‘”These things are sent to try us.”
This is just one among many cliches in the English language that we use without thinking.
Yet how often do we stop to realise they are meaningless?
Who sends these hard things to ‘try’ us? An almighty sadist in the sky?
This stands as one of the most popular arguments against Christianity. How can a supposedly all-loving sovereign God allow terrible things to happen to innocent people?
When I was in the sixth form at school we had an atheist English teacher who enjoyed challenging us on a personal level, arising from discussions about Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
Thomas Hardy was “a philosophic pessimist” and in Tess’s tragedy he suggests there is no purpose or meaning to her suffering, other than that “we live on a blighted star.”
Our teacher said, “All the evidence suggests that there is a random pain-inflictor, scanning round over human affairs, occasionally dropping a huge lump of tragedy onto someone.”
This would indeed be a good exam question in Religious Studies.
Two days ago I listened to a Church of Scotland minister, Kenny Borthwick, talk about why God does not send things to try us, and why the real battle when we suffer is to hold onto the goodness of God.
Kenny spoke to a large audience as part of a day organised by The Well Christian Healing Centre in Leamington Spa.
God, he said, is not a harsh God whose main aim is to teach us hard lessons through hard things.
Although it is true we can sometimes learn valuable things through suffering, we must be aware of this danger: if you over-stress a truth it can become a lie.
God does not send cancer to teach us a lesson.
God sent Jesus to teach cancer a lesson.
Kenny Borthwick is exactly the opposite of a traditional fire-and-brimstone preacher so beloved of numerous novels written by Catholic authors about their upbringing among religious authorities with a harsh view of God (how can I ever forget the sadistic priest in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?) No religious authority figure has ever spoken to me like that; and yet we somehow recognise the cruelty and the fanaticism in this character.
Benny Borthwick spoke of Christians who magnify badness and repentance and magnify the strictness of God with a zeal He would not own.
Kenny’s message to Christians was this:
“You have been saved into the love of God, the goodness of God that He wants to pour into your life day by day.”
The face of God-the-Judge-Who-could-never-be-pleased disappears for ever.
BUT once we accept this, there is still a process.
When we live from the goodness of God which is limitless, we realise that today and every day we always have something to offer, whoever we are, even if we believe we have nothing – we always have something to give.
We need to reject a false spirituality which is frightened to use words like illness or depression, and frightened to cry and be distressed.
We can live each passing moment as a gift from God.
Jesus gave the water a new history when he turned it into wine.
He can give us a new history, with a sense of our new identity. When we are able to accept this, we can realise that our present doesn’t need to be controlled by our past.
Then we are able to make new choices – hope and trust rather than fear.
Then we can replace the old false spirituality and lies with a great truth:
“God can give me a new destiny”.