“I feel ya, Bro!” says one guy to another. What he means, it seems, is that he apprehends a given situation or idea the same way the other guy does. But the expression suggests something deeper, more empathetic than a mere shared understanding of something. “I think and feel the same way you do about that,” is the apparent message. And the really incredible implication is that the first guy can give this assurance because he actually knows the very thoughts and feelings of the other.
1 + 1 = …1?
Henry Craik was evidently George Müller’s best friend for many years as they served together in Bristol, England as ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ. When Craik died, Müller described their years of friendship as being “without a jar.” Amazingly, these two close friends never fought. But that does not mean that they always saw things the exact same way. Even less does it mean that either of them knew and understood the other down to the depths of his soul. The apostle Paul writes, “For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him?…” (I Cor. 2:11)
On the other hand, C.S. Lewis has famously written that “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.’” He is right, of course. And the experience is one of the great pleasures of life—one of the few which gives an undeniable foretaste of heaven. Which is probably why it is so elusive and rare. The truth is, even when two people really find that they are on the same wavelength, really mutually simpatico, their unity is never total.
Each of us is so different from every one of the others that, to be honest, I sometimes despair of ever truly communicating with another human being in this world. The simpatico soul moments are so few and far between and as fleeting as a snowflake on the tongue. Moments of annoying and even painful misunderstanding are much more easily and often come by.
Like so many other people (all others?), I yearn deeply to be known and understood. And I dread the opposite. Without claiming to be “just a soul whose intentions are good,” I echo the prayer of The Animals: “Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood!”
Lack of Communication
Recently, I had an unpleasant phone conversation in which it seemed that my dialogue partner was bent on misperceiving me while making repeated claims to ‘totally understand where I was coming from.’ It was awful, really. Leading up to the conversation and following from it, I have had the horrible self-doubts about whether it was wise even to have it. Back and forth I go from ‘why in the world did I even say anything?!’ to ‘I had to say that! And they needed to hear it!’
This last year, I worked at yet another Christian high school where I was not retained and where my departure was attended by copious amounts of relational misunderstanding. The truth is, my desire to work there was not that strong. The work was far too difficult (impossible, really) and the material rewards too minimal for it to have a naturally strong draw for me.
Among other things in my experience at this place was the constant awareness that I just didn’t fit. Like most Christian schools, it is a bastion of what I have often called, on this blog and elsewhere, God-and-Country-Evangelicalism. For the past ten years or so, my affinity for that mentality has eroded almost to nothing. Though I grew up in it and championed it myself for many years, it couldn’t survive my study of Scripture and church history.
So each week, as the school would gather on Monday morning for “Opening,” and the pledge of allegiance would be chanted to both the American flag and the “Christian flag,” I would do my best to step back into the shadows and just stand with my head down. While I, unlike Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas, never received any direct opprobrium for failing to put my hand over my heart, I always felt very foreign.
On one occasion, around the beginning of November, I did actually engage some 11th and 12th graders on the question of Christian non-violence, and the backlash was astonishing—almost like something out of a cheesy movie. Apparently, the superintendent’s phone lit up all afternoon and evening.
He did tell me, though, that a few of the calls were in support of my challenging the kids to think critically about the subject. And I did have a visit from a kind dad who came just to let me know he appreciated it. And while many of the students freaked out, there were a few who bravely defended me. I thank the Lord for all of these things. Still, they are the silver lining to what is undeniably a very large dark cloud of misfit experience.
It Only Hurts when I Relate
What bothers me about losing the position at the school the relational part. For one thing, I truly did come to love and enjoy the students; and I will miss them. But also, I hate the thought that the people of the school—the students, parents, my colleagues— might have wrong ideas about me. The official/unofficial story of why I am no longer there is likely to be that, though I was a good guy in a lot of ways, I couldn’t cut it as an English teacher, that I should just stick to Bible, etc. And that is simply not true.
What is true is that teaching all of the English classes for the entire high school is a job for at least two people. It cannot be done by just one person, especially if that one person is a real teacher. My understanding of what it means to be a Christian educator did not fit the school. I am not one for keeping things simple and shallow and just making the grades run on time.
But it is not a question of being misunderstood by robots. These are people. And what they think of me matters to me—no doubt, more than it should. I still live in the same city. I still see people from the school community around town. I’ve been bumping into them all summer. And each time, I want to run up to them and tell them that the official story is not true and that what happened to me there is not fair. But having been in similar spots before, I have learned how well such efforts turn out. It’s not pretty. As it is, writing this post probably means I will be seen as some kind of pathetic sore loser who doesn’t know how to just move on.
A Friend in the Valley
One of the most prevalent feelings I felt during the year—maybe the most significant of all—was loneliness. At times, the sense that no one else understood my heart or shared my view of things was almost oppressive. The Lord was with me, true. I knew He was present with me through the ache, and sometimes throbbing pain, of loneliness. But it was as much the presence of a wrestling opponent as of a loving friend.
Nevertheless, in the midst of the great trial that was this school year, the Lord blessed me with one really good friend among my colleagues. Mike, the Math teacher(!) from across the way, was also new to the school. That was probably what began our friendship—that, and our mutual love of coffee. But then it was sustained by a pretty good measure of shared understanding. With Mike, in the context of that place, I experienced something a little like what Frederick Buechner wrote of his childhood friend: “It was Jimmy who became my great friend, and it was through coming to know him that I discovered that perhaps I was not, as I had always suspected, alone in the universe and the only one of my kind. He was another who saw the world enough as I saw it to make me believe that maybe it was the way the world really was.”
Despite our mutual hopes of getting together, I have not seen Mike this summer. I hope we will get opportunities to hang out again. But whatever the case, I am deeply thankful to the Lord for his friendship through the last school year. He has my deep gratitude and respect.
Finding Kinship in a Book
“The author who benefits you most is not the one who tells you something you did not know before, but the one who gives expression to the truth that has been dumbly struggling in you for utterance,” writes Oswald Chambers. While it may be a bit too absolute, his point gets at something very real. Once in a while, you read a book and feel like the author knows you. Earlier this summer, I picked up a wonderful little paperback by Daniel Taylor titled The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian and the Risk of Commitment.
Having just finished it, I can say that it is one of those rare gems. It is only about 150 pages in length, but it took me about six weeks to reach the end. This is partly because I have had to set it aside for several days on a number of occasions since I began. But it is also because it is so rich and important that I really needed to take it slow as I chewed on each page.
In the afterword of the edition I have, Taylor mentions the nature of some of the letters he has received in response to the book. Some have expressed gratitude: “If there is a common theme to their letters it is a sense of relief at finding they are not alone…. It is no small thing to find that there are others in the world who share your experience.” Indeed.
One of the praise quotes on the back cover is from poet Luci Shaw who says, “I recognize myself on every page.” I must say that I do too—or very nearly so.
Taylor examines the plight of the reflective Christian with an insightful honesty that is downright soothing. In almost every chapter, he takes the reader on a little narrative aside in which he shows us the life of a character named Alex Adamson. Alex is a fairly young reflective Christian in his first year as a professor of English (Taylor’s actual position) at a Christian college which is steeped in unreflective fundamentalist traditionalism (hopefully not Taylor’s actual position). Poor Alex is both drawn to and repelled by two separate subcultures: the church and Christian circles on the one hand, and the secular intellectual subculture on the other.
Surrounding these narrative vignettes, Taylor deftly guides the reader in thinking through, not only the difficulties of being someone like this, but also the rightness and importance of going ahead and plunging into the risky enterprise of living a life of active faith in Christ. Here are a few excerpts which elicited from me the tearful response of ‘Oh my goodness, this guy knows me!’:
The life of a reflective person is more likely to be interesting, less likely to be serene; more likely to be contemplative, less likely to be active; more likely to be marked by the pursuit of answers, less by the finding of them. The result is a high potential for creativity, curiosity, and discovery, but also for paralyzing ambivalence, alienation, and melancholy.
Reflective Christians are, as they have always been, a great gift from God with important tasks to do. They cannot do them if mired in endless cycles of reflection without action. They also cannot do them, however, if they forfeit the life of the mind for mindless parroting of simplistic, culturally determined socio-religious agendas.
Thinking, as many have discovered, can be dangerous. It can get us in trouble—with others, but also with ourselves. And the suspicion lingers in religious circles that it can also, if we are not very careful, get us in trouble with God.
Like everyone, reflective Christians want to be accepted, to be valued, to be liked—ultimately to be secure. We are afraid of looking stupid, especially if we have an intellectual bent, but even more afraid, I hope, of being stupid. That is, I am willing, reluctantly, to be out of sync in either or both subcultures—to appear alternately naïve or rebellious, outdated or backslidden—if I am convinced that my stand is the right one.
Ah, there’s the rub. Will reflection ever give one peace about “the right” position? Intellectual orthodoxy will allow at best “a right” position, though even that is suspect. “How,” the ever-inquiring mind asks, “can I know that what I believe is right? Contrary forces witness to conflicting truths. I think I have the courage to take a stand, if only I could be sure where that stand should be.
That many people still believe that every “question” can and must be neatly linked to an “answer” illustrates exactly why the church is so often an inhospitable place for the reflective Christian.
But as I said, Taylor is not only good at articulating the problem. He gives a clear description of the way forward.
Faith is a quality and a choice consistent with the human condition. It is an appropriate response to the world as I find it. It is a superior response to cynicism or despair which use the genuine difficulty of life to deny the very real opportunity for discovering meaning in it.
There is one thing about which I do feel certain. I feel certain that the commitment to faith is a risk worth taking. I am more interested in finding a ground for commitment than I am in emphasizing the lack of certainty.
As a belief system, the Christian religion is subject to the many ills of all belief systems; as an encounter with God, it transforms individual lives and human history. God does not give us primarily a belief system; he gives us Himself, most clearly in the person of Jesus Christ, so that truth and meaning can be ours through a commitment to that love with which He first loved us. The risk is great, but the reward is infinite.
The Paralysis of Uncertainty and Gospel Ministry
My own struggles with doubt and certainty do not have much to do with the question of God’s existence. For the most part, the struggles Taylor has in view seem to be on that line. But that is not what hounds me. As it turns out, I am just no good at doubting God’s existence. He has always been too palpably real for me.
I have, however, tasted something of the bitterness of which Lewis writes in A Grief Observed: “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. the real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s not God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceiver yourself no longer.’”
Even this, however, has only been seasonal. Thank God for that!
Mostly, I find I am plagued by doubts about certain Christian beliefs, some of them pretty central to Christian living and ministry.
For example, the debate between exclusive soteriology and universal reconciliation continues to roil around in my mind and heart. I hear an exclusivist say that there is no salvation apart from a decision of faith in Jesus Christ, that those who do not put their faith in Him will go to hell forever—I hear this, and I sense that there is truth in it. It is what I was taught from my earliest childhood, and it seems to be consistent with biblical on God’s judgment. Yet I cannot escape the opposing sense that the love of God and the greatness of His sovereign grace will likely surprise us in heaven by including many people we thought were beyond its reach. So I find myself saying to the exclusivist, ‘I do not feel at all comfortable speaking for God like that.’
On the other hand, I hear a universal reconciliationist say that God’s love trumps judgment. I hear him say that He will not actually send anyone to hell, at least not for eternity. I hear him say that Christ died for the sins of the whole world. I hear Him say that the many, many millions of people all over the world who do not believe in Christ but whom I do not want to think of as perishing apart from Him forever will, in the end, somehow be okay. I hear all this, and my heart feels that it must somehow be true. It too seems to accord with much of what Scripture has to say. Yet I cannot escape the sense that this idea is as much a violation of God’s holiness as it is a confidence in His love. Scripture is utterly clear that there is something called “destruction,” some kind of fiery judgment, coming for those who are not in Christ by faith. So I find myself saying to the universal reconciliationist, ‘I do not feel at all comfortable speaking for God like that.’
Now maybe one would say that this dilemma is fine. Maybe I don’t need to resolve it. Just let it be. But I know the Lord has made me for the teaching and preaching of His word. I know I am meant to proclaim His truth to people and to do so from an unapologetically prophetic stance. But how can I do that if I am, as Taylor puts it, “mired in endless cycles of reflection without action?” He speaks for me when he says, “I think I have the courage to take a stand, if only I could be sure where that stand should be.”
I cannot rest in the tension. For one thing, what if the tension between the biblical ideas of the exclusivity of the gospel and the universality of God’s grace means that the two ideas are to be synthesized? Such a synthesis could very well mean that I am among those who will face the fiery judgment of God. In Matthew 25, the Lord Jesus characterizes the “goats” as those who thought they knew Him but who failed to follow Him as they should. And in II Thessalonians 1, Paul says the fiery judgment to come is for those who do not know God and those who do not obey the gospel. Not believe, obey! Do I obey the gospel?!
I cannot seem to resolve the issue, but I cannot just leave it alone! I am truly in a quandary!
This is part of why I have stepped down, for a time, from the preaching team at my church. It is also why I decided not to speak at Junior High Boys’ Camp this summer. If I am conflicted about these things, how can I do the work of an evangelist?
And yet, the call is there. Like Jeremiah, I feel that if I do not speak in the LORD’s name, His words will be like a burning fire in my bones. I cannot hold them in. I am a man most perplexed if not altogether despairing.
Gospel Commitment and Relationships
My prayer now is that the Lord will graciously help me find a way forward as Taylor shows in his excellent book. His formula involves memory, community and perseverance. But will that help me know how to serve God and people in gospel proclamation? I am hoping so.
I am, at least, committed to stay in the game. If the Lord will, I want Him to use me to draw people toward Christ, whichever side of an inside/outside line they might be on in terms of salvation.
Meanwhile, I wonder how many people will even understand all this.
How many will even have the time or patience to read such a long post?! Probably none.
No doubt, for many people, this is all just so much navel-gazing self-absorption. Mea culpa!
Nevertheless, I do hope that, in and through the community of the body of Christ, the Lord will help me to know what He wants me to believe and proclaim for Him. And I appreciate any help that anyone might have.
I close with the words of Pete Townshend:
“See me, feel me, touch me, heal me…
On you, I see the glory
From you, I get opinions
From you, I get the story.”