Friday, April 06, 2012

Warnings About Using Subjective Experience as an Apologetic


Why do you believe in God?

“Because I know deep in my heart that he exists.”

Why do you believe Christ rose from the grave?

“Because I have experienced the same power in my life.”

Why do you think the Bible is true?

“Because it speaks to me in places that no other book has.”

Why do you believe God loves you?

“Because I was healed of a disease.”

These are all common answers given by well-meaning Christians concerning the validity of their faith. However, I have made the argument that these types of answers are not good apologetic outposts for the faith and can be misleading and, sometimes, destructive.

I have told this story before, but it is well worth saying again. Three months before my sister committed suicide, I was on suicide watch with her. After all, I lived right by her in Dallas and so the obvious go-to guy to run to her house and check on her. Over the previous year, I had to make that dreadful trip to her house no less than 17 times (if I remember correctly – things have gotten hazy over the years). I remember very clearly the first and the seventeenth. On the first time, I broke down the back door and found her in her bed with an empty bottle of sleeping pills by her bed and a note pad with letters to all of her family. I could not wake her and immediately rushed her to the hospital for treatment. She survived. The last time, I went to her house to check and make sure she was okay. I always feared what I might find and how she might have found a way to pull the plug on her life. Would she be in the bed again? Nah…she knew that I would come and find her too quickly. I figured either the garage or the bathtub. But what I feared most was…a gun. She had talked about a gun a lot lately, believing it would be the quickest way to pull off her departure and she figured it would be the one method my rescue missions would not be able to circumvent. When I got to her house on trip number seventeen, she was not there. I figured she had gone to work or something. I called my mother and told her, but she was not relieved. She said that Angie was particularly bad that day and that she knew Angie was going to try something. I told my mother I was sure it would be a gun since I showed up at her door within 15 min of her being out of contact. I decided to stay around the house to wait and see if she came back. After about 30 minutes she pulled up. I was in her front yard. When she saw me, she took off very fast. This behavior, in my mind, meant only one thing: she had a gun and she was planning on using it at home. I jumped in my car and tried to track her down. However, my diesel was not fast enough to keep up and I lost her after the first turn. I wanted to continue the pursuit, but did not know which direction to go to. Left or right at the stop sign in the neighborhood? Left, right, or straight at the light? Left, right, or straight at the next light? I had no idea. I just started making random turns. At this point, I thought about calling my mother and giving her the bad news: Angie is dead – well, as good as dead. She must have had a gun to react the way she did. But I did not make that call. I just drove around. Where? I don’t know. Whichever way the wind took me. I did not even pray for God to tell me which way to go. It seemed that hopeless. I was exhausted from praying about this and just did not want to put this on his table again at this time. He was going to do what he was going to do. The one rational thought I had was that I, were I to kill myself, would do so closer to Oklahoma City (our home town), not further away. So I made my way to the highway back home. I drove for a bit, thinking how crazy this was. How am I going to find her? However, driving down 121 on my way to I35, I passed a hotel and I was compelled to check there (though I had not been compelled to check anywhere else). I drove around back and there it was: Angie’s black Mercedes. I ran to the front desk in a surprised panic. I told them the situation and was eventually able to call her hotel room. She answered. She was surprised, to say that least. I got into her room and quickly searched for the gun. I could not find one so I asked Angie, “Where is it? The gun…where is it?” Looking even more surprised and deflated, she finally led me back to the bathroom and got it for me. I took it, unloaded it, got Angie in my car, and took her to our mother’s house.

There was no one more excited about this then my mother. The last year had been traumatic for her. Her beloved daughter wanted to die and she could not do anything about it. Her God would not come to the rescue and she had begun to doubt his love and care for her. But after this incident, the last year of doubt, disillusionment, and despair turned as it found a grounding in hope. Her faith began to be based on this incident. Her interpretation was that God was not going to let Angie die. A miracle like this had to mean something. And that something was that God was really on our side. That something was that God was really alive and well in the Patton home. In short, everything in her faith began to rely on to God’s love, as she filtered it through this experience. When all hope was gone, God pulled off the impossible. Angie would live! At least that was one interpretation.

What do we base our hope in God on? How do we interpret the happenings in our life? When has he come to the rescue and what has he obligated himself to in our lives?

I told about my healed back last week. Though there have been times when my back still has a bit of pain, by and large it has been so much better since the guy prayed over it at the Credo House five months ago. This weekend I wrote in a comment on the blog that the pain had returned that day. One commenter (who meant nothing but good) said that it could be that I had yet to acknowledge the miracle and give true thanks to God, therefore my back pain was coming back. The idea is that if I accept it as a miracle then it would stay healed. But if I continued to waver in doubt (as I have, to some degree), then the pain would come back. I don’t know how he could know such a thing. God never promised to heal my back at all, much less do so permanently. Therefore, I have no reason to believe things that God has not promised. The moment I begin to do so is the moment I put words in the mouth of God simply to make myself feel better. Experiences can do that. Experiences can quickly turn into promises and head us for a train wreck in our faith. Who are we to put promises in God’s mouth?

I tried not to put a promise in God’s mouth with the miracle of finding Angie in the summer of 2003. It was a miracle, yes. It was from God; how could it not be? But I did not know what it meant. My mother, who needed to find hope so badly, found her own meaning in the experience. She found a new grounding for her faith. She did as the gentleman suggested I do with regard to my back. She did not waver in the message sent. She believed that God was sending a message from heaven: “I am not going to let Angie die.” Her hope was infectious. In fact, I rode along on this bus a time or two over the next month. However, no matter how much faith my mother gained because of this experience, it was not to be. Just over three months later, Angie died by a gun in her own hand in a hotel room about ten miles from the one where I had previously found her.

The faith my mother found in her experience a month earlier had just betrayed her; this devastated her faith in God. The miracle of stopping Angie before became her primary apologetic for God’s love and her faith, yet it turned on her due to the undue faith she placed in it. But God had never promised to keep Angie alive. It was just what we all wanted to believe.

Our experiences are wonderful. That I found Angie that first and seventeenth time was the hand of God. I don’t know what it meant, but I know it was his hand. That my back has been better for the last five months is the hand of God. I don’t know what it means, but I am grateful for it. If my back goes bad again tomorrow, I pray that my faith will not change, since I am trying not to put promises in the mouth of God. So please understand if I don’t rejoice in some things the way some think I should. I just don’t know how to interpret Him so much of the time. But I don’t need to know. If I did, he would be clear about it. He knows how to be clear.

In the end, we all need to learn how to decorate our faith with our subjective experiences, but we don’t lay our foundation with them. Our foundation for God’s love and presence is found in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. There is a permanence there that is not going to change. God is alive and well in our lives every day. We can be certain of this because of the resurrection. We just don’t often know how to interpret his daily interventions. And this is okay.

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