Is God Faithful? and Other Thoughts After the Fire

Brian Brown: My home was spared from the Colorado flames. Does that mean God was faithful?

If you read my post, “On Fire,” a couple weeks ago, you know my wife and I had to flee our home in the path of the advancing fires in Colorado Springs. Now the fire has receded, our home is safe (though 350 other families are not so fortunate), and we are back home living mostly as if nothing had happened. In the course of dealing with the fire and its effects, I was struck by three things that I want to share in the aftermath.

The first, and least profound, was the value of Twitter and smartphones to living humanly in the 21st century (sorry, Wendell Berry). My generation invented social media for precisely this kind of situation—not, as some people incessantly claim, to replace human relationships. We didn’t grow up in small towns (or urban neighborhoods) where sharing news, or getting help from friends, was easy. We developed social media to try to make up the difference as best we could. This was brought home to me during the fire, when I saw how hard it was to let entire neighborhoods know that they needed to evacuate, or to get out a request for help because the firefighters had run out of ice or food, or to find out whether that new smoke column was just a preventive fire or something that would burn your home down in an hour. Twitter was the fastest, most accurate way to get up-to-the-second news or help from the people closest to the situation.

The second was that crises tend to make people lose their ability to think creatively (which is why great leaders are so important). Last week I was helping a valuable local nonprofit with its end-of-year fundraising campaign. It needed the money to keep operating, but some people were furious it was asking for money when (apparently) the only thing we were allowed to care about was the fire. Being sensitive was one thing, but I hadn’t been aware life stops when bad things happen (after all, I still had to work even though I’d been evacuated). But apparently in such situations, the crisis was all we’re allowed to think about for a while—or rather, the box that people understand as the crisis. You see, in another situation the same week I was helping a human services organization provide food, rent, and gas assistance, as well as other services for fire victims. It was next to impossible to get media coverage, because apparently the only legitimate way to get help or donate was through the Red Cross—which was only providing shelter. At a time when thinking outside the box was so crucial, and when long-term investment should have been a priority, nobody seemed capable of doing either.

The third, and easily the hardest to deal with in practice, was that great tragedies have absolutely nothing to do with God’s faithfulness as most people understand it. I was so grateful for the generosity of our friends during the fire. Many offered assistance, and several offered their homes to us. But on several occasions, people told me “God is faithful”—as encouragement to believe that I would not lose my house. I was reminded of Ross Douthat’s excellent takedown of the Prosperity Gospel notion in his recent book (see here for Humane Pursuits’ recent interview with Douthat). Good Christians of all stripes might deride Joel Osteen, but most of us have a little prosperity-gospeller in us when it comes to our own individual situations.

We Christians often encourage each other by saying, or at least implying, that God will give us what we want if we just hold on, pray hard enough, or have enough faith. When circumstances are totally beyond our control, we take refuge in the thought that God is there for us…but the temptation is always there to stray from God being faithful to God being vending machine; to emphasizing the for us instead of the God is there. Because the alternative is facing the fact that God didn’t stop the fire from burning those homes; the fact that the frightening or painful situation we find ourselves in might drag on for months or might not end at all. What if God doesn’t stop the pain? What does that mean about God? About our faith?

The answer is nothing. Nothing, at least, unless we need to be reminded that there is more going on than our short-term needs, and that our relationship with God is not about us. It’s the relationship of servant and master, short-sighted and eternal, subject and king; and sometimes we allow the benevolence of the king (or lousy me-centered theology) to make us forget that he’s not our best friend, our homeboy, our lover, or our vending machine. As C.S. Lewis put it,

“Not that I am (I think) in danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”

What if my home had burned? Would God be any less the ruler? Would I be any less his servant? Would my eternal salvation be any less real? Of course not. God’s faithfulness is neither proved nor disproved by individual material circumstances. God is not good because I still have my stuff, and he is not merciful because I got what I wanted after all—no matter how desperate the desire. And it is not a sign of faith to say otherwise, murmuring fervently, “God is merciful!” when our neighbor joyfully tells us his trial has ended. (To paraphrase Lewis again, a dentist who stops pulling our wisdom teeth halfway through the surgery, just because we ask him to be merciful, is not in fact being merciful.)

My wife and I are home now, and grateful for it beyond anything that words can express. But things even more worth being grateful for would have remained real had we lost our house. As Americans, we have trouble processing the idea of things being good outside our own “pursuit of happiness.” But they are.

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