Posted by: 15shekels | May 16, 2010

Shiny Lies

We have a habit of trying to stretch thin, shiny lies over the world to make it appear tamer, to make it appear safe. We paint these lies onto the scenery with inspirational speeches, words of sympathy, sadly, sometimes even sermons. We mean well with our sentimental, shiny lies—proclamations that people are basically good, that the world is beautiful and magical, that things always work out for the best. And often, we apply them so artfully that we fool ourselves, and we can saunter through life with no idea that our worldview has a layer of fake wrapping paper over it.

It is a dangerous game, however. For when tragedy hits, it gashes holes in our protective lies, and we are shocked to see the brutally broken world, starkly exposed. If we have made the further mistake of calling these shiny lies religion, we are left even colder. Tragedy will rip a prosperity gospel to shreds in a millisecond.

I recently heard this brutal shock described poignantly from an unexpected source. I was watching One Tree Hill, every teenager’s favorite television show, that I somehow never outgrew. One of the characters, Haley, is beautiful and happily married. She has a son, a successful music career and wonderful friends. But when Haley’s mom dies suddenly of cancer, her shiny worldview is ripped apart, and Haley slips rapidly into depression. She describes, without apology, her sense of hopelessness:

“It all just seems so fake. This idea that good things happen to good people and there’s magic in the world and the meek and righteous will inherit it. There’s too many good people who suffer for something like that to be true. There’s too many prayers that go unanswered. Every day we ignore how completely broken this world is and we tell ourselves it’s all going to be ok. ‘You’re going to be ok!’ But it’s not ok. And once you know that, there’s no going back. There’s no magic in the world. At least not today there isn’t.”

I wanted to cheer for this fictional character because she was on to something—something real and true. Things don’t always work out for the best. The world is broken, and ugly and fallen. There’s more to the story, though, because our fallen world didn’t fall spontaneously. It was ripped apart a very long time ago.

In the beginning, God created paradise and lovingly placed man at the center of it (Genesis 2). But we had barely set foot in it before we rebelled against God and used our free will to desecrate his gift to us. The damage from that first rebellion has echoed through history—Christians call it sin—and it has eaten away at the beauty and safety of the world like a disease. Sin, which originates in our hearts (Mark 7:20-23) is the driving force behind murders, rapes and genocides. It is also the force behind the quieter evils like betrayal, greed and selfishness. And at the center of these evils is sin’s biggest victory—the source of Haley’s pain—death.

When we try to paint over or ignore these dark elements of the world, we set ourselves on a path to shock and disillusionment. Even if we manage to avoid watching the news, coming into contact with the poor and sick, and loving people who can hurt us, we can’t hide from the ugliness within ourselves.

Acknowledging the brokenness is a crucial first step. But what to say to someone in Haley’s position? I could write about the hope of heaven that we have through Christ’s death and resurrection. I could write about God’s promise to one day come in judgment and glory and restore the earth to the paradise it once was. But perhaps the most comforting response is simpler.

Sometimes in the midst of pain, the only comfort is the knowledge of how God responded to the mess that we made of his gift. Yes, He was angry. But He didn’t sit on a cloud in heaven, shake his head in disappointment and leave us to face the consequences, as we deserved. Instead, He entered into the brokenness and pain, and took the suffering and sins of the world onto Himself. As John R.W. Stott describes so poignantly, sometimes our only comfort is the sight of a broken man on a cross:

“I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross.’ In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death.” -John R. W. Stott, “The Cross of Christ,” pages 335-336. Quoted in Gary Haugen, “Good News About Injustice,” pages 114-115.

There’s nothing shiny about the cross, and it certainly isn’t wrapped in pretty paper. But beneath the blood and the gore, we just might find the greatest gift mankind has ever received.

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