He was at the Christian Resources Exhibition in Esher, Surrey, this week, to deliver a reassuring message of God’s ability to redeem even the most broken of lives and work through every season of the soul.
He spoke honestly about his own bad experiences in the church, even describing the church he grew up in as “toxic”.
It was an unhealthy church, he shared, a church that “represented death in many ways, not life”, and he grew up expecting God to “smash” his hard and cynical shell.
That was not the case, however.
“That was the image of God given to me in the church [but] God didn’t do that,” he said. “God melted that shell through life, through spring. Nature was a part of that, love was a part of that.
“I found that the world was a good world, a world full of joy and life, and I wanted to know that [kind of] God.”
And for Yancey, that is what the season of spring is all about: the old life melting away and a new life beginning, just like change experienced by the woman in the Bible who broke her alabaster jar and poured her expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet.
That act was, Yancey said, a symbol of her readiness to leave her old life behind and, from that moment on, entrust her life completely to Jesus.
Summer, meanwhile, is a time of joy and celebration and it is this that Yancey wants to see much more of in the church.
“It’s a time when we celebrate life and we enjoy the great world that God has given us. Some people in churches start feeling guilty when they are happy.
“That’s not Jesus. Jesus said: ‘hey, why are you fasting? The Kingdom of God is here. It is time to party, it is time to enjoy the great world we’ve been given.
“That’s the message that I wish we in the church could communicate more and more because so many don’t see the church as a place of celebration, a place of joy, a place of good news.”
That need to remind himself and the church of the “goodnewsness” and “counter message” of the Gospel is partly what inspires him to write.
“We know how the world works, we saw it just last week,” he said, referring to the killing of Osama bin Laden.
“You bomb my country, I’ll bomb you back. You kill my people I’ll kill you back. That’s the way the world runs.
“And then there comes this force like grace. Even if you are an enemy, even if you are a terrorist there is another way, another force.”
It is that force that can work in and through Christians to spread the Gospel even where it looks like things are dying out.
“I know it’s easy in the UK, with your history to look back at the church and get discouraged and despondent. Go back and read the images of the Kingdom of God that Jesus gave. They are all small things,” he said.
“It is a sprinkling of yeast that percolates through the whole loaf and causes it to rise. It is just a sprinkling of salt that preserves the large hock of meat. It’s the smallest seed in the garden that falls into the ground and grows into a great bush and the birds of the air come and nest in it.
“I’m not discouraged because I believe God honours true faith and that God brings life and joy and goodness out of our squeaks and squawks.”
Just like the leaves change colour and eventually fall from the trees in autumn, our faith can also get old and doubts can creep in. Or we can be tempted by things that seem like they would give us freedom – things like money, drugs, alcohol or sexual promiscuity.
The changing colours of the leaves in autumn are, he said, also a “harbinger of death”.
“In the US, the 10 top health problems are all things that we do to ourselves. We drink too much, eat too much, work too much, have sex with too many of the wrong people. We are free but freedom can lead to a kind of slavery.”
After working for decades as a journalist, Yancey has interviewed many famous people with seemingly enviable lives and yet, in the end, Yancey says he doesn’t want to be like them.
“The world says you gain your life by getting more and more and more and more, but Jesus says ‘no, that leads to death. You get it back by giving it away and when you give it away you get it back’.
“People who think they are free eventually end up slaves to their own desires and those who give their freedom away to the only one you can trust with that freedom eventually get it back.”
Yancey pointed to Paul as one such person who made himself a slave to Christ and chose to give away his freedom, only to gain it back again.
Just like autumn is a season to offer up thanks for the harvest that has been brought in, Christians can offer up thanks to God because all things work for his glory and our own good, Yancey believes.
“Some of us are stewards of pleasure, some of us are stewards of pain. Some of us are stewards of success, some of us are stewards of failure. Some of us are stewards of joy, some are stewards of disappointment.
“The key in each of these cases is to live before God as the one body so that we like Paul can say: in whatsoever state I am, I will be content.”
Similarly, believers can find themselves in hard times – seasons like winter – but the resurrection promises that something good will come out of it.
“I think of pain as our hearing aid,” said Yancey. “We can turn up the hearing aid and listen to the messages that we can learn.”
Yancey knows a thing or two about hardship. He almost died when his neck was broken in a car crash several years ago. He was invited to speak at Virginia Tech after a student went on the rampage killing 32 people before taking his own life. He was in Mumbai at the time of the 2008 terrorist attacks.
Although he has no answers for why hard times happen, one thing Yancey said he was sure about was how God feels when we go through them.
“God gave us a face, a face that is streaked with tears,” he said, as he pointed to Jesus’ compassion for widows and the Roman soldier who wanted his servant to be healed.
Quoting Christian philosopher Dallas Willard, he said: “Winter comes but nothing irredeemable can happen to you. Nothing beyond the redemption of God can happen to you.”
In fact, he went on to say, just like trees do most of their growing during the winter months, so it is with people.
“If you did a survey of Christians and asked ‘when did your spiritual formation kick in?’, almost all of them would say hard times, painful times, winter times.”
In that sense, Yancey believes winter does not have to be a time of death and despair. It can be a time of hope and of resurrection.
Just like the prophets talk of the healing of nations, of old people walking unafraid down the streets, of streams in the desert and wells coming out of dry ground, we can know who God really is because we can “see how he rights the wrongs of this planet”, said Yancey.
He concluded: “We all face that final cold, hard pull of winter [but] the promise that we have all the way through the Bible is: that is not the end. God promises to restore to the original design.
“May you experience that thaw, that promise that the spell will be broken, that the snow will begin to melt, its moisture seeping into the ground until the tulips bloom, until your faith blooms again and spreads throughout this great land.”
Yancey is on tour throughout the month of May, hosted by chief executive of the Flame Trust, Dave Pope, and accompanied by the Saltmine Theatre Company.
Find out more at flametrust.org/philipyanceytour.html