How I Suffer and Keep Trusting God

suffer and keep trusting god -- man behind fabric wall

Someone struggling with serious health problems wrote to me today and said, “Dave, some of the stuff you’ve faced with your MS is horrific. How in the world do you keep trusting God and believing he loves you?” What a great question. With her permission I have reprinted my answer, below, because I wonder if it might be helpful to others.

Question: I just don’t understand how you and God can have a relationship when you are suffering from such a depressing, debilitating disease. I want you to know I do not in any way pity you. I do not disrespect you as a person by drawing attention to your illness. But how do you hold onto this relationship when you suffer so much? I just can’t wrap my head around that. And by asking that question I feel so much like what people would describe as a “baby” Christian who is still caught up in why bad things happen to good people but I’m so tired of pretending I’m a grown up Christian. I want to know how you reconcile that. And I want to also add that I feel so sad that you have to go through what you go through. I hope in no way that you feel I am minimizing or trivializing your suffering by asking such an immature question.

Answer: I’m so glad you have someone of whom you can ask that question. I had no one. Unfortunately I’m not sure I have anything to say that will be that helpful. I’ll try, though. BTW, my illness is as much a feature of my life by now as the fact that I am bald, or a writer, or a pastor. It’s the most routine thing in the world for me to talk about. Don’t worry about asking.

Maybe the best answer to your question is that I have already tried the other options.

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God and Country

god and country

I don’t really believe in this idea of “God and country.” I think it’s actually harmful. (I figured I might as well go whole-hog today and alienate whatever Christians this will alienate.) Before you shut me down, unfriend me, and come to my house with a pitchfork, I hope you will hear me out. These are my views, and I think a lot about this stuff. My views may not line up with yours, and I understand that, but I hope I can articulate them in a way where even if you disagree you can say, “Oh, I can see how that can be an acceptable way of thinking.”

This is what we know about the religious commitments of our founding fathers:

No One Owns God

keys - no one owns God

This tweet from Richard Rohr says God is accessible to every person on the planet, that no one owns God, regardless of religion or lack thereof. What does it mean to believe no one owns God?

Once upon a time, there was no writing. There was no printing press. There were no books. There was, however, God — moving and working in history and in human lives. I don’t know any Christian who would deny this. Without religion, without writing, books, and certainly without churches and theology, this God made himself known in the world and was available to those who called on him (unless you believe God has been asleep at the wheel for 99.999% of all history, in which case you are more Deist than Christian). We see in the New Testament that Jesus complimented the faith of non-Jews, people considered to be godless, and probably incapable of real faith. Indeed, we see in the words of the Bible itself that it is not primarily through knowledge of that book, nor the procedures, beliefs, and systems it lays out, but rather through faith, that we are able to know God. The Apostle Paul affirms that we actually live by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). This is to say, our journey forward in God is made up primarily of what we do not know.

That means everything that comes after faith is “extra.” This, then, naturally includes all that we can and do know. That is not to say that some of these extras do not serve very important purposes. If I believed they were unimportant I could not find any reason to be a pastor in a particular denomination and religion. They are important, perhaps extremely so in some cases, but they are, in fact, extra, because they come after faith itself.

Think of God as a big, juicy steak on a plate. The extras are everything — absolutely everything — that is on and around the plate. This includes healthy vegetables (important doctrines such as the Trinity, without which our understanding of God cannot be fully whole), the silverware (understood as the most elegant means by which we can enjoy the steak), steak sauce (particular denominational flavors we add to the steak), refreshing drinks (the type of preaching that helps us get the steak down without choking on it), even the manner in which the steak is served (religion itself). The steak is central, it is “the reason,” so to speak (John 1:1). Everything else in the meal is there to serve the steak, to complement it, to make it more enjoyable, or richer, or to help us get it down better. “In the beginning, God…” (Genesis 1:1). God was accessible and available from the start.

This is what I believer Rohr means by this tweet. God is moving everywhere. God cannot be restricted to one religion. God is even active in the lives of some people who don’t consciously believe in God, yet whose lives regularly manifest the beautiful fruit religious people already know is fruit of God’s Spirit. Don’t you think it’s pretty valuable to know this? That’s why religion matters, and why our particular choice of religion is important. Formal religious instruction helps us identify characteristic ways God may work in our lives. But Rohr again is correct, in that no religion/denomination will prescribe for God how he MUST move. If we think it does, we’re drinking the steak sauce straight, and leaving out the steak!  No one owns God, or will prescribe to him what he must do and what rules he must follow. Indeed, I believe the meaning of this parable of Jesus’ is that no one owns God, that he will give his grace to absolutely anyone he pleases, at any time, and under whatever conditions he chooses.

As a Christian pastor, I believe the Christian religion helps us understand God in ways no other religion does. Without those contributions we would be impoverished in our thinking about God. There are a few particularly potent ideas Christianity brings to the table, and I will discuss those in my next post.

Personal Pan Pizza Jesus

pizza-personal pan pizza

image courtesy of

It’s evening.

You’re hanging around at Pizza Hut with your friends. After some discussion and a bit of debate (and a brief filibuster from Zac, who’s allergic to everything), you place your order.

The pizza comes and everyone digs in.

When the evening is finished and everyone goes home, there are one or two slices of pizza still on the tray. Every time you get together.

Why is this? It’s because pizza, when ordered as a group, is community property. No individual feels entitled enough to it to take the last slice. In fact, as soon as the pizza arrives, some people even start doing, in Kevin James’s words “the pizza math,” figuring out how many slices there are and dividing by the number of eaters, to arrive at the maximum number of available slices per eater.

Imagine now that this same group of friends, on the same evening, decides to not haggle over toppings. Instead, every person just orders a personal pan pizza.

The pizzas come to the table, and everyone digs in. When Jeff is done with his pizza, he reaches over to take some of Alan’s. Alan slaps his hand and says, “This is mine. You already ate yours.”

Forget about sharing. Forget about community property. It’s every man for himself. Not only will no pizza be left on the table, but each person will take home any pizza they did not eat. It belongs to them.

American evangelicals have a personal pan pizza kind of Jesus. He’s my personal Savior.

Hear that? He’s MINE! You may also have one, but you better have placed your own order for it (the sinner’s prayer, anybody?), because you can’t have mine. Even if I do give you some, I’m being generous. I’m not obligated to give you any. After all, Jesus is mine. He’s my personal Savior.

To evangelicals, then, evangelism is not sharing with people the God who is already theirs, but telling them about the God who is “mine” and telling them how they, too, can have their own personal pan pizza Jesus.

“If I was the only person on the face of the earth, Jesus would still have died for me.”
“When Jesus was on the cross, I was on his mind.”

Beautiful sentiments, but what if that’s not how God works? What if God actually belongs to everybody (and therefore nobody!), like the pizza shared by the entire community? What if Jeff has a right to Alan’s pizza? That is, what if God remains “community property” even when someone has what they think is their own personal Jesus?

That would mean that, as much as someone might think “He’s my God and he belongs to me and my group,” the truth would be that others get some too. Others who didn’t come to the table soon enough, others who don’t have the right information, or pedigree, or reputation. If God belongs to everybody, then he’s doing something worldwide, something the whole creation is going to get in on, something a lot of people are going to find outrageous. Something deeply, fantastically good.

This is not only the God I believe in, but the God I am positively counting on.


Question: How did this strike you? How do you think it is or isn’t fair? Let me know in the comments!

From Religion to Spirituality

angels_respite move from religion to spirituality

Image courtesy of mindseyeimagery, licensed under Creative Commons

In my last post I said that in this one I’d deal with the question of how to learn to spot God in all the places where God is (which of course is everywhere). If I could boil it down to one simple thing, it would be that we need to move from religion to spirituality. I’m not talking about the fairly empty-headed spirituality we often see nowadays, which is basically that a person believes in something beyond him/herself and has squishy feelings about it. Such people’s spiritual reading often consists mostly of Khilal Gibran, Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle, and Wayne Dyer. They will often even feel contemptuous towards traditional religions. That’s not what I mean when I say we need to move from religion to spirituality. Without entirely discounting what the men above have to say (on the contrary, I think Christians have a great deal more to learn from these men than most like to admit, but avoid them out of fear), I’m talking about something different.

I am not talking about junking Christianity and going rogue and doing your own thing. One sign that something is real is that it has a form, and so traditional religions are identified by their outward forms. Finding one’s place within a form (a “church”) and living in community with them, is important. What I’m talking about is a shift in mindset, that moves one’s basic dependence away from the form and into the realm of faith — that is the move from religion to spirituality. If you’re familiar with Christian scripture, you might consider this, in the Apostle Paul’s words, moving away from milk and onto solid food. Here are questions you can ask that will help you make the move from religion to spirituality.

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