Monday, December 26

Getting Your Theology On Track

Generally speaking, I'm a C. S. Lewis fan. I'm willing to overlook a few disagreements I have with his theology because of the clarity of his writing.

There is, however, a book of his I didn't like at all, and that's A Grief Observed. I read it twice after my husband died, and neither time did it resonate with me in any way. Honestly, I just couldn't fathom a man as smart a C. S. Lewis being brought to such a place of doubt by the death of someone he loved. I wondered what idea he'd had of God that something like his wife's suffering and death would pull the rug out from under his faith. How did he think God worked in the world?

That's why I enjoyed reading this post at Triablogue. The whole post is good, but here's the paragraph that I believe is crucial:
It is important to get your theology on track before disaster strikes. It won’t spare you heartache. But it will spare you gratuitous heartache, and it will hasten the healing process.

In what I can only believe was God's providential preparation, in the years right before my husband's cancer diagnosis, the two of us together had come to a much fuller understanding of a few things about God: that he was present and working in every bit of the universe all the time; that he always had right reasons for everything he did even though we might not (and probably wouldn't) understand them; and that suffering and death, filtered through his almighty hands, become chosen means by which he accomplishes good things.

When the cancer diagnosis with its grim prognosis was announced, my first thought--really and truly--was, "Aha! So that's why we learned all that! So we could go through this." We had no crisis of faith because we had already come to an understanding of God as a God who sometimes chooses suffering and death as the best way to accomplish his good and right purpose. Instead of being something confusing to us, this illness made sense from the get-go, because we already had a theological framework with a cubbyhole for difficult suffering.

I had a friend in Bible college who went on to have a child who was severely handicapped, and then, on top of it all, was horribly burned when his clothes caught fire on a burner in the kitchen. She wrote a book (out of print now) that explained the understanding about God that she and her husband had come to as a result of their child's suffering. Some of the answers they'd been given when they questioned pastors and relatives about God's role in their child's suffering were what I consider to be orthodox and satisfying answers, but they found them unsatisfactory. Over time, they came to understand, she said, that for the most part God just lets the universe run without intervening in things. Thinking of God that way was the way out of their crisis of faith--it allowed them to keep loving God and stop seeing him as cruel for not stepping in and keeping their child safe. Even though I hadn't yet had much suffering of my own, I couldn't see this as a very satisfying answer. How could someone trust a God with a hands off policy in his creation?

Another person who went to the same Bible college I did, and whose family attended the same church ours did for a while, became one of the more well-known proponents of open theism. He mentions his brother's death in a motor cycle accident as one of the things that eventually led him to his view of God as a God who does not know the future choices of human beings, a God who was willing to take risks to allow autonomy in his creatures. I have the same question about the open theist's God: How could I trust him?

What's my point with these stories? These are examples of people whose crisis of faith following tragedy led them to less than orthodox views of God. It often works this way, I think, when people have no firm theology of God's relationship to human suffering before a crisis strikes. It's hard to come to see God as a God who knowingly works good things through suffering when we're in the midst of it.

If you've already come to love a God you understand to be purposefully working in all things--even the tragic ones--for his good purposes, then you keep on loving and trusting him when real tragedy strikes you. And more than that: You cling to him as the only sort of God that could be a rock for you in difficult times. That you weren't spared suffering doesn't throw you for a loop, because you expected that somewhere, sometime, you would have your share of it as God conforms you to the likeness of his son.

You still suffer, of course, but you suffer with God as a firm comfort rather than an uninterested overseer or decided risk taker. You still have Someone to hold fast to.
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