I’ve reached the age when discussions of family move quickly to updates about our grown, adult sons. People my age compare stories of “having survived” our children’s adolescences and we now look forward to spoiling our grandchildren as revenge.
It’s not long before we all admit some level of shortcomings. We all made mistakes and hope our children are saving adequately for the psychotherapy they’ll need to undo the damage we caused. Inevitably, one of us utters the mantra, “I did the best that I could.” Sometimes someone adds the modifying clause, “with the knowledge I had back then.” I don’t remember any bestselling book boasting the title, “I did the best I could,” or some famous person making it their motto. But that slogan, “I did the best I could” (herein abbreviated as IDTBIC) has become universally accepted and relied upon by parents of a wide range of backgrounds, ethnicities, financial statuses, and any other demographic I can think of.
We all did the best we could! So, why are our kids so messed up? Or why is the world in such trouble? And would our kids evaluate our parenting careers with the same passing grade? Would they reward us with a blue ribbon for our parenting efforts?
Not too long ago, I watched a televised interview of Arnold Schwarzenegger. He had just published his memoir, Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story, and was making the talk-show circuit to boost sales. The interviewer had to inquire about Arnold’s now-infamous affair with his family’s housekeeper and his fathering a child with her. Everyone watching the interview knew this moment would be coming. Surely, Arnold anticipated the question. (Perhaps he went back and reread that portion of his book to remember how he explained his actions there). But the man who had played the Terminator and other powerful characters on film stammered weakly as he looked for words to respond. He offered quite a few attempts that began with, “well, I” and “Y’know…” and “no one’s perfect.”
And then he said it. He uttered the same line I had used countless times: “I did the best I could.”
I don’t often talk to my television set. But I found it impossible not to blurt out, “Really? You? The best you could?” I thought, “He gets to use the IDTBIC line?” The best he could do was have an affair, father a child out of wedlock, lie about it until cornered by the evidence, and say it really wasn’t as bad as people thought? (I think that came later in the interview). Surely, he could have done better, I reasoned with smug confidence.
And then it hit me. I did not do the best job I could as a parent. I wonder if anyone can ever use that line. By God’s grace, I did a lot of good things. But I did quite a few bad things as well. I did harmful and insulting things. I said words that I wish I could erase from my sons’ memories. On occasion, I treated them harshly when they most needed tenderness. I won’t even diminish the intensity of these acts by calling them “mistakes.” They were sins. I sinned against my sons and the God who blessed me with them. I am humbled beyond measure that they and God forgive me. No wonder Jesus died on a cross. Nothing less could atone for such behavior.
It is important for me (and any other parent who did not do the best he or she could do) to acknowledge it. Only then do we rely on the grace of God for the cleansing of our consciences and the wellbeing of our offspring. Only then do we stop trusting in our performance as the richest resource for them to draw on. Only then do we stop taking credit for our kids “turning out OK” or beating ourselves up if they didn’t.
As long as we cling to the IDTBIC line, we aren’t really clinging to the cross. Applying the gospel to all of life must include our parenting. To do so is to realize that, “we are saved by grace, not by works” and therefore, our best efforts in all areas of life have and always will fall short.
But our God is a gracious savior whose shed blood covers all our sins, including the ones we committed in the privacy of our homes – perhaps, especially the sins we commit there. To God be the glory – He did the best He could.
I continue to learn valuable lessons about evangelism by interviewing recent converts. Hearing what they report as significant in their journey from darkness to light encourages and instructs for further outreach.
Most of the people I’ve talked to tell me they heard the gospel from friends they trust. This reinforces what many people have written about the need to “earn the right to be heard” or “pave the way for preaching.” I recall the oft-quoted admonition, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
One book even insists that people “will not” listen until trust has been established. While I certainly see the need to build trust and express the truth within a context of love, I wonder if some have overstated this case.
And then I heard Nora’s account of her conversion.
In high school, Nora “got into the wrong crowd.” (That’s how she described it). I tried not to let my jaw drop too dramatically as she recounted experiences with alcohol, drugs, and sex. She said she developed a reputation as a harsh blasphemer who loved to embarrass Christians with her foul mouth attacks on their faith. She wore T-shirts with offensive messages about Jesus just to enrage her religious classmates.
When she arrived at college, she chose to maintain the same reputation so that “Christians would know, right away, not to mess with me.” Her expletive-laced attire found a new audience to shock.
Then, one day, as she walked across campus, she was handed a card advertising an event sponsored by a Christian organization on campus. The topic for discussion at the meeting would be, “Who Goes to Heaven?” She almost threw the card on the ground but resisted due to her concern for the environment. But the question on the card nagged at her.
So, she went back to the girl who gave her the card and asked her, “Well… can you tell me who goes to heaven? That’s an important topic and I’ve actually been wondering that very question.” The card-distributor chose to set up an appointment to talk later rather than stop her work of publicity. This began a two-month-long, one-on-one Bible study between Nora and the young woman who, it turns out, was on the staff of a Christian organization serving on that campus.
As Nora elaborated, she offered this insight, “Even though I was wrestling with the very issues I was mocking, I couldn’t admit it to anyone who knew me. I needed someone anonymous to talk to. It had to be a stranger.”
So... just when we thought we figured out the key ingredient for evangelistic fruitfulness, we are reminded that God can use a variety of means to get his gospel through to unsaved people. Sure, friendships and trust-filled relationships can pave the way for the gospel. But for some people, anonymous strangers may be what God uses.
Consider that some people may be just like Nora – unable to admit to their friends that, behind their public persona, is someone seeking a different path. Wouldn’t it make sense that anonymity would connect well with Orthodox Jews, devout Muslims, out and proud gays, vocal feminists, unashamed drug users, and wearers of profanity-filled T-shirts!
C.S. Lewis wrote The Problem of Pain, seeming to narrow his investigation to a single entity – “the” problem. It’s an excellent book that addresses the philosophical issue of suffering with a keen theological eye mixed with practical pastoral encouragement.
But I find that the experience of suffering or, more specifically, the handling of physical pain, entails a combination of many different problems, not just a singular difficulty.
One week ago I underwent surgery to repair a hernia. Actually it was a double hernia, to be precise. In keeping with my lifelong pattern of going down the road less traveled, my body did not allow for the “typical” approach – a laparoscopic surgery with a shorter, less painful recovery period. No, I needed the more invasive procedure complete with scars not worth describing. Thus, I find myself experiencing numerous problems associated with pain.
The Lament Psalms have offered me great encouragement many times when it comes to handling suffering. They model how we can cry out to the Lord, ask for deliverance, enlist help from positive self-talk, and recall to mind God’s character, help in the past, and ways he has worked on behalf of others. They cover a wide range of lament-inducing circumstances – persecution, discouragement, depression, feelings of alienation from God, etc.
But physical pain offers unique challenges. It is not mentioned often in the Lament Psalms. Psalms 69:1-6 is a rare exception, including pain in its list of causes for lament. Psalms 69:29 says, “I am in pain and distress: May your salvation, O God, protect me.”
One could be tempted to think that all we really need to do is recall certain truths or remind ourselves of certain theological concepts and all emotional struggles would vanish.
Counselor and author Edward T. Welch, of the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation, writing about handling fear says this about simply reminding ourselves of fear-countering cognitive thoughts: “This might help, but it rests on the premise that fear submits to logic, which is a dubious assumption. In reality, fears are rarely logical.” (Running Scared, page 23).
I find that there are at least five problems associated with pain. Processing them individually has been helpful for me as I wait for the pain from surgery to subside and some sense of normality to return.
• There’s the problem of fear: With physical pain comes the temptation to believe that it will never go away or it’s the sign of other problems or the harbinger of even worse things to come. Constant prayer for comfort, strength, and the peace that passes all understanding needs to counter this problem.
• There’s the problem of total dependence: When you experience surgery, your body stops performing certain functions that used to just happen. Taking deep breaths, moving without additional pain, and the continuing performance of certain “bodily functions” now take on a level of challenge that used to be reserved for things like mountain climbing or major athletic feats. It’s humbling, to say the least. It involves prayer for things you’ve always taken for granted, which underlines the reality that we have always been totally dependent upon God for every breath, every heartbeat, and every bodily fluid that needs to flow properly.
• There’s the problem of “not-rightness”: I don’t know how else to put it. But every ache and every pain is a reminder that we live in a fallen world with broken bodies that will someday die – and that was never the way it was supposed to be. While you can understand all this, and it’s easy to find this doctrine heavily supported in scripture, it does not minimize the “groaning” component that never should feel normal or acceptable.
• There’s the problem of mental-perseverance: Much of the physical battle takes on the flavor of the mental battle. We must talk to ourselves far more than merely listen to ourselves. Now is the time to converse internally as doggedly as the Psalmists who said, “Why so downcast, Oh my soul?” and other introspective interaction. But it gets tiring and mere mention of these truths does not guarantee full receptivity.
• And, in the darkest moments, there is the problem of despair: With physical pain come attacks from our adversary. He would have us think, “This is never going to get better, God doesn’t care, I must have done something to deserve this,” and dozens of other condemning lies from the pit. Thus, the need for deep reflection on the truth of the gospel, diligent concentration on the power of God’s word, and relentless meditation upon the goodness of God’s care for his people – especially before the times of pain.
C. S. Lewis’ book and others are helpful for wrestling with the theological and philosophical puzzles associated with suffering. But don’t think that mere reading of books will provide the full equipment for all the problems of pain. The issue is far more complex than that. Indeed, life itself is richer, more complex, and, sadly, more painful than we expect. But our God is greater, more compassionate, and more powerful than we suspect.
In some recent blog debates, some people have defended unorthodox theology, seeking support from C.S. Lewis. “Lewis believed some questionable things and people don’t reject him,” they reason.
It has caused me to reflect on why I like Lewis so much, even when I think he occasionally misses the mark.
I read C.S. Lewis for at least three reasons. The obvious one is that Lewis, like no one else, helps me understand things in ways I hadn’t before. Second, I find him to be a sheer delight to read. It is rare that I read Lewis without at least one chuckle along the way. But my favorite reason is that Lewis trains my mind to think in ways I would not otherwise think. It’s not just that he teaches me how to understand topics about which he has written. He helps me see patterns, principles, and insights about a host of topics of which he never wrote.
Lewis was spared the world of blogs, text messaging, Twitter, and the like. I can only imagine what Screwtape would have said about these modern wonders! But his insights about chronological snobbery or the priority of old books or the importance of keeping second things second shed light on social networking techniques and many other mainstays of the twenty-first century.
He’s not just a tour guide pointing out sights to see. Lewis gives me lenses through which to see.
The author of Mere Christianity taught me how to evaluate arguments against the faith, even ones he never addressed. The preacher of The Weight of Glory enables me to see joy in the midst of disappointments–even post 9/11 varieties. The educator who penned The Abolition of Man changes the way I read The Chronicle of Higher Education. And the dreamer who invented Narnia helps me rejoice in a world that, at times, feels like it’s “always winter and never Christmas.”
But he’s not perfect. And so, Lewis also trains me, ironically, to not accept everything any individual human writer offers. On some points, Lewis was just plain wrong–no matter how eloquently he worded it. For example, he suggests the possibility of salvation through other faiths–a position soundly rejected by evangelicals for many decades, even centuries. He sometimes relied on logic more than Scripture and that got him into theological trouble. So… his writings are not inerrant. I know only one book that meets that criteria. I read that book more than I read Lewis. He would approve. It’s an old book.
Randy Newman has been with the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ since 1980 and currently serves with Faculty Commons, their ministry to university professors. Randy is a Jewish Believer in Jesus and is the former editor of The Messiah-On-Campus Bulletin. He is the author of numerous articles and books including Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People's Hearts the Way Jesus Did and Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well.
Randy Newman has been with the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ since 1980 and currently serves with Faculty Commons, their ministry to university professors. He ministers on campuses and elsewhere in our nation's capital to students, professors and policy shapers. He is an honors graduate from Temple University and has a Masters of Divinity degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he is also engaged in doctoral studies. Randy is a Jewish Believer in Jesus and is the former editor of The Messiah-On-Campus Bulletin. He is the author of numerous articles and the books Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People's Hearts the Way Jesus Did and Corner Conversations: Engaging Dialogues about God and Life, both published by Kregel Publications, and Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well, forthcoming from Crossway.
To find out more, visit his blog, Connection Points.