Let me tell you about my friend Holly. She’s mom to a 6-year-old; wife to a hard-working guy who loves her; dedicated servant of Jesus. But in 2007 — barely into her 30s — she was diagnosed with three chronic diseases.
Holly’s doctor said she’d suffer from pain and fatigue for the rest of her life. Fibromyalgia, adrenal fatigue, and hypothyroidism are a recipe for misery. The physician gave her medication that helped, but nothing made her symptoms disappear.
Holly’s Bible study group prayed for healing: Nothing happened.
Finally, after begging God over and over for relief, Holly traveled to minister at a home for Native American orphans. During her week of service, a staffer offered to pray once more. It couldn’t hurt to try, right?
But this time was different. Instead of going home disappointed like she had after every Bible study, Holly felt energy coursing through her body. And before her missions trip was over, she had stopped taking some of her medications, because the pain and fatigue had disappeared.
She went back to see the doctor, who told her those “lifelong chronic conditions” simply weren’t there anymore. Holly’s had no symptoms for two years now.
Let me introduce you to some other friends: a married couple named Mark and Jen. They serve in church, parent two preschoolers, and live in a remodeled farmhouse that once belonged to Jen’s grandparents. But that’s not the whole story.
Mark and Jen actually have three kids — it’s just that the first one didn’t make it. They spent plenty of time praying for a healthy baby; they faithfully walked with Jesus; Jen saw the doctor and did everything she was told to do. When her labor began months too early, she spent four days in the hospital while the obstetrician tried to stop it. Jen’s pastor prayed and anointed her with oil.
But in the end, Jeremiah Bennet was born hopelessly premature, and his parents were left to grieve for a child they never met.
With all the unwanted pregnancies in the world, Jen remembers thinking, why couldn’t the little boy that we longed for be born alive? After giving birth, she came home to a house that was ready to welcome an infant. The only thing missing was her baby boy. The stories of Holly, Mark, and Jen are true. Their last names have been omitted to protect their privacy.
In my last article, I tried to convince you that God can provide your needs in fantastic ways. It’s worth praying for healings and jobs and relationship: Jesus supplies them all. God delights in aligning our desires with His own, then answering prayers!
But not always, it seems. Not always.
Holly doesn’t know Mark and Jen. But if — through some of kind of supernatural tradeoff — she could’ve foregone healing to give life to Baby Jeremiah, I know she would have done it. It would have been a no-brainer: Who needs a miracle worse than a dying infant?
Yet Jeremiah died in Jen’s womb even as Holly went off her medications, because all of our heartfelt supplications don’t guarantee that God will act. We’re left shouting a one-word question to our silent, capricious Lord:
If you’re Holly and you just got healed, the reason might seem obvious: God likes you!I’m not suggesting that Holly has this sort of arrogant attitude (she doesn’t). I’m using her situation as an example of what can happen when we forget that our blessings are undeserved gifts from God. Clearly, you said the right prayers at the right times.
But if you’re stumbling through grief, all the reasons people can invent are cold comfort. After they lost Jeremiah, folks “encouraged” Mark and Jen with explanations for his death. “Your baby was too special to walk the earth,” people told them. “God must have needed one more angel in heaven.”
Maybe those answers helped their friends sleep better at night. Perhaps the friends needed to make sense out of a world that seems senseless — but they didn’t help Mark and Jen much. And perhaps, if those friends were really honest, inventing explanations for the unexplainable made them feel a bit superior.
I have three healthy kids; Mark lost his first one. Maybe he has hidden sin in his life.
If God let an earthquake wipe out half of Haiti, but the tornado in my town never touched down, the Almighty must like me.
They’d never put those atrocious sentiments into words, and I wouldn’t either. But I’ve thought them — almost without realizing it. Thank God this can’t happen to me, I think subconsciously, because I don’t do dumb stuff like THEM. Haiti had crummy building codes. Mark and Jen should’ve prayed harder for their unborn child. And if Grandpa wasn’t one of those rotten smokers, he wouldn’t have cancer …
Finding reasons for other people’s pain quickly becomes an exercise in arrogant blame. And if we can explain it, then obviously it won’t happen to us … because we’re better than that.
What If It’s Me?
Even when it’s my turn for hard times, I want a why — because my trust in the Almighty teeters on the brink as hope comes crashing down. I shout reminders to God that He works all things for good, but there’s nothing good in this.
I have to find something to shore up my waning faith, or maybe God isn’t there. So in my quest for answers, I accuse myself of wrong motives — of course the Lord didn’t work, because I wanted my prayer request for bad reasons. I listen to the people reminding me that this nightmare will make a powerful testimony someday. I convince myself something horrible might’ve happened if God answered my prayer.
In the end, those things may be true. But they’re also completely, tragically dishonest.
Instead of doing the honest thing, which is shouting “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I think I can one-up Jesus. See Matthew 27:46. As I pick up my cross, I don’t need to shout at the Almighty. I don’t need to tell Him I hate His guts and don’t believe He loves me, or mourn this agonizing world where 100 percent of the human race ends in a cemetery.
Instead, I’ll slip on my rose-colored Christian Glasses and invent a spiritually-correct reason for the pain. It’s OK, because God is good, all the time. Then six weeks later later, I’ll realize I haven’t talked to God or my church friends in a long time. I refuse to ask Jesus for anything and I’m vengefully committing sins because obedience doesn’t work.
Why did I lie to myself? I know that explaining away disasters is dishonest! God can bring good out of them, but that doesn’t make the disasters good. We live in a world where even inanimate creation is crying out for new life. So yes, cancer will claim your grandfather and earthquakes will decimate third-world countries.
God’s not sitting in heaven celebrating the positives that are coming someday. No! He’s on the ground in Haiti passing out hope and comfort and maybe the occasional miracle, because something has gone horribly wrong for people He loves. He’s grieving that Jen’s pregnancy went so horribly wrong, because the day when all things will be made new hasn’t come yet. He’s listening to the angry shouts and anguished weeping of His children everywhere, because although He hasn’t forsaken them, He knows that’s how it feels. Even God is dismayed over the suffering of creation, in spite of the good He knows will come — so we shouldn’t be quick to look for empty reasons. I first ran across those ideas in a column by Carolyn Arends called “Allow for Space in the Music,” published in the April 2010 issue of Christianity Today.
Years from now, we might understand why the earthquake or the stillbirth happened. But for now, it’s OK that we’re angry and sad at the same time. Because our God who once walked the earth knows a great deal about both.
The Real Quest
So when tragedy comes, our primary quest shouldn’t be for answers. It’s a treasure when God provides a few, but our mission should be to look for Jesus instead. Go ahead: Holler at Him. Doubt Him. Whatever you do, talk to Him through it all.
Don’t picture God’s Son as the silent, perfectly-groomed guy with a halo from the Sunday School pictures. He’s the Jesus you look to looking for Answers … but who stays silent, because He can’t be bothered with your problems. What could this silent, placid Christ with a holier-than-thou look on His face know about your hidden torments?
Instead, imagine Jesus with dirt under his fingernails and a gaunt weathered face and a little B.O. He’s lived through attempts on His life and virulent criticism that runs the gamut from demon possession to insanity. This Savior watched His father Joseph die, then left the rest of His family behind to pursue a mission. That Jesus — the real one, who’s not only God but also human — is listening. When you need someone not just to hear but to understand, He does.
So does His Father in Heaven. God watched His Son get tortured to death, so He knows something about loss. He resonates deeply with Mark and Jen.
Jen still thinks about Jeremiah baby sometimes, and wonders if her predicament now is kind of like her daughter’s. At age 2, Katelyn knows how to walk. She’s learning to communicate with Mommy and Daddy. And like any toddler, she’s making frequent use of her favorite word: “NO!”
In short, Kate thinks she’s learned enough to control her own destiny, but Mom knows better. There are things that Jen can’t explain to her little girl — even when Kate sees it as a betrayal. (How, exactly, do you tell a 2-year-old that shots are good for her?)
So Jen imagines that God looks down at her like she looks at Kate. He’s full of love but knows that Jen just can’t understand it all. Until she’s “old enough,” she’s left with blind trust, even for the things that hurt — trust like Kate must learn to have for her mother.
Of course, that doesn’t make things easy for mother or daughter. It means following someone they don’t understand.
Jesus was on the way to Bethany when He got the news. “Your friend Lazarus is sick,” the messenger told Him. The note came from Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters — two good friends who supported Christ’s ministry.
The disciples were immediately concerned and urged Jesus to get moving. Yet Jesus stayed right where He was for two extra days … and by the time He made it to Bethany, Lazarus’ funeral was in progress.
The disciples must have wondered what went wrong. The Great Physician told them on the road He was going to heal Lazarus. What good was a doctor for a dead man?
But we know how the story ends. Jesus heads to the cemetery and opens the coffin. In an irresistible voice that could command stones to dance, the Lord tells Lazarus to come out. And then this man, the one who’s been dead for four days, comes alive again! People marvel at the power of God’s Son. Mary and Martha get their brother back as people put their faith in Jesus. Lazarus lives happily ever after! For the full story of Lazarus, read John 11:1-44.
It’s a terrific, faith-building story. I just wish I could have it in my life.
If Jesus raised Lazarus, can’t He do it now? Why did Christ overwhelm Mary and Martha, and more recently my friend Holly, with joy? Why am I, or Mark and Jen, left to wallow in grief? The sad truth is, I don’t know. I could deliver some platitudes about how eventually, all of us will be raised. But I sure wish Jesus would have raised my Grandpa, or Mark and Jen’s baby, or a few of the dead in Haiti. Not someday — now.
Yet there is one part of Lazarus’ story that’s even more remarkable that the resurrection. Really, it’s not terribly amazing that Jesus brought Lazarus back: We expect that from a God. What should truly still catch us by surprise is the most succinct verse in the Bible:
The Lord was on His way to the cemetery, and He knew the Father’s plan. He knew Lazarus wouldn’t be stuck in his coffin but would be rising again within minutes. He knew the mourners were about to get the surprise of their lives and a celebration would result.
Yet as He approached, Jesus was still overwhelmed by grief. So the eternal, omnipotent God shed tears for His friend and his family.
Those tears don’t erase the hurt. They don’t bring Baby Jeremiah back from the dead and heal every harm from a third-world earthquake. But when our prayers aren’t answered and the miracle doesn’t come in time and we’re walking through the valley of the shadow, there’s something profoundly comforting about knowing we serve a God who weeps.
In the midst of tragedy, the tears of the Lord are worth more any other comfort. And maybe, just maybe, they’re worth even more than an answer.
Copyright 2010 George Halitzka. All rights reserved.