(Photo taken by Erik Johansson)

Written by Jonathan Toccoli

5/3/2017

Struggle with God’s faithfulness? You’re in good company.


(Scripture to mediate on before, during or after: Ecclesiastes 1-12. Books to read in tandem: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and That Hideous Strength by CS Lewis)

“In weeping, and in singing,
You… are what we have sought.”
– Medieval hymn

By the time faith comes into it, there is already relationship. It is meaningless to tell someone who doesn’t know you to trust you or to expect someone to say, ‘they’re totally faithful’ when they have never met the person. Have you seen – oh this is a stupid question – The Princess Bride? Of course you have. Either your mom made you watch it as a kid or you’re the mom who made/makes her kids watch it. (If not, stop reading this, go watch it and then come back because if you keep reading, there will be spoilers).

The most famous part of that whole movie is that Andre the Giant is a cuddly bear. Only slightly less famous is the premise that even though all the evidence told Buttercup that Wesley was dead and would never return, she should have trusted Wesley, not her reason. She knew Wesley. He always did what she wished and something as trivial as death either via a pirate or a suction-cup-filled-nightmare or a false marriage al a the priest with cotton balls in his mouth wouldn’t stop, couldn’t stop him. He loves her after all, and the call of love is faithfulness. Even after Buttercup faithlessly chooses to trust Prince Humperdinck and Wesley really mostly dies, he comes back. You can’t keep Wesley down.

What is fascinating about the whole Wesley-Buttercup-Humperdinck ordeal is that it is as a story within a larger story. While engrossing in itself, the real heart tug of the movie is that an old, only-semi-loved grandpa comes to visit a sick grandson to read him this book. When gramps arrives, the grandson is playing his NES amidst his absurd quantity of Chicago Bears paraphernalia. The grandson is peeved at grandpa and only softens when grandpa gives him a present. Turns out the present sucks as it is just a book and, what’s worse, grandpa obvious intends to stay all day to read it to him. The agreement is tenuous at best; gramps is going to do what he wants and little-grand-boy kinda has to put up with it.

So far, all just story setting. The real meat is that in the middle of the mo – grand-boy complains about the kissing but is comforted by murder by pirates. Movie resumes only to be inte – grandpa stops reading because, unknown to the audience, when the Princess Buttercup was in danger, grand-boy was getting nervous, the scene shows him sitting bolt upright in bed, holding his bed covers as if they are his only comfort in life and in death. And so the entire story continues, punctuated periodically by these story breaks to the larger and far more important story of grandfather and grandson. By the end of the movie, we find out that the grandpa is the real life version of Wesley:

Grandson: Grandpa? **pause** Maybe you could come over and read it again to me tomorrow.
Grandfather: As you wish.
THE END

The story of Wesley’s faithfulness to Buttercup and their undying love turned out to be a truly perfect love: it accomplished its purpose in its hearers. The grandpa always loved the grandson, and now the boy knows he’s loved and knows also that he can count on his grandpa, not his NES, for everything, for anything.

And here, where we least expected to find anything like a manual on how to read the Bible, we find perhaps the most potent exploration of what story is for and an image for why and how we need true story so badly.

I want to ask you a series of questions like, “what is your NES?” but I will only ask you one: When God comes into your room, who do you see?

For the prophet Jeremiah, the answer is terrifying:

Like a bear lying in wait,
like a lion in hiding,
he dragged me from the path and mangled me
and left me without help.
He drew his bow
and made me the target for his arrows.
– Lamentations 3.10-12

I doubt your response is either a) more passionate than Jeremiah’s or b) more freaky, shame filled since for you and I if-I-say-that-I’m-not-a-good-enough-Christian. One might think that Jeremiah would save his real doubts, his scariest thoughts for when he was in his-room-when-no-one-was-listening. But I honestly doubt Jeremiah said anything more troubling about who he thought God was in his entire life. He chose the largest stage of all to share his doubts: a letter that was destined to become a part of the best selling, most read book of all time.

We sing Hallelujah filled songs every Sunday without fail, lent or no lent, and when we doubt or things are horrible, we stop coming to church or say something deflective like, “oh, things are ok; the Lord is kind, though.” It’s almost as if our faith has no similarity with Jeremiah’s. True, the Lord is always kind, but why do we have to be such liars?

Imagine sitting in a community group and someone for the low of their High-Low says about God,

He has walled me in so I cannot escape; he has weighed me down with chains. Even when I call out or cry for help, he shuts out my prayer. He has barred my way with blocks of stone; he has made my paths crooked.

And then just stops and looks at the person to their left, as if saying, “I’m done. Your turn.” It would be the goal of every person in that group to make sure that person said ‘praise the Lord’ before they left – whether s/he meant it or not. I mean, you can’t just say that. I mean, ‘is it even Christian?! Probably not.’ Technically that’s true, it’s Jewish. That was Laminations 3.7-9. It’s possible that the person who could/would say that ‘horrible thing about God’ knows more about and trusts God more deeply than you. Jeremiah did after all.

“All right, all right
No church in the wild.”
– Jay Z

Before you start feeling too bad, realize that the church has always struggled with how to reconcile God’s unfailing love with the horribleness of the world. Some of the most moving writings of the early church were wrestlings with this very issue viz. St. John’s Apocalypse. What is essential for us, however, is to not be content with the fact that we are afraid of the wrestle. As paradoxical as it seems to your memories of your flannel-graphed-Sunday-school, wrestling with God’s faithfulness is necessary for a healthy spiritual life – and not the lightweight doubt of ‘uncertainty’, but the heavy, ‘God you have forsaken me!’ ‘I’m dying here and it’s horrible’ level doubt.

And the basic reason isn’t hard to find: it is only in doubt that someone can be found to be faithful, it’s only in a relationship where we find the freedom to be truly vulnerable. And that’s why I declared at the top: by the time faith comes into it, there’s already a relationship. Because it’s only when and where we have expectations of someone that we can be fearful that someone won’t come through. It’s when you think someone is dead that ‘as you wish’ can break your heart. Only when we remember our “affliction and wandering, the bitterness and the gall” like Jeremiah can we truly say with him, “his companions never fail… the Lord is my portion; therefore, I will wait on him.”

“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”
– TS Elliot

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Jonathan is Vice Principal at Jim Elliot Christian High School and leads the Lincoln Village CG with his wife, Emily. While he is a fourth generation Stocktonian, he’s spent 7 of the last 9 years in Chicago working on a couple graduate degrees. Now that they’ve re-relocated to Stockton, he says he loves standing outside in the sun in January and lazing with his dogs. He also really, really enjoys espresso.