One morning last spring, I chauffeured my wife Beth to a place where she would spend the day marinating in chemicals. I watched her pause and look back before she closed the car door. “This is just where we are,” she said. “You’re dropping me off for a chemotherapy appointment.” It felt like something other people did (older people), or like some scene from a movie (cue light rain).
That same morning I noticed a card on her desk. It said, “I know what to do when life gives you lemons, but what about Brussels sprouts?” Actually, she loves Brussels sprouts. To me they are little green pine cones that stink when steamed. I can’t imagine squeezing them. So I caught the irony.
When life does smell up the kitchen, people can become far more acerbic than that card. For example, “Does God even notice what’s happening here?” Some questions help sort things out better than others. But to get to a good question, sometimes we just need permission to ask.
Permission to ask
A question can be a complaint with alternate punctuation. Sometimes it’s just to protest how the universe is being run. Bitter questions seek to bulldoze meaning and accountability with it. Those questions seek autonomy, not answers. Even so, asking is a form of confession, an admission about what’s already bubbling under the surface.
What part of God’s plan is suffering? We can’t always know the value of a valley when we’re in it; life is lived forwards and better understood backwards. But meanwhile we might wonder, “Is it okay to wonder?” Answer: Yes. Dozens of Psalms demonstrate permission to ask.
“Great faith is the product of great fights,” Smith Wigglesworth said. Anyone who fights has expectations. They sense the world is a little off its axis. Something has told them life is not fair and look to some high court. Where did they get this idea life is supposed to be fair? It is a kind of revelation to believe things should be a certain way. Notice that word belief? Great fights can lead to great faith.
A bigger frame for a picture of suffering
One of the wisest men I know (well, I don’t know him personally) wrote one of the most artful and celebrated letters of all time. In it he said this: “All things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose” (Paul, in his letter to the Roman church).
I take heart in the fact that Paul doesn’t say “all things are good.” A faithful response to cancer or any uncertainty is neither a stiff upper lip nor a glib optimism. In other words, faith is not wishful thinking about life beyond our circumstances but a posture of trust in the midst of them. True faith during difficulty is not a bible-quoting version of denial. Faith with any integrity can be both sorrowful and hopeful.
Everyone suffers—some more than others. Even the one man who lived without sin lived with suffering. If we are willing, suffering can become a wake up call from smugness, from illusions of independence. It can jolt us awake to a life no longer centered on self.
Job flings one riddle at God, God flings back at Job a hundred riddles, and Job is at peace. He is comforted with conundrums.”G.K. Chesterton
Thoughts, feelings, actions
Sometimes we must embrace the fact that a God who is bigger than the boogieman is going to know a lot more than we possibly can from our time-bound, limited view. This is called good theology. It helps us face reality, and in that honesty, to ask better questions, like–
How can I greet this day with hope and yet authenticity?
How might my that authenticity connect with someone living without hope today?
Am I ready to trust a sovereign God acquainted with the grief of a broken world?
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. -Isaiah 53:3