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Possibilities

In Jesus Christ God has promised to every human being a new horizon of possibilities— new life into which each of us is called to grow in our own way and ultimately a new world freed from all enmity, a world of love. To be a Christian means that new possibilities are defined by that promise, not by any past experience, however devastating.

— Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory

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I have many conversations with people who find it difficult to believe or people who barely believe or people who want to believe but can’t or people who are embarrassed to believe or people who look down in condescension at those who believe or people who are just bewildered that anyone could believe in something like God or resurrection or hope or any kind of future that is radically dissimilar to the present. This is the shape of our life and imagination in the post-Christian west.

For much of my life, I suspect that I have implicitly thought of words like “faith” and “religion” and “belief” in terms and categories something akin to a construction project. We assemble the doctrines and the arguments, we marshal the biblical texts for support, we fashion a life of good works, we chisel away at our characters to produce the fruit that we are convinced God (and others) want from us, and then, at the end of it all, after the foundation has properly been laid, after all the bricks have been set in place, after the walls have been painted and prettied up, we are left with a nice shiny object that can be described as “a person of faith” or “a faith of their own” or “a believer” or “a Christian.”

Lately, though, I have been wondering if faith is, in the end, nothing more or less than a decision about possibility? What do we think is possible for us? For the world? For our neighbours? For God?

For many, what’s possible is largely circumscribed by what is observable. We do not and cannot see things like “God” and “eternity” and “shalom” and “forgiveness” and “salvation”—at least not to the degree that we would like to or to the extent that we think we should. So we relegate these words to the categories of “pie-in-the-sky” or “wishful thinking” or “idealistic nonsense.” These are nothing more than the therapeutic fictions that some apparently require to get themselves through the day in a world that cares nothing for our preferences, a world that is, at rock bottom, indifferent to the hopes and fears of human beings.

It is impossible, for many in the postmodern, post-Christian west, that such words should point to anything that is finally true about our world or the human predicament.

A few days ago, I spent a morning in the psych ward with a person who is struggling immensely with the difficulty of life, with thoughts of suicide, with rage and despair, with the soul-crushing meaningless nature of the suffering they have experienced over long decades. They have experienced the pain of lost children, of all manner of abuse, of addiction, of poverty and neglect… They have been kicked around by life, by circumstances, by other human beings for long decades, and they are at the point where they simply can’t take it any more. “I feel like I’m in a dark, narrow pit,” this person said, “and there is no escape. I try to climb out but the walls are slippery and I can’t grab on to anything. I can barely see the light at the top any more… I just keep groping and scratching at the walls, but I can’t ever get any closer to the light.”

What does one say? We sat in silence for a while. We prayed. We laughed out loud when one of the other patients walked by the door of the room and loudly burped and farted… Such is the nature of the holy moments that are ours to steward in this screwed up world.

At the end of our visit, this person told me that the only thing that kept them going in the face of all this was the hope that there was something better out there. That this black, slimy pit whose walls they could not scale, was not the last word on their story. And what could I say but, “yes, this is my hope, too… for you, for all of us… ”

What else can any of us say—those of us who use words like “believer” and “person of faith” and “Christian” to describe ourselves? What else can we do but continue to rehearse this time-worn conviction, both ragged and sure, that we have not been left as orphans—that the Maker of heaven and earth has come for us, comes for us still, and will one day come in power and grace and truth to show us what is, finally, possible for us and for this world that he has made?

——

Image above courtesy of Russell Berg at Seeing Berg.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. mike #

    Wow, so very thought provoking, Ryan.
    I’ve met so many guys like your friend who were just barely hanging on and I knew they weren’t going to last much longer unless there was an immediate Divine intervention… which does occur sporadically but it can’t be counted on. Sometimes God is silent.

    June 27, 2014
    • mike #

      I spent much of my 20’s lingering on the brink of insanity, in and out of a rehab/psych ward, so I can relate somewhat to your friend. Interestingly, much of my underlying problem was due to erroneous fundamentalist Christian indoctrination. I had been taught that I was condemned to hell because I had “backslidden” and that there was NO HOPE whatsoever left for me, that God had permanently turned his back to me. Suicide was a constant thought in those days, but the fear of even worse consequences kept me from going through with it. Miraculously I somehow made it through these years of a living hell but the prolonged psychological torment has had a lasting effect on me in that I’m still bitter and resentful toward the biblical ignorance that perpetuated my misery.(not to mention all the other believers suffering a similar experience)

      June 28, 2014
      • Wow, Mike, I’m very sorry to hear about the spiritual abuse that you went through… That must have been so incredibly difficult.

        It makes me angry that people that misuse Scripture in such profoundly hurtful and damaging ways. I think often of Jesus’ words about those who lead “these little ones astray”—how it would better for them if they tied a mill stone around their necks and threw themselves into the sea.

        I’m glad you made it through.

        June 28, 2014
  2. Paul Johnston #

    Beautifully written, so true and yet…..there is more…..Jesus can and will be with you, me, everyone, here and now…Maranatha…..Maranatha….Maranatha….come Lord Jesus come. To the heart that ponders His person and waits on His arrival, He always comes. Not with words, yes in the silence but with real presence. So the frailty that is even the strongest of human faiths and beliefs is assured that God is more than just the misplaced sum of all human hopes and desires. God is real and alive.

    It is all we need. The certainty of His presence with us. From that day forward, acting on that deeper understanding of reality, each day is blessing. Each day finds it’s own reward. Each day provides countless opportunities to experience the love we were made for.

    God is good. God is real…… All the time. :)

    June 28, 2014
    • Thank you, Paul.

      I appreciate your reminder of the presence of Christ with us always—that “he always comes.” The person I spoke about in the post was a committed Christian, as it happens, and had been so their entire lives. Yet their experience was one of almost unrelenting struggle and suffering. I think we must also acknowledge that the goodness of God is sometimes experienced differently by different people at different points in their lives.

      July 2, 2014
  3. mmartha #

    I appreciate Mr. Popham’s CC comment on FB. Elwood McQuaid, Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, asks in his Standing Fast in the Last Days, “Why is it that so many of us become impatient when we hear something repeated from the pulpit more than once?”

    Outstanding emphasis of the author that Jesus has come, keeps coming, and will come again. Rowan Williams’ starts the four verses of his poem ” Advent Calendar” :

    He will come like last leaf’s fall.

    He will come like frost.

    He will come like dark.

    He will come, will come.

    July 27, 2014
  4. mike #

    “For much of my life, I suspect that I have implicitly thought of words like “faith” and “religion” and “belief” in terms and categories something akin to a construction project. We assemble the doctrines and the arguments, we marshal the biblical texts for support, we fashion a life of good works, we chisel away at our characters to produce the fruit that we are convinced God (and others) want from us, and then, at the end of it all, after the foundation has properly been laid, after all the bricks have been set in place, after the walls have been painted and prettied up, we are left with a nice shiny object that can be described as “a person of faith” or “a faith of their own” or “a believer” or “a Christian.”

    ..and then there are the “people of faith” like me, nomads living on the religious terrain, former zealots and devotees of strict fringe sects within Christianity, the modern day Christian Pharisee’s of a sort.

    On 2 separate occasions in my life I joined-left, re-joined and left again the ranks of these believers, each stint was precipitated by a crisis in my life, each time returning to the only ‘real’ place where I could find the ‘real’ God, *or so I had been told/taught. This type of religious indoctrination is particularly difficult to overcome because it is embedded deep into the believers mind and psyche by the force of Emotion(alism). Their doctrines and dogma teach that we should forsake any meaningful life in this world along with the ‘fleshly’ goals of gaining any personal happiness and success outside of Jesus only, in other words the only life worthy of God is lived either at church meetings or evangelizing on the streets, having any life outside of this sphere is considered ‘lukewarm’ and “carnal” and will be burned up as Chaff…. an All or Nothing mentality.
    I remember when I began the process(after “back-sliding”) of leaving the first church, the preacher became concerned and then angry that I was tapering off attendance so he began to specifically direct foreboding sermons at me, you can imagine how unnerving and awkward this was. Later, when I stopped attending altogether, he came to my house and brought a “witness” with him to offer me one last chance to repent and be saved again, needless to say they “shook the dust from their feet”(Matt 10:13-15) when they left, never to see me again.
    The 2nd time that I ‘returned to God’, it was to a different preacher but of the same sect, he initially got just as mad too when I eventually backslid and left.
    I was a good and devout zealot and was considered their “right hand man” by both preachers. I was guided and led to believe that I too was “called” to be a Full Gospel preacher, this made backsliding or leaving much more difficult with presumably even far worse eternal consequences and I’ve lived with this instilled constant fear and guilt since.
    All this took place years ago. I’ve spent much of the following years agonizing in a kind of Spiritual Hell, awaiting the Final Judgment and Punishment, all-the-while seeking some measure of relief from this psychological torture through Drugs and Alcohol.

    As an active Alcoholic and Drug addict, I began seeking God again in earnest about 6 years ago, but this time I encountered Him through the non-traditional pathway of Alcoholics Anonymous. I’ve since reconciled with God as I currently understand Him and my new theology seems to be constantly “developing” as I learn to apply the tools of deductive reasoning and biblical scholarship. I feel like I’m finally in a good place for the most part, but then there are days…. :)

    I’m not soliciting any responses(or sympathy) with this biographical tome. It’s a personal catharsis that I’ve needed to write-out for some time and that this blog post so conveniently pulled out of me and provided opportunity for at this time. Sorry/Thnaks, Ryan :)

    August 2, 2014
    • I know you said you weren’t looking for responses, Mike, but I simply want to thank you for sharing this. Whatever else I believe about God, I am convinced that it is (or can be) in the valleys of life that he comes to us, and in ways unlike any other. And we to him.

      I wish you the grace and peace of Christ as you continue to seek him.

      August 3, 2014

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