What Good Is God?: In Search of a Faith That Matters
As I look back over the ten trips recounted in What Good Is God? , what have I found?
On the somber campus of Virginia Tech and in the shell-shocked city of Mumbai I saw the church as a haven of comfort for those who grieve. Scientific studies of the effect of prayer on physical healing yield mixed results, but every study verifies that wounded people heal best and live best in a supportive community. We are not designed to bear pain alone, and in Blacksburg, Virginia, and Mumbai, India, the church opened wide its doors at a time of profound suffering. More, I also saw that the church can offer a place to confront the reality of evil without giving in to revenge. A world marked by acts of terrorism and madness desperately needs the church to show another way to cope with differences in culture, race, and caste.
Admittedly, the church has at times contributed more to the problem than to the solution, something I learned while growing up in a Bible-belt subculture that clung to segregation with one hand and biblical inerrancy with the other. I sometimes joke about being “in recovery” from a toxic local church, and in my writing I bend over backwards to acknowledge rather than deny the historical flaws of the broader church. It struck me, as I returned to a Bible college campus I described as “Life in the Bubble,” that Christian faith may sour when lived in isolation from the rest of the world. When I review Jesus’ loud complaints against the Pharisees, they seem to reduce to a single implicit accusation: Pharisees spend too much time around other Pharisees. As a result Pharisees (whether the Jewish or Christian variety) neglect wider issues, narrow their vision, and compete to achieve an artificial piety.
I emerged from the Bible college bubble with enduring gratitude for certain things I learned there: personal discipline, a sense of life’s ultimacy, a commitment to the Jesus way. In the days since, I have seen Christians draw on those very qualities to help transform the world around them. Scott Morris of the Church Health Center in Memphis provides a sterling example, by setting out an alternative vision to solve a huge social problem and then attracting volunteers to put their faith into action. To be fair to the school I attended, I also know classmates who are now working with flood victims in the Philippines, teaching English in China, flying supplies to schools and clinics in Peru, and visiting prisons in South Africa. Bubble institutions can serve a healthy purpose as long as they prepare for life outside.
In my interviews with addicts and prostitutes I heard several dozen wrenching accounts of the power of evil to control and destroy lives—and the power of God to overcome that evil. I wish skeptics like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins had the same chance to hear stories of transformation from social outcasts who hit the very bottom and now credit God for the strong grace that saved them in the most literal sense. What good is God? He rescued me from sex slavery and drug addiction. God brought me back to life. No doubt the skeptics would have a different, psychosocial explanation for the life changes, but hearing a dozen such stories in an afternoon tends to overwhelm rational argument. Jesus himself rarely offered theological “proofs”; he simply went around transforming lives.
At the other end of the spectrum, the scholar C. S. Lewis worked in a sophisticated academic environment that bred its own form of evil: contention, snobbery, arrogance, backbiting. Though Lewis did indeed offer logical arguments or “proofs” for what he believed, those who knew him before and after conversion point to his own life as the strongest proof. “He’s the most thoroughly converted man I have ever met,” said one acquaintance.
China gave me snapshots of transformation of another kind, one that percolates through society. Jesus likened the kingdom to small things—salt on meat, yeast in bread, a tiny seed in the garden—as if to emphasize we dare not judge the gospel’s impact by numbers. Visitors to communist countries, with their doctrinaire atheism, might ask an opposite question than the one of this book: What good is no-God? Chairman Mao still stares out from photos on the walls of most Chinese homes, but most would reckon his attempt to displace God a failure. Mao redirected the universal human instinct to worship toward his own personality cult, yet in the process he severed morality and virtue from their roots. Does faith matter? One need only consider the last century to see grim proof that, at the least, no-faith matters. Stalin and Mao, ardent enemies of religion, together caused the deaths of 100 million of their own citizens. Meanwhile, Christians carrying candles and singing hymns marched through the streets of Eastern Europe until the Iron Curtain fell in a heap. And below the radar screen of media attention a religious revival broke out in Mao’s China that may yet change the history of Asia and the world.
Western powers have learned a related and painful lesson in Iraq and Afghanistan: change imposed by force rarely produces the desired results. Likewise, a faith that matters grows best from the ground up, working its way through society gradually, without coercion. Christianity first spread by this route through the eastern frontier of the Roman empire, and after a period of triumphalism Christians in that Middle East region find themselves once again as a beleaguered minority. Their example of compassion for social outcasts and respect for women’s rights may, in the long term, do more to advance democratic values than any imposed political solution.
Of all the places I visited, South Africa presented at once the most excitement and the most daunting challenge. Nelson Mandela may well have asked “What good is God?” as he spent twenty-seven years in prison under a regime that quoted the Bible to support its racist doctrine. Yet Mandela’s faith held strong, and with a moral authority backed by Bishop Desmond Tutu he led his nation through a peaceful transition when nearly everyone was predicting a bloodbath. Today South Africa has a flourishing church and people of all races are working to tackle the enormous problems of poverty, AIDS, c
rime, and corruption.
Often when people pose a question like “What good is God?” they are asking why God doesn’t intervene more directly and with more force. Why did God let Hitler do so much damage, or Stalin and Mao? Why doesn’t God take a more active role in human history? I can think of several possible reasons. According to the Old Testament, God did take an active and forceful role in the past, yet it failed to produce lasting faith among the Israelites. And, as earthly powers have learned, force and freedom make uneasy partners and an emphasis on one always diminishes the other; God consistently tilts toward human freedom. In the end, though, we have no sure answer and only fleeting glimpses of God’s ultimate plan.
For whatever reason, God chooses to make himself known primarily through ordinary people like us. I recall my friend Joanna’s clear statement to explain the transformation that took place in Pollsmoor Prison: “Well, of course, Philip, God was already present in the prison. I just had to make him visible.” The question “What good is God?” is an open question whose answer God has invested in us his followers. We are the ones called to demonstrate a faith that matters to a watching world. I have reported on ten places where I have seen that question answered—incompletely as it must be when entrusted to ordinary people, yet in a way that assuredly releases the fragrance of hope and transformation. May that fragrance continue to spread.
Greg’s Note: The above is an excerpt from Philip Yancey’s Book, What Good Is God?: In Search of a Faith That Matters; used by the permission of Faith Words Publishing and Philip Yancey; Copyright 2010 All Rights Reserved.