Saturday, July 28, 2012

Reasons Why

When I heard of the Aurora, Colorado shootings on July 20, one of my first reactions was to read the news stories for any information on the shooter's motives. From a purely practical perspective, there's little reason for this: the shooter's motive has no impact on the reality of the tragedy for the victims' families, the sense of closure that I'd get from knowing more about the story wouldn't remove my obligation to pray for those involved, and I'll never meet shooting suspect James Holmes, so whether or not I understand him will have no bearing on my life. It's just that I wanted to know why this terrible event happened.

I'm apparently not the only one to wonder why this happened; the web and news are full of stories delving into suspect James Holmes' personal history, discussions of his motives—or lack thereof—and speculations of his mental health or illness. As I'm writing this, one of links at the headline of CNN's home page is “Opinion: Why Kill?,” discussing possible motives. Almost as soon as I'd heard about the shootings, I got an email in my inbox talking about “making sense of” events such as this. Clearly, I'm not the only one wanting to know why this happened.

Wanting to understand why things happen—and why bad things happen in particular—is a powerful human desire. It's been suggested that one of the reasons journaling is therapeutic is because it helps us turn our jumbles of experiences into stories—organized series of cause-and-effect events, complete with implied whys for what happened—so that we can better understand them. Psychologists talk about the just-world hypothesis, the belief that the world is fundamentally just and that, therefore, if something good or bad happens to someone, it's because they deserved it. The just-world hypothesis is surprisingly widespread and strong. In numerous experiments, when subjects were presented with someone who received an electrical shock or had suffered illness, violence, or poverty, the subjects thought less of the victim. In other words, their hypothesis that this is a just world—their belief that there must be a why for everything that happens—caused them to think that the victim in some way deserved what happened. The just-world hypothesis can apply to good events too: if something good happens to someone (even if it's just luck), observes may assume that that person is skilled or virtuous.

As people who believe that the world is fundamentally under the control of a just God, we Christians are more prone to just-world thinking than others. I've heard countless variations of this sort of thinking from Christians over the years. This person died in a car crash because they were born out of wedlock. That person got sick because they didn't take care of themselves. The United States' historical rise was proof of God's blessing. The United States' more recent problems are proof of God's judgment. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans because of the immorality there. The 2010 Haiti earthquake occurred because Haitians made a deal with the devil. Any and all of these whys are, technically, possible—after all, God is more than capable of using any means he wants to get people's attention, and God certainly does act in history—but unless the Christians who are voicing these whys have direct revelation from God, they should not be so presumptuous as to assume that they understand when and why the Almighty intervenes.

This thinking is hardly new. Much of the book of Job consists of Job's friends trying to convince Job that they know why he's suffering and that his suffering is his own fault, but in doing so, God replied, they “had not spoken the truth about me” (Job 42:7). Jesus' disciples assumed that a man's congenital blindness was due either to his sin or his parents' (John 9:2); Jesus replied that it was neither. And although there are plenty of stories in the Bible where the why is spelled out in immediate, just-world terms—this good thing happened because of this person's faithfulness, that bad thing happened because of that person's sin—Jesus is quick to warn his listeners not to be too quick to draw conclusions about why bad things happen:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)

My grandfather suggests, based on 2 Thessalonians 2's description of the power that opposes God in this world as “lawlessness,” that it may not even be possible to find a reason why bad things happen. If God is a God of order and peace (1 Corinthians 14:33), and if God is the source of our reason, and if the evil in this world is described as lawlessness—chaos—then it may fundamentally have no reason. (In The Dark Knight, Alfred perhaps gets at this aspect of evil with his description of the Joker: “Some men aren't looking for anything logical... Some men just want to watch the world burn.” However, I sometimes wonder if pop culture treatments such as this serve to trivialize rather than illuminate reality.)

It seems to me, then, that there are several guidelines in this area that we as Christians need to follow:

  • We need to be aware of our innate tendency to look for whys and the limitations of those whys. (Rational explanations may not address someone's suffering, and even though they may provide closure, they do not relieve us of the need to wrestle with issues, offer support, empathize, or pray.)
  • We need to reject naive just-world thinking that automatically attributes good events to good actions and blames people for bad events.
  • Although we should not dwell on the evil in this world, we should not trivialize or ignore its lawlessness, chaos, and unreason.
  • In spite of the unreason of evil, and in spite of our own inability to always offer just-world explanations, we should hold fast to our belief that the world is ultimately ruled by a just God. We have the Christian hope that, ultimately, justice will prevail.

(I'm trying to focus specifically on how we think about why things happen instead of the much broader question of why bad things happen. For a discussion of that question, Philip Yancey is a good place to start.)

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Serious Business

Many American Christians seem to have a weak grasp of the theology of the church. Maybe it's an overreaction to the authoritarian, rigid hierarchy that Catholicism (and other denominations?) are seen to have; maybe it's simply a result of American individualism. For whatever reason, we often fail to realize how wonderful and how important the church is.

While attending the University of Tennessee, I was blessed to be a part of the Christian Student Fellowship there. I don't know how campus ministries are generally organized—I've heard of various combinations of outreach, Bible study, and social activities—but in the words of Sam Darden, the campus minister, the CSF was simply “a church made up of college students.” Sam was continually amazed that God would take a small (thirty to forty) group of college students, whose members changed constantly from year to year, who lacked money and regular schedules and (often) maturity, and form a church out of them.

Sam also talked about the gift of the church. Church isn't just something that we do because we're commanded, and it's not just a place where we can individually “fill up” on our spiritual needs for the weekend, and it's certainly not just a social gathering or a vehicle for entertainment. The Church is a gift: we get to be a part of the body of Christ; we get to share with others the joy of worshiping God; we get to form eternal friendships; we get to help other people (physically and spiritually) and be helped by other people.

This should affect how we view the church. Ephesians 5:25-27 (NLT) reminds us that Christ “loved the church. He gave up his life for her to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God's word. He did this to present her to himself as a glorious church without a spot or wrinkle or any other blemish. Instead, she will be holy and without fault.” If Christ values the Church this highly, then we should too.

This should affect how we view churchgoers. We are to “stop evaluating others from a human point of view” (2 Corinthians 5:16, NLT) - as earthly friends, or as rivals in the argument du jour, or simply as whoever's warming the pew next to us. C.S. Lewis elaborates on this idea:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. (The Weight of Glory)

The church is serious business.

This makes it all the more serious when people harm the church, either by action or inaction. It's strange to think that we can by our human deeds harm the body of Christ, but the Bible contains too many exhortations about how both our actions and our inaction (James 4:17) affect others for us to not think that this is the case.

We harm the church with our divisions and our arguments (John 17:20-23, 1 Corinthians 1:10-17, 3:1-9).

We harm the church by failing to pray for it and for our brothers and sisters in it (1 Samuel 12:23).

We harm the church when we judge our brothers and sisters by our own standards (Romans 14). I recently read of a ministry leader who espoused a doctrinally shaky position. In discussions online, he's being challenged Scripturally on his position - which is good and healthy - but he's also being assaulted, insulted, and torn down for daring to hold such a position. This is being done without regard for the faithful service he continues to do and without any apparent awareness on the attackers' part that their own doctrine may be imperfect.

We harm the church when we tolerate continued immaturity (Hebrews 5:11-14). Everyone is at different stages of maturity, but wherever people are, growth—genuine discipleship—is required.

We may harm the church when we put ourselves forward as ministers, leaders, or champions of a cause without recognizing our own immaturity. 1 Timothy 3:1-13 describes the requirements for elders and deacons specifically, but the principle is clear: simply having the desire to serve is not enough, if qualifications of character and maturity are not present. I have seen and read of people who persist in trying to do something in spite of their own failings and do harm as a result. We need humility to recognize our own shortcomings.

We harm the church when we try to turn it into an association of our favored race or social class or into a vehicle for our pet ministry or social or political cause. Examples of racist or overly politicized churches are too common; thankfully, though, other churches are consciously cutting back the “stuff” that they do so that they can focus on what is truly ministry. (See, for example, here.)

We harm the church when we bash it. Criticizing and looking down on the church and Christians for their shortcomings is a common pastime, and I've indulged in it myself often enough. Realizing that Christ loves the church enough to die for it should stop me in my tracks: how can I disparage something that my Lord loves so much?

I harm the church when I keep to myself in my pew, singing and absorbing the sermon and doing nothing else, or when I only look for my handful of close friends, instead of coming out of my shell and reaching out to whoever I can to carry out the 59 “one another” commands of the New Testament.

Paul knew very well how serious the business of the church is:

I face daily the pressure of my concern for the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? (2 Corinthians 11:28-29)

Do we recognize this too?

In discussing the divisions and arguments within the Corinthian church, Paul gives this warning to those who would harm the church:

Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person; for God's temple is sacred, and you together are that temple. (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)

Let us recognize how great a gift the church is and do all that we can, by prayer and deed, to build it up.