I like catchy phrases. I like intriguing quotes that reveal a new side of life, or emphasize an old one in a new way. I like to write them down and tell myself “you have to remember this one!” only to promptly forget all about it a day later, until I find another one and do the same thing.
I’m not as fond of clichés; I never have been; cute sayings you can crochet on a pillow or hang on your wall, and pretend to believe, even though the oversimplification in the thought is so glaringly obvious it blinds the eyes. And oversimplification brings three things to mind:
Middle school science and mathematics, and Christian theology.
Tongue-in-cheek, people used to tell me that middle school science and math is just a bunch of lies. They teach you a formula or a rule, they tell you it always works that way–no exceptions–and then they wave you away to high school and-
“Morning nerds, everything you were ever taught is full of lies, and actually, that formula is kind of right, except for all of these exceptions (see list 1 000 000 000 kilometers long). So, for our first semester, we’ll be unlearning and re-learning everything.”
(Warning: some exaggeration applied to the above.)
How is that remotely related to Christian Theology? It’s not. Not always. And that’s not the intention of most catchy Christian phrases when they slip past the lips of the next unsuspecting innocent (read: sinner? Up for debate in theological circles). However, some people were raised hearing things like “Nothing is impossible with God!” and phrases recounting the glorious victory of Christ over death, assuring the abolishment of suffering and sorrow. Others heard the more formulaic: if you do (a) and say (b) and believe (c), (d), and (e) you will absolutely be richly rewarded by God. Wherein “richly” is taken very monetarily.
Kate Bowler was such a woman. And at 35, she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. She’s happily married. A young mother. Her and her husband have a beautiful baby boy. Together, they face the daily realization that it may be her last day. Her son may grow up motherless. She may have to leave them behind.
Kate has meticulously examined every millisecond of her life to try and find out why it must be this way. Why the healing prayers don’t work, why God won’t heal her now, even though he’s supposed to be the great healer. She wrote the book Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved to tell her story.
There is no end to Kate Bowler’s wisdom, truth, and sheer, raw honesty. I didn’t even know I was longing for her words, but just the other week, just before I read her book, I came across a cute, catchy Christian saying that echoed the promises we so often tell each other: “With God, you’re limitless. Anything is possible. Nothing can stop you from achieving your dreams, your goals…”. And then in reading Kate Bowler’s story, I read this:
“What would it mean for Christians to give up that little piece of the American Dream that says, “You are limitless”? Everything is not possible. The mighty Kingdom of God is not yet here. What if rich did not have to mean wealthy, and whole did not have to mean healed? What if being people of “the gospel” meant that we are simply people with good news? God is here. We are loved. It is enough.”
(p. 21. Bowler, Kate. Everything Happens for a Reason. Penguin Random House, 2018.)
This discovery of Kate’s experience compounded on another saying that I became disillusioned with a few years ago; the strange idea that “God will never put you through more than you can handle”. I get the sentiment–I really do. It worked for me for a while. On days when I thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse, I would let myself believe I was strong enough to handle it all, just a little more, just a little more…
Until it all really was too much.
This happens all the time. Too much work. Too many commitments. Too much loneliness, depression, emotion, confusion, pain… There have been countless times in my life where I’ve had to fall, fail, back-down, or back-out simply because I couldn’t handle it. It was too much.
I can feel as close to God as I ever have, and I still can’t convince my friend that she is full of worth and beauty–that her life is worth living. I still can’t pray death away from the one whose time has come. I can’t force myself to be satisfied in a job that leaves me wanting more, I can’t heal my dad’s back or my own head-cold–
There are some things that just cannot be done–changed–altered–reversed.
The easy answer is to say that “Me x God = Limitless” anyways, and the reason I can’t do those things is because He doesn’t will it. But even by that argument, the limits are clearly there. You are limited by this divine will, and the catchphrase becomes an unstable cliché.
Does it matter?
It’s one thing for a maths and science teacher to welcome a bunch of teenagers into their classroom with the malicious joy in their heart because “today is the day that I tell them their entire curriculum and scientific/mathematical knowledge is founded on lies”. I’d probably find morbid humour in that with the worst of them. But when it comes to theology, why would we teach our children things they only have to unlearn later?
I can’t describe the betrayal I felt when I discovered that all things are not possible with God. People still die, I still make mistakes and bad choices, the environment still suffers, genocide still happens…
I doubt that Christ would think it good practice for theologians and disciple-makers to behave as dry-humoured school teachers. I’d even dare to suggest that Christianity holds us to a higher standard than that.
Is it so difficult for us to say things–great, truthful, meaningful things–while still recognizing the state of reality? All too often our favourite verses and classic Christian-y sayings seem to stuff negativity, pain, and suffering under the rug. But I cannot chisel belief out of silver linings and melodies sung in the rain. Clouds roll in and rain still falls. I need my theology to acknowledge suffering, pain, and disappointment. I need it to recognize that choosing joy is not a universal cure; that grief and deep sadness are equally crucial to existence. Even more so: they’re unavoidable.
How much longer will we keep lying to ourselves and to each other; teaching things that have to be untaught and spouting platitudes that only make us feel worse once the world reveals them as the strawmen we knew they were?