Thursday, June 26, 2008

Another Dear John

I recently read a letter from a friend of my brother (we'll call him "John" (we always do)), who had, over the past several months, lost all faith in God. He was raised in a church that preached the old “believe what we tell you, or you’ll go to Hell” doctrine, and he had decided that their teachings were nonsense, and, therefore, that God was something invented to exert power over the weak-minded common people, that life after death was another fiction to console us all when life here on earth wasn’t going so hot.

Well, John, you’re half right.

There is no mean, vengeful being who sits in the sky and throws lightning bolts, turns a blind eye to our suffering, and gets a kick out of condemning people to Hell when they pick the wrong religion. So if that’s what you’ve decided, congratulations.

But John, there is a God. And He loves you. He is your Father, and you are His son. No matter what injustices power-hungry people have propagated in His name, He remains the same kind, loving, merciful being He always has been. He remains interested in the lives of His children.

John, you named many things in your letter that indicated to you that either God did not exist, or He did not care. Wars and atrocities were among them, and I assure you that the Lord weeps when His children hurt one another. But He allows us to make choices, even when others suffer the consequences of our poor choices. We would hardly think Him fair if He prevented anything bad from happening, just as we would think parents over-protective if they wrapped their children in twenty layers of bubble wrap to insulate them from any hurt, and then locked them in the house to prevent the kids at school from bullying them.

You mentioned natural disasters, illnesses, and accidents that take the lives of many good people before their time. All these are part of life in a fallen world. Bad things happen to good people, not because God does not care, but because He sees the bigger picture. If this life was the end of living, then early death would truly be a tragedy. If pain didn’t cause growth, it, too, would be pointless. But when we understand that living extends even beyond the grave, and that suffering molds us into wiser creatures with greater potential for compassion and love, suddenly the trials and heartaches of life (or, as Hamlet called them, “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,”) become less galling, as we become transformed into the image of a God who is more glorious, just, and merciful than we could ever imagine, and certainly not the being you depicted in your note.

John, life hasn’t been easy for my family, either. My grandmother died just over a year ago, from a horribly painful form of cancer that left her debilitated and unable to dress or toilet herself. Perhaps you knew my friend, who died several years ago of leukemia. He was in your grade, and only 13 years old when he died. He was my best friend’s youngest brother, and my brother's best friend. I have been betrayed by those I loved, and hurt deeply by those I called my friends. So in some ways, John, you’re right—life can be really, really hard, and the world sometimes looks very bleak.

But as one who has felt the presence of God in my life, I bear witness that He is very real. I know that He has a very personal, intimate knowledge of our lives, and that He cares deeply about His children. He wants them to find joy, even during the difficult times. He knows and loves me, and He knows and loves you, as well.

I, too, have a scientific background. My training is in engineering, and I work for a firm that designs and analyzes aircraft parts. I find a lot of joy in the work I do, in the ability to scrutinize things I can hold in my hand, things I can see, things I can examine.

But the more I look at this world, from the viewpoint of an engineer, the more I realize the complexity of its organization. From the smallest molecule to the largest galaxy, this universe was constructed by a master engineer. It passes all my understanding and destroys my skepticism. Because we’ve come to learn so much about how our universe functions, sometimes we forget that, for all our knowledge, there is still much we don’t understand. I love science. But scientists, for all their learning, still cannot decide whether light is a wave or a particle, so I certainly can’t trust them to determine the meaning or the course of my life for me.

I can understand your confusion and agnosticism, especially given the God in whom you have been taught to believe. May I suggest that you consider the possibility of a God much less vengeful than the one you have imagined, one who has blessed you with abilities, resources, and an inquiring mind, one who has given you opportunities to grow, and one who indeed yearns to accept you with open arms.

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