Philip Yancey: I work out my faith in print

Q&A | After 40 years as a Christian author, Yancey keeps coming back to the themes of suffering and grace
by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 1/20/15, 01:45 pm

In the world of Christian publishing, Philip Yancey is something of a legend. His books have sold more than 14 million copies, and he’s become known for elegant yet accessible prose that illuminates the deep mysteries of the Christian faith. His books include, Where is God When it Hurts? and What’s So Amazing About Grace? He has published two books in the past year about grace and suffering. We had this conversation at the International Christian Retail Show in Atlanta.

You have been in the Christian publishing industry and the evangelical church for going on 40 years. What changes have you seen in that time? There are huge changes going on in publishing, in general, and in Christian publishing. The biggest thing, noticeable to me, is how Christian bookstores and general bookstores are departing one-by-one. I hear these statistics that something like half of the number of independent bookstores are in existence now that were even 20 years ago. People are buying online. They’re buying at Walmart, at Target, and Costco. It used to be if you wanted a Christian book, you would go to a Christian bookstore, browse around, see what caught your eye, and take it home. Now that doesn’t happen so much.

It’s harder, for sure, for younger writers to make a living. I feel very blessed to have lived in the period of time I did because I could make a living doing things I’d want to do apart from that. I worked out my faith in words, in print, and was able to make a living while doing it.

There are writers out there who tell certain kinds of stories, or maybe they’ve got the 10 most common objections to Christianity or the 10 points to live a better life or be a better parent or something along those lines. Your books tend to be much more personal, and much more transparent and vulnerable. How did your style as a writer evolve? I tell people I write my books for myself, and that’s true. I grew up in an unhealthy church. I’ve talked about that very openly in my books. It was almost a toxic church. I went through a period of time where I threw out that whole church background because I realized there were some things they had lied to me about. Race was one of them. I grew up in the South. My church was on the wrong side of the big race issues in a really bigoted-type way. When I found out that they were wrong, then I started thinking, well, if they’re wrong about that, maybe they’re wrong about theology. Maybe they’re wrong about all these other things.

I went to a Christian school, a couple different Christian schools, so I had a background in trying to figure out my faith, and when I started writing, I realized I had the opportunity to pick up pieces, one-by-one, of things that I had learned in church, and examine them, kind of, dust them off, and see what the truth was. You can almost tell from the titles of my books, one-by-one, what interests me. I started with the problem of pain and suffering because that was a huge barrier to my faith, as it is for many people. If we believe in a powerful and loving God, why do these bad things happen?

Then gradually I worked my way through some of the important issues. … I tend to keep coming back to the themes of grace and suffering, so my latest two books, once again, are back on those themes of grace and suffering.

Is it fair to say that your journey has brought you full circle in some ways? Or are you in a very different place than you were 40 years ago on that journey? I don’t think I am in that much of a different place. I went to a Bible college. I’ve studied the Bible deeply, and the Bible is a radical thing. When people challenge me on something, I say, “I’m not radical. Jesus is radical. Paul is radical. Let’s go back.” One thing I learned from the church I grew up in was that for evangelicals, and fundamentalists even, the bottom line is the Scripture. In my writing, I try very hard to look at the Bible first and learn from the Bible what my first perspective should be, what my content should be, and work it out from the bottom up.

In that regard, you have not rejected the faith that you were raised in. You still believe in the primacy of scripture and the authority of scripture. Absolutely. We have made a priority in the last 20 years, at least, of going overseas. As my books were selling, we do not have children, and we realized we have an ability to go places that many authors would have a hard time doing. I started going to countries like Brazil, China, the Philippines, and Africa. When you expose yourself like that, it does give a breadth and a perspective of what is uniquely Christian that you wouldn’t get if you were just living in the Bible belt in the United States.

What are some things that you’ve learned from those experiences? I come back from some of those trips, and, frankly, the American church looks kind of boring. It looks like a corporation. We hire professionals to do the music, to teach us, and it’s a little bit like a sports event. Three thousand people file into a megachurch and watch other people entertain them for an hour. In other countries, people truly believe, I’m supposed to be following Jesus myself, and when Jesus says, “Take care of widows and orphans” or, “Reach out to the poor,” I’d better get going. I’d better do that. Whereas in the United States, we tend to form a committee, study it, and then file for 501(c)(3) tax exempt status and hire professionals to do the work. It invigorates my faith and gives me a lot to write about. The one reason I keep going is that I see people living out their faith in a way that is harder to do in a very orderly, organized, advanced society like the United States.

You have recently written two books, which you said was unusual for you. Tell about the books. I had been working for a long time, probably a couple of years, on a book called Vanishing Grace: Whatever Happened to the Good News? [It’s a] bit of a sequel to What’s So Amazing About Grace. But while I was writing it, in the year 2012, I was called to three places of great tragedy. One was Japan on the first anniversary of the tsunami that killed 20,000 people. Then in the fall of that same year we went to Sarajevo and heard these terrible stories of brutality and siege that came out of the Balkans’ war of the 1990s. Then finally, at the very end of the year, around Christmas, I got a call from Newtown, Conn., right after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and in each of those cases, I was asked to speak on the topic of the very first book I wrote long ago called, Where is God When it Hurts?

I realized as I went to those places that I’ve learned a lot about that topic over the years, and I wanted to do an update about what helps people who go through things like that … because they seem to be happening more and more frequently. I put aside the book on vanishing grace, did this other book called The Question that Never Goes Away. It is the question that never goes away, both for me and for so many Christians.

Well, the question that never goes away is, specifically, what? It has a chapter on each of those three places. What I learned in Japan. What I learned in Sarajevo. What I learned in Newtown, Conn. It is addressing people in the church who don’t know what to say, don’t know what to do when something bad happens in their neighborhood or even when somebody falls sick, when somebody dies. What have I learned from those places about the comfort, the solace that we can offer at such a time?

What are some of those key lessons? I conclude there are three things I can stand behind very strongly. Where is God? For one thing, God is on the side of the sufferer. That’s so clear when you look at Jesus. Jesus doesn’t lecture. He doesn’t make the person feel guilty. He’s on the side of the sufferer, and the church sometimes does make people who are going through hard times feel like it’s their fault. I did something wrong. You know? “You must have sinned. God is punishing you,” that accusation that we’ve heard ever since the Book of Job.

On the side of the sufferer is No. 1. No. 2, God is in the church. Where is God when it hurts? Where is the church when it hurts? If the church is there doing its job on the front line, bringing comfort, bringing practical help, people aren’t going scratch their heads and wonder, where is God? They’ll know where God is. God is in God’s people. Then the third, where is God when it hurts? Well, Jesus told us, “I’m going to leave, but when I leave I’m going to prepare a place for you.” And so I could stand in front of the people in Newtown, for example, and say, “Your child is gone, but your child has not vanished, has not disappeared. Jesus went to prepare a place. Your child is in the loving arms of God.” 

But you did get some criticism for going to places like Newtown. Some people misinterpreted what you said and suggested you might be teaching a universalist gospel. Which I don’t think you were doing. Were you aware of that criticism, and did it affect how you responded to those places of tragedy? Fortunately, when you’re dealing with 6- and 7-year-old children, I don’t know a single serious theologian anywhere who would question that they are in the loving arms of God. The church has a consistent voice that, before the age of accountability, children are indeed in the arms of God. A place of tragedy is not the time to raise questions like, “Are you ready if you died today?” On the other hand, I often will use myself as an example because I was in a life-threatening [car] accident [in 2007] and had a broken neck and was lying there, and they were trying to figure out if an artery had been punctured. I realized, at that time, that there are only three questions that were worth my time that day, which could have been my last day on Earth.

That is: Who do I love? What have I done with my life? Am I ready for whatever is next? I often will use that in a gentle way, as Jesus did. When Jesus was questioned by his disciples, why did this tower fall down? Why did this tragedy occur? He says, first of all, they’re no different than you are. But then he says, “The real lesson for you to take away is, are you ready if a tower falls on you?” You can do that in a gentle, thoughtful way, as I try to do out of my own experience. It’s not the time, I think, to draw divisions about who’s in and who’s out. That’s not the point. They are in search of comfort, and fortunately, with the parents of Newtown, I was able to offer unqualified comfort to them about their children.

Tell me about when you are in the writing mode. Do you write a couple of hours a day? Do you research? Do you write for weeks on end and then don’t write for months? What does that discipline look like for you? A lot of people have the idea that you just kind of roll down to your desk and sit there and look up and think, “Hmm, wonder what I’ll write today.” It’s not like that at all, at least the kind of books that I write. Usually, when I choose to write about a topic—take prayer, for example—I’ll have been mulling it over for years, and I’ll have some fat file folders full of clippings. I’ll have an accumulation of books, a shelf full of books, and I’ll have been reading and thinking about it. Okay, so now I’m going to write about prayer. In that case, I spent probably six to eight months before I wrote a word. I interviewed a lot of people. What is your prayer life like? Why is it unsatisfying? What are your biggest questions about prayer? 

I spent several months in seminary libraries, reading about what other people have to say. And then [there is] a period of time where I do outlining, organizing my thoughts. I’ve got all this data. Now, how do I make a book out of it? I often end up with an outline. Usually my outlines are about half as long as the chapter, so they’re pretty extensive outlines. Then comes that terrifying time when there’s the blank computer screen or the blank piece of paper. I’ve got these thoughts, but I’ve got to come up with words and sentences and transitions. That’s the terrifying, painful time. I try to get away somewhere, out to a mountain cabin, in my case, and get that over with as fast as possible.

I began my life as an editor for a magazine called Campus Life, and so as soon as I get the words down, then I can slip into that much more comfortable role of editing, trying to make some sense out of the words that I’ve got down.

Once you have a draft, how different is that draft from what ultimately gets published? In What’s So Amazing about Grace? I cut 150 pages out of it. I realized this was a tangent. … The book I just finished, Vanishing Grace, had an outline of, I think, 12 chapters. In the final draft, only one of those chapters survived. I realized I was kind of cobbling together things that didn’t belong together, and other questions came up in the process of writing, so I just kept redoing it, redoing it. I keep all that stuff that I cut in a little file called junk, J-U-N-K, and I’ve got a macro that’ll just take whole paragraphs out and stick it in that junk file. I keep thinking, one day I can use that stuff. Then later, when I look at that junk file, I realize why I called it junk to begin with.

When it comes to the end for you, what do you want people to say about Philip Yancey? The time I had the accident, truly was a wakeup call for me, and I’ve concluded that the goal of life is very simple, and that’s to please God. I try at the end of each day to ask myself, “What did I do today that pleased God?” … The way we do that differs for everybody. Some do it through singing. Some do it through being the greatest mother that they can be. Some do it through being involved in politics or whatever. In my case, it’s examining this adventure of the Christian life with all of its branches, like a tree. Some of them are dead ends, and the church has made a lot of mistakes, but I truly do believe that we are here to show the world what God is like, something they wouldn’t find out on their own. The way we do that, of course, is by trying to be like Jesus, and going back to the Bible, that’s how we learned about Jesus.

That’s why I’m here, and in my particular calling, it’s to do it in print in a way that I can struggle with my own questions, the steps of my own pilgrimage, and hope that somewhere along the lines somebody will identify with it and say, “Yeah, thank you. That helped me because I was going through the same thing.” 

I once likened my writing career to a jungle explorer and he’s got the machete out and he’s cutting through these thick vines, and he has no idea where the other side is. Then finally he gets through and says, “Oh, there it is. There’s the ocean. I made it.” Then to his surprise, he turns around and looks, and there is a whole line of people following him on that path. That’s how I feel as a writer. I’m not thinking about those people following me. I’ve got the machete hacking through the vines trying to get through to the other side. How can I get there? Then, to my surprise, and delight, I turn around and hear from people who say, “Thank you. I was on the same path. Thank you for showing me the way.”

Listen to Warren Smith’s full conversation with Philip Yancey on Listening In.

Warren Cole Smith

Warren is vice president of mission advancement for The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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