I have had silent seasons of utter disbelief in God. As someone who has been in full-time ministry since I was 18 years old, I never had the courage to tell anyone this. I was afraid that I would be dismissed in ministry. I was also afraid of how that disbelief might transfer over to those I was expected to minister to. I thought that it was a responsibility of mine to courageously address the questions of the culture; to address them head-on as an apologist of the faith and give robust answers to the skeptics’ questions. I had done all of this within the context of a predominantly white upper-middle class evangelical context, a context that was still relatively new to me. I started to ask questions about the consumerism of our culture since every respected evangelical was critiquing this idol in our culture. I submitted that the gravest idol of the church was consumerism and individualism – two items that definitely plagued the white evangelical community within itself.
But during my Systematic Theology class I was introduced to James Cone, a black liberation theologian, who seemed to throw the questions at me that I had tucked away once I became a Christian. He started to ask questions about white supremacy in the church and I began to see the white evangelical church through new lenses. I started to ask myself, “Would my home church ever accept me as their senior pastor? Why is our leadership predominantly white even though we boast of having a diverse congregation? Would they be comfortable with a predominantly black pastoral leadership with a few token white leaders? What would they say if they knew I was thinking about these questions? How does leadership in the evangelical church reflect the cultural norms of our American context? How come no one else questions these things? Why is CS Lewis a hero of evangelicalism? Why is Jim Elliot? Why is Billy Graham? Why are many evangelicals hell-bent on reminding me that Martin Luther King, Jr. cheated on his wife (something that the FBI leaked to defame him) and not preoccupied with the sin of these other men?”
I started to think about the black ghettos that I had grown up in and I began reading more feverishly on their formation. I already had classes on Chicago’s ghettos, but I wanted to learn more. I wanted to dive deeper into the ways that the structure of ghettos shaped attitudes and cultural norms that we didn’t question, in or out of the church. I started reading more liberation theology, secular philosophers and sociologists who could take me places white church leaders were unable or unwilling to venture.
Then my world came crumbling down. Everything that I had learned about Christianity had come from white American evangelicals who had inherited a narrative of disbelief and ignorance at best; or, at worst, they totally rejected or held an apathetic spirit towards the sociological issues I raised. Some had gone so far to suggest that liberation theologians were heretics and that I should caution my reading of them. Others suggested that the most important thing in a person’s life is whether or not they’ll go to heaven. I didn’t know what to believe anymore. So I didn’t.
God became a psychological and philosophical construct that I had built in order to make sense of things. Everything that I had learned from theology, especially white theology, was false. People would ask me to lead out in prayer and I didn’t want to; I hated it. I didn’t believe in prayer. I didn’t believe in praying to a white man’s God who ignored the plight of the poor and alleviated their guilt. I didn’t believe that there was anything in my speech that could manipulate a divine being anyway – the whole thing was pointless. If there were a God, he wouldn’t be moved by my pious speech. He would just do what He knew was best.
As I became more attuned to the suffering of the world and the nonchalance of believers, the temptation to abandon my faith altogether became the most tenable option as a human being. Temptation is a real thing. Often times when we think of temptation, we generally think of sexual temptation; our desirous inclination to indulge in our lustful fantasies. That is one area of temptation, but the most pernicious forms of temptation comes from the enemy himself – the temptation to abandon the trustworthiness or goodness of the Almighty. The Book of Genesis records the first alluring temptation to doubt the trustworthiness of God:
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3. 1-9 NIV)
Genesis not only gives us the origins of our present existence in a world marred by suffering, poverty, oppression, and every various form of societal and individual evil; it also shows us that the gravest temptation that we have is living in a world that suggests it has better and more viable options than the ones God offers us. God had given Adam and Eve everything that they needed and placed only one restriction on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. But the serpent said that there was more to offer than what God had suggested. There was a world of endless possibilities! Today those options are worldviews, worldviews that suggest that they have the answer to the problem of suffering and evil in the world. Some of them suggest a full-blown disengagement with the world. The world is too evil and you will inevitably hurt yourself if you embrace it. Others suggest that the world has unlimited options of fulfilling our deepest desires and the only life to give is the one of total indulgence. Every worldview operates under the assumption that suffering does exist and that there are ways of avoiding it.
As I drove to church one Sunday morning, I played the audio of a sermon off of YouTube delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He began to talk about the death threats he was consistently receiving on a daily basis. He began to reflect on the reality of sin and evil in the world and tried to give “philosophical and theological reasons” for their reality. He said that in that moment “Religion had to become real to him and he had to know God for [himself].” He said that he called upon the Holy Spirit to give him the comfort, courage, and strength to “fight on” for justice, righteousness and truth. When I had reached the point of disbelief in my life, the voice of a martyr came back to revitalize my faith. Dr. King saved me from the nihilism, which didn’t seem like a philosophical option for me, but more of the framework that I suddenly adopted without question. The greatest temptation for every Christian is the philosophical idol.
I had a “pick up and read” moment like Augustine and I trusted Paul the Apostle once again who said,
“If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (1 Cor. 15.14)
If we cannot hope for the resurrection of those who have suffered unjustly, or the promise that God will re-create the world for those whom he raises up, then this world is a sad, miserable place. If the little black boys and girls who are confined to ghettos, funneled in the school-to-prison pipeline, relegated to second-class citizenship by virtue of their “felon” status and then die as a statistic, the resurrection would surely vindicate the preciousness of their lives. The resurrection was the assurance that, in fact, #BlackLivesMatter. If Christ was not raised to newness of life, then there was no hope for the forgotten black and brown boys in the ghettos and barrios of America. Though the temptation to deny the faith was stronger than ever before, Christ’s unjust suffering and death was redeemed and vindicated by God in the resurrection; I knew that every human who suffered unjustly would experience that same vindication. The resurrection of Jesus became my anchor for everything that I fought for. The world remained more and more persuasive; the enemy became more and more crafty, but God remained more and more faithful each step of the way.
When Christ was nailed to the cross, one of the men hanging next to him said,
“… Save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” (Matthew 27.40)
The temptation to take the easy way out was there before Christ, but suffering for the love of the world and alongside the world was the way Jesus took. May we embrace the world with courage, resolve and a hope that God will make up for where we lack in this life, and ultimately in Resurrected Life. May we resist the temptation to give up, lose hope and grow in bitterness, anger and hatred toward the oppressors of this world – knowing that the seeds of those attitudes will lead us towards a life of disbelief in the God who will restore all Creation. Let us resist the temptation to believe that we can and will save the world. Let us resist the temptation to turn ourselves into messiahs, martyrs and saviors of this world. Let us resist the temptation to take the easy way out and avoid the way of the cross. Let us #ReclaimHolyWeek for the unjustly suffered and hold tightly to the faith that promises resurrection and Newness of Life. I would like to close this reflection with a prayer that I wrote a couple of years ago. May it be our prayer together during this Lenten season.
*Prayer for the Week*
Make me into the human that I need to be for the world;
That will love the way that you love;
Who won’t shrink back from asking tough questions
Or give unreflective and half-hearted answers to them;
Who will cherish the personhood of everyone that I meet;
Deepen my heart for the poor and the downcast
And temper my passion against their oppressors
With a peace of mind and a gentle spirit
For it was for sinners that you died
And it is for sinners that you rose
Give me the courage to think deeply
And the strength to love diligently
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…
*Passages for the Week*
I Corinthians 15:14
–Matthew P. Vega