Recently I was speaking with a Nigerian pastor about current attitudes towards adversity in life. I have seen many concerned about the effect of prosperity teaching on African Christians, and this pastor certainly practices an approach to ministry that is full of faith. But he also accepts the reality that there will be adversity in life, that bad things will come along, even to God’s faithful.
That reminded me of a song that we used to sing in the Texas A&M Newman Association, the Dameans’ “Without Clouds:”
(Personally, I think our Texas-raised musicians did a better performance job than those, ahem, across the Sabine, but I digress…)
The refrain is as follows:
“Without clouds, the rain can’t wash the land
Without rain, the grass won’t hide the sand
Without grass, the flower’s bloom won’t grow
Without pain, the joy in life won’t show”
When I first heard this, I was going through Aquinas’ Summa, and he makes the following observation about the effect of adversity on the just:
“Justice and mercy appear in the punishment of the just in this world, since by afflictions lesser faults are cleansed in them, and they are the more raised up from earthly affections to God. As to this Gregory says (Moral. xxvi, 9): “The evils that press on us in this world force us to go to God.” (Summa Theologiae, Ia, 21.4 ad 3)
The emphasis is a little different in each, but the root idea is the same: adversity has the potential for good to come out of it. I came to know this as “Without Clouds Theology.”
Many secularists (including newly minted ones like Bart Campolo) have disliked this whole concept, but what’s disturbing to me is that, in the intervening time, many American Christians have come to dislike it too. Oh, they won’t say it directly, but we have the plague of “Open Theology,” and torturous attempts to explain the problem such as The Shack. The simple fact of the matter is that too many American Christians have adopted the idea that life should be free of adversity or pain.
This idea didn’t come out of the blue; it comes from the culture, a culture that leads the church more often than the other way around. To a large extent that belief has destabilised our culture and our country. We can’t even stand the idea of people disagreeing with us let alone inflicting real pain; both UC Berkeley and Middlebury College saw violence to keep up a “safe space” for their true believers. (You’d think that someone would point out that a group of white people with Murray’s supposedly higher IQ would have more to show for it then they do, but I digress…)
Now, of course, we have those who consider the Passion of Our Lord as “child abuse,” since the Father willed that the Son go to the Cross for the salvation of all people. It never occurs to people like this that, to be in the “happy” state where they are, those in the past have sacrificed and suffered in a secular sense. And those who did suffer and sacrifice knew that such was necessary to carry out what needed to be done.
It is in this context that the suitability of Our Lord’s saving act on the Cross must be seen. It’s a reminder that the adversity of his suffering and death lead to the victory on Easter morning. In the past the general state of life reminded people of the necessity of the Passion; now the accomplishment of the Passion must not only be the road to salvation, but also a reminder that the road to victory often runs through the land of pain, suffering and adversity.
Seeing, therefore, that there is on every side of us such a throng of witnesses, let us also lay aside everything that hinders us, and the sin that clings about us, and run with patient endurance the race that lies before us, our eyes fixed upon Jesus, the Leader and perfect Example of our faith, who, for the joy that lay before him, endured the cross, heedless of its shame, and now ‘has taken his seat at the right hand’ of the throne of God. (Heb 12:1-2 TCNT)