Tuesday, June 01, 2010

A Bit of Theodicy in Fight Club

Who would've thought Tyler Durden, the nihilistic antagonist in the movie Fight Club, could speak such wisdom to the wilderness that so many of us experience in our walk with God. The scene I'm referring to is when Tyler licks his lips, kisses the back of Jack's hand, and pours powdered lye on the hand, starting a chemical burn so painful "it will hurt more than you've ever been burned, and you will have a scar."

Many of us are hurting more than we've ever hurt, or wandering in a wilderness seemingly without end, and the worst part is not that we wonder why this is happening, but why God, our all-loving and all-powerful God, is allowing it to happen. He's the One we've put our trust in, the One whose kisses we've longed for and invited because we thought they would bring us comfort. Many times those kisses do comfort. But other times, those kisses resemble nothing like a kiss. Those "kisses" cause so much pain and burn so intensely that our very souls are set ablaze and we wonder if any amount of hope can douse the flames. Our hope may even dwindle to zero and if we're honest with ourselves, we may start to believe, as Tyler does, "that God does not like us. He never wanted us. In all probability, He hates us." As Christians, we know this is not the case. God is Love and He sent His Son to show us His love. But what kind of love is this that burns?

When Jack's hand begins to burn, the logical thing for Tyler to do would be to pour vinegar on it to neutralize the reaction and stop the burn. Instead, as Jack is writhing in unbearable pain, Tyler grabs his hand and arm and pins him down, forcing Jack to bear the pain. Every survival instinct is triggered in Jack, every pain management technique is activated, and what does Tyler do? He does not let Jack use them. He does not let Jack run away from the pain. In fact, he insists on the complete opposite, for Jack to look at the pain, to move towards the pain. Jack tries guided meditation to alleviate the pain since "it worked for cancer," but Tyler orders him to "stop it. This is your pain—your burning hand. It's right here. Look at it." Jack tries going to his cave to find his power animal, another way to manage the pain, to which Tyler yells in frustration, "Don't deal with this the way those dead people do. Deal with it the way a living person does!" Finally, Jack tries to run to the sink to pour cool water on the burn, which would only exacerbate the burn, and we begin to see Tyler's point: all of our obsessive habits of avoiding pain lead to only one end: more pain, and if we're not careful, death itself.

So why does God sometimes allow pain in our lives? We begin to see a glimpse of an answer. Pain forces us to respond, and it's the chance to respond, the chance to avoid or embrace the pain, that is God's gift to us. Before Jack meets Tyler, we find him putting his identity, security, hope in all the wrong places: in a consumerist culture, in an unethical job, in support groups he doesn't belong in. He's forsaken anything that might give him true life. But he's so mired in the filth of his idolatry that he can't rescue himself; and even if he could, he's too comfortable (or shackled) to even try. And so Tyler comes to Jack with his burning kiss. Jack can avoid it and run back to his idols and his insomnia, or he can embrace it and wake up and find new life. Put another way, if St. Augustine is right and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God, then our suffering hearts are prompts for us to search for the God we have abandoned for far too long. The pain merely invites us on another journey home.

Jack's journey is one we've all traveled far too often, yet seemingly never enough. We know that Jack's insomnia is a result of his idols, and we know Tyler's burning kiss is the antidote, and it works. Jack wakes up and frees himself from his idols of consumerism, dishonest security, and fake therapy. He can even laugh at them, mocking the Gucci billboards and the dead-end job that once enslaved him. But what does Jack do next? He merely runs to the next idol, this time Tyler himself. In Tyler he now trusts. And, as with all idols, this one comes crashing down when Tyler betrays that trust. This time, the consequences are far worse than insomnia; they're hate, rage, and the desire to destroy, and Jack nearly kills an innocent young man because of it. (The Devil is all too happy to bear the burden of our idols so long as we chain ourselves to heavier ones.) We begin to sense that if Jack doesn't figure it out soon, if he doesn't stop chasing vain idols, God only knows what evil he'll visit upon himself and the world. Tyler senses this, and, in one of the most compelling scenes of the movie, gives Jack one last chance to understand. Jack and Tyler are driving at night in the pouring rain when all of the sudden, Tyler lets go of the steering wheel, allowing the car to drift dangerously off the road. Jack screams at Tyler to put his hands back on the wheel, but Tyler ignores him. As Jack tries to take control by grabbing at the wheel himself, Tyler comes at him with these words: "Look at you! You're pathetic! Stop trying to control everything and just let go!"

And there's the answer we knew all along. We simply don't want to let go. We want to control our lives. Why? Because we think we know better than God. Or we don't trust Him and, like Adam and Eve, think He's really holding out on us. We somehow believe that the God who gave up His Son for us doesn't have our best interests in mind. So we keep trying to control, we keep working for our own peace and joy. When we fail at this impossible task, when we're depressed and in pain, we simply try again, chasing the next idol, maybe a new job or a new relationship or a new holiness. But it never works, and this leaves us in despair. And that is exactly as it should be. It is only when we despair of our ability to control our lives that we can finally let it go and put our trust not in ourselves, but in our Maker. This must be what Christ meant when He said, "Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." (Matthew 16:25) When we as Christians suffer pain, Christ is bidding us to lose our life so we can find it.

When Tyler decides that Jack has sufficiently bore the pain of the chemical burn, he ends the pain and says, "Congratulations. You're one step closer to hitting bottom." When we're in the throes of pain and suffering, the path to life is not up and away, but farther down, all the way down until we hit bottom. The answer is not a recommitment to more prayer or a redoubled effort at the spiritual life, but a letting go, a laying bare, a descent. Only then, at the bottom, can we be "congratulated" with new life. There is no resurrection without death. Christ is proof of this, and Christ is our hope in this. If we truly believe that He suffered, died, and rose again, and that He calls us to follow Him, suffering becomes the most tangible invitation to follow Him, to die and receive new life. If we are called to imitate Christ, then suffering invites us to imitate not just His death, but also His glorious resurrection.

Finally, lest I be accused of sanitizing suffering, I want to be clear. I believe suffering, by itself, is neither good nor God-glorifying. It is evil and God is not the source of it. I have no idea where it came from and why it exists. The Bible gives no clear explanation. But the Bible does give us a picture of what God has done with it. Through Christ, He's made an absolute commitment to redeem it, to use it for good. Consider the physical pain that Christ suffered when the nails were hammered into His hands and feet. Consider the emotional and spiritual pain He endured when His very soul was forsaken by his God and Father. He was scarred, infinitely more than any of us could ever be. But the startling fact is that when God raised Him from the dead in all His resurrected, bodily glory, we find the scars still glaringly present. The hope our Christian faith rests upon—the resurrection of our bodies and souls—seems to be found wanting. How can any hint of our worldly suffering dare cross the heavenly threshold? And yet not only do Christ's scars remain, they serve as markers of His new, glorious, and eternal identity. "Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself." (Luke 24:39) I am certain tomes could be written of this single verse, as well they should be. But all I can say is that this is God's final encouragement to us. That even in the new heavens and new earth, our scars will have been so redemptive that they will still be with us. Indeed, as with Christ, they will be the very reason we are there.

Saturday, November 07, 2009


They had just gotten back from helping orphans in the third world and I was there to pick some of them up from the airport. The whole team was there, along with family and friends waiting to welcome them back, so the air was charged with anticipation and all sorts of emotions. When things get like that, my mind clutters and blurs and my mental canvas becomes a mess. But then my eyes locked on one of them, someone I barely knew. She was wearing a simple blouse with faded colors and a dark brown earthy layered skirt. Her hair was a bit lighter than the jet-black I remembered before she left two and a half weeks ago. But it was her face that arrested me. It showed a pain and weariness so absolute it could’ve brought the earth to its knees. I don’t know exactly what she saw or experienced over there, but it wasn’t good. Whatever it was, was unkind, indecent, and I felt it.

But I felt something else, something completely unexpected and opposite. It was peace. What paradox of the senses. Nothing on her face betrayed peace. All physiognomy said pain, but everything else pointed to peace. In fact, there was so much peace that all the pain was subsumed, wrapped up like a sickly child by that familiar blanket which doesn’t cure the illness or pretend it’s not there, but comforts the child in the midst of his affliction and assures him things will soon be okay. A peace that grants patience with hope. This peace was decent, kind, good, and I was privileged to have felt it. Since then, when Providence sees fit, I feel it still, and it always leaves me wondering about the day when. When I’ll feel it forever.

The wasteland will become
The land of peace,
The land the sun rests upon,
Since rising from the East.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Depression and False Idols

When you're depressed, the thing that you've put your functional trust in has finally failed. I think that makes sense. Depression is idol failure. Whether it's money or power, comfort or happiness, that boy or girl, when that idol collapses, the world tumbles with it. What amazes me is that with all the false idols out there, more people aren't depressed. Or maybe they are except we don't notice because they deal with it in their own infinitely different ways. One person cries, another yells; one pigs out, another works out; one numbs it, another ends it. And it all traces back to that one thing you placed a little too much hope in. The funny thing is, most idols aren't bad in themselves. Family, security, or even reason and science—these are all gifts I'm sure we're supposed to enjoy. They were just never meant to exist as gods.

So when God said to love Him and only Him "with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind," I guess He wasn't just demanding something we obviously owe Him, He was also telling us how to get what we truly wanted all along: "the peace of God, which transcends all understanding."

Wednesday, January 31, 2007


The Pope was wearing a grand red robe. His presence froze those around him. Even the creases on his holy garment stood still.

"Will you recant?"

Galileo, in simple white dress, answered with conviction. "But why? Does the Church not believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that man's salvation revolves around Him alone?"

"Of course!"

"Then why must I recant a revelation from the cosmos depicting this mighty truth?"

A straight portion of the Pope's robe furrowed.

"Since Adam, man has forever strived to make a name for himself. He has always declared himself center of the universe and has suffocated the world with his many towers. Human potential reigns supreme. And now even the Sun, the giver of light and life, bows with suppliant knee at dawn and dusk. Do you not see? Our wicked senses have again corrupted the truth! If we owe our fleeting lives to the immutable Son of God, dare we deify his power and humbly acknowledge that this dusty earth should chase after the constant Sun?"

There was a silence and then the Pope released him. As he walked away, a smile crept across his face.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Good News of Christmas

"So just because I don't believe in Jesus I'm going to Hell?"

This is one of those questions where answering "yes" or "no" does more harm than good. If you answer "no" you run the risk of heresy. But if you answer "yes" you might have made Christianity more offensive than it needs to be. And sadly, that's probably the case among non-believers. They ask that question, receive an apologetic "yes," get incensed at the pettiness of the religion, and then storm off into the darkness, deeper in unbelief.

There may be a better way to answer. I think most people believe in absolute morals, that there are things you ought to do and things you ought not to do, no matter the context. Murder, torture, rape, for example. These things, in and of themselves, are wrong, regardless of whether a majority thinks otherwise (like Nazi Germany) or whether we're incapable of judging someone to have committed them (like our fallible court system). They are violations of some moral law that no human ever created, and so in a real sense, can be called moral crimes that this Nonhuman will eventually exact justice for. So here comes the bad news. We've all committed moral crimes. We've all done things we know we oughtn't to have, whether it was cheating or stealing or hurting someone, in action or in thought. That's why we have pangs of guilt. We know we did something bad, that we've committed some sort of moral crime, and the only reasonable conclusion is that we deserve punishment. Just like how a murderer, unless he receives a pardon, gets jail time as punishment, so will we, unless we receive a pardon, get jail time as punishment. It's unfortunate that this latter sort of punishment is an eternity without God, but that just means God is all the more serious about moral crimes, as one can only expect from a morally perfect and just God.

By now you might see that technically the answer to the original question really is "no." You don't have to believe in Jesus to go to Heaven. You just have to never commit any moral crimes. Ever. You must be perfectly innocent on the day you die. But if you're not, if your record is blemished in the slightest, sorry to say, you will be punished. You can't pull yourself up by your moral bootstraps, cleanse your record with your own hands. The only way to avoid the punishment you deserve is for the sovereign power to offer a pardon, and equally important, for you to accept it. That's the good news. There's a pardon dangling in front of you. His name is Jesus Christ.

I understand that even this response, though in keeping with orthodoxy, may not be very palatable. And though Truth is not meant to appease any sort of palate, there is a degree to which it should at least resonate with the human condition. I'm no great writer so I probably have missed the mark for some of you. If so, I'd encourage you to read the first several chapters of C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, which does a much more masterful job of conveying the message without compromising the fundamentals. Then judge for yourself how well Christianity, both rationally and intuitively, compared with your current worldview, explains the world before you.

To sum up the Good News: Grace is necessary and Grace has been given. I hope that maybe this Christmas season we can all reflect on this Grace just a little more than we normally would. After all, this Grace is the very reason for the season.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Dawkins, an Atheist

"If there is a God, it's going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed."

Anyone who read the "God vs. Science" cover story in the Nov. 13, 2006 issue of Time will recognize this to be the last sentence of the entire article. It was spoken by Richard Dawkins, one of the more prominent and vocal atheists of our time. This statement is so characteristic of the atheistic mindset that I think it's worth diving into, to see how they think. And in so doing, maybe we can all have more fruitful discourses when it comes to the topic of God.

First of all, Dawkins, along with all atheists, doesn't believe in the existence of God. That's his underlying belief and where he gets his foot off in all arguments. So, if he believes there is no God, of course every religion that posits one is a manmade religion. If you start with Jesus as only a mortal, then of course Christianity will be, to you, manmade. Bombasting tautologies during debates is useless, especially when presented as a positive argument for your side, which then makes it disingenuous.

On the flipside, Christians have reached the conclusion that Jesus was not just a man. As such, Christian theologians only attempt to understand what God revealed to us through His Work and His Word, the Scriptures. Theologians don't intend to propose anything new. Now how they reached that supernatural conclusion is the question and what should be discussed. Same goes for the atheist. How have they come to their conclusion? Little ground will ever be covered if we neglect the "how" and simply spew begging-the-question consequences of our view.

Secondly, Dawkins appears open to the possibility of God, but only one that is "a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible" than anything we have today. That is, if there is a God, it is one that leaves less room for reason and more room for faith. Isn't that odd? As a man who appears to champion human reason above all else, he is arguing (i.e. using his reason) that if there is a God, he would have to take a pretty big leap of faith to accept it. Sounds like a New Ager to me.

Lastly, I think his statement is partly a complaint that religious people claim to know it all. If this is true, then maybe Christians need to change their style of communication. Perhaps more humility is in order. But does Dawkins, or any atheist for that matter, really believe that Christianity is completely comprehensible even to the most spiritual, say the Pope, or St. Peter himself? I certainly don't think so. I don't think any honest Christian can say, "My finite mind has penetrated the infinite God." Now, I believe that there are many good reasons to believe Christianity is true, but that in no way implies I believe I understand Christianity through and through. In my lifetime, I will be as far from that as any number is to infinity. Christians understand a lot, to be sure. They have a clue to the answers of the big questions: Who am I?, Where did I come from?, and Why am I here?. But they don't claim much more and never have. Indeed, much of how to live life flows from the answer to these questions.

And just for the sake of clarity, Christianity is not something anyone could ever have guessed or proposed. The words of C.S. Lewis rarely fail, here speaking of the central tenet of Christianity, of God becoming a Man to save us:

"Indeed, if we found that we could fully understand it, that very fact would show it was not what it professes to be--the inconceivable, the uncreated, the thing from beyond nature, striking down into nature like lightning. You may ask what good it will be to us if we do not understand it. But that is easily answered. A man can eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it."

Sunday, November 05, 2006


I stepped outside into the courtyard and noticed a deep orange sun crouching on the horizon, making it seem larger than usual. The air was clear and warm and people were strewn about in small groups exchanging pleasantries. As the time drew near more people were arriving and the level of noise increased a great deal, though at first I didn't notice much because I was with my friend and we were engaged in a little small talk of our own. We didn't know anyone, except maybe several people but only superficially, so we were glad of the other's company. We finally took our seats and sat there patiently because there was nothing for us to hurry to. It was really quite nice. Then, during one of the many long and pleasant silences between us, my friend and I seemed to simultaneously perceive the loud chatter all about, because when it reached its peak, he said something like, "Shoulda drank something. Need a little something to get me through this." I looked at the orange sun and the blue ocean and the green trees, then looked at all the people, and then looked back at him, and nodded.