Why bone cancer does not shake my faith

British actor and comedian Stephen Fry caused a bit of a storm in some sectors of the Internet recently. In an interview he was asked what he would say to God if he met him at the pearly gates:

His language is powerful. He delivers his message well. I can see why it has stirred up people.

Of course, it is not original. Humans have been angry about suffering and death from the first. Job, Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, and Lamentations all give voice to the range of despair and anger that both atheists and the faithful have raised for as long as humans have drawn breath.

Fry suggests that bone cancer and other afflictions reveal God’s character — if he exists — as a cruel, selfish, and insane god not worthy of worship. What person who has lived any life at all does not understand the pain and anger expressed by such accusations?

I am writing this post on Ash Wednesday, when many Christians gather in worship to be reminded that from dust we have come and to dust we will return. It is a day we remember and are reminded that we will all one day die.

If faith is only possible to us in a world without suffering or pain, then faith will be impossible for us until the end of all days.

Of course, if a man is determined to face mortality and suffering by spitting in the eye of God, we cannot reason him out of his plan. We certainly don’t do any honor to God by getting angry at him or posting nasty things about him on the Internet.

If Fry professed to be a Christian and said such things, it would be cause for some church teaching and perhaps discipline. But he is not of our tribe. We can and should be ready to explain the hope that is in us. We should be ready to offer him Christ. We should pray for God to bless him. But we should not be surprised by his outrage.

Our Bible speaks of the same kind of anger and fear. We know suffering and pain. Ashes and dust await us all. And yet God is God.

Bad way to get good news?

“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)

What was the gospel that Jesus preached?

As far back as Irenaeus, Christians have suggested that the best way to interpret scripture is by finding other passages or verses that fill in the blanks or clarify the confusing bits.

By such a method, we might wonder what the “good news” is that Jesus preached and go looking through the New Testament for more elaborate explanations of the gospel. Doing so would likely bring us to 1 Corinthians 15, which Paul helpfully labels as the good news.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Cor 15:3-8)

By the principle of scripture interpreting scripture, we might conclude that what Jesus meant by “the gospel” in Mark 1 was some version of what Paul described as the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15. It is a story, but it is a story most centrally about Jesus dying for our sins and being raised to life.

Such a definition of the good news seems to inform what John Wesley does in a sermon such as “The Way to the Kingdom.” When he comes to describe the gospel, he casts in terms of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The gospel, (that is, good tidings, good news for guilty, helpless sinners,) in the largest sense of the word, means, the whole revelation made to men by Jesus Christ; and sometimes the whole account of what our Lord did and suffered while he tabernacled among men. The substance of all is, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners;” or, “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end we might not perish, but have everlasting life;” or, “He was bruised for our transgressions, he was wounded for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”

Believe this and the kingdom is yours, Wesley preached. In preaching this, Wesley understood the gospel through the lens of Pietism. In the same sermon, he tells us that the “kingdom” is an inner experience of peace, righteousness, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Here again he uses scripture to explain scripture. He finds the definition of the word “kingdom” — as Jesus used it — in the words of Paul, in this case from Romans 14.

In our day, this kind of preaching would get low marks in a New Testament class. The professor would point out, no doubt, that Jesus’ audience in Mark 1 could not have possibly understood the call to believe the good news as a call to believe that Jesus — who was very much not yet crucified — was going to die for their sins.

These kinds of observations lead people ask whether Jesus and Paul preached the same gospel. Those who say they did not preach the same gospel — or at least that the word “gospel” in Mark 1:15 does not mean that Jesus died for our sins — tend to argue that the good news means to Jesus the declaration that kingdom is now present in Jesus himself. (See N.T. Wright or Scot McKnight for more on this.)

And so, I wonder if that means we should discard Wesley’s sermon on Mark 1:15 as a case of bad exegesis. Or is there some way that the “gospel” of Mark 1:15 is both what it meant to Jesus and the first readers of Mark and what it means to us as we read in light of what Paul and Peter and others have taught us.

Can we do bad historical-critical exegesis and yet still do good biblical theology?

Dead, not sick

Since I was thinking about George Whitefield the other day, I went back and read the sermon John Wesley delivered in 1770 upon Whitefield’s death.

In the sermon, he summarized Whitefield’s fundamental point in all preaching as this:

“Give God all the glory of whatever is good in man;” and “In the business of salvation, set Christ as high and man as low as possible.” With this point, he and his friends at Oxford, the original Methodists, so called, set out. Their grand principle was, There is no power (by nature) and no merit in man. They insisted, all power to think, speak, or act aright, is in and from the Spirit of Christ; and all merit is (not in man, how high soever in grace, but merely) in the blood of Christ. So he and they taught: There is no power in man, till it is given him from above, to do one good work, to speak one good word, or to form one good desire.

If it not clear from the text, Wesley was one of those original Methodists. He is writing and speaking about his own doctrine here as much as Whitefield’s. If we miss this point about Wesley’s doctrine, we misunderstand the nature and power of preventing grace. For Wesley – just as for the Calvinist Whitefield – human beings are devoid of any power or desire to do good. We are fallen utterly, and left to our own devices are rude, selfish, and brutal.

But Wesley always insisted that there is no such thing as a human being totally devoid of grace. In his sermon “On Conscience” he explains that no human being we ever meet is in an entirely graceless state because preventing grace (what we United Methodists call prevenient grace) has been poured out already. We recognize it when we urge each other to listen to our conscience. What we sometimes think of as that universal human intuition about right and wrong is – according to Wesley – God’s grace tutoring us toward holiness.

But – and this cannot be emphasized enough as we read Wesley today – preventing grace is not saving grace. It lures and draws us toward God, but it is not itself grace that will save us. In other words, being a person who is guided by conscience or who is a “good person” by the world’s standards is not a sign of being right with God.

Indeed, in his sermon on Whitefield’s death, Wesley overturns one of the most common ways we like to talk about church, a turn of phrase we use, perhaps, because we want to think that all people are more or less good people and just need some support to live upright and holy lives.

Here is how Wesley put it:

For it is not enough to say all men are sick of sin: No, we all are “dead in trespasses and sins.” It follows that all the children of men are, “by nature, children of wrath.” We are all “guilty before God,” liable to death temporal and eternal.

Church is not a hospital for sinners, Wesley might say, but a slaughterhouse for the old Adam. We are not basically healthy people who just need to be cared for and nurtured back to full health. We are dead people, spiritual corpses, in need of a miracle.

This is the message George Whitefield preached, according to his spiritual friend John Wesley. It is the message John Wesley himself preached, despite our attempts to soften the edges of his doctrine. Is it or will it be the doctrine that we preach?

Is Whitefield damned?

George Whitefield, the greatest evangelist in pre-revolutionary America, a man who preached a gospel of repentance and held fast to high standards of biblical morality, celebrated the opportunity to set up a slave plantation to generate revenue to fund an orphan house in Georgia.

In 1740, he warned slave owners about the judgment of God if they abused their slaves and refused to provide adequate Christian nurture for them. He never condemned the institution of slavery itself. In less than a decade, however, he was praising God for the offer by wealthy Charleston converts to support the establishment of a slave plantation in Georgia that would fund an orphanage in Savannah. Georgia at the time prohibited slavery. In his zeal for his great charitable work, Whitefield became a leading figure in the campaign to introduce slavery to the colony.

I am not aware whether John Wesley and Whitefield ever exchanged correspondence on the topic or spoke with each other about it. Our evidence is that Wesley abhorred 18th century slavery and found it incompatible not just with the Bible but with basic human morality. But although Wesley had his differences with Whitefield over Calvinism, I’m not sure if there is any written record of their disagreements over slavery. They may exist. I’m just not aware of them.

As one looking back on Whitefield’s ministry, I wonder how to weigh all of this. I wonder whether his support of slavery has called his salvation into question. Of course, we cannot know. He must stand before his Lord as we all must. But as slavery has had such a profound impact on American history and society, I do find myself wondering whether Christian slave owners or advocates for slavery are bound for hell at the final judgment.

Is it possible that a person could be a racist and owner of chattel slaves and find favor with God? Or are all those men and women like Whitefield damned?

This is not merely a historical question, of course.

Lies about happiness

God says, “Rebuild the road! Clear away the rocks and stones so my people can return from captivity.” (Isaiah 57:14, NLT)

When I look around me, I don’t see a world that looks very much like the one that God desires. I see people scared and harried, angry and untrusting. I see broken promises treated as just a part of living life, and I see people whose self-worth is based on how many people they can step on to get where they want to go.

The weak are ignored or neglected or abused. The poor are squeezed by the greedy. Young and old are driven mad by their animal instincts, but declare themselves free. We are a world of slaves trying to fool ourselves into believing we are the masters.

The bit in the Sermon on the Mount that I never, never, never could read with peace was in the sixth chapter when Jesus talked about not being anxious. “Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

I never bought what Jesus was selling.

But — and I may not have to talk you into this one — I’ve come to believe the man knew what he was talking about.

I’ve come to realize that happiness, joy, peace, and contentment are not found in anything the world offers us. For the world offers only things that perish and fade away.

Being a pastor and spending time with people as they cross from life to death helps you see this. In the end, nothing we clutch so tightly to here on Earth will cling to us. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

Seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness.

This is the road to happiness.

This is what the Bible often calls holiness.

And the problem is that, like me, 99% of the world does not believe that this really is happiness. They have swallowed the lies that the ruler of this world tells them. Be rich. Be famous. Be popular. Be young, forever young. Be smart. Be athletic. Be sexy. Be this and do that, and then you will finally be happy. Buy this or indulge those nerve endings, and you will finally know joy. You will finally be able to lay down your head in peace and sleep.

Lies. They are all lies. Lies told by the king of liars. Look down and see your chains.

There was a time when Methodist preachers were in the business rattling such chains, of holding them up where people could see them and offering the key to unlock them.

But — by and large — we are too cowardly for that any more.

Don’t blame the blade

I would remind those who cite Scripture as the rationale for their resistance to same-sex marriage to acknowledge the following. Scripture was cited to support prohibitions against the ordination of women, the validation of the enslavement of blacks, support for racial segregation, and resistance to interracial marriage.

– Gil Caldwell, UMR Commentary

Jack the Ripper used a scalpel to murder women in London. Should we not let surgeons use scalpels then?

If the Bible is a means of grace meant to lead us into holiness, then the question is not whether some people have used it to support bad arguments in the past. The only question is “How is the Holy Spirit using scripture right now to lead us into holiness?”