I was flipping through my cell phone in one of my high school classes this week when one of my students caught a glimpse of my screensaver – a picture of Jenna pulling her long curly hair out of her sweet little chubby-cheeked face.
“Who is that little cutie?” asked my student. And thus ensued the explanation, the shock on her face, my student’s consternation and pain at the thought that such a terrible tragedy has affected my life and that of my sons with whom she has been friends with since she came to our school. Her expressive eyes clouded over, and even later that day when the topic came up again they filled with tears. Our conversation felt oddly awkward since I was aware of myself flashing a smile while answering her questions. It was a smile that was meant to say, “It’s OK, don’t feel bad for noticing the picture and asking, don’t feel bad for uncovering this topic and making me share it with you, don’t feel bad for me or for my boys, we are really OK.” I was so conflicted about that smile. Did it make me look callous? Did it dishonor Jenna?
It is a conflict I feel every time this topic comes up. Here is the honest truth though. My smile rides on an undercurrent of peace that I cannot explain, and though it may sound callous or strange to an outsider, who cannot fathom ever experiencing the loss of a child, I can actually utter the words: “I am remarkably whole. I don’t walk around with a heavy heart.”
There is a “missing” that is always in the background when I kiss a toddler, or hear a little toddler voice sing “Old MacDonald had a farm,” or whenever I see little Abby Jensen being her cutie-petootie self. But I don’t consider myself or my family “damaged goods.” We don’t live in the past, instead we look forward to seeing Jenna again. Sometimes when I am worshipping God Jenna seems so close, like she is joining in.
That afternoon, I mentioned my student’s reaction to a group of friends. See, she seemed to be devastated by the news about Jenna. It hit her like a punch in the gut. And I think I can guess at a possible reason why. I suspect that this girl, along with so many teenagers I know, is going though some pretty heavy stuff herself right now. Stuff that has made her seriously question God. Hearing about Jenna just helped her to chalk up another indictment against God. See, how can he be a good God, if he let such an agonizingly painful thing happen to “good people”?
I am hoping for an opportunity to talk to my student at some point, but the reason I am writing this post right now has to do with the conversation that ensued with my friends after I mentioned all of this to them. We had a friendly theological debate, if you can call it that.
One friend started saying how wrong it is for Christians to blame God for bad stuff that happens, that we need to stop saying that God allowed it to happen for a reason. She felt that too many people lose sight of the fact that we live in a fallen world where bad things happen just because they do. That we have an enemy who can cause havoc when he wants to. Her argument is that if God was behind the tragedies and suffering in the world, how can anyone trust in his goodness and his kind heart towards them?
I suppose my answer will be one that you, my reader, are going to love or hate depending on your worldview. I can’t help that, but I do hope you will hear me out and consider my thoughts.
I told her that if I had to have that point of view I would have fallen apart, because it somehow suggests that the hand of satan trumps the hand of God. Her philosophy implies to me that there are things that happen to us in this life that come about because God chooses to turn aside and turn a blind eye. I needed (let me say it again, NEEDED) to know that above all, in everything that happened, God was there, that he knew about it, and that he was sovereign. Anything else would have set my world on a very shaky foundation.
If God had simply turned a blind eye and allowed satan to take over the reins of the world for a spell, it would have caused me to wonder: “Should I have prayed more? Did I do something to open a door for satan? Was it my failure that caused this tragedy?” Self-blame and loathing would have followed – it would have caused me to self-destruct. It would have also left me in the position to wonder when the next devastating blow might come. I would have become a victim to fear and uncertainty.
My trust in a sovereign God made me feel secure in the knowledge that while I didn’t know why this happened, he allowed it, and not out of a place of vindictiveness or in a desire to punish. I knew without a shadow of doubt that he loved me, and that he is a good God who only has our best interests at heart.
But how can a good God allow bad stuff, you ask? Some of you even ask if there CAN possibly be a God, seeing that there is so much suffering and tragedy in the world. I cannot claim to answer that question. I can tell you what I think.
Note, first of all, that I think God ALLOWED it, not that he actually did it. There is a difference. I don’t believe that God makes bad stuff happen – I actually think our sorrows make him weep too.
I think God is not like us. Instead of living in a world of time and space, of birth and death, beginnings and endings, he lives in an eternity where all things are reconciled and made beautiful. He has the advantage of a perspective that you and I don’t have. He sees how it all plays out. I have actually experience glimpses of that eternity in times of prayer and worship, and it is a beautiful place where I truly believe all pain is wiped away. When Jenna looks down on us she doesn’t blame us for her short life, she doesn’t regret reaching for that ball and falling into a pool, she doesn’t wonder why I never took her for swimming lessons. She rejoices when we rejoice, she cheers our successes on, she shrugs at our failures because she knows that in the end it will all be made beautiful in his time. She looks forward to the day we will meet again as much as we do.
I think our perceptions of pain and suffering are miniscule in the light of such an eternity. I think when it all plays out, when we are there on the other side looking back at this mess called life, it will not matter, because God will have redeemed it all and made it all beautiful in his time.
I have an unshakeable conviction of the goodness of God. I know his heart towards me, that his plans for me are for good and not evil. See, evil is not the presence of pain and suffering. Evil is a bitter heart. Evil is being filled with hate and unforgiveness and self-loathing. Evil is where there is no peace and no hope of reconciliation. Pain and suffering always comes to an end, but what we carry in our hearts lingers on.
There is a place in God where you can feel pain and yet have indescribable joy. Where a song can fill your darkest night. Where you can feel his sweet presence washing over you and carrying you though. I am not guessing at this, folks. I have lived it.
I know God is good, but I also know he is sovereign. I can trust in his sovereignty because I know he is good. Things do not always make sense, but it does not matter because I know who undergirds my life.
I prefer to think that God knew, that he didn’t turn a blind eye (except for perhaps glancing away briefly at the time of my deepest pain because it overcame his heart with pain too) but that he was there ALL ALONG.
I am not trying to come up with pat answers. I am not trying to predict an outcome or form a neat little construct of how God made “good” come out of my suffering. I don’t know that anything good did.
I do know that he was with me. And I do know that his nearness in my time of sorrow was something so precious, that I would walk that road again, if I had to.