Every Christmas seems to bring me new knowledge of family and friends who are enduring difficult trials. And while I do truly enjoy the Christmas season, it also reminds me that there are hard things in my own life, things that cause me to turn, once again, to the truth of our good God’s sovereignty in everything for comfort and strength and peace. So each year I repost this post I wrote right after Christmas 2005. It’s theology, but it’s also—like theology usually is—practical. Because if you don’t wrestle with these things before the trials come, you’re going to be hit with a double-whammy when you find yourself struggling with your trials and wrestling with your view of God at the same time.
So here’s the annual repost of Getting Your Theology on Track.
Generally speaking, I’m a C. S. Lewis fan. I’m willing to overlook disagreements I have with his theology because of the clarity of his writing and his helpful explanations of some complicated things. There is, however, a book of his I didn’t like much—A Grief Observed. It was recommended to me as helpful to the Christian who is grieving, so I read it twice after my husband died, but I found it much more disturbing than helpful. Lewis’s wife’s death brought him to a place of real despair, a response to the death of a spouse that I tried to understand, but couldn’t, even though my circumstances were very similar to his. I couldn’t help wondering what his view of God’s relationship to suffering had been if something like his wife’s death could pull the rug out from under his faith.
That’s why I enjoyed reading this post at Triablogue. The whole post is good, but here’s the paragraph that I believe is crucial:
It is important to get your theology on track before disaster strikes. It won’t spare you heartache. But it will spare you gratuitous heartache, and it will hasten the healing process.
In what I believe was God’s providential preparation, in the years right before my husband’s cancer diagnosis, we came to a much fuller understanding of some things about God: that he is working his plan in every bit of the universe all the time; that he has righteous reasons for everything he does, even though we might not—and probably won’t—understand them; and that suffering and death, when they occur, are God’s chosen means to accomplish good things.
When the cancer diagnosis with its grim prognosis was announced, my first thought—really and truly—was, “Aha! We learned all that just so we could go through this.” We had no crisis of faith because we had already come to an understanding of God’s work in the world that included his choices of suffering and death as the best way to accomplish his right and good purposes. I won’t pretend that ours weren’t difficult circumstances, but I will say that we were not unsettled by them. No, they made sense from the get-go, because we already had a theological framework with a cubbyhole for difficult suffering.
I had a friend in Bible college who went on to have a child who was severely handicapped, and then, on top of it all, was horribly burned when his clothes caught fire on a burner in the kitchen. She wrote a book that explained the understanding about God that she and her husband had come to as a result of their child’s suffering. Some of the answers they’d been given when they questioned pastors and relatives about God’s role in their child’s suffering were what I consider to be orthodox and satisfying answers, but they found them unsatisfactory. She wrote that over time, they came to understand that for the most part God simply lets his universe run without intervening. Thinking of God as one who chooses not to interpose himself in affairs of the world was the way out of their crisis of faith. It allowed them to keep loving God and stop seeing him as cruel for not stepping in and keeping their child safe. When I read her book, I kept thinking that this solution to the problem of human suffering was much worse than the solutions they had rejected. How could anyone trust a God with a hands-off policy in his creation?
Someone else who went to the same Bible college and whose family, for a while, attended the same church as ours, became one of the more well-known proponents of open theism. He mentions his brother’s death in a motorcycle accident as one of the things that pushed him toward his belief that God does not know the future choices of human beings and takes the risk that bad things will happen in order to allow for autonomy in his creatures. I have the same question about the open theist’s God: How could I trust him?
Why have I told you these stories? Because these are two examples of people whose crisis of faith following tragedy led them to less-than-orthodox views of God. It sometimes works this way, I think, when people have no firm theology of God’s relationship to human suffering before a crisis strikes. It’s more difficult to come to see God as a God who knowingly works good things through suffering while we’re in the midst of it.
If you’ve already come to love a God who you understand to be purposefully working in all things—even the terribly tragic ones—for his good purposes, then you keep on loving and trusting him when real tragedy strikes you. And more than that: You cling to him as the only sort of God who could be a rock for you in difficult times. That you weren’t spared suffering doesn’t throw you for a loop, because you expected that somewhere, sometime, you would have your share of it as God conforms you to the likeness of his son.
You still suffer, of course, but you suffer knowing that there is meaning in your suffering, something that cannot be there if God is simply creation’s uninterested or unknowing overseer. You still suffer, but you suffer with God as a firm comfort and a source of steadfast hope, for you know that your tragedy, in his hands, is working good things.