Every Thursday, my son holds a meeting (now virtual) called Eclectic Christian Conversations (ECC for short) for people interested in discussing any aspect of the Christian faith. It is a great time to discuss the hard questions not typically addressed at church, such as, “How does evolution fit into our understanding of creation?” or “Is there such a thing as objective morality?”, or — like last week — “How do we come to terms with an extravagantly good God in the midst of a global pandemic?”
I found myself making the statement, “The church that embraces the certainty of God’s extravagant goodness as well as the transcendent value of suffering will be unstoppable.” One of the members said she wanted to hear more about what I meant. I was tempted to tell her I had no idea, that sometimes words just pop into my head and I say them, but I was saved by the meeting ending before I had time to respond.
I am joking of course about not knowing what I meant, though I do admit sometimes thoughts do pop into my head that require some unpacking, which I intend to do with this thought here.
Bestselling author and pastor Tim Keller said in his book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering that the modern secular culture (that is us) is probably the least capable of dealing with tragedy, compared to other cultures at this time and in history. The reason for this, he explains, is that it has lost all belief in meaning. By belief in meaning, he does not mean just belief in God but belief in anything that lies beyond our immediate existence. As a result, our highest value has become finding happiness. The problem is, when tragedy strikes, it not only affects our circumstances: It threatens our highest value. In other words, our very purpose for living comes under attack. As a result, we find ourselves in an existential crisis.
Which is not necessarily true for other cultures. Because most cultures find meaning in tragedy. Whether it is the belief the gods are punishing them or that all will be made right in the world to come, most cultures throughout history have had a view of the world that grounds suffering as an event in a larger unfolding narrative. This may not divest tragedy of suffering, but it does give tragedy meaning. Even in the dire case one believes he is being punished for his sins at the very least he has a Punisher to appeal to.
One of the best theatrical examples of this idea of tragedy having meaning is found in the movie The Gladiator. In it, the Roman General Maximus (played by Russel Crowe) speaks to his troops before going into battle. He says to them, “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” It is a startling and inspiring statement. Think about it: The Roman soldiers were about to go into battle, many if not most to lose their own lives. We modern people would call such an act (at least: From the standpoint of how we live our lives) both pointless and tragic. But Maximus was calling his men to a higher view: He was giving them the chance of seeing their actions from the viewpoint of eternity.
Contrast this view of war with many of the movies about war that have come out in the past few decades depicting the gritty horrors of war. If you look closely, the horrors are not merely in the experience: It is in the experience by men who have lost all meaning. They have either lost all meaning for why they are enduring such tragedy or have lost all meaning in general. As a result, everything they have held sacred is being destroyed.
I am convinced there are some seasons of life that can only be navigated successfully from the standpoint of eternity. More importantly, for life to be lived fully, all of life is to be lived that way. Not because it is a good idea, but because it is a true idea. We do not simply benefit from belief in the eternal; we were designed to live from the standpoint of the eternal.
Let me shake out this idea a bit and hold it up to the light: Your life has eternal significance. Everything you do has eternal weight and is pregnant with purpose. And that is true whether you are preaching to the masses or wondering what happened to your calling, whether you are experiencing the precious abundant blessings of God or find yourself in a season of trial and suffering. How you live each moment of each day echoes in eternity.
Now you may be wondering what any of this has to do with believing in God’s extravagant goodness. It has everything to do with it, for the substance of eternity is the extravagant goodness of God.
One of the participants at ECC made a statement that I really like. She said, “I see God’s goodness through the mess of this fallen world.” I think that is a good definition of Christianity. Our eyes have been opened and we now see God’s goodness through the mess of a fallen world, a world that is giving way to a world that cannot be shaken.
Stephen, the first martyr, certainly saw this. As he was being stoned, he said, “Look! I see Heaven open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God!” And then he forgave those who were murdering him. And his words and his blood echo in eternity.