I needed to say ‘good-bye,’ alone.
It was the first time I’d heard a sermon by Pastor Jonathon, and I was completely blown-away. This man experiences God in a powerful way and communicates beautifully.
My favorite part was when he talked about “prophetic speech,” and nuanced that this wasn’t referring to speaking a Rolex or Mercedes into existence, but rather speaking to others about God’s hope. He likened this to Martin Luther King sharing aloud his dream of racial reconciliation.
I got lost in his message and before I knew it, the house was spotless. The time had come to say goodbye. Unlike the ‘good-bye’ I said to my precious 4-year-old last December, this ‘good-bye’ would be felt fully, deeply, and without the anesthetic of shock.
So I sat (or rather sank) in the corner of one empty room after another, bombarded by three years worth of memories. This was the house where my toddler had grown into a little boy. It was where we painted and colored and played and conquered potty-training. It was where he learned to speak and helped me to cook and where he met his best-friend/baby sister. It was where we’d celebrated birthdays and holidays, where we’d relaxed, and where we’d faced pain. It was the home in which Henry passed from this life into eternal life.
The memories lapped over me in waves as I experienced the full-force of crippling loss. I bawled, I moaned, and I grieved for our family that was broken… and then I spoke of hope.
I heeded Pastor Jonathon’s instruction to “… speak the hope of the Lord into hopeless situations.”
“I have hope,” I would whisper, raw from sobbing.
“I have hope,” I’d repeat a little louder, surprised by the strength that was ushered in with a whisper.
“I have hope!” I’d declare before rising to repeat the process in the next room. I honestly don’t know how I would have left that house without speaking aloud this hope.
I’m deeply thankful for Pastor Jonathon’s message about prophesying hope.
Hope is where I needed to start. I needed to remember my hope for a renewed creation, and an impending reunion with Henry. I also needed the reminder that I can contribute to humanity’s hope by spreading Jesus’ transforming love today.
Yet, as I reflect over what fuels me through this pain, I’ve realized that while hope picks me up off the floor, passion is what compels my fingers to write. Hope is sufficient for me to press forward, but passion compels me to reach out to you.
So here’s what weighs heavily on my heart. As I look around, I find most Christ-followers discussing “hope” against a backdrop of belief that God causes (or at least specifically allows) radical suffering and evil for his higher purposes. While I could conceivably find hope to survive within this picture of God, my faith would be stripped of the passion to thrive.
How could I proclaim God’s unfailing love, if I believed that God caused (or at least specifically allowed) Henry’s intense pain and death for a mysterious higher purpose?
Yet it seems the majority of Christians consider evil and suffering to be part of God’s “perfect plan.” They believe God specifically allows things like sexual abuse, the Holocaust, and Henry’s cancer for an unknown “greater good.” I believe the failure to reexamine this common belief leaves battered hearts primed for passionless hope.
“We just won’t know until we get to heaven,” and “His ways are higher than our ways,” are common ways I’ve heard folks dismiss this issue. The latter phrase is adapted from Isaiah 55:8-9. It’s a passage often used to disregard hard questions or justify incoherent theology.
Yet these verses are not implying that horrific evil is actually “loving” because it’s included in some divine, cosmic blueprint. This assertion is antithetical to love! We have no reason to believe God abides by some transcendent code of conduct, one in which love means the opposite of what we think it means. The Bible clearly defines God’s love as demonstrated on Calvary.1
Isaiah 55:8-9 is referring to God’s desire to use Israel to draw all nations together under his loving lordship. In fact, the previous verse describes how God will “have mercy” and “freely pardon” those who repent from their wicked ways.
When God says, “…my ways are higher than your ways,” he is not advocating pious resignation towards his (supposed) complicity in disease, suffering, and evil acts. He is reiterating that his ways are higher because he loves everyone more than the Israelites could imagine!
Let’s talk Theodicy
Calvinists, like John Piper, do not shy away from discussing theodicy (one’s understanding of God’s goodness and power in relationship to evil). While I don’t agree with their conclusion that God orchestrates all suffering, I appreciate their forthrightness.
On the other hand, I’ve met many Christians who believe that God does not cause, but does specifically allow every evil event for a mysterious higher purpose. Overall, this group strikes me as curiously quiet on the issue of theodicy. I haven’t heard this hashed-out in many pulpits and most folks refrain from this sort of talk when tragedy strikes. Yet, I submit that this belief acts as a quiet undertow, tugging the passion of broken Christians into a sea of unanswered questions.
After all, what if Jesus did in bodily form what we claim God does in supernatural form? Can you imagine Jesus being physically present during the Newtown, CT shootings, nodding in approval (saddened or not) as a deranged gunman took 26 lives? Can you imagine him whispering to the shooter after 25 slayings, “I’ll allow one more,” because 26 victims was somehow the specific number that would bring him the most glory?
Of course not!
Yet this is how we portray God amidst tragedy when we stoically profess, “This is all part of God’s plan,” and “He’s known about this from the foundations of time.” I believe the best that Christ-following, traumatized persons can hope for with this theodicy is to aspire to resignation.
Those folks can have hope that one day there will be an end to all suffering, but it would be logically inconsistent for them to passionately proclaim the love and character of God. The kind of “love” that steps aside while evil transpires would evoke rage, dismay, and confusion if we saw it exhibited by humans. These feelings are no less vivid when the one who’s allegedly complicit… is God.
This is why we cannot gloss over our understanding of God’s character and his use of power concerning evil. So I’m raising my hand here. This broken person finds theodicy inextricable from her passion for God. In fact, the degree to which I believe God remains complicit in evil is directly related to the degree in which I am compelled to share his love.
I once said in regards to Henry’s cancer, “… the WHY has become largely irrelevant… because I’ve developed a renewed picture of the WHO.” Allow me to nuance this. The WHY only becomes irrelevant when the I embrace that the essence of God was perfectly displayed in Jesus (Heb 1:3).
This is the source of my passion! If I, like Paul, resolve to know nothing except Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 2:2), then I can reject the idea that God would mysteriously crush my son to glorify himself, and I must acknowledge that there are forces at work in the cosmos that can impede the loving will of God.
For those of you who are suffering, I’d like to wholeheartedly recommend Pastor Jonathon’s sermon on the tremendous hope we have in God. In addition, I’d invite you to wrestle with your understanding of God’s role in suffering. Do you believe God allows all specific evils to glorify himself? If so, how does that fit with the character of the incarnate God (Jesus) who healed the sick, raised the dead, and gave his life as a ransom?
As we wrestle, it’s interesting to note that Jesus and the New Testament authors didn’t grapple with reconciling how an all-good, all-powerful God ordains (or allows) all specific evils for higher purposes. They understood that God is not the only agent at work in the world, and that His will is often thwarted. Perhaps our worldview is inconsistent with theirs.2
Finally, in the spirit of “speaking hope,” I’d like to share my hope that all Christians will wrestle with their theodicy until it lands on a picture of God that’s consistent with the crucified Christ. I believe that this courageous endeavor will have a magnificent impact on all of humanity, most especially for those who now hope… without passion.
- 1 John 3:16, Romans 5:8, 1 John 4:9. Also, according to Lam 3:33, God “does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone” [↩]
- Greg Boyd asserts that the Warfare Worldview was the worldview embraced by Jesus, his apostles, and the early church throughout God at War (InterVarsity Press, 1997) [↩]