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Where the Light Fell: Philip Yancey

Family Life Today / Dave & Ann Wilson, Bob Lepine
The Truth Network Radio
February 16, 2023 5:15 am

Where the Light Fell: Philip Yancey

Family Life Today / Dave & Ann Wilson, Bob Lepine

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February 16, 2023 5:15 am

Bestselling author Philip Yancey, author of Where the Light Fell, recounts his unexpected path from strict fundamentalism to a life of compassion and grace.

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The Jesus I now know is very different from the Jesus I was taught as a kid. When I tasted that first gulp of what God's grace was, that God wasn't this monster in the sky. God was a passionate, loving, divine presence who wanted me to feel no longer fatherless, who wanted to adopt me.

It changed everything. Welcome to Family Life Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I'm Dave Wilson. And I'm Ann Wilson. And you can find us at or on the Family Life app. This is Family Life Today. So I got to ask you, are you excited today?

I'm super excited. Why is that? Because we have someone with us today that we have been a fan of for a long time. And I think- We're not fans of very many people, actually. But I think the reason I appreciate this man so much is because I know the struggle you have had intellectually, apologetically, in the Christian faith and your doubts. And this man really impacted you. Yeah, we have Philip Yancey in the studio with us today. Welcome to Family Life, Philip. Thank you so much. And you know, you don't know this about us and about me, but I came across Disappointment with God, your book in 1980?

What is it? I think in 89 or 90 it was published. Yeah, you don't even know how you've got so many books out there.

I didn't even know until I read your bio. Twenty-five books, is that right? There's probably more.

Is it 25? Twenty-five, a couple dozen. A couple million copies. I mean, we're talking like 17 million copies out there.

We wrote a little book. And you know, when you're an author and you hear somebody sold 17 million copies, you're like, oh my goodness. But I came across Disappointment with God early in my Christian faith. I didn't come to Christ until my junior year in college.

And I had never read a Christian author who had the guts to ask hard questions, doubts, questions, struggles. I thought I did not fit. I don't fit in Christianity.

I don't fit into church. Everybody there has all the answers. They're smiling all the time. They don't struggle.

Nobody would ever talk about struggle. So Disappointment with God, I think, saved my faith. It really did. I'm so glad to hear that, Dave, because I had a debate with a publisher on that title.

Really? Yeah, this was back in the late 80s, and they said, people don't have books like that in Christian bookstores. They're all about the Christian secret to a happy life and finding more fulfillment and abundant living and all that. And why don't you change it to something like How I Overcame Disappointment with God? And I said, those kind of people don't need a book. I want to reach people who are in the middle of it, because I'm in the middle of it. I've had the privilege as an author just to tell it like it is. I grew up in a church that did not do that.

I've been in recovery from it for a long time. So I made a decision when I started writing that I just have to be honest. And lo and behold, the more I read the Bible, the more I realized that's the most honest book I've ever seen. The greatest heroes, the giants of the Bible are people like Moses, who was a murderer, David, who was an adulterer and a murderer, Peter, who betrayed Jesus, just like Judas did almost, and Saul of Tarsus, who made his living persecuting Christians.

These are the cream of the crop. These are the giants. And they would all be canceled today. They would. I mean, you think about that. They would be canceled.

You wouldn't listen to anything they have to say. I'm excited because your latest book, when we read it, when Anne and I read it, it sort of puts all these pieces together of the things you've written. Because it's his memoir.

Yeah. I mean, the Jesus I never knew changed my life. And I've got to be honest with you, Phillip. I preached many sermons right out of the chapters of those books that people thought, wow, you're insightful.

I always said I got this from Phillip, but, you know. But I remember you coming out, and I think it was disappointment with God. And he came out with your book in his hand, and he said, this guy is me. This guy is me.

I'm just not that smart. But same struggles and questions. And then you write, and it just came out, Where the Light Fell, which is your memoir about your life. And I had no idea. As we picked it up and started to read it, I'm like, oh, my goodness. So much of what you write about is in your story. So today we get to talk about that.

Why now? Why this book? My wife calls it a prequel. She says this explains why Phillip ends up where he did and why he's obsessed. I think that's the word she uses, with topics like suffering, pain, and grace.

You know, those are the two themes that I keep circling around. And I think she's right. I look back on my life, and I had a lot of suffering growing up and a lot of joy after that. But I had never really metabolized at those early times. You've had a lot of guests. I'm sure you've had guests who talk about being saved from alcohol, from drugs, from pornography, from whatever. And my story is that I was saved from the church. I grew up in one of these real right-wing, legalistic, angry, racist, in fact, churches in the South. And it was a nurturing community in some ways, but in other ways, it really misrepresented God to me. And I emerged from that with this image of God as this scowling monster in the sky, just waiting to find somebody who might be having a good time so he could crush them. And it takes a long time to overcome something like that.

And I've been blessed to realize not only did I see the worst of the church, I eventually saw the best of the church. And to put that together, to try to filter out what is worth keeping and what should I discard, that's what my books are about. They're all idea-driven books. This is a different kind of book. It's a story book. It's the story of my life, especially the early life.

It was revealing to me, too. I had never written a book like that before. And I think in the book, I mention it somewhat like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces of my life. But I didn't know how they fit together.

And I had no picture on the frame, on the box, to tell me what I was putting together. Not until I finished did I realize, aha, that's why I write about pain. That's why I write about grace. And texted me the other night, we were in separate states, and she goes, I'm reading Phyllis Wilkin, I'm just crying. I'm crying. And you're crying right now. Yeah, because it's sad. It's sad to see Jesus or the church represented in such a way that has caused you so much pain, and your brother so much pain.

And so, I was really thrilled that you would write and share that with us, just to say that he's bigger than that. Jesus kind of rescued you from all of this. So, take us back about your parents. You never even knew your dad.

I did not. I was one year old when my little family's life changed forever. My parents were planning to be missionaries in Africa. They had already solicited supporters, and they had as many as 5,000 people who were committed to pray for them and to give them money. And they were in the process of getting ready to go to Africa.

I was just about at the age where they thought, OK, now we can leave. And then one day, my father woke up, and he couldn't move, couldn't move his arms, legs. They rushed him to a hospital, and he had polio. You talk about pandemics. We've been through a pandemic recently, and that was a fearful pandemic back in the 1950s and 40s, because it mostly hit children. And there are a lot of people over the next few decades you could see with braces and crutches.

And I went to school with several of them myself. My father was unable even to breathe on his own, so he was put in an iron lung in a charity hospital in Atlanta. He didn't get good care, and it wasn't, it was a very unpleasant experience. When he would hit the call button with his, I forget how he had to do it, but I think he just moved his nose a little bit.

He could move his head just a little bit. Sometimes the nurses would come, sometimes they wouldn't. And so he would have an itch or he'd have to go to the bathroom or, you know, just the simplest things, and he didn't get care. My mother was very faithful. She would leave us with neighbors and then spend all day just sitting with them in the iron, right beside the iron lung. How old were you, Philip, and your brothers?

I was 13 months, and my brother was three years old. And they both decided, this is no life for us. Surely that can't be what God had in mind. And some other people in their church said, yeah, you're right. I think maybe God wants Marshall, was his name, to be healed. And so they got together and prayed, and then finally they decided that's right.

God surely wouldn't choose for someone to die compared to going to be a missionary in Africa at the age of 23. So they removed him against all medical advice from the iron lung. And I didn't know this part of the story until I was about 18 years old. I found a clipping from the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, and it told the story. And it was written while he was taken out of the hospital, and he started to show possible signs of improvement. He thought he could wiggle a toe that he hadn't been able to wiggle. And there was a picture of my mother feeding him.

He's lying, had lost a lot of weight, just lying in a hospital bed on his back, and she's spooning some food into his mouth. And they talked about this great act of faith, believing that God would heal him, a story I'd never heard. And I looked at the date of the paper, and it was nine days before he died. And I realized, whoa, I've been living under a shadow that traces back to that event. And it was kept from me.

It was a secret. I knew that he died of polio, of course, but I didn't know that story of people who took a gamble of faith, a leap of faith, and they were wrong. And I look back on it, and these are not people who opposed him or were against him in any way. They loved him, supported him, but they did something that we don't really have the right to do. And I've learned that some people, I guess I'd put it this way, not everyone who claims to speak for God actually does so. These people were sincere. They believed in faith that he would be healed, but that's really God's prerogative, not ours.

We can ask, certainly, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but it's up to God. And I learned that truth that some people claim to speak to God worked out in all sorts of ways in the church I went to. I mentioned the racism of that church, which would turn people down at the door. They wouldn't allow people of color even to enter the church, much less join it.

And they saw blacks, African-Americans in particular, as an inferior race. And later I found out they were wrong about that, too, and wrong about some other things. Wrong about the image of God that I went away with. So all my other books, those 25 books that you mentioned, Dave, all of them are really my way of sorting out, OK, what is the truth here?

How can I find the truth? And I've spent a lot of time in the Bible. I was privileged to do an edition of the Bible called The Student Bible. So I went through every word in every book and it was my own education to sort out what my faith should be, what I could claim and what I should let go of. It's almost like, you know, as I read your book, here's one of my thoughts.

I thought, wow, Philip Yancey went through a deconstruction of his faith before there was a term called deconstruction. And you just explained it. What do I keep?

What do I lose? I mean, now that's pretty commonplace. I mean, a lot of our kids, you know, we just did some shows with John Marriott. He did his Ph.D. dissertation on deconstruction, deconversion. And he said 80 percent of our kids are in the church in high school, go to college and leave, you know, leave the faith. So they deconstruct. They don't keep anything. So walk us through that.

I mean, I'm guessing you're talking the 60s, late 50s, 60s when there's no black people in your church. They're not allowed. They stop them at the door. Don't let them come in. Gave them a little card saying, you're not welcome here. We know you're here just to cause trouble.

You're not a sincere follower of Jesus. But if you really want to know more, call this number. Is that what it said? I bet there were no phone calls. Oh, my goodness.

I don't think so. Yeah, I hadn't thought about that deconstruction thing, but you're right. And people are going through it. And frankly, I feel blessed because I've been able to make my living at deconstructing. You know, we all have these questions.

But most people have jobs. And my job is to ask these questions, you know. So for some 40 years, I can pick a topic like the Jesus I never knew that you mentioned or what's so amazing about grace.

Why did I write those books? Well, because the Jesus I now know is very different from the Jesus I was taught as a kid. What's so amazing about grace?

You know, what I care for the people who are going through that deconstruction now is not only that they discard what should be discarded, but they have something to hang on to. And in my case, I had experienced a lot of ungrace, ungrace in the family, ungrace in the church. When I tasted that first gulp of what God's grace was, that God wasn't this monster in the sky. God was a passionate, loving, divine presence who wanted me to feel no longer fatherless, who wanted to adopt me.

It changed everything. Grace is amazing. And as a journalist, I've had the privilege of going around and interviewing people whose lives have been transformed by grace. And in this book, I got to look at my own life and say, well, how did that happen?

What happened? And in my case, it was God choosing me, not me choosing God. God met me at a time when I was cynical and hardened and resistant at a Bible college, a place I didn't want to be. There would be faculty meetings and, should we kick Philip out of the school this week or next week?

Should we give him one more week? And I just loved kind of flaunting it. I mean, it wasn't because you weren't intelligent and smart, it was a resistance to the religion part of it. I would sit out in the patio and read books like Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell instead of Andrew Murray and people like that. So I was obnoxious, and it was a defensive shell against what I experienced from the church so far. And we had to have a Christian service at the time. So I signed up for what I thought was the coolest Christian service, and that was university work. There was a university nearby, and we were supposed to witness and have evangelistic conversations with people. But I would sit in the student center and watch basketball games. There were no TVs on my campus.

This is great. And then I would kind of make up stories about conversations that I had embellished. And we always had a prayer meeting. There were, I think, four of us. And we were in a dorm one evening, and Joe would pray, and then Chris would pray, and whoever else was there on the team would pray.

And they would pause politely for a few seconds. And of course, I never prayed. And I don't know what happened, but— You never prayed. I never prayed. And would you say at that time, I am not a Christian.

I don't even want to be. And yet, how do you end up at a Bible college? Well, there's a story, too.

I often ask myself that question. It was cheap, for one thing. And there were some parental issues that come through in the book as well. I had seen what happened to my brother when he made choices of his own. It wasn't pretty. But here I am in this room, and for some reason, I started praying. I just said, God. And everybody kind of got tense, like electrical charge hit the room or something. And I said, we're supposed to care about these 10,000 students at this university and try to keep them from going to hell. But I don't care if they all go to hell.

I don't care if I go to hell. And then it was really tense in that room. This is at a Bible college campus, and I was about to get struck by lightning. And I started praying aloud. This was completely unplanned.

I had never prayed and hadn't gone into that room intending to. And I guess I'd have to call it a vision. I wasn't asleep.

It wasn't a dream. But I started talking aloud about the story of the Good Samaritan. And what I said was, here we're supposed to care for these people, like the Good Samaritan cared for this tramp lying in a ditch covered with blood. And as I said that, that vision flipped in my mind. And I looked at the figure leaning down, and it wasn't the Good Samaritan. It was Jesus. And I looked at the figure in the ditch, and it wasn't a tramp who'd been robbed. It was me.

I mean, I saw that. It was in my visual screen. And I didn't know what to do. And I just kind of closed the prayer quickly and went away.

Just left the room, shutting the door behind me. And it just rattled me. Where did that come from?

Where did that come from? And I realized that was the truth, that God was reaching down, trying to heal me, my wounds. And every time he did, I would spit in his face. And I actually did that. And in the vision I had just seen, Jesus would lean down, and I would spit in his face.

And he'd lean down again, and I'd spit in his face. And I realized I was the neediest person on that campus. You know, here I had this shell, and I looked down on the other people, and they're not smart. They're gullible. They're naive.

They're happy-faced Christians. And I'm superior to all that. And then I realized how needy I was and how much I needed God's grace. So a week later, we were supposed to have a time to tell a story when God had spoken to us through the Bible, and I had no idea what to say. But this was such a powerful experience. And I had a girlfriend at the time.

I wrote her a note that night. And I said, I may have had the only authentic religious experience in my life. And I had gone forward 20 times, given my testimony hundreds of times. You know, you do that when you grow up in a church environment.

But none of them really felt authentic. And so when that class happened, again, much to my surprise, I kind of raised my hand, and at the last second was called on. And that was my coming out party. And I said, please don't come up to me. Don't say, welcome to the club. Don't do that Christian kumbaya stuff.

You know, just leave me alone. But I've got to acknowledge that this happened. And that changed everything for me. People ask me, with all the church abuse that you suffered, how can one experience like that change everything?

Well, that's like asking Saul of Tarsus. Why did you turn from a Christian persecutor to a missionary, a Christian missionary? Well, when you had an experience like that, and I've got to say, I've waited to tell that story in detail for my whole writing career, because as soon as you tell a story like that, people will say, well, that never happened to me. I didn't have one of those experiences.

And they're right. God deals with us in different ways. But God knew that I needed that. It was something that I didn't manufacture.

I wasn't even seeking. And God reached down in an act of great grace and mercy and said, I can work with you. I mean, in my mind, that is so fascinating how God met you. I've heard you say many times it was this hinge moment in your faith. And you think a guy like Philip Yancey is going to meet God through an argument, you know, proof. You know, you have a great scientific thinking mind.

I love how you write. And yet it's this personal, experiential, you gotta be kidding me moment, like you have a vision. I mean, is that shocking to you as well? It's like, wow, look at what God did, how he did it.

Yeah, it is. And the name of the book that we're talking about is Where the Light Fell. That title comes from a quote by St. Augustine, who said, I couldn't look at the sun directly, but I could look on the rays where the light fell.

And that's how I felt. I couldn't look at the sun directly. I'd been scorched. You know, my image of God was stained, and I couldn't look.

I didn't want to look. And as I tell in the book, there are three things that softened me up. The beauties of nature, that was my place, my go-to place in a difficult childhood. Just take walks in the wood, collect butterflies, all that kind of stuff.

Have a dog. So nature and classical music. My brother was an amazingly gifted musician.

I wasn't. I liked the classical music and could make a little of it. And then romantic love. And those three things, I think, were God's way of softening me. My church told me, one of these days, God's going to break you. God's going to crush you.

You know, God's going to punish you. And I was ready for that. But I wasn't ready to be romanced.

To be wooed. Yeah. And that softening process prepared me, I guess, for what God had in store. Did you attribute those three things to God? Well, I didn't at the time. However, as I look back now, there's a quote from, I don't think he initiated it. But GK Chesterton would often say it. He said, the worst moment for an atheist is when he has a profound sense of gratitude and has no one to thank.

And that's what it did for me. And you know, when you're in love, there's nothing like it. This is my first real love. And I would just wander around in the woods and just marvel at the beauty of what's going on. Yet I couldn't quite make that connection to God, because my image of God had been so stained. But I felt that longing, that desire to thank someone. And then I realized, if God is responsible for this world, for the beauties, the joys, the peak experiences we have, love, those things, that's a different kind of God than I was taught, that scowling, distant, angry presence. And I need to know more of that God, but I didn't know how to do that. And then the vision came. What would you say to the person that has that vision of God that, I had it too, like you, I got that from my church or wherever, I'm not blaming them, but I had that vision. How do you change that? If there's a mom or a dad, listen, our son or daughter right now is like, that's sort of how I see God. How do I get to where Phillip is?

What would you say? Well, just to how it happened for me, it only takes one person, Dave. It really does. And I had seen some of the worst that the church has to offer. And then I found a church that was, there was a beautiful church in Chicago. And then I found a man, Dr. Paul Brand. I've written three different books with him.

So I spent 10 years with him. I'm a journalist. So I spent my life interviewing people and finding famous people and trying to figure out what makes them tick. I've interviewed a couple of US presidents and scientists and very impressive people, but no one more impressive than Dr. Paul Brand. He was a scientist. He was also a physician. He worked with the lowest people on the entire planet. I guarantee you there's nobody farther down the social ladder than somebody in India in the untouchable caste now called Dalits who has leprosy. That's it.

That's the bottom. And here was this brilliant man who had been offered, would you be a head of orthopedics at Stanford or at Oxford University, and turned them both down to work among those people, the lowest people on the planet. And yet I had never met anyone more full of joy, more fully alive, more, he knew every bird, every butterfly, every plant.

He just was fully alive. And so I spent 10 years writing his thoughts and that was the period when my faith healed. I probably couldn't have written about what I believed at the time because I had no idea, but I could write with integrity about what Dr. Brand believed because he lived it out. He proved it to me.

And I would say to a person with that view of God, find somebody you most want to be like and follow them around and figure out what their secret is. The author David Brooks talks about the difference between resume virtues and legacy virtues. Resume virtues are what we're good at in America. How much money do you have? How many boards did you serve on? Where'd you go to school?

What kind of car did you drive? You know, we spend so much energy competing in that. The funny thing is when a person dies, nobody stands up and says, he had the foresight to buy Microsoft at a hundred, you know, they talk about he was a good man, he was charitable, he was generous, he cared for children. And we kind of inherently know that's what we should be like.

And that's just an image of, any sliver like that is part of the image of God in us. And I think if we find those people, what is their secret? In my life as a journalist, there are people who become deep followers of Jesus. They want to be like Jesus. And I eventually came around to that, but it takes some time because as you say, the church is not always holding up those qualities.

Often it holds up almost the reverse. You're listening to Dave and Anne Wilson with Phillip Yancey on Family Life Today. Stick around for Dave and Anne's takeaways from today's conversation.

That's in just a second. But first, Phillip has written a book called Where the Light Fell. It's a memoir and we'd love to send you a copy as our thanks when you partner financially with Family Life. You'll help more families hear conversations, just like the one you heard today. Conversations that point to the hope found in Jesus Christ.

You can give at or by calling 800-358-6329. That's 800, F as in family, L as in life, and then the word today. All right, here's Dave and Anne with some takeaways from their conversation today with Phillip Yancey. Yeah, I would say my conversion was similar in terms of I saw a different view of God through a different person. It's almost like somebody else incarnated the real image of God that I didn't know existed. And isn't it interesting, God always uses a person. Sometimes people can be antagonistic. We don't always consider where they've come from and the wounds maybe that they've experienced.

And we can love unconditionally and see people and love them well, remembering that we have a past and they may too, but we could love the way Jesus does unconditionally. And tomorrow, Dave and Anne are joined again by Phillip Yancey, where he shares about how the obstacles he faced in childhood created defensive walls in his normal life and his marriage. That's coming up tomorrow, we hope you'll join us. On behalf of Dave and Anne Wilson, I'm Shelby Abbott. We'll see you back next time for another edition of Family Life Today. Family Life Today is a production of Family Life, a crew ministry helping you pursue the relationships that matter most.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-20 23:19:51 / 2023-02-20 23:32:30 / 13

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