Immanuel

It’s been a rough week for God.

It’s certainly been a rough week for those of us who believe in a God who is both omnipotent and loving. For that matter, it seems like it’s been a rough year. Nevertheless, this past seven days carried with it some heartbreaking news about Liam, the 7-year-old son of one of the more frequent commenters here, Matt. For nearly two years, Liam has been battling leukemia, and despite a large amount of both prayer and medical effort, his battle appears likely to end quite soon.

That really sucks. I just don’t know how else to say it. My wife and I spent a good portion of Tuesday night crying and talking, trying to process how devastating it must be to lose a child.

Needless to say, this led us down a path many smarter, more thoughtful people have traveled many times before. The question of suffering, pain, prayer and the silence of a God we are told loves us.

I spent a lot of the early part of this blog’s life discussing prayer and questioning its usefulness. I feel I must return to it now. Because, look, there’s not much evidence it actually works, at least not in the way we traditionally think about prayer. I’ll let the late Christopher Hitchens explain it the way only a committed atheist can:

Almost all men get cancer of the prostate if they live long enough: it’s an undignified thing but quite evenly distributed among saints and sinners, believers and unbelievers. If you maintain that god awards the appropriate cancers, you must also account for the numbers of infants who contract leukemia. Devout persons have died young and in pain. Bertrand Russell and Voltaire, by contrast, remained spry until the end, as many psychopathic criminals and tyrants have also done. These visitations, then, seem awfully random. …

The Danish physicist and Nobelist Niels Bohr once hung a horseshoe over his doorway. Appalled friends exclaimed that surely he didn’t put any trust in such pathetic superstition. “No, I don’t,” he replied with composure, “but apparently it works whether you believe in it or not.” That might be the safest conclusion. The most comprehensive investigation of the subject ever conducted—the “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer,” of 2006—could find no correlation at all between the number and regularity of prayers offered and the likelihood that the person being prayed for would have improved chances. But it did find a small but interesting negative correlation, in that some patients suffered slight additional woe when they failed to manifest any improvement. They felt that they had disappointed their devoted supporters.

Here’s the link for that study, in case you want to check out the summary for yourself. The conclusion: “Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from [coronary artery bypass graft surgery], but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.“`

This subject leaves me frustrated. It feels like we’ve been sold a bill of goods, told as we grew up that God answers prayer, regaled with stories of so-and-so’s cousin or aunt or grandparent who was miraculously healed, for whose recovery the doctors had no explanation, who simply awoke one day and the pain or the fatigue or the tumor was gone. And who, after all, can argue with anecdotal evidence like that? And when the stories turn the other way, what do we say? Mostly, we come up with cliches and pablum. They’re in a better place now. God just needed another angel – which, I think we can all agree, is simply a horrific thing to say. My parents subscribe to the idea that bad things happen to wake people up and bring them closer to God, which explains a lot about how my view of God came to be so screwed up, as if he needed to jerk us around like lab rats to make us do his bidding.

Do I sound angry? That’s probably because I am, a little bit. And these aren’t even my kids! What about this father where I work, whose son has been battling brain cancer. After two surgeries to remove a tumor and its regrowth, the doctors said they’ve found another spot. Since I don’t know him personally and he hasn’t given permission for me to use this, I’m leaving him anonymous:

To be brutally honest, I’m pissed.  I’m mad at God, I’m mad at the doctors, I’m mad at cancer … I’m just mad.  I haven’t REALLY prayed for my son in a couple of weeks because I’m so mad and filled with anger that I haven’t felt worthy enough to go before God and ask Him to heal our son.

I’m angry for [my son] and the fact that every piece of good news seems to be followed with four pieces of bad news.  I’m angry that [Matt and his wife] are going to have to bury their 7-year-old son, Liam, sometime around Christmas.  I absolutely ache for that family and am sick to my stomach that Liam will never see 8 years old. …

Mostly I’m angry that cancer has shaken my faith.  I know how I’m supposed to act in this situation, that I’m supposed to hit my knees in prayer and ask for God to intercede and heal [my son].  I’ve done that over and over in the last 12 months to seemingly no avail.  [My wife] has done that, our family has done that and it seems as though we just haven’t been able to get the upper hand on this beast.

These are the days when deism, if not atheism, makes the most sense. Perhaps God truly is nothing more than the great Watchmaker in the sky, setting things in order and letting them run. If he is truly involved in the goings-on of this world, then his decision not to save these children is no different than a decision to kill them. Is that the God we worship? One who has the capacity and power to save the Liams of this world and chooses not to?

But maybe that’s wrong. Maybe we shouldn’t look at it this way, focusing so much on the power of God. After all, what events in the interaction of God and humanity do we as Christians celebrate most? We don’t randomly assign a date to the Great Flood and celebrate that. We don’t exchange presents or hold special services to commemorate the battle of Jericho. In fact, those events make many of us uncomfortable. These manifestations of raw, brutal divine power seem out of place, don’t they? They sound more like the acts of the pagan gods and goddesses of other cultures.

No, we celebrate the events when God didn’t act like a god. We celebrate the moment he wrapped himself in flesh and allowed himself to be squeezed through a birth canal. We remember that in order to have the final victory, he chose to give up his life – not a powerful act. Indeed, was there anyone meeker than Jesus Christ, God-in-flesh, to ever walk the planet?

God, in other words, does not view power the way we do. We think of God as big. He keeps reminding us he would rather be small.

An example, from the incomparable blog of Dr. Richard Beck:

Here’s what I think. I think too much focus on God’s awesomeness leaves us ill-equipped to see God’s smallness in the world. Perhaps we’d be better able to transition from worship to mission if we started focusing on God’s smallness rather than on God’s bigness. Isn’t it one of the purposes of worship to help us see aright? To see God more clearly? If so, perhaps we need to start worshiping God’s smallness. Our God has gotten too big.

See the smallness of God in this famous section of Night, Elie Wiesel’s memoir of the Holocaust:

I witnessed other hangings. I never saw a single one of the victims weep. For a long time those dried-up bodies had forgotten the bitter taste of tears.

Except once. …

One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all around, machine guns trained: the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains–and one of them, the little servant, the sad-eyed angel.

The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him.

This time the Lagerkapo refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him.

The three victims mounted together onto the stairs.

The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses.

“Long live liberty!” cried the two adults.

But the child was silent.

“Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked.

At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over.

Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting.

“Bare your heads!” yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping.

“Cover your heads!”

The the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive…

For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking:

“Where is God now?”

And I heard a voice within me answer him:

“Where is He? He is–He is hanging here on this gallows...”

Beck then quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who knew something about the silence of God in the face of the incomprehensible tortures of this life:

God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.

This doesn’t get me all the way to understanding why things happen the way they do, or why God, who knows our very thoughts and how many hairs we have on our head, asks us to pray without ceasing, even though the data suggest he probably won’t act on those prayers. I go back to the idea that God isn’t in the business of dispensing favors, but he is in the business of caring, loving, holding, comforting – and he can’t do those things unless we’re willing to talk to him about what we’re going through.

After all, Jesus Christ is called Immanuel: God-with-us. I think the Christmas story is recited so many times, we lose the import of that word, and how all-encompassing it really is. How real that makes our God. The concept of Immanuel is, I would argue, far more powerful than the concept of omnipotence.

Jonathan Storment describes it this way: “God enters the mess.”

The first Christmas was violent, and bloody, filled with risk and danger. It seemed like the whole strange plan of God was hanging by a thread. And if you are thinking about it, you realize that this was actually the way Jesus’ entire life went.

One turn after another Jesus is drawn toward the ones who are hurting, and with great joy mingling with great sorrow, he enters into it. Most of the time he reverses their immediate causes for suffering, sometimes he weeps with them, but he is always with them. And then…when evil finally draws its ugly head fully onto the life of Jesus. He doesn’t do for himself what he found so easy to do for others. They even taunted him to “save himself.” But he stayed, he endured, and he emptied it of all its enduring power. In the words of Paul, he took away its victory.  He took away its sting.

For me, a great metaphor of Christmas (especially this week) has been the thief on the cross. Jesus is undeservedly going through the same thing that he is. And Jesus talks him through it. He tells the thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” But the subtext is that right now I am with you in Hell.

Death sucks. There is no getting around that. And with every funeral, or miscarriage, or diagnosis of cancer we are reminded that the world isn’t supposed to be this way. It ought to be different. But Jesus entered the world the way it was, and slowly gave us a reason to hope by standing with us while we suffer.

Which is why I say this hasn’t been a good week for God. Sure, I mean that in the shallower, “what kind of God …” sense expressed above. But I also mean that if we think this week has been total crap for too many people, God not only agrees, he knows more than anyone else how horrible it’s been. And every week is like that for him because all over the world, every week is a bad week. We could spend another 2,000 words about why that is, why he even bothered creating such a world, why he has waited so long to get down to making things right (and we have discussed that a little bit). But that discussion will have to wait for another day.

Meanwhile, I’m not about to say I’ve got this figured out; I’m not sure anyone truly can. We can only wait and hope and pray that God gives us comfort as he cries beside us. Sometimes, that seems sufficient. This week, it doesn’t seem nearly enough.

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10 comments on “Immanuel

  1. biplymale says:

    Those tradgedies in life result in us having to walk by faith, because from a sight stand point there is never a way that any of us can make sense of it. I am praying for you and your wife’s friend with the son. This is another painful story that paints a picture of the great struggles in our faith we all will experience throughout life. I cannot imagine my child’s life hanging in the balance…and yet sometimes I feel as though all of our lives hang always only by a thread of grace. This world is full of unexplained heartwrenching moments and we all have our questions about why God allows it….all we can do is continue to trust and sometimes it leaves us full of sorrow and angry with God…yet God never leaves or forsakes us, even when the enemy knocks at the door. He is with this family, He is with every broken heart. I pray that this family knows that other believers are praying with them and to keep trusting God, even when it will never make sense this side of eternity. May God’s peace be with them even now.

    God Bless.

  2. tgb says:

    Hey brother. Thank you for your words. I wanted to share with you some of my reflections on this topic from over this past year.

    I’m not sure how much you know, but this year has been difficult to say the least. 2011 has seen us lose three pregnancies (two of which ended tragically–one through anencephaly at the 5-month mark, and one through an ectopic pregnancy that almost also claimed the life of my wife), I destroyed my knee in a simple slip out of a parked pickup, my wife almost died while I was away on a mission trip (the aforementioned ectopic pregnancy), and to put the cherry on the top of the Sundae of 2011, we have been out of our home for over a month due to water damage from a busted water heater. 2011 continues to suck. I think the real kicker of it all for me was what I wrote in my prayer journal the night before my wife almost died, back in August.

    We knew something wasn’t quite right with our third pregnancy of 2011, and the doctor thought she might be miscarrying (which had also happened once this year). It was very difficult to be away from her, but she seemed to be okay and I had a youth ministry job to do, right? So I was two states away, writing in my prayer journal, “God please take care of Renee. We’ve both had all we can handle this year; I feel very fragile. I can’t survive another disaster. Please take care of her.” …and then 12 hours later she calls me from two states away, dying, needing me to find a way to get her to the hospital.

    It’s been a rough week for God? It’s been a rough YEAR for God. I see stories like ours, stories like the minister whose daughter never left the hospital, stories like Matt’s son, stories of people who are ravaged by Alzheimer’s–I hold God accountable for that because he has power to act, doesn’t he?
    Side note: I give God ample wiggle room for free will, and its devastating effects. Children starving in Africa? No problem: warlords. Tsunami? No problem: Al Gore’s Global Warming (c). Coked-up whore’s disabled child? no problem: coked-up whore. But when things happen that don’t seem to have a cause, and THAT OUR GOD SHOULD HAVE THE POWER AND DESIRE TO STOP, BUT HE DOESN’T?!?…I have more trouble letting him off the hook for that.

    I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this topic since January 6th, a day that will live in personal infamy (when we were told there was a terminal problem with our son-in-utero, Adam Dane Jeremiah). I’ve spoken with a lot of respected religious leaders. I’ve spent time talking to God and yelling at God. And truthfully, I’ve spent a lot of time in pouting silence towards God. I haven’t prayed well in ages. My prayers feel shallow and angsty, like a Stephanie Meyer character. I used to love the song “Blessed be the name of the Lord” but now break down in bitter tears at the “You give and take away…but my heart will choose to say ‘Blessed be the name of the Lord.’ ” (Oh, the songs we sing boldly in our youthful ignorance…)

    But one of the hard parts is, while the emotional side of me is being shredded, the intellectual side of me is rationalizing it, explaining it, making EXCUSES for it. It’s like Job laid out for us, at the expense of his family and servants: it’s not a “be good, get an easy life” arrangement. Where was I when God established the foundation of the oceans? Where was I when he created life? Who am I to question him? It is like what Tennyson wrote: “Theirs not to make reply/ Theirs not to reason why/ Theirs but to do and die.”

    Truth be told, I feel like an abused spouse. I’ve taken my beatings, but I make excuses for him: “He loves me. I deserve it. I brought it on myself. He feels REALLY bad about it. You should see all the good things he’s given me. He’s done some really great things for me.” I feel shame, being whipped like this. I want to curse God like a man and die. (I totally get what Job’s friends were saying.)

    For you, my friend, I distill my wisdom and my angst. Ready? Here it comes. The problem with us is, our focus is too zoomed-in. We find ourselves in the pit of the moment–no parking spot at the mall, a failed exam, a still born child, a dead parent, a cheating spouse–and we ask “Where is God? How can he be good and allow this to happen??” But the deal never was, “Be good, get an easy life.” The deal we make with God is, “Follow me, receive salvation, endure hardships, remain faithful, party with me in Heaven for eternity.” If we zoom out far enough, there is undoubtedly good news: we have gained Christ! It’s like we say on our mission trip to Tuba City, Arizona: “I came into this world with nothing and I may die with nothing. But because of Jesus I will come out ahead!”
    It is when we zoom in too closely that our present troubles seem overwhelming and God’s goodness appears undiscoverable.

    I come back to what Tennyson wrote. As Christians, our job isn’t to seek wealth or convenience. Our job is to love God, serve Him, spread his message/word/love, remain faithful, and eventually die (hopefully still faithful in an idyllic 2 Tim 4:7 kind of way). If we do those things well, we WILL be persecuted; we WILL have tough times. But we will come out ahead.
    After all, in the Bible, some of God’s most faithful got screwed the hardest, right?

    So I guess that’s my testimony right now. I’m terribly self conscious about it because, who wants to hire a minister whose life sermon is “be faithful, you will probably get screwed over, but the good news is someday you’ll die (and then go to heaven)”?

    Bottom line: i feel like I have failed in my faith. I don’t understand how people can go through what they go through and proclaim “God is good!” I don’t understand how someone can make the “99 balloons” video. (http://www.sermonspice.com/product/9342/99-balloons) It seems either incredibly shallow and disingenuous, like they haven’t begun to comprehend what they are talking about…or their faith is so far beyond mine that I can not even grasp it.

    Yet even as I write this, my other half is saying, “You knew the deal. You are remaining faithful. You are surviving. Remember when you wrote in the prayer journal, “I can’t survive another disaster?” You’ve now survived TWO more disasters. And you’re still going strong. You are stronger than you think. Or perhaps, God’s power is made perfect in your weakness.

    I think that’s where I really go batty–I know a million and one churchy responses to everything I’ve complained about: God grieves with you. God won’t give you more than you can handle. Adam is watching you from heaven right now. God is refining you through this. …but every one of them feels hollow. They all seem inadequate.

    Truth be told, I feel like a spoiled two-year-old pouting in the grocery store, crying and making a scene because I can’t have the bag of skittles: “I really want a son. Not just any son, but the son I saw in the ultrasound four times and came to love more fiercely than I ever imagined possible. That’s not asking for too much, is it? You’re giving children to 16 year old girls right and left, but you’re going to continue depriving ME? Don’t you love me? Don’t I deserve it? It’s not like I’m asking for selfish things! All I want is my son. My wife to be healthy. My knee to be strong enough to play ball with my future children. I want it I want it I want it!” But because I can’t/don’t have, I’m pissed at God. As if my present inconveniences even show up on the world’s crisis’ Richter scale, what with starvation and murder and war and rape…

    That’s when I feel self-conscious about it all. I’m CLEARLY still working through my grief. I still have hard feelings towards God about all of this, but I believe it will pass some day. Or at least get better. I will probably always see a child that is about the age that Adam would have been, and remember. But at least I’ll be on speaking terms with Him again–at least, not begrudging speaking terms.
    I realize that the issue is mine. God has forgiven me for far worse, far more times. I need to get over myself.
    It’s been a rough week, a rough year, for everyone. Come, Lord Jesus.

  3. Wes M. says:

    My issue with prayer, and life-long commitments that people have to their religious beliefs, is that if all of the people around the world who spend so much time praying and studying the Bible focused their intellect on cancer research, or a better way to feed more people, or new forms of cheap, renewable energy; or even just being a nurse or pharmacist… would we need to worry so much about praying? Christians talk so much about sacrifice, yet while other children are dying around the world every day, they would rather pray than read a biology book and maybe do something that might actually help someone else. If there is a God, he gave us all brains, and at this point humans can use their brains to make miracles happen. Maybe that’s what we all should be doing instead of praying for divine intervention. Scientists may never cure cancer, but I’m willing to bet that they have a way better chance of doing it than someone sitting in a pew, praying for a miracle.

    Let’s be realistic… we can make a difference, but it takes a lot more effort than prayer.

    • Paul says:

      I absolutely agree about the tendency of many Christians to focus on spiritual, ethereal matters while ignoring the practical good they could do for others right here and now. Richard Beck talks about the problem of people focusing on “working on their walk with God,” whatever that means, while failing to simply be decent people.

      I wouldn’t reject outright the possibility of divine intervention, but I’m coming to believe more and more that God is asking US to be his intervention, and that prayer, rather than being a list of orders we’re asking God to fill, is a way to acknowledge our own individual helplessness and need for strength on the journey.

  4. nate says:

    Having lost my old fundamentalist faith, I have been teetering dangerously towards deism, wondering if God interacts at all in the world. I guess working in people’s minds is interacting.

    • Paul says:

      Yes, one of the discussions we had in class this semester was about whether God’s work in the world is more in the hearts and minds of his followers to provide help and comfort to those who need it than it is in any miraculous intervention to prevent whatever horrible or painful event from happening.

  5. […] doesn’t. In truth, it doesn’t actually seem to matter much (scientific studies indicate prayer makes no difference in whether someone is healed). But why doesn’t anyone pray for resurrection when the prayers […]

  6. treegestalt says:

    Not ‘too big’ or ‘too small’ — just, ‘not separate.’ Not outside the world looking in.

    Not merely “still small voice inside us”, but the very Life that lives us. Not being any worse sort of entity, than us — but seeing from a ‘higher’, ‘deeper’, vantage.

    Physically, as a species, we seem to be approaching a major ‘die-off’ — what happens when the bacteria in a test tube of nutrients grow exponentially, eat up the goodies, then turn into mold food. No way to escape that except by a mass Wise-Up. (subsequently requiring major divine intervention even so.) Jesus talks about future women of 1st Century Jerusalem, that they’ll be saying “Blessed is the womb that is barren!” in the face of approaching calamities that would throw all normal expectations into confusion… We really don’t know what outcomes are best for us. We’ve got preferences (me too!) but we don’t know what will wake us up soonest and/or best.

    That “thing” which is our true self is eternal.

    None of this other stuff harms it. That’s just the place we’re living; we enjoy its benefits and suffer from its toxic karma. Innocent bystanders aren’t necessarily immune. But none of this is accidental or without purpose…

  7. […] time I want to revisit a post I wrote almost exactly one year ago. Liam, the son of some friends of mine and the focus of several posts on this blog, had just died, […]

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