What has God promised us about our lives, in the here and now?
One of the earliest works of Christian theology is Origen of Alexandria’s On First Principles; a case can be made that it is our oldest, extant text of Christian systematic theology. The opening words in the preface describe how Christians come to know God through his self-revelation:
All who believe and are assured that grace and truth came through Jesus Christ and who know Christ to be the truth, according to his saying, I am the truth, derive knowledge which leads human beings to live a good and blessed life from no other source than from the very words and teaching of Christ. And by the words of Christ we mean not only those which he spoke when he became human and dwelt in the flesh; for even before this, Christ, the Word of God, was in Moses and the prophets. For without the Word of God how could they have been able to prophesy of Christ?
Perhaps the most personal, and personally painful, source of confusion about how the Word of God relates to the knowledge of God concerns comfort. Prosperity theology teaches that God and humanity exist in a relationship of actions and consequences that consist of this-worldly results. With enough human behavior modification, God somehow becomes obligated to provide the instant gratification of health, wealth, popularity, and personal fulfillment. This theology is sometimes taught in crass, outlandish, and explicit forms, that “God wants you to be rich.” But prosperity theology is also imbibed by many of us in subtle forms, reflected in comments such as “I am not perfect but I have been a faithful Christian for all these years; how could God let ____ happen to me?”
Much can and should be said in criticism of prosperity teaching. It is an obscene idolatry to misconstrue that God is our servant, the means towards some higher ends that we actually desire, rather than God himself being our chief pursuit. Or, we might ask, how does any mortal — let alone scoundrels such as ourselves — put an infinite and immortal and righteous God into our debt, such that he owes us something; as St. Paul asks in Romans 11:35, “who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” Or, more sharply, we can and should denounce prosperity theology as unrelentingly cruel. It makes a mockery of the faithful who suffer, instructing them that if they had only had more faith they might have been healed, or if they only mastered the right techniques for manipulating the gods they could get better results, or if they had only tried harder their dreams might have come true — never mind that the Anointed One, the Lord Jesus Christ himself, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, and died in the most humiliating way possible, mocked and jeered amongst bandits.
For some people today, the cruelty of prosperity theology is the breaking point at which they abandon faith in God altogether. Recently D.L. Mayfield, known as an evangelical writer across the last decade, chronicled her own experience of deconversion from the Christian faith altogether in a three-part series on her Substack. Part One began by lamenting and criticizing the indoctrination of children into Christian faith as inherently and necessarily abusive. Mayfield’s observations notably ignore that parents and caregivers of every persuasion “indoctrinate” children into some particular way or another. Without such a recognition, no clarity is offered as to what specifically about evangelical and Christian indoctrination is inherently and irreducibly toxic. So, for example, a form of indoctrination that fosters self-contempt among young people can easily be criticized on the grounds of a better way to indoctrinate children, namely, by teaching them to love God and love their neighbors as themselves.
But in Part Three, “When God Doesn’t Show Up,” Mayfield describes some of the foremost motivating factors in her deconversion story from the evangelical Christian faith of her childhood. Mayfield begins by suggesting that social capital can be gained in Christian circles from having near-death experiences with some positive twist in them, but that there are no spaces for having near-death experiences without a silver lining on them. If a church has no context for lament and offering succor to those barely surviving the vale of tears, such a church has lost contact with the scriptural traditions such as Psalm 88 are in the Bible, a scream that is cried out to God without any hint of a silver lining; the NIV translates the final verse as “You have taken from me friend and neighbor— darkness is my closest friend.” But here Mayfield is probably caricaturing rather than dialoguing with actual evangelical culture, since every evangelical church is filled with people who have endured horrific life experiences without any visions of angels or heavenly-tourism tales. We might further observe that a routine feature of congregational life is to hold a funeral in acutely tragic circumstances, and to try to care for friends and family that are not merely bereaved but utterly devastated.
Re-narrating the trauma of her near-death experiences related to child birth, Mayfield relates feeling utterly alone — nothing like what she expected, namely, “to be so close to death and not have to face it alone, but instead joyfully walk through it with my Lord and savior Jesus Christ.” Instead, she felt abandoned. Mayfield can only imagine a Christian word of exhortation to her abandonment as saying to her: “God saved your life! Nothing too terrible actually happened, so please don’t ever process it fully with anyone, ever. Unless, of course, you want to give all glory to God for rescuing you and your child for his miraculous purposes. Either make it into a shiny testimony of God’s goodness, or for goodness’ sake bury it deep inside.” In the horizons of this moral imagination, it is unthinkable that we might both truly grieve traumatic events, process them with others, and also give thanks that God sustained us. For instance, she continues:
How could I ever claim to have experienced a miracle from God, that I was somehow special? I was just someone born into a body that was privileged in an unequal and unjust world. I survived because I was a white middle class Christian woman who lived in an urban area. And equating that with God’s special providence? I wanted to scream and spit in rage to anyone that offered me those religious platitudes. It felt like such a slap in the face to everyone I know who had not gotten the miracles they so desperately wanted.
I swallowed my screams as best as I could. I got better, and I left the hospital after a week of care. I sat in the sunshine in my backyard with my tiny baby close to my chest in an almost catatonic state. But inside something was blooming. Not only did I want to truly live for the first time in my life, I was slowly realizing how angry I was at God. I did not feel his presence. I did not feel better after praying, reciting scripture verses to myself, going to church, thanking God, singing worship songs, or reading the Bible. I felt so alone, and I was starting to realize maybe I was done blaming myself for that fact.
Mayfield describes her childhood as “a combination of being undiagnosed autistic and experiencing a lot of religious trauma,” and there is far more operative in her reflections than abstract theological ideas. But there are theological ideas operative nonetheless, not least that “much of my adult life has been me processing how much I have not experienced the promised positive mental health benefits of being a Christian, and instead I was confronted with the inequalities and horrible ethical ramifications of white evangelical theology on a daily basis.”
Just what, exactly, are these putative, promised mental health benefits of being a Christian? While Jesus indeed promises us that he will never ultimately leave or forsake us (Heb 13:5) and the Christian gospel is cause for a joy that endures even amidst the worst suffering (see the whole of the Epistle to the Philippians), mental health and emotional wellness is not something that is guaranteed for followers of Christ in this life.
A life of discipleship should cultivate habits and virtues of pursuing wisdom that even non-Christians might sometimes recognize as virtues which are conducive to loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, and we should avoid being foolish, selfish, or crude. Simultaneously, it is much more likely that the world will regard Christians as being out of our right minds than exemplars of therapeutic wellness (Acts 26:24, 2 Cor 5:13). Consider, for example, perhaps the most pertinent passage of Scripture for reflecting on this, Paul’s opening words in 2 Corinthians, where Paul describes God as “the God of all comfort” (2 Cor 1:3). Surely, if there is a passage in scripture where God assures us that our lives will be comfortable, this is the text: “the God of comfort,” is the one “who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor 1:4). However, Paul goes on to add:
 For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.  Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.  He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. (2 Cor 1:9–10 ESV)
Note here that there is no silver lining in Paul’s statement, no heavenly vision is beheld, no tactile sense of the arms of Jesus embracing him in that moment. Later in this same epistle, Paul describes life in Christ as “always carrying in the body the corpse of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you” (2 Cor 4:10–12). Then, in ch. 12, Paul relates how amidst ongoing discomforts in his life, Jesus indicates that his grace is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor 12:8).
While that does not mean bearing undue burdens of self-contempt, it does mean suffering should not be a surprising reality in our lives. Paul did not expect to always be delivered in this life from every trial; in Acts he knows he is going to die for proclaiming Christ (Acts 20:17–38; 21:11). He writes to the Romans that in Christ we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ — provided we suffer with him, in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:17). In Philippians Paul declares “it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil 1:29). The Christian life is not only suffering; being united by the Spirit with the risen and ascended Son means fullness of life and joy (Jn 10:10). But such union with Christ means also having been united with the crucified Messiah, who straightforwardly tells us that “in the world you will have trouble. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).
The denouement of Mayfield’s deconversion story is a reflection on Jesus and his shortcomings. In the twentieth century, theologian T.F. Torrance sensed a very different way that people struggled with Christian faith. Torrance sensed that many people had a positive view of Jesus, but might be troubled by the notion of God as an abstract being. A focal point of Torrance’s theological program as a whole, an emphasis beloved by his students, was that God is indeed like Jesus, as he wrote in a famous passage from his Meditation of Christ:
Here we have to do with a theological principle which is of immense importance in pastoral care. How often people have said to me: ‘Will God really turn out to be what we believe him to be in Jesus Christ?’ That is a question I have been asked on the battlefield by a young man who had barely half an hour to live: ‘Is God really like Jesus?’ Questions like that, which gnaw at the back of people’s minds but which they suppress and which come to surface only in moments of sharp crisis and hurt, tell us of the insidious damage done to people’s faith by dualist habits of thought which drive a wedge between Jesus and God.
Fearful anxiety arises in the human heart when people cannot connect Jesus up in their faith or understanding with the ultimate Being of God, for then the ultimate Being of God can be to them only a dark, inscrutable, arbitrary Deity whom they inevitably think of with terror for their guilty conscience makes them paint harsh angry streaks upon his face. It is quite different when the face of Jesus is identical with the face of God, when his forgiveness of sin is forgiveness indeed for its promise is made good through the atoning sacrifice of God in Jesus Christ, and when the perfect love of God embodied in him casts out all fear. But all that depends upon the identity between Christ’s mediation of divine revelation and reconciliation and his own Personal Being as Mediator.
Unlike Torrance, who found great solace in the discovery that God is like Jesus Christ, Mayfield has found Jesus to be a kind of moral monster, a moral exemplar upon whose perfection we are all shattered to pieces, who withholds pity and mercy for sinners and sufferers alike:
Well-meaning people keep coming out of the woodwork these days to ask me what I think about Jesus. A lot of people are fine with all sorts of deconstruction talk but you have to be quick and say something nice about Jesus to assuage their own anxieties. But I don’t even have the stomach for that anymore. I didn’t receive comfort from Jesus when I was dying, and instead he became a mythical perfect being that I was supposed to measure myself against at all times. The carrot on the stick dangled in front of me to remind me to try harder, do better. I was dysregulated, terrified, and in so much pain, but I thought that if I could finally live up to the standard of Jesus, I would feel better.
Jesus was the perfect way to hide all of my self-hatred and shame. I could never match up to him, so there was always an excuse to berate myself. There was always more I could be doing. First, it was saving the world. And then, it eventually turned into trying to save white evangelicals from themselves. I had religious and ethical OCD but everyone around me agreed it was the Holy Spirit. My repetitive thoughts centered around the famous acronym I was taught as a young child: WWJD? What would Jesus do? He would be perfect, that’s what I knew. I tried to live like him and it made me not want to be alive anymore. Until suddenly, one day, I did.
We would do well to deconvert from a God who offers nothing more in Jesus Christ than a perfect exemplar against which we are to measure ourselves and constantly fall short; it is entirely understandable how self-contempt and inescapable shame can swallow us alive if that were the heart of reality. Indeed, we are sinners; indeed, we all fall short.
However, God speaks another word, a life-giving word of grace in the person of Jesus Christ himself. This grace means that we do not have to fear death because that is to depart and be with Christ, while we also indeed do desire to go on living — because Christ gives himself for the life of the world, inviting those who are weary to take his yoke which is light and find rest for our souls (Matt 11:29).
The God revealed in the suffering and death of the cross, as well as the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, is the God who offers grace and mercy to sinners, and who will heal and redeem the whole of the cosmos, every created thing. Even so, the present call that Christ sets before his people is to follow him in the way of cross-bearing: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” (Mk 8.34–37) Accordingly, being in Christ is not a panacea for our mental, physical, emotional, and social ailments before the resurrection of the dead.
It is not only possible, but likely, that following Jesus Christ might personally disrupt our own sense of self-fulfillment in life, and we might live easier and happier lives, without any reference to God at all. We suffer in decaying bodies, with degenerative diseases, and chronic pain — compounded by emotional wounds, mental health challenges, unwanted desires, and the heartache of dreams for our lives that do not play out as we hoped and worked towards. Furthermore, when God disrupts deeply-rooted habits of sin in our lives, or we begin to cultivate new habits of righteousness, it can feel not only uncomfortable but like we are dying, being “crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:19; Rom 6:1–4), as our lives under the power of darkness are torn away from us, along with the idols in which we formerly found comforts that dehumanized us. In Christ we undergo the birthing-pangs of new creation as the life, power, and presence of Christ is realized in us as we become more like him (Gal 4.19).
Though questions of theodicy are often seen as a challenge to the plausibility of the Christian faith, arguably the unflinching realism coupled with hope offered by the Christian faith is a compelling vision offered nowhere else. Our hyper-consumerist culture and digital technology provide virtually constant distractions from our own mortality and an infinite opportunity to have an escape, however temporary, from unwelcome thoughts and feelings. Coupled with widespread societal assumptions that technology can solve virtually any problem or unpleasantry, then my suggestion that Christianity offers a compelling outlook on suffering might seem absurd. However, rather than delusions of realizing utopian ideals through human progress, or the cold hard nihilism that follows, the Christian faith narrates the world we each live and die in, that we know is good or should be good, but that for some reason is not the way it should be; things are not the way they are supposed to be.
God alone can satisfy the hunger of the human heart, and this is why the Christian Church has a distinctive message that can be heard nowhere else. As David Bentley Hart notes in his 2004 The Beauty of the Infinite, modern and postmodern people are prone to nihilism when surveying the wreckage of history and the chaos in our own lives, perhaps even regarding the sublime ultimately as cosmic violence. But a basic commitment of classical Christian faith, as advanced for example by Gregory of Nyssa in the 4th century, holds that it is ultimately beauty that is infinite. We as finite creatures have an ever-increasing and insatiable desire towards that for which we are made — to behold the beauty of the infinite God. Astonishingly, the God who spoke all things into being, who spoke light into the darkness, has shone in our hearts the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4:6), and we presently bear the treasure of this gospel not in outwardly impressive vessels, but in the mundanity and boredom of daily life, the highs and lows of mortal existence, and in suffering the chances and changes of this world, our outer selves wasting away while our inner selves are being renewed day by day (2 Cor 4:16). Nothing can separate us from the love of God — not our shortcomings, nor the deepest possible pain we can experience, nor the worst horrors and atrocities, nor cosmic forces of darkness — because God has determined to be God for us and God with us in Jesus Christ (Rom 8:33–38).
- Origen, On First Principles, trans. by John Behr (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019). ↑
- T.F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ (Helmers & Howard Publishers; Revised edition: 1992), 59–60. ↑
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“If a church has no context for lament and offering succor to those barely surviving the vale of tears, such a church has lost contact with the scriptural traditions… But here Mayfield is probably caricaturing rather than dialoguing with actual evangelical culture, since every evangelical church is filled with people who have endured horrific life experiences without any visions of angels or heavenly-tourism tales.”
Your presumption that Mayfield’s witness can be dismissed as a caricature overlooks something pretty obvious:
“Every evangelical church” may be “filled with people who have endured horrific life experiences without any visions of angels or heavenly-tourism tales”, but if none of these people in a particular church sense social permission to admit these experiences without wrapping them up in uplifting – and perhaps fictitious – little moral bows, then their church may indeed leave them with “no context for lament and offering succor to those barely surviving the vale of tears” despite their numbers. Solidarity isn’t a numbers game alone. It must involve honest communication, else everyone is alone together.
There’s the intellectual, literary doctrine of the church that we find written in books, articulated in clever and even divinely-inspired moral reasoning, and then there’s the unspoken doctrine of the church, incarnate in how the living, breathing Christians around us actually behave. Even the most impressive logic-lording (and I can logic-lord pretty well myself at times) cannot address actual behavior it hasn’t witnessed. Meanwhile, Christians who’ve witnessed behavior that covertly teaches corrupted doctrine may have their witness dismissed as a doctrinally-unsound caricature by those who know official doctrine well enough, but who haven’t witnessed for themselves the behavior in question.
I love the Psalms and the Book of Job for their rawness, for daring at times to expose human desolation – yes, even the desolation of the faithful – stripped naked from all the moral tidiness of self-help and prosperity-gospel thinking that often creeps into Christians’ expectations of each other, no matter what official doctrine says. But do I have social permission to be a psalmist myself? Often, no. Women, especially, are expected to be morally tidy. Mothers, more specifically, are expected to be *fulfilled* by motherhood: You can logic at us all you want about how Christians are not promised fulfillment – and intellectually I agree with you – but if we become “scarlet women” and “bad moms” by admitting that we aren’t, in fact, fulfilled (especially by motherhood!), do you expect us to trust that we *really* have permission from the church, the Body of Christ on earth, to *be* unfulfilled?
I became Christian through mainline churches (it’s still possible!). I lacked the enculturation to fit in as an evangelical when I tried to – and part of that enculturation did seem to be speaking “the right” language of moral tidiness, especially for women. To express too much kinship with the most desolate psalms is… unfeminine, almost, as if asserting that kind of desolation is some man’s game women aren’t invited to. This isn’t biblical (“Daughters of Zion, weep for yourselves, and for your children!”) but it’s *cultural* – and in the everyday life of churches, “cultural” often wins out, especially among those insecure in their social standing (and you’d have to start out *awfully* secure to go through devastation without becoming socially insecure). Admittedly, progressive churches develop their own language of moral tidiness, one that’s less complementarian, at least, but stifling in other ways (and the nice bougie souls in your typical progressive congregation may not be entirely free of stereotypes of feminine daintiness themselves). I expect it’s hard for *any* church to be free of conflicts between official teachings and the often-more-powerful unofficial teachings lived out through implicit social expectations.
None of us is a perfectly reliable witness of our own life, but some get the benefit of the doubt that we’re more-or-less reliable, and some don’t. Who gets the benefit of the doubt, and why?
The Catholic writer Simcha Fisher writes, “as much as we’d like to believe we’re turning up solely for spiritual reasons, there are myriad prosaic things tethering us to the central spiritual truths of our faith. We can only encounter God mediated through other people, and through things like music, and acts of charity, and grilled cheese sandwiches. Thanks be to God, that’s how it works.”
For the Daughters of Zion who are, for whatever reason, inclined toward weeping – especially weeping unseemly enough to beg the mountains fall down on them – the implicit doctrine they experience mediated through human expectations at church may indeed convince them they must go it alone until they’re ready to put a happy, shiny narrative bow on their experience for fellow Christians’ consumption.