Help, I’m asking the question I’m not supposed to ask.

20131129-104201.jpg“Dear Bronwyn,
I’ve been in the church long enough to know I’m not supposed to be asking this question. I feel a HUGE amount of guilt about it, but I have to ask: “Why?” Life is ridiculously hard sometimes. Why doesn’t God save us and bring us home to him? Why doesn’t he just get us out of here? He can do it. He is able. He already knows the end of the story (who will come to him or not) – so why doesn’t he just make it happen? I know I shouldn’t be asking this question, but my soul is crying out for an answer, and every pastor I hear speak on this seems to be giving a cop out answer. I’m not asking why bad things happen – I know we live in a fallen world. I am asking why we have to live here in the first place when it’s so awful. My non-believing friends ask me this question and I think “hmm, good point” and give them the cookie cutter answer I know I’m supposed to say. But I’m sad, and confused. Maybe I’m just weak.
– Signed, Judge Me or Judge Me Not.”

Dear JMoJMN,

I cannot judge you, and I cannot answer your question either. Why God allows suffering at all, and why He allows it to continue, are questions which fall into the “I don’t know” category. With tears and sadness, I’m sorry to say I don’t know either, and say that cop out answers make me angry too. We cannot explain the purposes and mysteries of God, and while He has given us some clues as to why suffering sometimes happens (due to sin, discipline, disobedience, or even because he has some glorious purpose to work out, like when he let Lazarus die so he could raise him again) – the fact is He almost never tells us which of those reasons (if any) applies to our particular situation.

I don’t know why He allows it, and I don’t know why He hasn’t come yet – but as with so many things in my faith, I find myself faced with a choice when I feel like despairing. I have to choose to cling to the little I do know, or to walk into the great and painful void of things I don’t know.

When I’m hurting and praying for things to resolve, these are some of the verses I cling to:

“The Lord is near to the broken hearted” (Psalm 34:18)

“But as for me, I will trust in you.” (Psalm 55:23b)

“Your promises have been thoroughly tested, therefore your servant loves them.” (Psalm 119:142)

“Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)

“and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

But I hear you: in the midst of clinging to those promises, sometimes my heart breaks that the pain still continues for now. However, I don’t believe you are a “bad Christian” for asking these questions. Indeed, the first century believers repeatedly prayed “Maranatha! COME Lord Jesus, (1 Corinthians 16:22)” a prayer for speedy deliverance if ever there was one. To beg God to make it end quickly, and to despair over the brokenness of the world is not a sign of being a bad or faithless Christian – it seems to me to be a deeply biblical response.

But it’s hard. It’s oh-so-hard. I find myself coming back to two stories in the gospels again and again when I find myself bewildered by the lack of answers. The first is in John 6, when Jesus had been doing some hard teaching. His disciples challenged him: “This is a difficult statement; who can understand it?” (verse 61). In response to his answer, “many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.” (v66). John tells us that Jesus then asked the twelve: “You do not want to go away also do you?” Simon Peter answered him: “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:67-69)

The second account is in Mark, where Jesus comes down from the Mountain to find the disciples floundering after failing to heal a boy possessed by an evil spirit. The father of the boy asked Jesus for help, saying “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” Jesus replies, “IF you can? All things are possible to him who believes.” And immediately, the boy’s father cried out “I do believe! Help me in my unbelief!” (Mark 9:22-24)

I come back to these passages often. I find myself bewildered and hurting and wondering if I can accept the answers I’m hearing, or if God can do anything about it and have pity and help us. My words are the disciples’ words, the boy’s father’s words. And I hear Jesus’ gentle answer to me: “IF I can do anything? Are you also going to walk away because this is hard?”

In those moments, I have to reply with those first believers: “I do believe, but HELP me in my unbelief. And besides which, where else shall I go? You have the words of eternal life.” I cannot even begin to tell you how often I’ve come back to these two stories. I don’t know the answers, but I know enough to know I have no better option than to lean into him when I’m hurting.

It’s okay to not know. We are called to be witnesses to what we know, not what we don’t. Over the years, one of my favorite hymns has become the Celtic classic “I cannot tell” (to the wondrous Londonberry tune – lyrics and music video below), which makes this point most beautifully: there are so many things we don’t know and understand. So many things that hurt and confuse and overwhelm us, mysteries beyond us. There are things we “cannot tell”. But then there are the things we do know, and it is those we cling to and sing of and in which we place our hope.

I’m praying for you, friend. Armed with an “I don’t know” for the mysteries, we cling to that which we know. We DO believe, may He help us in our unbelief, and comfort us as we wait.

I cannot tell why He whom angels worship,
Should set His love upon the sons of men,
Or why, as Shepherd, He should seek the wanderers,
To bring them back, they know not how or when.
But this I know, that He was born of Mary
When Bethlehem’s manger was His only home,
And that He lived at Nazareth and labored,
And so the Savior, Savior of the world is come.

I cannot tell how silently He suffered,
As with His peace He graced this place of tears,
Or how His heart upon the cross was broken,
The crown of pain to three and thirty years.
But this I know, He heals the brokenhearted,
And stays our sin, and calms our lurking fear,
And lifts the burden from the heavy laden,
For yet the Savior, Savior of the world is here.

I cannot tell how He will win the nations,
How He will claim His earthly heritage,
How satisfy the needs and aspirations
Of East and West, of sinner and of sage.
But this I know, all flesh shall see His glory,
And He shall reap the harvest He has sown,
And some glad day His sun shall shine in splendor
When He the Savior, Savior of the world is known.

I cannot tell how all the lands shall worship,
When, at His bidding, every storm is stilled,
Or who can say how great the jubilation
When all the hearts of men with love are filled.
But this I know, the skies will thrill with rapture,
And myriad, myriad human voices sing,
And earth to Heaven, and Heaven to earth, will answer:
At last the Savior, Savior of the world is King!

Photo credit: scripturelady.com

On Finding Aslan

If ever there was a thrilling way to read the Chronicles of Narnia, it is this: reading it aloud to your children. Snuggled up on the couch, reading it with my years of faith behind me and my daughter’s fresh pair of ears and vivid imagination – it is a wild ride of joy and discovery.

This is not the first time I am reading the Narnia series. Far from it. But this time I am experiencing a new, raw emotion as I read. As we journey through the pages and the drama, with enemies closing in, betrayal all around and the future unclear, I keep finding myself holding my breath: I just can’t wait for the lion to show up.

I find myself aching for Aslan’s arrival. Why does he not come sooner? Can’t he see the children are in trouble? I remember the stories generally well enough to know that he does always turn up, and that in hindsight it was always exactly the right moment – but as we read I find I’m LONGING for it. I’m flipping the pages, desperate for the narrative to declare his arrival.

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My heart literally beats faster when he finally arrives. I am struck once again at how unexpectedly wise, how disarmingly discerning, how powerful, how playful, how loving, how tender, how stern he is. He is breathtaking. I know it isn’t just me, either, because my 5-year old’s face shines with joyous awe when we get to the Aslan parts. She is my little Lucy incarnate, and I love her all the more for it.

My daughter and I were both misty-eyed when we got to the end of the Voyage of the Dawn Treader last week, where Aslan tells Lucy that this is their last Narnian goodbye. Lucy is heartbroken:

“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”
“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.
“Are -are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.
“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

“Do you know Aslan’s other name in our world?” I asked my daughter.

“Jesus,” she whispered back, all fierceness-and-devotion in her voice.

Reading Narnia with my daughter has made me think long and deep again. By knowing Aslan there for a little, I am to know him better here. This is the very reason Lewis brought us to Narnia.

But why, then, do I long for Aslan in a way that I haven’t longed for Jesus for a while? Why have I not found myself praying Maranatha – COME Lord Jesus as the early church did?

I wondered about this for a while and then forgot about it. And then one evening, while reading through the gospel of Luke with my small group, all of a sudden, I felt the Lion show up. My heart rate literally sped up, because there on the pages of Luke, He had arrived. And I found I had forgotten how unexpectedly wise, how disarmingly discerning, how powerful, how playful, how loving, how tender, how stern he is. Jesus is breathtaking.

I had forgotten. It’s been a while since I’ve read the gospels.

CS Lewis’s Aslan is 100% proof positive that he was a diligent student of the gospels. The Aslan he wrote of was Jesus in every way: the one who grows bigger the more we know him, the one who gave his life for his betrayers, the one who never explains what “could have” have happened but gives grace enough for the next step. He is disarming, delightful, terrifying, hilarious. He is not a tame lion.

There are perhaps more people who have read Narnia than have read one of the gospels in the past 25 years. Friends, if you loved Aslan (even as a child), and you haven’t read Matthew, Mark, Luke or John in a while – do yourself a favor:

Read a gospel.

Watch this 3 minute video by NT Wright if you need an incentive. And if I can offer one tip while reading, it would be this: don’t read it waiting for the “take away nugget”. Read it as if you were one of the crowd, one of the Pevensie children, meeting him for the first time.

And I’ll eat my hat if, while reading the gospels, you don’t find that the Lion shows up.