What Does God Have to Do with Tragedy?

One of the most common reasons that people refuse to be a part of Christianity, or decide to leave it, is the reality of tragedy. Specifically, what dispirits them is the thought that whatever happens must be “God’s will.” “If God wanted that plane to crash and kill all those good people,” these disillusioned people say, “then I want nothing to do with God.” While strict Calvinists in the Reformed tradition hold God responsible for everything that happens, our Wesleyan/Methodist tradition of Arminian theology rejects that mindset.

The Arminian theological tradition does not lay the cause of all events on the doorstep of God. Wesleyans believe that humans are created with free will, and a lot of tragedies can be directly traced to human misuse of freedom.

For instance, many students in my courses know of someone, perhaps back in high school, who was killed in a drunk driver accident. When they blame God for that, I ask, “Did God pour a twelve-pack of beer down that driver’s throat, or did some human do that?” The Wesleyan/Arminian view takes human responsibility seriously. What we do in this life makes a difference.

Does that mean that all tragedies are directly attributable to human actions? Thoughtful Christians say “no!” to that extreme viewpoint as well. While some tragedies are clearly of human doing, some are clearly not, while others remain deeply mysterious. But we humans do not like living with mystery. So, unfortunately, we sometimes settle for the easy answer and either assign God or humans the blame in a vain attempt to escape the discomfort of living with mystery.

True mystery shatters the illusion that we have total control over our lives. Things are not as we would have them be, and there is no changing that. When we are in the midst of mystery, our mouths are stopped, and we have to retreat to the childlike impotence that we were born into. We can behold, but we cannot comprehend. The encounter with true mystery is not so much a new or radically intense kind of “experience” or “feeling”; it is more a lack of feeling, a kind of numbness. Such numbness does not leave easily. Some of it, for some people, perhaps, never entirely goes away.

But it is not necessary to remain forever dominated by this numbness. We can start “coming to,” and begin the frustrating but necessary task of finding our way around in the mystery that has engulfed us.

Jesus Christ stood in the midst of the mystery of human life and death and neither repressed this mystery nor pretended to answer it. In Luke 13 Jesus is asked to explain a tragedy, and he responds by asking, “Were those who had the temple of Siloam fall on them any worse than anyone else?” He dismisses such hateful speculation about the victims of tragedies by simply saying, “No,” then goes on to call for repentance among all those who hear him.

Jesus, then, acknowledged the reality of, and mystery of, tragedy and saw it simply as one more occasion to be called back to living a God-centered life. Tragedy neither drove him to despair nor elicit a long philosophical explanation. Jesus simply lived the mystery of a grace-filled life of love in the midst of tragedy, and called his followers to do the same.

To think that the faithful life will not have heartbreak is to be blind to the message of Jesus, but it also ignores the mournful outpourings found in many of the Psalms, as well as the whole broken history of the Jews throughout the OT. The Christian who has read and understood the book of Job and the passion narratives of Christ will know that the faithful ones in the Christian tradition are no stranger to the mystery of tragedy and the heartbreak that it brings. Christians are not unfeeling Stoics. As Paul said, we are to “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15).

The tears of a broken heart, then, need not repel one from Christianity. On the contrary, they can, for Christians, function as a kind of wordless prayer that professes our humility in the face of heartbreak. Our tears confess that we are not in charge of all that matters.

Sooner or later, though, we are beckoned out of our tears and the spiritual numbness that tragedy brings. For Christians, it is often gratitude that begins the beckoning.

While circumstances do not always elicit gratitude, eventually Christians see that life itself is the most profound gift to cherish, the deepest reason for thankfulness — in the midst of whatever circumstance. The Christian humility that tears can lead us to can also help to form in us a gentleness and hopefulness of spirit. When our hearts are so formed, we can take our next, halting steps into the uncertain future, knowing that we have the Holy Spirit as our guide and companion.

“Vocation” and the Core of the Gospel

The most common misunderstanding about Christianity is to think that it is all about “being good.” According to this view, Christianity is seen as exclusively about will power and doing good things. In fact, however, the gospel’s central declaration is something entirely different. Christianity at its pulsating core proclaims not: “be good” but: “be loved.” The good news is that the God who created us is the God who forgives us, loves us, and calls us to a life of love.

The second most common misunderstanding of Christianity is the exact opposite of the first. This view assumes that Christianity has nothing to do with being good. On this view, life itself can seem like a giant waiting room — boring at best, nightmarish at worst — because getting to heaven is the only message of Jesus.

To steer between these two misunderstandings, Christians must see that their lives are built on grace – God’s initiating love and forgiveness — but without letting that diminish our inbuilt sense that what we do in this life makes a difference. People need something to live for, a purpose in their lives, a meaningful and fulfilling plan to use their God-given energy in this life. In Christian terms, this quest can be seen as the search for vocation.

The English term vocation comes from the Latin word vocare, “to call.” Many think of God’s calling as primarily related to a particular job or career. In the Christian context, however, this is not the case. As Os Guinness has pointed out in his book The Call (Nelson, 2003), Christians are not called primarily to do something or go somewhere; we are called to Someone. Our calling is to God. What is beautiful about this is that no circumstances of the job market can keep us from fulfilling that calling, because Christian calling is much deeper than a job.

Being faithful in our calling to God might mean any number of things depending on the circumstances in which we find ourselves. For someone supporting a family, it might mean working for a season in a job that is not completely fulfilling, but that allows the bills to be paid. Living out your calling to God might have very little to do with what you do for a living. But it has everything to do what you do with your living.

Having a mature vision of Christian vocation means accepting two equally important truths: we are both called by God, but we also free to respond — or not respond — to that call. The characters in the film Forrest Gump illustrate this dynamic that defines so much of our lives.

In Forrest Gump, we see a striking contrast between two views of life, with each view personified by one of the main characters. One view sees life as entirely predetermined and ruled by “destiny.” This is embodied by Lieutenant Dan, who thought his destiny was to die in war, the fate of both his father and grandfather. The other sees life as nothing but randomness. This is embodied by Forrest Gump’s momma. Her catch phrase is “life is like a box of chocolates — you never know what you’re gonna get.”

At the end of the film, Forrest, standing heartbroken at the grave of his beloved Jenny and looking back at his life, is trying to decide if it’s Lieutenant Dan who was right or if it was his momma. Is reality fixed and predetermined, or is there some element of indeterminacy, with room for human freedom and agency?

Forrest’s answer? He said, “I think maybe it’s both.” And I think Forrest was right.

When Christians say, “It’s both,” we are saying that in this life there is a providence — God does “provide,” God’s grace is active. But this providence does not equal a “fate” or “destiny” that overrides human freedom. God’s grace is real and on the move, but our freedom is also real. It’s both.

To be sure, our freedom is limited in many ways. It is limited by our finitude — we are finite beings with limited power to control important circumstances of our lives. Our sinfulness also limits our freedom, for when we misuse our freedom (i.e., when we “sin”), the consequences can drastically change the playing field for our freedom. Our brokenness, when someone else’s sin impacts us, can also lead to a narrowing of the scope of our freedom.

But the spiritual resources of our Christian tradition allow us to live gracefully with these limits. Humility can help us live with our finitude; confession, repentance and restitution can help us deal with our sinfulness; and God’s healing can help us move beyond the blockage of brokenness.

Our vocation is much more profound than a career. It is a calling to be God’s people in whatever finite, sinful and broken circumstances we find ourselves. When we embrace that challenge, we become a part of God’s cosmic drama, and we find ourselves living the life worth living.

Adapted from Clapper’s book Living Your Heart’s Desire: God’s Call and Your Vocation (Upper Room Books, 2005).

The Christian and War

The church has done a lot of thinking about Christians going to war. Although some Christians are pacifists, saying “no” to all violence or the bearing of arms, the United Methodist Church has not completely embraced pacifism. The EUB Confession of Faith, accepted into the Book of Discipline with the merger of 1968, states: “We believe war and bloodshed are contrary to the gospel and spirit of Christ” (Article XVI). However, the United Methodist Church has never sanctioned a church member for joining the military. In fact, the UMC actively endorses military chaplains. This highlights the reality that the Christian tradition has long been divided on this issue.

Committed pacifists maintain that, in light of Jesus’s command to love our enemies, Christianity is not compatible with killing. Christian thinkers in the Just War tradition, however, avow that sometimes in our broken and sinful world, we are forced to choose whom we are to love. Sometimes, we cannot love all at the same time. To understand the Just War tradition, consider a thought experiment.

Pretend that you are an American soldier who is approaching the gates of one of Nazi Germany’s many concentration camps. As you approach the camp, you simultaneously see two scenes. One scene shows inmates being killed and thrown into the furnaces. The other scene is what you see through the sites of your rifle. There is the Nazi guard, making sure that no inmate escapes the camp. At this point, you have a choice: you can say to yourself “As a Christian, I am called to love even my enemy (Matt 5:44), so therefore, I will not pull the trigger on that Nazi guard.” Alternatively, you can focus on the potential victims who are being led to their slaughter, and see them as your neighbor whom you are also called to love (Matt 22:39).

Just War theorists say that if we do not love those neighbors by shielding them from slaughter, then we are not even coming up to the standards of the “tax collectors” and the “Gentiles” (Matt 5:46-47). Here, we are not even loving our brothers and sisters who love us. Indeed, Jesus equates what it means to love one’s enemies with what it means to be “perfect” (Matt 5:48). But it is a pretty twisted biblical interpretation to think that we should take more care for the enemy—for the perpetrators of evil—than for our brothers and sisters who are being victimized.

Let me be clear. I am not talking about “fighting for the faith”; that is, fighting to spread Christianity. Christian faith can never be compelled, so it makes no sense to try to “convert” people at the point of a sword or a gun. Yet Christians can—and should—fight for certain causes that flow from our commitment to love, such as to defend the weak from slaughter or to fend off an imminent attack.

The presumption for Christians should always be toward peace. Our hearts should always lean this way. We should always try to be the peacemakers celebrated in the Beatitudes (Matt 5:9). As Christians, we must also fight our common cultural tendency to identify the “real man” (or woman) as one who has served in the military, for Jesus defines maturity in the Sermon on the Mount with such phrases as “turning the other cheek” (Matt 5:39), and “forgiving as we have been forgiven” (Matt 6:12). The Apostle Paul said that having the Holy Spirit in you is seen by the “fruit” that the spirit grows, that is “love, joy, peace,” etc (Gal 5:22-24).

But heart-breaking choices come all too often in this life, and in our broken and sinful world, sometimes Christians are called to choose whom they will love and how. This is a tragic view of what it means to be a believer in our broken world, but many Christians think that closing our eyes to the evil done to our neighbors would be even more tragic.

Since I do believe that sometimes to resort to violence is the lesser of two evils, I felt I needed to put my life behind what I believe. In addition to my full-time academic career, I spent 24 years as a United Methodist Chaplain serving in the National Guard. I served the men and women of our armed forces by preaching, delivering the sacraments, and counseling in many challenging contexts around the world. I believe I have faithfully served my God and my church in both the academic gown as well as in my country’s uniform.

Looking “With” the Saints

In my last two Catalyst essays (see here, and here), I encouraged contemporary United Methodists to embrace the Christian language of “heart religion.” Wesley summarized his essential heart-orientation by focusing on three spiritual-emotional capacities that he saw as necessary for every believer—repentance, faith, and holiness. In my last essay, I discussed repentance, which Wesley termed “the porch of religion.” Here, I will briefly characterize the other two parts of the house—the “door” of faith and “religion itself” or holiness.

If we want people to walk through the “door of faith,” as Wesley understood it, then we must speak of two separate, albeit related, meanings of “faith.” We must speak of the knowledge of who God is and what God has done. This is essentially the gospel. Equally important, we must speak of our heart’s trust in the God of the gospel. This faith-as-trust is transitive; that is, it is grown not by being trusting in general, but by focusing on, and trusting, the God who is described by the gospel.

A large part of such growth in faith is accomplished through catechesis and a regular liturgy that has theological integrity. But orienting people to the object of our faith can also occur, not so much by describing the object directly, but by describing scenes where people are targeting God with their faith. In this sense, one could pay attention to believers, not in order to look at them, but to look with them, to gaze upon the objects that have given them the faith to go on.

One reason why preachers often refer to popular movies to illustrate their sermons is that the characters in these fictions are portrayed in a way that allows people to see where their hearts are fixed. Often, in the artistically condensed character sketches that films provide, we can see the object of peoples hearts more readily than we can in the more subtle ways they are typically evinced in real-time, everyday life. For instance, in It’s a Wonderful Life, the people in Bedford Falls, over a period of many years, caught a glimpse of reality through the eyes of Jimmy Stewarts character, and they were inspired by his life of faith to live such a “wonderful life” themselves. They not only looked at George Bailey, they looked with him, and as we watched this whole process, we were invited to see reality through his eyes as well.

This same pattern can be followed when encouraging Christians to embrace and embody the third part of Wesley’s image of the house of Christianity—the house of holiness. Wesley understood holiness to be nothing but agapē—love. For vivid depictions of this love, we, like Wesley, begin with Scripture.

While many are familiar with 1 Corinthians 13 and its famous description of love, fewer will remember that there is an even more concise definition of love to be found in the NT. This definition is found in 1 John 3:16: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (NRSV). However, we can understand this self-sacrifical love that we are called to live out not just by reading about it in Scripture. Such love becomes especially compelling when we can point to it as embodied in real lives.

Wesley himself did this by lifting up examples of everyday saints in his own local communities. Wesley published biographies of role-model-Methodists in the early Arminian Magazine of the Methodist movement. Considering the lives of saints is not only a “Roman Catholic” thing to do! When we look at the lives of lovers (agapē) in the world, it is possible to catch a glimpse of God by looking with such lovers, to look where they are looking.

The postal worker who takes time to serve as a “big sister,” the busy lawyer who will make time to cook for a church funeral, the teacher who paints houses of poor people for free—all of these people are “laying down their lives” as the 1 John passage calls us to do. Some lives are laid down all at once, like police and military heroes. But more typically we are called to “lay down our lives” a little bit at a time, on a daily basis, however many years we are granted.

Yet, one thing is clear. When we look at such lives for any time at all, we end up looking with them for the source of their inspiration and power. Looking where the saints look is one powerful way for people to grow in all three aspects of the “house of religion.”

What Leads to Heartfelt Repentance?

In a previous essay, I encouraged contemporary United Methodists to unashamedly use Wesley’s—and the Bible’s!—language of “heart religion.” There I showed how the current intellectual culture has started to appreciate in a fresh way the potential theological and intellectual integrity of our emotions. In this essay, I will explore the specific “emotions” (or “affections” in Wesley’s terms) that he said were the key markers of the Christian life.

Three leading interpreters of Wesley’s theology—Richard P. Heitzenrater, Albert C. Outler, and Thomas A. Langford—have each taken Wesley’s statement of his “main doctrines” in Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained as a representative summary of his views. In that piece, Wesley names the three essential doctrines that describe the doctrinal kernel of Christianity.

Our main doctrines, which include all the rest, are three—that of repentance, of faith, and of holiness. The first of these we account, as it were, the porch of religion; the next, the door; the third, religion itself. (Works 9:227)

There are several remarkable things about this statement, one of which is Wesley’s descriptions of “repentance,” “faith,” and “holiness” as doctrines. To say that these three terms are, in and of themselves, “doctrines,” is, I think, more than a kind of lazy shorthand on the part of Wesley. This “doctrinal” summary speaks directly to what Wesley held to be most crucial in the whole Christian enterprise—namely, lived Christianity, describable in terms of the affections of the heart. Wesley’s “main doctrines”—the indispensable components of essential Christianity—were best understood as they were enacted in human lives (i.e., hearts). In this essay, I will focus on the first part of that “house of religion” image—the “porch of repentance.”

If we want to bring people onto the “porch” of repentance of this “house” of Christianity, we must start by understanding the logic or grammar of how emotions/affections work. First of all, we need to see that emotions take objects—they are “transitive.” For example, we love or fear or hate not everything in general—these emotions instead take specific objects (“I love my dog,” “I fear failing this test,” “I hate racism”).

Since emotions must take an object, as Christians we need to see that it is not always helpful to point people to their own sinfulness if we want them truly to repent. Targeting one’s own sinfulness can only lead to one’s feeling of guilt. Perhaps there are times when this is important in a particularly unawakened person, but more often than not, what is needed is to focus people’s attention on that object which can best bring about an awareness of one’s own sin. The Bible shows us that very often the best way to do this is to focus people not on their own sin, but on the holiness of God.

As we can see in both the Old and the New Testaments, we are often most vividly aware of our sinfulness not when someone comes along and wags a finger at us and tells us how bad we are, but when we catch a glimpse of God’s holiness. In Isaiah’s call to ministry (6:1-5), he is aware of the holiness of God and the angels put this awareness into words by saying “holy, holy, holy.” The first words out of Isaiah’s mouth, however, are “Woe is me! I am lost” By seeing what true holiness is like, Isaiah becomes aware of just how unholy he is, just how far he is from the image of God he was created to bear.

Similarly, in Luke 5, when Peter witnesses the miracle of the net full of fish, he shouts out to Jesus “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Jesus does not have to judge Peter or rub his nose in his sins to invite Peter onto the porch of repentance. He merely had to show God’s holiness through the miracle of the net full of fish. When Peter was given this vision, all he could think of was fleeing, for he had become aware of his own sinfulness through an encounter with the Holy One.

As preachers, if we want to bring about repentance, we need to offer our people Christ. Let them behold the holiness of God revealed in Christ, the holiness of the uncompromising teacher of the Sermon on the Mount, the holiness of the one who loved us so much that he gave his life for us, the holiness of the one who forgives his tormentors as he writhes in pain on the cross. When people catch such a vision, they see, by the inevitable comparison to themselves, just how unholy they are–and how much they need to repent.

In a subsequent essay, I will explore Wesley’s “door of faith” and his “house of holiness.” The interested reader can explore Wesley’s “house” in greater depth in my book As If the Heart Mattered: A Wesleyan Spirituality (Wipf & Stock, 2014).

Is it Defensible to Preach “Heart Religion” Today?

When getting to know someone we often start by asking questions like: What kind of work do you do? Where do you live? What was your major in college? What’s your hometown? It’s normal to start with these kinds of questions that can give us an “objective” picture of a person.

The Bible, however, says that the best way to judge a person is determined by answers to different kinds of questions. These questions include things like: What brings you joy? What makes you mad? What brings you peace? And, most importantly: Who or what do you love?

Those are “heart” questions.

While we often value most highly the “objective facts” about people — things like their external appearance, their political affiliations, or what country they happened to be born in — the Christian tradition says that those things pale in importance when compared to the quality of one’s heart.

When the Bible refers to the heart, it is not focusing on the blood-pumping muscle in our chests. “Heart” in the Bible is a metaphor, a figure of speech, used to describe the center of a person. It defines what matters most to a person. Since the physical heart stands at the center of our bodies and is so essential to our lives, it is a powerful metaphorical image for what is most central to who we are, what most defines us. These subjective questions are the most important because, as the Bible says, while humans look at the outward appearance of people, “the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7); to be a Christian is to have a “circumcised heart” (Rom 2:29).

What does such a heart look like?

It is a heart marked by trust that one’s sins have been forgiven by the work of Jesus, a humble heart that has put away pride and that has let the “Holy Spirit” take root. The Holy Spirit is not some shadowy or spooky presence. The Spirit’s presence (or absence) is typically quite obvious. Just as we know an apple tree by its “fruit” – whether it grows apples, for example – we know if someone’s heart is controlled by the Holy Spirit if that person is growing the “fruit of the Spirt”: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).

One reason people today are reluctant to talk about the “heart” is that we have inherited a vocabulary that pictures anything emotional as necessarily uncontrollable, unrelated to anything outside of the self, and “irrational.” Thankfully, recent scholars have started to address this mischaracterization.

In his book From Passions to Emotions: The Creation of a Secular Psychological Category (Cambridge University Press, 2003), Thomas Dixon, a professor at the University of London, shows that through the influence of thinkers like David Hume, Thomas Brown, and Immanuel Kant, “emotions” came into being as a distinct psychological category in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, replacing such terms as appetites, passions, sentiments, and affections. “Emotions” in this school of thought were seen as “alien powers rather than movements integral to the self” (97) and as involuntary “mini-agents in their own right, rather than movements or actions of a will or self … non-cognitive states … to be contrasted with intellectual judgments and thoughts…” (251).

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who often spoke of the heart and its affections, has typically been interpreted through this nineteenth-century paradigm of “emotion.” Accordingly, it isn’t surprising that his vision of Christianity as a “religion of the heart” fell out of favor with so many twentieth and twentyfirst-century Methodists. After all, who would want to be a Christian if that meant being caught up in irrational, amoral, individualistic “inner” experiences that had nothing to do with the external world, let alone with the gospel?

If, however, we resist this often-assumed, dismissive understanding of “emotion” and, instead see these movements of the heart as Wesley did – that is, seeing emotions as having a rich intellectual, moral, and (potentially) theological integrity – we can again unashamedly preach, as he did, a “religion of the heart.” Fortunately, we have powerful allies in this task of envisioning affective reality in truer and more appreciative ways, including contemporary emotion theorists like Martha Nussbaum of the University of Chicago.

Nussbaum sees emotions not as unthinking energies that simply push the person around, but as “intelligent responses to the perception of value” (Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions [Cambridge University Press, 2001], 1). I can’t elaborate her theories in this brief space, but if the reader is interested in pursuing her views, and their applicability to Wesley’s “heart religion,” they can consult the works mentioned in my bio.

Wesley said that “the great end of religion is to renew our hearts in the image of God” (Sermon 44, “Original Sin,” 185). This means that accepting God’s love, so that so that our hearts can then grow into the fullness of God’s holiness, is not something dispensable or an exercise in self-indulgent irrationality; it is the gospel itself.

The fact is that all people have an interior life, and its nature, shape and content are crucial matters in God’s eyes. Christians see the life of the heart as designed not to be pure chaos, but to be ordered around our perception of that highest value – God’s saving love.

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