Have I Sinned Against Unbelief?

Why Christians should take suffering that inflames unbelief far more seriously

While reading a remarkable book titled Christianity: The True Humanism, I was bowled over by this passage by J.I. Packer and Thomas Howard:

It is clear that many humanists in the West are stirred by a sense of outrage at what professed Christians, past and present, have done; and this makes them see their humanism as a kind of crusade, with the killing of Christianity as its prime goal. We cannot endorse their attitude, but we can understand it and respect it…

We, too, have experienced in our own persons damage done by bad Christianity—Christianity that lacks honesty, or intelligence, or regard for truth, or biblical depth, or courtesy, or all of these together. No doubt we have sometimes inflicted this kind of damage, as well as suffered it. (Lord, have mercy!) We cannot, however, think it wrong for anyone to expect much of Christians and then to feel hurt when they treat others in a way that discredits their Christian commitment. Since Christianity is about God transforming us through Jesus Christ, high expectations really are in order, and the credibility of the faith really is undermined by every uncaring and uncompassionate stand that Christians take. Loss of faith caused by bad experiences with Christians is thus often more a case of being sinned against than of sinning and merits compassion more than it does censure.

I instantly realized this was close to the opposite attitude I have had for many years. Instead, I’ve often been so occupied with undermining unbelief, with critiquing the spirit of the age and tearing down the intellectual and existential reasons people give for not following the Christ of the Bible, that I have utterly failed to take seriously the connection between being sinned against and unbelief. If Packer and Howard are right—and I believe they are—this is a major failure.

Why have I been failing here? I can think of two reasons.

First, there is a palpable cultural mood that reduces everything about life to the sum total of one’s experiences. This is the “my story” epistemology that I’ve written about before. Because there are no agreed upon central, transcendent truth claims in a secularized public square, the most truth that anyone can arrive at is their truth, and their truth is often deeply subjective interpretations of relational and social events. This mentality is powerful, and it is destructive; it blinds people to the absolute nature of our most important questions. It empowers confirmation bias. It can make people unteachable and difficult to reason with. It’s bad news.

So I think I’ve been caught up in refuting this mood so much that I’ve lost sight of the legitimate relationship between experience and objective belief. I’ve tried to swing from the one extreme of “experiences are all that matter” to the other extreme of “You should be able to think and live wholly independent of what people do to you.” Both extremes are logically impossible, though one feels more Christian than the other at this cultural moment. But Packer and Howard get to the heart of the matter when they say that unbelievers are right to have high expectations of people who claim to be actually reborn by the Spirit of Jesus. They have those expectations not because of Christians but because of Jesus! Thus, to ignore the failures of people who say they are born again to image the One in whose name they are supposedly reborn is to ignore the moral glory of Christ himself.

The second reason I think I’ve failed here is that I have consistently underestimated the power of suffering. It’s an underestimation that comes straight from my not having suffered very much. But it also, I suspect, comes from my not having listened very closely to the testimonies of people who have suffered much. This is inexcusable, and I’m sure it’s damaged in some way my connection with others.

I’ve said before that virtues like modesty and chastity have attending practices that can help us grow in them. This how I feel about stuff like the Billy Graham Rule, for example. But I think I’ve neglected the fact that empathy is also a virtue, and that like other virtues, it too has practices that must be picked up if the virtue is going to flourish in my life. What if one of those practices is not arguing all the time? What if another one is listening carefully to people who may not validate my assumptions?

Now here’s an important point. I don’t think the main reason to cultivate empathy is to become less decisive or more “open-minded.” The problem with open-mindedness is that it’s not a virtue. Its desirability depends entirely on what is trying to get into the mind. But empathy is a virtue that cuts across whether people are right or wrong, whether people believe or disbelieve. Rejecting the claims of Christ is wrong. Yet it is possible to compound a wrong by sinning in response to it. It is possible to drive a thorn deeper. Neglecting or minimizing the power of suffering, or lowering bar of expectations for believers, are both sins against unbelief. To the degree that I have done so, I’m sorry, and by God’s grace, I will grow in this.

One final thought. All of this applies very much to the way we Christians talk to people about the suffering of others. If we minimize trauma or excuse a lackadaisical response to it, for the sake of making some tribal theological or political point about someone not in the room, we are broadcasting a false view of God to the world. We are propping up a graven image in people’s minds. We are, in other words, acting in the same unbelief as those we are trying to convert.

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10 Suggestions For New Bible College Students

From one Bible college graduate to another, here’s a brief word to students beginning their education this month:

  1. Do not use your school work on the Bible to replace your personal reading of the Bible. Even the most spiritually helpful class time cannot compare to the cumulative effect of a week’s worth of private quiet times.
  2. Don’t be thrown off by the way holiness has become “cool” on campus. This may seem dreamy at first, but it carries with it many temptations. If you find your popularity increasing with how righteous you are, stop whatever you’re doing and ask a trusted friend for an honest assessment.
  3. You won’t find every class, book, or topic equally interesting or helpful. That’s OK. It doesn’t mean your love for God is lacking.
  4. Read at least one work of fiction every semester, lest you unwittingly become, like Charles Darwin, a machine for grinding out (theological) facts.
  5. Don’t resent family members or former pastors who didn’t teach you all this wonderful new theology. People with fewer books than you may know something too.
  6. Don’t organize evangelism events if you have no intention of following up with or discipling those in your community. See suggestion #2.
  7. Being teachable is better, and more Christian, than being smart. That’s true in the classroom, the pew, and the dorm.
  8. Run from pornography as fast as you can. It’s a locust that will devour your years. Embrace flip phones.
  9. Remember Mom and Dad and grandma and grandpa. After all, you’ll be surprised how few of your college friends are still in contact 3 years after graduation.
  10. Go to church every week, preferably a church that would notice when you’re gone.

Why We Can’t Explain Scrooge

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol begins like this: “Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.” The opening emphasis on Ebenezer Scrooge’s late business partner and friend Jacob Marley is crucial to understanding Dickens’ tale. A Christmas Carol isn’t about how one solitary, anti-social miser was frightened into a sanguine personality, and it’s not about the loneliness of self-centered living. In fact, when you think about it, Scrooge wasn’t a loner at all. Jacob Marley is proof of that.

But we modern readers seem to miss this. Our perception of Scrooge is that he is unfriendly because he dislikes people. We reckon that the three ghosts of Christmas–Past, Present, and Future–break Scrooge’s will by breaking through his defense mechanisms, perhaps like Robin Williams broke through Matt Damon’s child abuse-fueled mistrust of people. That is why we often use the word “Scrooge” to describe people we think are too dour or too introverted, those who rain on the parade.

But that’s not the Scrooge that Dickens created.

The ghost of Christmas Past helps us see this. The first spirit transports Scrooge back in time to three distinct scenes of his life. In the first, Scrooge sees himself as a boy at boarding school, forced to stay while his friends travel home for Christmas. But this moment quickly gives way to another, in which Scrooge’s sister arrives at the school and tells him that “Father is so much kinder than he used to be,” and has called for his son to come home. This moment in Scrooge’s childhood ends with happiness and reconciliation.

The next scene is likewise joyful. The ghost shows Scrooge his time as an apprentice to a garrulous man named Fezziwig. Fezziwig is kind and merry, and throws a delightful Christmas party for his family and apprentices. The point of this small act isn’t lost on Scrooge, who realizes that Fezziwig’s friends love him because he possessed “the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil…The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.” Under Fezziwig’s wing, Scrooge was a happy, cared for man, who rebounded the love he received into love–at least a temporary love–for others.

What happened to this love? Why did Scrooge lose it? Was it due to abuse, abandonment, or neglect? In our psychoanalytic culture, we would probably assume so. Surely such a change in character must have been precipitated by intense personal trauma? But that’s not what Dickens and the spirit show us. Instead, Dickens’ transformation of Ebenezer into Scrooge is far more subtle and far more perceptive of human nature:

He was not alone, but sat by the side of a fair young girl in a mourning-dress: in whose eyes there were tears, which sparkled in the light that shone out of the Ghost of Christmas Past.

“It matters little,” she said, softly. “To you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.”

“What Idol has displaced you?” he rejoined.

“A golden one.”

“This is the even-handed dealing of the world!” he said. “There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!”

“You fear the world too much,” she answered, gently. “All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not?”

“What then?” he retorted. “Even if I have grown so much wiser, what then? I am not changed towards you.”

She shook her head.

“Am I?”

“Our contract is an old one. It was made when we were both poor and content to be so, until, in good season, we could improve our worldly fortune by our patient industry. You are changed. When it was made, you were another man.”

“I was a boy,” he said impatiently.

“Your own feeling tells you that you were not what you are,” she returned. “I am. That which promised happiness when we were one in heart, is fraught with misery now that we are two. How often and how keenly I have thought of this, I will not say. It is enough that I have thought of it, and can release you.”

With that, the two lovers part, and the elderly Scrooge, unable to bear further the sight of this memory, tells the spirit to haunt him no longer.

Dickens is telling us that this moment in Scrooge’s life signals his descent into icy miserliness. Yet there is no psychological pain, no humiliation or unrequited love (from Scrooge, at least). His personal transformation defies Freudian explanation. Scrooge fears the world, yet the world had been kind to him. He fears poverty, yet the poor he had known for so long had shared their joy with him. How is it that this young man, reconciled to his father, rejoiced in by his master, and loved by a woman, becomes the kind of person to wish death on the poor so as to “decrease the surplus population”?

The answer is simple: We don’t know. That is the mystery of human nature, a topic that received Dickens’ masterful treatment many times. Scrooge’s past undermines our modern, convenient explanations of his present. In the end, all we are left with is the fact that somewhere, somehow, Ebenezer Scrooge fell in love with money.

This isn’t a lack of character development on Dickens’ part. On the contrary, this mystery is what gives A Christmas Carol its power. The Ebenezer Scrooge that is a cultural meme is someone to despise, someone on the outside that we may mock and jeer and never have to worry about. On the other hand, Scrooge the protagonist (yes, protagonist!) looks very much like me and you. No spectacular suffering, no singular moment of overwhelming seduction. Just a slow, gradual, sin-ward crawl, day by day, year by year, and decade by decade. His redemption was supernatural, but his moral decay was not.

Screwtape was right:

Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.