Disappointment with God: Philip Yancey
Why is God hidden? Silent? Unfair? Author Philip Yancey wrestles with all-too-real disappointment with God—and looks our questions in the eye.
About the Guest
- After Parkinson's Diagnosis, Philip Yancey Aims To Be Faithful, Grateful
- Visit Philip's blog at philipyancey.com
- Order Phillip's new book, Disappointment with God: Three Questions No One Asks Aloud
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Why is God hidden? Silent? Unfair? Author Philip Yancey wrestles with all-too-real disappointment with God—and looks our questions in the eye.
Disappointment with God: Philip Yancey
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Philip: The Bible assumes that the world was created good and even perfect, but it's been spoiled. It expects that things aren't going to work. It expects that there are going to be times of doubt and disappointment, and the Bible includes a lot of that.
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.
Dave: Alright, I just have to say, I was thinking about this just now. There's like probably two people in the world I'd want to get an autograph from.
Ann: Paul McCartney.
Dave: Well, you didn't have to say that.
Ann: [Laughter] Well, I know that one.
Dave: But you would have never thought the other one is sitting across the table from me.
Ann: I'm not surprised at all.
Dave: Philip Yancey is back in the studio at FamilyLife. Welcome back, Philip.
Philip: Thank you. My signatures don't come cheap.
Dave: Yes, okay, how much is it going to cost me? I mean, it's funny I say that. I never want an autograph.
Ann: But why Philip?
Dave: It's really because your books, and specifically the one we're going to talk about today, Disappointment with God, have shaped my faith. I'm so grateful. And so, the way you think, the way you write—I wish I was as smart as you—but I think in similar ways and so it’s impacted me greatly.
Ann: Which is interesting, Dave, because not only has it impacted you, but because it's impacted you, you then felt the freedom to share some of your doubts or the way you have wrestled with God in certain things to our congregation at church. How many people have come up to you to say “Thank you. I'm so glad I'm not the only one that has had those thoughts about God?”
Dave: Yes, think about this. I'm sure you know, as an author, maybe you don't think sometimes, “Who's reading and how's it impacting them?” I am doing a funeral for a woman I've never met. Her son, he was probably 31, 32 years old—long story short; strange relationship. I just talked to her on the phone, and she requested that I do the funeral. She now lives in Alabama, but what happened is her son walked away from the faith as a little boy, had mental issues, and was always in trouble. When he was about 27 years old, he reached back to his mom—they hadn't talked in five years—and said “I want to reconnect with you. I've got an idea. Could we watch a sermon every Sunday and talk about it? I need to find God again.”
Dave: She said, “My son said, ‘I want to watch Dave Wilson every Sunday and I'll call you,’” and so for—she said, “We had three years of a great relationship because my son connected to you.” You know why he connected to me? Because I was the preacher that said, “I still have questions that are hard to answer and that's okay, so let's journey together.” That's why he wanted to listen to me specifically, and I think that's because of your impact on my life.
So, in some ways, Philip, you've influenced—and she said to me on the phone the other day, “My son is in heaven because of those three years.” And that's partly because of you, Philip. I know you don't know me, and you don't know him, but think about the impact. You've sold over 17 million books, 25 written books. I just think Disappointment with God: Three Questions No One Asks Aloud, when I picked it up over 30 years ago. I'm like, “I've asked these questions. Nobody's ever said you could ask these questions.” If you can remember back,—I know it's been decades—what prompted you to write a book like Disappointment with God?
Philip: I tell the story, in that book, of a friend of mine. His name is Chuck Ohlrich and he had written a book called The Pain of God. It was published by InterVarsity and right before it was published—in fact too late to stop—he called Intervarsity Press and said, “You’ve got to stop this book because I don't believe it anymore.” And he actually went in his backyard, and he tore up the pages of his own book and the Bible and burned them, you know, in a steel barrel.
So he was my friend and I listened to him, and when he asked questions, they became my questions. People think writers write books about something they know about. We actually write books about something we don't know about because it gives us a chance to dive into it. [Laughter] I had been studying the Bible. I did this edition of the Bible called The Student Bible.
And then right before I started this book, I only read one book. I read the Bible. I read it all the way through. I started out by saying/my question was “Why is it that God sometimes acts in a very powerful fashion?” You know, the ten plagues of Egypt, Red Sea, Noah's flood—you know these kinds of things—the battles that the Israelites fought, Joshua, that kind of thing.
And then sometimes there'll be these gaps, like the ten plagues of Egypt came right after several hundred years of no activity at all. Then the prophets all appeared, and they said, “We're speaking for God. God told me this. God predicted this,” and then there was silence for another several hundred years before Jesus came. So why is it that God sometimes acts in a very dramatic visible way and then sometimes there are these times of silence?
I just started at Genesis and started reading and read all the way through. There's something about that combination of having gone through the detail, the verse-by-verse part, and then getting/stepping back and getting the 30,000-foot view—you know, the birds eye view, and something clicked for me. When I met with my friend Chuck, he had these kinds of normal complaints. Things weren't working out for him. He was losing his hair. His girlfriend had broken up with him—you know, just normal stuff - life. These weren't tragedies. It wasn't Stage 4 cancer.
Dave: You just had to throw in he's losing his hair. [Laughter] Talk about disappointment with God. Yes, you got that one.
Philip: He was in his 20s.
Dave: So was I by the way.
Philip: Oh, I see, okay. The more we talked he really gave me the outline for the book. He said, “The more I think about it, the questions I have boil down to three: Why is God silent? Why has God hidden? Why doesn't he just come clean? I mean, why isn't there a sign in the sky that says, ‘I exist,’ you know? And why is God unfair?” And so those were in the back of my mind when I read through the Bible.
One of the first things that came to my mind as I read the Old Testament is that those questions didn't really apply in the Old Testament. When the children of Israel were walking around in the desert, God wasn't hidden. There was a pillar of cloud in the daytime and a pillar of fire by night. There was a smoking, thundering Mount Sinai. God wasn't silent. God spoke audibly. People could hear God speak, and God wasn't unfair. He held out a contract; He said—and you go back and read Deuteronomy and Moses tells the people, “If you follow the covenant, then you will win all of your wars. You'll never get sick. You'll never have a drought or a famine. All your women will be fertile. All your cattle will be fertile.” This is great. [Laughter] Everything works. Wouldn't you take that gamble?
Dave: Oh yes.
Philip: But did it work? No. We don't look back on the time of wandering in the desert as a time of great faith. We look at it on a time of great failure. It's funny, we think if God would just act this way, it would create the circumstances where He'd be easier to believe.—didn't work out that way at all.
I came to the conclusion: what we think would solve our spiritual problems really did not, in the case of the Israelites and this went on for several thousand years—you know it's a long experiment. And then I concluded God doesn't really have anything to prove. God doesn't need to show up. That's not his ball game. God wants faith. God wants us to believe, even when we have reasons not to believe. And God is a spirit. You know we keep wanting God to interfere in our lives and to act on our terms. I think we're asked to do the opposite.
I thought of the Bible as a three-act play. The first act is God the Father, where He's very powerful, undeniable—just a force to be reckoned with but hard to get close to. Back in the wanderings in the Sinai, the only person who could stand toe to toe with God was Moses. He would disappear inside a tent, the tent of meeting, and when he came out, he'd be shining so brightly people would say, “Moses, put a veil over your face. We can't stand to look at you. It's hard to love a God like that.
Then you go to a disciple in the New Testament, you say, “What is God like?” “That's going to—it's hard to believe, but see that guy over there? His name is Jesus. I know he looks just like the rest of us, but He did things that—He stopped the storm. He raised the dead. He healed people. He said, ‘If you've seen Me, you've seen the Father,’ that's what God's like. God is like Jesus.”
And then if you ask today, “What is God like?” “Well, God is like the church.” Whoa, that's a scary thought.
Dave: [Laughter] Yes.
Philip: You go back to the New Testament and there are three times where God spoke in a way that everybody could hear, just like the Old Testament, and he said the same thing every time. He said, “This is my beloved son in whom I'm well pleased.” I think God is still saying that. Whenever we do something, God takes pleasure in it when we hit the right note—you know when we get across the kind of love and acceptance that we are supposed to show the rest of the world—the comfort.
I kind of got that as a three-act play. God in one sense being less like we think we want God to be. You know we want God to interfere all the time, even though when He did, it didn't work. And then more like, less powerful looking, but much more intimate, where God lives inside us, and Paul says the Spirit lives in you and knows the groans that you have as a human being that words can't even express, and the Spirit can. The Spirit represents those groans to the rest of the Godhead. So that's kind of the plot that I got.
Dave: That was two weeks just reading through it.
Philip: Yes, that’s all I did; read in the Bible.
Dave: I went to seminary and got a master’s, and I don't think I got that; [Laughter] that simple understanding. I remember, again, reading and now rereading Disappointment with God. A simple thought, and you just mentioned it, Philip, was God's visible presence did nothing to improve their lasting faith. So the question is: why? Why isn't that enough for us?
Philip: Because God's invisible and we're visible people and we just think reality is stuff that we can look at under a microscope. That's a pretty modern concept though.
For most of history, every tribe, every group of people in the world that anthropologists have ever studied have an idea of God—differing ideas of God but they all understand that there's a large force worthy of worship. They all have an advanced religion, which is pretty amazing actually—thousands of different groups of people.
I guess the question is: How do you get—if you're a parent, how do you get your kids to love you? You can give them commands: “You better love me; You listen to me; You better love me.”
Dave: That works really well. [Laughter]
Dave: But that's one option, yes.
Philip: That's one option. I think God ultimately knows that's the best way to express love is human to human. So He came; became one of us. I mean imagine the God of the universe—a trillion galaxies out there at last count—becoming one of these little two-legged ornery human beings just to show what God is like and what we should be like. And then he dies, and it looks like the end of the world, but it's the beginning of the world. And now it's up to us to show the world what God is like. That's the charge.
Ann: I think a lot of us—I did especially new in my faith—I had a hard time connecting that God of the Old Testament, who feels like he's smiting people, and then Jesus, they feel very different.
Ann: I have found this now as I'm getting older, and I've read through the Bible more, I'm seeing the love and mercy of the God of the Old Testament more than the God that is just the God of judgment and wrath.
Philip: It’s there; you’re so right, Ann. It’s a love story, but it’s a love story between the God who created the universe and ordinary human beings. When God expressed Himself as Spirit, which is the era we’re living in now, Jesus left but He left behind the Spirit. He said, “Unless I go, the counselor won't come to you,” but the counselor can come. God is infinite, and God can express that love and that comfort one-on-one with everybody in the world because God is infinite. He can do that. He's got that capacity.
Dave: You know it's interesting, when you say that, I know that is true and yet you even say in Disappointment with God, often our questions of “Why is God unfair or silent or hidden?” is personal.
Dave: It isn't just why is God unfair, silent, or hidden? Why has He been unfair, silent and hidden in my life? And so, I know scripture, I know Jesus and yet there's still times where you struggle to apply the God who took on human flesh and died for our sin and rose from the dead, who literally lives in us by His Spirit to answer those questions. It's personal because we still feel at times, He's unfair, silent and hidden.
Philip: Yes, a couple of things. The world is full of beauty. It's full of goodness. It's full of wonder. I live in Colorado. There are these wild animals around. They're just/they all fit together. It works. But it's been spoiled.
I asked myself, “Why didn't the Bible answer that question more directly?” Like C.S. Lewis wrote a book called The Problem of Pain. Why didn't somebody in the Bible write a book about explaining why God doesn't do this or does do that? The Bible assumes that the world was created good and even perfect, but it's been spoiled so it expects that things aren't going to work. It expects that there are going to be times of doubt and disappointment. The Bible includes a lot of that, and Job would be the most outstanding example.
One thing I've learned as I study the Bible and as I study life, people I've interviewed over the years, it's become almost a mantra to me that pain redeemed impresses me more than pain removed. Pain redeemed; that's the pattern we get in the Bible. But what I found among the people I've interviewed; I remember so clearly. One of the first articles I ever wrote as a young journalist was of this young woman about my age who hoped to be in the Olympics. She was riding horses. She was an equestrian and she had an accident. She had a diving accident and had a broken neck.
When I interviewed her, you know, I'm like, “I'm a young man, I don't know, I don't know how to act.” Here's this one telling me her story and she starts crying. Then she stops and says, “Philip, would you mind going into the bathroom and getting me a Kleenex and wipe my tears?” Oh, okay; so I go and do that and then she kind of falls apart. She says, “I am so ashamed. I can't imagine going through life like this. I can't do anything on my own. I can't go to the bathroom on my own. I can't even/I can't walk. I can't move my arms. I can't even cry on my own. How can I go through life like this?”
Well, the woman's name was Joni Eareckson became Joni Eareckson Tada. I was with her after 50 years of celebrating her ministry, and I heard her say “The best day of my life was the day that I dove into Chesapeake Bay and broke my neck. Because up until then I was just chasing the American dream, hoping I had a family of kids in a van and some horses running around and God gave me a calling to call the church back to care for the disabled.” I mean that's it's an extreme example, but it's a beautiful example because I had heard her say, “I can't imagine how I can live like this.” She's had cancer. She's had COVID. She's had a lot of things in addition to being a quadriplegic, and yet she can now look back and say, “That was the best day of my life.”
I think of the pattern we have in Jesus. Jesus could have gone around saying, “Hey, watch this, I'm a miracle worker,” but He didn't. He kind of hushed it up, but He would do it out of compassion. He didn't do that. In fact, He became a victim. In fact, He was killed in a in a brutal, very unfair way. And yet we look back on that, we call it—we don't call it Dark Friday, Tragic Friday, Sad Friday. We call it Good Friday, because somehow God took the worst thing that could possibly happen, the murder/unjust murder of God's own son and turned it into the best thing, the salvation of the world and the resurrection a couple days later.
Dave: Yes. I mean it's beautiful what you said, “Pain removed is not as impressive as pain redeemed.”
Philip: Redeemed, yes.
Dave: I think even our story, and I want to encourage the marriage that's in crisis right now. The hardest days of our marriage where we almost didn't make it—and everybody at FamilyLife knows the story—I would have in that moment never thought, number one, God’s going to show up; number two, He'll ever use it. Guess what? God showed up, did a miracle, and now we're sitting in this very studio with FamilyLife because of that miracle. We wouldn't be here. We wouldn't be asked to do what we're doing if that didn't become that pain and then end up becoming our purpose.
I would encourage a couple that's going through it: hang on; cling to Jesus; cling to one another. God's going to actually not just redeem it. He's going to redeem your story to redeem others. He's going to use you to help others. Just fight for it. It's worth it.
Shelby: I'm Shelby Abbott, and you've been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Philip Yancey on FamilyLife Today. This just makes me want to worship and worship through tears because I'm a person who has constantly asked questions of God. Like “Why are you being unfair?” “Why are you being quiet?” “Where are you?” “Why do you appear hidden at this time in my life?” As a chronic pain sufferer, I've asked these questions and Philip Yancey today has given us some insightful and a deeply personal look at those kinds of questions and so much more for many of us who are hurting,
Philip has written a book called Disappointment with God and wow, what a title. You could pick up a copy of that book at FamilyLifeToday.com or you could give us a call at 800-358-6329. I know it'll be super helpful for you as you're wrestling with these kinds of questions and so many more questions that we ask of God.
May is such an exciting time around here at FamilyLife Today because all the gifts that are given are doubled. But the person who's most excited, I think, is my friend Rebecca Granville. Now, Rebecca, you've been with FamilyLife for several years. Tell me why you're excited about this month specifically.
Rebecca: Hey, Shelby, I'm super, super, super excited because we have not only a May Match for our donors, but we have lots of new and exciting things coming to our Partner program. All of our Partners, whether they're originally a Legacy Partner or they're coming on now, will have new access to podcasts and prereleases of information. Not only is it the best time right now; it is a commitment that you believe in the mission that we are doing here at FamilyLife and that will give you access to all of our resources at the click of a button. With that, you are also going to get a free gift card to attend a Weekend to Remember®. You're going to get username and password to log on to our new curated content library. You're going to receive invitations to have live events where you get to hang out with Shelby and myself and Dave and Ann. These things are all part of being on mission with FamilyLife and being committed to be a monthly partner. Yes, FamilyLife Partners really sustain our ministry through the ever-growing challenges that families face. Rebecca, thank you so much for being with us today and helping us see a little bit more of the vision of why we value our Partners so much.
Rebecca: Thank you, Shelby.
Shelby: If you want to take advantage of becoming a Partner here with us this month, you can go online to FamilyLifeToday.com. Or you could give us a call at 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.” And feel free to drop us something in the mail too, if you'd like. Our address is FamilyLife, 100 Lake Hart Dr. Orlando, FL 32832.
Now tomorrow, we're going to hear again from Philip Yancey. Dave and Ann Wilson are going to be with him in the studio asking questions like “Can God help me make sense of the pain that I've gone through? When disappointment comes up from my unmet expectations, will God be there? Will he show up? Will he fix everything? Those are the kinds of questions we're going to wrestle through tomorrow on FamilyLife Today.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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