Earlier this month the news came out that Bart Campolo, son of the very famous evangelical, Tony Campolo, no longer considers himself a Christian, but a secular humanist.
I paid attention to the news because I had met Bart at the height of his inner-city ministry. His message changed how I thought about living out my faith. And when I read about the journey that led him away from the cross of Christ and towards the arms of humanism, I understood it all too well.
I read the HuffPost article Sunday afternoon after listening to a sermon on Job that morning. We are working our way through the book, examining a biblical perspective on suffering. I listened with tears in my eyes, feeling the light of understanding shine in some very dark corners of my soul.
From the account that I read, it seems that the Church failed Bart by offering a thin theology of suffering. A lifelong Christian, son of a world-renown pastor, and educated in his own right, Bart could not reconcile the suffering he encountered with the loving God he thought he knew. I know that this is where the church has failed me.
The Church – mainly the American church – has a shallow theology of suffering while the prosperity gospel runs deep. Too often people dealing with inexplicable pain are left lacking. The prevailing message (in church and in our culture in general) is that good things come to good people—so what does that mean when suffering beats down your door? What is the faithful response?
For Bart, the article says his departure began when a church told a girl who was gang raped that it was somehow God’s will. For me, it began when I was helping some refugees seek asylum in the United States and I read their accounts of torture.
My education about human suffering continued as I worked in the relief and development field. I saw suffering I could not reconcile with a loving God. And when two friends and mentors of mine were buried in the rubble of Haiti’s earthquake, suffered long, and died difficult deaths, the first nail in the coffin of my faith was hammered deep.
My path follows Bart’s only this far. I did distance myself from God for a time, although I knew God did not stray far from me. God’s presence was palpable: when I was married, when my son was born two months early, when the right kinds of provision came to our family at just the right time. I knew God was there; we just weren’t on speaking terms.
I sought help, understanding and comfort in my church and among my Christian friends, and there were only platitudes in response. My pain, my questions made people uncomfortable. I don’t blame them, my encounters with deep suffering left my faith fractured and I wouldn’t want to draw someone else who was ill-prepared down with me.
Do we know how to sit with someone who is suffering – not just from a bad day, but someone whose child has cancer, or loved one was murdered, or has survived atrocity beyond our imagination? Do our wells of faith run deep enough to hear their stories and listen to their questions? Can we sit with them in their sorrow, even when we have no answers? Are we willing to journey with people who are hurting deeply without fear that it’ll shatter our own understanding of who God is?
We need a theology of suffering that goes deeper than platitudes and is rooted in God’s infinite, incomprehensible and unwavering love. Without it our faith is thin and vulnerable. God did not fail Bart, the Church’s rose-colored glasses did.