Everyday Grace: Faith should comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable

By Lawrence S. Cunningham | Winter 2012

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Faith should comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable

Some years ago, crammed into a window seat on a flight from the West Coast, I made the mistake of telling my aisle-seat companion, a youngish business professional, that I taught theology at the University of Notre Dame. Little did I know that my companion was a new convert to an evangelical mega-church of a decidedly missionary philosophy. Very quickly his Bible was in hand in order to show me that unless I had a personal relationship with Jesus, my ultimate fate was going to be far worse than a four-hour flight across the country in an uncomfortable seat, sustained by a miniscule bag of peanuts and a Diet Coke. Despite my attempt to feign interest in the in-flight magazine, he would have none of it. Just a tad exasperated when he assured me that were I to accept Jesus as my personal Savior, the result would be peace of mind, my answer was curt: “If I wanted peace of mind, I would take Prozac.” My snappish reply seemed to have stopped the exchange, since he lapsed into a long silence with his eyes glued to his Bible.

I remember that conversation a bit ruefully, both because I was rudely dismissive of my companion and because religious faith, in fact, does bring with it consolation, which is a type of peace of mind and heart. Perhaps my resistance to a further exchange was rooted in my dislike of religious argument. That being said, I should have been a little more accommodating to the good-hearted zeal of my seat mate.

American culture has a conspicuous longing for peace of mind. Otherwise, how do we account for our readiness to swallow prescription drugs, to go to therapists, to seek out panaceas from the leisure industry (what an odd phrase: “leisure industry”), to read books about how to resist stress, and so on. We are a therapeutic culture. Indeed, one could argue that the American therapy industry is a kind of secular version of religion. What is a therapist, the late psychologist Rollo May once quipped, but a Calvinist in Bermuda shorts?

It is true, to be sure, that religious faith does offer peace. The Hebrew word “Shalom” is a shorthand way of saying that God is with us. The priest looks out at his congregation and blesses us with a phrase frequent on the lips of Jesus: “Peace be with you!” The sacramental rites of the church are designed to give us that Shalom of which scriptures speak: They settle our remorse for sin in the confessional; they ease us through the dark voyage of dying; they console the mourners at the grave site; they give us hope when we are in doubt or despair or bewilderment; they urge us to love when we require a prescription against hate or anger. Religious faith, in short, does hold out peace in place of disquiet or dis-ease.

Alongside such consolation, however, is another side of Christianity. This is the message that wants to unsettle our self-esteem; that proposes something of a radical challenge to our smug complacency. It is the message that may ask us to give something precious—even as precious as our life—in order to yank us out of the ordinary into something beyond what we think of as possible. To be sure, the Jesus of the Gospels heals the sick, frees the demons afflicting the mad, gathers the children, has mercy on the poor and afflicted. It is the same Jesus, however, who tells us that in following Him we must take up our cross and abandon family and home. It is that Jesus who points the finger at power and calls it hypocritical, and tells the young man that if he wants to follow Him, he must give up everything.

When Jesus unsettled people, He was following in the footsteps of the ancient prophets of Israel who excoriated those who would offer sacrifices at the altar and then defraud the poor or lend money at usurious rates. It was the precise task of the prophet to unsettle, to provoke, to shock and to demand a conversion to the authentic teachings of the Torah.

It is the case, however, that the Church has often been criticized as the institution that too often utters, “Thou shall NOT!” My students have made this complaint, and not always without justice. To hear nothing but “fire and brimstone” from the pulpit is not a pleasant thing, although one hears it less today than in my youth. Within that complaint, however, there is an issue that the Church must face: It must offer the consolation of faith while saying a clear “no” when appropriate, both to social and individual sin and error. The Church cannot simply be a cheerleader for the current cultural values of a society. Whoever embraces the spirit of the age, writer G. K. Chesterton once quipped, soon finds himself a widower.

There is a paradox here that I would like to note: Authentic religious faith should both unsettle us and give us peace. What we must avoid is settling for what the anti-Nazi martyr Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer once called “cheap grace”—making our Christian faith into a tranquillizer. Faith demands that we understand our own deep human flaws, while offering a direction to remedy these flaws. St. Augustine famously—and correctly—wrote: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”

I still feel a little bit of remorse—“remorse” means to be “bitten again”—at the preemptory way I shut down the conversation with the young businessman on that plane ride. The incident showed two things: 1) I am far from being a perfect person, and 2) my companion had a valid, if incomplete, point.

God help me!