This is one of those books that catches your eye for a while (or…it caught mine) and you think about it and think about it and then you finally bite the bullet. For me, I was fascinated by the idea behind the story: a pastor – who actually spent time with people and preached messages and studied the bible – had his faith deteriorate over time instead of strengthen? I tend to think that the more people see God at work in their own lives and in the lives of others, the more it reinforces the things they believe.
I’ve taken to buying less and less books – my primary qualification for a book to buy has become how soon I’ll read it after buying it. In other words, I’d been marginally interested in a lot of books, only to buy them and have them sit on my shelf until I decided I’d never get around to reading it and selling it on – but I finished this one in a matter of about three days.
Jerry tells his story – how he was saved at a Jimmy Swaggart revival and became involved in the local Pentecostal church. He felt a call from God at a very young age to be a preacher and that he’d spearhead a revival, so that became his primary objective, no matter the cost to his family or himself, no matter how his bottom line came out financially.
The book does not read (at least for the first two thirds or so) as some sort of argument against God, but indeed as a story highlighting Jerry’s journey of faith and attempts to find places to preach as a twenty-something preacher. In that sense, it’s a beautiful, if sad and painful, story to read. It became difficult for he and his wife to move out from living with his grandmother; they struggled to find jobs; they pondered and carried out cross-country moves at times; Jerry encountered people with crazy doctrine, etc. You feel the ups and downs of his journey, as he articulates them very well.
Among those struggles are the losses of his father, his grandfather, his cousin, and the churches he chooses or is otherwise forced to leave. In the midst of encountering people who live by unbearably conservative interpretations of the Bible, he is forced to question things about his faith. The tension mounts over time in his relationship with his wife, and it’s easy understandable as he writes how difficult it must be.
His theology seems to get increasingly liberal – from extreme Pentecostalism in which he preached that devotion to God was the key to a holy life, to more moderate stances on grace, such as preaching to a congregation that their church attendance isn’t what got them right with God, but Jesus was. At this point, I was resounding with his faith journey – I’m in complete agreement with such a statement! – so I was left wondering what the breaking point must have been.
The breaking point was when he prayed with a man and his brother who was dealing with a blood clot. The man (who went to his church) was trying to convince his brother to get surgery, and he asked Jerry to help convince him to do the surgery, as Jerry had a family member who had successfully undergone that same surgery. Everything seemed to go off without a hitch until the man sat up the next morning to eat only to have the blood clot return and kill him immediately.
Jerry, he felt, was supposed to be able to help people. God, he thought, would either meet people when they needed Him the most, or else He wasn’t real. After all, what kind of God would let people suffer like that?
That’s a classic argument, and it makes even more sense when you hear the whole story of a person like Jerry – he’d experienced failure after failure in life: jobs wouldn’t hold up; people betrayed him and misled him; the things he felt called to do wouldn’t pan out; he lost a number of loved ones and close friends; how, in the midst of all of that failure (presumably, God failed him) and disappointment, do you hold on to your faith?
I’ve digested the issues a bit (admittedly, I just finished this book today and haven’t put TONS of thought into it) but I think that my biggest issue with this book are some of the premises under which he operates or the assumptions he makes about God and about Christians. I’m going to choose to only address the one which seemed to tip him over the edge.
He writes (while dealing with the loss of his cousin)
If God is not a friend in need, He is not a friend indeed.
First of all, I don’t think we can adequately explain this. In fact, that’s one of my other issues with the book – he thinks that, as a pastor, he was supposed to be an answers guy and have an answer to life’s biggest problems. I don’t think that’s true. I think that Christianity is something which will largely be unanswered here and now. After all, the biggest question for which we take the risk of Christianity (is there even an afterlife?) is something we have to wait a long time to have answered. Why do people die? Why is there evil in the world? Why does God choose to heal some people but not others? Why does God let my loved ones pass?
I think we could have a crack at every single one of these questions, but for the sake of being sensitive, maybe it’s best not to. Maybe in the context of people questioning God, or His existence or His motives or His actions or His inactions, the best thing to do is to say, “I don’t know.”
Because I genuinely believe that God’s ways are higher than ours, and I believe His thoughts are higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8.) Do I know that there’s a God? No, I don’t. I’m not certain.
Nevertheless, it makes perfect sense to me that if there’s a God, then the way He thinks and the way He works is something I’m not designed nor am I capable to understand. If there’s a God, and He created everything, including me and my family and the people that I love, then it’s not exactly my place to accuse Him if something happens.
The good news, though, is that God can handle it. God can handle criticism, and He can handle our pain, and He can handle our questions, and He can even handle our doubts.
There is a derth of other issues to address from this book, such as:
-how/why religion hurts so many people instead of helping
-the human authorship of the Bible
-the fact that our brains can hear voices that aren’t really there, perhaps rendering God’s own voice as our own imagination
To go in-depth with them would take far too long, and to be quite frank, I don’t know that I’m intelligent or qualified enough to do so. I can’t pretend I know the answers to those questions.
Instead, I chose to take away one big thing from this book: sometimes in life, we’re disappointed and we feel God failed us.
I’ve embarked on a bit of a journey to understand why people embrace atheism and some people leave themselves closed off to the idea of a God. Usually, it seems, it has to do in part with pain or disappointment. Perhaps someone sees that there isn’t sufficient evidence (for them) for a God to exist. Okay, that’s one thing. But why the aggression against Christianity or religion in general? I think that stems from hurt. I think it occurs because the church is the representation of God on the earth (careful: the church is not itself God!) so people are put off by other flawed people who are doing the best they know how (usually) to interpret the book that God wrote and be His mouthpiece on earth.
I think sometimes we take ourselves way too seriously and hurt people in the process. I think that some Christians expect themselves to be perfect, and perhaps worse still, they expect some people who don’t embrace their worldview to live according to their own worldview, frustrating and annoying and sometimes hurting people in the process, and I think that drives people away, because they start to think that if His followers are this bad, then God must be even worse.
Problem is, we’re the flawed ones, not God. God is not the problem. God was never the problem. We’re the problem because we take the things that God says about Himself in the Bible and we look at it through our inherently bent human lens and we start to think that God is selfish, that God is a narcissist, that God is proudly jealous, and then we start thinking that we’re better than God. We judge God, and we do so wrongly (both from a legal standpoint [we have no right] as well as an interpretative standpoint [I don’t think we can understand Him fully.])
Here’s how I’m choosing to live from this day on: I believe it’s okay to ask questions. I believe it’s okay to doubt. I believe it’s okay to hurt, and I believe it’s okay to feel everything about being human – pain, joy, temptation, anger, sorrow. Just because I’m a Christian doesn’t make that the case. I choose to believe that God is real, and I choose to believe He is good. I believe that science and faith aren’t exclusive, because science – just like art, architecture, literature, technology, etc – can and should be used to the glory of God because God inspired man to endeavor in science no less than all the other things. Science is not the enemy of God. And as a future pastor, I believe that my job is not “answers man” but to ask more questions: about God, about circumstance, about life, and about myself.
My thanks to Jerry DeWitt for writing this book – it (obviously) sparked a lot of thought in me and forced me to think about why I believe some of the things I believe. Some of these issues I have to consider further (mostly the authorship of the Bible.)
My response (in a nutshell) to this book is this: pain, suffering, and disappointment are not proof that God isn’t real, or that He isn’t powerful, or that He isn’t good.