Bad Times, Good Theology

This has been a big year for me and my family.  Some of it has been good, like various graduations and an exciting church re-launch.  More recently, some of it has been disappointing—at least enough to affect the trajectory of our future.

Disappointment seems built in to the fabric of our world.

I don’t want to sound like a pessimist here because I don’t think that attitude is consistent with the gospel message.  But then again, neither is naïve optimism with its denial of common sense.

Instead, the gospel calls us to become realists, summoning us into the reality that belongs to God.  Jesus said “The hour is coming and now is when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth [reality]” (John 4:24).   John continues to write, “I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children walking in truth [reality]” (2 John 4).

And here is a basic part of divine reality:  Sometimes God’s providence turns into an impenetrable barrier between us and the future we thought we would travel.  No amount of naming or claiming or bargaining can change it.  Neither does God explain why.

Our options are few—either go high or deep, stay in the same place, or go backward.  But putting on a helmet and battering our way through won’t work.

We’ve had to deal with that reality for the last week, and work on some basic acceptance issues.

During peace time, theology only seems to belong in a seminary.  We can get by without all the big talk and spiritual words.  But it’s amazing how suffering turns everybody into a theologian.  We want to know what God wants.  Why did He let (or make) this happen?  What will He do?

It’s as though theology were a giant umbrella planted in the middle of a patio.  While the weather is perfect and dry and the sun not too hot, the umbrella appears unnecessary, even obnoxious.  But let the clouds gather and pour torrents of rain.  Or let the sun burn with a certain fury. We’ll huddle underneath that same formally obnoxious umbrella with gratitude.

During stormy moments, our attraction to theology won’t be one of detached intellectual interest, but of passionate seeking.  The doctrinal words and concepts stop being mere preacher-speak.  They describe God’s reality in the most immediate terms.

In times of disappointment, it’s tempting to succumb to substitutes.  Possibly the worst one is a form of pop theology I call “Me-ology.”  Since it uses verses that have been cherry-picked from scripture, it vaguely looks like theology.  But it’s not.  Closer inspection will demonstrate that rather than being God centered (theos), it’s me-centered.

Here’s what it does:

  1. It smooths over troubling circumstances without leading you to engage the pain, to seek deeply, or, if necessary, to repent.
  2. It aligns you on what you want, offering little or no wisdom to temper reckless desires.
  3. It promises you will get what you want with no regard for whether God has actually promised it to begin with.
  4. It encourages trust in your own positive vibes, affirmative words, or faith energy, rather than God Himself.
  5. It promotes little or no interest in what God wants unless “what God wants” is to bless you with everything you want. In other words, it establishes you in your own self-centered bearing.

Alternately, good theology does this:

  1. It tells the truth up front even if it hurts, because true healing lies down the road— like the painful setting of a broken leg right now leads to healing later.
  2. It aligns you on what God wants, which is where all blessing ultimately rests.
  3. It prepares you for suffering, empowering you to go through anything for Christ’s sake.
  4. It encourages trust in God rather than your constant efforts to fix, grab, or manipulate.
  5. It emphasizes character formation rather than quick deliverance.
  6. It advises getting what you want in God’s way and in God’s time.
  7. It avoids the never-ending anxiety of what-if and deals with what is.
  8. It ultimately describes God getting what He wants.

We can’t control the weather, but we can make sure we have the best umbrella in town.


Photo credit:  SSG Robert Stewart

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