I have an apartment over my garage. The illegitimate and ill-behaved children of the girl we gave a home to for several months had pushed out the screen on the door, so last night I went up to fix it. My two year-old, Stephen Caleb, demanded to accompany me, having grown tired of splashing about in the rainboots that come up to his knees, the kind with toes that look like frogs. So up we went. And while I was working, he slipped, rolled under the railing, and fell to the ground ten feet below.
All I could think, as I saw him lying face down in the dirt, was: Are you taking this one from me too? Then I was down the steps, and somehow — somehow — he was standing up, caked in mud, crying. I picked him up and rushed towards the house, frantically feeling for a bone at an odd angle, or gushing blood, expecting any moment that he would lapse into unconsciousness, all the while praying please, please, not again. Please.
And he was fine. He should have broken something, or had a concussion. He could have landed on his head, or on the bricks six feet away. But he didn’t, and I found myself wondering yet again why things happen, why some innocents are lifted up by God’s own hand, and others allowed to die a death they don’t deserve. Once again I return to the only answer, which is that there is no answer, at least none that matters.
A hallmark of those who have not suffered greatly is their Shakespearean quest for Meaning in the suffering of others. I had dinner some weeks ago in the home of a friend who by all accounts should be dead, whose body is painfully scarred by a dreadful car accident a year ago. During our conversation another friend, someone I respect a great deal, pointed out to him how much his suffering did to bring our church closer together. I saw his face change slightly, an outward sign that the inner wall is going up, the wall that someone hurting sometimes has to build against those who want to help, but who cannot.
We have some need, especially American Christians, it seems, to see the scales balanced in our lifetimes, to see every hurt counterweighted by good. But the scales only seem capable of balance if it’s not your body, your marriage, your child lying broken on the tray. The truth is that the Bible we look to for proof that God is the Great Accountant says exactly the opposite, that in this life there will be suffering for many, and that it won’t always make sense:“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord.
A verse that I think is often misinterpreted, meanwhile, is that Presbyterian favorite: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” There are Christians who trot this out at the worst times in the lives of their brethren, as if this can be some comfort to a wife wiping drool from the mouth of her husband incapacitated by stroke, or to the parent of an autistic child. This verse serves for some Christians as a charm of sorts, warding off evil.
But its words don’t promise that we will understand the purpose of a suffering in our lifetimes, or, should we discern the purpose, that we will judge it worthwhile. “All things work together for good.” Notice that this does not tell us that every single thing by itself will produce good, nor that any resulting good will be manifest in the weeks or months following the affliction. The words instead describe a totality that many of us cannot see or understand, at least not here. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts…”
So some people have to suffer greatly, and don’t get to know why. What’s more, usually there is no “why” great enough to be worth it. This is a revelation that can only be borne by anguish. But that does not mean that our hope is worthless. We are not promised a balance of joy and pain while mankind dwells in sin, but we are promised peace: “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all.” For some, deliverance only comes with the last breath of a broken body. But peace is possible, even in the midst of affliction.
And very often, joy is possible as well. Sometimes children fall and are broken. But sometimes they get up, and we get to hug them, and help them smile again, and remember that a God who would give them to us in the first place must love us after all, even if we don’t always believe it. Especially then, I think.