Philip Yancey’s ‘Disappointment with God’: takeaways I’m still digesting

Having read this book some time ago, this isn’t a proper review, but more a reflection on what has stayed with me since reading, particularly one valuable insight and one provocative argument that I still find unsettling.

The author, Philip Yancey, for many needs no introduction. But I like the way he describes himself on his website, as a ‘pilgrim’, who writes primarily for himself as one still ‘in recovery’ from a ‘toxic church’. However, he also writes for all those ‘living in the borderlands of faith’ and fifteen million copies in print attests to his gift with words and his ability to connect with those who ask hard questions.

‘Disappointment with God’ (published in 1988) starts with a disclaimer that the book does not address the question of the existence of God: “True atheists, do not, I presume, feel disappointed in God. They expect nothing and receive nothing. But those who commit their lives to God, no matter what, instinctively expect something in return’”. He writes for whose experiences don’t match up to those expectations, and who are asking three questions of God – why he appears so a) unfair, b) silent and c) hidden. Disappointment with God may lead to a decisive cutting of ties with the faith, but I suspect a more common experience is to become bogged down with doubt and drained of desire to press on in our discipleship (the front cover of the edition I have features a bog and locked gate … imagery right up my street).

Much of the book is Yancey’s attempt to understand what the Christian should ‘expect from God’, and during a two week retreat he re-read the whole Bible, trying to get a fresh feel for the overall story, and looking it from the other end of the relationship: what does God expect of us? So the three questions become less about whether God is holding up his end of a bargain, and more about how a broken relationship between creator and creation is restored. This really struck me as I reflected on how much of my Christian life has been quite transactional in nature, having been encouraged to pursue the blessings of obedience and rewards for faithfulness, at times even with Christian leaders using naked transactional language, such as ‘God is no-one’s debtor’. I expected my level of faithfulness to determine not just a heavenly reward, but certain benefits in this life too. A frequently cited verse was Mark 10:29 in which Peter points out that he had left everything, to which Jesus responds “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life”. Read too literally, it’s a problematic promise. If I give up one small field to follow Jesus, I like the idea of then owning a hundred acre estate. I am less convinced of the benefits of hundredfold relatives to remember the birthdays of. But beyond the problem of being selectively literal with the Bible, there appears to be a deeper risk of being overly transactional. Jesus wasn’t hawking an investment scheme. I think I can now see better how he was warning against how worldly wealth can steal our hearts away from his kingdom, which is so much more satisfying.

However, for a long time I assumed that a few high level decisions and sacrifices  in ‘seeking first God’s Kingdom’ would result in my day to day Christian walk being a relatively trouble free, steady ascent to glory. Yes, trials or persecutions of some kinds would come, but nothing a bit of prayer couldn’t quickly deflect. Long and dark valleys were not on the map, though I see now more clearly how they can lead us deeper into relationship with God, and some of the stories that Yancey retells are profound and worth reading first hand.

However, the second main takeaway from the book is one I am still more actively ‘digesting’. It relates to the final of the three questions, why God seems so often hidden, and reflects a gulf in expectations across two Christian traditions I have been exposed to. Yancey represents a tradition that, while being open to miracles, suggests that God’s work in this age is predominantly through the seemingly ‘natural’, daily acts of grace and kindness of Jesus’ body, the church. Contrast that with a stream of charismatic Christianity than craves the ‘supernatural’ in its ‘unadulterated form’. Yancey, drawing from C.S. Lewis’s idea of ‘transposition of the Spirit’, is arguing against a hard separation between natural and supernatural, though recognising a very understandable desire for the ‘supernatural to enter the natural world in a way that retains the glow, that leaves scorch marks, that rattles the ear drums’. Yancey was writing just before the idea of ‘power evangelism’ went mainstream in many Christian circles, emphasizing how people will believe in God if confronted with divine interventions. If forced to choose, better that you give a hungry man a ‘word of knowledge’ that is soon fulfilled by a stranger giving him food, than just giving him food directly. Yancey is sceptical, and spends time earlier in the book suggesting that God ‘supernaturally’ appearing to his people through signs and wonders had a very limited impact on sinful, stubborn hearts. The Israelites, miraculously freed from Egypt, were quick to complain about the supernatural manna provided to them in the desert.

But surely, the spectacle of the plagues delivering Israel were foundational in teaching Israel about the greatness of God, and didn’t Jesus grab people’s attention and demonstrate his divine authority through ‘signs and wonders’? Yancey makes the argument that Jesus was sparing in these miracles, noting how in John 5 Jesus is recorded as slipping away in the crowd after healing just one of a group of people with disabilities waiting by the pool. Yancey suggests these selective healings were to authenticate his teaching, while for those who didn’t receive a healing, “awakening expectations of the day when all sickness will be overcome”. The miracles often left Jesus’ critics unmoved, even hardened in their opposition to him. In an elegant Yancey turn of phrase, he suggests that, “some things just have to be believed to be seen”.

The practical question for contemporary Christians is then what to expect of God in term of ‘signs and wonders’ today. Jesus expected, indeed commanded, his immediate disciples that alongside announcing that the “kingdom of heaven has come near” they should “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy and drive out demons”.  However, Paul, though practising these things as he spearheaded the spread of the gospel to the Gentile world, didn’t seem to place much emphasis on this as a staple for discipleship in the early church, though in his first letter to the Corinthian church he suggests that some may be gifted in this. Crucially, this reference to supernatural gifts is in the context of developing the analogy of a body and the importance of not giving undue honour to the more visible parts. The gift of miracles is not listed as one that should be especially sought, as we all follow in the way of love. Thinking about it, Paul didn’t seem convinced that signs and wonders was the critical ingredient in calling people to faith.

Indeed, the disconnect between the hype surrounding signs and wonders in parts of the contemporary church, and the paucity of evidence of ‘supernatural’ healing is actually a stumbling block for belief for many, including myself. Looking back on Yancey’s book, two pointers seem helpful. The first is a warning against too rigid a divide between ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’. I recall listening to a ‘return from the dead’ story and follow on debate that revolved around categorising whether this incident lay within or just beyond the boundary of medical possibilities. The boundary itself is, I assume, always moving as we gather more data, and so it came across as a futile discussion. As convinced some Christians are that it was a ‘miracle’ (as the story featured some prayer for recovery) the facts equally reinforce the sceptic’s approach that the variance of responses to the heart stopping for a period are pretty wide. The Christian’s miracle becomes the medical outlier. This does not negate the wonder or gratitude that those impacted might feel. God might be behind that unusual occurrence for that particular person at that particular time. Equally, arguments about whether healing is caused by ‘a placebo’ effect of greater hope can be interpreted both ways. Maybe God heals in part through the physiology of hope? More problematic for me is the sceptic’s question as to why most supernatural healings appear on the boundary of medical possibility. Why we don’t see Larazus style resurrections, with decomposing corpses being raised days later (discounting evidently staged Youtube videos). Not sure I have an answer.

What I do conclude, however, from Yancey’s exploration of disappointment with God, is that too much an emphasis on ‘supernatural’ signs as a basis for belief is dangerous. The book is framed around the fascinating story of Richard, who had just authored his own book on the sufferings of Job and was approaching Yancey to write the Foreword. However, later on Richard returns to explain how he had lost his faith. Together they diagnose what appears to be the root cause of this. Early on in his Christian life, when Richard had attended a Kathryn Kuhlman healing service, and witnessed a man (indeed a medical doctor) jump off his stretcher, proclaiming healing from terminal lung cancer. Richard recalled, ‘I had never known such certainty of faith before’. A week later Richard calls the doctor to learn more of his experience only to discover he had died. From then on Richard was haunted by that nagging doubt about whether God exists, or if he does, whether he is ‘toying with us’ and should ‘quit playing games and show himself’.

I think back to when in church youth group we would travel to Benny Hinn meetings. Hinn learned much of his trade from Kuhlman and is part (albeit at the extreme) of a broader movement in Christianity that emphasises signs and wonders (while accepting that only a few actually ‘receive’ a miracle). What is concerning is the potentially manipulative answer to that obvious question of why I wasn’t amongst the chosen few. In milder forms of this tradition, it’s a lack of intensity, or training, amongst church members. If we attend more prayer meetings, or access the latest training materials, then just over the horizon is a revival with increased manifestations of God’s power. In its more extreme forms, it’s the individual’s lack of faith, subtly suggested. I remember when attending those meetings removing my glasses and closing my eyes as healing was pronounced over the auditorium, hoping for my short-sightedness to be gone when I reopened them. It didn’t happen. I read more of the Bible, bought a Benny Hinn book (and probably dropped some money into the offerings at those meetings). I don’t think the fact I continue to wear glasses is a present source of doubt in God’s power and love. In many ways my confidence in the Bible as inspired is reinforced by how perceptively it predicts that there will be those who exploit believers for their own gain.

However, I still find it difficult to square the stunning Biblical record of ‘signs and wonders’ with the way the modern church seems to either muddle through, or manipulate, in this area. That said, Yancey’s arguments seem to be pointing in the right direction: that God seems rather less interested in ‘proving’ his power in response to every ‘show me you are real’ prayer, and more interested in revealing his love through his body, the church. Perhaps the most ‘supernatural’ sign and wonder needed in our present day are churches being alternative communities, ‘supernaturally’ overcoming our selfishness to love God and our neighbours.

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