I will probably never meet him or be able to thank him, but Philip Yancey is a Christian hero to me – one of my favorite writers alongside C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Pretty illustrious company, considering that I didn’t really like his writing when I first read it.
To be fair, my first experience with Yancey came in high school, when I read his book What’s So Amazing About Grace? Despite the fact that it was a good read, I remember I was vaguely uncomfortable with it – likely because in his attempt to trace the audacity and the outright unfairness of God’s grace throughout the text, Yancey vocalizes a lot of his own struggles and frustrations with the faith. The book is unflinchingly honest about what it means to confront God’s grace, and where Christians – where the church – often falls short.
At the time, I was pretty sure I had God’s grace all figured out – and anyway, I felt a little weird about Yancey’s honest admissions of doubt, burnout, and frustration. I hadn’t experienced any of those things in my faith yet, and I was frankly a little wary of anyone who said that they did. Questioning the church in any regard, or expressing frustration about God, felt more than a little blasphemous. I put the book away.
I didn’t return to Yancey again until my late twenties. I was no longer certain that I had God’s grace all figured out. And more than anything, I was suffering from burnout and frustration. The church I attended had let me down in more ways than one, to the point that I was struggling with the desire to even continue attending. The behavior of some of the believers I knew there left me wary and hurt. Doors I expected to be open in my life had closed. And although I knew God cared, I didn’t really feel that way much at all.
Every believer, I think, comes to that place eventually: that dark night of the soul. For some it manifests as a struggle over whether or not to believe at all. For me, it was a place where my frustrations and disillusionment and burnout started to threaten my closeness with God. I imagine it’s a little different for every Christian.
But it was at that point I picked up Yancey’s books again. And suddenly, his questions and his obvious longing for God, his voiced frustration and his confessions of past struggles, read real and true and meaningfully to me. He had been frustrated and hurt by the church. He had experienced times of burnout and frustration with God. So had I! But he still so obviously longed for God and loved God, and felt compelled to work and to write for God, in spite of (and eventually because of) all of these things. And reading his books, I realized that I could do the same. That you could be a believer, and love God, and feel these things, and struggle, and still be loved by God.
It was God, no question, who pulled me out of that time of burnout and frustration and hurt in my life. But he used Yancey to light the spark: a believer who was willing to be honest and authentic and real about his walk of faith. And ever since that time (and even before that time) I have benefited from honest believers: my mother, who omits nothing either good or bad in her account of her Christian walk, my aunt, members of my home church who have walked through grief and pain and somehow come out rejoicing, innumerable writers and bloggers.
God values honesty highly. He even prefers it from His children, as unreasonable as that honesty can sometimes be: He listened to Job’s lamentation and complaint, He heard Jonah’s complaining, He acknowledged Hagar’s desperation, He bargained with Abraham. He likes it when we’re forthright, and He is forthright with us – but it’s tempting, as believers, to speak in trite platitudes and soothing sayings instead of getting real about what the Christian life can be like in all its array.
The Christian life is good. It is full of blessings and joy, and it is the privilege of walking alongside God and speaking to Him as a friend. It is also full, at times, of unanswered questions, hurts that seem as though they might not heal, bewildering events, and circumstances that we have no idea how to plan for. The Word does speak to our lives and prayer does change everything. And yet, at times, the Word feels like a cipher and fails to move us, and we lose our ability or our desire to pray anything meaningful at all. We triumph; we fail. We feel as close to God as we’ve ever been; we feel as though God is so distant we can’t hear His voice.
Bless the Christians who acknowledge all of these things: the good and the bad, the bitter with the sweet. Bless those who present the fullness of what life caught between sin and grace is really life: wonderful and joyful, and painful and brief. Bless those who see the church as it really is: as God’s marvelous bride, as His hands and feet on earth, and as a body of imperfect people who sometimes wound and hurt and betray.
If there is a believer in your life whose honesty and authenticity has made a difference in your life, find them and thank them. And make it your mission to be that authentic believer as well: one who shows the world fully what it is to live in Christ from top to bottom, one who shares the entirety of what it means to live for Jesus. You have no idea what difference you might make to those watching you.