Last week I had the chance to talk with her in depth. She claims to be a fallen Catholic and developing Deist. She says that she wants to hear a “voice from the whirlwind,” a clear voice from God, to explain the suffering and pain in the world. I can see she is open to knowing more about God, but I don’t want to push it. Since she is profoundly intellectual, I know there are so many other doctrines, not to mention non-Christian peers, who weigh heavily on her mind when she contemplates religion. I am very open, when I am speaking with her, about how God works in my life and about what I have faced in the classroom since being at this liberal arts college. She is very receptive, and often helps me sort through various classroom problems.
I have suggested for her to read C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, and she is going to borrow my copy. My question for you is do you have any other suggestions for books which explain Christianity and how it can fit into the intellectual circle? I would be open to any other advice you can give me. God is speaking to this wonderful woman, and I don’t want to mess it up by overstepping my bounds as a student or a Christian in the witnessing process.
Thanks for all your help.
May God bless you for desiring to reach out to your English professor, and for offering yourself to Him as a pathway of His grace. Let me offer a few general observations and suggestions, then I’ll comply with your request to suggest some books.
Remember that the objections to faith which your teacher presents to you are probably not her real objections. The first one she presents is that she would need something like a “voice from the whirlwind” in order to believe in God, and so far she hasn’t received it. This is an excuse; you must find out what lies behind it. God declares in Scripture that there is already adequate reason to believe in Him. Do you remember the parable of Lazarus and the rich man? When the rich man finds himself in abandoned after death, he calls across the gulf to Abraham, begging him to send Lazarus to his five brothers to warn them, “lest they also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replies, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” The rich man pleads, “No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” Abraham replies, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.” That’s an allusion to the Resurrection.
Even before the Resurrection was the testimony of Creation. The Bible doesn’t take the view that people begin in ignorance about God; as Paul says in the first chapter of Romans, even the pagans know about Him, “for what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse”.
Now your teacher, being a lapsed Christian, knows in her heart much more than the pagans do; she is more like the rich man than like the average Roman or Athenian, for she knows not only the testimony of Creation, but also the testimony of Moses, the Prophets, and the Resurrection of Christ. For some reason — perhaps the fear of being considered a fool by her non-believing colleagues? perhaps some sin that she does not want to give up? perhaps something else? — she has convinced herself that she doesn’t know as much as she really does. Your task, then, isn’t mainly to give her rational arguments for faith — although that’s part of it — but to bring to the surface the knowledge that she has but is presently suppressing.
The same thing is true of her second objection, that a good God would not permit all the suffering and pain in the world. Except for God, there wouldn’t be any reason to expect such a thing as good in the world at all! Why does she dwell upon the former argument, without even thinking about the latter one? Something else is going on in her — something that we cannot see. Now there are a great many answers to her objection, answers which are perfectly good from a logical point of view, but unless you can deal with the real objection behind her objection, telling these answers to her is unlikely to do much good.
Often, what’s really eating the person who asks why a good God would permit all the suffering and pain in the world is some suffering in the person’s own life — or in the life of someone whom the person has loved. In other words, the real problem may be not that God permits suffering — but that God permitted that suffering. If so, then it is that anger or mistrust which you must deal with. This may be difficult, because your teacher will not necessarily know what it is that’s really eating her. Even if she does, she is unlikely to confess it to a student. So you must speak with her in such a way that whatever the problem is, it will rise to the surface of her mind by itself. For example, you can point out that although we don’t know all the reasons why God permits suffering and pain, we do know His attitude toward them — because, for our sake, He took the worst of our pain and suffering upon Himself. You may have seen me make this point in my column before. The keywords for you here are “humility” and “compassion,” but without sacrifice of truth.
I also notice that there is a connection between your teacher’s two objections. That connection is the book of Job, and your teacher’s remark about the “voice from the whirlwind” suggests that she makes the connection herself. Job is a great work of literature, and being a literature teacher, she may have thought about the book a good deal. If you haven’t already, you should read it yourself. Let me also offer some remarks about it which may be of some use when you talk with her.
Job too is distressed with God because of unjustified suffering — his own — and he does finally hear God in the whirlwind. What your teacher may not recognize is that her case is quite different from Job’s.
- The character of Job is presented in the story as perfectly just; can any of us make that defense to our Maker? “[A]ll have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
- Although Job does complain to the Almighty about his suffering, at no point does he doubt the reality, goodness, or justice of God. He doesn’t offer his complaint as a reason for abandoning faith; rather, his faith determines how he will complain. Instead of saying that God is unjust, he says that if only God would grant him a hearing, God would then rule justly! “Oh that my words were written! Oh that they were inscribed in a book! Oh that with an iron pen and lead they were graven in the rock for ever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job 19:23-27a, RSV).
- Notice that although God does speak to Job in the whirlwind, He never does explain to Job exactly why Job has suffered. In other words, it isn’t because God answers Job’s questions that Job is finally satisfied; what satisfies Job is God Himself, God’s greatness and unsearchable wisdom. What all this implies is that when Job imagined that God needed to hear Job’s case — when he imagined that God didn’t already know what was going on with him — Job was guilty of presumption. And Job repents of this sin, saying “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know … therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:3-6).
- Finally, your teacher overlooks the fact that, after all, the book of Job is included — where? In the Cambridge Guide to Literature? No, in the Bible — the word of God to everyone. Now think! What does this mean? It means that by speaking from the whirlwind to Job, God has already spoken from the whirlwind to us. He does not have to do it again; He has already done it, not for Job alone, but for all of Job’s posterity — including your teacher, a fallen daughter of God.
As to reading suggestions. The C.S. Lewis book which you are already loaning her, The Problem of Pain, is an excellent choice. I think she might also be interested in a novel by Lewis which deals indirectly with all sorts of complaints against God, pain and injustice among them: Its title is Till We Have Faces. This was the last, and, in my opinion, the best of his novels (although the least known of them), and it speaks to the heart at levels which the mind hardly knows.
May God lend His grace to your witness.
Grace and peace,
Copyright 2001 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.