Someone once told my mother that eating chilli peppers would cure her cancer.
I wish I was making this up. Upon hearing of her diagnosis, this individual informed my mother that the Lord had led him to discover a certain brand of chili peppers, and that if she would but eat of them she would be healed. This was not the only ridiculous thing spoken to her. Another offered these words: “don’t you worry, we are going to pray for your healing, and God always answers our prayers.” Don’t get me wrong, prayer is good. It meant a lot for my mother to know her church community was praying for her. But to boldly promise a healing, based on the greatness of my mom’s faith, or on the superb eloquence of their own prayers, is simply mistaken. The reality was that my mother knew three months into her treatments that she was not going to get better. She died six months after the date of her diagnosis.
I would like to say that the crazy comments stopped upon her death. Sadly, they didn’t; they just migrated to other members of the family. Upon her death, someone said to me matter-of-factly that the reason she died was because “she had finished her work on earth.” This may sound like a nice sentiment, a simple explanation providing an easy logic for why people die. It is even covered in a thin veneer of spirituality that makes as if it is a faithful response to death. It might seem this way, that is, until you realise my mother was only 62. She died before her own father; she will not get to see her youngest daughter get married or watch her only grandchild grow up. I have no doubt that, given the chance, there would have been a whole lot more “work” that my mother would have loved to do.
I bring these things up because I feel we do not always give voice to the messiness of our Christian faith. Our faith rarely exists in palaces of simple logic and problem-free solutions. We face difficulties, we struggle with God’s silence in prayer, we sometimes are left bereft of an answer for what is occurring in our lives. When we rationalize such difficulties by resting upon easy answers and stock phrases we reduce our faith to something safe and palatable. For example, a church in my neighbourhood recently posted the quote: “When the answer is simple, God is speaking.” Now, there are two things wrong with this quotation. Firstly, this is quote from Albert Einstein, a man who fundamentally rejected any notion of a God who loved you, cared for you, or spoke to you. Einstein’s god was a non-personal, non-affective, non-redeeming God. But more importantly, what does that say to the person going through a tumultuous time? What does this say for the one struggling for direction? If God is speaking only when the answers are simple, then any difficulty in life necessarily testifies to the absence of God. In promoting this easy answer, we step away from the very incarnational reality testified to in scripture.
The fact is, scripture is filled with messy situations. From Adam and Eve to King David, from Job to Jesus, we see faith lived out amongst the muck and mire of regular life. In scripture we uncover many questions, yet interestingly, very few answers. The book Job is a prime example of this. Upon Job’s suffering, Job’s friends put forward the answer to his plight: Job is suffering because he deserves it. Their theological outlook is quite simple, really: Bad things happen to bad people. The logic of easy answers are direct and pointed: Sin means suffering; Death means God has no more need of you; Chilli peppers cure cancer. Yet such statements offer nothing to the grieving or struggling person. They only serve to let’s us off the hook, to move us away from actually wrestling with our life with God.
Faith does not make us immune to difficulty or struggle. The good news, however, is we are not alone as we bear the difficult things in life. We see this throughout all of scripture, starting right from page one. In response to their sin, God enters the garden (that has just become infinitely messier) and calls out to the hiding Adam and Eve. We see in Job. Despite all his questions, God provides no easy answers. Instead, God provides Job with an understanding of his presence. Job final words are “now my eyes have seen you.” It is in this reality that Job finally rests.
Of course, we see this most profoundly in Jesus. God steps into the world to take our mess upon himself and to bear it with us. Christ is born in backwater town of Israel, surrounded by animals, unclean shepherds, and gentile mystics. Although perfect and without sin, Jesus is baptized in order to take up Israel’s need for salvation. In the wilderness he experiences the temptations that so often besiege us. He is hated, despised, and rejected. Jesus is beaten mercilessly and suffers an excruciating death on the cross. Such physical agony is only matched by his spiritual anguish as he cries out “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” Make no mistake, the messiness of Christian faith is that Christ is there in the mess.
Rarely do easy answers make us feel better. I can’t answer why, despite all the prayers, my mother was not physically healed. But I can claim that Jesus held her each and every moment of her difficult journey. And that gives me comfort. See, when we fail to embrace the messiness of our faith, we may just fail to meet the one who embraces us in our mess. It is the presence of Jesus in our lives, not safe and easy answers, that makes all the difference.
As you journey through the rest of Lent, allow me to pose a question for reflection: Where is your faith a little messy at this moment? Perhaps you have some questions that remain unanswered. Or possibly those easy answers you have been previously offered just don’t seem to cut it anymore. Maybe you are facing a hard conversation, a difficult road, an unforeseen circumstance. Whatever it is, what might it look like for you to embrace that mess? Because having a messy faith is not the worst thing in the world. It is within that mess that you may just uncover the presence of the Lord.