In northern California are giant sequioas. They are amazing giants of trees.
The park service wanted to protect these ancient forests—some hundreds of years old. So they decided to guard the trees from every threat—including one of the biggest threats to our national forests—FIRE.
But after some time of vigilance and guarding, the park service began to realize that no new trees were sprouting. Despite all their efforts—the trees were failing to thrive and reproduce.
That’s when they made an extraordinary discovery. For most trees their mortal enemy is fire. BUT the sequoias needed fire, to reproduce.
The sequoias actually needed the fire—needed some opposition, needed a bit of a fight—in order for their species to flourish. The fires cleared the underbrush, and paved the way for new life to grow. It was the heat of flames from the forest fires, that caused the sequoias to release their seeds. You can see sequoias with angry scars from the flames of a fire. The heat of the flames indicated that the rubble and rubbish below was clear, and the land was prepared for new life to start.
The overprotection of the trees was the very thing that stalled its growth. The sequoias needed the fire—needed opposition, needed a fight—in order to flourish. Click To Tweet
Overprotecting Our Congregations
Are there ways that we are overprotecting our congregations and stunting their growth and survival by giving them a soft Gospel? A simplified version of God that is easy to understand but powerless in the face of life’s real questions. A Gospel deplete of the realities of suffering.
As a campus minister at UC Berkeley, my hope was to equip my students with a spiritual tool box. A toolbox of tools that would help them navigate whatever may come. The ability to study Scripture on their own, to have a personal relationship with Jesus, the ability to pray, and be a part of a local church community, the ability to articulate their faith (with words!) the ability to think critically about issues around them, and live missionally in their community and the discipline of bringing areas of their life under the Lordship of Christ.
Time and time again, problems arose with my students, some with the best spiritual toolboxes you’ve ever seen—they had stickers from all the conferences they had been to! They tripped up. Something always came up for them—something unexpected that threw their faith a challenge. A mentor of mine used to say, “something totally unexpected happens in a person’s 30s.” How can God allow this to happen? If God allowed this, then I don’t know if I like or trust God anymore? Has God abandoned me, my family, my community?
And then when we look beyond individual personal experiences there are stark examples in our neighborhoods, and in the world around us. Vulnerable children, unjust systems. In the face of all this suffering—where is Jesus? For those who don’t find him—the result is rejection of the faith.
An essential tool in the toolbox is a theology of suffering.
Why the Church Must Suffer
Patrick Fung, head of OMF (Hudson Taylor’s organization to China) and I sat down to talk about the state of the church in China a few years ago. “Suffering and persecution is not the main issue in China. Suffering purifies our church. The main challenge is materialism.”
He talked about how Americans are so adverse to suffering. They always ask him, “how bad is the persecution in China?” But the persecution and resulting suffering has a been a fruitful gift to the church. What is destroying the church is materialism.
Aborted attempts in understanding suffering result in aborted attempts at reconciliation. Without a true theology of suffering, one can not engage in true reconciliation. [Tweet “Suffering purifies our church. The main challenge is materialism.”]
Our God is certainly big enough to handle these questions: is our picture of God, and the picture of God we’re communicating too small? In our attempts to protect a young flock have we taken away the essential elements of life? Have we simplified the Gospel and stripped it of its power to respond to life’s toughest questions?