Note: Philip Yancey has been a leading Evangelical journalist for more than 30 years, writing books such as Where Is God When It Hurts? SmallGroups.com had the chance to speak with Philip regarding his most recent book, What Good Is God?
This is Part 2 of a two-part article. To see Part 1, click here.
Here's a quote from chapter 1, which focuses on the tragedy at Virginia Tech: "Do not attempt healing alone. Rely on the people in this room, the staff of this church, and other members of Christ's body in your hometown. True healing of deep connective tissue takes place in community." Can you elaborate on that a little more?
Dr. Paul Brandt often said that "the healthiest body is a body that attends to the pain of the weakest part." He was a person who dealt with pain all of his life—people who have leprosy destroy themselves because they don't feel pain. And he was saying that a healthy body is not a body that doesn't feel pain; quite the reverse. A healthy body is a body that responds to pain.
And so in a situation like the earthquake in Haiti or Hurricane Katrina or whatever, the church should be on the ground as part of the first wave of response. Thankfully, in those situations the church got it right—Haiti and Katrina are two great examples of Christian agencies who did show up, which is a sign of health.
Tragedies occur, pain occurs, massacres occur as in Virginia Tech. We can't undo that. We can't really prevent that. But we can respond to it together as a community and be factors in the healing. That's really how you measure the health of a spiritual body.
How can a group of Christians get to a place where they don't have to pretend that everything is okay? In order to heal, for example, or even just to get through regular life—how do we get over this American habit of always having to present a good front?
I don't think it's hard. What it takes is one courageous person, usually—somebody who just cuts through everything and takes the risk of saying, "You guys all look like you have things together here. Frankly, my life's a mess. Let me tell you what's going on." And whenever I personally have been involved in a situation like that, other people have responded and said, "Oh, I'm so glad you said that. Actually my life's even worse than yours right now."
But it takes a person that you respect, typically, to break that ice—to take the courageous first step and encourage vulnerability. When people start talking it's amazing what does come out.
Most of the situations and circumstances you write about are pretty extraordinary. So as I sit here in suburban Chicago, I'm wondering what good is God in the normal process of everyday life? What can we apply when we don't have bombs or prostitutes or massacres, but just grocery stores and kids and grudges?
I learn by looking at the large print and then applying it down to my own life. So yes, hopefully we don't go through those kinds of extreme things that are mentioned in the book. But we may lose our job. A child may get sick. A parent may be afflicted with Alzheimer's. As a journalist, I've found that it's from the extraordinary that we prepare for the more ordinary things we face in life.
So I think the principles I have learned in these extreme situations do apply directly to my life. For one thing, it's easy for my problems to feel out of control, and it can be helpful for me to realize that other people are going through issues that are really out of control. Maybe I'm concerned about an issue in my church, for example, and then I see what the people in the underground church in China face every day. It gives me a whole different perspective on the world, which is healthy. And then I can learn something about the faith of the people in China and apply it to my own life. I wish American Christians, for example, had some of the attitude toward politics that the Chinese church does. It's easy for us to think, Oh, if we don't get the right Supreme Court justices, God is finished with this country. No. That's not true at all. Here's an atheist government in China and the greatest revival in the history of the world has broken out there—is still breaking out. It helps me get a better perspective.
You mentioned the "tabletop test" earlier. Would it be fair to say that the regular problems and the regular crises of faith that we have in our individual lives count as a tabletop test just as much as these extreme situations?
Yes. Maybe they are a "coffee tabletop test"—it doesn't drop quite as far.
Hebrews 11 is a great example of that, because it lists different people who faced extreme trials—people like Abraham and Moses and Rahab—and then it talks about others who "faced jeers" or were imprisoned for their faith. You have giants of the faith right next to regular people, which makes it a beautiful example of what I've been talking about—the same principles of faith apply to both. That's the point of that chapter. This is what faith is, and it makes a difference in your life as well.
If you could say one thing to all of the small-group leaders who will end up reading this one day, what would it be?
I'm thinking through my own small-group experience, and what I have learned is that people initially think that a small group will fail if somebody pushes them too far and things get risky. But in my experience, at least, the opposite is true. The small groups I've been involved in that failed did so because we didn't push far enough, but stayed at the surface and became a social group—a kind of book club or tea-and-discussion group. Well, there's a place for those. I'm in some of those myself. But hopefully a small group like you are describing would go beyond that.
So I would just encourage the leaders to keep pushing. People are starved for intimacy in ways that we don't even know. And until you encounter it, until you touch it, you're not even aware that you have that gap or that void. Small groups are a beautiful and, in many cases, a safe place to encounter intimacy, which is something that a lot of people never experience.
Small groups go all the way back to John Wesley, but even in my lifetime I can remember being around Keith Miller and Bruce Larson and Lyman Coleman when they started this whole movement going. Keith Miller's book was called A Taste of New Wine, and it felt like a taste of new wine. It wasn't new, of course—my goodness, it's in the New Testament! But we have to keep learning it over and over again, and back in that day what they were proposing really did sound radical. And 50 years from now it's going to sound radical again. We have to just keep doing it. It's new wine. We have to keep finding new wineskins for it.
—Philip Yancey is author of What Good Is God? (FaithWords, 2010) and several author award-winning titles. Interview conducted by Sam O'Neal. Copyright 2010 by Christianity Today International.