Persevering in Hope in a Challenging World
Note: A longer version of this article, entitled “A Learned Craft,” appears in Just Thinking: The Quarterly Magazine of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (Vol. 21.3), available online at www.rzim.org.
I attempted to suppress my stunned disbelief with a question: “What do you mean?” I listened as a dear Christian friend of more than 25 years shared with me that she was considering moving in a direction that was a reversal of what she had long held true and what the Scriptures clearly proscribe.
Over the days that followed, I tried to refrain from continually pointing her to numerous Bible passages that would challenge her intentions. After all, she knew them well. Rather, I spoke about God’s compassion in our brokenness and his Spirit’s transformative work in our lives, and encouraged her to talk with a counselor who could help unravel her deep and knotted burden. Sadly, a few months later, she chose to leave her church home and move in the direction she expressed. “I’m happy,” she told me. How does one counter that?
Since my graduation from Gordon-Conwell, I have had the privilege to assist apologist Ravi Zacharias with his research and correspondence these past 21 years. If my experience with my friend and the emails and letters we receive are any reflection of the wider evangelical culture, there has been a noticeable shift in the questions raised by those who would identify themselves as Christians. Less than 10 years ago, the predominant questions were, if you will, intramural ones: “What is your view of predestination?” “Which version of the Bible is most accurate?” “What is the unpardonable sin?”
More recently, however, many questions resemble ones we usually receive from skeptics or seekers at university engagements: “How can God be morally good if he ordered genocide in the Old Testament?” “How can I trust a God who allows suffering, hates homosexuals, doesn’t answer my prayer, etc.?” As such, I would suggest that many people, including those within the church, are wrestling with the fundamental character and nature of God, with questions concerning his goodness and trustworthiness.
Think, for instance, of the confusion generated by Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. Yes, numerous pastors, scholars and bloggers revealed its flawed exegesis and arguments. Yet the book created profound cognitive dissonance for some readers and accomplished its purpose: to stir an emotional response to a depiction of an angry God and unfair judge.
And is it not the case that even we who hold fast to what we cognitively affirm—that God is sovereign and good—may still sometimes struggle to make sense of our emotions when we encounter a difficult passage of Scripture, or an experience such as betrayal or loss that challenges our view of an all-loving and powerful God? Indeed, consider bewildered Job under the scourge of suffering, or Joseph or John the Baptist languishing in prison, or faithful but barren Elizabeth and Zechariah, and countless others in the pages of Scripture who strained to discern God’s presence and purpose.
So how do we help others see the hope of the gospel, and persevere in hope ourselves in a world where the biblical view of God is constantly challenged?
First, Ravi Zacharias has observed that as we seek to address tough questions, it is critical to understand there is often a deeper question behind the one being posed. Hence, we must listen carefully to hear and respond to the actual question raised. He recalls how a young couple came to him after a speaking engagement in a church and asked how God could allow suffering and evil. As he began to offer a reply, he noticed that the woman was holding a child with a severe physical deformity. He surmised that the couple’s theological inquiry masked a deeper existential struggle. So he set aside the standard arguments of theodicy to consider the pain and confusion they were experiencing.
This is not to suggest that some do not wrestle with the philosophical arguments for the problem of evil or God’s existence, but rather, that we need to take time to listen to our questioners so that we might truly hear their concerns. Sometimes, as with my longtime friend, we might even ask, “What do you mean?” In apologetics, this approach uses the law of identity, which involves identifying unspoken assumptions and presuppositions. This law states that everything that exists has a specific nature; for example, “A = A” or “A sheep is a sheep” (and not a cow). Thus, if someone remarks, “Sure, I believe in Jesus,” we rely upon the law of identity when we ask the person to tell us more about who this Jesus is. Is this the Jesus portrayed in the New Testament or The DaVinci Code?
Or, we might follow up by asking the person to tell us what he or she means by “believe.” Does the individual’s understanding of belief amount to reasoned confidence or “blind” faith? (A common misperception is that science involves facts and evidence, whereas religious belief is based on myth, feelings or a wish-fulfillment for a benevolent God. And yet, science is unable to answer basic metaphysical questions such as “Why are we here?” or “Why is there something rather than nothing?” And atheism itself can be seen as a wish-fulfillment for no God and no absolute foundation for morality.)
In such conversations, we may discover that “belief in Jesus” may be radically different from what the Bible presents. Thus, it is critical to listen carefully to those we seek to engage so that we might hear their underlying questions and unspoken assumptions. As my colleague Alister McGrath writes, “Apologetics is not a set of techniques for winning people to Christ. It is not a set of argumentative templates designed to win debates. It is a willingness to work with God in helping people discover and turn to his glory.”
Second, though we may be seminary graduates pastoring churches or mature Christians discipling others, sometimes our own unsettled questions and unexamined assumptions can cloud our hope in God and our confidence in the gospel. When relationships fail, health deteriorates or vocations are lost, our understanding of God can be tested to the core when we, as philosopher Esther Lightcap Meek suggests, “Labor under the misimpression that we see what we see, that seeing is believing, that either I see it or I don’t.” The evidence for God’s existence and Christ’s uniqueness looks quite clear to me in light of the historical Scriptures, the pattern of the universe and conflicting worldviews. But there are times when I have questioned God’s goodness, because I perceived him to be unresponsive and unmoved by my troubled heart. Studying God’s Word didn’t lead me to this misperception; rather, my experience of loss did.
And when our view of God is misguided, doubt eclipses hope and we may be tempted to take the seemingly “happy road” rather than trust in his sovereign but unforeseen plan. Yes, God is consistent and faithful to his Word, but he is not predictable. If he were, there would be no place for grace or mercy. He sends rain to the just and unjust. He rewards a prostitute’s shrewd deceit with a secure place in the Promised Land, while barring his prophet Moses from it because of a rash act of rage.
Here I have discovered that we truly need the fellowship of other believers to help us see what we cannot see, to pray when we cannot pray and to hope when we struggle to hope. As Meek contends, “Sometimes, apart from someone else’s insistence and guidance, we don’t even get it right about the thoughts in our own head. We need to be taught how to see.” The prophet Daniel and the apostle Paul thrived in pagan, foreign worlds through a family of friends, persistent prayer and a steadfast hope against hope that God alone “changes times and seasons” and “no one can hold back his hand” (Dan. 2:21; 4:35). Paul wrote, “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe” (Eph. 1:18-19a).
And what is this hope? “Hope,” writes John Calvin, “is nothing else than the expectation of those things which faith previously believes to have been truly promised by God. Thus, faith believes that God is true; hope expects that in due season he will manifest his truth. Faith believes that he is our Father; hope expects that he will always act the part of a Father towards us. Faith believes that eternal life has been given to us; hope expects that it will one day be revealed. Faith is the foundation on which hope rests; hope nourishes and sustains faith.”
Likewise, we desperately need the mirror of God’s Word, for ultimately it is the one true and trustworthy reflection of who God is and who we are becoming. Here we are exhorted and comforted, chastened and encouraged by the One who loves us and can speak into our lives like no other. Here we can bring our longings, fears and questions before his throne of grace and let the light of Jesus’ presence shine into every dark and confusing place in our lives, “for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything” (1 John 3:20b). And it is in such places, Scripture tells us, that God “longs to be gracious” and promises that all “who hope in him will not be disappointed.”