When Theology Becomes An Assault Weapon

What appears to be pristine theology, presented in user-friendly form, may in fact be a deadly assault weapon.

A young friend was struggling with how to trust God as she faced infertility. She didn’t feel as though the Ladies Bible study crew at her church would be the best place for her to process her questions and emotions. I suggested we read a book together – something that could shape our conversation and our prayers. I offered four titles addressing the subject of trust, a couple of which I’d read, and a couple of books I hadn’t read but knew as study standbys from my days working at the Trinity International University bookstore, back when the school had a bookstore.

My friend voted for one of the books I’d never before read, Jerry Bridges’ Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts which has been in print since 1988. I have some trusting-God issues, too, so I imagined the book would be a great encouragement to both of us as we worked through a couple of chapters at a time over breakfast.

Just a few pages into the book, I found my hackles rising:

“…many Christians are also buying into the philosophy…that God is good but not sovereign. One Christian writer, for example, speaks of her pain as being utterly frustrating to God and gives thanks to God for being her devoted, caring, frustrated heavenly Father. Faced with the dilemma of how a loving, sovereign Father could allow her to experience such agonizing pain, she found relief in the belief that God was indeed frustrated about her pain, shedding tears with her, even as a mother may weep at the suffering of her child.”

Never mind that the fully human and fully divine Son of God not only knows how to make humans, but to be human, thus empathizing with us in our weakness. Never mind that Jesus wept over both personal loss and corporate sin. Never mind Bridges’ lack of compassion for those who are unable to stuff their questions into his fatalistic application of the theological truth that God is indeed sovereign. I don’t disagree with that truth, but I do disagree with Bridges’ ultra-Reformed application of it.

In it, praying for healing – or much of anything else – appears to be a non-starter, except as a means of beating our emotions into submission. “Wrestling” with issues like natural disasters appears to mean “It’s OK to feel bummed, but you’d better disconnect from those emotions after…uh…a fairly short amount of time perhaps best determined by the amount of media coverage the event is receiving in order to return to the Truth, which is, that God is Sovereign. Please drive around to window two with your exact change. Have a nice day.”

To question beyond that point is to dishonor God: “…just as God’s will is to take precedence over our will…so God’s honor is to take precedence over our feelings.“ In a discussion about how the sovereignty of God is at work in the wicked actions of others, Bridges writes, “Is someone ‘out to get you’? That person absolutely cannot execute his malicious plan unless God had first decreed it…if God permits it, it is because the ungodly action is part of God’s plan…”

Forests have given their lives in service to books fueling the debate about what the sovereignty of God is, and how malleable his will may or may not be. You and I can swap Bible verses on the subject until we’re blue in the face, and we will not resolve the question. At some point, we have to surrender to the fact that we flesh-bound, limited humans can’t comprehend the mystery in these questions. I like to think Jerry Bridges would completely agree with me on that, though we would have arrived at this destination via two wildly different routes. Suffice it to say, I am not in Jerry Bridges’ theological camp.

I share my reactions to Trusting God in this space because it didn’t take me long to discover that the ideas presented in the book have left some serious wreckage in their wake. After reading a few chapters, I figured I’d query my corner of the internet world with a tweet a couple of weeks ago. “If you’ve ever read Jerry Bridges’ ‘Trusting God’, could you please message me? I have a couple of questions for you. Thanks!” One theologian told me that she appreciated the book because its Reformed perspective on the issue was stronger on theology than therapy. I told her in response I was troubled by Bridges’ stunning lack of empathy for his readers.

And then I received a series of emails from two people who reported that the book’s content had done deep damage to their trust in God. The first wrote,

“At the time (I first read the book upon my pastor’s recommendation), I was comforted with a sense that the world wasn’t out of control, and that no one was in charge but God, if that makes sense.” She referenced the spiritual and sexual abuse she’s experienced in her life, then said, “That would mean that He ordained/approved of/sent (the abusers). In the end, Michelle, that makes him a Monster god, and I have had to go through a MAJOR faith shift…coming to atheism in monster god…to begin to love again the True God, who does not authorize rape or abuse or injustice. That’s Satan, not God. Let’s don’t get the two confused…”

The second person’s reaction from a young ministry wife, was even more visceral. After the death of a beloved child, a friend offered to go through Trusting God  with her in hopes of comforting her. Instead, she wrote, “…the book made me desperate to hide my other children from the sovereign God I was supposed to be trusting.  The anxiety I felt was crippling and I’m just now getting to a point where I can even talk about it.”

Now we can debate whether these responses have anything to do with the book, but that’s not the point. The point is that our ideas have consequences. I am a layperson with a healthy respect for the work of (some) theologians and teachers. Part of that healthy respect means reminding these people – and myself as a writer! – that our pronouncements of theological truth had better be couched in humble recognition that ideas presented with prideful certainty and systematic slicing and dicing of Scripture in order to support a thesis statement we ourselves generated has consequences. In the case of Bridges’ book, a basic tenet of Christian belief, that God is sovereign, became an assault weapon due to its harsh, ungracious tone and an over-reliance on one set of supporting Scriptures and a neglect of engaging those that contradict or challenge those ideas.

Have you ever read or recommended a Christian book – a “classic”, like Trusting God – and found that it left decidedly non-redemptive pain and confusion in its wake? How so?

 

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About Michelle Van Loon
  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    Never read the book, but your description of it makes me compare it to Job’s friends. What would Bridges say about Job’s own near-incessant demands that he is suffering and God better do something about it? It’s an interesting series of dialogs he has with his “miserable comforters” when you consider that God himself concluded that Job never spoke wrongly of him throughout.

    Cheers,
    Tim

    • Michelle Van Loon

      So true, Tim.
      Bridges might say something like “Come on. Straighten up and fly straight, Job. God is sovereign.”
      (Please, Lord, save me from being one of Job’s friends in person or in print!)

      • Tony Marseglia

        Michelle, I am confident Bridges would not respond like that (See my comments below). I really do appreciate you and several of those who have responded to your article saying we need to be empathetic, but to say Bridges would say, “Come on. Straighten up and fly straight, Job. God is sovereign” is just not accurate and therefore unfair. I have noticed that some have said someone gave them the Bridges book as counsel for going through a particularly painful experience. The insensitivity here is not Bridges, but the person who just assumes handing someone a book will be the answer.

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  • http://www.kimkarpeles.com Kim

    Another book by Jerry Bridges, “Pursuing Holiness”, caused a ruckus in a small group I attend. In essence, Bridges taught that spiritual growth and transformation comes as we strive, work hard and pursue change. Sort of a Nike, “Just Do It” approach to sanctification.

    Brief references were made to the role of the Holy Spirit in the process, but he played second fiddle to the will and determination of the individual to make things happen. I would cite quotes and examples from the book, but I tossed it.

    Disagreement with the author’s broad, sweeping conclusions provided fodder for discussion and created growth points for our group. Some gained critical thinking and analytic skills. They were accustomed to accepting “church approved” curriculum without question and grew to like challenging a writer though it first was uncomfortable. As a group we quit the book at the half-way point and moved on to a new study.

    I’m glad we were studying the book in community; studying it alone could have caused damage.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Kim, I like hearing about the way the book worked on your group – actually freeing them to think, rather than simply parroting the party line. Do you remember what it was like when someone broke the ice with a question that challenged something in the book? Did you sense fear or just a little “ah-ha!” in the group?

    • Tony Marseglia

      Kim, The Pursuit of Holiness was one of the first if not the first book Jerry Bridges ever wrote. Ten years or so later he would write Transforming Grace, and then later The Discipline of Grace, and then later The Transforming Power of the Gospel. These last three are very different from The Pursuit of Holiness, yet try to deal with our personal holiness through grace and the love of God. Essentially they are saying we cannot grow in holiness unless we are believing that God loves us and forgives us and sees us as righteous as Christ and that we can be honest with our sin because of God’s grace. He himself admits that early on he had an understanding of discipleship that was more works oriented than grace oriented. I think if you read some of his later works you might be pleasantly surprised. I am one of those who read Pursuit of Holiness many years ago and just found it oppressive. But his later works are liberating. I think the reason “Pursuit” is still on the shelves might be a publisher thing rather than Bridges’ desire (just my opinion). Bridges is an example of a man who has grown in grace over the years.

  • Pat

    I’ve never read the book, but have read at least one of Bridge’s other books. One thing that I have found since moving in with my mother several months ago is that some of it is theological but I think some is generational. My mother is 82 and she comes out of that school of thought that doesn’t give much credence to feelings other than we should suck it up. I, having been raised in that environment, have come to the conclusion in recent years that though that may have worked for a time for some people, it doesn’t work for me. Case in point: We live in the general vicinity of the Chardon shooting which happened last year and the young shooter was sentenced to prison the other day. If you saw any of the news coverage, you know that he smirked and laughed throughout the victim impact statements and even revealed a shirt with the word “Killer” on it and flipped off the families. In talking about this, my mother mentioned how sin has a ripple effect; that his sin caused the families to sin by the things they expressed in their statements. I told her I wouldn’t be so quick to pronounce they had sinned and that was something we could debate, but rather they were expressing human emotions.

    I happen to think God is big enough to handle our raw, unbridled emotions in the face of human tragedies and as He knows the heart, He knows when we’re speaking out of the depths of our hurts. Fortunately, He is always at the ready to comfort and soothe versus passing along trite advice that we should swallow our feelings. We must remember He is touched with the feelings of our infirmity and it was Christ Himself in the agony of the garden who pleaded for the cup to pass. If that wasn’t a moment of raw emotion, I don’t know what is.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Pat, my heart is with all of those in your area as you’ve all been affected by last year’s shooting. Many sorrowed anew with those in your community as the shooter’s appearance in court this week was so stunning.

      I like your point about the generational differences in the way we process (or deny) emotions, as well as acknowledging that God can handle even our most raw emotions. We see His emotions on display from beginning to end in Scripture, and he made us in his likeness, emotions and all. But many of those in your mom’s age bracket were raised to put nose to grindstone, buck up and fly straight, no matter what. There is something to be said for this discipline (the fruit of the Spirit is self-control, after all – but often, the kind of discipline the Greatest Generation has in mind is more a work of the flesh). I am with you on engaging, rather than burying, those emotions.

      Thanks for writing!

      • Pat

        Absolutely, Michelle. Believe me, it’s been a real eye-opener on the Greatest Generation living with my mother and while we’re having good conversations, I’m also learning how much to push the envelope. I know that both of us are trying to be faithful to the faith as we understand it and so I try to exercise grace, but it’s not always easy when that button is pushed me knowing how it feels to have one’s feelings disregarded.

  • http://activefaith.wordpress.com Stephen Enjaian

    Hello Michelle,

    I have not read Bridges’ book, but my sister did. She died of cancer last November after being ravaged by it for 13 years. She read it before the onset of her cancer and appreciated its guidance in preparing her for her suffering. She recommended it in a talk she often gave called, “Preventing Spiritual Breakdown when Disaster Strikes,” the notes for which are available on her Bright Hope ministry website. If you’re interested in a little more of her remarkable story, you can read on my blog.

    It’s sad that some have a negative reaction to the book. Based on my sister’s comments, I think you might be miscontruing and overreacting. At least consider a different perspective.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Stephen – Please accept my deepest condolences on your loss. I looked at your sister’s website (brighthopeministries.org), and her faith and courage shine in her testimony.

      I don’t doubt that some have been strengthened, as your sister was, by Jerry Bridges’ book. After all, it’s been continuously in print for more than two decades.

  • Tony Marseglia

    From Trusting God by Jerry Bridges p. 53: “Above all, we need to be very sensitive about instructing someone else in the sovereignty of God and encouraging that person to trust God when he or she is in the midst of adversity or pain. It is much easier to trust in the sovereignty of God when it is the other person whom it was said, ‘A bruised reed he will not break’ Matt. 12:20. Let us not be guilty of breaking a bruised reed (a heavy heart) by insensitive treatment of the heavy doctrine of the sovereignty of God.” Michelle, this quote was only 53 pages into the book. I don’t understand why you did not include this in your article. He also writes on p. 11, “Trusting God is written for the average Christian who has not necessarily experienced major catastrophe but who does frequently encounter the typical adversities and heartaches of life: the pregnancy miscarriage, the lost job, the auto accident, the rebellious son or daughter, the unfair professor in college. These events do not make the ‘front page’ of our lives; indeed, they are often buried within a broken or confused heart. Because of their low-keyness they usually generate very little prayer support form our Christian friends. I sincerely hope that none of the statements I make in the following chapters come across as glib and easy answers to the difficult problems of adversity and suffering. There are no easy answers. Adversity is difficult even when we know God is in control of our circumstances. In fact, that knowledge sometimes tends to aggravate the pain.” I feel that you have not adequately represented Jerry Bridges or this particular book of his. He attempts to grapple with some very difficult issues, primarily the abundance of biblical passages on God’s sovereignty, especially as it relates to our suffering. He said early on he was not trying to give answers or counsel to things that go beyond “the typical adversities and heartaches of life.” I think that you are correct that maybe because of his generation he might not be as empathetic in his writing as many in younger generations would prefer. But isn’t it our responsibilities as readers to receive what certain books have to offer without making villains of them for what they don’t. Let’s read broadly. Bridges gives solid theology. Maybe we can read Brennan Manning, Dan Allender, Eldrige, Larry Crabb or whoever else we need to for a more “empathetic ” read. Having read your article and the quotes that follow I am sad to see Jerry Bridges getting such an unfair response.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Tony, I appreciate your replies. I am so glad to hear that you found Bridges to moderate a bit in his later works.

      I, too, read the words you quoted above, and understood his intent to be in aiming his talk about God’s sovereignty to those who aren’t facing serious crisis in their lives. However, one person’s “typical adversity of life” might be another person’s Level 10 crisis. For me, his tone in presenting his theological position was troubling. But the theological ideas themselves have done serious damage to some very conservative, committed Christians who took the time to write me, which amplified my own concerns about the content of the book.

  • James Petticrew

    Have a look at some of Roger Olson’s writing about Calvinism, what Olson shows is what is really at stake in when the God of 5 point Calvinism is pushed as the only possible understand of God is in fact not predestination or divine determinism but the actual character of God himself. I think your experience shows this to be true

  • SD

    I haven’t read this book, but I’ve read similar books (Yancy’s Disappointment with God and even Lewis’ Problem with Pain) and generally found them unhelpful because, in the end, they all seem to say that , meh, that’s just the way it is. God knows what’s best and we don’t know why you lost life’s lotto and got pain and suffering while your neighbor didn’t. Suck it up and trust God.

    It’s easier and less painful for me to believe that there is a complete randomness to life, and my suffering is just the luck of the draw. Believing that a sovereign God could do something to help me but chooses not to is simply too much to bear.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      SD, you’ve read what I’d say were a couple of the more gracious treatments on this issue, and I respect where you’ve landed as a result.

      Because we don’t know – and can’t know – how life’s lotto works, I have found myself in the same place you are: struggling to reconcile the question of suffering with the sovereignty of God. Your words, “Believing that a sovereign God could do something to help me but chooses not to is simply too much to bear” has been the kind of longing for a good God that has ironically led me back to trust in the loving, just character of God. However, my trust also carries a measure of “I don’t understand and can’t know” (distrust? uncertainty?) with it. If God is God, then he can work the paradox of my “distrusting trust” and not be repelled by it.