Reading time: 18 minutes
About six weeks after my husband and I lost our girls on March 7, 2016, I purchased a book written by a well-known and popular Christian author about getting through the pits of life. It was one of four other books I bought in those first few paralyzing weeks that I hoped would pull me from a swirling quicksand of extreme sadness, anger, frustration, loss, confusion, desperation — any one of the plethora of human emotions capable of pulling someone deep into the darkness of the Earth. Outside, I think I was pretty good at trying to hold it all together, but, inside, I felt myself sinking. Not only was I trying to process all of the countless feelings that go along with losing a baby (let alone twins), but, in one fell swoop, I also felt like I didn’t even know who I was anymore. Every ounce of certainty that I had in what God is like and who I was as a woman seemed to fall away like leaves from a tree on a cold Fall day. At the worst moment in our lives, when we needed God the most in that birthing unit, He wasn’t there. There was just the familiar smell of hospital disinfectant and the plaintive cries of a family feeling utterly betrayed and abandoned.
I don’t know about you, but when I am in the middle of some sort of philosophical or spiritual or even emotional turmoil, I turn to books. I might not get through every one of the books I buy (maybe collecting them is a comfort in and of itself), but that’s only because I am a sucker for really good titles. You know, the ones that seem written exactly for you or your situation, and that make you feel like the author sees you and maybe knows a thing or two about what you need to read right now. Well, in those first few weeks, I was looking for comfort, wisdom, insight – let’s face it, answers – into why this terrible thing happened to me and my husband. So, I went on Amazon like I usually did and started searching for another title to catch my eye. But to be honest, I think I was mostly looking for something to distract me from all the feelings I felt were slowly swallowing me whole.
And, before I knew it, there it was.
The title of the book had all the right words to appeal to someone like me who had just gone through a supremely painful experience that it was a no brainer to click the yellow button that seemed to pop out with the words “Buy now with 1-Click®” on the screen. So convenient. One click? I needed convenient and easy and simple in my life. I mean, it would have been crazy for me not to run my mouse pointer over that button and tap! The front cover of the book basically told me that I would get through the hell of losing twin girls five months into my pregnancy. (Well, maybe it didn’t say that specifically, but you get the gist.) Plus, it had the words Hope and Help in it, and a picture of a shamrock (!) emerging gloriously, victoriously from the narrowest crack on some flat stone. Sold! The imagery alone was persuasive. Honestly, the only thing missing from this book’s cover was my name.
Growing up I always loved the story of Joseph and, to be honest, I kind of wished that my life would turn out like his. Well, maybe not exactly like his (I could definitely live without the slavery part), but I did like it when he started winning. You know, the part when pharaoh essentially makes Joseph – a Semite from Canaan sold into slavery by his own brothers – second in command of Egypt, a country that wasn’t even his own. The part when he goes from being a slave to being a ruler among men. The part when he rises the ranks from a nobody to somebody virtually overnight. The part when amazing happens. The part when God comes through. The thing is, according to the author of this book I bought, all that crappy stuff that happened to Joseph in the beginning — being sold into slavery, living as a slave for several years and dealing with all the injustices that must come with that, being falsely accused by his master’s wife of sexual assault, and being thrown in jail for years because of it — was part of God’s training. In fact, this author said, God was using Joseph’s crummy circumstances “to create the test of today”, and then he went on to say that God does the same thing with us now. Those were the exact words he used — “to create the test of today”. In other words, God was somehow, someway, kind of responsible.
Had we not lost our daughters, I probably would not be as sensitive as I am now to this kind of language. This was a familiar theology I grew up with that, admittedly, made evangelical sense when I was untouched by profound personal loss, but that made absolutely no sense as I wept profusely over two small, lifeless babies no more than the length of a typical school ruler in the palm of my weary hands. Words and the ideas behind them matter tremendously when your life falls apart. Everything has meaning, and takes on new meaning. What once made sense no longer does. The things that used to work no longer do. The words that helped before now fall on deaf ears. It’s as if reality splits into two and then gets stitched together again, but in unfamiliar ways, and all at once so there’s no time to make sense of anything. The world won’t stop moving, and everyone has an opinion, and everyone wants to say something to make things better, to make you whole again. Others want to offer up their ideas of why it happened or how they know someone who this also happened to. I think that when losses are fresh — whatever those losses may be — people would do well to take the advice of Chandler Bing from Friends, “Well, if people don’t know, they shouldn’t just guess!” Sometimes the company of a silent friend holding your hand is all you need in the beginning.
And before you know it, some time has passed and you find yourself hating clocks and the changing of seasons more than anything. Because time feels like a moving walkway pulling you away from them, or him, or her, and it sucks to be apart. And then when things finally do start to sort of, kind of, make sense, you realize that something mysterious has happened in the process. When the darkness comes and alters your life, the light you do see (whenever it comes), no one else can. Or at least that’s how it feels. You emerge out of someplace terrifyingly dark and into the light a completely different person. I guess darkness has a way of changing you.
For me, that light was realizing that this whole business of teaching and preaching that the awful things that happen in our lives are somehow (directly or indirectly) causally related to God doesn’t work, not spiritually anyway, and certainly not for everyone. The theology might seem sound to some, but for others what it does spiritually takes a toll — on their ability to grow in faith, to be passionate about who God is, and to reconcile the magnificent love of Jesus with the terrible things that can and do happen here on earth. And make no mistake: our ability to reconcile the things that confound us is important, because when we ignore the pieces that don’t fit and dismiss them as God’s “higher ways” or mysteries He has chosen to withhold from us, we turn our backs on our God-given right to wrestle and make sense of the things that we can. Because (news flash!) there are things we can make sense of. I think that there is a profound difference between trying to reconcile ideas and setting out to find answers which lie beyond the limits of our knowledge. The distinctions are delicate. With the one, we honour our ability to put things to balance, to adjust to changing circumstances and information, and even to restore wisdom to a situation that requires it, whereas with other, we become preoccupied with certainty and risk dismissing real opportunities for personal growth and, maybe, even missing out on life-changing truths. There are similarities, sure, but the differences in outcomes is striking.
When it comes to theodicy (or the answer to why God allows evil), a lot of Christians teach that the Devil is the one responsible for all the things that go wrong in our lives and all the evil in this world. If Adam and Eve had not listened to the serpent in Genesis, we would still be living in paradise and none of us would know pain, physiologically or emotionally. By believing the serpent’s lie, the first humans gave dominion of this world over to Satan. In other words, we gave Satan the power and authority to wreak havoc over the earth. Yup, it was all our fault!*
Out of this teaching, some people have come to believe that the bad things that happen to us as individuals or as groups of people are nothing more than God’s punishment for our sins. In other words, we’ve done something bad to deserve the terrible things that happen in our lives. So, that fibromyalgia you have, or the horrific acts of evil like rape and genocide that take place, the tsunamis that have wiped entire communities away, these are nothing more than God’s just retributions meted out on sinful humans. We’ve offended His commandments so we have to pay the price. Think of it like damages for breach of contract. Meanwhile, those who abide by God’s will experience success and prosperity.
But hey, if you’re not into believing in a God who sees the world in very black and white terms, then maybe you can get on board with believing in a God who uses the dark matter of our lives to make us into better, stronger, more faithful people. This is the God who sometimes uses terrible experiences to test us and grow our faith, or maybe to save us from something far worse in the future. Some of us know this God as the potter and see ourselves as nothing but lowly clay. So, Satan may be the one wreaking havoc over everything and everyone, but God is ultimately the One who has given him permission to do so. Think the story of Job. Under this theodicy, the difference between the two is purely related to motives. Whereas Satan promotes suffering because he enjoys making God’s people miserable, God uses suffering as a tool to achieve a greater good. Think the story of Joseph.
Which brings us to prayer. If you believe that God uses suffering for our own good, then if God doesn’t answer your sincere prayers for healing or “freedom from affliction” or job security or what-have-you, it must be because it was not in God’s will. In other words, there must be some “higher purpose” to our suffering or when things don’t go as we plan. To achieve the greatest good, our suffering was necessary. This is usually when people say things like “Everything happens for a reason”, “God is in control”, or “His ways are not our ways”. Under this view, the future is either settled because God allowed it to be in the distant past or because every moment of our lives is unfolding exactly as God wills it. So much for free will!
When I sat alone at home mulling over these things, it seemed to me that once you stripped away all the dizzying Christianese, the undeniable message was that God crafted, orchestrated, and/ or led me and my babies to that hospital on March 7, 2016. Sure, the Devil did it, but God didn’t do anything to stop it from happening either. In the end, all roads seemed to lead back to God. He was the wizard behind the curtain.
I’ve often told people that were it not for Jesus, I would have abandoned my faith after we lost Summer and Malia. For me, Jesus rescues us from all of this toxic theology/ theodicy. The writer of Hebrews asserts that Jesus is the “exact representation of [God’s] being” and the apostle John testifies that Jesus assured His disciples that whoever has seen Him has seen the Father. In other words, if I want to know what God is like, Jesus is my North Star.
Which brings me to this. Maybe God actually does want to answer our most urgent prayers the way Jesus responded to people, but His will is thwarted every now and then, by us or by unseen spiritual forces. And maybe what’s going on behind the scenes when life goes sideways isn’t all as neat and tidy as God punishing you for having pre-marital sex or God allowing your friend to get cancer so He can teach them a lesson on how to become a better person. Maybe there are innumerable variables that play into what happens here on earth and in our lives on a day-to-day basis, like the unpredictable choices we make, the laws of nature, absolute randomness, the parents who raised us, the regularities of our climate system, show-stopping miracles, the sheer complexity of our bodies, how little sleep that guy had before he got on the road, etc. And maybe those variables include a God who is actually rooting for a planet of misfits like us – a God who donned human flesh in the person of Jesus so that we could know what true love looks like, a God who didn’t exempt Himself from participating in human suffering so we could know what it means to live this life “to the full” despite the evil that abounds, a God who actively battles evil behind the scenes the way that Jesus battled evil here on earth. But also, a God who loses every now and then. A God who doesn’t always get what He wants the way that Jesus didn’t always get what He wanted, like the time He was rejected in Nazareth and Mark says He couldn’t do any “mighty work” there because of the people’s unbelief, and the time when His disciples fled and abandoned Him to face the Jewish authorities all alone.
The thing is, believing that this is the God at work in this world also means letting go of the idea that God controls everything – our highs and our lows, our peaks and our valleys, our births and our deaths. It is the most unsettling view of the theodicies I have laid out here because it means renouncing conventional ideas of what GOD even means, and we all know how much people like their conventions (even annual comic book ones in San Diego). However, if you ask me, the real reason why this theodicy is the most challenging to wrap our heads around is because it means giving up a God divested of Jesus, and sometimes believing in an almighty God who sees the world in black and white terms or that has a 5-trillion point plan for how our lives will turn out is much easier than believing in a God like Jesus who, frankly, sometimes messes things up for us, like answering a question with a question or talking in parables when all we want are straight answers.
But, in my view, Jesus is what makes God God, kind of like how Clark Kent is what makes Superman Superman. Not only did His ministry reveal that God is not responsible for the evil that takes place and that He opposes it, but Jesus is God’s glory and power. And not because He was divine, but because He used His divinity to become human. As Plato once said, “The measure of a man is what he does with power.” Maybe the measure of God is Jesus.
According to the writers of the Gospels, Jesus had a full-bodied human experience – hanging out with friends talking about the meaning of everything, working like regular folks, going fishing, mourning over people, sharing meals with strangers, being changed on mountaintops. He was like you and me, living a life here on messy planet Earth, just trying to make it better. Maybe that’s why Jesus sometimes didn’t give straight answers, because He understood what we know to be true in our bones – that life down here is hard and complicated, and that asking questions is what leads to true self-discovery and faith amid all this complexity, not answers. Even near death, he was human, asking God, “Why have you forsaken me?” Since when does a God who controls everything ask any questions, let alone a question as loaded and stuffed with feeling as “Why?”
If you ask me, Jesus helps us to feel okay about being human and, deep in our souls, we need that far more than we need to feel like we are inanimate clay. In fact, Jesus encourages us to ask and to think for ourselves, to examine our own lives, and to reevaluate the things that we believe. In other words, Jesus completely repudiates the idea that God predetermines or controls everything and that we are not participants in our own lives. He hands us the pen to create our own stories and invites us to model our stories after His story, but never forces us. He respects our humanity and individuality while teaching us how to become better humans living in a chaotic world where the things that happen aren’t always caused by God. In classic Jesus, this God sacrifices ultimate control over the minutia of our daily lives so we can experience what it means to LIVE, even if the tragic cost of living free means exposing us to the countless forces in this wildly perplexing universe that work together to culminate in our most crushing disappointments and deepest sorrows.
I don’t know about you, but this sounds more like a God I can get on board with, a God that I can trust. Why? Because a God who can give something up like ultimate control over everything can give up His life for me. A God who controls everything has no reason to give anything up. Sacrifice would be meaningless, and a meaningless sacrifice is not a sacrifice at all.**
Just recently, a friend from work asked me if I would go through the pain of losing my daughters again to get to the place where I am now. This place where I feel light on my feet and the Bible feels more like a feather on my shoulder than a huge lump of rock on my back. A place where faith feels more exciting than ever before and God looks more like Jesus than a taskmaster from Egypt. The answer I gave her is no, I would never wish an experience like that on anyone, nor would I ever wish it on myself again, no matter what the result. I think that we cheapen our most painful experiences when we say that we would go through them again just to get to a better place in our lives. Because the fact of the matter is, the road to our better places is never easy. Our losses and tragedies are real. My daughters were real. The pain I felt over losing them was real. The ache in my soul and cries for mercy were real. Anyone who has ever lost knows that it takes a tremendous amount of hard work to crawl out of the darkness to find the light, and that there are days or months or even years when we wonder if we will ever make it out alive on the other side. No, I would not do it all again to get where I am today. There is no compensation in personal growth that is worth the life of my daughters.
I have, however, come to a place in my life where I can say that I am truly grateful that I learned from that experience — about myself, about God, about life — and that I came out of it a stronger person. I think that each of us has a choice to make when loss comes our way. We get to decide how our losses affect us and the course of our lives, not God. And while I no longer believe that God allowed this terrible experience to take place so that He could refine me for some higher purpose, I certainly don’t believe that He has had no part to play in my life. On the contrary, because of Jesus, I believe that God has been by my side every single step of the way, guiding me, weeping with me, inspiring me, challenging me, changing me, and restoring my soul.
Maybe this is how we win after we lose: when we choose to get up and take hold of God’s outstretched hand.
*Leave it to Jesus to be kinder about it because He summed it all up by saying, “An enemy hath done this.”
**Isn’t it, like, the worst thing in the world to no longer believe that God controls everything? I don’t think so.
Isn’t destructive to faith to believe He doesn’t control everything? Not in my experience. If anything, I think believing in a God who controls everything is what kills faith, or at least keeps it from growing.
Isn’t all of this non-biblical? That’s for another post. And judging by how often I publish stuff, you can expect that in the next 2 years, LOL! (Hopefully not.)
Doesn’t believing in a God who sometimes loses mean that you believe in an impotent God? Isn’t all this heretical and nothing but liberal nonsense? Some might say that, but, again, I don’t think so. I mean, which God is more likely to win our hearts – the all-powerful God or the self-sacrificing One? I think that the Jesus story teaches us that God is far more interested in winning us over with self-sacrificing love than all-consuming power and sovereignty. And deep down, I think we all know that. I mean, have you ever wondered why people don’t believe there is love in power, but that there is power in love?
Comment Rules: This post contains some content and reflections that may be disagreeable to some. By sharing online, I recognize that I am making myself vulnerable to all sorts of responses. If you disagree with any of today’s content and wish to comment, you are welcome to do so, but please be respectful. – J.