My daughter and my son were baptized at ages 10 and 8, respectively. Up until that point we had all been Protestant, and the children were educated at the Christian Academy connected with the Baptist megachurch that we attended. Like all schools, it had its good points and its bad points. Some of the teachers were superb, others less so. I was mightily pleased with the teachers in the lower grades, but one event in my daughter’s first grade class really, really upset me. I overheard the teacher telling a frightened little girl that “God will never let anything bad happen to you.”
That child was being introduced to the flat-tire fallacy, various versions of which so many Evangelical Christians buy into. God is good, right? Right! God is omnipotent, right? Right! Ergo, our perfectly good and thoroughly omnipotent God will never allow anything bad happen to one of His children! As a Christian, it has been promised to me that I will never fall victim to a scam, fail a class or get more than mildly constipated. All of my problems will be resolved to my satisfaction, and I will never, ever get a flat tire.
One version of this fallacy has developed into an entire theological outlook known as “Health and Wealth.” I have never been personally acquainted with any Health and Wealthers; although raised as an adherent of the flat-tire fallacy, I didn’t go that far. I knew that many Christians did not enjoy a privileged, upper-class lifestyle, and I could not be convinced that that was the result of a lack of faith. I did not sit around waiting for God to rig the lottery for me, nor did I believe that every gravely ill person would be restored to health if they refused to accept their illness on religious grounds. I clung to the words of Isaiah 43:2, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” This I understood to mean that, yes, I would have troubles, but they would be manageable. Since dying, from my Protestant perspective, meant going straight to Heaven to spend an eternity with God, it didn’t really scare me, but I found it hard to believe that an omnipotent, loving God would allow me to suffer any serious pain for more than a day or two….
Travel was an eye-opener. After college I visited many foreign countries, and encountered Christians who had far less than I did, and yet far more. Their lack of possessions freed them from the worry over the possible loss of possessions. I began to realize that my perspective on this subject was based on self-centeredness (generally not listed as one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit). The loss of possessions was not an evil to be avoided. In fact, it might turn out to be kind of a good thing….
Despite my evolving understanding of suffering in the Christian life, I did not entirely abandon the flat-tire fallacy. While by this point I understood that God might allow a little rain to fall into my existence, I believed that the amount of rain would be carefully limited. For example, while I might experience financial difficulties, nothing as drastic as a homeless shelter loomed in my future. That was back when I still watched TV, and I watched the news in horror one evening as a dear woman recounted with a huge smile how grateful she was that when she lost her home, the homeless shelter took her in.
I turned off the TV and sat there, frozen. Could God allow His children to lose their homes? For some reason, homelessness, to me, was the dividing line between what I would accept from God’s hand and what I certainly would not accept. I was convinced, as was everyone else I knew, that God would never allow anything truly bad to happen to me.
And then it hit me: Define “bad.”
I had quite a broad definition of the word “bad.” “Bad” in my book meant inconvenient, unanticipated, unpleasant, unlovely, unlucky, unhelpful, uncouth, unattractive and unbearable all rolled into one smelly package. “Bad” was whatever I didn’t like, or whatever I thought I wouldn’t like – kind of the metaphysical equivalent of Brussels sprouts. “Bad” was basically any change to my admittedly pretty-desirable status quo. In my foolishness I thought I had tied God’s hands; He couldn’t allow anything to happen to me without me screaming bloody murder.
The flat-tire fallacy at its worst can have serious consequences. Try explaining to a flat-tirer that she contracted intestinal parasites while on a missions trip – we prayed for health and safety! How could God let this happen?? The first-grade teacher telling the little girl that God will never allow her to suffer was undoubtedly just trying to quiet the child, but the comforting message was laced with spiritual arsenic. It is all too easy to abandon one’s faith when suffering comes along, if one has been taught that suffering, for the Christian, is an impossibility.
Catholics traditionally have been preserved from the flat-tire fallacy by the concept of “offering it up,” i.e., the teaching that our suffering can and should be voluntarily united to the suffering of Christ, à la Colossians 1:24.
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.
This verse remains obscure in a Protestant context; it really isn’t easily reconciled with most Protestant soteriologies, and is seldom discussed. I taught a Bible study at an Evangelical college in Taiwan in the 1980s, and my students asked me to explain that verse. Stymied, I searched through every Bible commentary in the library. Being Protestant commentaries, they simply had no explanation for the theological implications of that verse. Had I been Catholic at the time, John Paul II could have straightened me out:
One can say that with the Passion of Christ all human suffering has found itself in a new situation….
The Redeemer suffered in place of man and for man. Every man has his own share in the Redemption. Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished. He is called to share in that suffering through which all human suffering has also been redeemed. In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.
The texts of the New Testament express this concept in many places. In the Second Letter to the Corinthians the Apostle writes: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh …. knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus”.
Saint Paul speaks of various sufferings and, in particular, of those in which the first Christians became sharers “for the sake of Christ.” These sufferings enable the recipients of that Letter to share in the work of the Redemption, accomplished through the suffering and death of the Redeemer. The eloquence of the Cross and death is, however, completed by the eloquence of the Resurrection. Man finds in the Resurrection a completely new light, which helps him to go forward through the thick darkness of humiliations, doubts, hopelessness and persecution. Therefore the Apostle will also write in the Second Letter to the Corinthians: “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too”. Elsewhere he addresses to his recipients words of encouragement: “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ”. And in the Letter to the Romans he writes: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship”.
The very participation in Christ’s suffering finds, in these apostolic expressions, as it were a twofold dimension. If one becomes a sharer in the sufferings of Christ, this happens because Christ has opened His suffering to man, because He Himself in His redemptive suffering has become, in a certain sense, a sharer in all human sufferings. Man, discovering through faith the redemptive suffering of Christ, also discovers in it his own sufferings; he rediscovers them, through faith, enriched with a new content and new meaning.
This discovery caused Saint Paul to write particularly strong words in the Letter to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me: and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me”. Faith enables the author of these words to know that love which led Christ to the Cross. And if He loved us in this way, suffering and dying, then with this suffering and death of His He lives in the one whom He loved in this way; He lives in the man: in Paul. And living in him-to the degree that Paul, conscious of this through faith, responds to His love with love-Christ also becomes in a particular way united to the man, to Paul, through the Cross. This union caused Paul to write, in the same Letter to the Galatians, other words as well, no less strong: “But far be it from me to glory except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world”.
In the Letter to the Colossians we read the words which constitute as it were the final stage of the spiritual journey in relation to suffering: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church“. And in another Letter he asks his readers: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?”.
The next time you get a flat tire – and you will get a flat tire – remind yourself of the truth – God promised He would be with us always, and He is, to the point of being physically present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Eucharist that we receive at each Mass. He cannot not love us, and He cannot not care for us. Flat tires have something in common with all other “bad” things: they are opportunities. We can, as Job’s wife urged, “curse God” and begin to die spiritually, or we can bless the Name of the Lord and grow in Christ, uniting our sufferings to His. As Blessed John Paul put it, “Man, discovering through faith the redemptive suffering of Christ, also discovers in it his own sufferings; he rediscovers them, through faith, enriched with a new content and new meaning.” Translation: A flat tire doesn’t mean the end of the road!
A flat tire can take you places you never thought you could go – with God at the wheel.
On the memorial of St. Gabriel-Taurin Dufresse
Deo omnis gloria!
Photo credits: A flat automobile tire by Ildar Sagdejev/Wikimedia Commons