Nothing tests one’s belief like a crisis

Sam Bush for Mockingbird // December 23, 2022, 11:52 am

Photo by Pixabay.

Photo by Pixabay.

“Call 911!” I shouted to my wife while trying to plug a pipe spewing out flammable gas.

The sound was earsplitting. Within minutes the entire block reeked of fumes. Had I been smoking while doing yard work, I would probably be dead.

After my wife made the call, we stood there, helplessly waiting to hear the familiar sound of sirens. Previously, the sound of an emergency vehicle was little more than a nuisance. That is, until it was the sound of my imminent rescue.

Up until that point, the fire station around the corner from us was a means of entertaining our two young boys.

On a daily basis, we would chat with cadets or watch an off-duty volleyball game out back. It was nice to have them around, but I never thought that I would actually need them.

Then, while recently digging up an old boxwood bush in front of my house, I hit a gas line with my shovel.

The gap between understanding and experience

Emergency services are the scaffolding upon which we build our lives. They may feel as decorative and unnecessary as wallpaper — the kind of everyday parlance of our values and speech — but we never know how much we need them until a storm comes.

We cannot fully appreciate them until there is a fire on the stove. We may dutifully pull over to allow a firetruck to pass — we may even say a prayer — but there is no real way to feel the urgency of the person waiting for that rescue vehicle until that person is you.

We can be told time and again that life is suffering; we can nod along with Jesus’ promise “blessed are they that mourn”. But the difference between one’s cognitive understanding and one’s personal experience is akin to the difference between studying the molecular structure of water and jumping into the Pacific Ocean.

 If is of no comfort to us in an emergency, then perhaps it’s not a real God at all, but an idol of self-betterment.

The same goes for Jesus. One may be attracted to his teachings, but hardly rely on them. At the very least, one may find him to be an interesting historical figure. But we will not consider him a Saviour until we ourselves are in need of saving.

His title as Friend of Sinners takes on new significance when our reputation becomes sullied enough to lose friends. We don’t fully appreciate the protection and guidance of the Good Shepherd until we are lost, alone and afraid. The Great Physician has little value until we fall ill.

Perhaps one never fully believes in anything until its truth or falsehood is a matter of life and death. In his masterwork A Grief Observed, CS Lewis examines how a person can believe a rope is strong while using it to close the lid on a box, but hanging by that same rope while dangling over a cliff is a more acute test of its reliability.

Of course, one’s faith is not made null and void in an absence of crisis. But, if we never dream of turning to the Gospel when in distress, then what value does it actually have? After all, the point of Christian theology is not to live in one’s imagination, but to think about what it means to believe, breathe, and live the Gospel.

Where do we find comfort?

The Christian faith is only compelling when questions of real pain and real sorrow can be met with real hope and real comfort. I still think Lewis writes of the difference between rational comprehension and personal experience as well as anyone. 

The man who wrote about the problem of pain, this apologist for Christianity, finds his theology blown down by tragedy:

If my house has collapsed at one blow, that is because it was a house of cards. The faith which ‘took these things into account’ was not faith but imagination. The taking them into account was not real sympathy. If I had really cared, as I thought I did, about the sorrows of the world, I should not have been so overwhelmed when my own sorrow came. It has been an imaginary faith playing with innocuous counters labeled ‘Illness,’ ‘Pain,’ ‘Death,’ and ‘Loneliness’. I thought I trusted the rope until it mattered to me whether it would bear me. Now it matters, and I find I didn’t.

The truth is that many of us have an intricately laid out theology that cannot withstand the storm of suffering.

The Christian faith is only compelling when questions of real pain and real sorrow can be met with real hope and real comfort.

The God we worship mostly has to do with some form of moral improvement: Do better, try harder, and blessing will surely follow. It’s a way of life that may work in the day to day, perhaps providing personal motivation or wise advice.

But when willpower runs dry, irreversible mistakes are made, or calamity strikes, what then? If the God we worship is of no comfort to us in an emergency, then perhaps it’s not a real God at all, but an idol of self-betterment.

To be sure, striving toward one’s own spiritual development could very well lead to positive changes in one’s life. Our muscles may begin to tone nicely when we exercise on a regular basis. But what happens when we tear a ligament or, even worse, get hit by a bus?

While some of us may be determined enough to recover, it is only a matter of time until an even more serious injury comes along. In other words, we won’t realise our programs for piety are made of sand until God knocks them down.

Likewise, the various ways we cope with pain will eventually crumble under the weight of tragedy. Binge-watching or micro-dosing may help after a long day, but not when your house is on fire.

A person can only find solace in fantasy for so long.

Knowing God in suffering

Like an old fire alarm’s instruction, our idea of God is never clearer than when we are forced to “break glass in case of emergency”.

These moments are when God reveals his chief function: Not as an assistant, but as a Saviour. The cover of our orderly doctrine is ripped off by the Living God. Or, as Lewis himself writes: “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself.”

Having long been in the emergency rescue business, it is simply what God does: He saves.

After such an experience, no theological idea has any significance if it fails to speak directly to the particular crisis we had previously experienced.

In the end, what can bear the weight of our emergencies but the message that “He who does not know God in suffering does not know God at all”? It is a message worth revisiting time and time again because it takes the Christian faith to the extreme, ensuring that there is no exception to the rule of God’s grace.

Should we continue to cling to the Gospel of forgiveness and the divine rescue of unworthy sinners, it may not be the last place we turn to in time of need.

What is more comforting still is that God does not require proper theology in order to come to our rescue. Sound doctrine or not, in the throes of a crisis, we will have no one else to call and He will gladly be our first responder.

Having long been in the emergency rescue business, it is simply what God does: He saves.

We may take him for granted in our day-to-day lives; we may even visit with him on a regular basis without ever realising how much we need him until that fateful day.

But we need not be surprised when he shows up at our door.

This article was first published by The Mockingbird, a hardcopy print magazine, and is republished with permission. You can find more articles here or sign up for a subscription here.


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About the author

Sam Bush for Mockingbird

Mockingbird is a ministry that seeks to connect the Christian faith with the realities of everyday life in fresh and down-to-earth ways.