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What Good is God? Philip Yancey on Faith in Tragedy’s Wake

  • Shawn McEvoy & Ryan Duncan
  • 2010 13 Sep
<i>What Good is God?</i> Philip Yancey on Faith in Tragedy’s Wake

Would you still hold to your faith in the face of tragedy? Risk death, injury, or imprisonment for the sake of your beliefs? Would you still continue to trust God when your world has been pulled apart at the seams? These are some of the questions Philip Yancey pursues in his book What Good is God?  Crosswalk had the opportunity to sit down with Yancey, and learn more about how he believes it is the difficult points in our life that truly shape our faith. In the first few chapters, you talk about this book being born out of intense times and extreme situations that you had experienced, the kind that really get people questioning and searching for God and meaning.  Are these types of qualifying events that get us thinking - these tragedies - on the rise, or is that just perception from enhanced media? 

Philip Yancey: Hmm.  I don't know how to answer the question about if they are on the rise.  I have started kind of looking over my shoulder.  I tell the story in one chapter of being in Mumbai, India, the night of the terrorist attacks and then, just a few months later, we were in the Middle East having tea at a coffee house in Cairo.  And then I read that the very next week a terrorist blew up that coffee house in Cairo. 

And just this year, a month ago, we returned from Bangkok, Thailand, and a week after we left there, the army moved in and started killing all of these protesters.  They actually cordoned off the area where our hotel was and where our meeting had been held, so I am kind of looking over my shoulder these days.  It is true that terrorism is certainly on the rise, at least in public perception.  I don't know.  You would have to research whether the number of events are, but it certainly is a lot closer to me as I travel internationally.  

CW:  Can we possibly define these tragic situations as "good" if legitimate searches for, as you phrase it on the cover, "a faith that matters" are what result? 

PY: Oh yes.  In the introduction, I use the phrase "tabletop test," and it is something out of Silicon Valley where they invent new iPods, iPhones, or iPads. It can be the greatest machinery in the lab, but what really matters is how it is going to be used in real life. So, they literally do this tabletop test where somebody will just come and knock it off the table and watch it crash on the ground.  Does it still work?  Because if I have written a book on an iPad, then I happen to knock it off an airplane tray and I lose my book, that is not a good machine.  I am not going to buy that machine.  That is the tabletop test. 

These extreme situations, I think, are the tabletop test of faith and of the question, "What good is God?"  It is one thing to say, "Well, God is good because I live in a nice suburban home and my children are all Olympic athletes and making all As in school."  But what good is God if you are in a prison being persecuted for your faith?  What good is God if you are on the Virginia Tech campus, and this rampage breaks out?  That is to me the tabletop test of faith. 

I am a journalist.  We journalists kind of go scouting for extreme situations as I say in the book, and so many of them have just kind of followed me around. Obviously I did not engineer Virginia Tech or Mumbai, but I found myself as a journalist in the middle of them.  So my job is to go around and report what happens, and to take my own faith and subject it to the questions that are raised by the circumstances I am in the middle of.

CW:  I was fascinated by the examples and interviews that you do, including the ones in China. So often we see extreme persecution in the world, and yet there we find a thriving church.  You asked a minute ago, "What good is God if I am in prison?"  I have always been drawn to the story in Acts 16 about Paul and Silas having done this good work, healing a demon-possessed woman. They're on this mission trip, and have just scored a victory for the Lord, but because of it find themselves beaten and thrown in prison.  However, it is exactly the place where they meet God, where they are living out His will by singing praises and praying at midnight.  That is where the miracle can happen, and the prison doors open.  

Are we seeing tremendous growth in geographic regions of persecution and tragedy because that is where God can show up to perform the miracle, as opposed to the areas of suburban non-need?

PY: [Laughs].  It is an interesting story when you read the Book of Acts because, early on, you do have these miracle stories of Peter being freed from prison by an angel and Paul when the earthquake happens but, at the end of the book, Paul is in prison.  Some Christian books tend to focus on these dramatic miracle stories.  I tend to focus on the people who are still in prison.

One of the people that I met in China was one of the four patriarchs, one of the four founders of the underground church, a man named Pastor Allen Yuan.  And he told me his story.  He was put in prison for 23 years for preaching because he would not be part of the official Communist registered church.  He kept telling me about these miracle stories.  He was sent to Northern China, above Mongolia, and it was very cold.  He said, "I was in there for 23 years, and I never, never got a cold or the flu.  I never got sick." 

He said his job was to join these coal cars. They would have these multi-ton coal cars, and they would slam together with railroad cars, and his job was to put this spike down that kind of joined them.  He said, "The reason they gave me that job was because, very commonly, you would lose a leg or an arm or get crushed. I counted.  I joined more than one million coal cars and never had an accident.  Aren't these miracles?" 

And I, a cynical journalist, said, "Yeah, those are miracles.  But if God can do that, why didn't He just get you out of prison?"  

The faithfulness, the tabletop test of faith, and the fidelity of Christians like Pastor Yuan probably has as much to do with the explosive growth of the Church in China as the dramatic miracles that you also hear about because people, even the guards, said, "Boy, what he believes means a lot to him." 

And of course, that is how Christianity took over Rome in the early days where they were throwing believers to the lions, and people were actually volunteering to be martyred because they trusted that what awaits them is more important than what faces them.

CW: Why are you so drawn to the big questions? "Where is God when it hurts?" "Does prayer make any difference?" And now, "What good is God?"

PY: I think these are questions that we all have, but most people have jobs, and they think about these questions every once in a while.  You know, an earthquake in Haiti happens, and they think, "Oh, boy, that is bad.  Why would God allow that?"  That's my job.  My job is to take these questions and take them as far as I can.  It's not something I think about on weekends and every once in a while.  It's something that I feel called to explore. 

I have written about my own faith background, and the church I grew up in was not healthy at all. I was given a lot of sugar-coated answers or false answers to the questions of faith, and I saw how they didn't work.  Ever since then, I have felt obligated to explore them and take them as far as I can. 

CW: What happens when they don't hold, those easy, sugar-coated answers?

PY: Hmm.  I think what happened for me was a real crisis of faith, where I threw it all out, and I think a lot of people do the same.  For example, I am in an organization, the director of which is Francis Collins who headed up the human genome project and wrote The Language of God.   He is quite concerned about how churches do such a bad job of presenting science as, "Science is the enemy, and this is the way the world happened."  Then these students go to a university, and they find out, wait a minute, I've got all of these scientists over here who say, "No, it didn't happen that way at all."  Then it becomes a crisis of faith for them.  So part of what I want to do is try to be authentic and honest, to look at these big questions and look at the Bible and try to come up with something that I can stand by.

CW: You're a journalist by trade, and you use that dynamic well in the book to interview people from all over.  How does spending time with people like Pastor Yuan in such tough, stressful, and tragic situations refine your faith?

PY: I would say "challenge" more than "refine," frankly.  America is one of the few countries where you are not really penalized for being a Christian.  You may even be rewarded, particularly in the Bible-belt South.  You know, you go through the grocery store line and hear, "What church you go to, Honey Child?"  A total stranger will ask you that question.  

But in most of the world—like in Europe and certainly in Muslin-dominated countries—you are not rewarded for being a Christian, you are penalized.  In many cases, you would have a hard time getting a good job and getting into a university.  I find that a challenge.  I come back from these trips asking myself what the cost would be to me.  If I faced a personal disadvantage like that, how consistent would I be in upholding my faith?  How much would I fake it?

CW: In dealing with these troubling questions, at one point in the book you get to talking about addicts and addictions.  In the chapter with a great title "Why I Wish I Was an Alcoholic," the quote I found interesting was, "Addicts not only teach me the consequences of sin, they also demonstrate our permanent need for grace."  How so?  And, did you arrive at studying addicts and addiction as a way to answer how some people struggle with the deeper questions we've been talking about? That they seek answers or escape in addictive substances?

PY: If you go to an AA meeting or any 12-step program, you never hear them use the past tense.  They never say, "I used to be an alcoholic." Or "I used to be a drug addict."  They always say, "Hi, I am Bob.  I am an alcoholic."  That is how they introduce themselves—everybody there—using only their first name.  That is very intentional because what they are acknowledging is, "This is something I will always struggle with and I will never get over.  I will always be dependent on you, on a higher power, on God.  I am always in need of grace."  They are not using those words, but that is what they are saying.  "I can't make it on my own.  I need help." 

That is where the chapter titled "Why I Wish I Was an Alcoholic" came from; I go to an average suburban church, and you don't see or hear that.  You hear, "I am doing just fine, thank you."  I have seen this so many times where a family will be fighting all the way to the church, and then they open the door in the parking lot, "How are you Mrs. Smith?"

She replies, "Oh, just fine!  Everything is fine.  How are you?"  Well, you don't do that in AA.  You go to an AA meeting, and they say, "How are you?"  And you say, "I had a hell of a week." 

CW: Wouldn't that be refreshing!

PY: Yeah.  You get honesty there.  They do not have the luxury of denying their need for grace.  Their addiction forces them toward reliance on Christ. 

And indeed it does, I think, force them to shed light on deep issues.  I talk about my friend in the book; we were talking about some doctrines of theology. He said, "Well, we addicts understand original sin." 

"What are you talking about?" I asked.

"Well, you read the literature, and they all talk about how it is a disease," he responded. "Truthfully, there is always a nanosecond when I give in and take a drink." 

So I understand completely this phrase, "I ain't got to, but I can't help it."  I don't have to, but I can't help it.  That is who we all are.  We all face those times in life when we know, well, we shouldn't do this, but we can't help not doing it.  There are a lot of theological issues which I explore in that chapter that come out of things I have learned from addicts.

CW: Speaking of what you've learned, have you learned any more about What's So Amazing About Grace through considering What Good is God?

PY: Yes, I have.  I am sure if I wrote that book today, I would use some of the stories that I tell in this book.  For example, I have a chapter on prostitutes.  I was invited to speak to a group of prostitutes. There were over 100 of them and I tell some of their stories.  Some of them are very wrenching stories.  At the end of that meeting where I was interviewing them, I asked them, "Did you know that you are mentioned in the Bible?  Jesus talked about you, and Jesus said that tax collectors and prostitutes will go first in the kingdom of heaven ahead of the religious professionals. Why do you think he singled you out?  Why didn't He talk about peasants?  Why prostitutes?" 

This one woman from Eastern Europe who had already told her story in very halting English said, "Well, everybody has somebody to look down on, but we are as low as they get."  She used words like "slut" and "whore" that people use about them.  "Everybody is ashamed of us." 

Most of the girls and women in the group said, "We have not had any contact with our family for years.  We have been banned.  We are a shame."  She said, "Maybe when you are at the bottom, when you can't fall any lower, maybe when you are at the lowest, you cry for help."  I thought, "There is a beautiful picture of grace at the very bottom." 

I remember in my book on grace, I talked about the scene in John 8 where the woman is caught in adultery, and then the temple guards and the Pharisees come and accuse her, and they think they have got Jesus trapped.  I remember saying that they looked at that group, and said, "Well, there are two kinds of people here.  There are good people like us, and there are bad people like that slut."  But Jesus looked at that same group and said, "No, there are two kinds of people, those who are in need of grace but deny it, and those who are in need of grace and admit it." 

Grace is an absolutely free gift of God, but to receive the gift, all you have to do is have open hands.  So many of the Pharisees had their hands closed.  "I don't need it!  I am doing fine on my own!  I kept all 613 laws this week."  This woman caught in adultery said, "I am a miserable failure.  I have nowhere else to go.  My hands are empty."  And God responds to a person like that.  So these prostitutes, I had not met them when I wrote the book about grace, but they are a beautiful example of the kind of thing I was working through.

CW: You mentioned having been in Mumbai, and you also talk in the book about having been on the Virginia Tech campus speaking a week or so after the terrible shootings there, having recently suffered a broken neck at the time.  What were those experiences like?  How did you see God bring comfort to those situations, if indeed you did?

PY: I remember when September 11 happened.  It was a Tuesday, and my church spontaneously filled with hundreds of people.  There was no announced service, but people were so shell-shocked, they wanted to come together.  They wanted comfort.  They wanted hope.  So there was this spontaneous service. 

The same thing happened in Mumbai.  It was Thanksgiving Day in the United States actually, and we were in Mumbai.  I was supposed to speak that night, and then the terrorist attack happened, and the whole downtown area was blocked off.  So we had a spontaneous church service in the suburbs of a little Indian village there.  A couple hundred people came and, once again, they were just shell-shocked, not knowing what the future was going to be and trying to understand it all.  They needed words of comfort and hope.

I remember when I spoke at Virginia Tech, I was looking at these kids who were so unprepared for processing something like that, and they should be unprepared.  Nobody can process something like that.  Their classmates were just gunned down attending French class.  Where do you go for hope? 

Well, there are no easy answers,  but there are some answers in our faith that people who have no faith don't have.  They say, "Well, it was a random occurrence.  You just got to live with it, and it's a survival-of-the-fittest world."  That is not comfort.  I think that is where the body of Christ means the most, because we have somewhere to go.  We have someone else to lean on.  We do have a hope that other people don't have. 

CW: Is that ultimately your conclusion to the question, "What Good is God?"

PY: I remember telling the folks at Virginia Tech, "There are a lot of things I can't answer for you.  I can't answer why this happened—why John died but not Paul.   I can't answer that, and I don't think the Bible really gives us answers there."  But I referred to a phrase that I had gotten from one of Dallas Willard's books, The Divine Conspiracy.  He said, paraphrasing Romans 8:28, "For those who love God, nothing irredeemable can happen to you."  We are never given a promise that nothing bad will happen. 

Actually, if you look at Church history, a lot of bad things have happened to a lot of good people. But we are given a promise that is very clear in Romans 8, as Paul lists his own biography of beatings, imprisonment, and all sorts of bad things. As he looks back, he says, "All of these things can be used for good.  All of them are redeemable." 

I have often used the illustration of Joni Eareckson Tada.  She was one of the first people I ever interviewed as a journalist. She was just a teenager, and she thought at the time, "My life is over.  I was going to be an Olympic athlete. I was planning all of these things and, man, it is just ruined now."  And now, she looks back on that time and says, "That was the best day of my life, the day I broke my neck, because it arrested me and it gave me a calling to be a prophetess to the rest of the Church." 

So that is a hope that we have.  It is not a hope that you are going to live a problem-free existence, because that is not going to happen. It is the hope that God is with us in these testing times of faith and that they can be redeemed, that good can be wrought out of them.

Publication date: September 13, 2010