What brings real comfort to the hurting? That’s an important question in a world filled with pain and Rob Bell believes he has the answer.
In a glowing profile at CNN on the former evangelical pastor’s book promotion tour, Bell responds to an audience member who confesses to doubting God when doctors told he and his wife that their unborn baby may not survive.
The troubled man asks, “Is it wrong to be angry with God?”
Here’s how CNN described Bell’s response:
Bell walked closer to the man and told him he could give him no easy answers. But he could tell him to avoid people who will try to comfort him by quoting scriptures like Romans 8:28 (“And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God”) and by telling him his loss was somehow part of God’s mysterious will.
“Anyone who quotes from Romans and said it’s all part of a plan, they can’t walk with you,” Bell said.
He told the man to look for people who will be present with him and offer him “solidarity,” not “solutions.”
He said he would return to Atlanta in the years ahead and they would meet again and somehow things would be better for him.
“All the best to you,” he said quietly as the man nodded in appreciation.
I will give Bell the benefit of the doubt and believe that he honestly wants to help the man and is offering him the best he can.
But even granting Bell returning again to speak with this man in the future, the former pastor is not leaving the hurting man with much.
For starters, Bell dismisses the words captured in Romans 8:28 so that he can substitute his own. Let’s remember exactly who it was that wrote Romans—the apostle Paul.
Here’s how Paul described his brushes with suffering in 2 Corinthians 11:24-28.
Five times I received the forty lashes minus one from the Jews. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked. I have spent a night and a day in the open sea. On frequent journeys, I faced dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own people, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, and dangers among false brothers; toil and hardship, many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, often without food, cold, and without clothing. Not to mention other things, there is the daily pressure on me: my concern for all the churches.
Obviously, Paul has yet to be martyred for his faith when he wrote of his previous sufferings to the Corinthian church.
I am not the only one to notice a bit of irony here.
The idea that an Oprah-approved dudebro millionaire can speak to suffering better than a persecuted apostle is extra-American.
— Jared C. Wilson (@jaredcwilson) July 28, 2017
Have many people callously thrown at those suffering verses like Romans 8:28? Absolutely. But Bell is drawing a false distinction.
Those going through difficult times and doubts should find comfort in both the Scriptures and the saints. God did not merely give us His word. For the Christian, He has placed us in His body that is called to bear our burdens with us.
But ultimately, Bell has placed himself in an unenviable position. Once you cut away all the show and the flowery words, you are left with two competing promises: Bell’s and God’s.
Bell promised this man that he would see him again one day and that “somehow things would be better for him.” Based on what? How will things be better?
What assurances can Bell give this man that things will be demonstrably better for him in the future? Just that he will see Bell again? That will make things right for this man who may lose his child?
Thankfully, this hurting man and every hurting person doesn’t have to find comfort in a promise made by another fallible human that will undoubtedly fail us.
God has promised that He will redeem our pain and use it for our good. How can He make such a promise? Because He’s omniscient and omnipotent.
How does He know there can be good after suffering? Because He is a God acquainted with suffering. Jesus endured the pain and shame of the cross because He knew there was joy waiting after it (Hebrews 12:2).
Because of Christ’s sacrifice, there’s no need to rest in empty promises of comfort.
You and I can rest in the presence of One who has walked through suffering on our behalf and has promised to walk through it with us even now.
Rob Bell has spoken before thousands and has had millions read his words, but they have not been (and most likely will not be) around for hundreds of years, much less thousands.
He has offered his words of comfort to people in one context—postmodern wealthy Westerners, but they have not stretched across cultural divides for centuries.
Bell has admittedly changed his mind. He’s said things previously with which he disagrees now. What guarantee can he give that his word now will last any longer?
By contrast, God’s word has withstood entire civilizations attempting to destroy it. Scripture has brought life to readers for centuries.
It has as much to say to a middle class audience gathered in a theater in Atlanta as it has to say to a group of beggars circled under a shade tree outside New Delhi.
Jesus promised all of heaven and earth would pass away before even the smallest pen stroke of God’s word is changed (Matthew 5:18). It will never change.
Psalm 119: 50 says God’s promise gives us life and comfort during our affliction. That’s where you and I, those in Rob Bell’s audience and those who’ve never heard of Rob Bell will actually find comfort—God’s word and His promises.
If Bell wants to force a choice between his promise and God’s promise, I’m not sure he is going to like how that turns out.