FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Where the Light Fell: Philip Yancey

with Philip Yancey | February 16, 2023
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Bestselling author Philip Yancey, author of Where the Light Fell, recounts his unexpected path from strict fundamentalism to a life of compassion and grace.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Bestselling author Philip Yancey, author of Where the Light Fell, recounts his unexpected path from strict fundamentalism to a life of compassion and grace.

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Where the Light Fell: Philip Yancey

With Philip Yancey
February 16, 2023
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Philip: The Jesus I now know is very different from the Jesus I was taught as a kid. When I tasted that first gulp of what God’s grace was, that God wasn’t this monster in the sky; God was a passionate, loving divine presence who wanted me to feel no longer fatherless, who wanted to adopt me, it changed everything.

Dave: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Dave Wilson.

Ann: And I’m Ann Wilson, and you can find us at or on the FamilyLife® app.

Dave: This is FamilyLife Today!

Dave: I’ve got to ask you, are you excited today?

Ann: I’m super excited.

Dave: Why’s that?

Ann: Because we have someone with us today that we have been a fan of for a long time.

Dave: We’re not fans of very many people actually.

Ann: But I think the reason that I appreciate this man so much is because I know the struggle you have had intellectually, apologetically in the Christian faith and your doubts, and this man really impacted you.

Dave: Yes, we have Philip Yancey in the studio with us today. Welcome to FamilyLife, Philip.

Philip: Thank you so much.

Dave: You don’t know this about us and about me, but I came across Disappointment with God, your book, in 1980—what was it?

Philip: I think in ’89 or ’90, it was published.

Dave: You don’t even know; you’ve got so many books out there. I came across Disappoint with God early in my Christian faith—I didn’t come to Christ until my junior year in college—and I had never read a Christian author who had the guts to ask hard questions, doubts, questions, struggles. I thought, “I did not fit. I don’t fit in Christianity; I don’t fit in the church. Everybody there has all the answers; they’re smiling all the time. They don’t struggle.” Nobody would ever talk about struggle.

So disappointment with God, I think, saved my faith. It really did.

Philip: I’m so glad to hear that, Dave, because I had a debate with the publisher on that title.

Dave: Really.

Philip: This was back in the late ‘80s, and they said, “People don’t have books like that in Christian bookstores. They’re all about the Christian secret to a happy life and finding more fulfillment and abundant living and all of that. Why don’t you change it to something like How I Overcame Disappoint with God.

I said, “Those kind of people don’t need a book. I want to reach people who are in the middle of it because I’m in the middle of it.” [Laugher]

I’ve had the privilege as an author just to tell it like it is. I grew up in a church that did not do that. I’ve been in recovery from it for a long time. I made a decision when I started writing that I just have to be honest.

Lo and behold, the more I read the Bible the more I realized that’s the most honest book I’ve ever seen. The greatest heroes, the giants of the Bible are people like Moses who was a murderer, David who was an adulterer and a murderer, Peter who betrayed Jesus just like Judas did almost, and Saul of Tarsus who made his living persecuting Christians. These are the cream of the crop; these are the giants.

Dave: They would all be canceled today.

Philip: They would.

Dave: You think about that; they would be canceled. You wouldn’t listen to anything they have to say.

I’m excited because your latest book—and it just came out—Where the Light Fell, which is your memoir about your life. I had no idea as we picked it up and started to read it, I’m like, “Oh my goodness, so much of what you write about is in your story.

Today, we get to talk about that. Why now? Why this book?

Philip: My wife calls it a prequel. She says, “This explains why Philip ends up where he did and why he’s obsessed—” I think that’s the word she uses “—with topics like suffering, pain and grace.” Those are the two themes I keep circling around.

I think she’s right. I look back on my life, and I had a lot of suffering growing up and a lot of joy after that. But I had never really metabolized those early times.

You’ve had a lot of guests—I’m sure you’ve had guests who talk about being saved from alcohol, from drugs, from pornography, from whatever. My story is I was saved from the church. [Laughter]

I grew up in one of these real right-wing, legalistic, angry, racist, in fact, churches in the South. It was a nurturing community in some ways but in other ways it really misrepresented God to me. I emerged from that with this image of God as a scowling monster in the sky just waiting to find somebody might be having a good time so He could crush them. It takes a long time to overcome something like that.

I’ve been blessed to realize, not only did I see the worst of the church, I eventually saw the best of the church. To put that together to try to filter out “What is worth keeping and what should I discard?” That’s what my books are about.

There all idea driven books. This is a different kind of book. It’s a story book; it’s the story of my life, especially the early life. It was revealing to me, too. I had never written a book like that before.

I think in the book I mentioned it. It was somewhat like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces of my life but I didn’t know how they fit together. I had no picture on the frame on the box to tell me what I was putting together. Not until I finished did I realize “Aha! That’s why I write about pain; that’s why I write about grace.”

Ann: It’s sad to see Jesus or the church represented in such a way that has caused you so much pain. I was really thrilled that you would write and share that with us just to say, “He’s bigger than that. Jesus rescued you from all of this.”

Take us back about your parents. You never even knew your dad.

Philip: I did not. I was one year old when my little family’s life changed forever.

My parents were planning to be missionaries in Africa. They had already solicited supporters and they had as many as 5000 people who were committed to pray for them and to give them money.

They were in the process of getting ready to go to Africa. I was just about at the age where they thought, “Okay, now we can leave,” and then one day my father woke up and he couldn’t move. He couldn’t move his arms, legs.

They rushed him to the hospital and he had polio. Talk about pandemics; we’ve been through a pandemic recently. That was a fearful pandemic back in the 1950’s and 40’s.

My father was unable to even breathe on his own so he was put in an iron lung in a charity hospital in Atlanta. My mother was very faithful. She would leave us with neighbors and then spent all day right beside the iron lung.

They both decided “This is no life for us. Surely that can’t be what God had in mind.” Some other people in their church said, “Yes, you’re right. I think maybe God wants Marshall—” was his name “—to be healed.” They got together and they prayed.

Finally, they decided, “That’s right. God surely wouldn’t choose for somebody to die compared to going to be a missionary in Africa at the age of 23.” So they removed him, against all medical advice, from the iron lung.

I didn’t know this part of the story until I was about 18 years old. I found a clipping from the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, and it told that story. It was written while he was taken out of the hospital, and he was starting to show possible signs of improvement. He thought he could wiggle a toe he hadn’t been able to wiggle. They talked about this great act of faith, believing that God would heal him—the story I had never heard. I looked at the date of the paper and it was nine days before he died.

I realized I had been living under a shadow that traces back to that event. It was kept from me. It was a secret. I knew that he died of polio, of course, but I didn’t know that story of people who took a gamble of faith, a leap of faith, and they were wrong.

I look back on it. These were not people who opposed him or were against him in any way. They loved him, supported him. But they did something we don’t really have the right to do. I’ve learned that some people—I guess I’ll put it this way—not everyone who claims to speak for God actually does so. These people were sincere. They believed in faith that he would be healed, but that’s really God’s prerogative; not ours. We can ask certainly and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s up to God.

I learned that truth, that some people claim to speak to God, worked out in all sorts of ways in the church I went to. I mentioned the racism of that church. They turned people down at the door. They wouldn’t allow people of color to enter the church much less join it. Wrong about some other things. Wrong about the image of God I went away with.

All my other books, those 25 books, all of them are really my way of sorting out “What is the truth here? How can I find the truth?”

Dave: It’s almost like as I read your book, here’s one of my thoughts: “Wow! Philip Yancey went through a deconstruction of his faith before there was a term called deconstruction.”

Philip: That’s right.

Dave: You just explained it: “What do I keep? What do I lose?” Now that’s pretty common place. A lot of our kids—we just did some shows with John Marriot. He did his PhD dissertation on deconstruction/de-conversion. He said 80 percent of our kids are in the church in high school, go to college and leave. They leave the faith so they deconstruct. They don’t keep anything.

Philip: I hadn’t thought about that deconstruction thing, but you’re right. People are going through it.

Frankly I feel blessed because I’ve been able to make my living at deconstructing. We all have these questions, but most people have jobs. [Laughter] My job is to ask these questions. For some forty years I can pick a topic and just, like The Jesus I Never Knew, What’s Amazing about Grace?, why did I write those books? Because the Jesus I now know is very different from the Jesus I was taught as a kid.

In my case, I had experienced a lot of un-grace. Un-grace in the family, un-grace in the church. When I tasted that first gulp of what God’s grace was, that God wasn’t this monster in the sky, God was a passionate, loving divine presence who wanted me to feel no longer fatherless, who wanted to adopt me, it changed everything.

Grace is amazing. As a journalist, I’ve had the privilege of going around and interviewing people whose lives have been transformed by grace. In this book, I got to look at my own life and say, “How did that happen; what happened?” In my case, it was God choosing me; not me choosing God.

God met me at a time when I was cynical and hardened and resistant at a Bible college - a place I didn’t want to be. There would be faculty meetings and “Should we kick Philip out of the school this week or next week? Should we give him one more week?”

I just loved flaunting it.

Dave: It wasn’t because you weren’t intelligent and smart; it was a resistance to the religion part of it.

Philip: Right, I would sit out in the patio and read books like Why I am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell instead of Andrew Murray and people like that.

I was obnoxious, and it was a defensive shell against what I had experienced from the church so far. We had to have Christian service at the time. I went to—I signed up for what I thought was the coolest Christian service and that was university work. There was a university nearby and we would go. We were supposed to witness and have evangelistic conversations with people, but I would sit in the student center and watch basketball games. There were no TVs on my campus. [Laughter] “This is great.”

Then I would make up stories about conversations that I had - embellished. We always had a prayer meeting. There were four of us. We were in a dorm one evening. Joe would pray and then Chris would pray, and whoever else was there on the team would pray. They would pause politely for a few seconds, and of course I never prayed.

I don’t know what happened. But—

Dave: You never prayed.

Philip: I never prayed. But here I am in this room and for some reason I started to pray. I just said, “God,—” and everybody got tense like electrical charge hit the room or something. [Laughter] I said, “—we are supposed to care about these 10,000 students at this university and try to keep them from going to hell. But I don’t care if they all go to hell. I don’t care if I go to hell.

I had a, I guess I would have to call it, a vision—I wasn’t asleep; it wasn’t a dream. But I started talking aloud about the story of the Good Samaritan. What I said was “Here we are supposed to care for these people like the Good Samaritan cared for this tramp lying in a ditch covered with blood.” As I said that, that vison flipped in my mind and I looked at the figure leaning down and it wasn’t the Good Samaritan; it was Jesus. I looked at the figure in the ditch and it wasn’t a tramp who had been robbed; it was me. I saw that; it was in my visual screen.

I didn’t know what to do. I just closed the prayer quickly and went away. I just left the room shutting the door behind me. It just rattled me: “Where did that come from; where did that come from?”

I realized that was the truth that God was reaching down trying to heal me - my wounds. Every time He did I would spit in His face. I actually did that in the vision I had just seen. Jesus would lean down, and I would spit in His face. He’d lean down again, and I would spit in His face.

I realized I was the neediest person on that campus. I had a girlfriend at that time. I wrote her a note that night. I said, “I may have had the only authentic religious experience in my life,” and I had gone forward 20 times giving my testimony hundreds of times. You do that when you grow up in a church environment. But none of them really felt authentic.

That changed everything for me. People ask me “With all the church abuse you suffered, how can one experience like that change everything?”

Well, that’s like asking Saul of Tarsus [Laughter] “Why did you turn from a Christian persecutor to a missionary, Christian missionary?” When you’ve had an experience like that—I’ve got  to say I have waited to tell that story in detail for my whole writing career because as soon as you tell a story like that people will say, “That never happened to me. I didn’t have one of those experiences.”

They are right. God deals with us in different ways. God knew that I needed that. It was something that I did not manufacture. I wasn’t even seeking, and God reached down in an act of great grace and mercy and said, “I can work with you.”

Dave: In my mind that is so fascinating. You have a great scientific thinking mind. I love how you write. Yet it’s this personal experiential “you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me” moment; like you have a vision.

Is that shocking to you as well? It’s like, “Wow, look at what God did; how He did it!”

Philip: Yes, it is. The name of the book that we are talking about is Where the Light Fell. That title comes from a quote by St. Augustine who said, “I couldn’t look at the sun directly but I could look on the rays where the light fell.”

That’s how I felt. I couldn’t look at the sun directly. I had been scorched. My image of God was stained. I couldn’t look; I didn’t want to look.

As I tell in the book, there are three things that softened me up: the beauties of nature; that was my place, my go-to place in a difficult childhood; just take walks in the woods, collect butterflies/all that kind of stuff, have a dog. [Laughter]

Nature, and classical music; my brother was an amazingly gifted musician. I was not. I liked the classical music and could make a little bit of it.

Then romantic love; those three things were God’s way of softening me. That softening process, when you are in love there’s nothing like it. This was my first real love. I would just wander around in the woods and just marvel at the beauty of what is going on. Yet, I couldn’t quite make that connection to God because my image of God had been so stained. But I felt that longing, that desire to thank someone.

Then I realized, “If God is responsible for this world, for the beauties/the joys/the peak experiences that we have – love, those things, that’s a different kind of God than I was taught, that scowling, distant, angry presence. I need to know more of that God. But I didn’t know how to do that, and then the vision came.

Dave: What would you say to the person that has that vision of God—I had it, too, like you; I got that from my church or wherever; I’m not blaming them but I had that vision—how do you change that. If there’s a mom or dad listening or son or daughter right now, it’s like, “That’s sort of how I see God. How do I get to where Philip is? What would you say?

Philip: Just to tell you how it happened for me, it only takes one person, Dave. It really does. I had seen some of the worst that the church has to offer. Then I found a church that was a beautiful church in Chicago. Then I found a man, Dr. Paul Brand. I have written three different books with him, so I spent ten years with him.

I’m a journalist so I spent my life interviewing people and finding famous people and trying to figure out what makes them tick. I have interviewed a couple of U.S. presidents and scientists and very impressive people, but no one more impressive than Dr. Brand.

He was a scientist; he was also a physician. He worked with the lowest people in the entire planet. I guarantee you there’s nobody farther down the social ladder than somebody in India in the untouchable caste now called Dalits who has leprosy. That’s it; that’s the bottom.

Here was this brilliant man who had been offered “Would you be head of orthopedics at Stanford or Oxford University?” and turned them both down to work among those people, the lowest people on the planet. Yet I had never met anyone more full of joy - more fully alive. He knew every bird, every butterfly, every plant. He just was fully alive.

I spent ten years writing his thoughts. That was a period when my faith healed. I probably couldn’t have written about what I believed at the time because I had no idea. But I could write with integrity about what Dr. Brand believed because he lived it out. He proved it to me.

I would say to a person with that view of God, “Find somebody you most want to be like and follow them around and figure out what their secret is.”

The author, David Brooks, talks about the difference between “resume virtues” and “legacy virtues.” Resume virtues are what we are good at in America: “How much money do you have?” “How many boards do you serve on?” “Where did you go to school?” “What kind of car do you drive?” We spend so much energy competing in that.

The funny thing is when a person dies nobody stands up and says, “He had the foresight to buy Microsoft at a hundred.” We talk about “He was a good man and he was charitable; he was generous; he cared for children.” 

We inherently know that is what we should be like. That’s just an image - any sliver like that is part of the image of God in us. I think if we find those people, “What is there secret?” In my life as a journalist, there are people who become deep followers of Jesus who want to be like Jesus. I eventually came around to that. It takes some time, because, as you say, the church is not always holding up those qualities. Often it holds up almost the reverse.

Shelby: You are listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Philip Yancey on FamilyLife Today. Stick around for Dave and Ann’s takeaways from today’s conversation.

But first, Philip has written a book called Where the Light Fell. It’s a memoir. We’d love to send you a copy as our thanks when you partner financially with FamilyLife. You’ll help more families hear conversations just like that one that you heard today; conversations that point to the hope found in Jesus Christ.

You can give today at or by calling 800-358-6329. That’s 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”

Here’s Dave and Ann with some takeaways from their conversation today with Philip Yancey.

Dave: Yes, I would say my conversion was similar in terms of I saw a different view of God through a different person. It’s almost like someone else incarnated the real image of God that I didn’t know existed. Isn’t it interesting, God always uses a person?

Ann: Sometimes people can be antagonistic. We don’t always consider where they’ve come from and the wounds maybe that they’ve experienced. We can love unconditionally and see people and love them well remembering that we have a past and they may, too, but we can love the way Jesus does, unconditionally.

Shelby: Tomorrow, Dave and Ann are joined again by Philip Yancey where he shares about how the obstacles he faces in childhood created defensive walls in his normal life and in his marriage. That’s coming up tomorrow. We hope you will join us.

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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