be forced, manipulated, or coerced.
It always leaves room for the other to decide.
God says yes,
we can have what we want,
because love wins.
To be honest, I'm not getting this assertion that Bell is a universalist.

I'm not denying that Bell is a bit slippery in his language, and even seems to enjoy being a provocateur. Nonetheless, I have difficulty with his critics, who don't seem to constrain their ire by anything like rules of fair play. Consider this quote from Erasing Hell by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle: "Bell suggests that every single person will embrace Jesus--in not in this life, then certainly in the next" (24). The authors then cite Bell describing universalism as if it's his position. A straight-forward reading, they assert, is that Bell is a universalist. And yet, Chan and Sprinkle add a surprisingly significant concession in an endnote. It states, 
To be fair, he is not explicitly arguing for this position but listing it as a valid view that would help explain a lot of the tension that we feel when thinking about the hard realities of hell. (Erasing Hell, 40, n. 5; italics mine).
They then assert that Bell "implies" that the universalist position is better. For that reason, they can conclude it's his position. 

My jaw drops just a bit here. Those words "To be fair" disturb me, especially when they come from Christians. What is fair about quoting someone with you you disagree in a way that's, in the vernacular, "damning"? Why stick the actual fact in an endnote (which people tend to read even less than footnotes)? I'm confused about the fairness of this whole affair.

The sad thing is in many ways, I have some respect Chan. We've used his Crazy Love in our college group. I've shown YouTube videos. He's a powerful communicator with challenging insights. Erasing Hell makes some great points. But now, at least a modicum of doubt has slipped in when I read him. Put simply, what he wrote doesn't make me doubt Bell as much as it makes me doubt Chan.

To repeat: Though Bell's a bit slippery, I cannot find the texts that make him a universalist. If one wants to disagree with universalism, that's fine. In fact I do. But misquoting is something that hardly seems "fair." 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Bell and Lewis

Bell, being provocative
Something struck me today as I was lounging by the pool after a four-hour bike ride. (I mention the bike ride because the fatigue may have affected my clarity of thought.) In Love Wins, Rob Bell builds his apologetic (if that's what he's doing) as follows: "Hey, world, look at how silly and judgmental the church can be. You don't need to believe that.C.S. Lewis in contrast worked a different apologetic: "Hey, world, your views don't make nearly as much as sense as Christianity. You'd be wise to abandon disbelief." 

Lewis, speaking wisely
All of this as a result of a series of questions at Wednesday night class on Love Wins: "What's the difference between C. S. Lewis's and Rob Bell's take on heaven and hell?" Answer: in some ways not much. At least when Bell's at his best, he's leaning on Lewis. "Then why is Bell called a heretic and Lewis not?" Answer: Lewis is wiser and generally better at what he does. But even more, if Lewis was out to offend anyone, it was atheists. He didn't want to inflame divisions about Christian believers. Bell seems to be content with provoking overly conservative Christians. And that will definitely get you the "heresy" label.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Getting it Wright: On Rob Bell & Heaven

NT Wright, possibly talking about "heaven"
As I’m preparing the lead my Wednesday night class on Rob Bell’s Love Wins, here’s what makes me thrilled and what makes me uncomfortable about Bell. (To your left is not Rob Bell, but N. T. Wright, who will appear again at the end of this post.)

The tough part first… 

Bell writes in The Love Wins Companion, that, "when Jesus talked about heaven, he mostly talked about a dimension, a way of living, the accessibility of the life of God, right here, right now, in this world."

To channel Bell (actually, his style, if you don’t know it, goes something like this):  A dimension? Which one? The Fifth Dimension? They stopped recording music decades ago. Is that the eleventh dimension in physicist Brian Greene’s string theory? I thought that was inaccessible to us four-dimensional creatures. (Sorry that was fun... Sometimes his style is just a bit grating.)

But, more seriously, how about “mostly”? Is that really so? Did Jesus really talk “mostly” about “right here, right now” with “heaven”? Let’s just take one example from the Sermon on the Mount. What about the words of judgment in Matthew 7:21, 
Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.
And says in the next sentence, “On that day…” That day sure doesn’t sound like this day. It seems like something in the future.

OK, that’s eating broccoli before dessert, as it were…

But what about the good parts of Love Wins? And there are several. Yes, when Jesus teaches the disciples to pray “Thy will be done/on earth as it is in heaven,” we are asking for what God wants here to become realized now. It is “the life of God, right here, right now, in this world.” We are doing what U2's Bono rightly says. "Our purpose is to bring heaven to earth in the micro as well as the macro"

Put another way, when Bell is right when he’s properly taking in Wright--by which I mean the insights of the New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright, who wrote about the life of heaven in light of Easter: 
Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.
So heaven is both the now and the later. We can’t forget either side of that dialectic.
What do you think?

(And, if you want to see what I conclude about heaven and hell, see this blog post.)

Friday, April 13, 2012

C. S. Lewis: Three (More) Purposes for Suffering

(Note: This is the final installment of my chapter on "C. S. Lewis and the Purpose of Suffering." Let me know what you think.)
Suffering can lead us to humility
Another way that God gets our attention through pain is that we become humbled and less self-sufficient. No longer is everything going right because of our own efforts. And we come to a place where we can find contentment in God. Lewis helps us understand why this is important to God:
We must not think Pride is something God forbids because He is offended at it, or that Humility is something He demands as due to his own dignity—as if God Himself was proud… He wants you to know Him: wants to give you Himself. And He and you are two things of such a kind that if you really get into any kind of touch with Him you will, in fact, be humble—delightfully humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life.[1]
The reality of humility sounds like a pyrrhic victory to the skeptic: “If that’s the remedy for human rebellion, then what kind of God is this?” The point is not this terrible remedy, but how much more pernicious our pride and self-centeredness are. When I go to the dermatologist and she deadens pre-cancerous spots on my skin by spraying liquid nitrogen, which—if it’s not obvious—causes a stinging pain. I don’t respond with, “What kind of sadistic doctor are you?” But “Skin cancer is much worse. I’ll go through this if I have to.” The recompense for pain is truly freeing self-forgetful humility. This only makes sense if God, and relationship with that God, is truly the greatest good.

            Suffering breaks down our idea of God
            One of the great and painful discoveries that Lewis makes in suffering is that God is the great “iconoclast” who breaks down our overly simplistic images. We would like to believe God wants our constant pleasure, what a friend of mine once called a world of “bubbles and kittens.” As Lewis writes after the death of his wife, Joy:

My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins. And most are ‘offended’ by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not.[2]

Suffering is never something that human beings look forward to. As Lewis phrased it succinctly in The Problem of Pain, “Pain hurts.”[3] And Lewis, in his searing Grief Observed even called God the “divine Sadist” for the pain he suffered. We do not naturally seek it. Nonetheless, the resources Lewis offers can give us some strength when we go through times of suffering and pain.

            Suffering can lead us to hope
            This following paragraph makes the best sense of why we suffer, why this world is not ultimately satisfying, and why these two things point to our hope in a new world. The new world is indeed a fulfillment of this world, which means there is continuity and discontinuity—continuity, we will understand the experiences, but discontinuity, the new world will not have the decay and death that is implicit in our experience. The final book of the Bible, Revelation states that most clearly:

See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away. (Revelation 21:1-3)

For human happiness, we need to grasp that that the world is fallen and flawed. Putting hope in this world is therefore bound to disappoint. Put hope in the fulfillment of creation for which Lewis employs “heaven” as shorthand, allows us to properly enjoy our current experience. “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”[4]

            This is an excerpt that ranks as one of the finest in Lewis’s writing, a blend of spiritual insight and philosophical-theological reflection. Notice below how he returns to the loss of “settled happiness” he experienced first when his mother died. These are not abstruse reflections—they have been forged in the fires of experience.

The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.[5]

Lewis desired “joy” (an intense longing that this world cannot fulfill) throughout his life. It is part of his apologetic for God. (If we desire something this world cannot fulfill, then that indicates we aren’t made for this world.) In his autobiography Surprised by Joy, when he discovered that no source in the world satisfied this desire, he ultimately came to faith in God by realizing that this world is not our home and that joy can only be realized fully in heaven. This final reflection brings us to the fulfillment of the story of God’s creation.

            As I type this chapter, a good friend is going through a three-year bout with cancer and thus the rigorous hazing of chemotherapy. He wrote in a recent Facebook post, citing Lewis, “'We shall be true persons when we have suffered ourselves to be fitted into our places. We are marble waiting to be shaped.'” His response? “Still being fitted, I suppose.” Lewis’s version of “why evil?”—or better, “what use is evil?”—tells us that his soul-shaping takes place now, and that is good and happens at the hand of a good God. Lewis also insists that we know that the fit will find its fulfillment in the final chapter according to Lewis’s—and may I say the Bible’s?—understanding of the suffering. It brings us to the final chapter of this book as well as the last word of the Bible.

[1] Mere Christianity, 113-14.
[2] Grief Observed, 78.
[3] The Problem of Pain, 105.
[4] Mere Christianity, 18.
[5] The Problem of Pain, 115.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

C. S Lewis on Two Purposes for Suffering

(Note: This is the next installment of my chapter on "C. S. Lewis and the Purpose of Suffering." Let me know what you think.)

Suffering can lead us to cling to God
Lewis’s favorite verse was Jesus’s cry of dereliction,[1] “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When we are in moments of hurt sometimes God seems to have abandoned us. The promises of God’s companionship can see distant, or even non-existent. And here Lewis does not play the card that “God suffers with us” (which is a popular theological today). He faces the brutal reality of these moments and says they are hellish. Nonetheless, when we turn to God in those moments—as Christ did—we realize a central purpose for suffering, and God deepens our relationship with him. Notice in this citation the allusion to Jesus on the cross. This reflection is not mere monotheism, but it is Christ-centered. And, according the Lewis, the devil shudders. As the senior tempter, Screwtape, writes to the junior devil, Wormwood, in the imagined correspondence, The Screwtape Letters.
Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.[2]
Once again we turn to Lewis’s insights on soul-making—pain, for those who see it through, trains our wills to stay fixed on God. (Or maybe I should say, suffering can train our wills, much like hill-climbing trains the biker to race more effectively and strengthens her.) Once we have learned that side of faith, we learn faithfulness in our relationship with God.

            Suffering is God’s “megaphone” to rouse us
            True faith implies full surrender to God. Sometimes the only way to get us there is through suffering. This is a tough truth, but Lewis, at least, was willing to say that we are often asleep, or at least, deadened to God’s voice. We can become complacent. So God uses pain in our lives to rouse us. (I have to concede that this sort of conclusion contrasts with much of contemporary “feel good” Christian writing and therefore I trust it.) Lewis estimates that our desire for self-will is an intoxicating addiction: “The human spirit will not even try to surrender self-will as long as all seems to be well with it….” And he knows that, if we are satisfied with our lives, we will take whatever gift comes our way—whether food, or wealth, or sex, or good fortune—and forget the Giver. “But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[3]

            Lewis is frank and admits that this “megaphone” may turn us to God. It might also turn us away: “No doubt Pain as God’s megaphone is a terrible instrument; it may lead us to final and unrepented rebellion.”[4] Pain is no guarantee; it may cause considerable growth in faith or its abandonment. I am thinking of the various pastoral conversations I’ve had where the disappointment with God turns the former believer away. One of the most poignant, contemporary examples is the New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, who describes his own story of leaving the faith while he served as a pastor of Princeton Baptist Church. He simply could not come to terms with the existence of God and the reality of pain:
I finally admitted defeat, came to realize that I could no longer believe in the God on my tradition, and acknowledged that I was an agnostic: I don’t “know” if there is a God; but I think that there is one, he certainly isn’t the one proclaimed by the Judeo-Christian tradition, the on who is actively and powerfully involved in this world. And so I stopped going to church.[5]
Ehrman has created a bit of a cottage industry, writing books about his disappointment with God and his disdain for the mistakes in the Bible and the authors that penned them. He stands as a brilliant exponent of the way that God’s megaphone can simply make some go deaf.

            But not all do. And my encounters with people of faith demonstrate that right in the midst of suffering, many find God, that God’s “megaphone” of pain can slow down in order to find God because so often we rush on with life and give little heed to God, who is the Source of life itself. There is nothing like a physical injury or an emotional wound to bring the pace of life to a crawl.

            The need to slow down is fundamental to our return to God. When I looked back over my life as I was writing Say Yes to No—on the importance of nos, as well as yeses, in finding happiness—I realized that I couldn’t go forward simply by pressing on faster. Instead I needed “to turn around” and slow down. To frame the book properly, I began with this insight from Lewis,
We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.
            Progress is the result of “turning around” around fast. Helpful here is the New Testament Greek word for repentance, which means “to turn around.” Sometimes we need to slow down and get on the right track. Sometimes suffering does just that.

[1] Cf. Michael Ward, Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, 210.
[2] The Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast (New Jersey: Barbour, 1961), 47.
[3] The Problem of Pain, 93.
[4] The Problem of Pain, 95.
[5] Bart Ehrman, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer (HarperOne, 2008), 4.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Life after Resurrection: C. S. Lewis and the Purpose of Suffering

As I've written in previous posts, I'm working on a book, C. S. Lewis in Crisis. In the next few installments, I'm sending my current draft on Lewis and Suffering. Let me know what you think.

In November 1908, the nine year-old “Jack” Lewis experienced the first major crisis of his life. His beloved mother “Flora” (or Florence) died of cancer. His later autobiographical reflections reveal the depth of his suffering.

With my mother's death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of joy; but no more of the old security. It was sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis.[1]
           Though the young Jack was conventionally religious and a member of a Church of Ireland family, this trauma would lead him gradually to atheism. As he describes it, the path to unbelief began with prayer. He asked God for something very specific for his mother (as he later wrote in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy), “When her case was pronounced hopeless I remembered what I had been taught; that prayers offered in faith would be granted.” Despite these prayers, on August 23, his mother died. “The thing hadn’t worked, but I was used to things not working….”[2] God—it appeared to this young brilliant boy—was irrelevant to the crisis of suffering in life. If irrelevant to suffering, then God probably did not exist.

In less than one month after his wife’s death, Lewis’s distraught father sent him and his brother to a series of boarding schools. He arrived at the first of these, Wynyrd School in Watford, Hertfordshire, in 1908 just after his mother's death from cancer. Lewis' brother had enrolled there three years previously. Because of a lack of students, Wynyrd was closed not long afterwards. There Lewis was under the thumb of a sadistic headmaster, who was shortly thereafter committed to a psychiatric hospital. Later in life, Lewis summarized his experience at these schools in a letter to a child who wrote him about his Narnia tales, “I was a three schools (all boarding schools) of which two were very horrible. I never hated anything so much, not even the front line trenches in World War I. Indeed the story is far too horrid to tell anyone of your age”[3] That is quite a comparison and perhaps the reason that Lewis invested three chapters in Surprised by Joy, with his experiences in boarding school.

As noted in above, Lewis served in World War One, having enlisted, and returned home wounded in April 1918. Jack’s later the war wasn’t free from suffering and pain, to be sure, but the crises were significantly abated by the time he took up the request by Ashley Sampson to write a book on suffering in a series of popular theology called Christian Challenge. Lewis had learned a great deal after his bombastic and heavy-handed Pilgrim’s Regress, which appeared seven years earlier in 1933. The Problem of Pain is really his first apologetic work and demonstrates a lighter touch, part of which is Lewis’s honesty and humility. Lewis writes that he could not begin the book without writing a disclaimer: “If any man is safe from the danger of under-estimating this adversary [of serious pain], I am that man.”[4]

            The experience of a mother dying of cancer with two young boys hit him again in 1956 when he met Joy Davidman, an American divorcĂ©e, who was also mother or two young sons and who shortly was diagnosed with cancer. Undoubtedly, he saw his own life being replayed. There was, however, more about Joy: Lewis respected her mind and, for her part, she devoured and cherished his writings. He felt the crisis imminent enough that he married her first in a civil ceremony (and told few of his friends) simply in order for Joy not to be deported. Gradually, they fell in love, and he was married by her hospital bed in a Christian ceremony. After a prayer for healing by an Anglican priest, Peter Bide, she recovered briefly, and they enjoyed a honeymoon, including a trip to Greece (Lewis had only traveled between Ireland and Oxford to that point), but within eighteen months she succumbed to bone cancer. She died on July 13, 1960. In response, he wrote the piercingly honest reflection on this trauma, A Grief Observed. This book displayed what he wrote twenty years earlier (about not underestimating pain) because here Lewis expresses a profound doubt in the face of this emotional pain.

            The resolution of these crises—and the wider concern about why there is suffering—demonstrate why his writings still speak today—five decades after his death. Lewis did not write these as detached speculation but as resolutions to his own traumas. They are also resources for us, to help us through our crises of faith and doubt. They have been forged in fires of crisis. That fact makes their wisdom durable.

            In fact, this is the question I hear most often in my pastoral work, the problem of pain and suffering: the parents who son has turned away from Christian faith, the young dad diagnosed with cancer, the wife who’s husband left one day for no apparent reason. I talked recently with a mother whose son was going through a difficult experience, and yet an experience that seemed to bring his son, after some years of meandering, back to God. She appreciated Lewis’s insights into the purpose of pain, which she found in my blog posts, because Lewis made sense of why God might use suffering to help her son come to know God. Lewis’s were tough, but true words. Or to use Lewis’s own phrase—which he wrote to a student Sheldon Vanauken at the death of his wife—they were a “severe mercy.”

            In fact, Vanauken offers a beautiful eulogy to Lewis’s companionship in suffering:
C. S. Lewis was to be the friend in my loss and grief, the one hand in mine as I walked through a dark and desolate night. Other friends gave me love, and it was a fire to warm me. But Lewis was the friend I needed, the friend who would go with me down to the bedrock of meaning… he gave me not only love but wisdom and understanding and, when necessary, severity.[5]
Vanauken’s words could summarize Lewis’s companionship to his readers. He offers not only wisdom and understanding, but also severity and this fact brings me to his approach to suffering, or as he phrases it, “the problem of pain.”

            What is the problem of pain? Most of often this is phrased in a why question: Why is there pain and suffering in the world when a good and all-powerful God exists? And this is an important question, but although Lewis willing takes up the question of why, he emphasizes more vigorously the how question: How do we respond to a world of suffering? This chapter seeks to respond to series of questions: How do I make sense of the massive evil in the world and affirm that good can still exist? What to do when we suffer and simultaneously seek to believe in a good and powerful God? Is there any good to be found in a world of pain? Though spread throughout his writings, Lewis worked at these themes most directly in his early, more philosophical book, The Problem of Pain, throughout his later writings, and finally, poignantly, and personally in A Grief Observed. By the way, in these reflections below I will use pain to mean the hurts, usually physical, brought on by the world around us, and suffering to mean the particular psychological traumas that pain causes us.

            Two things to get right
            In order to grasp Lewis’s resolution to the problem of suffering, two preliminary notes are necessary: one on human suffering and God’s love, the second on human love and suffering.

            Frequently, the “problem of evil” is solved through the necessities of freedom. If human beings are given the freedom to choose God’s love or not, they can say no; they can blaspheme or simply ignore God. If they are offered the possibility of caring for others, they can also become cruel. Similarly with natural evil: the same fire that brings warmth can burn the innocent faun trapped in a forest fire. Both moral and human evil—and the pain caused—result from misusing freedom.

            I think this defense has merit; otherwise I wouldn’t have made it myself in Creation and Last Things.[6] Lewis also presents some of these arguments in his chapter on the “Fall of Man” in The Problem of Pain. And yet, it has telling failings and therefore must be incomplete. For one thing, freedom cannot be solely defined as the ability to do evil. In fact, the biblical traditions tell us that true freedom is the capacity to do the right.[7] Moreover, as Lewis himself realized—probably most poignantly in his analysis of Paradise Lost,[8] the fall of Adam was absurd at the core. By “absurd,” I mean that we cannot fully understand why a perfect human being would rebel against the good God who created him. There is unreasonableness at the heart of evil that we can never understand.

            Therefore, along freedom provides some insights into the problem of evil, this is a minor theme. Primarily, Lewis takes another tact. He reminded his readers that God’s love desires to make us better. It is our suffering that is intended to make us surrender more and more to God. In that sense, Lewis’s response to human suffering is that God uses pain to develop us. It has been called a “soul-making” approach to suffering. (Incidentally, reading his The Problem of Pain transformed my conceptions of God’s love. I have read this book repeatedly and find it one of the two or three most important theological reflection on God’s goodness I have read.)

            The first topic to get right is the nature of divine love. Here is one of the key sections, which—in order to understand the full import of his argument—needs to be cited at length:
When Christianity says that God loves man, it means that God loves man: not that He has some “disinterested,” because really indifferent, concern for our welfare, but that, in awful and surprising truth, we are the objects of His love. You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the ‘lord of terrible,’ is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work and despotic as man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes. How this should be, I do not know: it passes reason to explain why any creatures, not to say creatures such as we, should have a value so prodigious in their Creator’s eyes. It is certainly a burden of glory not only beyond our deserts but also, except in rare moments of grace, beyond our desiring….
The classic question is bringing together two statements: that an all-powerful, truly good God exists and that human beings (and the rest of creation) suffer. The resolution, Lewis offers, exists in a proper understanding of love:

The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word "love", and look on things as if man were the centre of them. Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake. ‘Thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.’ We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the divine love may rest “well pleased.”[9]
Lewis will not dwell on the abstract why question: Why does a good and powerful God allow for evil; instead he looks at how God uses suffering for a purpose—to make us better. As I mentioned above, some call this a “soul-making” approach to evil. The friend of Lewis and distinguished philosopher, Austin Farrer, made an early criticism—that this form of responding to evil banks on a certain “moralism”—not petty moralism, but one that trades on how our souls find moral development.[10] He concluded that Lewis play this card too often. Naturally Farrer has a point—all this pain cannot be simply about our moral development—in world of pain and suffering, however, the best use of evil is to help us to grow into the image of Christ. As Michael Ward, co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, notes: Lewis’s most commonly cited verse was “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”[11] The crucifixion cannot be neatly summarized as something moral—in fact, the travesty of justice that brought Jesus to the cross is profoundly immoral.[12] Only God could use the immorality of evil the develop our moral character… or as I have phrased it, our souls. Evil, in other words, is the way God can develop and transform our souls.

            Secondly, suffering is essential to human love, at least in Lewis’s definition. “Love,” Lewis wrote, “is not an affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person's ultimate good as far as it can be obtained."[13] Lewis’s definition of love opens us to suffering. And so another way to understand pain is that it is implied in the nature of love itself. When Lewis reflected on the different Greek words for love in The Four Loves, he reminds us that the nature of loving someone is that it opens us up to pain, but that the pain is worth the greater good of love. (This comes from the section on charity, or gift-love.) Lewis reminds us of both the importance, and cost, of love, and that, if we want to love, we will have pain. Formed by his loss early in life, Lewis admits he would like to avoid this conclusion.
Of all arguments against love none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as ‘Careful! This might lead to suffering."

To my nature, my temperament, yes. Not to my conscience. When I respond to that appeal I seem to myself to be a thousand miles away from Christ. If I am sure of anything I am sure that His teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities. I doubt whether there is anything in me that pleases Him less. And who could conceivably begin to love God on such prudential ground—because the security (so to speak) is better? Who could even include it among the grounds for loving?... One must be outside the world of love, of all loves, before one thus calculates….
Lewis is just getting going. He challenges the reader to play out the implications of this kind of safety. To be safe is to move in an orbit away from God.

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.
Since pain is part of loving—and since God is love—God uses pain to help us grow. God helps us to grow because God loves us. Pain therefore has several purposes. As Friedrich Nietzsche put it, “Anyone can endure the how if they know the why.” For that reason, Lewis’s reflections on suffering can offer hope and insight. They are “pastoral” even more than they are purely philosophical.

            So, how does Lewis see God using suffering for the purpose of our growth in faith? In Lewis’s writings, I have found six key purposes, but another might categorize him differently. At any rate, below are mine.

These endnotes are largely accurate, but certainly not complete.
[1] Surprised by Joy, 21, italics mine.
[2] Surprised by Joy, 24.
[3] Jacobs, 22.
[4] The Problem of Pain, 10.
[5] A Severe Mercy (New York: Bantam, 1977), 185.
[6] Creation and Last Things: At the Intersection of Theology and Science (Geneva, 2002), 64-66.
[7] See Romans 6-8, for example, and David Bentley Hart, Atheistic Delusions.
[8] A Preface to Paradise Lost.
[9] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: MacMillan, 1962), 46-48.
[10] Light on Lewis, ed. Jocelyn Gibb (Geoffrey Bles, 1965), 40.
[11] Michael Ward, “On Suffering,” The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward, eds. (Cambridge, 2010), 210.
[12] Ward, “On Suffering,” 209.
[13] Mere Christianity.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Easter Sunday: A Reflection on the Resurrection of Christ

Because I only have one entry on the Resurrection of Christ, I assembled quotes from two great theologians. The first comes from a brilliant (and sometimes overly dense) Swiss theologian, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, 
If one does away with the fact of the Resurrection, one also does away with the Cross, for both stand and fall together, and one would then have to find a new center for the whole message of the gospel.
I also had to quote something from the greatest living New Testament scholar (by my lights), N. T. Wright’s whose book on the Resurrection may be the most important new book I’ve read in the past decade: 
Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.
The resurrection completes the inauguration of God’s kingdom. . . . It is the decisive event demonstrating that God’s kingdom really has been launched on earth as it is in heaven.
The message of Easter is that God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you’re now invited to belong to it.
Today, let’s say yes to God’s invitation.

Lord, on this day of victory, I celebrate the great Good News of Jesus’s Resurrection.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Isaac Watts: Holy Saturday Lenten Reflection

When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died; 
My richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast, save in the death of Christ, my God; 
All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.
See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down. 
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown.
Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small; 
love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.

This hymn speaks for itself. I invite you to meditate on these verses.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Martin Luther: Good Friday Lenten Reflection

“Any discussion of how pain and suffering fit into God’s scheme ultimately leads back to the cross.” Philip Yancey

Martin Luther, who in many ways initiated the Protestant Reformation, offers this moving meditation on Jesus suffering. And, as we turn to remember Jesus’s crucifixion today, on Good Friday, let us remember that the cross represented a shameful, four-letter word in Latin, crux. The word signified a death reserved for political traitors and villains and never for Roman citizens. Cicero’s Orations denounced both the reality of the cross and its usage by polite Romans. Death on cross was “the most cruel and abominable form of punishment”, and the very word “should be foreign not only to the body of a Roman citizen, but to his thoughts, his eyes, his ears.” 

And now to Luther:
The whole value of the meditation of the suffering of Christ lies in this, that man should come to the knowledge of himself and sink and tremble. If you are so hardened that you do not tremble, then you have reason to tremble. Pray to God that he may soften your heart and make fruitful your meditation upon the suffering of Christ, for we ourselves are incapable of proper reflection unless God instill it. 
The greater and the more wonderful is the excellence of his love by contrast with the lowliness of his form, the hate and pain of passion. Herein we come to know both God and ourselves. His beauty is his own, and through it we learn to know him. His uncomeliness and passion are ours, and in them we know ourselves, for what he suffered in the flesh, we must suffer in the spirit. He has in truth borne our stripes. Here, then, in an unspeakably clear mirror you see yourself. You must know that through your sins you are as uncomely and mangled as you see him here. 
We ought to suffer a thousand and again a thousand times more than Christ because he is God and we are dust and ashes, yet it is the reverse. He who had a thousand and again a thousand times less need, has taken upon himself a thousand and again a thousand times more than we. 
No understanding can fathom nor tongue can express, no writing can record, but only the inward dealing can grasp what is involved in the suffering of Christ.

Reflect on what the Cross of Christ means for you.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Philip Yancey: Maundy Thursday Lenten Reflection

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:4-11

When we suffer, we sometimes wish he had more power—“If I could only the power to do x, then it would all work out better.” The contemporary writer Philip Yancey gives a new insight into the relationship between power, love, and suffering.
Power, no matter how well-intentioned, tends to cause suffering. Love, being vulnerable, absorbs it. In a point of convergence on a hill called Calvary, God renounced the one for the sake of the other.
Today is Maundy Thursday, when we remember that Jesus washed the disciples' feet. The Lord of lords came as a servant.

Father, thank you for Jesus, who didn’t come with overwhelming power, but with vulnerable grace.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Reflection for the Sixth Sunday in Lent: Suffering LIke the Son of God

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.”
2 Corinthians 1:3-4

The late 19th century Scottish writer and pastor George MacDonald wrote, 
The Son of God suffered unto death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might become like his.
The teaching of suffering in Scripture emphasizes that our suffering helps us become more compassionate toward the suffering of others, just as Jesus responded with compassion to those who suffered.

God, where am I hurting? How does meditating on Christ’s suffering help transform that pain to become like his? Help me to see what you’re working right now in my life.