This post is somewhat unusual, being, as it is, an attempt at something vaguely serious and thought-provoking. It may not work, in which case please accept both my apologies and my assurance that normal service (i.e. inane and riotous comedy) will be resumed as soon as possible. For now, though, please humour me. I guess this is also a post mainly for the faith heads out there, rather than the heathens among us, but the latter are, naturally, welcome to pull up a metaphorical pew and join the debate (of course, true God-botherers will be pulling up something much more comfy than a pew, since most churches dispensed with such pain-inducing seating arrangements years ago in what was marketed as an attempt to be more 'welcoming' but which, in effect, has just made it more comfy for the regulars because, frankly, why is anyone going to come to church just because the seats are nice? - but I digress).
I've been off work for a fortnight now, and have enjoyed the chance to do a lot more reading, cycling, pottering, nothing and studying than is generally possible while my nose is to the grindstone and I'm working my little butt off (those who work with me, please refrain from laughing - remember, you're in church). And it is to the subject of the studying that we now turn.
I've been reading a book called 'The message of the cross', and one of the chapters focussed on Psalm 22, the one that starts 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' - words echoed in Matthew's account of Christ's crucifixion. I'll not go into the full details of the chapter here, nor indeed into the particular angle focussed on in the book, but part of what this psalm deals with is how to reconcile the difference between theology and experience, and that's what got me thinking.
Probably a lot of you know that I've suffered from various forms of depression for a good few years now, so I've often done a lot of thinking in this around how that can be so in light of God's promises for believers. I've listened to my share of cliches, Bible verses and platitudes but I've also been fortunate to have some brilliant friends who let me process things in my own time. I've discovered that what I claim to believe does not always match up to what's going on in my life. The Bible contains all kinds of wonderful promises, and great claims about God and things He has done, and as a Christian I believe the Bible to be true. But my life contains all kinds of messes and pain and emptiness and fear, and as a human I want those things to be recognised too. So here's the thing: what do I do when I read 'Perfect love casts out fear' (1 John 4v18) but then find myself taking a panic attack while lying in bed at night? How do I reconcile the verse that says 'Take delight in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart' (Psalm 37v4) with being single and, at times, lonely? What do I do when God seems far away?
Now, there is clearly a place here for putting these verses in context and reading them as part of a wider picture. But even allowing for that, this kind of dilemma is much more common than we admit; on Sunday mornings it's often all smiles and cheeriness, but how many of us really find that what we believe and sing and affirm on Sunday is really always backed up by what we experience the rest of the week? What do we do about that? What do we say when our theology and our experience are at war? I think there are 3 options.
The first is probably the commonest, or at least the most obvious in Christian circles today (or at least in the ones I move in): ignore our experience, and only really acknowledge things which we think we should be experiencing. Try to pretend that we're OK. Ignore the pain and the hurt and the anger, and try to convince ourselves that "it's all part of God's plan; He will bring good out of it". Like martyrs, we carry on, convincing ourselves and others (with varying degrees of success) that we're glad of this lesson we're being taught - we're learning to "crucify the flesh" and "submit our desires to God's will". Except that we're not. We're just ignoring them and adding some Christian-sounding phrases to explain them away. Churches are full of people with happy masks on, pretending that it's all OK and that all troubles (except maybe for really "big" troubles like death or serious illness) are a positive learning experience. So nothing gets talked about, nothing gets brought into the open - and nothing really gets brought to God. The pain is buried under a mountain of soundbites and cliches, and the reality of God keeps its distance. Meanwhile, hearts harden as we try to ignore them.
The second option is the opposite: tone down our theology and bring it into line with our experience. We agree that God is good; but in our hearts He's a little bit less good than we used to think. We agree He is just, but we're not sure how just. Our confidence in those things goes down; maybe we've interpreted them wrongly, we think, so we're just a little bit more cautious, and a little bit less ready to fling ourselves on God than we used to be. Of course we still sing the songs and we still say the right things - but we see them as ideals, not as reality. The real thing is harsher than we thought. So we bring the pain to God, let Him have a look, maybe let Him shed a few tears over it too, and then we pick it up and carry it on again. Dissatisfaction becomes the norm. Joy shrinks, and fear increases, as we work that bit harder to convince ourselves it's all true.
The problem with these 2 options is that they both start with me, and what I think should happen. They feed into each other, and start a downward spiral: I start with something in my life that I want solved and I think about praying about it. I figure out the solution, put it into nice words and present and explain it to God; I leave out the more unpleasant aspects of the problem because they seem too difficult for now. Then I'm disappointed when (often as not) He doesn't do what I asked. So I lower my expectations. I figure I need to give God something easier to work on. And so, I bury the really hard stuff and it goes un-dealt with, God stays in His little box, and I trudge on, disillusioned.
The third possibility is, of course, what we should do (I hate that word 'should'; somehow in my head, it always adds an invisible 'but don't' on the end). We need to balance the reality of our experience with what we know to be true; crucially, we need to start with God.
We need first to fully acknowledge that God is Lord, and is good and that He is holy. He is not at our beck and call; He need not answer or act in the way we want Him to, but nor can He act in a way that contradicts what He has revealed of Himself. So we must be open to the fact that God may not 'prove' His promises and claims in the way that we would expect; He may well do something wildly different. We must not limit Him in our heads just because we can't see how things will work out.
Then we need to fully acknowledge the pain and hurt and confusion of difficult times. We need to burrow into it; not to wallow in it, as self-pity would do, but to acknowledge it and explore it and open it out. We need not be afraid of it, precisely because of God's promises, even when they say something that we don't experience as true. We have to bring all of our anguish (and not our perceived solutions) to God, in its full ugliness and painfulness, and let Him show us that what He said is true. He has made promises and claims; let's dig them out and let Him prove them.
I must start with God. I read His promises of love and care and justice and faithfulness. Those are what should allow me to bring all my experiences before Him, without filtering out the stuff that I think I shouldn't be feeling or thinking, and without worrying about how things didn't work out how I wanted them to last time. By throwing those things on God (and not presenting Him with a nicely packaged solution), I then get the opportunity to experience Him making good on His promises. I experience joy and wonder at what He does.
I guess there will always be gaps between theology and experience. But these are precisely where God is best seen. My theology is only my limited understanding of God. My experience is tainted with my sin and wrong attitudes. But God can reconcile them in an awesome way, bringing me fresh revelation, and a new experience of joy and peace that's beyond my understanding.
So let's have honesty; let's ditch the cliches and let's let ourselves grieve and hurt when we need to; let's not try to fix ourselves, but let's bring ourselves and each other to the almighty and holy God we claim to believe in, and let Him get on with it.