My good buddy and bass player extraordinaire John S. sent me an email this week that had an entire chapter of a book in it. It was awesome. So much so, in fact, that I really wanted to share the whole thing with you. It's a bit long (after all, it is an entire chapter of a book), so I decided to give you the first half. If you enjoy it, leave me some feedback and I'll post the rest for ya! If you enjoy the whole thing, take a chance and buy the book.
Life in the Midst of Mess
By: Jan Winebrenner
Chapter One of The Grace of Catastrophe by Jan Winebrenner (2005) appears by permission of Moody Publishers.
God is what He is in Himself. He does not become what we believe. 'I Am that I AM.' We are on safe ground only when we know what kind of God He is and adjust our entire being to that holy concept.1
A. W. Tozer
I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.
Desperation makes us do strange things—things like sit up all night in a cheap motel and read the Bible out loud.
It’s not something I’d usually do after a day on the road. On my best day, I’d probably watch a little TV, read a novel, then turn out the lights, and get to sleep early.
But let a catastrophe strike, and God has my attention.
Like the day my husband, Ken, and I set out on a cross-country move only to discover that the company transferring us to Texas had been sold. There was no job. That was the day we left town anyway—there was nothing to stay for. We were leaving behind an unsold house in South Carolina and heading toward one that the night before had just been flooded by torrential spring storms in Dallas. And so there we were: no job, two houses, and a truck full of furniture rolling along somewhere on Interstate 20.
That’s the same day we were burglarized in the parking lot of a Holiday Inn on the outskirts of Atlanta.
Thugs now owned the few things we’d been reluctant to trust with the moving company, if they hadn’t already discarded them in a Dumpster. Gone was Ken’s wedding ring, his briefcase, our Bibles, clean clothes to change into, my special treasures, including six chapters and all my research and study notes for a book I was writing.
After doing an inventory and filing a police report, we climbed into the car and continued our journey west toward whatever fate awaited us.
I can’t remember a time in my life when I felt more forlorn.
It’s been a few years since that miserable, chaotic time in our lives, but it all seemed so recent when I read Charles Colson’s words:
Life isn’t like a book. Life isn’t logical or sensible or orderly. Life is a mess most of the time. And theology must be lived out in the midst of that mess.2
Looking back, our lives couldn’t have been messier.
We had been stripped down to nothing in less than twenty-four hours. Our ideas about God were being challenged at the most basic level. That day, huddled together in a motel room in a Dallas suburb, we reached for the Gideon Bible in the drawer of a tacky nightstand.
We had nothing else to reach for.
The Most Important Question
That night we sat for a major exam in “Practical Theology.” And the first question on the test:
What do you really believe about God?
That’s what catastrophe does for us, isn’t it?
It forces us to confront our beliefs, maybe for the first time, maybe for the hundredth time.
It forces us to admit that maybe, when it comes to what we say we believe about God, we’re frauds. It forces us to see where our trust really lies.
It forces us to face what we really believe we can expect from the God we call our Father.
All through that long night, Ken and I wrestled with these questions. We discarded what we thought were the wrong answers and pulled out what we thought were the right ones. And then, the next question loomed: How does that belief affect your life in this mess?
Which, of course, begs the next question: Does what you say you believe affect your life at all?
These were the questions that most needed answering—not, what will we do? Or, where will we live? Or, how will we live? And the answers would reveal the truth about us—if we really believed what we had for years claimed to believe; if the knowledge we held of God was biblically accurate, or false; if we were living authentic lives of faith.
What We Really Believe
A. W. Tozer wrote, “The difference between a great Christian life and any other kind lies in the quality of our religious concepts . . . i.e., what we think of God, what we believe about Him.”3
Nothing so challenges us to examine what we believe about God like catastrophe.
That our idea of God corresponds as nearly as possible to the true being of God is of immense importance to us. . . . Often only after an ordeal of painful self-probing are we likely to discover what we actually believe about God.4
We face difficulty, and we have to ask: Do we really believe God is strong and faithful? We face pain and illness, and we wonder: Is He as good as I’ve always been told to believe?
Death comes, and weeping, and we ask: Is heaven a reality? Is prayer effective? Does God really hear? The struggles and disasters of our lives prompt us to ask these questions, and dozens more. Every tragedy, every crisis, offers us this:
It can be a means of grace—an instrument used by God by which we can cease floating passively on all manner of external attractions. It is by the grace of catastrophe that people sometimes come to themselves and see what is before them as if for the first time. Catastrophe can, like a mighty wind, blow away the abstracting veils of theory and ideology and enable our own sovereign seeing.5
It is the testimony of the ancients, as well as contemporary saints, that the greatest lessons of faith have been learned against the backdrop of suffering. The theology we say we believe takes root in soil watered by tears and bears fruit in lives characterized by peace and righteousness, lives that delight in the person of God Himself.
The “grace of catastrophe” comes through in places where our theology is tested, our faith forged, our knowledge of God made personal and practical, and our love for Him impassioned.
On the Brink
John Piper wrote, “Every moment in every circumstance we stand on the brink between the lure of idolatry and the delight of seeing and knowing God."6
Our stance is never more precarious than when we are in pain—any kind of pain. The voice of God whispers in our souls, “Love Me, worship Me, trust Me.” But His soft words are hard to hear over the raucous voices in our culture and in our own hearts—voices that shout at us to berate God, to ignore Him and move on in search of other comforts, if there be any—any that don’t wear off after a few minutes or hours.
Still, Jesus calls us to come close, to cuddle in His love and rest in the certainty of His goodness and His sovereign power. He invites us to take comfort in all that He has promised to be to us—savior, friend, healer, lover.
This is the challenge we face with each day as we step out into life.
Will we seek God and take our refuge in Him when our path is littered with broken dreams? Or will we turn elsewhere? We have only these two options when catastrophe strikes. If we choose God, then catastrophe becomes for us a special grace-gift, ushering us into the place where we can experience God in ways we never before imagined. We find ourselves poised on the brink of life’s greatest discovery: that God is the ultimate presence in the universe, and that knowing Him, interacting with Him, by faith, is more satisfying, more exhilarating than anything the human heart ever hoped for or imagined.
“What do unwounded servants do? They become arrogant, join country clubs, sell out to middle-class mediocrity. . . . Only the protected have the privilege of making theology a discussion; the endangered cling to it and weep."7
When we are wounded, hurting, crying in our pain, our theology—what we believe about God, about His kingdom—becomes suddenly very significant, very practical. We don’t have the luxury of keeping it superficial. The truth of God’s power and love and goodness, the truth of who we really are in Christ, the reality of His purposes for His people, the church, is suddenly relevant in ways we didn’t consider in easier, more comfortable times.
We have no room for arrogance—the arrogance of certainty—when the unimaginable happens to us. Now, when our own souls are aching, we are suddenly haunted by the trite answers we so blithely tossed at others in their times of sorrow and fear.
It becomes painfully obvious to us—we don’t have the privilege of making our theology a mere discussion. What we believe about God is now suddenly more important than anything else we will ever believe. It is more important than the doctor’s opinion or second opinion. It is more important than a judge ’s ruling, more important than class rank, salary, retirement portfolio, or any of the other things that concern us in the course of our seventy-or eighty-odd years of life on this planet.
Theology, for the struggling disciple, is more than theory, more than a stimulating topic of discussion. It is more than the text of Sunday school curricula, more than the subject of a sermon. Theology is the truth that hauls us up out of the chaos and into the place of comfort in God’s arms. It is the message that gives us courage to keep on living when everything in our lives seems to be decaying and deteriorating.
It is the truth of God, revealed in His Word, spoken in our hearts by His Spirit, lived in front of us by the incarnate Son that lifts us up. Without it, “we remain little people with little concerns who live little lives and die little deaths."8
1 A. W. Tozer, That Incredible Christian (Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, Inc., 1964), 27
2 Charles Colson, Loving God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), 218
3 A.W. Tozer, The Divine Conquest (Wheaton: Living Books, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1950), 4
4 A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge Of The Holy, (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961), 10
5 Eugene Peterson, Living The Message (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 181
6 John Piper, The Legacy Of Sovereign Joy (Wheaton: Crossway Books, Good News Publishers, 2000), 70
7 Calvin Miller, Into The Depths Of God (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2000), 144
8 Henri Nouwen, With Burning Hearts (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1994), 49