Darkness closes in. It’s always been there, on the edges of my world, but I’ve kept it safely away with faith and hope, along with some denial and selective attention. I’ve focused on the light…the love of God, his final victory, goodness in people around me, beauty and tastes of joy.
Now the light has disappeared, and it’s only darkness. It’s everywhere. In our own home it’s the death of Samuel and the silence of God. In our neighborhood it’s the family whose 5th grader was just diagnosed with cancer. Their middle school son has already battled leukemia twice. This is too much pain for one family. I see darkness in the lonely, the hungry, the addicted, the victim. There are wars and famines and floods. There is brutality and abuse. The world is overrun with horrible, horrible darkness.
I find myself asking questions that have confused thousands of others before me. How can God allow this? If he hates it, if he is good, if he is powerful, how?
I know the usual answers. But I am surrounded by darkness, and they no longer satisfy me. They only worked when most of my world was light.
God, why did you take my son? It would have been better for you to take me instead.
Why have you hidden from me? I look to you for answers, but you cannot be found. You have left me when I’ve needed you the most.
You promised to be near to the brokenhearted, but I am alone and find no peace.
I wonder if God is different than I’ve believed.
I don’t doubt that God is there. Science and nature point me to something, or someone, bigger than what I see. To accept that marvelous complexity and beauty is random is too much of a stretch. I believe in a creator.
But what is the character of this creator? Beautiful and powerful, bigger than me. Those things I see.
Is he good?
I continue to get stuck on this.
He allows suffering. The Bible is clear about this, and my observations of life concur. There is a lot of suffering. He chooses to use suffering as a refining process, as a test of faith. He allows us to suffer so he will increase in glory, and to display his power. And sometimes suffering is a punishment. There might be more reasons too, but these he has acknowledged.
Is it good that God uses us, in painful ways, to promote his own glory? This seems to be what happened to Job. God wanted to show Satan just how faithful Job would be, so he allowed Job to lose everything. I admit, this story has always made me cringe. It seems dark. God comes across like a bully, and Job the victim. If God is good and just in using Job in this way, I have to reevaluate who I am in relation to who God is. This story makes me much, much smaller, and God much bigger than I find comfortable.
It’s one thing to consider these things in theory. When confronted with a taste of it, I found I wasn’t actually ready to go there. It’s easier to sing words of surrender on Sunday morning, set to a crescendo of worship music, than hold my child’s life before God with open hands. I would have failed Abraham’s test with Isaac. No, God. Not my child. That’s too much to ask. That can’t be good. I don’t want you to have full rights to my life if this is where it’s going.
How big is God? And how insignificant, exactly, am I? Am I willing to exist for his glory alone? Does God’s love make that all OK? And why in the world would God create us for his purposes, and then program us to want our own? It’s as if he designed us to be conflicted. He wrote it on our hearts to be fulfilled when we follow him, yet gave us free will to choose differently.
A set up, so he could be glorified?
Samuel suffered in his short life. Abandoned at birth, multiple caretakers, surgeries, all before he was two.
I saw pain in his eyes. He couldn’t voice the questions yet, but he felt injustice and emptiness in the world. I saw it in his eyes.
The woods outside my window are evidence of God. Trees growing tall, roots pushing down. Cardinals and squirrels and sometimes a fox. I love to study nature because it’s vastness and intricate patterns assure my soul there is a creator responsible.
Looking out my window I can believe the creator to be good to have made such splendid things.
I might believe differently without the warmth of my home around me. This winter day is harsh and cold and the very air tears at my skin. I was not born with a fur coat to be content in such conditions. Nature can be as harsh as it is wonderful.
I had to stop reading my Bible for months. Every time I opened it, I ended up in the Old Testament, even if that wasn’t my intent. I read with traumatized eyes, seeking reassurance in the middle of God’s silence in my life. As I read old stories I developed a new, frightening perspective. My loving God dissolved into someone cruel. Over and over, story after story, I couldn’t understand God’s behavior. It was so excessive, there could be no possible justification. My confusion grew.
The Old Testament is full of God punishing his chosen people for their failures. He demands obedience (rightfully so, if he is holy), and cracks down on drifters.
Deuteronomy 28 reads like an unbelievable doomsday movie plot as God lays out what will happen if his people don’t carefully follow his commands. There will be enemies, diseases, curses, boils, tumors, and famine. Their possessions will be stolen, they will be raped, they will starve and resort to cannibalism of their own children. It’s so terrible they will offer themselves for sale as slaves, hoping for a better life, but no one will buy them. And all of this will please God.
“Just as it pleased the Lord to make you prosper and increase in number, so it will please him to ruin and destroy you.” Deuteronomy 28:63
Moses encourages the people to agree to this covenant with God. He warns them again of the consequences waiting the person who disobeys.
“The Lord shall never be willing to forgive him, but rather the anger of the Lord and His jealousy will burn against that man, and every curse which is written in this book will rest on him, and the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven.” Deuteronomy 29:20
Ruthless. Maybe even spiteful.
Another example. We all love Lamentations 3:21-25. We cling to this promise, a beautiful expression of hope and renewal.
“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness…”
What we forget is that the majority of Lamentations is a heartbreaking account of the punishment God has brought on his people for their sins. He is angry and determined to tear them down. “He has overthrown you without pity” (2:17) and his punishment is so thorough even the infants and children are starving and dying. “…they faint like the wounded in the streets of the city, as their lives ebb away in their mothers’ arms.” (2:12) We find hope in our favorite verses, and ignore that God is the cause of the suffering in the first place.
You could say the people are justly punished for their sins. They are, after all, guilty of disobeying God. But if I punished my children the way God punishes his people, I’d be in prison. Or on death row. It’s that brutal.
C.S. Lewis, while grieving the death of his wife, put it this way.
Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’ C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
No wonder Jeremiah prays like this:
“Correct me, O Lord, but with justice; not with Your anger, or You will bring me to nothing.” Jeremiah 10:24
If I was only confused by my own experiences, I’d doubt my own doubt. We can misunderstand our experiences in so many ways. But I find darkness in the Scriptures too. The Holy Scriptures. That, I cannot dismiss.
I keep thinking, “I would never treat my own children this way.” And it’s true. I am ashamed if I do small things that make me look good but are not in their best interest. I would not punish them aggressively. What kind of parent would I be if I intentionally put my children in bad situations so I could show my cleverness and “love” by rescuing them?
That “love” would not be loving.
We would call this parent a narcissist. Abusive.
Perhaps it’s wrong to assume deity and humanity have the same standards in these things. Can something so wrong for me be good for God?
There are some who claim questioning God over suffering is just an excuse. They are satisfied that God will work all things for good in the end, so they are not bothered by the process. Those who doubt are being argumentative or using questions as a thin evasion, resisting God. I wish it was as simple as that. I wish I could forget the questions and go back to my unshaken faith. I do not want to be changed in this way. But I have learned things I cannot unlearn. The old pieces simply do not fit together anymore.
I cannot go backwards. I cannot regain what I had. It no longer exists, and the person I used to be doesn’t exist either. I can settle here, or I must push forward for something new.
It’s frightening enough when these thoughts fill my head. When I put them into writing, I shrink with dismay that I would dare to question (or am I accusing?) the creator of the universe. The boldness of my anger, the irreverence of my confusion, the tangled mess of my indignation and hurt… and I have the audacity to voice my complaints before God and ask for his defense?
I cringe at my own brashness.
Yet I can’t still the thoughts. They don’t yield back into peaceful submission.
I remember that I am not the first to come to God and lay a rash display of assumptions before him. Others have voiced desperate cries.
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? Ps. 13:1-2
How long, O Lord, will I call for help,and You will not hear? I cry out to You, “Violence!” Yet You do not save. Habakkuk 1:2
Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest. Ps. 22:1-2
And then Jesus, assuming the sins of the world…the very darkness that surrounds me now and demands explanation…cried out.
“My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?”
The most painful words ever spoken.
My doubts open the door to more darkness, casting shadows even on the most giving and beautiful moment in history.
These doubts I can not speak. They are too horrible.
C.S. Lewis was braver than I (or more foolish). He spoke the words I am afraid to acknowledge.
“Sooner or later I must face the question in plain language. What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, ‘good’? Doesn’t all the prima facie evidence suggest exactly the opposite? What have we to set against it?
We set Christ against it. But how if He were mistaken? Almost His last words may have a perfectly clear meaning. He had found that the Being He called Father was horribly and infinitely different from what He had supposed. The trap, so long and carefully prepared and so subtly baited, was at last sprung, on the cross. The vile practical joke had succeeded.” C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
I’m drawn to stories of suffering. Not, I think, in a morose way. But I need to see pain greater than mine, and I need to see how others have wrestled with these same questions and held on to their faith. Some have survived unfathomable darkness, and still choose to follow God. They don’t emerge with easy answers, or maybe don’t give any answers at all. They ask the questions, and somehow come to a kind of peace with God’s silent response.
I have been reading books by Elie Weisel, an Auschwitz survivor. In his memoir he describes how one night in the camp, while the others prayed on Rosh Hashanah, he rebelled against God as his hope.
“But now, I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy.” Night, Elie Weisel
He was angry, he had been betrayed by God, but he continued to wrestle with him. He needed to know how God had allowed so many of his people to be slaughtered. How could God watch the evil unfolding during the holocaust and not intervene? He would spend the rest of his life asking God for answers.
“I never stopped believing in God—that’s why I had the problem, the crisis of faith. If I had stopped believing, then I would have been much more at peace. It would have been okay to be disappointed in human beings. What else could you expect from a human being who is the object of seduction and all kinds of ambitions, right? It is easier if God doesn’t enter the equation. The moment you start to believe in God, then how can you accept the world? Do you then accept God’s absence? Do you accept God’s silence? God—why doesn’t he try to make people better, make them lead better lives and be kinder to each other? Why doesn’t he do it?” Elie Weisel, in an interview with Cathleen Falsani
“My life is not without faith. I didn’t divorce God, but I’m quarreling and arguing and questioning, it’s a wounded faith.” Elie Weisel, in an interview with Georg Klein
After decades, Weisel found a small satisfaction in God’s graciousness that allowed him to be angry and ask his questions, although he never received answers. In the end he could not walk away from the faith of his people and his childhood. His faith was not ignorant, nor did he overlook contradictions. He looked them head on, and still concluded that he was better with this disappointing and enigmatic God than without him.
Is it time? Is that the answer?
I am bound by time, to experience each allotted minute of my life, one by one. The hurtful minutes last the same 60 seconds as the pleasurable minutes. I cannot rearrange them, and I cannot quicken or slow their progression. I cannot repeat them or skip them.
Maybe God does not need to intervene in the injustice he sees because he is outside of time. He will make all things right in the end, which might be the same as right now to him.
But that would suggest that we experience evil more strongly than God, who is perfect in righteousness. That our hearts, which can be enticed by evil as quickly as we are repulsed by it, carry this burden alone. That God comforts us with promises of eternity because he doesn’t feel the pain.
But no, God suffers too. He longs, he grieves, he is pained by sin. Being outside of time does not shorten or lessen evil. It’s not as if God feels a mosquito prick while we feel open heart surgery.
God is hidden.
I am desperate for something from him. He has been silent since the accident. The heavens have felt empty. I don’t want signs, or wonders, nothing dramatic. I just want to see something of God.
I want to believe, but I also want to see. I want to know what I am believing. I want confidence of what is true.
Why doesn’t God reveal himself more to us? Wouldn’t it save much suffering and doubt if God would let himself be seen more clearly by those of us trapped by time and the limitations of human brains? If I could see God, a glimpse, would I be changed? Would I fall at his feet, my questions silenced? There is, in each of us, a desire to seek beauty, to praise greatness, to find security in love. God is these things, and is the rightful solution for our longings of these things, yet he hides.
God came, disguised as a poor carpenter, a man of sorrows. He had no beauty that we would be drawn to him. God, artist extraordinaire, and source of all things lovely, fashioned for himself a plain human body. The rightful king wore dusty work clothes and walked the countryside with a handful of rag-tag followers, trying to convince people who he was. Why the disguise?
“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” I Cor 13:12
Maybe love is better when it is hard. Maybe offering our love to a humble servant God is more pure than loving a God who has impressed us. Our faith is of greater worth because we believe what we cannot see. We must strive and seek God to have a relationship with him, and we can’t seek him unless he is hiding.
Is my husband’s love more pure if I make it harder for him to love? Should I pick fights, skip brushing my teeth, and ignore table manners so my husband can prove that his love is unconditional? Would his love be worth more if I had been sick our whole marriage, so he could care for me when I could offer nothing in return?
Is our love able to grow more when we keep secrets or when we are open?
I am frustrated because again God is not operating by human principles.
Isaiah saw God. He had one glimpse of God on his throne in heaven, full of glory. He fell, overcome by God’s holiness and his own uncleanliness. God allows Isaiah a second manifest gift, a powerful symbol of an intangible event…an angel touches a coal to Isaiah’s lips, taking away his sin and guilt. Then, when God asks for a volunteer, Isaiah jumps at the opportunity. He saw God, he experienced God’s graciousness in forgiveness, and he’s eager to serve.
Why is Isaiah the exception, instead of the norm?
It is, I think, a divine mystery.
The old pieces, the pieces that made up my understanding of God, no longer fit together.
Apparently I’ve focused on the qualities of God that benefited me the most. I thanked him for saving me from sin. I wondered at his glory, felt safe in his might, rested my identity in his love. I’ve sung about his faithfulness and mercy. I sought him for his goodness and trusted that he held my life securely in his perfect plan.
I’ve never denied his righteous anger, his wrath, his ways that are higher than mine…but I hid these volumes away on the top of the bookshelf, unread. Sometimes I’d look at the titles, but I never pulled them out and studied them. I didn’t make an attempt to reconcile these characteristics with my favorites, like love and grace. These were complex, over my head. And they didn’t have the same feel-good effects as the more popular topics.
Samuel’s death pulled these books down from the shelf, opened them, and shoved them in front of my face. I’m confused by what I learn as I read them. I’m getting themes in the story that I glossed over before, and so far they don’t fit well with the rest, the parts that were so loved and familiar and well-read. I don’t know how they tie together.
Maybe it’s a story that doesn’t tie together this side of heaven. Maybe it’s so gloriously elaborate, our human minds just can’t work it out.
I’ve often wondered at something Moses said.
“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.” Deuteronomy 29:29
There are secret things that belong only to God. What are God’s secret things? Could one of the secret things be how God can be good and punish his people with burning anger, at the same time? That’s a possibility, considering the context of the verse. Could there be untold complexities to God’s character and to the universe that we simply cannot understand?
I circle around this again and again. It seems to me I am faced with two choices, two answers.
Which is truth?
Neither is satisfying. I long for my old faith, a faith that believed completely and happily, even if I was looking at a partial picture. There was satisfaction in being naive.
The first choice, my initial reaction, is that it is impossible for a good and loving God to allow the level of brutality and suffering we see on earth. “He’s working it out for good in the end” and “He’s not responsible, because it’s our own evil choices” only work if I narrow my sights and focus on “small” sufferings. When I consider atrocities, the terribleness of children in horrific circumstances, the trauma just in the tiny piece of history I’m aware of—even then these arguments are hollow. No, God, if you are justice and good, you must do something! We feel our own guilt when we stand by evil and do not intervene. How can God not be cruel to see, know, have the ability, and yet stay silent?
The second choice is hard in a different way. It is to humble myself. Even though God designed us with shadows of justice and love imaged on our souls, I’m lacking the full picture. I cannot get beyond myself and understand. So I admit the boundaries of my mind, try and grasp the limitations of being human, and allow that there are mysteries to my Sovereign greater than my ability to know. What appears to be unfair, unjust, and unloving is not really so. God is good, and I exist for him.
In the second choice I let go because human contradictions are really divine mysteries.
The secret things of God…
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9
In the first choice, I lose God whom I have loved.
In the second choice, I lose myself whom I have loved.
People have been referencing Job to me since the accident. Always to my annoyance, since his suffering was far greater than mine, and since I’m uncomfortable with the book. I’m frustrated that God’s answer to Job was not to reassure Job of his love or goodness, but to reveal his power and authority. Basically, the answer is “I’m God, you’re not.”
Yet I find myself considering the very response that Job gave.
Then Job answered the Lord and said, “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted…Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…But now my eye sees You; therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes.” Job 42:1-6
This takes a new level of faith.
I used to believe even though I could not see, because it made sense.
It was faith rooted in logic.
This is harder. It involves believing something that does not make sense. It is choosing to believe against my logic, against reason, against pain and anger, because I am not willing to lose God.
It is faith rooted in love.