Catherine Marshall (1915-1983)

Excerpt from "Beyond Our Selves"

....A few years ago I was asked to conduct a Sunday-evening seminar at an exclusive girls’ boarding school in the Virginia countryside outside of Washington, D.C. When I arrived, I found the high school sophomores grouped informally around a large living room, some sitting on the Oriental rugs before a blazing fire.

The students had been told that they might ask any questions they wished. After the first few minutes it became obvious that while these were intelligent girls, their questions uncovered a most basic misunderstanding of God. One girl voiced the query that is always asked at every church young-people’s conference: “What about people in remote parts of Africa or certain jungles of South America who have never heard of Jesus Christ? Will they be condemned to eternal torment? What would be fair about that?”

Another girl, who had obviously been studying sociology, chimed in, “Let’s bring the question closer to home. What about individuals who become criminals because they were born into slums or other terrible surroundings where they had no chance from the beginning? How could God be just and blame them?”

A beautiful fifteen-year-old posed the one that really tugged at my heart” “There’s something that really bothers me…” I saw that she had tears in her eyes as she tried not to make obvious what she wanted most to ask: “My mother and father seldom go near any church. Will God condemn them to eternal damnation for that?”

I was shocked at the terrifying illusion of God that these questions revealed. The mother and father of the fifteen-year-old were dear to her. Did God love them less than she? And how would she ever be able to trust her Creator with her own happiness so long as her only emotion toward Him was terror?

The family love that was so implicit in this girls’ questioning reminded me of what my own joyous childhood had taught me: God would scarcely give fathers and mothers a greater capacity for loving their children than God Himself has for loving all His children. I suggested to the girls that God would not have bothered to create father-love and mother-love in the first place, if He himself did not have it in great abundance.

Then as I told them of my own gropings toward this answer, I thought of how grieved God must be that any of His children should cower before Him in fright. And I realized how often we attribute emotions and deeds to God that we would ascribe only to the most depraved of human minds. Probably no personality in the universe is so maligned as the Creator.

Soon after the evening at the girls’ school, I came across this same thought in one of Hannah Whitall Smith’s books:

…The amazing thing is that all sort of travesties on the character of God and libels on His goodness can find a welcome entrance into Christian hearts…Nothing else matters as much as this, for all our salvation depends wholly and entirely upon what God is; and unless He can be proven to be absolutely good and absolutely unselfish, our case is hopeless…

Then Hannah Smith relates how she discovered for herself the unselfishness of God. Between the ages of sixteen and twenty-six, she passed through a period of skepticism. During this period, God had seemed far-off, an unapproachable Being, a stern and selfish Taskmaster, an Autocrat. She asked exactly the same question that the sophomores in the girls’ school had asked me that Sunday evening: What about those who are born into situations for which they are not responsible and from which they cannot escape? Would vast numbers of fellow human beings therefore be doomed to eternal punishment for what they cannot help? Most of the church groups in her day taught that they would be. But, Mrs. Smith wondered, would that be justice from a Creator whose tender mercies were said to be “over all His works”?

Hannah Smith began to see in every face the anguish which resulted from sin’s entrance into the world. She came to be grateful that the fashion of her day dictated veils for women in public; at least the faces before her would be blurred.

One days she was riding in a tram-car along Market Street in Philiadelphia. Two men came in and sat down opposite her on the straw seat. When the conductor came for the fare, she was forced to raise her veil to count out the change.

She looked up and saw clearly the faces of the two men opposite her. They were lost, debauched-looking. Not only that, but one of them was blind. A new flood of emotion rose to engulf her. In her thoughts she railed against God: “How can You bear it? You might have prevented all this misery, but You did not. Even now you might change it. But You do not. How can You go on living and endure it?”

Suddenly there on the tram car, God seemed to answer her. The word lost blazed with a tremendous illumination: nothing can be lost that is first not owned. Just as a parent is compelled by civil law to be responsible for his family and property, so the Creator—by His own divine law—is compelled to take care of the children He has created. And that means not caring only for the good children, but for the bad ones and the lost ones as well.

So the word lost came to be for Mrs. Smith a term of greatest comfort. If a person is a “lost sinner” it only means that he is temporarily separated from the Good Shepherd who owns him. The Shepherd is bound by all duties of ownership to go after all those who are lost until they are found. For Hannah Smith, the question about the plight of individuals who have had little chance in life was forever answered. “ Who can imagine a mother ever dropping a search so long as there is the least chance of finding a lost child?” Mrs. Smith wrote. “The God would be more indifferent than a mother? Since I have had this sight of the mother-heart of God, I have never been able to feel the slightest anxiety for any of his children. We can trust Him…”

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