"How can imperfect people, in an imperfect world, write about a perfect God?" My lively professor asked as she tossed a handful of wavy white locks over her shoulder.
I have been mauling over this question for the last twelve years now. Because we've all seen it, right? The stories, not just in Christian genres, also in Romantic Comedies, present the audience with all kinds of problems, and then by the end, all the problems are neatly resolved, and the characters, almost magically, live happily ever after.
However, life doesn't stay in the happily-ever-after. It's messy, painful, joyful, and difficult. The struggle, stress, and sadness permeate even our happiest moments. It is what we know best. We relate to writing that displays the brutal nature of this world. Some of my own experiences include having a bill paid in time but already feeling the stress of the next one, sobbing over the pain of a child I couldn't help, and watching loved ones die, despite fervent prayer. Happy moments dance through our lives, however, when we read fiction that attempts to show us what God is like--with endings neatly solving everyone's problems--somehow it doesn't sit right.
We surrender to a perfect God, who takes away our sin and works daily to make us more like Him--but we are still imperfect living in a decaying, broken world. Yet, we have the urge to write and create and tell others of what God has done and what He is like, but how can we do so? "Write what you know" we are always told, but what we know best is the brokenness of this world and the brokenness of ourselves. We can see this divergence as we look at what the Bible says about love in contrast to how we experience love in this world. Every person we love has failed or hurt us in one way or another, and we have also hurt those we love. We read in 1 John, "There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear" (4.18). Perfect love casts out fear, yet we can see how imperfect love is fear-infused. We see it in fear to commit, fear to lose our loved ones, fear to open up too much, fear of unfaithfulness, fear of being smothered, and fear of the life choices our loved ones will make. I'm sure this list just scratches the surface of fears surrounding love. In human terms, fear and love go hand in hand, but in God's terms, fear has no place in love. Back to the question: how do we as imperfect humans, with imperfect skill, and imperfect fear-filled love, write about a perfect God who has uncapped creativity and skill, and never-ending love that casts out all fear? How can we create stories that reflect the perfection of Christ without coming across as corny, wishy-washy, or too-good-to-be-true? We don't experience this kind of tidy, neatly wrapped up storylines in our own life. What feels the most real to us is the painful, messy, selfish--because that is what we know and experience in others and in ourselves.
As Christians we have experienced the perfect love of God, and, even so, it is hard for us to comprehend because the character of God is so outside of this broken-down world, and yet, He has renewed our minds and souls--so how can we share this with a world full of people who have only experienced the imperfect love? With those who only have the happy moments, but not the joy and peace that surpasses all understanding? Here is what I have come up with over the last twelve years to answer this question for myself and my writing: First, I need to be real about the actual experiences, feelings, and questions I have. I avoid writing characters who do and feel what they "ought," or what I wish would happen. A writing exercise I utilize is after writing a rough draft, I go through each scene and imagine the worst possible scenario that could happen here--what I really really don't want to happen--then I make it happen. It doesn't always make the final cut, but it helps me write in a way that deals with the fact that life can be excruciating sometimes--and God doesn't always spare us from those hardships--but He is with us throughout them--so what does that look like?
The Bronze Bow, by Elizabeth George Speare, is one of my favorite books. Check out this scene in which the main character, Daniel, is discussing Jesus's miracles:
“What good it is for them to be healed, those people that Jesus cures? They're happy at first. But what happens to them after that? What does the blind man think, when he has wanted for years to see, and then looks at his wife in rags and his children covered in sores? That lame man you saw - is he grateful now? Is it worth it to get on his feet and spend the rest of his life dragging burdens like a mule?'"
This is a harsh perspective, but the question, "What happens to them after that?" brings the real-life experience into the picture. We know God does miracles still today, but He does not give us problem-free lives. Even if He does answer our prayers in miraculous ways, the miracle does not end the struggles of this life. Instead, God uses the struggles to help us grow and become perfected through Jesus. Our writing should reflect that.
That brings me to the second lesson I've learned about writing as a Christ-follower: I don't shy away from the tough questions, and I explore the pain. It doesn't do anyone any favors to ignore either of these things. Can we be grateful through the hard times? Yes! But just check out Psalms to see we don't need to ignore the pain or the questions in our writing or in our prayers because guess what? God's perfect truth can withstand any attack, doubt, fear, or questioning brought up against it. Lies get torn down by questioning and exploration. The truth does not. It may be in asking the tough questions and living in the pain for a season that the truth can take root and grow in our lives.
The third, and possibly most important part of what I have learned in searching out this question, is that in the end, we can't do it. We can't write or create a story that captures the heart and nature of God. If it were possible, then God wouldn't be God and we wouldn't have any need for His word that He has already provided for us in the Bible. However, our inability to capture the perfection of God doesn't take away from who God is and what he has done, it only exposes our own human imperfection and weakness and points us to our need for Him in our lives. Instead, we can focus on writing in a way that gets the readers thinking. It is not for us to spell out the answers, but only to point the readers in the direction of the One who is the answer. He who was perfect became broken, so we could be whole--perfected in Him. As writers, it is our job to say: "meet Jesus" and let Him take it from there.