One of the weaknesses of our human nature appears to be that we are attracted to easy answers. We want reality to be simple. We want a universe where good deeds are clearly and quickly rewarded, and bad deeds are promptly and obviously punished. We want a life in which the way forward is always clear, and where there’s always a simple solution to every difficulty. We want a world where morality is always reassuringly black and white. We want to be able to avoid the terrifying feeling that we are tiny, helpless beings set in the midst of a dangerous world that seems callously indifferent to our existence.
But the truth is that the world is not simple. The real world, the world we actually live in, is a place where good people die of cancer at a young age, leaving families who spend years processing the pain of their loss. It’s a world where children are kidnapped and forced to become child soldiers or sex slaves. It’s a world where people brought up by good parents in good homes find themselves saddled with mental illnesses that make their lives a constant struggle. It’s a world where a tiny little virus that very few people saw coming can end the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and disrupt the lives of millions more.
One of Eugene Peterson’s most brilliant books for pastors is called ‘Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work’ (the ‘five smooth stones’ title is an allusion to the story of David and Goliath, where David takes his sling and selects ‘five smooth stones’ from the brook to kill the giant). In it, Peterson looks at five lesser-known Old Testament books and explores their relevance for the pastoral task. They are the books of ‘Song of Songs’, ‘Ruth’, ‘Lamentations’, ‘Ecclesiastes’. and ‘Esther’. Possibly my favourite chapter is the one on Ecclesiastes; he calls it ‘The Pastoral Work of Nay-Saying’.
Yes, nay-saying can be a pastoral task. The quest for easy answers does real damage to people’s souls and people’s relationships, and it can be a legitimate pastoral task to point this out to people. Kate Bowler, grappling with a diagnosis of terminal cancer while in her thirties, writes about this in her brilliant book ‘Everything Happens for a Reason’ and Other Lies I’ve Loved. ‘Everything happens for reason’ is a cliche people use to protect themselves from the feeling that their lives are spiralling out of control. Well-meaning people think they are bringing comfort to others when they use it, but in fact, they rarely are. When you’re on the receiving end of that particular pat answer, it feels as if your pain is being trivialized or dismissed. The person who tells me “Everything happens for a reason” is not taking my suffering seriously. They find it too hard to just listen to what I have to say, without trying to give me solutions to my problem.
If your prayer life is shaped by the psalms, you know that reality is far from simple. The writers of the psalms love the image of God as ‘a rock of refuge in times of trouble’. In other words, when it seems as if life is a deadly quicksand, they have discovered that the presence of God can be a solid rock, a secure place to stand. But at the same time, they are well aware that God often seems to be absent, or asleep. They complain about how long he’s taking to show up and change things. They ask what they’ve done to deserve what they’re getting. They agonize over the prosperity of the wicked and the sufferings of the innocent.
It seems to me that to live as an adult in this world is to acknowledge both these truths: ‘Life is hard and complex’ and ‘God is my rock’. This has certainly been my experience in the present pandemic. On the one hand, in the past few weeks I’ve experienced the physical symptoms of stress in ways more severe than ever before. On the other hand, I can’t remember a period in my life when I’ve been more aware of the presence of God, especially in our shared times of Morning Prayer and Night Prayer on Facebook Live.
So yes, I believe in the ‘pastoral work of nay-saying’, and in the next few weeks I want to do a bit of nay-saying on this blog. I want to look at some of these easy answers, these ‘lies we’ve loved’, to use Kate Bowler’s phrase, and explore why, in the long run, they really aren’t very helpful. I haven’t yet decided which of these pat answers to consider first. Will it be ‘everything happens for a reason?’ Or ‘God is in control’? Or ‘God won’t send you more than you can cope with?’ Or ‘God is good, all the time’? Or ‘now I am happy all the day?’ I’m not sure yet. Stay tuned!