I’ve come across a disturbing trend: Christians who can’t cope—not with their own circumstances but with other people’s. For instance, someone today said about a chronically sick friend, ‘No, I never go to visit her. I just can’t cope with her condition.’
Let me tell you about this sick, unvisited friend. She’s an older woman who has spent most of her life in Christian service of one kind or another, including some years on the mission-field. Having developed cancer of the throat that destroyed her vocal cords, she has ended up with an electronic device attached to her throat that enables her to speak. But the sound is whispery, some would say quite sinister-sounding—and at least two of her longstanding Christian friends can’t cope with that.
Here’s another case. A retired couple decided to move house to be nearer their children. But a dead housing market meant that after several years they still hadn’t found a buyer, and they didn’t have the means to move without selling first. A well-meaning Christian brother wrote and advised, ‘You need to do what Jesus said: command the house to sell. That will clear the log-jam right away. You can start packing!’ When the couple informed their well-meaning friend that they had been doing this very thing for a long time, with no apparent change, the communication dried up. The friend couldn’t cope with it not working.
And here’s another. When a young couple known to me had their first child, a son, it wasn’t long before routine tests discovered that the little boy had a birth defect: he was profoundly deaf. They prayed about it. They got the whole church praying about it, long and hard, but with no evident change.
Then the medical authorities informed them that a new technique had become available. A small device could be implanted into the child’s head. While it would not enable him to hear in the normal sense, it would move him a tiny step closer to being able to detect certain sounds and so provide a better chance of at least some aural communication. Most of the family’s friends rejoiced at the opportunity. But a few Christians said it would be a mistake to agree to the implant, because that would show a lack of faith in God’s power to heal. So when the implant went ahead, they cut the family off—they couldn’t cope with the situation. One such lady, who had been close to the family, now crossed the street rather than meet the mother and have to face up to the fact that God hadn’t healed the boy.
This is a shameful response, brought about by what I call two-storey living. These people have two distinct living-areas in their lives. There’s the ‘downstairs’ level, where everyday life takes place: going to work, painting the hallway, buying groceries, paying the mortgage, eating dinner. Then there’s the ‘upstairs’, which is ‘spiritual’. Here, you just quote the right healing scripture and healing takes place instantly. If you have a problem, you just ‘take it to the Lord in prayer’ and he solves it for you right away. If you are short of money, you mention it to Jehovah Jireh and, that same night, under cover of darkness, an anonymous person slips an envelope containing £500 through your letterbox. It always works. God says it will, so it must. It can’t not work. So when the going gets a bit rough downstairs, these folk take refuge upstairs where ‘rough’ doesn’t exist. Some in fact stay up there most of the time, reluctantly venturing down only when they need a sandwich from the fridge, or a couple of paracetamol.
This approach is a form of what theologians call dualism: two separate areas of experience, one in the physical world, the other in the metaphysical. Authentic Christianity has no place for it and has traditionally labelled it heresy. True Christian living calls us to abandon such two-storey living and move into a bungalow where there is no spiritual/secular divide, where everyday life and true spirituality co-exist in harmony, where the devil is God’s devil, and where faith is robust enough to cope with anything—even God’s apparent failure to live up to his promises.
How does this apply to the lady who ‘couldn’t cope’ with visiting her one-time friend with the artificial voice-box?
For a start, she should be thoroughly ashamed of herself for her abysmal failure to show the Christian grace of caring. Then she should sort out her confused thinking that says, ‘Hmm. Betty is a good Christian woman. She forsook a lucrative career in the secular world in order to serve the Lord. She even suffered for the gospel while serving in a Muslim country. God must love her very much—certainly enough to reward her by preserving her health. But, oh dear, God hasn’t done it! I can’t square that with God’s love, so I’ll just stick my head in the sand and pretend the problem isn’t there. Unfortunately I won’t be able to visit the poor old girl, because that would be to yank my head out of the sand and see the grotesque problem yet again—and I can’t cope with that!’
You can apply the same approach to the person who can’t cope with the house-sale mountain not jumping into the sea as commanded, and to the pathetic woman who crossed the street rather than face the reality that the child of a Christian couple was profoundly deaf.
Fundamentally, these people all have a problem with God. They have him all neatly sewn up into a system whereby, provided they press the right faith-buttons and quote the Bible’s allegedly absolute promises with enough vigour and volume, God is somehow obliged to spring into action without delay and address the issue. Upstairs, he always does. But they can’t face the fact that in the real world of downstairs living sometimes—if we’re honest, often—God doesn’t do it. Of course, they have an escape clause to cover such eventualities: lack of faith on the part of the person who needs his help. It can’t possibly be God’s problem, so it must be a human one.
Now you shouldn’t kick a person when he’s down, yet that’s exactly what these mixed-up Christians do. Not only do they desert the poor woman with the voice-box when she needs Christian company most, they also tell her it’s her own fault entirely that she’s in that condition: ‘If you’d had faith, sister, you wouldn’t have got into this state in the first place.’ That’s going to make her depressed as well as sick. It is seriously unchristian.
Bungalow living means saying goodbye to all that unsanctified behaviour. It means admitting that we still live in an imperfect world, that there’s a ‘not yet’ aspect of the kingdom as well as an ‘already’, and that it can get messy downstairs.
Bungalow living means adjusting our view of God instead of turning our back on sufferers. Is God loving, good and kind? Most certainly; he has revealed himself plainly as such. Does that mean he is obliged to make our life a bed of roses? Absolutely not. He is working to a higher agenda than our personal comfort. Indeed, in the present age he often chooses to use suffering as a tool for maturing us and shaping us into a closer likeness to our Elder Brother. Facing up to these things is what real faith is about.
At the great Messianic Banquet in the age to come we shall be able to feast to our hearts’ content on the goodness of God. There will be no delayed house-moves, no aural implants, no artificial voice-boxes there. There will be fulfilment, food and shalom for us all. But what about here and now? Happily, not everything is reserved for the future. From time to time the Lord, in his goodness, may grant us—as a privilege, not a right—a sample from his banquet-table, a tiny taste of the powers of the coming age—and no more. Savour it when it comes, and stay real when it doesn’t.
And, oh yes—the dining room is downstairs.
- A reference to Mark 11:23.
- This was, at the time of writing, the situation my wife and I were in. There are some Christian people who avoided us because they couldn’t cope with the fact that God hadn’t yet opened the way for our relocation.
- This Hebrew name means ‘The Lord will provide’. It occurs in Genesis 22:14.
- An expression I first heard from the Canadian Bible teacher Ern Baxter. He meant that the devil, far from being God’s equal, is a created being under his control.
- Linguistic studies show that the New Testament word for ‘faith’ (Greek pistis) often means something more like the English ‘faithfulness’. So the notion of ‘having faith for something’—finance, health or whatever—needs at the very least to be balanced by that of ‘remaining faithful to God’ even when we can’t understand why he is allowing certain unpleasant things to happen to us and to our friends, and being honest about it.
- Hebrews 6:5