In the story of Lilith, an unusual stranger called Mr. Raven meets the main character and says to him, ‘The business of the universe is to make such a fool of you that you will know yourself for one and learn to be wise.’25 In other words, ‘This scary and beautiful cosmos was designed with you in mind: your dreams and your pride, your creativity and your bloody immaturity.’ Ironically our society refuses to hear the voice of this honest and helpful stranger because it has already defined goodness purely on the grounds of two questions: ‘Does it hurt? and ‘Is it fair?’

On the basis of these two inquisitional questions, thousands of golden opportunities for growth and discovery are routinely burned at the stake in homes and classrooms all over the ‘me-centered’ world every day. Even those of us who should know better are being intimidated—because of considerations of comfort and security—into driving instead of walking, quitting instead of pressing on, or abandoning faith instead of trusting. Somehow, faithfulness and endurance have been defined as naïve, unethical and even irresponsible, when in fact thousands of years of human history show that the opposite is the case—it is ‘me-centeredness’ that is naïve and unethical and the hallmark of an unteachable and dying society.

One of the ironies in this is that many appear to have become atheists on the grounds of ‘God’ failing these two questions. But once they are free of having to defend a ‘God’ who allows suffering, pain is no longer a reason for being depressed, rather it galvanises them into action. They now want to make this world a better place and in the process they grow and mature and become better human beings. Their life is a confirmation of what the letter to the Romans tells us: ‘Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character and character produces hope.’ The last bit, which I deliberately left out, says ‘… and hope does not disappoint us,’ for disappointment runs deep in the world of older atheists, as it often does in the world of older Christians.

It would appear that God and our atheists friends (I use this word deliberately because I believe many of them are our friends) have a lot in common, as if—contemptuous of the dirty marriage between western Christianity and secular democracy (what might be called ‘Comfortianity’)—God is OK about joining forces with and even masquerading as, an atheist.

This robust embracing of suffering as a normal part of life, which we need to ‘get over and then get on with’, is a big compliment from the glory-filled atheist to the mysterious Spirit who thought of them when it brooded over the chaos and birthed glory out of it. It would appear that the divine heart that beats with love does indeed care more about what we do than what we believe.

CS Lewis (once a non-believer himself) said of the Communists that one thing they had in common with Christianity was the paradox that ‘suffering is blessed, yet ought to be removed’. Jesus summed up the problem this way, ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies it bears much fruit.’

It makes you wonder whether we should replace those two inquisitional questions with another two: 1. How am I ever going to help these kids to grow up? 2. How are they ever going to learn to forget about themselves and to love their neighbour? A world where life is not fair and where there is pain might be high on the list of requirements and may well be ‘fair enough’ for making something beautiful out of this vale of jokes, joys and tears.

One thing you can be sure of is that you will get no consideration from the universe if you decide to ‘take it on’ and shake your fist at it for the rest of your life. There’s something to be said for cooperating with reality. As someone once said, ‘We can’t make you do anything but we sure can make you wish you had.’26

25Lilith: George MacDonald

26Band of Brothers: the author Stephen Ambrose quotes a US Army proverb.

‘The business of the universe is to make such a fool of you that you will know yourself for one and learn to be wise.’ (Mr. Raven)