One of the best pieces of advice I ever got about testifying in trials or in depositions was to avoid the temptation to know or remember things I really didn't know or remember.
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got about testifying in trials or in depositions was to avoid the temptation to know or remember things I really didn't know or remember. That sounds like an odd sort of advice for someone who intends to be honest but it's not. You quickly realize, in a deposition about historical events, that there are gaps in your knowledge and, for whatever reason, human beings have a propensity to fill in the gaps without quite realizing that they're doing it.
This human propensity for gap filling has been exploited by animators for many years. Animation, particularly old-style animation, worked because the human mind would fill in the gaps between consecutive images, making the herky-jerky changes between frames appear to be smooth movements in the mind's eye.
The only real way I have found to inoculate myself against the completely unintentional tendency to fill in the gaps in my memory is to adopt a rather profound humility regarding the limits of my own knowledge. I must accept that there are things I don't know or remember and then work hard to recognize whether I'm truly remembering or merely assuming something by filling in the gaps.
We must all accept the fact that there are things we just don't know.
I was reminded of this lately as I've read and listened to some of the Christian responses to the movie "Heaven Is For Real". Having had my own close encounters at the intersection of life and death, I'm entirely sympathetic with the curiosity regarding what goes on there. But we must ultimately admit that this is an area about which we don't really know a lot of things.
I incline toward the view, expressed by John MacArthur I believe, that any filling of the informational gaps regarding heaven that makes heaven more about us than about Jesus is probably suspect. I didn't think the movie did that, by the way, primarily because the movie's entire perspective on heaven is through the eyes of a 4 year old boy. But I have no doubt people will somehow bicker about it anyway.
In my own life, I must admit it has often seemed easier to dabble in my own speculation than to plainly see the very things I can know. That's something that bugs me. Speculating involves much less effort than actual learning, so maybe that explains it.
George Orwell once said (I paraphrase) "The hardest thing in the world is to see what's in front of your nose." I think he was right but there's also the problem that sometimes we do see it but we just don't really like it.
Sometime around 2005 one of our adopted children began the systematic process of dismantling her life. With one act and one decision after another, she slowly began to shred everything about herself that was wholesome and beautiful. There are no words sufficient to describe the pain and disorientation a parent feels as he helplessly watches his child self destruct. There is too much to tell in a short note, indeed I'm writing an entire book about our experience and what we have learned, but for purposes of this post, I just want to observe that in the midst of such pain and confusion, a parent becomes desperate for answers, for some coherent understanding that makes sense of what he's going through. And while searching for answers, we were shocked to discover that much of what we had previously believed about our lives, our parenting, our faith - our very place in the world - was entirely inadequate to the challenges we were facing.
During this terrible time (of great learning) I found myself drawn like a moth to the porch light of Job's travails. For months I practically bathed in the book of Job. At the time, I found some of the things in Job to be enlightening and explanatory about what we were going through, but other things I found puzzling. These are some things that seemed clear which were also consistent with our own experience:
- There is a struggle going on between good and evil that falls outside of our field of vision. Sometimes, unawares, we play a role in that cosmic struggle.
- Natural disasters sometimes have a Satanic origin. (I know we call them "acts of God", but in Job at least, Satan was the perpetrator.)
- When personal disaster strikes, some of your friends will immediately assume that you've somehow brought it on yourself.
- People will say the most preposterous things, right to your face, with absolutely no apparent awareness of their own ridiculousness. This behavior is not bounded by age -- it is not confined to youth or inexperience.
- In the midst of suffering, real biblical faith turns out to look much more like gritty, white-knuckled stubbornness than the euphoric delight so popular in contemporary churches.
But other answers were more puzzling and seemed harder to come by. Why, for example, in response to Job's understandable questions, did God answer by offering Job what seemed to be a discourse on natural history? Almost the entire book is a dialog in which Job's friends wag their fingers at him as he defiantly refuses to admit that he somehow brought his suffering on himself. And at the big moment, when God finally responds to Job's challenging questions, we get an unexpected discourse on natural science.
The explanation for this, I believe, was right under my nose but required some connecting of dots. And it was one of those things that stares you in the face but about which it's much easier to speculate than to do the actual hard work that leads to understanding.
I've read the creation account in the bible's book of Genesis all my life and only recently come to see something that has been hiding in plain sight the whole time. The famous first verse of Genesis states "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." The interesting thing about this is that the heavens and the earth, in fact, emerged later in creation.
Some scholars believe that the first verse of Genesis is sort of a heading or chapter summary of what follows. This is kind of a big deal (you're going to have to bear with me for a bit) because prior to day one of the seven days described in Genesis, something already existed in the form of darkness and a watery deep. Interpreting this through our western lens, we miss some of the explanatory power of this, I believe, regarding our existence here. The fact of the matter is that, starting at the very beginning of the biblical timeline, even before God's recorded creative acts, the Holy Spirit of God was demonstrating a position of dominion over the watery deep in the midst of the darkness. This is a literary and literal picture of God's dominion over the deep and the darkness.
(These insights regarding the darkness and the deep are not original to me but were, rather, suggested to me by a friend who happens also to be a worldwide expert in Old Testament studies, a widely published author, and a seminary professor.)
This picture of God's dominance turns out to be important because, from the beginning of Genesis until the end of Revelation, the darkness and the sea are thematically portrayed as being a haven for evil and opposed to God. So even before God's creative acts in the Genesis account, the deep and the darkness existed and stood in opposition to God.
It's also interesting to note that the first thing God did, starting on day one, was to put boundaries in place for both the deep and the darkness. Importantly, he constrained but did not destroy them.
Understanding the biblical theme associating the sea with the existence of evil, prior even to the seven days of creation, begins to make sense of something in Revelation that has always puzzled me. The first verse of Revelation 21 says "Then I saw 'a new heaven and a new earth', for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea."
At the final transformation of all things, the sea will be no more.
Something else that will be eliminated: darkness. "There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun." (Revelation 22:5)
So eliminating the darkness and the deep are on God's eventual agenda. But, for now, the world exists and operates in a context in which they continue to exist albeit with constraints and limits.
There are other relevant examples. The Old Testament, in particular, is riddled with references to the sea's opposition to God, particularly in conflict over the establishment of the earth as we know it. (e.g. Psalm 74:12ff, Psalm 89:9ff, Job 26:12) But even the New Testament is not devoid of similar allusions.
- When Jesus casts the demons out of a man who was possessed, the demons leave and enter a herd of pigs. The demon-possessed herd immediately races...into the sea.
- When the storm rages and threatens to swamp the disciples' boat, Jesus doesn't merely calm the wind and waves...he rebukes them.
- Jesus' ability to tread upon the sea was cool in terms of physics, but such a picture also carried heavy symbolic meaning for ancient near eastern sensibilities regarding the identity of Jesus, his place of authority, and over what he had authority.
- The beast in Revelation blasphemes God, slanders his name, his dwelling place, and everyone in heaven. That beast originates from...the sea (Revelation 13)
Some scholars believe that the Genesis account of creation is a description of God building upon the ruins of something that came before. And just as important, that the earth we now know was actually launched right into the midst of an on-going conflict between good and evil. If this is true, then even before the fall of man, this was never going to be a place where all of our dreams came true.
As the book of Job and many other biblical passages makes clear, a great conflict is still underway between the forces of good and the forces of evil. At the cross and in the resurrection, the ultimate outcome of this conflict has been determined. But the devil and his minions are enraged and waging a scorched earth campaign to kill and destroy. Like the Balrog in The Lord of the Rings, Satan seeks to claw as many as possible into the abyss with him as he falls.
Once I started to better understand the biblical theme of "the sea", God's response to Job started to seem less surprising and incongruous. Perhaps God was answering Job's questions by calling Job's attention back to the fact that evil is constrained but not eliminated. Perhaps God was reminding Job that suffering can be explained by the fact that our lives are being lived smack in the middle of a war zone.
Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness, when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt’? Job 38:8-11
The forces of evil and chaos have been given boundaries but are with us still. In war zones, people often get hurt and sometimes people die and it may have nothing to do with their own moral choices. Maybe God chose to answer Job's challenge by calling his attention back to the true context in which Job led his life.
As modern Christians I'm not sure we really like that. Unwittingly, I think we prefer the view that by employing proper technique we can guarantee a good outcome for others, especially for our children. If you look very carefully, you will discover an astonishing amount of Christian parenting literature that presupposes that proper approaches to parenting will ensure a happy outcome for our children. Freudianism, with its emphasis on environmental conditioning, has a visceral appeal to Christian parents because it suggests we can have control over a happy ending. We avert our thoughts from the uncomfortable idea that such a suggestion also presupposes the dubious notion that children are programmable and mechanistic.
But we are not in control; the enemy is real and he pursues his own agenda.
Still, we cling to the hope that if we have enough family devotions, memorize enough bible verses, or offer consistent discipline we will be able to protect our children from the world and themselves. And no wonder. How we love our children! And how our hearts long to see them safe.
But what if thoughtful Christian parenting is really more about faithfulness than about outcomes? What if it turns out that meticulous, careful and intentional parenting is a matter of parental faithfulness, but doesn't offer any final outcome guarantees? To ask these questions is not to lessen any sense of obligation on the part of Christian parents. Nor am I suggesting that parents don't exert a profound influence on their children. Christian parents have an abiding obligation before God to faithfully cultivate the truth in their children's lives. And it matters. But does it trump the ultimate moral freedom and accountability of the child?
What if, notwithstanding our devoted parenting, moral freedom is real and fraught with risk?
And, anyway, what are we to make of Adam and Eve's ultimate demise? The only people ever on the planet without familial baggage and look how they turned out. Should we then accuse God of inadequate parenting? Or could it actually be that none of us are truly determined by our upbringing or circumstances but rather we remain entirely free to choose our own moral path?
What if the prophet Ezekiel was right? (see chapter 18) What if people who have bad parents really can make good choices anyway? And what if people who have good parents can make choices entirely at odds with their upbringing? What if it's really true, what Ezekiel says, that each of us should stop blaming our parents because we're actually accountable for our own choices?
This is a very big deal (and I'm talking here to other parents who have a child who has, for now at least, believed the lies of the enemy) because unless we really understand this, our children's moral failures can destroy more than just themselves.
When your child is drifting away, how you respond is an artifact of what you believe about the reasons why. If you believe that children only ever self destruct because something was wrong with their environment, then you engage either in self-hatred or spouse hatred, or perhaps both. If you accept the popular superstition that our environment inevitably determines our actions, or that tragic outcomes are always the result of some dysfunction in the home, then you seek to fix the environment. Barring an available fix, you seek someone to blame.
But what if your child is actually the one to blame for her choices? What if her problem was really not one of environment or of information but that she had come to love the darkness? What if, when all is said and done, no one can legitimately blame their environment for their choices?
Maybe the apostle John wasn't kidding when he said that some people actually love the darkness.
I don't want to burst anyone's bubble, but if perfect parents and a perfect childhood are required for a kid to turn out alright, then every child is already doomed.
But I believe that everyone of us is accountable and able, with God's help, to choose light regardless of the way we were raised. And because we can make such choices, parenting is not really the accidental minefield of destruction we've been led to believe.
The illusion of control is comforting when things are going well, but it becomes paralyzing the very moment things go wrong. You spiral in on your grief, desperately combing your memory, looking for some environmental/parenting explanation for what went wrong. Instead of recognizing what's really going on, you end up filtering events through a lens of faulty understanding.
Frankly, and it may seem counter-intuitive, in my experience the popular view of Christian parenting left me thinking too much about myself.
In reality, sometimes nothing really went wrong, or rather, what went wrong is just that we're all raising our children in a spiritual war zone. No amount of diligent instruction and happy homemaking alters the reality that Satan is alive and well and whispering his lies. It was ever this way but, somehow, after reading all of the books and watching all the videos on Christian parenting, emotionally I sort of lost sight of the fact that it wasn't really about parental technique. I forgot that freedom is real and there are no guarantees. All the technique in the world may not protect against the dragon who wants to entice our children away. And devour them.
Sometimes what happens is that someone you love - really love - listens to the lies and chooses darkness over light. Sometimes our children are casualties of war.
It was years after my daughter had begun her dismantling before I had any kind of coherent biblical understanding about some of these things. It wasn't that I had consciously accepted the Freudian assumptions of popular Christian parenting. It was more like these ideas seeped in, unexamined, as part of the intellectual air we breathed. The hard reality was that we loved our kids so much that we sort of wanted the outcome to be determined by our own faithfulness.
For the first couple of years our suffering was almost too great to bear. We wracked our brains trying to figure out where things went wrong. We lay awake nights agonizing over what we could say to her that would cause the lightbulb to go off regarding her dangerous choices. As if, after a lifetime of careful and intentional input from us, her problems were somehow related to a lack of information.
We were so brokenhearted that we actually felt the sorrow in a physically painful way. Just getting through each day was like running a marathon with concrete blocks attached to our feet.
One of the damning aspects of popular thinking about Christian parenting is the demoralizing effect it has on parents when things don't work out as planned. In a war, demoralization can be more powerful than physical weapons: demoralized soldiers won't fight. In our own demoralized state, obsessing over the root causes of our daughter's self destruction, heedless of her moral freedom, we were blind to the battle raging all around us and useless in the fight.
But somewhere along the way we began to intuit a different understanding about what we were going through. Before, even, we had thought through any biblical teaching regarding moral freedom and living in a war zone, we began to get an inkling that it wasn't enough merely to persevere.
One morning I was brooding over our predicament and said to my wife, "I'm sick and tired of playing defense on these things all the time. I feel like I'm Satan's whipping boy and I'm just having to hunker down and take it. I don't want to just take it anymore."
There's a scene in the old Rocky III movie where Rocky has been consistently hammered by his boxing nemesis Clubber Lang in their climactic match. Somewhere in the middle of the fight, as Rocky is being pummeled, rather than continue cowering, he suddenly stands upright, juts out his chin, and shouts back at his opponent after each devastating blow: "Ain't so bad! Ain't so bad!"
That morning, as I brooded over our circumstance, my own fear and frustration began to give way, Rocky-like, to something that turned out to be much more useful in war: defiance.
Looking back, I see the pivot point that began our journey back from our emotional and intellectual paralysis in that moment I decided to somehow strike back. "Open war is upon you, whether you would risk it or not." This sage advice from Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings was spoken in an effort to get the king to open his eyes to the reality that war was right at his door step. In our lives, things made a turn for the better when we finally accepted the fact we were, quite literally, at war and that our daughter was, in a sense, a casualty of war. The weapons of our war are, sometimes, different than conventional wars. But the ultimate outcome may be even more catastrophic and will certainly be more permanent.
My own first attempt at striking back was probably pretty feeble but I was smart enough to seek assistance from higher up. There were people in our daughter's life who were actively seeking, Balrog-like, to drag her into the abyss. So one night at dinner I prayed David's prayer from Psalm 3:
Deliver me, my God!
Strike all my enemies on the jaw;
break the teeth of the wicked.
Immediately after uttering this prayer, I realized that I felt noticeably lighter in spirit, although I'm not sure the rest of my family quite knew what to make of this kind of jarring invocation over dinner. And, admittedly, the business of praying that God will wreak havoc in the lives of the wicked merits some reconciliation with the whole "hate the sin but love the sinner" and "love your enemies" thing. There's too much to cover here, but the short explanation is that I suspect we may have an unbiblical unwillingness to distinguish between those who struggle with personal sin and those who actively and knowingly prey on others. Jesus, after all, had a few things to say about those who entice children to sin, and his thoughts were rather more consistent with David's than our own. And later, the apostle Paul had rather harsh things to say about predators who sought to draw people away from Christ.
Perhaps there's a useful distinction we should be making between someone who struggles with their own sin and someone who is a spiritual predator - intentionally and knowingly seeking the spiritual demise of another. If this sounds far-fetched, ponder for a moment the differing postures we adopt in other areas of our lives toward someone who attempts suicide versus someone who attempts murder.
If you want more "harsh" toward predators, it's probably hard to beat David in Psalm 58.
Even from birth the wicked go astray;
from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies.
Their venom is like the venom of a snake,
like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears,
that will not heed the tune of the charmer,
however skillful the enchanter may be.
Break the teeth in their mouths, O God;
Lord, tear out the fangs of those lions!
Let them vanish like water that flows away;
when they draw the bow, let their arrows fall short.
May they be like a slug that melts away as it moves along,
like a stillborn child that never sees the sun.
Before your pots can feel the heat of the thorns
whether they be green or dry—the wicked will be swept away.
The righteous will be glad when they are avenged,
when they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked.
Then people will say,
“Surely the righteous still are rewarded;
surely there is a God who judges the earth.”
Following the development of my more militant prayer life, I resolved in my heart that, though I could not make different choices on behalf of my daughter, I could strike at the enemy in ways which were within my control. During this time, we had no idea where our daughter was nor even if she was still alive (with some reason to fear she might not be.) But rather than continue being imprisoned by our grief we decided to strike where we could...for Christ.
I began to wake up every single day determined to take some action to damage Satan's agenda, if only in some small way. Rather than focus my energies on things I could not control, I would act in ways I could. In my own particular case, during those days I began contributing time to the development of technology that was for the benefit of a ministry involved in making the bible more broadly available around the world. I reasoned that if Satan hated the propagation of the bible, in defiance I would contribute my meager talents to that cause.
Since those early, dark days it has continued to be my practice to make choices, wherever I can, to be a nuisance to God's enemies. And over time what we've learned is that acting intentionally for the cause of Christ, in spite of our own suffering, has transformed our state of mind from paralysis to joy.
In talking to other couples about our difficult experience, my wife will routinely tell them, "We learned to have joy in the midst of suffering." And she's right, it's something that must be learned.
Loving Christ surely involves, at least in part, a healthy defiance toward his enemies. How, after all, can we say we love him and yet be unwilling to defy the dragon who seeks to ruin the very ones that Jesus loves?
In my own small way and for the rest of my days, I hope to be a pain in Satan's caboose.
This, after all, is war. Defiance has its place.