Taking the Dave Test? Learn to Tell the Truth

A couple of months ago I read, enjoyed, and endorsed Frederick W. Schmidt's new book The Dave Test. You can find my judgment on the back cover, just beneath Phyllis Tickle's: it is a beautiful and well-written book on the most important question we wrestle with in life and faith, the problem of death and suffering, especially the death and suffering of faithful people.

Phyllis Tickle's endorsement cuts to the core of what is important about The Dave Test—Fred Schmidt's call for honesty in how we see God, speak of grief, and accept the hardships that are a natural part of life on earth. In the various chapters of the book, Fred Schmidt bounces things off the experience of his brother Dave, who lived with a verdict of terminal cancer and who came to find most of the well-meaning religious responses to his illness inauthentic, if not actually hurtful.

Thus the chapters call for revisions in the way we understand God, the way we accompany those who are suffering, the way we talk to them—and talk about their suffering. At the most basic level, this book is about being willing to ask ourselves hard questions, interrogate our faith, and learn to accept the answers we find as actually more helpful—and more comforting—than the hollow bromides we are often offered.

This is a book about telling the truth about what is actually happening, where God is in that happening, and how we deal with that happening. It's for that reason that although every chapter contains worthwhile insights, I am most drawn to the chapter toward the book's end called "Can I Stop Blowing Smoke?" Fred is actually being a little gentle in his language here; for a book that acknowledges the rawness of its language in its subtitle and on the back cover, "blowing smoke" stops a little short of the actual phrase. What Dave was saying to Fred about the well-meaning Christians who were trying to convince him that his terminal cancer was actually a good thing, whether he himself went this far, is that they were blowing smoke up his ass.

That they were bullshitting him—even if their bullshit came tied up in a pink ribbon.

That people who are suffering—or those who are watching them suffer—often do not tell the on-the-ground truth about that reality.

Disease sucks. Despair sucks. Death sucks. Losing something important to you sucks. The end of anything you care about sucks. And yet so much of our religious language seeks to insert meaning where there may be no meaning, or conversely to absolve God of a responsibility God doesn't even own.

To say God is testing someone—or that God has a better plan for someone—or that God will not give someone more than they can handle—all of these familiar statements are blowing smoke because they all come out of views of God that are desperate to remove God from blame. (Seminary professor Fred notes how use of the last phrase, drawn from 1 Corinthians 10:13, badly misreads both the context and the original Greek of the passage, which is actually referring to temptation and the Children of Israel, p. 80.)

Here are the things we know: God loved us enough to create us. God loves us enough to offer a way to relationship, in this life and in whatever follows. God calls us to be loving and just, for we are made in the image of a loving and just God. And as Fred constantly notes (and I concluded in my book on forming a theology of grief), God accompanies us in our suffering, even if God does not alleviate that suffering.

It is blowing smoke to tell someone dying of cancer that he or she is going to get better simply because God wants the best for him or her.

It is blowing smoke to tell someone who has lost a child in an accident that God is simply testing her and she will emerge a better person for it.

It is blowing smoke to tell someone suffering from chronic serious depression that if he would only pray harder, he would get better. (I should know.)

It is blowing smoke to tell someone suffering from economic hardship that they are in control of their destiny, if they will only pray or think in a certain way.

Living up to the Dave Test demands two things. First, it asks that we be honest to the on-the-ground reality of a person's experience. Suffering does not feel like a blessing, even of wisdom and other goods emerge from it. Second, it asks that we walk alongside that person and offer the comfort of our presence, not of spurious words intended as comfort.

When I began my 400-hour chaplaincy in Austin's trauma care hospital, I was most worried about what I would say. How would I help people make sense of their experience? What words would I find to comfort family members and victims of illness of accident.