You can learn a lot about yourself–and about God–if you can figure out what your biggest problem with God is. What do you think is the biggest complaint of your heart–not against the church or against all the imperfect expressions of Christianity in the world (we can all find plenty of those)–but against God in particular? Mine has always been pretty simple:
God is not very straightforward.
I mentioned this in the last episode, but I want to go further into it here. Because, I feel like, in a way, I’ve spent most of my life as a Christian trying to figure out an answer to this question.
Why is God so un-straightforward sometimes? Why does he make himself so hard to find? I mean, he says, “Seek and you shall find. Knock and the door will be opened.” But whatever that might mean, it’s not obvious. Not to mention, the hardest part of that saying comes right before: “Ask and it will be given to you.” Jesus says this a number of times in a number of ways in the Gospels. And, as a kid, I just remember feeling honestly confused and discouraged by the fact that it’s in the Bible. I remember telling a friend I thought it was one of the only clearly disprovable things Jesus said. Or, if it were true, it was in a way that I couldn’t quite access, that I couldn’t quite understand.
Why say such a simple thing, if you don’t mean it in a simple way? Why not be more clear?
And you can expand my childhood frustration about prayer into all kinds of areas: “God, you say you’re the Deliverer, but I asked you to deliver me from X, and where were you? You say you’re the Protector, but why didn’t you protect so-and-so? You say you are Love, but look at the world. It’s a mess. Where are you?”
To some degree, I’m just summarizing the age-old problem of God and suffering, God and evil. How can they coexist? Maybe I would be okay with God not being obvious if…suffering and injustice and mental illness and divorce and betrayal and death weren’t so obvious and omnipresent. But they are. And yet God hides? What are we to make of that? The classic atheist argument is: You say God is all-loving and all-powerful. I say the very existence of suffering disproves that. If suffering is real and ongoing, either God is not good or God is not God.
The traditional Christian response, on the other hand, has always been to hold the two together. Yes, God is good. Yes, suffering is real. We live in the paradox. But the problem is: it doesn’t seem like this paradox is holding up very well in our modern Christian world. See, it was one thing for the ancients to say, “God is good. And suffering is real.” For them, suffering was obviously unavoidable. When the same forces of nature which feed and sustain you are also always trying to kill you and everyone you love, you learn to accept that life is complicated and paradoxical. The curse of Adam, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food,” was not a metaphor for ancient people. It was their daily reality. But it isn’t for many of us. We do not equate suffering with eating food. We just drop by the grocery store, or better yet, hit the Amazon Now button. See, to the ancients, the goodness of God was something you had to seek out. Something you had to trust in, despite the loss of half your offspring in childbirth, despite famines, wars, plagues, and wild beasts. Droughts one year and floods the next. Modern people read about Jesus calming the storm as though it were a kind of parlor trick. But for the disciples, it may have saved their lives. Most of us have no idea what that’s like–to experience any random storm as an event that could suddenly and instantly kill you…that is, to need a miracle.
Do we need miracles in the 21st Century? We make miracles every day with our technology. And unlike God, those miracles are very straightforward. What’s the word Apple uses about its products? “Intuitive.” It does what you want it to do when you want it to do it. Is God intuitive?
Maybe the reason we struggle to believe Jesus’s words, “Ask and you shall receive,” is because we already live in an “Ask-and-you-shall-receive” world. And it isn’t God we’re asking. Our everyday lives are clothed with a thousand inventions, most of which we hardly even notice because they’re so much a part of us. Our technologies protect us not only from nature and death, but from the very thought of nature, from the very thought of death. We hit buttons and things appear. We take pills and things disappear. We zap, and problems are solved. Nature is our pet. Death is a rare and outrageous intruder. If, even for a moment, things get out of control, we want to know who’s to blame. Why weren’t the flood walls ready for that Category 5 hurricane? How is it possible that COVID is still a thing? I thought we had this under control. And by this, I mean everything.
Remember when God gave Moses the power to do signs and wonders in Pharaoh’s court, and, it turned out, Pharoah’s own magicians could do many of the same things? That must have been very disconcerting for Moses. But it’s the same situation today, except much worse, because the roles are reversed. The magicians produce the signs and wonders, and we’re left wondering if God can match their tricks. Some say he can. Some still pray for the healing of the sick. But everyone goes to the doctor, even the pope. And doctors really work.
And prayer works too, for those who pray. But there’s a difference between what we expect of the doctor and what we expect of God. The doctor’s scope is narrow and precise. We might not understand how he does it, but we understand what he does…and what he cannot do. The expectations are clear. And while doctors can save us from many ailments, we can still accept a world in which both suffering and doctors exist. That world makes sense, because doctors aren’t gods (at least not yet). But can we accept a world in which both suffering and God exist? Can that world make sense? Does that God make sense? That is part of what I want to try to wrestle with here. Because, if we can embrace that mystery–and not just avoid it–we can begin to rediscover what a deep well the world of Christianity is…and how most of the time we’re just skimming off the surface.
The title of this episode is “Make Christianity Confusing Again.” (It’s partially a joke, and partially not.) I don’t actually want to make everyone more confused in every way. But hopefully you’ll see in the end what I do want. In fact, I might as well just tell you now, so I’m clear from the beginning: I want us to be more confused, so that we can see more. I want us to resist the temptation to keep skimming off the surface of Christianity, pretending that the words and ideas of our faith are obvious and straightforward. I’m not saying those ideas aren’t true. But I am saying they’re not enough. The well is deep and dark, and I want us to dive in.
Maybe it’s hard to believe in the age of science and technology, but not everything that’s obvious is good. Not everything that’s obvious is true. If God is not obvious, that doesn’t mean he’s not good, nor does it mean he’s not real. It might even mean he’s better and more real than you thought. Better and more real than the obvious things. It’s hard to see God. But maybe there’s a reason for that. The question is: will we stay–will we trust–long enough to see what it is. “There is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed,” Jesus said in Luke 8, “and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.” (Luke 8:17) What we find in the Bible over and over again is that mysteries were made to be uncovered. But you basically never get to see the whole thing at once. Think about the very first mystery, in Eden: Why not eat of the tree in the middle of the garden? He gives no explanation, which is quite annoying to the modern reader, who already knows that the whole world is going to be ruined by that one decision. I mean, who’s fault was that? Maybe Adam and Eve just didn’t have enough information. Or…maybe…in that pregnant silence–in that lack of explanation–was hidden all the meaning of the universe–the way, the truth, and the life. All there, just waiting to be seen and known and enjoyed. If only they had stayed and trusted long enough to see it. It’s not easy to see God. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t trying to show us how. So…God, would you show us how to see you–would you heal our eyes just a little bit more, so we can see you just a little more clearly today.
Okay, so what I want to do with the rest of this time is break down three different Christian approaches that I think our happening right now in our culture. And these are three different ways to try to see God and to deal with his un-straightforwardness. I call them:
As you can tell, I’ve purposely chosen the most offensive term possible for each camp. And that’s partly just to be funny–and partly because oversimplifying helps to make the point. The reality is: these are not actually three different types of Christians, as though each of us would perfectly fall into one of these camps. All of us have flirted with all three of these perspectives at different times in different ways–or maybe even at the same time. These are caricatures in order to make a point. So please don’t be offended.
Ok, I’ll just quickly summarize what I mean by each and then we’ll break them down one by one.
The Delusional camp sees Christianity as a kind of heavenly clarity: a way of “rising above” the confusion of life on the ground. The gospel is simple and always stays the same. Whenever your world starts to grow in complexity, you remind yourself of your simple faith and do your best to ignore the things that fall outside it (personal struggles, claims of science, injustice, hypocrisy). The gospel is what it is. And you know what it is. Clarity from above.
The Resentful camp also seeks a kind of clarity, but it’s a clarity from below. You’re a realist. You’ve felt the cognitive dissonance between the claims of a simple gospel and the complexities of the actual world. Personal struggles and doubts within you and injustice and hypocrisy around you have made it so that your world is quickly growing out of its simple gospel phase. You’ve heard enough of heaven. Not enough of things on the ground. That’s what’s most real to you now.
And then there are the Confused, which are…well, confused. You’ve believed the promises and prayed the prayers you were taught: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” But…it’s not clear how that’s supposed to happen. I mean, sometimes you feel like you can see it happening. Other times, you feel like you’re alone in the universe. No bird’s eye view. No certainty on the ground either. Only a weird half-mixture of the two. Just enough to keep you seeking more.
As I’ve already made clear, my purpose here is to convince you that the Confused approach is and has always been the path to seeing more of God. But let’s consider them one at a time.
First off, the Delusional. In the ancient world, there were, broadly speaking, two ways to worship: there were religions of heaven (like the gnostics, who worshipped disembodied ideas) and religions of earth (like most pagan religions, which tended to worship things in nature). The Delusional Approach is a religion of heaven. It’s informational. It’s disembodied. All you have to do is hear the good news and agree that it’s true and everything changes for you. No matter what craziness is going on down on the ground, you have risen above it. In fact, heaven is something you talk a lot about. “Yes, depression and anxiety, yes, poverty and oppression, but if you believe in Jesus, you get to go to heaven when you die.” Yes, life is complicated. But plug in the gospel formula, and it all comes out in the wash. Because Jesus came, we’ve been set free. Free from sin, free from shame, free from resentment, and free from confusion. Yes, it makes sense that people would be tied in knots by suffering and death and failure and betrayal and identity issues. I used to be blind too. But now I can see. If you are still confused, it’s probably because you don’t yet truly believe. (Keep in mind, this is a caricature. Most people’s actual beliefs are much more nuanced.)
But we’ve all seen versions of this in the American church–some obviously more problematic than others–and those are often easy enough to condemn. But it’s not always easy to see how you and I tend to fall into the same pattern. For example, how we think about our struggling friends or co-workers as people who just need the right information about Jesus–and then they could rise above their problems. Or how we apply the same logic to ourselves: If I could just keep reminding myself of the facts of gospel–then I won’t have to feel these awful feelings; then I would rise above the doubts. Then I would break the bad habits that keep haunting me. Just remember more. Believe harder. And rise above.
Again, I’m giving an oversimplified version, but many of us grew up with this sort of Christian approach. And, actually, there are secular versions of the religion of heaven as well. Think of the hippy movement, which transformed the word “love” itself into a kind of gnostic phenomenon. “Forget all the complications on the ground. Focus on the love, man. Here, take a hit of this! You’ll have that bird’s eye view in no time.” The Beatles were the masters of this: “All you need is love…It’s eeeasy.”
But back to the Evangelical version. Some of you are probably thinking, “Okay, I get why you can’t just do drugs and say everything will be okay as long as we love one another. But why is the Christian version a delusion? Isn’t it just the gospel? I don’t smoke pot. I listen to positive, encouraging K-Love. What’s wrong with that?
And then there are others of you, who probably identify more with the Resentful Camp. And you’re like, “Oh yeah, I totally see why it’s delusional!”
But I’m not saying it’s all delusion. There’s a deep truth in the religion of heaven, just as there is in the religion of earth, which we’ll get to in a minute. While the Resentful Approach focuses on the fact that things are not okay on the ground, the Delusional Approach focuses on the fact that God is still on the throne. Which is absolutely true. Most of the songs we sing in church proclaim that very thing. The Psalms declare it over and over. When we go to church, are we just singing delusions to ourselves? No, not at all. In fact, there are few things more important than gathering to sing and celebrate and remind one another that God is real and good and in control, despite whatever is happening on the ground.
But…that doesn’t mean we can rise above what’s happening on the ground. Sometimes people would rather just skip the heartache and complexity and look on the bright side. But that’s not exactly what Christianity offers: it’s not always positive and encouraging. It’s not a detour around the pain.
There’s an old Monty Python movie called The Life of Brian, which is this ridiculous comedy from the 70’s about a man named Brian who grew up next door to Jesus and became an accidental prophet himself. The whole movie is irreverent, and I won’t recommend it for that reason. But the ending scene–which is probably the silliest and most offensive of all–does compellingly illustrate the point I’m trying to make here. The beginning of the scene shows Brian, the accidental prophet, being crucified. The camera pans to his friend Stan, next to him on his own cross. Stan says to Brian, “Cheer up, Brian.” Brian looks confused. “You know what they say,” says Stan. “Some things in life are bad. They can really make you mad. When you’re chewing on life’s gristle, don’t grumble, give a whistle, and this’ll help things turn out for the best…” Then, out of nowhere, he begins to sing this ridiculous jingle: “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life.” From the cross. Slowly the camera zooms out, and you see this whole group of men–Brian’s followers–being crucified alongside him. And pretty soon, all of them join in on the song, whistling and singing from their respective crosses. It’s completely absurd. One of the lines they sing is: “Always look on the bright side of death, just before you draw your terminal breath.” The whole scene is more than silly; it’s grotesque. BUT…it does have a kind of uncomfortable resonance. Why? Because we’ve all witnessed some version of this ridiculous thing: where people willfully ignore the most painful parts of reality in order to make themselves feel better…where Christianity–and even the cross itself–is made to be a vehicle for a kind of cheery optimism, a false clarity–floating above the actual tragedies of life and death as though they’re nothing but a momentary setback. This is why the birds-eye-view approach, even when it’s put in Christian terms, is DELUSIONAL. Because the cross is the farthest thing from a bird’s eye view. In the Gospel stories, the cross represents the epitome of confusion and betrayal. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is the encapsulation of every horror of life which we might wish we could wish away or rise above. But we can’t. Because, in that moment, not even God could. Not even God had clarity. He laid down his clarity when he picked up his cross and carried it up the hill toward his own humiliation and forsakenness. And (don’t forget), he commanded us to pick up our crosses and follow him there. We are the people of the confusion of the cross. So that’s the problem with Approach #1. As strange as it may sound, Christianity is not a religion of heaven, not a bird’s eye view, not clarity from above.
Now to Approach #2: The Resentful. Rather than clarity from above, the Resentful Approach wants clarity from below. Realism. We’ve stated the atheist version of it already: Suffering is real. So either God is not good or God is not God. But the Christian version of it is more complicated. And in the last couple of years, I think we’ve seen a significant push toward this approach. In fact, a lot of what we now call “deconstruction” is really just a move from the Delusional to the Resentful. From heaven to earth. And it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a gradual change. Let’s say, you start with a simple faith. And then something happens. And you say, “Well, that doesn’t seem right. But there must be some reason for it.” But then more things happen. And sooner or later the old logic, “God has a plan. He’s still on the throne,” just doesn’t work anymore. It feels like a cheap platitude. Not that you don’t believe in God, but you’re starting to see gaps. Gaps in the escapist religion of heaven you were taught as a kid. Gaps in your own identity. Gaps in the world. It’s confusing. And you really don’t like to be confused. So…you reach for the nearest, clearest thing you can find: not heavenly explanations–because those didn’t work–but earthly ones.
And in the world of the internet and social media you can find these explanations everywhere. And quite a lot of them have to do with how unjust and dishonest and narrow-minded things are in the world. And how Evangelicalism, a religion of heaven, far from providing a respite from such things, often provides a cover for the perpetrators. Not only does it avoid the problem, it’s actually part of the problem. And maybe you were a part of the problem. But now you’re starting to see the light. And you start to feel angry about how messed up things are in the world, and how messed up they were in the faith community where you grew up.
Do you resent God? No. Not exactly. It’s just a lot of the people and institutions who claim to believe in God. And…a lot of their ideas about God. And, come to think of it, where is God in the midst of all this chaos? Your whole life you’ve heard about salvation in heaven. But where is salvation now? Sometimes it seems like you care about these problems more than God does.
There’s a powerful picture of this in the great Russian novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In it, one of the characters tells a story called, “The Grand Inquisitor,” which some people say is the best argument against Christianity that has ever been made (which is crazy, since the author, Dostoevsky, was a committed Christian). Anyway, in the story, Christ comes back to earth, to 16th Century Spain, during the Spanish Inquisition, when the Catholic Church was at the height of its power. And the Grand Inquisitor, a leader in the church, brings Jesus in and puts him on trial for his CRIMES against the church. The case against Jesus has three parts, which mirror Satan’s three temptations to Jesus in the desert. The Inquisitor says that Jesus should have listened to Satan. If he had only taken his advice, everything would have been okay. But he refused, and the church has been trying to pick up the pieces ever since.
What did Jesus do wrong in the desert? First he refused Satan’s suggestion to turn stones into bread, saying, “Man cannot live by bread alone.” By doing this, the Inquisitor says, he selfishly chose to elevate freedom of choice above freedom from hunger. And, to this day, people still starve to death all over the world. Second, he refused to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple and let his angels catch him. By doing this, he gave up his greatest opportunity to show the people his power. This is why the people gave up on him and eventually had him killed. Finally, he chose not to take power over all the nations of the earth. This, the Inquisitor said, was his greatest opportunity to make his “love-thy-neighbor” utopia a reality…by force. But instead, he left the people free, and to this day, they go on sinning and killing and dying.
In short, Jesus refused three times to do something that would have straightforwardly helped save the world. And now, the Inquisitor says, the church is trying to make up for that failure by following Satan’s advice. People don’t want the freedom to choose. They want their problems solved. They want to be fed and entertained and told what to do. “That’s what we do,” the Inquisitor tells Jesus, “since you wouldn’t. We feed the poor. We tell them what to believe. And we make sure they obey. This is how we’re saving the world, since you obviously didn’t.”
I won’t tell you how the little story ends. You’ll have to go read it for yourself. But you get the point. For many of us, when we look at the brokenness all around us, it’s not obvious that Jesus’s un-straightforward method of salvation was the best choice. Here we are 2000 years after the cross, and has the suffering ended? Has evil been overthrown? If we’re honest, many of us agree with the Inquisitor. We’re tired of hearing about salvation from above when people right here and now are suffering. We’re tired of hearing, “Man cannot live by bread alone,” when people right here and now don’t even have bread.
You can see this exact sentiment in many of the social justice movements of the last few years. These movements have helped to shed light on real problems in our culture. But they’re doing it in a very different way than, say, Martin Luther King did a generation ago. Being a Christian minister, King famously announced that, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” President Obama actually loved this quote.
But if you Google the King quote today, just a few years later, you find something very odd: Almost every article is a social-justice-oriented criticism of the quote. And all the arguments say the same thing: Basically, the idea about a long arc bending towards justice “carries the risk of magical thinking,” as though there were some cosmic force bending history from above. This notion, they say, is dangerously wrong-headed. If we want to see the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice, we have to bend it ourselves, or else it won’t happen. In other words, it’s time to drop our Delusional religions of heaven and take up a more realistic view on the ground.
And for many younger Evangelicals, this has been a welcome thought, which might seem surprising to some, but it’s understandable if you think about it. It’s not like they’re trying to leave Christianity behind. They’re just bringing it back down to earth. As they see it, the Delusional Camp’s message of heaven blinded them to the real complexities on the ground. The Resentful Approach has the antidote. And remember, I’m using the words “Resentful” and “Delusional” with air quotes. These are still caricatures. I don’t mean to say everyone engaged in these social justice movements is actually driven by resentment any more than I mean to say that people who listen to K-Love are delusional. (My family loves K-Love. And I used to do social justice work for a living.) But what I am saying is that both approaches tend to assume a kind of moral and religious clarity. One from above and the other from below. Neither side is obviously against Jesus; they’re just emphasizing different aspects of what Jesus represents to them. But that also means that they’re each resisting other aspects of Jesus which don’t fit comfortably into their narrative. And that’s where things get off base.
In other words, it’s never wrong to want people to go to heaven. It’s also never wrong to want to see justice here and now. In the Bible, the word “salvation” encompasses both of these notions and much more. We all want salvation. The problem is how we want to be saved. Like the Inquisitor, we tend to want a clear path with straight lines. None of this long arc of justice crap. “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” And what’s wrong with that?
I was listening to one of my favorite Christian thinkers, Jonathan Pageau, the other day, and he was saying, “We Christians have this funny notion that we would all be able to recognize the Antichrist if he came, and that none of us would take his side. But that’s not how the story goes. Plenty of people take his side. Why? Because the options don’t lay themselves out as clearly as you might think.” It’s not like the Enemy comes and says, “Let’s hate and kill everyone,” while Jesus says, “No, let’s love and save everyone.” They both say the same sort of thing. They both preach a kind of salvation. For instance, why does Judas get upset with the woman for pouring out her expensive perfume on Jesus’s feet. Because the money should have been used for the poor, not just poured out on the ground. That’s a pretty straightforward argument.
This is why Satan’s temptations to Jesus in the desert were actually tempting. “Turn these stones to bread. Do grander miracles. Claim power over the nations. You came to save the world, didn’t you? Well, save it. And do it now, with straighter lines.” Remember, in Mark 8, when Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus cryptically tells them he’s going to be killed? Peter rebukes him, basically saying, “No, that’s not the way the Messiah is supposed to save us. I won’t allow the perfume of your life and your power to just be poured out on the ground. That’s absurd.” And do you remember what Jesus calls him? “Get behind me, Satan!” Which is not a random epithet. Jesus had actually met Satan before…in the desert. And now he was meeting him again, in Peter. And the temptation was the same in each case. Straighter lines. Clarity. In fact, it was the same temptation as the Garden. What did the serpent say to Adam and Eve? “You won’t die. YOUR EYES WILL BE OPENED.” And the strangest thing is: what the serpent said came true. Their eyes were opened. They had clarity. And what’s wrong with that? Didn’t God want their eyes to be opened? Didn’t he want them to have clarity? Of course. So what was the sin? Only that they took it rather than waiting for it.
Do not awaken love before its time…or, in this case, clarity. That’s always been the sin. Not that you can never have love. Not that you can never have clarity. But the only way you’re guaranteed not to have the thing you want–the thing you were made for–is if you take it in your own time in your own way. Of course, in a sense, you will have it. Your eyes will be opened. But the thing you’ll find will not be the thing you were looking for. What did Adam and Eve find when their eyes were opened? They found that they were naked. That’s it.
It’s strange to say, but on the surface, both God and the serpent seem to have the same goal in mind: that Adam and Eve’s eyes would be opened. It was only the how and when that were different. That’s it. It’s that subtle. All the serpent really did was convince them to take the thing they were already destined to have…but to take it too soon. What was the grave sin that ruined the world? Impatience. Which is very relatable. Like the Grand Inquisitor accusing Jesus, we have our own ideas of how problems should be solved–of how the world should be saved.
Picture yourself in the room with the woman pouring out her priceless perfume on the feet of Jesus. And Jesus saying, go ahead, pour it out. And then Judas shaking his head: What about the poor? I know what side I would have been on. What good is all that money poured out on the ground? I want straight lines. But not Jesus. He wants contrite hearts, no matter how much it costs. He wants hearts that love Him, because that’s the only sustainable salvation there is. But the ministry of changing hearts is a messy and un-straightforward business. It doesn’t happen overnight. And there’s plenty of suffering and confusion in the process. Can we be okay with that? Can we trust that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character, and character, hope. That’s the achilles heel of the Resentful Approach. Whether or not they admit it, they’re tired of seeing the perfume poured out. They’re tired of trusting in things unseen. If the long arc of the moral universe is going to bend, they’re going to bend it themselves.
They’re tired of lowering the paralytic through the roof only to see his sins forgiven instead of his body healed. “Which is easier,” Jesus asked, “to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Pick up your mat and walk?’” They would say the former. Anyone can speak words of forgiveness. Not anyone can actually make a man lame man walk. But Jesus proved the opposite. For him, there was nothing more straightforward than healing the man’s body–he did it with a single word–and nothing less straightforward than healing a man’s heart. That would cost him everything.
Which brings us to the third and final approach: The Confused, which is the camp I want to convince you to join. Of course, I don’t mean we should always be confused all of the time. If Christianity is the truest lens through which to view reality–and I believe it is–then there’s no clearer way to see the world than through Christian eyes. And yet, when you look at the world through Christian eyes, what you see is not exactly…clear. There are shadows all over the place. Like the blind man in Mark 8, Jesus is healing our eyes, but the healing is partial and incremental before it is complete: a little bit, and then a little bit more. We see people, but sometimes they look like trees walking.
I know it’s weird to refer to Christians as “The Confused” people of God. Perhaps a better word might be, “The Patient People” or the “The Trusting People.” But the prerequisite for patience and trust is something like confusion: a lack of clarity. If we were already certain, there’d be nothing to wait for, nothing to trust in. But we aren’t certain, because life is hard and God is big and we see through a glass darkly. In this life, to some degree, everyone is either confused or pretending. Christianity is simply the courage to stay confused for long enough to learn what it means to trust, what it means to stop pretending, and ultimately, what it means to see.
Christianity is not a religion of earth, nor strangely, is it a religion of heaven. It is the marrying of heaven and earth. It’s why Jesus came declaring, “The kingdom of God is at hand!” “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This is a mystery. What does it even mean, the marrying of heaven and earth? But somehow, deep down, we know what it means. Our hearts and all creation have been groaning for it since the beginning of time. Yet, in the moment, it’s hard to understand, even harder to see. It’s tempting to take the fruit–to embrace a false clarity (from above or below)–rather than wait and trust that all will be revealed. But the secret of the Bible is: trust is how you see.
Think of what Jesus put the disciples through. For most of the story, they live in continual confusion as to what Jesus is up to. How could this lowly carpenter possibly be the Messiah? How could anything good come from Nazareth? Then he starts doing these amazing miracles and they think, “Oh that’s how.” But the confusion has only just begun. Because he doesn’t plan to use his power the way they want him to. He refuses to crush their obvious enemies the way they had obviously hoped. He feeds 5000 with a couple of loaves and fish, and then has to slip past the crowd before they make him king by force. Can you imagine how they must have felt? “If he can do that, why not go ahead and fix all the broken things?” It was like he’d revealed that he had the cure to cancer, used it once, and then threw it away.
And if the crowd was confused, imagine how the disciples felt. They had to watch this backwards pattern over and over again. But see, over time…they actually did start to understand. Those who stayed, I mean. Those who trusted…began to see. Maybe they couldn’t see very much. But they saw enough to stay longer, and keep trusting. So when Jesus says, “Eat my flesh and drink my blood,” and the whole audience gets up and leaves, and Jesus asks them, “Are you too going to leave?” Peter responds, “Lord, to whom else shall we go?” It wasn’t like they knew what it meant–“eat my flesh and drink my blood”–they were just as confused as everyone else. The only difference was that they stayed…confused. Haha. And over time, because they stayed, they became less confused. They learned to see. To see who Jesus really was: not a cannibal, but the Bread of Life; not a God of confusion but of peace. They saw because they stayed and trusted and did not insist on their own understanding. Do not awaken love before its time.
Christianity is not a religion of clarity, but of patience: of confusion-becoming-clarity as heaven marries earth. “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Cor. 13:13)
Remember the Martin Luther King quote about the long arc of the moral universe bending toward justice? King was actually paraphrasing a quote from an old abolitionist minister named Theodore Parker speaking in 1853. What Parker actually said was, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”
This quote, which King paraphrased, is really just a paraphrase of the whole story of Scripture. Our eyes reach but little ways. We can’t see everything, so we can’t judge everything. The wheat and weeds grow together. Our vision is narrow, but the promise is great. One day we will see. The long arc of history is bending toward justice. But how do we know? How can the abolitionist say that in the midst of the horrors of the American slave trade?
Imagine your life as a movie that’s playing out one scene at a time. If you pause it at any one moment, you might conclude, in a bad moment, that everything is unfair and horrible, or in a good moment, that everything is blessed and beautiful. But that’s a terrible way to look at your life, just as it would be a terrible way to watch a movie. You need perspective. The trouble is, with your own life, you can’t watch the whole movie. You get no birds eye view. You can only live it, one scene at a time. But, for Christians, the story of Scripture is the meta-movie. It’s the movie in which your story takes place. It has a beginning and an ending. It plays itself out over generations and generations, slowly giving meaning and context to the story of your life and your world. As you watch it, you learn to trust and understand the pattern. That’s what Parker and King mean when they say the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. They can’t see the whole scope of the moral universe. They know that it’s very big and their own place within it is very small. But nonetheless they can trust that their role does matter–that, however small they might be, what they’re doing is meaningful–because they’re taking part in the long arc, which bends toward justice, that is, in the marrying of heaven and earth.
Many Old Testament scholars have argued that, if you want to sum up the Bible in one Hebrew word, that word would be “hesed,” which is often translated “steadfast love.” And maybe that sounds obvious enough. But the interesting thing about “steadfast love” is that you couldn’t possibly see that kind of love in any one moment. The only way you can tell something is “steadfast” is over time. That’s what steadfast means: something that remains true–or proves itself true OVER TIME. So, in the Bible, God’s love and faithfulness to his people is something that cannot be experienced–at least not in its fullness–in a single revelation. Rather, it unfolds over time. The Bible is the unfolding story of hesed. Which means, like a movie, you can’t just pause it at any one scene and say, “I know what’s going on here.” It just can’t be understood that way. You have to watch it play out. And sure, some individual scenes will confuse you to death. And you’ll say, “This doesn’t look like the love of God at all.” And you may be right. It may not. But hold on. Keep watching. It might even get worse before it gets better. Good movies often do. Maybe you find yourself in Ecclesiastes when Solomon declares, “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” Or in the Psalms, where the Psalmist cries out: “Where are you, God? Why won’t you hear my cries? Why do my enemies prosper? Why have you forsaken me?” Confusion abounds in the Bible, just as it does in our lives. It’s part of the story. Because life is hard and God is big. Sometimes there is no clarity. Sometimes God is not obviously there. Only…don’t pause the movie. Keep watching. If you do, what you find is: hesed. Steadfast love, unfolding over time. Or you might even say, un-straightforward love.
Which brings us back to the main question: Why is God so un-straightforward? Why can’t we just see Him? Why won’t he just show himself? Why do we have to trust over time, through pain and confusion?
One way to answer is like this: We are people. He can’t just press a few buttons on us and make things right. We have no buttons. That’s not how he made us. We have hearts, which love and hate and do a million other things besides. That’s the beautiful complicated problem Jesus came to solve. In John 3, he explains it to Nicodemus like this: “The light has come into the world, but the people loved the darkness rather than the light.” In other words, “Yay, the light! Everything is solved!” Except no, it isn’t. Because that wasn’t the problem. It’s much deeper than that and much harder to fix. The problem is: we don’t want the light. How do you change what someone wants? How do you change what someone loves? How can do you marry someone who doesn’t want to marry you? That is the un-straightforward problem Jesus came to solve. No divine zap will do.
Zapping is probably what I had in mind as a kid, when I was frustrated with Jesus’s saying, “Ask and you shall receive.” Shouldn’t that be a straightforward transaction? Without fully admitting it to myself, I had almost assumed that God was some kind of genie and that I was the master. I still find myself thinking that way sometimes. It’s probably a pretty common assumption. But it’s exactly the sort of assumption that, in the end, will leave you either Resentful or Delusional. God does not usually give in straight lines. He does wantto give you what you ask. But he doesn’t negotiate with terrorists. He is no genie, and you are no master. It’s more like: he is a genius, and you are a madman. He’s ready to talk. He’s ready to listen. I’m sure you have plans for how to fix everything. But only his plan will work. You hardly even know how crazy you are, much less how good he is. But if you stay in the conversation, he’ll sort all that out. It may take some time–and some unusual methods–but he will untangle your soul. He will make you sane. He will make you the kind of person who asks for good things, just as He is the sort of Person who delights in giving good things to those He loves. And he loves you. So he won’t stop until he’s finished. All you have to do is remain. Which, of course, is why he says, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be given you.” (QUOTE)
And what about clarity? Can we ever have that too? Or is it only confusion in this life? Didn’t Jesus say, “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Yes, he did. But for us, that verse has been barely more than a platitude, because we only know it stripped from its context. Here’s what Jesus actually said: “If you remain in my word, then you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”
So…remain. In those moments of hardship and confusion, resist the temptation to eat the fruit of false clarity, just as Jesus, the new Adam, resisted it when he came. He was confused so that you might see. He is marrying heaven and earth, from above you and from below you, in his own un-straightforward way. It is a redemption too glorious to see all at once. So be patient in confusion. And he will open your eyes, little by little, in his time.