Two-Handed Faith by Philip Yancey
The following quotations are from Philip Yancey’s book, “Reaching for the Invisible God” published in 2000.
YEARS AFTER THE AMERICAN Civil War had ended, someone asked
George Pickett, the Confederate general who led “Pickett’s charge” at Gettysburg, to explain why his side lost. He pulled on his whiskers for a moment, then replied, “Well, I kinda think the Yankees had a little somethin’ to do with it.”
To draw a more complete picture, I must mention a further way of looking at reality. The invisible God is not alone out there. The Bible insists we live in the midst of other unseen “powers,” some devoted to good and some to evil. If one day we, like Job, have the opportunity to question God in person about matters that troubled us during our time on planet earth, God may well reply, “I think the Rebels had something to do with it.”
As a cub reporter at the height of the Jesus movement in the l97Os, I interviewed a rock band appearing at a Christian music festival. They presented to me a view of the world I had never encountered:
Yeah, man, we were really under attack. The Lord was with us in Indianapolis. His Spirit filled the place. So then Satan reached down as we were driving along the road and undid the trailer hitch from our bus. There goes all our amplifiers and instruments. The trip would have ended right there. But God stepped in. He guided that thing so it hit nothing, just coasted to a stop beside the road. We’re back in business, man. The Lord’s business!
In their Jesus-people lingo, the musicians presented a world that involved God and Satan waging a tug-of-war over every incident on earth.
After interviewing the band, I began listening to language used by Christians. A family leaves on a trip to the Middle East during a time of rising tensions: “We’re in God’s hands,” they say. A man goes through a contentious divorce: “God is teaching me to look to him.”
I have heard seminarians joke about a man who steps from a curb and narrowly misses being hit by a speeding car. “Providence was looking out for him,” says an observer. A day later the man steps from the same curb and this time gets hit. After long months he recovers from serious injuries. “Isn’t it marvelous how God spared him?” the observer remarks. Later, he steps from the same curb, is hit again, and this time dies from the injuries. “Well, God saw fit to take him home.”
At times all of us fall into such thinking. The great Leo Tolstoy struggled to make sense of God’s involvement during Napoleon’s invasion. In War and Peace, he examines each feint and thrust of the enemy as it marches across Russia. Surely it cannot be God’s will for the Corsican upstart to conquer Holy Russia! Is God sleeping? Can forces of evil prevail over forces of good? As the French army drives toward Moscow, Tolstoy fervently searches for some understanding of providence that might account for such a catastrophe. He finds nothing except the “irresistible tide of destiny”
Everyone who believes in God carries around a basic assumption of how God acts in relation with us. The French novelist Flaubert said that a great writer should stand in his novel like God in his creation: nowhere to be seen, nowhere to be heard. God is everywhere and yet invisible, silent, seemingly absent and indifferent. A few intellectuals may enjoy worshipping such an absentee God, but most Christians prefer Jesus’ image of God as a loving father. We need more than a watchmaker who winds up the universe and lets it tick. We need love and mercy and forgiveness and grace—quality only a personal God can offer.
Yet the more personal conception of God we have, the more unnerving are the questions about him. Shouldn’t a loving God intervene more often on our behalf? And how can we trust a God we can never confidently count on to come to our aid?
I ONCE MET A bona fide paranoid, a young woman utterly convinced the world was against her. Whatever happened she somehow worked into her conspiracy theory of a hostile world. If I tried to comfort her by saying something like, “I think you took that comment in the wrong way. Martha was just trying to be helpful. She doesn’t hate you,” my peacemaking would only fuel her paranoia. Aha, he’s one of them. Martha probably put him up to this. He’s trying to soften me up, break down my resistance. Nothing anyone said or did could pierce through her protective armor of paranoia.
A paranoid person orients life around fear. My wife worked for a supervisor who became convinced, wrongly, that Janet had eyes on his job. Every suggestion Janet made at work, her supervisor took as an attempt to undermine him. Every compliment, he took as a subversive attempt to win him over. Nothing Janet said could convince him otherwise, and eventually she had to leave the job to preserve her own sanity.
I am learning that mature faith, which encompasses both simple faith and fidelity, works the opposite of paranoia. It reassembles all the events of life around trust in a loving God. When good things happen, I accept them as gifts from God, worthy of thanksgiving. When bad things happen, I do not take them as necessarily sent by God—–I see evidence in the Bible to the contrary—–and I find in them no reason to divorce God. Rather, I trust that God can use even those bad things for my benefit. That, at least, is the goal toward which I strive.
A faithful person sees life from the perspective of trust, not fear. Bedrock faith allows me to believe that, despite the chaos of the present moment, God does reign; that regardless of how worthless I may feel, I truly matter to a God of love; that no pain lasts forever and no evil triumphs in the end. Faith sees even the darkest deed of all history, the death of God’s Son, as a necessary prelude to the brightest.
A skeptic will respond that I have just presented a classic rationalization: beginning with a premise, I proceed to manipulate all evidence in support of that premise. The skeptic is right. I begin with the premise of a good and loving God as the first principle of the universe; anything contradicting that premise must have another explanation. In politics, says William Safire, “The candidate who takes credit for the rain gets blamed for the drought.” How, then, can I “let God off the hook” in view of the terrible things that happen to people every day?
First, as I have argued, we must not assume that everything happens with God’s approval. When two alienated teenagers walk into a high school, set off bombs and shoot nine hundred rounds of ammunition at their classmates, is that God’s plan? A friend excitedly told me about the many “miracles” that happened in Columbine High School. The killers planted ninety-five explosive devices in the school, very few of which detonated. One student took two bullets at point-blank range directly in the face; “miraculously,” the bullets lodged in thick jawbone on each side of his face, and he lived. Another student went home sick that day, and his parents praised God for his providential care. I hear such stories and rejoice at the outcomes, yet I wonder how such assertions sound to the parents who lost children in the massacre.
Many things happen in this world that are clearly against God’s will. Read the prophets, God’s designated spokesmen, who thunder against idolatry, injustice, violence, and other symptoms of human sin and rebellion. Read the Gospel accounts, where Jesus upsets the religious establishment by freeing people from disabilities the divines had deemed “God’s will.” Providence may be a great mystery, nonetheless I find no justification for blaming God for what God so clearly opposes.
The skeptic’s question does not melt away, though. How can I praise God for the good things in life without censuring him for the bad? I can do so only by establishing an attitude of trust—paranoia in reverse—based on what I have learned in relationship with God.
I find a parallel in my human relationships. If I am waiting for my friend Larry at a rendezvous point, and he has not shown up an hour past the agreed-upon time, I do not start cursing his irresponsibility and thoughtlessness. Years of friendship have taught me that Larry is prompt and reliable. I assume that something—–a flat tire? an accident?–—over which he has no control has thwarted his plans. Those I love, I credit for good things and try not to blame for bad, assuming instead other forces are at work. Together, we have developed a pattern of trust and discerning love.
Over time, both through personal experience and my study of the Bible, I have come to know certain qualities of God as well. God’s style often baffles me: he moves at a slow pace, prefers rebels and prodigals, restrains his power, and speaks in whispers and silence. Yet even in these qualities I see evidence of his longsuffering, mercy, and desire to woo rather than compel. When in doubt, I focus on Jesus, the most unfiltered revelation of God’s own self. I have learned to trust God, and when some tragedy or evil occurs that I cannot synthesize with the God I have come to know and love, then I look to other explanations.
CONSIDER THE PLIGHT OF a spy operating behind enemy lines, who suddenly loses all contact with friendly forces back in the home country. Have they abandoned him, cut him off? If he fully trusts his government, he presumes instead that the communication line has been compromised and contacts have ended for his own protection. If captured and held hostage in Beirut or Teheran, he will have no evidence that anyone back home cares for him. A loyal spy, though, will trust that his government is scouring the diplomatic channels, offering rewards to informers, and perhaps launching a clandestine rescue effort. He believes, against all apparent evidence, that his government values him and his welfare.
C. S. Lewis gives further illustrations of times when trust pays off, even in conditions that seem to argue against it:
In getting a dog out of a trap, in extracting a thorn from a child’s finger, in teaching a boy to swim or rescuing one who can’t, in getting a frightened beginner over a nasty place on a mountain, the one fatal obstacle may be their distrust. We are asking them to trust us in the teeth of their senses, their imagination, and their intelligence. We are asking them to believe that what is painful will relieve their pain and that what looks dangerous is their only safety. We ask them to accept apparent impossibilities: that moving the paw farther back into the trap is the way to get out—–that hurting the finger very much more will stop the finger hurting—that water which is obviously permeable will resist and support the body—that holding onto the only support within reach is not the way to avoid sinking—–that to go higher and onto a more exposed ledge is the way not to fall. To support all these incredibilia we can rely only on the other party’s confidence in us—–a confidence certainly not based on demonstration, admittedly shot through with emotion, and perhaps, if we are strangers, resting on nothing but such assurance as the look of our face and the tone of our voice can supply, or even, for the dog, on our smell. Sometimes, because of their unbelief, we can do no mighty works. But if we succeed, we do so because they have maintained their faith in us against apparently contrary evidence. No one blames us for demanding such faith. No one blames them for giving it. No one says afterwards what an unintelligent dog or child or boy that must have been to trust us. . . .
Now to accept the Christian propositions is ipso facto to believe that we are to God, always, as that dog or child or bather or mountain climber was to us, only very much more so.
In an unusually revealing letter to his friend Father John Calabria, Lewis applied this principle quite personally. In his fiftieth year, he could sense his writing talent slipping away. He was spending his time caring for a friend’s infirm mother, in a chaotic house devastated by quarrels. “How long, 0 Lord?” Lewis writes. He explains the distractions to Calabria, asks for prayer, says that disruptions are keeping him from work on many books. He adds, “If it shall please God that I write more books, blessed be He. If it shall not please Him, again, blessed be He. Perhaps it will be the most wholesome thing for my soul that I lose both fame and skill lest I were to fall into that evil disease, vainglory.”
Lewis’s letter strikes like an arrow into my heart because I make my living writing books, am in fact writing this book in my fiftieth year, and have some idea what it meant for Lewis to come to that place of trust and submission. What loomed as a great sacrifice and loss, he interpreted instead as a potential blessing, for the single reason that he trusted God. Lewis believed that whatever entered his life, even the opposite of his own desires, God could turn into benefit and profit.
Gregory of Nyssa once called St. Basil’s faith “ambidextrous” because he welcomed pleasures with the right hand and afflictions with the left, convinced that both would serve God’s design for him. The eighteenth century spiritual director Jean-Pierre de Caussade echoed Basil. “A living faith is nothing else than a steadfast pursuit of God through all that disguises, disfigures, demolishes and seeks, so to speak, to abolish him.” De Caussade sought to accept each moment as a revelation of God, believing that regardless of how things appear at a given time, all of history will ultimately serve to accomplish God’s purpose on earth. He advised, “Love and accept the present moment as the best, with perfect trust in God’s universal goodness. . . . Everything without exception is an instrument and means of sanctification… . God’s purpose for us is always what will contribute most to our good.”
Here is what ambidextrous, or “two-handed” faith means to me, in theory if not always in practice. I take “everything without exception” as God’s action in the sense of asking what I can learn from it and praying for God to redeem it by improving me. I take nothing as God’s action in the sense of judging God’s character, for I have learned to accept my puny status as a creature—–which includes a limited point of view that obscures unseen forces in the present as well as a future known only to God. The skeptic may insist this unfairly lets God off the hook, but perhaps that’s what faith is: trusting God’s goodness despite any apparent evidence against it. As a soldier trusts his general’s orders; better, as a child trusts her loving parent.
A friend who struggles with depression wrote me, “I cannot explain my depression to anyone. It is nonrational, and flies in the face of my comfortable life. It colors my outlook on the entire world, and I harbor it as a secret point of view that no one else shares or can enter into. Nothing seems more real to me, when I am depressed. The darkness defines my life.” She went on to tell me that since her conversion—–which, as a Jew, she still hides from her family—–the depression dominates her less often. “In fact, I’m beginning to see faith as the flip side of depression. It too colors everything. I cannot always explain it to others, and yet gradually it is bringing light into my dark life.”
PARANOIA IN REVERSE, THE mirror image of depression—–I have wandered into images of faith that are best illustrated, not analyzed. I think of the Prophet Daniel’s three friends who defied a tyrant by declaring, “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, 0 king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, 0 king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” I think of Jesus on the cross who cried on the one hand, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” and on the other, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Daniel’s friends found miraculous deliverance, Jesus did not; both trusted God regardless.
Or I think of the apostle Paul’s exalted state as described in the book of Philippians. His values seem topsy-turvy. His stint in prison he views as desirable, for that “hardship” has brought about many good results. Wealth or poverty, comfort or pain, acceptance or rejection, even death or life—–none of these circumstances matter much to Paul. “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”
I think also of John Donne, the seventeenth-century poet and dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Much of what I believe about God and suffering I have learned from Donne, who stands to me as a model of two-handed faith.
John Donne was a man acquainted with grief. During his term at London’s largest church, three waves of the bubonic plague swept through the city, the last epidemic alone killing 40,000 people. Londoners flocked to Dean Donne for an explanation, or at least a word of comfort. Meanwhile Donne himself came down with an illness the doctors initially diagnosed as plague (it turned out to be a spotted fever, like typhus). For six weeks he lay tremulous at the threshold of death, listening to the church bells toll each new fatality, wondering if he would be next (“Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”). During this, dark time Donne, forbidden to read or study but permitted to write, composed the book Devotions, a meditation on suffering. He was tuning his instrument at the door, he said—–the door of death.
In Devotions, John Donne calls God to task. Sometimes he taunts God, sometimes he grovels and pleads for forgiveness, sometimes he argues fiercely. But not once does Donne leave God out of the process. The presence of God shadows every thought, every sentence.
Donne asked the “Why me?” question over and over. Calvinism was relatively new, and Donne pondered the notion of plagues and wars as “God’s angels.” He soon recoiled from that idea: “Surely it is not thou, it is not thy hand. The devouring sword, the consuming fire, the winds from the wilderness, the diseases of the body, all that afflicted Job, were from the hands of Satan; it is not thou.” Still, he never felt certain, and the not-knowing caused him inner torment. Donne’s book never answers the “Why me?” questions, as none of us can answer those questions that lie beyond the reach of humanity.
But even though Devotions does not resolve the intellectual doubts, it does record Donne’s emotional resolution. At first—–confined to bed, churning out prayers without answers, contemplating death, regurgitating guilt—–he can find no relief from ever-present fear. Obsessed, he reviews every biblical occurrence of the word fear. As he does so, it dawns on him that life will always include circumstances that incite fear: if not illness, financial hardship, if not poverty, rejection, if not loneliness, failure. In such a world, Donne has a clear choice: to fear God or to fear everything else, to trust God or to trust nothing.
In his wrestling with God, Donne changes questions. He began with the question of origin—“Who caused this illness? And why?”—for which he found no answer. His meditations shift ever so gradually toward the question of response. The crucial issue, the one that faces every person who endures a great trial, is that same question of response: Will I trust God with my pain, my weakness, even my fear? Or will I turn away from him in bitterness and anger? Donne determines that it does not really matter whether his sickness is a chastening from God or merely a natural occurrence. In either case he will trust God, for in the end trust represents the proper fear of the Lord.
Donne likens the process to his changing attitude toward physicians. Initially, as they probed his body for new symptoms and discussed their findings in hushed tones outside his room, he could not help feeling afraid. In time, seeing their compassionate concern, he became convinced that they deserved his trust, even when their treatments involved pain. The same pattern applies to God. Although we often do not understand his methods or the reasons behind them, the underlying issue is whether God is a trustworthy “physician.” Donne decides yes.
In a passage reminiscent of Paul’s litany in Romans 8 (“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons . . . will be able to separate us from the love of God”), Donne checks off his potential fears. Great enemies? They pose no threat, for God can vanquish any enemy. Famine? No, God can supply. Death? Even that, the worst human fear, raises no permanent barrier to those who fear God. Donne concludes that his best course is to cultivate a proper fear of the Lord, for that fear can supplant all others. He prays, “as thou hast given me a repentance, not to be repented of, so give me, 0 Lord, a fear, of which I may not be afraid.” (63-72)
Whatever faith may be, and whatever answers it may give, and to whomsoever it gives them, every such answer gives to the finite existence of man an infinite meaning, a meaning not destroyed by sufferings, deprivations, or death.