"Everyone under the sun suffers the same fate….There is nothing ahead but death." - Ecclesiastes 9:3-4
In some ways, in a lot of ways, it’s a good thing. I’d hate to be stuck on this broken world forever. One lifetime provides quite enough suffering.
And it also makes one grasp the preciousness of every moment. Next semester my campus group is kicking of the semester with a Carpe Diem theme. Seize the day. Take advantage of everything that you have now and do something meaningful. Don’t waste your life. Don’t take the relationships you have around you for granted. Take joy in your life. Make your days matter.
"So go ahead. Eat your food with joy, and drink your wine with a happy heart, for God approves of this…Live happily with the woman you love through all the meaningless day of life that God has given you under the sun. The wife God gives you is your reward for all your earthly toil. Whatever you do, do well." - Ecclesiastes 9:7-10
There’s a balance to be had in the spectrum between rash, emotional decisions and over-planned, tentative living, but I think sometimes I fall too close to the latter. I’d live my life a bit differently if I thought it’d be much shorter, or if the lives of those around me were much shorter. I’d take more risks. I’d probably get married sooner, spend more time with people, and take some crazier trips to places I’ve always wanted to experience.
I don’t really have much to say. It’s been a hard week.
What do you do with someone else’s suffering? When you want to do something, but you can’t do anything? When it begins to wear on you and worry you and becomes too much to bear? What happens when you feel yourself begin to lose control? When everything begins to break down?
I usually try to fix things myself, or I turn to other people and cling to them like someone drowning. It rarely works.
The only hope we have in this life is Jesus. I must cling to him.
"Look your hardest, dear. I wouldn’t hide if I could. We didn’t idealize each other. We tried to keep no secrets. You knew most of the rotten places in me already. If you now see anything worse, I can take it. So can you. Rebuke, explain, mock forgive. For this is one of the miracles of love; it gives- to both, but perhaps especially to the woman- a power of seeing through its own enchantments and yet not being disenchanted" - Lewis, A Grief Observed, 89.
I hope I can always say likewise.
And he continues:” To see, in some measure, like God. His love and His knowledge are not distinct from one another, nor from Him. We could almost say He sees because He loves, and therefore loves although He sees” (89-90).
How amazing it is to be loved by the One who holds all things.
"Don’t be surprised if you see a poor person being oppressed by the powerful and if justice is being miscarried throughout the land….matters of justice get lost in red tape and bureaucracy" (8).
We are broken. We all know that we are. There are parts of us that are empty and just ache so. You can try to fix your own brokenness with money or people or things that make you feel good for now. It won’t work.
Money runs out.
"Those who love money will never have enough. How meaningless to think that wealth brings true happiness! The more you have, the more people come to help you spend it. So what good is wealth- expect perhaps to watch it slip through your fingers!" (10-11)
And everything else eventually passes away. Possessions wear out and break. People leave. All falls to pieces.
"We all come to the end of our lives as naked and empty-handed as on the day we were born. We can’t take our riches with us" (15).
And all of this seems quite hopeless. We seem quite trapped in our fate. But there is one who has come to give life, abundant joyful life.
"To enjoy your work and accept your lot in life- this is indeed a gift from God. God keeps such people so busy enjoying life that they take no time to brood over the past" (19-20).
I want to be so busy enjoying the life God has given me that I have no time to bemoan what has passed. This I think is what it looks like to seize every moment. I want to live in celebration. I want to live in joy.
"As you enter the house of God, keep your ears open and your mouth shut. It is evil to make mindless offerings to God. Don’t make rash promises and don’t be hasty in bringing matters before God. after all, God is in heaven, and you are here on earth. So let your words be few" (1-2).
So opens the fifth chapter of Ecclesiastes.
I know that I often deny God the reverence he deserves. It’s easy to think of him as a friend, the One who never leaves, a lover, a father, and to forget that he is the Sovereign God of all creation, who holds all things together, who deserves all glory and honor, who rightfully demands that all things bow before him. He does not exist for my benefit; I exist for his. And thus, that what I do in his presence, especially when I come before him to pray and to worship, should not be done thoughtlessly. I serve a God above all others, a holy, righteous, perfect, infallible, unfailing God. Yes, I should be honest before him, I should be myself in his presence, I can be confident in his perfect love. But this does not mean being insincere or irreverent. And it does not mean that it’s okay for me to ramble and prattle on. I know that God loves me more than anyone will ever be able to, I know that he loves me in the midst of my quirks and shortcomings, and I even like to think that he smiles at the little tics of personality that I have (such as fumbling over words and tending to rant on certain issues). But I must remember just whose presence I am sitting in. (With this comes one of the other major themes of this passage. Don’t make empty promises to God. If you tell him you’ll do something, do it. Otherwise, don’t make that promise at all.)
In addtion, when I think about it, I often fail to give God even the smallest bit of consideration that I give to my friends. By this, I mean that I fail to listen. So often my interactions with God consist of me talking to him for a short or long period of time, then saying goodbye and going on my way. Sometimes I’m talking about how great he is, sometimes I’m making requests, sometimes it’s a mixture of the two. But I don’t stop to sit and listen to him. If I treated any one of my friends like that, our friendship would fail. It’s not too much of a stretch to think that God doesn’t take kindly to that either. He wants to speak into my life, to tell me about himself, about what he is doing, to give me guidance, to give me missions for others, to show me how he wants to use me. But he can’t (or at least it’s much more difficult) if I don’t listen. I like the way Solomon puts it:
"Talk is cheap, like daydreams and other useless activities. Fear God instead" (7).
So I will come into God’s presence, mouth shut and ears open. It’s time to listen.
"When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’
Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we aks- half our great theological and metaphysical problems are like that,” - Lewis, A Grief Observed, 86-87.
I’m sure well over half my questions have been unanswerable.
"Peace, child; you don’t understand" is an answer I’m sure I’ve received many times.
The problem is living at peace with that, patiently awaiting the day when the glass will no longer be lit so dimly.
I left the Lewis book at home today by accident, which might actually be a blessing because I desperately need to be in the Word anyway. This semester I haven’t been having the greatest go of it as far as faithfulness goes. I suppose it goes back to Hebrews 12: discipline.
But back to the point at hand- I’m now in the fourth chapter of Ecclesiastes, which again seems so suited to recent events. It opens:
"Again I observed all the oppression that takes place under the sun. I saw the tears of the oppressed with no one to comfort them. The oppressors have great power and their victims are helpless" (1). It’s that time of the year when we’re studying the capitalist world system and the havoc wrought by free trade agreements, subsidies, and wage undercutting. We’ve watched interviews with migrants so desperate to get to the US where there is at least some economic opportunity for them to better the lives of their families that they are willing to risk injury, rape, or death again and again. We’ve traced how some have profited massively off of others’ exploitation, while the exploited remain trapped in an endless cycle of poverty, pain, and hopelessness. Oppression is everywhere still.
And it begs the question of how I, living in the wealthiest nation on earth, can do anything to help, to change something, to ease the oppression, when it is built into the entire system in which I live that is so much larger than any individual. Should I strive to be successful if I know that my success is possible only because of someone else’s exploitation?
Another point is added: “Then I observed that most people are motivated to success because they envy their neighbors. But this, too, is meaningless- like chasing the wind” (4). Ambition motivated by envy does seem very meaningless and unfulfilling. but what about ambition itself?
I’ve never considered myself an incredibly ambitious person. I’m not very motivated by money- it’d be nice to be rich but that’s never really been my goal. There’s things I would love to do, but I didn’t pick the career path I’ve chosen for the salary I’ll get (in fact, it’s quite the opposite). Power isn’t the point either; the last thing I really want is to become some high politician. So this seems to preclude me from the ambitious category, at least in my mind.
But I do want to be significant, to be remembered for something. I want to write a groundbreaking paper, to cause some sort of social change, to draw attention to something that matters. And this, I do think is ambition. And there’s another form of ambition at work in me. According to a friend (and I think she’s quite spot-on), I am highly motivated by ideals. I tend to be a martyr-type. I’d love to sacrifice my life, my work, my happiness for some greater good and be remembered for that. That’s what would make it all worth it. Sometimes the cause has to do with ministry and furthering the Kingdom. Sometimes it’s Chechnya or child soldiers or the rights of women. But I want to be remembered as driven, as passionate, as tenacious, as a crusader for the oppressed, as someone willing to sacrifice for something greater than themselves.
This ambition is far from bad. I like to think that it will drive me to do great things, for the people around me, for people far away, for people created in the image of God who are suffering from injustice and oppression. I like to think that it will help to further the Kingdom, to bring hope to the hopeless and relief to the suffering. But over the last few months, I think I’ve learned a few things, namely that unchecked ambition, no matter how worthy of actions the ambition propels us to, is meaningless, as Solomon would say. It misses the point. Give in to it fully, and it will steal from us the abundant life that God wishes to give.
"I observed yet another example of something meaningless under the sun. This is the case of a man who is all alone, without a child or a brother, yet who works hard to gain as much wealth as he can. But then he asks himself, ‘Who am I working for? Why am I giving up so much pleasure now?’ It is all so meaningless and depressing.
Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken” (7-12).
I know this passage is often read at weddings, but that’s not what I’m talking about here and I don’t think that’s exactly what Solomon’s talking about either. I think the point is companionship, community, conviviality (as my wonderful church likes to emphasize). The point is that ambition, when run amok, isolates us. If we throw all our energy into our work, into achieving that goal, into achieving our idea of success, we will alienate ourselves from everyone around us. And that alienation will prevent us from experiencing all the joys that God want to give to us, that best-possible life that he has for us. We were not created to live life alone; we were created to live with others, beside others. God, in his full character, is best reflected in our relationships with others. Jesus’ command to us was to love others and to love God (which we do by loving others). If I let my ambition, however good or holy it seems, go unchecked, I will not be living out that command at all.
See, as much as I might think that I am loving people by serving the oppressed, by fighting for their cause, by working for them (and yes, I do think I am loving them in some way), that is not enough. It’s easy to love an idea or a group or a person you’ve never met. It’s much harder to love those whom you see day-in and day-out, those you see at their worst and best, those who see you at your worst and best. It’s much harder to have real relationships, to knock down the walls that you’ve built up for your own self-protection and let people see the sides of you that bring you shame, to love others despite their imperfections and tendencies to accidentally (or even purposefully) cause pain. The greater good, the oppressed far away, the picture of a starving child in Somalia is much easier, much safer, to love.
I am not saying that loving these is bad; it is completely necessary. We must give voices to the voiceless and work tirelessly for the cause of the oppressed. But to let that preclude us from the call to relationship that God places in all of our lives is to miss out on the entire point of life God is calling us to. And I have been so guilty of this.
My plan for a good chunk of the last few years has been to devote my life to some sort of social justice, to preventing ethnic conflict, to helping rebuild war-torn nations and bring relief to devastated people. And this cause is good. I believe it is part of my call. But my plan for this looked like me, alone, traveling and working and wholeheartedly pursuing this goal at the cost of maintaining relationships. I planned to run solo through foreign nations and war zones as some sort of lone crusader in the cause of true justice. And this was not good.
God, instead, has been slowly challenging my ambition, or better put, my control of my ambition. He has been chipping away at it with the quiet but persistent message that I was not created to run through my life alone. I was created to live in community, with others in real relationships. He has revealed the motives behind my often unchecked ambition: the fear of truly loving, of letting anyone close enough to hurt me, the unwillingness to trust anyone enough to really invest in them. This summer, I was given the opportunity to run around a foreign country alone, to start pursuing my goal, my dream. And I was finally able to see my ‘plan’ for what it was: empty, lonely, miserable, and meaningless. Completely isolated, without any sort of true relationship with others, I am frighteningly far from that which God created me to be. Ambition unchecked is an exercise in futility.
So now I have to stop chasing the wind and turn back to the One who has held a plan for me from the beginning, to give up my blind ambition and surrender to that to which he has called me. My passions, my dreams, my ambitions are still to help the hopeless and oppressed. But I’m more open to pursuing them in unexpected ways, way that don’t fit with the grand martyr-like ‘plan’ I once held. Ambition, godly ambition, meaningful ambition, must be checked and balanced like all else in life by that which God has commanded us to do: love each other. This comes above all else and before all else.
So I will not be running around the world alone fighting for what is right and good. It’s a nice ideal for a storybook, but not for truly living life. I still want to combat the evil and ugliness that comes with ethnic conflict, but the pursuit of this will not come at the expense of the relationships that God has placed in my life, at the expense of loving those around me. I don’t quire know what this will look like, but I can have perfect faith in one thing: that God, who controls all things, will continue to provide for me, step-by-step, and he will not let me go. And following him will lead to things much better than I could ever have possibly planned for.
I promise I haven’t abandoned Lewis- still have a bit to go through there. But I have been greatly enjoying Ecclesiastes as of lately. As much as I love Lewis, he is no substitute for actually being in the Word.
So here’s the first bit of Ecclesiastes 3. I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but don’t focus on that. I could tell you some of the things I make out this, but I’m not sure that would be best. Instead, just read it and think on it for a while. It really is quite beautiful.
1 For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven. 2 A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to harvest. 3 A time to kill and a time to heal. A time to tear down and a time to build up. 4 A time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance. 5 A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones. A time to embrace and a time to turn away. 6 A time to search and a time to quit searching. A time to keep and a time to throw away. 7 A time to tear and a time to mend. A time to be quiet and a time to speak. 8 A time to love and a time to hate. A time for war and a time for peace.
A book that opens with “Vanity, vanity, everything is vanity” certainly doesn’t set an upbeat tone. My particular translation phrases it thus: “Everything is meaningless…completely meaningless.” I think the way I’ve heard it best put is “vaporous.” Basically, everything fleeting: the pursuit of anything in this life is like “chasing the wind,” trying to catch something that cannot be grasped. History repeats itself; humanity never learns, is never satisfied. Wisdom and knowledge only bring more pain, pleasure never lasts, everyone dies no matter who they are or what they do, the fruit of our labor will be enjoyed by others, death equalizes and takes all.
But perhaps this vapourous-ness is not all bad. Perhaps this fleeting nature of things makes forces us to pause and fully enjoy that which we have been given. Perhaps it stands in opposition to that inside us that drives us to forget the people around us, to not love, to cast all aside for the sake of success or something else which will not stand forever.
Henri Nouwen writes this: “Mortification- literally ‘making death’- is what life is all about, a slow discovery of the mortality of all that is created so that we can appreciate its beauty without clinging to it as if it were a lasting possession…when we see life constantly relativized by death, we can enjoy it for what it is: a free gift.” (A Letter of Consolation, 42)
Perhaps the transitory nature of thing forces us to enjoy them all the more.
"Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. So I concluded there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can. And people should eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of their labor, for these are gifts from God." (Ecc 3:12-13)
The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.
God sent a man, John the Baptist, to tell about the light so that everyone might believe because of his testimony. John himself was not the light; he was simply a witness to tell about the light. The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.
He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.
So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.
John testified about him when he shouted to the crowds, “This is the one I was talking about when I said, ‘Someone is coming after me who is far greater than I am, for he existed long before me.’”
From his abundance we have all received one gracious blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses, but God’s unfailing love and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us.
We do have one picture of God. And it completely shatters all the other preconceived notions we might have.
(On another note, this is my favorite Christmas passage. And I may be jumping the gun a bit, but I can’t help but feel that Christmas is just around the corner!)
Honestly, I don’t think I can. I can’t nail down what God looks like. Every time I seem to have a grasp on what God’s up to or who he is, he always seems to mess it up. I don’t buy the old paintings of an impossibly white God- I know that’s not right. I don’t think a painting could really capture him at all. Nature gives more of a hint, but even that’s an imperfect portrait as well.
Sometimes I have some sort of experience or something happens and I learn something about his character, and my immediate reaction is to pounce upon it and say, “Ha! This is what God is like!” But then he always manages to show me that it is far far more complicated than that.
"Images, I must suppose, have their use or they would not have been so popular…To me, however, their danger is more obvious. Images of the Holy easily become holy images- sacrosanct. My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins. And most are ‘offended’ by iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not. But the same thing happens in our private prayers. All reality is iconoclastic" (83).
Would we really want a God who was just what we expected?
"The notes have been about myself, and about H. (his wife), and about God. In that order. The order and the proportions exactly what they ought not to have been. And I see that I have nowhere fallen into that mode of thinking about either which we call praising them. yet that would have been best for me. Praise is the mode of love which always has some element of joy in it. Praise in due order; of Him as the giver, of here as the gift. Don’t we in praise somehow enjoy what we praise, however far we are from it? I must do more of this. I have lost the fruition I once had of H. And I am far, far away in the valley of my unlikeness, from the fruition which, if His mercies are infinite, I may some time have of God. But by praising, I can still, in some degree, enjoy her, and already, in some degree, enjoy Him. Better than nothing." (Lewis, 79-80)
Surprise! It’s another passage from A Grief Observed. (I’m so unpredictable, aren’t I?) Anyways, I’m moving through the last chapter now. This is the point where he’s slowly putting the pieces back together, the journeying onward and upward.
"I must do more of this."
This I know is true for me. Because he hits it right on: praise is key in all circumstances. It doesn’t seem natural. Praise flows most naturally, it seems, in good times, in times of plenty, in the high times. Praise does not come easily in the times of deep and utter despair.
And yet, perhaps, it is in those times when we most desperately need to praise. Lewis notes that by praise we enjoy God. I see it this way: only by praise can we have joy. Only praise can lift our eyes from the broken mess we find ourselves in, from our own pain and suffering, from the darkness around us, to the light that is God himself. Praise is our reminder, our declaration, our cry that there is still a God, a God in control, a God who has not abandoned us, a God who still loves us. In some ways, it is our way of overcoming, of refusing to let our despair overtake us, our refusal to relinquish our hold on truth. Jesus said in the Gospels that truth will set us free. Praise is the declaration of that truth, the truth that we will be rescued, that this is not the end, that we are not stuck here, that there is hope, that there will come a day when all will be set right, that transformation is coming, that redemption is happening even now, that He has already overcome…
Praise is one form of worship, one vital mode of worship (see the Psalms for proof of this), of recognizing God for who he is and ascribing to him the glory He deserves. And through worship we enter into God’s presence, the presence of the Holy One, the Mighty One, the Redeeming One, the Rescuing One, the One Who Will Never Let Us Go. And we enter into His joy. And through this victory is found.
I must confess I never saw myself as the “marrying type.” Of course, I always wanted to be married someday. But that someday was somewhere in the distant future so I didn’t really have to worry about it. My plan, as described to a friend about a year ago, was to “run around war zones and other places and maybe when I’m 26 or so and I’ve figured my life out I’ll think about getting married.” I was definitely never one to think about getting married right after college. Never even crossed my mind, in all honesty.
And my hesitancy about marriage went a bit deeper than just that. I have major trust issues with men: my past history isn’t quite what I’d like it to be. Up until about a year ago, I was pretty bitter and angry towards men. I honestly didn’t want a whole lot to do with them, much less let any one in any closer than a casual friendship. (I have a few friends who can testify to my frequent “I hate men/Men are stupid/Men are evil” rants.)
But slowly, God’s been chipping away at that anger and bitterness. He’s used a few people in particular to knock down my defenses. And now, I find that my future is looking quite different than I expected it to. It’s beginning to look like quite an adventure.
I found this description of marriage in Lewis’ book, A Grief Observed, and I really like it:
"There is, hidden or flaunted, a sword between the sexes till an entire marriage reconciles them. It is arrogance in us to call frankness, fairness, and chivalry ‘masculine’ when we see them in a woman; it is arrogance in them to describe a man’s sensitiveness or tact or tenderness as ‘feminine.’ But also what poor, warped fragments of humanity most mere men and mere women must be to make the implications of that arrogance plausible. Marriage heals this. Jointly the two become fully human. ‘In the image of God created He them.’ Thus, by a paradox, this carnival of sexuality leads us out beyond our sexes” (67).
I mean, I try not to be. I do try quite hard to be a good listener- for my friends, my family. I’ve actually become quite good at sitting quietly, empathizing, sympathizing, throwing in a nod or a murmur of agreement. And really, I’ve become a pretty good listener. Sure, I’m guilty of plotting out my own answer sometimes, or day-dreaming, or getting distracted by someone walking by. But overall, I’m a pretty good listener when it comes to people.
But when it comes to God….that’s a different story. It’s so hard for me to just sit, to be quiet, and listen. I’m terrible at even finding the time. And when he doesn’t speak right away, I get so frustrated. I don’t even give him the chance to start speaking half the time.
And when something is going wrong in my life….forget listening. Usually I’m either shutting God out completely, because I’m pretty pissed off. Or I’m yelling at him, also because I’m pissed off. I have far too much to say or not say to him to actually sit and listen. And because I don’t listen, I don’t hear anything from him, which makes me angrier, perpetuating this vicious cycle that usually continues until God finally steps in and strands me some place where I can’t help but listen to him, or just waits until I’m too exhausted to continue ranting and he can finally speak. And slowly, everything is restored.
So, going back to CS Lewis and A Grief Observed, I was kind of relieved to find that I wasn’t the only one with this problem:
"And so, perhaps, with God. I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it. You are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.
On the other hand, ‘Knock and it shall be opened.’ But does knocking mean hammering and kicking the door like a maniac? And there’s also “To him that hath shall be given.’ After all, you must have a capacity to receive, or even omnipotence can’t give. Perhaps your own passion temporarily destroys the capacity.” (64-65)
I think that God tells us to be still, to not fear, to wait, to quiet our souls for a good reason. In our panic, our anger, our anguish, our passion, our grief, we often focus far too much attention on our own pain and problems. We are too distracted to hear that still small voice. Our demanding drowns out all else. But when we turn, even just for a moment, from ourselves, and truly look for him (not to rail or rant, but to listen)….then He can speak
Why does a loving God allow such evil in the world? How could a good God allow such pain and suffering? It’s a question that haunts many of us. Something happens and we cannot help but turn and ask…Why?
I get to tackle this question in a talk I’m giving for my campus Christian group. And it’s both an honor and a terrifying task. Because I don’t have the answer. But I do have my own personal struggle with this question.
Those of you who know me well know that Haiti is a place that is very close to my heart. See, a while back, I traveled to Haiti with my family on a trip with Compassion International, and it changed my life. Haiti is a tiny island nation full of beautiful, warm people and heart-wrenching pain and poverty. I fell in love with the people and let the poverty break my heart.
Then, halfway through my freshman year of college, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake rocked the nation, wreaking havoc in most of the major cities, especially Port-au-Prince, capital and home to most of the population. I clicked through the photos of the destruction on major news sites and wept. Haiti had already suffered through so much before- then this came. It seemed like too much. How could you let this happen? If you are truly good, then why Haiti, God? They’ve already suffered so much. Don’t you love them?
This continued for a few weeks. I prayed for the people of Haiti, for the brokenness I saw, for Dershime, my friend who lived outside Port-au-Prince. But in the back of my mind there was this running refrain: if God is truly good, he wouldn’t have let this happen. Part of it was guilt. Here I was in the US, at a good university, getting a degree that would open all sorts of doors for me. Derhsime lived in a town without running water that had just been torn apart by an earthquake. She wanted to be a nurse, but would probably never have the chance to go to college. We were both believer, following the same Christ, both trying to honor God in our lives. And yet, there was so much blessing in my life and so much pain and suffering in hers. And I couldn’t reconcile a good God with that. Again and again I asked: God, why? How did you let this happen? God, are you really good? Do you see their suffering, God? How can you say you love them and yet allow this?
I started reading a book called Job. Job was a man who served God, who was righteous, and he had an awesome life: an amazing family, all the riches he could want, good health….he had it all. And God was proud of him. But one day, Satan came to God and said, “I know that you are proud of how righteous Job is, but really, he wouldn’t be righteous if his life wasn’t so great.” God replied that Job would remain faithful, and to prove it, he gave Satan permission to make Job’s life a living hell. So Job lost everything: his wealth, his children, his home, his health. His wife gave up on him. His friends came and tried to comfort him, but eventually even they turned on him, accusing him of some secret wrongdoing that must have caused all this pain. Surely this wouldn’t be happening if Job didn’t deserve it.
Job cried out to God that well-known plea. Why? He knew he had done nothing wrong. So why was God tormenting him? God, why have you turned on me? And then he waits.
God does answer him, but not as you think. He answers him from a whirlwind, from a terrifying tornado, saying, “How dare you question me! Who do you think you are?” He goes on for three chapters, demonstrating his enormous power.
Job’s answer is this: “I know that you can do anything and no one can stop you…I was talking about things I knew nothing about…I had only heard about you before, but now I have seen you with my own eyes. I take back everything that I said, and I sit in dust and ashes to show my repentance” (Job 42:2-6).
My response to reading this passage before had always been: Whaaat? Why is God so mean to him? There’s no comfort, no reassurance that “yes, your life sucks but I still love you.” No answer to why this all happens. God doesn’t even tell Job that it was a test. What is going on?
But that year, in the weeks following the Haiti earthquake, I had my own Job moment. After going on for a few weeks with this continual questioning, God finally gave his answer to me. And it wasn’t the one I was expecting to hear:
He humbled me. How dare you question my love, my goodness? He asked. You doubt that I love these people? You say that if I truly loved them, I wouldn’t have let this happen? Well, here’s a question for you: Do you even know their names?
No, you don’t. You can’t. I CREATED them. I know every hair on their heads. I made them and I love them more than you will ever be able to think you can. How dare you accuse me.
It was a bit of a shock. But it brought about a realization. God owes us nothing.
God does not exist for our benefit. His purpose is not out pleasure. God is the Sovereign God of all things, Creator of the Universe, Holy and High Above All, the King of Kings. We exist for his glory; He does not exist for ours. In fact, the only thing we deserve from Him is death, because we are fallen and sinful and selfish and we do incredibly evil things.
The fact that I am here, that I am breathing, that I am living, is evidence of God’s goodness, of his grace. Every good thing that exists in the world today is because of God’s grace. We are so blessed, and we don’t even realize it. We deserve nothing good, and yet we are showered with it everyday. Everything that we have is a gift.
So why is there pain and suffering in the world? Why do bad things happen?
The first answer is that the world is broken. When Adam and Eve rebelled against God in the beginning, the earth was cursed to be separated from its Creator who sustained it and created it to be perfect. So now, it is no longer perfect, but rather falling to pieces all around us. That’s why natural disasters occur and diseases ravage populations.
Second, people are selfish and also imperfect. And human selfishness causes massive amounts of pain and suffering in people’s lives. Wars, crime, corruption- these stem from human choices that take a devastating toll on others’ lives.
Where is God in all this? Well, he’s in control: nothing happens that he does not allow. But wait, isn’t he all-good and all-loving? Why does he allow this to happen?
Honestly, I don’t know for sure. Again, God doesn’t need to explain himself. But here’s some of what I’ve found.
First, our definitions of “good” and “loving” tend to be wrong. We think that good and loving means that God wants us to be happy, or that he should make sure that only good things happen to us. Actually, God never promised us that. Jesus actually said that “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows” (John 16:33). But he promised us “the best possible life” (John 10:10). Here’s the news: the best life does not mean the most pain-free life or the happiest life. In fact, the best life often means more pain and more suffering. In his book, A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis calls God the “Great Surgeon” and says: “The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorable he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operations was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless…What do people mean when they say, ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good’? Have they never been to a dentist?” (p. 60). God is refining us into who he originally created us to be. And in a fallen, broken world, that often means a lot of pain. But it is for our benefit.
But there is a second thing I have found that is comforting: God suffers with us. In fact, we reflect God in our suffering. To love in a broken world mean guaranteed suffering. And God was the only one who had a choice in the matter. He is the only one who could have chosen not to suffer. Yet He chose to love, and in doing so, opened his heart to more pain and more suffering than we will ever know. Hebrews 4:14-15 say, “So then, since we have a great High Priest who has entered heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we believe. This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all the same testing we do, yet he did not sin.” Jesus became human, lived on this earth, felt our pain and bore our suffering. In fact, he took all of the world’s suffering on himself and carried it to the cross. He knows our pain. We are not alone in it.
Nicholas Wolsterstoff, a Christian philosopher, writes: “To redeem our brokenness and lovelessness, God did not strike some mighty blow of power, but sent his beloved son to suffer like us, through his suffering to redeem us from suffering and evil. Instead of explaining our suffering, God shares it” (81).
So, at the end of the day, I do not have a complete answer. I’m not going to tell you the cliche, “everything works out in the end answer.” Yes, God promises to work all things out for good, to redeem our brokenness and suffering (Romans 8), but that doesn’t negate the pain. I have a lot of painful scars in my life that I wish I didn’t have, scars from a long history of bad experiences and abuse from men, from losing my childhood at age 12 when my mum was diagnosed with a debilitating, degenerative, and incurable genetic disease, and from a lot of broken relationships. I’ve seen God use these things for good in my life, but that doesn’t take away the pain they’ve caused. But I hope you do take comfort in what I have shared. God does not owe us a life free from pain and suffering. We live in a broken world; pain and suffering are inevitable. He does not need to explain himself to us. But God does promise us the best possible life, redemption through our suffering; and he is with us in the midst of pain and suffering. He bears our burden with us. This I know is true. And one day, he will set all things right. I’ll leave you with a few more verses in which I’ve found comfort:
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." Matthew 5:4
"For no one is abandoned by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he also shows compassion because of the greatness of his unfailing love. For he does not enjoy hurting people or causing them sorrow." Lamentations 3:31-33
"The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed." Psalm 34:18
I have been struggling lately, struggling to hear God’s voice, struggling to feel close to him, struggling with the feeling of incredible dryness. I can’t get over this feeling that I cannot quite get to where I should be. I have highs, where I feel purposeful, useful, close to God, filled with the Spirit…but then I slip back into the desert yet again. It’s been a point of great frustration lately. I have prayed again and again for relief, and the only answer returned to me is: “Seek me and you will find me.”
And my heart rebels against that answer. I am weak and tired, God. I want things to be easy. I don’t have the energy for this. I cry out, Why can’t you just come find me like you did before?”
But things are different this time. I am not who I was before. I have learned that this too is part of the discipleship process. I am not trapped, unable to free myself. No, this time, I hear, Pursue me. If you truly want me, run after me. I will be found, if you are willing to pursue.
It’s called discipline.
I’ve been living a lot in Hebrews 12 lately. It’s a great chapter, if you’re not familiar with it. In it, the author talks about stripping off everything that holds us back, and running full out this race God has set out for us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, not getting discouraged because we realize that the difficulties that we must bear are only a small fraction of those that Christ did. And then it goes into some encouraging words that have to do with….God disciplining us? It didn’t make sense to me at first. So I’m supposed to take comfort in the fact that I did something wrong and things suck right now because I’m being punished? But I was wrong. Discipline, while most strongly associated timeouts and grounding from my childhood for me, does not mean punishment. Rather, it’s part of growing, part of maturing, part of being transformed into a new creation. I discipline myself to be a better pianist, better student, better friend. And now, God is disciplining me to better reflect him. He is the God who pursues me. Now I must become the one who pursues God. Wholeheartedly, passionately, nothing withheld.
Hebrews 12:10b-12 reads: “God’s discipline is always good for us, so that we might share in his holiness. No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening- it’s painful! But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way.
So take a new grip with your tired hands and strengthen your weak knees. Mark out a straight path for your feet so that those who are weak and lame will not fall but become strong.”
And later on, it reminds us “You have come to God himself, who is the judge over all things…you have come to Jesus who mediates the new covenant between God and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness instead of crying out for vengeance…Since we are receiving a Kingdom that is unshakable, let us be thankful and please God by worshiping him with holy fear and awe. For our God is a devouring fire.” (from 12:22-29)
I am pursuing the God above all others, the one who is holy and awesome and full of power, deserving of awe and fear, all honor and glory. Such privilege is mine.
The only thing worse than being in pain is watching someone you love in pain. Or at least that’s how it is for me. And now I’m dating someone with a chronic illness that sometimes flares up, causing incredible pain and agony. It’s excruciating to watch, to sit there and not be able to do anything except hold a hand and pray. Last night another flare meant another trip to the unfortunately-familiar local emergency room. And as I sat there, I know I would have done just about anything so that I could take the pain away. I wish I could take it myself. But I can’t.
One thing I’ve found is that sometimes it’s not your own pain but the pain of others’ that is hardest to bear. From the midst of pain, I may cry out in frustration, I may question God’s goodness, but I can endure. I know that good will come from it. I trust that this too shall pass. But when it’s another, someone else, not me, and I sit there, wishing I could take the pain and crying out to God for relief on their behalf, trust is harder. The small voice in the back of my mind cries out, “God, if you are good, how can you bear this? I am selfish, imperfect, and not good, and yet I would give anything to take this pain, but I can’t. You can. How do you not act? If you are good, why don’t you do something?”
I came across this the other day in A Grief Observed:
"Yet this is unendurable. And then one babbles- ‘If only I could bear it, or the worst of it, or any of it instead of her (Lewis’ wife).’ But one can’t tell how serious that bid is, for nothing is staked on it. If it suddenly became a real possibility, then, for the first time, we should discover how seriously we had meant it. But is it ever allowed?
It was allowed to the One, we are told, and I find I can now believe again, that He has done vicariously whatever can be so done. He replies to our babble, ‘You cannot and you dare not. I could and dared.”
I think sometimes that he has done more than we will ever be able to imagine.
For most of my life, I’ve struggled with the question of whether I truly believe that God is good. There’s always that question in the back of my mind, the voice that asks, “Then why so much suffering?” If God is truly good, then how could he let such things happen? To me? To others? To the already struggling in Port-au-Prince? To the already broken who are hit again and again when they’re already down. I cannot fully understand this. But I’m beginning to discover a few things I haven’t considered before, things that I’ll probably be wrestling with a while, but things that bring some progress, I think.
First came the realization that my definition of good might be faulty.
Lewis writes in A Grief Observed:
"The terrible thing is that a perfectly good God is in this matter hardly less formidable than a Cosmic Sadist. The more we believe that God hurts only to heal, the less we can believe that there is any use in begging for tenderness. A cruel man might be bribed- might grow tired of his vile sport- might have a temporary fit of mercy, as alcoholics have fits of sobriety. But supposed that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorable he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operations was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless…What do people mean when they say, ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good’? Have they never been to a dentist?" (60-61)
What if good means that the suffering is necessary?
I finished A Grief Observed last night. It’s amazing (per usual for C.S. Lewis). Anyways, I’m on my second read through it now. I’d love to share everything at once, but I haven’t entirely grasped it all yet myself (although I doubt I’ll ever quite grasp it all). Plus that would lead to quite the long post. So I’ll just share bit by bit that which caught my attention.
"I had been warned- I had warned myself- not to reckon on worldly happiness. We were even promised sufferings. They were part of the programme. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accepted it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for…The case is too plain. If my house has collapsed at one blow, that is because it was a house of cards. The faith which ‘took these things into account’ was not faith but imagination…If I had really cared, as I thought I did, about the sorrows of the world, I should not have been so overwhelmed when my own sorrow came. It has been an imaginary faith playing with innocuous counters labelled ‘Illness,’ ‘Pain,’ ‘Death,’ and ‘Loneliness.’ I though I trusted the rope until it mattered to me whether it would bear me. Now it matters and I find it didn’t." (53-54)
Have you ever discovered that your faith wasn’t quite so strong as you thought it was? For me it seems it happens so often. I’m so good at building houses of cards and fooling myself into thinking they’re quite solid after all. But then the wind comes and everything’s fallen to pieces again and all I can pray is “I believe, oh God, help me in my unbelief…”
For those of you that don’t know, I lived in Russia for six weeks this summer, studying Russian at St. Petersburg State University. I’ve spent a lot of summers in foreign countries, actually, and learned one thing: whenever you go to a foreign country, God tends to turn your life upside. I suppose being out of your comfort zone makes it easier to get things done or something, but either way, my life got turned upside down as usual. And I’m just now beginning to make sense of it all.
I had lunch with a friend today who spent her summer in Africa, and we talked a lot about how lives get turned upside down and things change. We talked about her struggle with bearing the world’s brokenness and my struggles with it following trips to Haiti and Kazakhstan and so many broken places. We talked about the balance between grieving and living, between allowing this brokenness to break us, to see God’s heart for the world that is just aching for things to be set right, and giving up this burden to Jesus because it is too much for us to bear. We cannot grieve for the world. There is a balance to be had, to see what is wrong in our world, the injustice, the pain, and praying for the day it is all set right and allowing this brokenness to break us, but also living in hope for the day when it is set right and embracing the joy set before us and seeing the good, the redemption that is happening all around us. And it was good to talk about these things: I love these sorts of conversations. I wish more people saw this, felt this burden of brokenness. I study ethnic conflict; I sit in brokenness everyday. And I grieve. If the day comes where I don’t grieve, then something is very very wrong. But God has also taught me to live in hope, in joy, in knowing that he is good and he is a God of justice and mercy and that he will redeem and restore and make beautiful.
We also talked a little bit about my summer, about how life has changed, about what parts of trips you tell to people and the parts you neglect to mention, and how even your memory of what happened changes. It was good to process, for one thing. But I also began to even realize how much I have not yet processed, how silent I have been, and how much this summer has turned my life upside down. My friend said quite plainly, “I left, I came back, and now I am a different person.” I didn’t see it so well at first, but the same is true for me. I am a different person. And the struggle now is how to relate that to those closest to me. Because they often do not understand, even though they want to, and some sort of rift is born.
Russia was fun. It was crazy. It was an adventure. I loved it. That’s the part I tell most people, and it’s true. But it was also incredibly hard. It was dry: I struggled to hear God’s voice, I felt isolated and alone, I was the only person on my program who was a Christian, I had no community. I was homesick: I missed tacos, I missed my friends, I missed Tucson (which never happens when I’m abroad). I came to the realization that I have become attached to people. And while that’s healthy (I’ve had major attachment issues for most of my life), it also means that I have changed, quite dramatically. I’ve always planned on running around the world, most likely solo. I wanted to do research abroad, to run around war zones, to be able to go wherever I want whenever I want without being particularly tied down to anything. I felt that it was my calling: my attachment issues only made it easier- there was nothing to hold me back. But then God began to chip away at my defenses. He called me to truly love people and let them love me, to form true friendships, true community. And then I left, like I do most summers, and I missed it so. And suddenly, while I still want to run around the world, I’m not so sure I want to do it alone anymore.
While this was all happening, other changes were also occurring. My pastor here in Tucson preached a series on Ruth that talked a lot about male-female friendships and also relationships. And through this (I listened in Russia, and my friends went to church here at home), and other processes, some of which I probably don’t know about, one of my closest friendships changed. I’m now dating one of my best friends, and I love it. It’s awesome. But it means that there’s been a crazy change. Neither of us would be doing this if we weren’t thinking about the “m”-word, and this is definitely not where I saw myself, even as recently as three months ago.
So when my friend asked me point blank today, “Do you think the two of you will get married?” my answer was, “Most likely, yes.” We talked about dating and such and how she thinks she’ll be single for awhile because her prospects keep getting narrower (that’s what I always thought too). But it’s still so strange to me to say these sorts of things out loud. She and I used to be in the same camp, the “we’re not going to get married till we have out lives figured out when we’re 26 or something” camp. But now I’m in the “most likely married after graduation” camp and it’s just so different. And I fear it’s hard for those around me to understand. I’m not who I was. This relationship is the product of my life getting flipped upside down this summer. I went to Russia and realized that I don’t want to run around the world by myself anymore. It’s lonely and isolating and not as much fun as I though it was going to be. I still want to run around the world, but I want someone to come home to or someone to go with. I’m not unattached. I do need people, and I want to need people. I want those deep friendships. And I really like where I’m at right now. But it’s hard to explain that to those who knew me before. They can’t figure out what happened to the girl who wanted to run around the world solo and was ready to uproot her life at a moment’s notice. I think they fear that I’ve given up on my dreams, or that I’m getting pressured into something I don’t want, or that it’s just the hormones and emotions talking.
I don’t want to give up on my dreams of traveling and being an ethnic conflict specialist. I still have a heart for the world, especially for the North Caucasus. But I have new dreams now and I want them both. It almost seems like there’s a rift now, that I’m still trying to put together. Someone told me that one of the reasons people don’t go to the mission field is due to relationships. I wasn’t dead-set on going into missions in the first place, but it’s definitely been on my radar, and it still is. I’m just trying right now to put the pieces together. I know how God has been calling me and burdening my heart, but I also know that this relationship didn’t just happen. There was a lot of prayer on both our parts and even resistance. This is terrifying for me at times; part of me still cries out, “What are you doing?! This wasn’t part of the plan.” But I know that this is good. I just don’t know how it fits.
I suppose my greatest fear is that these pieces actually don’t fit together, and that someday I’ll have to choose. I fear that God will call us to different places and that I’ll lose this relationship that I’m already beginning to love so much. It terrifies me, especially after coming to the realization that I can’t go halfway with this. I must go all-in. And thus there’s the question in the back of my mind: “What if you must give this up?” And I know that it would be devastating. But I also know that if called, I must turn to Him. I will go where I’m called. I just can’t help but pray that He doesn’t ask me to turn from this that he has given me.
So that’s where I am. Still processing. I don’t have many answers yet. Maybe someday I will. I have a feeling that by that point there’ll be lots of new questions to process. I suppose this is where another part of the conversation between my friend and I becomes relevant. We talked about how the Christian life is not easy, not at all. If anything, it’s harder. The burden is greater, the sorrow is deeper, there’s a grief that was never there before. To love like God loves is to suffer deeply. But we have hope in this: that the life we have now is not easier than the one we had before, but it is better. It’s harder, with greater suffering, more pain, more sorrow, but the joy is greater, the hope is stronger, and we know that Jesus came to give us the best possible life. And this is what we’re living, life in Christ. Abundant life, overflowing life, true life. And we wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Well, the semester’s started again, which means life is back to its breakneck pace. That’s the only excuse I suppose I have for my absence. But I’ve resolved that I’m actually going to try to be consistent with this blog (well, kind-of-blog) this time, so I plan to keep posting at least every week. Anyways, in case you haven’t figured it out by now, I love CS Lewis. I love how approachable he is and how well he explains the most complicated things in the most beautifully simple metaphors. So for the next little while, I think I’ll just post some of his writings that have really influenced me. I love reading his books- it almost feels like I’m sitting down with him for a cup of coffee and discussing the mysteries of life and faith and it’s just wonderful. So here’s the latest quote of his that’s got me thinking. It’s from A Grief Observed, which I’m halfway through reading at the moment. And I guess I like it because it’s the same struggle I have. I really struggle quite often to believe that God is good. And it’s somewhat comforting to know that I am not the only one who wrestles with this question. I can’t wait to see if he comes to a conclusion later in the book. In the meantime, I’ll struggle with it myself and see if I come up with anything that rings true for me.
"If God’s goodness is inconsistent with hurting us, then either God is not good or there is no God: for in the only life we know He hurts us beyond out worst fears and beyond all we can imagine." (44)
If anyone ever told you being a Christian was easy, they were either lying or not doing it right. Or perhaps they’ve figured out something I haven’t yet, but really I think we were promised we would be hard. Jesus came out and said, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows.” And I definitely think I’ve realized the truth of that in the last year, with trials ranging from chronic health problems and pain to conflicts with friends and struggles in ministry. Now, there’s no question that I have also seen amazing blessings and had an incredible year. But life has just seemed especially hard this year. And now, school is starting again and with it comes a whole new set of challenges. I’m trying to start an international student ministry, which means lots of getting out and trying to meet as many international students as possible. This presents a new challenge for me: starting to conversations. I’m an introvert who hates talking to strangers. For me, this is absolutely terrifying and stressful. On top of this, my health has been acting up again, I haven’t been sleeping well, and there’s this feeling of exhaustion that I cannot seem to shake. I feel utterly overwhelmed, and I can’t help but ask, “When does it get easier?” I’m tired of this being hard. I’m tired of feeling exhausted. I feel weak and spent and tired of living outside my comfort zone. I pray but feel little comfort and struggle but see little result. And a large part of me that running away and hiding under a rock sounds pretty good right now.
But there’s a second part to that verse I quoted earlier. John 16:33 reads, “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart because I have overcome the world.” I am following a good God who has already seized victory and offers perfect peace. Nothing is impossible with him. I have not been promised an easy life, but I have been promised victory.
So, for now, that means more struggling and trusting that I am not alone in this. I cannot achieve anything by myself, but with Jesus, this is possible. At least, this is what I must continue to remind myself. As a verse in Mark states: “I believe, help me in my unbelief.” God, I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief. If you’re reading this, please pray for me. I am struggling, and in that reflecting the one who struggled for me (Heb. 12). And in that I do believe that there will be a harvest. I was reminded today of a great verse in Hebrews: “So take a new grip with your tired hands and strengthen your weak knees. Mark out a straight path for your feet, so that those who are weak and lame will not fall but become strong.” I am tired, weak, and lame right now. But in him, I hope that I can become strong.
Scroll down to check out three amazing short films by Rick Mereki. He says of the films:
"3 guys, 44 days, 11 countries, 18 flights, 38 thousand miles, an exploding volcano, 2 cameras and almost a terabyte of footage… all to turn 3 ambitious linear concepts based on movement, learning and food ….into 3 beautiful and hopefully compelling short films…..