I recently rediscovered my copy of Finding God as I was searching through my book boxes for another book. One of the first lines I read was a quotation from George MacDonald: “Did the fact ever cross your mind that you are here in this world just to understand the Lord Jesus, and for no other reason?” I had always heard that the chief end of Man was to glorify God (and enjoy Him forever), which seemed a bit narcissistic of God. Of course, if anyone can be narcissistic, God can. But here was a book that seemed to agree with my doubts about God’s narcissism. Indeed, this quotation could summarize the entire book, which builds on the ideas behind the question.

Crabb’s thesis is that our fundamental sin is doubting God. Empirically, the world is full of pain. Brothers die in plane crashes, children are abused by parents, godly women are brutally raped, parents accidentally back over their young child. More than anything, we want the pain to go away, but clearly God isn’t going to do it for us. If you look at the world, you would have to conclude that God either does not exist or He does not care, and this is the message that our souls have absorbed. So, since God obviously cannot be trusted to fix the problem, we turn to other people to relieve the pain. But we are all selfishly using each other (in varying degrees) to relieve our own pain; we each have nothing to give. When that fails, then we hate them for not giving us what we want. If others can’t satisfy us, maybe the problem is ourselves—if we were really better people, then people would love us. Thus, we use self-loathing to explain others’ failure to love us (particularly when children realize that their parents do not love them the way they should—if you can’t get love from your parents, who is left?). That still leaves us with our pain, so we devise a style of relating to people that minimizes the chance for them to hurt us, or we discover something that makes us feel good (eating, alcohol, or sexual fantasies, for instance) and become addicted to it.

(Of course, not everyone follows quite the same path. I think I substituted seeking satisfaction from people with satisfaction by personal projects (probably not surprising for an introvert), got upset with God when it didn’t work, and skipped right to trying to figure out how to get it to work. Even so, his description is applicable in some not too different form for all of us, and his comments are always insightful.)

The problem, then, is not our addiction, or our self-serving style of relating. The problem is that we doubt that God is good. God has not promised the Christian that He will give us everything we want. Can we believe that God is good, anyway? That He has a reason for running the Universe the way that He does, and that, because the ending is more glorious than we can possibly imagine, He will not change how He runs the Universe, although he is deeply saddened when we doubt Him? Can we believe that God himself is enough, even if our pain never goes away? Because ultimately God made us to have a relationship with Him, not to give us a pain-free existence (although that was His desire). When we want to get rid of our pain more than we want to know God, we are committing the cardinal sin. Everything else is just a consequence of wanting to relieve the pain.

One way to address our pain is to ignore it. Christians live joyful lives; we are Christian, therefore we should practice being joyful. This will only cause us to paper over deep problems. Another way is to obey God, but obedience cannot create a relationship. In fact, obedience without a relationship will result in stone-cold Pharisees. The modern counseling strategy would have us explore our pain and understand it. Which is good, but because it does not address our sin of doubting that God is good, we cannot be healed through it. Much of modern Christianity suggests that if do more “holy” things (like Bible study, praying, or serving in the church), or if we follow certain steps we will find God. But God reveals Himself when He wants to, and He certainly will not reveal Himself if what we really want is freedom from pain, instead of wanting Himself.

The solution Crabb offers is to realize that our problem is that we doubt God and seek after Him with all of our heart. “We find God to the degree that we want to find him. Until our passion for finding God exceeds all other passions, ... we will not find him as deeply as he longs to be found.” We will never be free from pain; in fact, Crabb’s experience is that the pain may actually get worse, from time to time, as God shows us how much we really doubt Him. We need to give up our desire to get rid of our pain and focus on knowing God. Only then can we have the kind of joy that trusts that God is good, even though our pain is still with us, and that, one day, when He has finished preparing us, we will live with Him in Heaven the way we were meant to.

Until then, Crabb offers some suggestions on how we should live. Most importantly, we need to seek God, not relief from pain. We need to develop a confidence that God really is good, because until then we will be ruled by our bad passions. The solution is not more prayer or Bible study, nor is it exploring our pain (although those things are good), but more knowing God. Another thing we can do is examine ourselves to see how our style of relating seeks to minimize pain. Crabb gives the example of Christine, who was shy and sweet, always demurring to others, but in reality shutting others out, never opening herself to others because that way she could not be hurt. Crabb also suggests that (when the time is appropriate) we tell each other how we doubt God. We need to disturb each other, to stir up the mud of our doubt; seeing our doubts will give us a desire to seek God and trust Him more.

This is a book about pain, but also one borne of pain. It came about when Crabb’s brother died in a plane crash, plunging him into deep pain and grief, at which point he realized that he could not go on living without knowing God. Crabb does not just talk about pain, he shows the reader what pain is, through many, often heartbreaking, examples. This is the most honest book that I think I have read—Crabb neither hides nor glosses over pain. His explanation of our problem is deeply convicting, the more so because he has established himself as credible in his understanding of what the reader’s pain is. (Whatever our pain is, it might be equal to, but not greater than his examples)  He has obviously thought about the problem, and his answers, while simple in concept, are not simplistic; instead, they have that undefinable ring of truth to them. And while he does not always cite scripture in support of his arguments (although with a greater frequency than my initial impression), his answers are clearly congruent with the theme of scripture.

This might be one of the few books for which there is a pre-requisite, however. I read the book with my small group about four years ago, and I remember exactly nothing from that time. Yet on this reading, practically every page convicted me in a new way. The difference may be that, in-between, I read Inside Out (also by Larry Crabb). I have a feeling that I may have missed something, but the main point I took away from that book was that we need to realize what our pain is. I took his advice, found that I did have pain (in my case it was more like deep unhappiness or dissatisfaction) in my life, and gained a good understanding of what it was. But then I realized, now what do I do? Perhaps the pre-requisite for this book is that we need to understand that we have pain. If we are in denial or if maybe it has not occurred to us that we have pain in our lives, then perhaps the book will not affect us.

Having read Finding God, I now find myself in a similar position as after reading Inside Out. Then, I felt unsure about where my realization of unhappiness was supposed to lead. Now I am unsure about how to seek God. Admittedly, there are no formulae, and if this question had a tractable answer, it would have been given long ago, but his suggestions, which consist mostly of self-examination and discussion of how our doubt works into our lives, seem kind of weak in the pursuing God area. In particular, they do not answer the question of how to build a relationship with someone whom you cannot see, who often takes a long time to respond, and about whom you must often learn second-hand, through the writings of others. Crabb states that prayer or Bible reading are not solutions in themselves, but does not say what their proper role is. He says that obedience will not create a relationship with God, but yet, Chuck Colson, in Loving God (and, indeed, Jesus at the Last Supper), observes that obedience is how we show our love. What does someone who is seeking after God look like? What do they do with their devotional time? How do they view the world differently? Ultimately it is God’s responsibility to change hearts, but surely free will requires that we have some part to play, too.

Regardless, this is the most personal and convicting book I have read. It challenges the foundation of my thought like nothing else has, and showed me what Christianity is all about. Christianity is about sin, to be sure, but, ultimately, Christianity is about seeking after God more than anything else, because that is what we were made to do. Finding God requires you to either change to be more like God or write off what Crabb says. And if it does not give a very clear direction of the next step, perhaps it is because Crabb himself has not yet fully experienced it yet. Finding God reveals Crabb with a more complete understanding of the nature of pain and sin than in Inside Out, so maybe a few more years in God’s care will produce Seeking God.

[June 2008: Edward Welch in When People are Big and God is Small notes that Crabb subscribes to the leaky-cup philosophy, that we are leaky cups who need to be filled. The Christian version of this is that we need to be filled with God. However, Welch notes that our most of our “needs” are really “lusts” and can never be filled. The answer that Welch gives, that we should seek to love more and be loved less, that we should seek to be outward focused like God, seems similar to Crabb’s, but is more satisfying because we are no longer expecting our needs to be filled. Instead we are about the tasking of imaging God, and in the process, He will fill us with His love so that we overflow to others.]

Review: 9.0
This is not an academic book, but clearly Crabb has a deep understanding of human nature. This is a personal book, written in a personal style, with examples from his counseling patients that show the depth of what pain can be. Yet, he does not just show pain, but reveals the problem and as much of a solution as one can have. This book convicts and enlightens on every page. In terms of writing alone it will not stand the test of time, but the content is timeless and desperately needed. The only reason this book would not be a best-seller is if we really wanted to cover up our pain, rather than discover the God to whom our pain should cause us to run to.

[Dec. 2005: Changed from 10.0 to 9.0, because Philip Yancey’s Disappointment with God, which covers the same material is both much better written (Crabb does not clearly express himself, and one has to read his books twice—the first time to figure out what he is saying and the second time to understand it) and goes further. However, while Disappointment with God has more answers Finding God is a much more convicting book. It is written from pain and the message that we need to seek God’s goodness rather than relief from pain is unmistakeable. Read Finding God first, to be convicted, and then Disappointment with God for understanding.]