I’ve been there—in the pit of cynicism and doubt. I’ve stood among the congregation, words caught in my throat, unable to sing. I’ve felt slighted by God, thinking it wrong of him to deny me what I felt I deserved. I’ve read the headlines, wondering how a good God can allow all of this hate and evil to exist.
This isn’t supposed to be a confession, but it’s starting to feel like one.
For some, such thoughts inspire a cynicism that takes over and suffocates faith. For others it demands answers, biblical knowledge, and fuels the journey to a more robust faith. But what about those stuck in the middle, speechless among the congregation, feeling isolated and without hope? In his new book, God Over Good: Saving your Faith by Losing Your Expectations of God, Luke Norsworthy aims to reach those muted believers, those who feel like they cannot express their doubts and still remain accepted in the church. Doubt is messy, and Christians are never supposed to be messy, right?
The Power of Story
Norsworthy delves into the depths of grief and suffering, particularizing them in stories of pain and loss. His storytelling is by far the highlight of the book, as they reveal the underlying emotion of these struggles. Now, I have to acknowledge that Norsworthy and I come from very different backgrounds theologically. He critiques the church throughout, but as someone on the outside of evangelicalism it’s apparent to me that his critiques are targeted most directly at the church culture he knows. (And for the record, we all do this.)
For example, Norsworthy relays his upbringing in a church that claimed to have all of the answers. Yet as he grew older and began wrestling with certain parts of the Old Testament, it almost destroyed his faith. He explains that in a seminary class, “I saw the Old Testament’s flippant lack of concern for what I needed the Old Testament to be.” Things like historical inconsistencies, problems with dating, and most of all, God’s command for genocide. Those embryonic doubts found a footing in his experiences with unanswered prayer regarding a chronic illness and the premature death of a friend from childhood. While I can relate to his experience, I have never shared the framework that says, “I have all the answers.” Nonetheless, Norworthy’s storytelling is powerful enough to draw readers alongside him throughout each anecdote.
Story plays an even more prominent role in the chapter, “Story, Not Answer.” By emphasizing story, Norsworthy hope to show how God himself entered history—into our story. He writes, “In Jesus, God stepped into darkness, into the absence of life and light, into pain and death. In Jesus, God was on the gallows, God was on the cross, God was in the tomb.” God is not abstract. He is not removed from our suffering. Norsworthy continues comfortingly, “But this is our story. God is in the darkness with us.” Although we may not have explicit answers to explain our suffering or its ultimate good, we can be certain that God himself has suffered for us.
People, Not Platitudes
You may recognize the popular phrases offered among church people in the wake of grief: “Everything happens for a reason.” “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” “All things work together for good.” Norsworthy rightly critiques these sayings, all the while acknowledging that such platitudes help some people. “While I don’t have any interest in tearing down what’s working for someone else, that doesn’t mean their answer is true. Functionality doesn’t equal veracity.” Through this lens, he provides a truly pastoral approach to helping others through suffering. When we engage with those who are grieving, it causes more harm to say “Actually, that’s not how this works,” instead of simply listening.
Suffering and doubt, Norsworthy explains, are better approached in community, even if we do not agree with the phrasing of some of the responses we receive. This may seem obvious, but it is so difficult in practice. It becomes a kind of ministry, one of denying ourselves the right to tell others how to endure suffering, or how to be comforted.
Let us no longer make God in our image.
Where Norsworthy and I diverge is in our view of scripture. It’s clear that he believes the Bible is true because it testifies to Jesus, but that seems to be the extent of his commitment to its truthfulness: “As scripture tells us, Jesus is the true word of God. Jesus is what is infallible.” As evidence for his view, he points to the problems scripture poses to human reasoning, delving into both historical and theological contradictions. These contradictions, he argues, validate the text of scripture as one based on historical, human testimony rather than the text of a false religion, which would gloss over such inconsistencies.
Yet to emphasize Jesus as infallible without saying the same about scripture is an overly simple solution to a complex problem. Norsworthy argues that these contradictions do not destroy faith, but they would have destroyed mine. For years, I wrestled with doubts about the Bible, having grown up in a tradition that conveniently tossed out the texts it did not like. But the more I read the Bible, the more it became clear to me that everything was about Jesus—the Old and New Testaments, the prophets, the Psalms, all of it. It could not be the work of merely human hands, but that of God himself.
I believe Norsworthy’s argument is well-intended, but I could not refer to the word of God as something “contradictory.” The doctrines of inerrancy and infallibility do not elevate scripture to an oppressive, ivory tower status. Rather, they underscore the fact that God has orchestrated a plan of redemption and revealed it perfectly in the Bible. And while I agree that God’s word finds its validation in Jesus, the flippancy with which Norsworthy approaches the unresolved “contradictions” of scripture undermines the idea of its truthfulness.
God Over Good has much to offer in terms of helpful insights into suffering in the Christian life. Norsworthy has addressed a real problem spanning denominational divides, despite my disagreements with some of the particulars. His explanation of the benefits of community and spiritual disciplines is particularly helpful. Norsworthy makes a strong case against our preconceived notions of who we think God is and what he should be doing. He argues that they should be torn down. We are not called to make God in our image, but rather to see God for who he has revealed himself to be, which is articulated best in the revelation of Jesus Christ who entered into our world, died on the cross, and rose from the grave.