What good is God? is a question which most of us have asked at some time, particularly when things are hard. Philip Yancey is no different, tackling the subject in his latest book.
Philip Yancey has never been one for shying away from the big questions of life. His stance as sceptical outsider examining the Church, the Bible, the life of Jesus and the practice of Christians, an investigative journalist trying to find the answers and solve the problems, has endeared him to millions of people.
Somewhat ironically, his success has meant that people now treat him as more of an expert, and these days he is as much in demand as a speaker, required to dispense wisdom and answers, as he is a journalist, who, by his own admission, is not an expert in anything. ‘A journalist does not have a field of expertise. The only thing we have is a point of view.’
His latest book, What Good is God? doesn’t so much walk the line between journalist and teacher as somewhat self-consciously traverse the two. He writes about ten places he has visited, devoting two chapters to each. For example, the first, as Yancey the journalist, describes the scene he finds on arrival at Virginia Tech after the mass shooting. The second is a transcript of the talk he gave to the survivors gathered on campus providing a more pastoral response. The rest of the book continues in this vein.
The trademark Yancey style is still there, but the book represents something of a departure for him. He combines his old approach, representing the questions of the reader (‘I think that’s what we’re called to do’), with something he’s not entirely comfortable with.
‘This is new for me. It was tricky to write and probably only now would I feel comfortable writing it because there were some times I had to say “and here I stand”, you know, which is different than the journalist, the journalist will almost never say “Here I stand”.’
You can’t help but wonder how sustainable Yancey’s dual roles as pastor and pilgrim are in the long term. Perhaps this book signifies a concerted move towards positioning himself in pastor territory, or perhaps he’s just learning how to blend the two more successfully.
It’s tempting to pass the entire interview talking about his development as a writer and speaker, which is interesting enough in itself. But the real insight comes when we move off the topic of Yancey, and onto some of the wealth of subjects which his book covers – pain, God’s plans, bad things happening and how we minister to each other when it seems like everything is in a mess.
Is there a tension between how you see yourself – as a journalist – and how others have come to treat you – as a ‘Christian leader’?
It does come up, for example, homosexuality, which of course is a huge topic. People always try to pin me down – ‘yeah, but what do you think? Should the Church ordain gay people?’ and I say, ‘Fortunately, I don’t have to make that decision, I’m not a church bureaucrat, or a pastor. I’ll start with what I know about. What I know about is that Christians have been grievously offensive to gay people, and judgemental, and we have ranked that sin in a peculiar category while ignoring some of our own. So let’s start with some of those things that I am sure about. I’m sure that we need to show compassion and love, and learn from them.
As soon as you take a stance on one side, you lose the other side. I read somewhere that 183 times people asked Jesus a direct question, and he answered with a direct answer three times, so I’m in good company. If someone had come up to Jesus and said, ‘Do you think gays she be ordained in the Church?’ I doubt he would have said yes or no, he would have said ‘Let me tell you a story, and then you go work it out.’ And I know that true leaders do have to draw lines and make policy decisions and all that but I do resist being put into that role, that’s not who I am.
How philosophical are you about the fact that the books and your speaking have a huge impact on people’s walk with God? Do you feel a great weight of responsibility?
I was speaking in Romania recently. One woman came, who had driven from Germany – that’s 12 hours – and she came with her husband, and had an amazing story. She was in an accident 26 years ago, and her brother died in the accident. Three years later, it was discovered that a blood transfusion that she got was tainted from the US with HIV virus, so she’s one of the first people – 26 years she’s had the virus – and she described how poorly the church handled that, and immediately changing from the common [communion] cup to individual cups, and they would come with all of these pronouncements about ‘God’s testing you’ you know, the kind of clichés that people give, and she was just adrift and someone gave her a couple of my books – Where is God When it Hurts? and Disappointment with God. She actually said ‘These books saved my life. So I drove 12 hours to hear you speak.’
It’s very humbling and I think it’s a protective thing that I don’t have anybody sitting in front of me saying that while I’m writing. When you’re writing, there’s nobody. It’s just you. Writing is very hard work and you don’t know how you’re doing, you don’t know if it’s going to be accepted, if it’s going to make a difference to anybody, you just kind of soldier on, and plod on, and hope. I did go through a kind of identity – not quite crisis, but an identity issue – a few years ago, over this very issue. People treating me as this guru and I’m much more comfortable with questions than I am with answers and cling to that, and people keep trying to push me into the answer.
A friend of mine, he was very helpful, he said: ‘In a way, your books are like children. You’re a parent, you have a clear idea of who your children should be, what school they should go to, who they should marry, what sort of character they should have…but then, they’re out there and they make all their choices, and none of them match exactly your ideal of what your children should be.’ He said: ‘It’s the same thing with your books, at some point you just turn them loose.’
And that was helpful to me, I realised all I can do is, when I’m writing the book, ask the questions and then pursue the answers with honesty and integrity and try and come up with something that’s satisfying for me. And then I turn it loose, and I can’t control what the readers do with it, and the miracle is that the story I told you about the woman in Germany, is that that does happen, and years later I’ll hear about it.
But I’m not thinking of her when I’m writing the book, I’m thinking ‘How am I going to resolve this one? How am I going to answer this question?’
Do you think the pain question is the question which comes up the most in terms of people’s struggle with God?
Ironically, in prosperous societies, who do a very good job of controlling pain and discomfort, that’s the huge issue. In places where people really have a hard life, that almost never comes up! It’s really interesting.
I was asked to speak in Burma with World Vision. And before I went, the guy called me from Burma and said: ‘You need to know that there will be several hundred pastors and all of them, I think without exception, have spent time in prison for their faith.’ And I said, ‘Oh, well you probably want me to speak on “Where is God when it hurts”,’ and he said, ‘No no no, they all assume there’s going to be persecution, that’s really not an issue. We want you to speak on grace, they can’t get along with each other.’ That’s not untypical. When I go to the Philippines, or the persecuted church in China, they never talk about why does God allow this. Isn’t that curious? They would have good reason. But if I come here…or in the United States, that’s the first thing on the agenda. There’s an irony there.
Why is that – is there something in our cultural conditioning which means we expect happiness in the West?
I hear there are mixed reviews of your National Health Service but people usually get treated…there is some drug that will address whatever your issue is. There are all sorts of things to deal with physical pain, and we’ve kind of got things under control, but we don’t really. Whereas, people in harder places like Haiti, they never have things under control and they know that. And so very often they will focus on not just life but another life to come.
You look at the great Negro spirituals, the music that was written by slaves; the songs that they wrote were songs of trust and songs of hope for ultimate justice. Nobody assumed that they were going to have a pain free life now; they just assumed that this life is misery, but I will place my trust in a God who is just and who will somehow make it better. That’s the basic message. People like Richard Dawkins could call it a delusion. But it meant something to the slaves and it means something to the people in prison now.
Nonetheless, bad things do still happen to people in the West. How do we start to address people’s pain in a way which points them towards God, rather than takes them away from him?
For me, the most important principle to get across is that God is on your side, not on the other side. I’ve talked to so many Christians and I keep thinking ‘surely this message has gotten through’ but virtually everyone you talk to has had some Christian say ‘God did this to teach you a lesson or…’ and I just say, ‘Ok, the clearest view we have of what God is like is in Jesus so if you have any kind of question about God’s attitude towards suffering people, take a look at Jesus.’
Jesus never once went to a person who was in pain and said, ‘Well, you just gotta deal with it’ and he never said ‘Well, you sinned, it’s God who’s causing this’. Instead he responded with compassion and with healing, he had the power to heal. That’s so important, because if you are already suffering and there’s a flicker of doubt in your mind that maybe God is doing this to you, then naturally you want to turn away from a God like that. The clearest picture we have of how God feels about what you’re going through is by looking at how Jesus dealt with people going through similar things. It was always with compassion, he was always on their side, so that’s an important place to start and that’s the place that the Church has often gotten wrong.
How do we walk alongside people who are suffering? Is it the practical stuff which is most useful? Or should we try and explain and justify what has happened?
I think ministering love in a practical way is very important. There are a few people who really can be helped by philosophical discussion of what they’re going through. A few people. I remember the two books that CS Lewis wrote on pain – one was The Problem of Pain – a very methodical, analytical discussion of the issue – and then there was A Grief Observed, when his wife was dying of cancer, and that was just anguish poured out. I’m so glad he wrote both of those and if anything the Bible is much more like A Grief Observed.
There’s nothing in the Bible that gives the analytical approach, but there’s a lot in the Bible that expresses A Grief Observed – Lamentations, many of the Psalms, Job – it’s all in there. You look at Job and his friends, Job’s comforters, when they came they tore their clothes and they sat with him for seven days and seven nights without saying a word. That was the best thing they did. It’s when they open their mouths that the problems started, because they were just flat out wrong.
Do you think the idea of ‘God’s plan for my life’ is problematic, particularly in terms of suffering?
I think it can be quite problematic. I prefer to think of it in terms of power streams. There’s a power stream of good – God’s creation, he created human beings, and the beautiful world we live in, that’s a power stream of good. And then there’s the power stream of evil, which distorts and twists those things that are good. Augustine says ‘evil doesn’t take anything new, it just takes good things and bends them, distorts them.’ And we’ve got all sorts of illustrations of that from family, government, church, sex…fill in the blank.
And then, there’s another power stream, of redemption – creation, fall, redemption, and it takes this power stream and joins the stream to try to restore it to God’s intent, so Jesus taught us to pray: Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And that’s what we ought to be about.
So we shouldn’t be surprised, and in the Bible it’s no surprise that bad things happen, that’s to be accepted, there are enemies afoot. God’s will is not being done on earth as it is in heaven and I think even a strict Calvinist would have to admit that. We do believe that will change some day. We do believe that God’s will will be done some day. But for some reason God has chosen us as part of the process, the way to get there. That’s really clear from the Bible. You might say, ‘Why doesn’t God do it himself?’ That’s a good question, if I were God, I would want to do it myself, but God seems to take pleasure in our bumbling, childish attempts.
God is a God of love and relationship and he enjoyed creating people to whom he could relate. So we just have to accept, God’s got his ideas and I can’t figure those things out. And you know, a lot of people think of life being ‘down here’ and God being ‘up there’. I think it’s much more like God working within the material that’s there. It’s his world, it’s God’s world. It’s not ‘God’ and then ‘the world’. This is our Father’s world, he chooses most of the time to work through the laws that govern the planet. Even the miracles that you don’t count on, you don’t build your theology on, you’re just very grateful for them, when they do happen.
Some people do build their theology on them...
Yes they do and I wrote a book called Disappointment with God, and they usually reach that point at some point. Sometimes half facetiously to audiences I look out and I see that about the same percentage of people who are Christians wear eye glasses as non Christians, and about the same percentage of men go bald, and I would imagine about the same percentage of Christians get sick. And I do know about this: exactly the same percentage of Christians die. One hundred percent. So we don’t get a free pass, you know. And if you build your theology on exceptionalism, one day you’re going to need my book, or at least, you’re going to ask the questions.
Philip Yancey’s latest book, What Good is God? (Hodder and Stoughton) is out now. It is also available free when you take out a new direct debit subscription to Christianity magazine