The other day a kindly elderly lady knocked on my door. She said she was from the Urban Missionaries of Canada and wanted to know if I would be interested in taking her survey. I agreed, though I told her I’m a theologian and that might skew the results. She smiled and said that would be fine.
Several of the well-intentioned questions gave me some cause for concern. For example (paraphrasing here): “Do you believe that because God sent the church first to Jerusalem, and then to Judea and then the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8) that we likewise are first sent to our own city and then on from there?”
Clearly she wanted (and expected) me to say “Yes”. And I did agree with the logic, i.e. it makes sense generally to begin one’s Christian work in one’s own neighborhood rather than remaining an inert lump until one finally arrives in Sri Lanka.
“But,” I said, “I don’t think that Acts 1:8 is presenting us with a universal principle.”
I think she would have preferred a yes (or perhaps a no). It is easily recorded with a check in the appropriate box.
That, and a few other points, provided relatively trivial grounds for quibble or nuance. But another one gave me deeper cause for concern.
(Paraphrasing again): “Do you think a Christian should be certain of who God is and where they’re going when they die?”
I was so tempted to give the “right” answer. But the real answer beckoned, the one with all its painful complexity. “What if a Christian’s child dies of cancer?” I asked softly. “Do you think that might shake the parent’s certainty?”
“Oh,” she said with some surprise, “I guess so.” And with that she quickly went on to the next question.
That’s the mistake. Don’t quickly go on to the next question. Instead, dwell on the problems with this one. What about the Christian parents who just lost their child and have this question posed to them. “Yes,” they answer mechanically. But inside at the moment they’re not certain of anything. They’re not even certain they’ll get through the day. And in the midst of all their pain and heartache they now have one additional burden: I’m supposed to believe with certainty, but I don’t.
It’s that “should” in the question that gets me, that punative “should”.
Until Christians learn better how to deal with the complex, wavering realities of belief, until they learn to remove the stigma of doubt, until they learn to take the punitive measure out the painful loss of hope, they will be in danger of tying up heavy, cumbersome loads on the shoulders of others precisely when they are seeking help with the burdensome pains of this world.