On Deciding in Advance
In her marvelous book Prayer in the Night, Tish Harrison Warren tells the story of her friend Julie, whose infant son had to undergo surgery. As the nurses were about to wheel him into the operating room, Julie looked at her husband and said, “We have to decide right now whether or not God is good, because if we wait to determine that by the results of this surgery, we will always keep God on trial.”
I paused on that sentence. I read it again. And then again. I finished the chapter and went back and read it again. Then I made my wife listen to it over breakfast. We have to decide in advance, or we will always keep God on trial. It seemed to contain at once both a bone-deep spiritual wisdom and profundity that I longed for and, at the very same time, an irritating sequestering of God off into an untouchable protected space where evidence doesn’t matter. It made me squirm and wrestle and think, which is what the best sentences do.
I think that many of us live our lives sort of implicitly keeping God always on trial. We are given this bucket full of beliefs about God and Jesus and love and goodness and a cross and an empty tomb and about how this gives meaning and hope and purpose to all of life. We inspect the contents of this bucket and find them inspiring and worthy, or at the very least plausible enough in the face of the head-spinning mystery of this world we live in. And as long as our lives sort of hover above an indeterminate threshold of suffering, they do fine. They serve us well enough.
But then we get a bit older. And a bit of misery comes our way. Maybe it’s sitting with a kid outside an operating room. Maybe it’s a diagnosis of our own. Maybe it’s suffering abuse from someone we thought loved us. Maybe it’s recognizing that the world does not seem to be arranged with the best interests of people with our skin colour or history in mind. Maybe it’s a divorce or a vocational crisis or the death of a friend or watching a kid blunder down endless painful dead-end roads or decades of chronic pain or ______. Misery comes in many different shapes and sizes.
Most of us aren’t tempted to question the goodness or existence of God with the run-of-the mill struggle that is just part and parcel of life. But when this big stuff comes along, our bucket with all its beliefs starts to look a bit more suspicious. We may never say it out loud or so baldly and irreverently, but God’s leash begins to grow ever shorter. I still believe, but… if my wife should leave… or the test should come back positive… or the prodigal should never return… or the surgery should fail… well then God will have failed the test. What good is a God who doesn’t come through when it counts? What does it even mean to say God is good when my life seems so bad?
On one level this view of God is easily understandable. How else would we evaluate whether or not someone was good or kind or merciful or loving if not by looking at the evidence? We certainly do this with people. If you tell me that your friend is wonderful and kind and generous, yet they never seem to want to hang out with you, and when they do, they are stingy and petty and grouchy, I will probably question your evaluation of your friend. God’s relationship to human beings is obviously on a different order than that of two human beings. There is an ontological gap between us that we struggle to even conceptualize, and God’s concerns stretch out far beyond our little lives. But something within us can’t stop saying, “Show me, don’t tell me. I want to see the evidence.” “We have to decide in advance” can sound an awful lot like an avoidance of reality. It’s like sticking our fingers in our ears and yelling “I don’t care what you say, God is still good” no matter how bad things are.
Ah, but that sentence still drills down into our depths, doesn’t it? It speaks to our best intentions and deepest longings when it comes to faith and hope and love. It speaks to our own desires to be the kinds of people who don’t always and only respond in kind, who don’t always and only dole out goodies when we receive them in return. It speaks to a solidity of faith that takes a longer view and embraces the possibility that pain can be among God’s means of growing us into maturity. It reminds us that faith is not math, that there is much that we don’t see, that love is too deep and true a thing to be reduced to the acceptability of our circumstances at any given moment. We have to decide that God is good now, in advance, so that we don’t make God’s goodness something smaller than is.
I love how Warren puts it:
If the question of whether God is real or not—or of whether God is kind or indifferent or a bastard—is determined solely by the balance of joy and sorrow in our own lives or in the world, we will never be able to say anything about who God is or what God is like. The evidence is frankly inconclusive…. We cannot hold together human vulnerability and God’s trustworthiness at the same time unless there is some certain sign that God loves us.
For the Christian, of course, “some certain sign that God loves us” is the sign of God incarnate suffering and dying on a godforsaken cross. This is where the question of God’s goodness and love and mercy and forgiveness and desperate devotion to his sin-sick prodigals was once and for all made plain. This is the theophany, the revealing of what is true of God for all time. The cross, the life that preceded it, the resurrection that validated it, the ascension that universalized it and the future return that will consummate it, all of this put together is the sign, the reason that we can avoid living our lives with God constantly on trial, deciding in advance of whatever horrors we will face—and we will face them—that God is good.
The image above is, for me, a beautiful portrayal of “some certain sign that God loves us.” It is called “Sacrificial Law” by William Butler and is taken from the 2020-21 Christian Seasons Calendar.