Year 2000 Cornell University. The start of the fall.
“What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me.” (Job 3:25, NIV)
The eczema that was see-sawing in my earlier years started to progressively get worse. The best medical practices at the time could only cure the symptoms short-term. All sorts of alternative treatments like chinese medicine and supplement still could not get me into the “sweet spot”of long term stability. Like plugging 12 holes in a broken boat with 10 fingers. The boat will eventually sink, it’s just a matter of when, depending on how many fingers you want to use to plug the holes.
Simultaneously, I was assaulted spiritually and emotionally.
On the surface, people knew I was dealing with a debilitating health problem, slowly and steadily robbing me of common things people could do. In addition, my dear mum passed away due to cancer and I suffered a relationship betrayal and breakup at the same time. Over time, I develop some OCD and symptoms of ADHD as well. However, what people didn’t know was that my struggle was not just in multiple directions, but multi-dimensional. My faith was undermined secretly by intellectual assaults as well.
I had to grapple with the full-force of liberal ideas about Jesus, taking 2 advanced classes in liberal religion classes. I had to grapple with multiple historical models by liberal scholars that Jesus was merely a man whose deity was embellished by bias Christians in an attempt for significance and power. Though an engineering student at the time, the professor gave me an ‘A’ for my final paper defense (32 pages of it) on the possibility that Christ could truly be what the gospel writers wrote about him. It saved my core relationship with Christ, but it still left me battle-scarred and tainted. I knew that if Christ was different from what was talked about by biblical writers, then all the powerful promises of God through Jesus would just be positive thinking – a placebo. A placebo works for people who have it together and need an extra edge, but not someone who is getting crushed by real forces in life. I kept the deep questions about the validity of the Bible in my heart for years as absolutely no one I met in Singapore, pastor or otherwise, could answer my deep scholarly questions. I couldn’t address it with them because I didn’t want to shake their faiths.
But because of my deep conversion to Christ before, Christ hung on to me. However, many days left my soul shrouded. The intellectual assault continually poked holes in my attempt to be child-like before God. Many Christians attributed my dissonance to a “lack of faith”, some even stopped me from serving because of it. They did not know that those judgments about me were far more damaging than my physical pains. They did not know that it was because of faith that I hung on while having blaring intellectual issues that they themselves never even had to think through before. Surely, they “jests of scars and never felt a wound”. It was quite insulting and sad at the same time. They compared their minor challenges which was confined to the limits of their more-or-less healthy world (which is their norm) with the depths of what I had to go through. Like Romeo and Juliet (where the quote comes from), it was ironically tragic. As ironically tragic as Job’s friends – who did the best for Job when they kept their mouths shut. It is when people don’t think they are condemning you – that is when the condemnation is of full effect. As they firm up their own views and egos, it leaves no room for you. When God’s people disappoint you for too long, it will eventually reflect on God himself. Was God there?
On reflection on the book of Job and my own experience, Job (including the discourses of his friends) essentially went through the cycle of Western Rationalism (all things must make sense to man) which leads to Existentialism (each individual is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it passionately) which leads to Nihilism (nothing makes sense). Any man who goes through continuous increasing adversity and deemed irrelevant by society would go through the same cycle – things just don’t make sense and it leads to unyielding despair. The same was happening to me, and that’s when my seminary mates coined the term for me as the “modern-day Job”.
Yet despite my tumultuous past which led me into an Abyss of sorts, what caused me ending up more along the lines of a CS Lewis and a Henri Neuwen rather than a Bart Erhman?
By the end of the book, I give full credit to the transformative grace of Christ… so please do read to the end, you will not regret it.
In the mean time, I find it useful to ponder upon Erhman’s perspective on the problem with pain.
I read Bart Erhman’s journey from being a Christian intellectual to a skeptic and I literally went through the same intellectual journey. I read many of the same books and had very similar observations. He writes in an article on how the problem of pain ruined his faith:
… I read philosophers, theologians, biblical scholars, great literary figures and popular authors from Plato to Sartre, from Apuleius to Dostoevsky, from the Apostle Paul to Henri Nouwen, from Shakespeare to T.S. Eliot to Archibald Macleish, from C. S. Lewis (with whom I was very taken) to Harold Kushner to Elie Wiesel.
… My contention is that many of the authors of the Bible are wrestling with just this question: why do people (especially the people of God) suffer? The biblical answers are striking at times for their simplicity and power (suffering comes as a punishment from God for sin; suffering is a test of faith; suffering is created by cosmic powers aligned against God and his people; suffering is a huge mystery and we have no right to question why it happens; suffering is redemptive and is the means by which God brings salvation; and so on). Some of these answers are at odds with one another (is it God or his cosmic enemies who are creating havoc on earth?), yet many of them continue to inform religious thinkers today.