Friday, September 4, 2009

Practical Theology for Women - Pt 2

Meeting Wendy (Preface and Chapter 1)

I think Wendy was quite clever in her preface. She’s gone out of her way to help us get to know her. She has told us some fairly important things about herself, and shared her life with us. This helps us to trust her as someone who brings God’s word to us. It is impossible to read through this preface and Chapter 1 without becoming sure that Wendy is a woman who loves God and wants to serve him and know him better. She takes her relationships, commitment to Christ and her responsibilities seriously. These things matter to her.

Another thing which matters to her and which helps us see what she is trying to achieve in her book is her commitment to theology (Chapter 1). She really wants to know God. And she does this by taking God’s Word seriously. She is unsatisfied with nibbling pre-digested snippets, not because she is impressed with her own cleverness, but because of her passion to know Christ and follow him with all her heart and sees the results in her relationships. I liked the way she listed all the resources we have as Christians to explore God’s word and grow in our knowledge of Christ (page 26). This encourages us to get stuck in ourselves however we can in the situations we find ourselves in. Leaving the issue of our growth in Christ up to someone else is not a wise decision. We are blessed by God in that he has given us all we need to search his Word and know him better.

I also think Wendy’s account of how God has blessed her was really useful to us (Preface). We could all write our own: how we thought we knew God but then we realised how little we really did as the circumstances of our lives unfolded. And then in 10 years, we would write it differently again. Wendy’s account is helpful as we begin the book because it sharpens her main point: studying theology is not an abstract affair that has no basis in reality. It is one of the most real things we can do. It affects us profoundly and every part of our lives. And, as Wendy demonstrates, the more we grow in grace the more we learn to trust God, which is the heart of the Christian life (Preface). When we come to Christ we trust him with our life and then each day from then we find out what it means and learn to do it more and more.

All approaches have their weakness. And the weakness of Wendy’s introducing her life at such length may arise for those of us for whom the life of faith has had more suffering and disappointment than Wendy seems to have experienced. Despite obvious suffering, Wendy has been tremendously blessed by God: her husband found a job, survived a difficult heart operation, her church was very supportive and kind, God blessed her with children and a ministry role in her church. This is something we can thank God for. Hebrews 11 reminds us that the life of faith can result in comfort and blessing in this life (Hebrews 11:33-35a). But that same chapter also reminds us that the life of faith can lead to suffering and even death (Hebrews 11:35b-38). For those hearing heaven’s resounding ‘no’ to our heart’s cry, how should we respond to Wendy‘s story of her life? How should we read this?

I have several suggestions, and please feel free to add yours.

First, we learn what Jesus means in one of his parables in Matthew 20, when he has the landowner ask: ‘…are you envious because I am generous?’ The context is the ‘unfair’ payment of the landowner, paying all his labourers the same, even though some only worked a very little part of the day (Matthew 20:1-16). The point is to help us understand grace. God is kind: he gives rain to people who don’t even believe in him (Matthew 5:45). The greatest expression of his grace is in Jesus: who died for our sins when we were God’s enemies and rescued us from the clutches of Satan (Romans 5:8-10). When we know Jesus our whole lives are sunk into the rockbed of this grace: God doesn’t owe us anything; we owe him everything. His mercy is astounding and results in profound thankfulness which opens into full flower across the expanse of our lives.

This then provides the background for responding to others who have received from God the blessings and gifts he has denied us. If God, who is rich in mercy and grace because he is good, gives these gifts to people then we must not be envious. Instead, we must learn how to be good, like God and look on his gifts to others with thankfulness. God has blessed them — whether they know it or not, whether they appreciate it or not — and that was a kind thing for God to do. He has been good. We need to say ‘thank you’ to him for blessing them. This is not always an easy thing or a quick thing when we think that we were not given the blessing that someone else received. In those circumstances it is sometimes more a destination to aim for, and work toward with God’s help and mercy. To say ‘thank you’ to God for blessing someone else with your deepest desire is an enormous encouragement: it means that he has been at work in your life to free you from selfishness. This is a supernatural thing which makes no sense unless you know God, know his goodness and know that he is gracious. There is no reason whatever to do it unless your life is embedded in his grace.

The second thing is something that Wendy helpfully raises herself. It is clear throughout the introduction (and continues throughout the book!) that Wendy is convinced that all these things happened to her so that she would know God better and that therefore they are all worthwhile. It is the italic part that really matters. Wendy has had God answer her prayers. But what matters to her is not that she got what she wanted, but that she came to know God better through the whole problem-prayer-answer cycle. And this is a sure sign of spiritual maturity. She is more interested in the Giver than the gifts.

This raises a good question for us and is well worth discussing. Sometimes the way that God works in our lives is fairly obvious. Sometimes, like Wendy, it is easy to see how God has brought about something good for us or a closer relationship with himself through terrible things happening. But sometimes what happens is utterly incomprehensible to us and in fact our suffering may be so acute that any possible reason someone might offer merely seems insulting. It can be better then to be sure of God rather than to think about possible specific and concrete purposes. Romans 8 (a good chapter for this) helps us to realise two things (among many!).

The first is that God is wise and loving. He rules our lives for our good (and he alone knows what that is), and even more reassuring than that: because he loves us he does not and will never let go of us (Romans 8:28-39). The second is that what we suffer here isn’t to be compared with the glory that will follow (Romans 8:18). These two things help us to expand Wendy’s category a bit so that suffering is not just a means to come to know God — as though God has to hurt us for us to grow. It is true that we can know God more through suffering; but it is also true that we can know God more through the enjoyable and extraordinary things he brings into our lives as well. God is not limited to suffering, even as he is not limited by suffering — and knowing both that God can make suffering serve his good purposes and that God isn‘t required to make us suffer can be very liberating.

What Romans 8 tells us is that in our suffering we can know God has a big overarching purpose — we do not suffer accidental, random pain — and that this suffering can’t compare with the future he is determined to bring us to. God works for our good — through the enjoyable and the painful — and he works to bring us home to himself, despite all the things we meet in life which are so much bigger than we are. We are not given an answer to suffering as though ‘all things work together for good’ is meant to explain why Christians suffer. God gives us something better: he gives us a reason to trust him.

So, as we read Wendy’s story we need to realise that it is unique to her: God is working his good purposes in her life, and it won’t necessarily look like this in our own situation. And let’s be thankful that God continues to bless his people both in good times and hard situations.

Here are some questions I thought up, in case anyone out there is running a discussion group on this (or for people who just like answering questions).

1. If you were to write an autobiography as Wendy has, what would be some of the key events which have challenged and encouraged you to trust God more?

2. How important is ‘knowing God’ to you? Given your life situation, could you devote more time to this pursuit? If you think you might be able to, how could you do this realistically?

3. How do you or have you responded to suffering in your own or others’ lives?


Wendy Alsup said...

This is a very thoughtful analysis of the preface. I have thought similar things of my own and published a blog post on God's 2nd round of testing of my faith and its very different nature from my first round which is discussed in the preface of the book. Here's the link.

Getting My Masters Degree in Faith

Wendy Alsup

Jennie Baddeley said...

Dear Wendy,

Thanks for stopping by! It was great to get your comment, and read your updated autobiography-with-God. It’s amazing and humbling to see how we grow in our knowledge of God - and get to places we never even knew existed.

Thank you for writing this book for us - perfect for so many of us, who as busy women, long to know God more and follow Jesus with joy, but struggle to find the time to really invest in this enterprise. And thank you for sharing so much of yourself with us.

Love in Christ,