It’s almost four decades since he first addressed the problem of pain in his 1977 book Where Is God When It Hurts? Since then, Philip Yancey has authored or coauthored a string of books on faith and doubt that are widely regarded as classics, including three with physician Paul Brand (Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, In His Image, and Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants).
Yet despite a long public career, the author has written surprisingly little about his own story. Who is the Yancey we never knew? Plough editor Charles E. Moore decided to ask him.
Plough: Your books address questions that most people prefer to avoid – pain, grief, and loss. Yet your books have been bestsellers. Why?
Philip Yancey: The Book of Ecclesiastes includes a striking phrase, “eternity in our hearts.” No matter how distracting and entertaining our culture tries to be, questions about meaning, about life and death, somehow edge their way in. Moments of national crisis bring them to the surface, as well as smaller, more intimate moments. I’ve had some of my most profound conversations in the waiting room of a hospice or ICU ward with people whose names I don’t even know.
Have you struggled personally with the question of suffering?
Mainly, I struggle with the unfairness of suffering. I just wrote a letter to a couple whose child fought valiantly against genetic defects requiring dozens of surgeries, only to succumb to an HIV-contaminated blood transfusion. How do you explain these things? You can’t.
We should doubt our doubts as well as doubt our faith.
Suffering is not a mathematical puzzle. It’s desperate human need. We should respond not with words but with practical acts of love and compassion. Remember Job’s three friends? They tore their clothes and sat with Job in silence for seven days and seven nights. That was true friendship. The problems started when they opened their mouths.
As a journalist I’ve traveled the world, interviewing hundreds of people. Some are famous and wildly successful, while others live in poverty and are seemingly cursed by suffering. Life is unfair – so much depends on accidents of birth, or DNA, or family background.
I’ve found that those who face failure and suffering are more likely to develop a nourishing faith than those who know success and pleasure. Fertilizer stinks, but it helps things grow.
Like Job, you’ve admitted to having doubts. How have you remained a Christian despite these doubts?
Doubts can be healthy. I’m a Christian because I came to doubt some of what my childhood church taught me, such as the inferiority of other races and of women. When I speak on college campuses, I challenge the skeptics to find a single argument against God voiced by the New Atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, or the Old Atheists such as Bertrand Russell and Voltaire, that is not voiced in biblical books such as Job, Ecclesiastes, Psalms, Lamentations, or Habakkuk. God not only allows us to doubt but provides the very words we can use.
Some of the skeptics are skilled at poking holes in the Bible, but if you take their own assumptions and push them further, it gets sticky. How should we live if we believe that humanity is the product of random forces, with a short life that ends in oblivion? We should doubt our doubts as well as doubt our faith.
You have written that “we all need trustworthy doubt companions.” Who are yours?
For a time I participated in a small group of couples who were involved in high-profile Christian ministry. All of us had experienced difficulties expressing honest doubt and temptation in a local church setting. We formed a safe place to talk about those matters – and believe me, high-profile Christians have no exemption when it comes to doubt.
In the end, though, I think my readers are my true doubt companions. Many write to me and say something like, “I thought I was the only one.” Well, I feel that way too. I put my struggles out there in print, sometimes with fear and trembling, and then learn that I’m just articulating something that others have experienced.
I should add that we need “faith companions” as well as “doubt companions”: friends who don’t punish us for doubting, but hold on and show us light in the midst of our darkness.
You broke your neck in a car accident in 2007; you’ve said that the accident changed you spiritually. How?
While recovering, I became aware of how few people were on my “love” list. I had emerged from a repressive church and family and was guarded and bristling with defense mechanisms. I had to pray for love. God in his mercy is beginning to answer that prayer. I have a few long-term close friendships, a rather small blood family, and some adults who have been dear mentors to me.
Often I’ve asked people, “When did you grow most spiritually?” Almost never will someone mention an easy time when all went well. They’ll describe an ICU ward when their daughter’s life hung in the balance, or a bankruptcy, or a grueling mission trip.
The accident in 2007 took away my fear of death. I lay on that backboard reflecting that the God I have come to know and love is a God of grace and mercy, a trustworthy God.
The accident also was a hallmark event for my marriage. We had been coasting along, avoiding emotional land mines and resigned to living with certain recurring problems. The near-death experience put everything in a new perspective. Those problems we had were nothing compared to what we would face if I had ended up as a quadriplegic. Overnight, mountains shrank into molehills and our marriage grew stronger.
What has kept you and your wife Janet together for forty-five years, despite these tensions?
I should probably give you a spiritual answer, but the most honest answer is sheer stubbornness. We have very different personalities, which presents its own challenges. Also, we’re both control freaks, convinced our way is the best. It took us years to learn to operate as a team, rather than as rivals. When we travel, especially overseas, those different personalities truly complement each other. Janet is an extrovert, engaging with our hosts, while I’m trying to figure out what to say at a speaking event I’ve just learned about.
We both entered marriage with wounds: mine from church and family, and Janet’s from trying to find her identity as a third-culture missionary kid. I fell madly in love. I thought she did too – only later did I realize that she had adopted me as a kind of social work project. Yet when we said the “till death do us part” vow, we meant it.
You’ve expressed concern that the church has become an enemy of sinners. But isn’t there the opposite danger too – of a fuzzy tolerance that accepts anything and anybody, all in the name of God’s unconditional love?
I see a difference in accepting anybody and accepting anything. Jesus pushed the ideals of righteousness higher and higher. You haven’t committed adultery; have you lusted? You haven’t murdered; have you hated? Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. You can’t get any higher than that. His point was that none of us can earn God’s acceptance through our behavior.
Jesus showed a way of grace, not of fuzzy tolerance.
Jesus did not compromise on the ideals, but he did beautifully describe and embody God’s unconditional love for anyone – a leprous beggar, a Samaritan woman with five failed marriages, a traitor like Peter, a human-rights abuser like Saul of Tarsus, a prodigal son. I once plotted on a graph all the people Jesus encountered. The more socially outcast, morally offensive, and disreputable people were, the more attracted they were to Jesus. The more upright, respectable, and even “godly” people were, the more challenged they were by Jesus. They were the ones who had him arrested.
Jesus showed a way of keeping the highest standards while offering Living Water to the least deserving. That’s grace, not fuzzy tolerance.
You’ve pointed out that the church “has always found ways to soften Jesus’ strong words on morality.” This is precisely the concern that conservative Christians feel today regarding the sexual revolution. Yet you chastise these same Christians for speaking out on morality. Why?
We are fighting battles with evil and injustice – yet, as Martin Luther King Jr. used to say, we fight with different weapons, the weapons of grace. As he said, you can pass laws to force a white man to serve a black man in a restaurant, but you can’t pass a law requiring the white man to love the black man. We have higher goals than politics, and you’ll never attain those goals through politics alone.
I get concerned when Christians see politics as the answer. Politics is an adversary sport in which you win by slandering your opponent. Jesus showed a different way: Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.
The early Christians faced a far more hostile environment in the Roman Empire than we do in the United States today. They set in motion a new community, pioneer settlements of the kingdom of God that could show the world a better way to be human. Tend to the sick, rescue the abandoned babies, free the slaves, love the oppressors, care for the poor – they lived in a new way, and the world took notice.
You believe that the church works best as a “conscience to society that keeps itself at arm’s length from the state.” The church, in other words, should be a minority counterculture. Isn’t that sectarian tribalism?
Quite the contrary. The church was born at Pentecost, a multicultural gathering that had attracted people from many tongues and nations. Unlike Judaism or Islam, the church disengaged from a particular place and culture. The new converts then went back to their own societies to fulfill the Great Commission.
In my travels, I’ve seen clusters of devout Christians in communist China, in repressive Islamic states, in prisons in Chile and Russia, in Myanmar, and in many other places. Pentecost set the faith loose to adapt to all sorts of environments. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, declared Paul – a Pharisee who had probably thanked God daily that he was born Jewish, free, and male, until he encountered the liberating power of the gospel.
“Sectarian tribalism” may be a natural human tendency, but it’s one area where the church needs to show a different way, an unnatural way.
What does this unnatural way look like?
I study Jesus and Paul in vain if I’m looking for a way to “change the world.” Surely they were aware of the great societal evils around them – think of Romans paying to watch gladiators murder each other for sport – but they gave us no global formula. Instead, they called Christians to show the world a different way to live, to become pioneer settlers of the kingdom of God. Against all odds, that eventually prevailed in Rome. People saw that the Christians freed slaves (some of them), treated women with dignity, nursed plague victims rather than fleeing, and adopted abandoned babies.
I don’t have much hope on a global scale, but on a cosmic scale I believe God will intervene rather dramatically when Jesus returns. In the meantime, my hope rests in small groups of Christians around the world showing what God had in mind. In his recent book The Church in Exile, Lee Beach describes the church in a phrase I like: “communities of engaged nonconformity.” It’s up to us to show the world a different way.
Interview by Charles E. Moore.