[A Bible study about suffering this week has brought me back to these thoughts I put into words almost 2 years ago. It was the result of a weeks-long, prayer-drenched endeavor to meet earnestly seeking hearts with real truth from God’s Word – not just “pat answers.” It has been so good to read through it again myself – I hope it will encourage someone else today too!]
Dear friends of ours have battled through a difficult year, to say the least. A cancer diagnosis 2 years ago brought the early delivery of their 5th child, a healthy baby boy, followed immediately by his mama enduring surgery and follow-up treatments. The news was good. They caught it early! They got it all! Declared cancer-free, life returned to a joyful normal, even determined triumph when this mama of 5 crossed the finish line of her first ½ marathon! We all rejoiced with them with prayers of thanksgiving!
Eighteen months later, our hearts stopped when we heard, “the cancer is back.” Our favorite, quintessentially southern mama would face 6-7 weeks of intense radiation and chemo, followed by 3 more additionally aggressive chemo treatments. All-out battle loomed. I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. It took me 24 hours to process my own emotions and swirling questions. I was numb. Heart sick. Helpless! I prayed non-stop until the Lord’s gentle whispering to my heart finally gave me the ability to collect my thoughts and reach out with love, support and hope-filled, confident encouragement and reassurance.
“Replace fear with truth, My truth!” were His words to me. And so I passed His truth on to our dear friends: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when you pass through the rivers, they will NOT overwhelm you.” Isaiah 43:2 ~ “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified. For the Lord, your God goes with you. He will never leave you nor forsake you.” Deuteronomy 31:6
The battle was long. It was fierce. But our God is faithful, and the treatment, though harsh, WAS successful! Bald, but proudly donning her beloved monogrammed head scarves, physically weakened from the months of fighting, and admittedly emotionally fragile, our friend still radiated JOY and thankfulness as she shared the happy news that she was, again, “cancer-free!” We all rejoiced again, with prayers of thanksgiving that didn’t seem to find words that were big enough, full enough, exuberant enough to express our gratitude to the Lord for His tender care and healing power! Their family enjoyed a long-anticipated beach vacation, and she started running again, determined to tackle her second ½ marathon, the Princess race at Disney, in less than 6 months!!
A few days ago I finally had the chance to sit with our friends, enjoying a delicious brunch of French toast, banana pancakes, and a Cozumel omelet. Our visit was emotional, still overflowing with thankfulness, but very “real” and vulnerable about the struggles of their year, and the questions that remain. One of them surprised me. They have walked a path few of us are asked to walk, and have shown courage and faith that has emboldened all of us who are watching and praying. Yet they confessed their faith has been shaken, not by their own trials, but by the devastating news this very same year that a sweet 4-yr-old warrior named William had lost his grueling battle with neuroblastoma. Childhood cancer had claimed another young life, far too soon!
Both of our families hold a special place in our hearts for William’s family. We (and our kids!) know his dad as our favorite pediatrician of all time! So it hit heartbreakingly close to home to hear of William’s diagnosis, battle, and seemingly sudden passing onto heaven’s shore. Our only comfort is knowing that he is heavenly healed, never to know pain or struggle again. But the loss of his precious young life, and the gaping void in the lives of his parents and sister, is unthinkable! The questions are harder to answer. And so our friends looked earnestly, searchingly, across our brunch table and into my eyes, my heart. Their words left me at a loss for my own, “how do you reconcile faith in an Almighty Sovereign God with unspeakable tragedy?”
Tragedy is unavoidable in our fallen world. None of us believe that the brokenness is from God. But is it allowed by God? And what we really wrestle with is WHY, when God is all-powerful, all-knowing, almighty and sovereign, more than capable of swooping down to rescue us, in miraculous, loving and intensely personal ways, does He choose NOT to act? Why do children (and children at heart) die from cancer? Why is evil permitted to go door to door and systematically take young lives because of their love for this very God? Every part of our being begs, “WHY?!!!”
This one-word question leads to many more questions than answers. It has already been days of thought and earnest prayer, longing for understanding, even just a glimpse of God’s perspective that will calm my anxious heart. I found myself right back where I started, “replace fear (or in this case doubt?) with truth, God’s truth. So, what exactly do I already KNOW?
“As for God, His way is perfect.” [Psalm 18:30]
“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His faithful ones.” [Ps 116:15]
“Just as you cannot understand the path of the wind or the mystery of a tiny baby growing in its mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the acts of God.” [Ecclesiastes 11:5]
“The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in Him, and He helps me.” [Ps 28:7]
“We hold unswervingly to the truth we possess, because He is faithful who has promised.” [Hebrews 10:23]
These few verses barely scratch the surface of the wealth of promises and truths in Scripture. But they reassure me that although the mind and heart of God are beyond my human comprehension, He is trustworthy. Every death is precious to Him too! Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus, even with the Divine foreknowledge that He would raise him from the grave that very same day [John 11:35]. He is not callous or careless. The One who laid the foundations of the earth, defined the boundaries of the sea, commands the morning to appear and daylight to spread across the earth also wrote every moment of our days before one of them came to be [Job 38, Psalm 139]. His choices are carefully and exactly made, down to the most intricate detail.
Could it be that we just don’t see the big picture? We can’t possibly know all of the far reaching factors that could impact a Divine decision. Yet “as for God, His way is perfect.” How do we trust that? What creates and fosters that trust? Why has He asked SO much of some of His children? Why has He asked some of them to wait SO long for answers, for fulfillment of promises, for deliverance?
The Lord called Abraham to leave his homeland, to travel to a land the Lord promised to give him. He also promised that Abraham would be the father of a great nation, with descendants as numerous as the stars. God faithfully led Abraham and Abraham faithfully followed, with unquestioning obedience. But God asked Abraham to wait until he was 100 years old to see even one of God’s promises come true. When Abraham and Sarah were beyond child-bearing years and after living many disappointing years of marriage without the ability to have children, the Lord blessed them with the birth of their promised son, Issac. The birth of Isaac was humanly impossible, but more than possible with God. He fulfilled His promise to Abraham and Sarah in a way that was undeniably His doing. And He rewarded their faithfulness with so much joy that they were filled with laughter (the meaning of Isaac’s name). Because of their faithfulness they were given the unspeakable gift of being able to experience the impossible!
But then the inconceivable request came. God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering. How could this be? Abraham’s heart must have been torn into a million pieces. His mind must have screamed so many questions. But scripture tells us that he rose early the next morning and obediently began his 3-day journey to Mount Moriah, where he was supposed to sacrifice his beloved son.
As Abraham raised the knife to slay his son, God called to him from heaven and stopped him. A ram caught in the bushes near the altar was provided by God as a substitute for Isaac. “Now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your only son from me.” [Genesis 22:12] Abraham’s faith was tested in the most unbelievable way. He passed the test. He named the mountain “Jehovah Jireh”, which means “the Lord will provide.”
The question has been asked, “how could Abraham sacrifice the one in whom was all his hope?” The truth is that in the 100+ years of walking with God, Abraham had learned that his hope was not in anyone or anything. His only hope was in God Himself! He was able to do the unthinkable, regardless of very real human emotions, because “he judged Him faithful who had promised.” [Hebrews 11] Hebrews tells us that Abraham believed that God could raise Isaac from the dead, if necessary, to fulfill the promises He had made. He probably still didn’t fully understand all the reasons why the Lord had asked SO much of him, but his faith and trust in God clearly extended beyond the grave. He had caught a glimpse of the eternal mind of God, and although he couldn’t make sense of it, he was willing to place unquestioning trust in the Lord and His perfect plan.
It has been said that the Lord asked SO much of Abraham because He wanted to give him more of Himself. God wanted to reveal things uniquely to Abraham. God wanted Abraham to know His truth, not just by hearing it, but by experiencing it first hand. He knew he could trust him with the hard path He planned for him. He knew that Abraham’s own version of God’s story to tell would impact generations to come!
Abraham didn’t know the details of the rest of the story as we do now, but he trusted God. As scripture unfolds, we see that the substitutionary death of the ram in place of Abraham’s beloved son, Isaac, on Mount Moriah was a beautiful foreshadowing, a picture of God’s eternal plan of redemption for us. Mount Moriah would eventually be known as Calvary, where God gave His own Beloved Son, the Lord Jesus, to die for us. He is our substitute. Because of His death, we receive eternal life! God the Father knows full well what each parent feels in the loss of their child. Through the story of Abraham we can know a little more clearly just what was given for us, just how much God loves us and was willing to sacrifice so we could have a relationship with Him and a home in heaven with Him eternally!
Abraham played a very important part in the love story of God’s ultimate provision for each one of us. Because he trusted God and was willing to obey, he lived the impossible, he endured the inconceivable, he was given the blessing of knowing the God of the universe in an intimate and personal way. Although he probably would not wish any step of his journey on anyone else, I’m sure he wouldn’t trade the end of the story for anything else either!
So WHY does God ask SO much of some of His children? Why does He ask some of them to wait SO long for answers, for fulfillment of promises, or for deliverance? Is it the very enormity of those requests and the subsequent faithfulness of His children in the face of every obstacle that creates and builds our faith? Is this how His light shines brightest in the darkest darkness? Would these accounts of the unbelievable have the same impact if they were more palatable? What else (WHO else) could win the hearts of men and women (and children!) and cause them to claim their allegiance and offer their obedience, even when that testimony of faith costs them their lives or means the loss of someone dear to them? ONLY the living God, transcendent beyond anything we can even imagine, could have made Himself real enough to them to cause them to trust Him beyond the grave!
Beyond the grave… maybe that’s part of it!? Are we just too short-sighted? Is our definition of “what is best” just too limited? Could it be that in His choosing NOT to act, He is actually sparing us from a greater tragedy we just can’t see when blinded by grief? Could it be “severe mercy?” A mercy so severe and yet a severity that is somehow merciful? Is His “harsh treatment” actually what is necessary to bring about the greatest healing, display His greatest glory, bring about the greatest good for us?
The Old Testament also includes the remarkable story of Job. The Bible tells us that Job feared God and lived a life before Him of complete integrity. God Himself describes Job as the finest man in all the earth [Job 1 & 2]. But God called Job to suffer the loss of all 10 of his adult children, all 7000 of his sheep, all 3000 of his camels, all 500 teams of oxen, all 500 female donkeys, and all but a handful of his servants in a single day. While still staggered by grief, God also called Job to suffer horrible boils from head to foot. His health deteriorated to the point that no one could bear to look at him. His own wife urged him to curse God and die. But Job’s faith in God remained steadfast. He declared his wife’s reasoning “foolish,” asking, “should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?”
In the chapters that follow, Job honestly and boldly shouts his questions at God. Though maintaining faith and trust in the Lord, he is not shy about expressing his hard questions. “Why wasn’t I born dead? Why is life given to those with no future, those God has surrounded with difficulties? What have I done wrong? I cannot keep from speaking. I must express my anguish. My bitter soul must complain. Why have You made me Your target?” But Job is also humble before the Lord: “God is so wise and so mighty. Who has ever challenged Him successfully? He moves the mountains, shakes the earth, commands the sun to rise and the stars to shine. He marches on the waves of the sea. He does great things too marvelous to understand. He performs countless miracles. If He snatches someone in death, who dares to ask, “what are You doing?” So who am I, that I should try to answer God or even reason with Him?”
The later chapters of Job describe the Lord taking time to respond to Job personally. He answers Job’s hard questions with hard questions of His own, reminding Job that He is the Almighty Sovereign Creator, all-powerful over the entire universe, yet involved in the smallest details like food for the raven, the birth of a goat, every blade of grass for the donkey, the feathers of a stork, the hair in a horse’s mane, or the perfect place for an eagle to make its nest. After a relatively brief synopsis of the Lord’s role as Creator and Sustainer of all of creation, He basically asks Job, “do you still question me? Have I not proven that You can trust me to know what is best and to provide for you more than the horse or the eagle?” Job replies, “I have questioned Your wisdom in ignorance. I was talking about things far too wonderful for me. I had only heard about You before, but now I have seen you with my own eyes. I repent in dust and ashes.”
After more tragic loss in one single day than any of us have ever experienced, followed by mounting health challenges few of us are ever asked to endure, Job declared, “the Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the Name of the Lord.” [Job 1:21] Have we forgotten all He has given? Have we been so distracted by what we feel He has denied us that we have forgotten all that He has done, all the times He has chosen to act? If we took time to remember every moment, every breath, every miracle (big, small, seen or unseen), would we not be humbled by His overwhelming graciousness and confess that He has proven to be faithful again and again? Would we not say with Abraham and with Job that He IS trustworthy, despite the challenges, especially through the challenges, He is faithful who has promised?
At the end of this unbelievable time of testing, the Lord honored Job’s faithfulness, even when it was mixed with bold, hard questions. The Lord blessed Job in the second half of his life even more than in the beginning. Job was completely restored to health and strength. God gave Job 7 more sons and 3 more daughters, 14000 sheep, 6000 camels, 1000 teams of oxen, and 1000 female donkeys. In all the land, no women were as lovely as the daughters of Job. [Job 42] Like Abraham, Job learned by experience, through the most difficult set of circumstances, that God could help him live through his worst nightmare x 10 (x 100?). God trusted Job with this incredibly difficult path. He knew that as Job took his doubt and anguish to the Lord, God could reveal more of Himself to Job in an intensely personal and unforgettable way. Like Abraham, Job’s own version of God’s story to tell has strengthened and inspired generations after him to place their faith and trust in the same Lord, Maker of heaven and earth. With God’s help and watchful eye, we, too, can survive the impossible. We, too, can say confidently with Job, “I know that My Redeemer lives… with my own eyes I will see God.” [Job 19:25-26]
He longs for us to know Him, to choose to love Him, to trust Him. He knows exactly how to make Himself real to each of us in a way that will be personally meaningful to us. He wants us to know that He is worthy of our trust. How can He prove that if not through our experience of facing the unthinkable and finding Him faithful to see us through, to inexplicably provide strength and courage to take one more step? As our faith in Him grows, we can reach a place of confidence to say, “even when it’s hard, even when it hurts, even when it makes NO human sense, He is good and He is right and one day I will agree with Him that His way was best.”
Yes, still more questions than answers. But Job showed us that our great God can handle our hard questions. As we seek Him, He will reveal Himself to us [Ps 9:10]. We may never be able to comprehend the full heart and mind of God, but we can count on Him to reveal what we need to know when we need to know it. God didn’t answer all of Job’s questions. But He revealed enough of Himself to Job to put his questions to rest and enable him just to trust God. And for this “need to know” girl, it is huge to realize that I don’t need all the answers, I just need to remember Who has the answers and that I am in His tender, intensely personal, entirely capable care. I pray that He will help me trust Him more. He is Almighty God and I am His child. May I rejoice in all He has provided and leave the “knowing” to my Father.
My thoughts drift back to our dear friends, who are probably still wrestling with their own questions. I don’t know how the Lord will meet them right where they are, but I know He will. As they seek Him, I trust that He will lead them to know Him better. Even in their hard questions, I believe He will find ways to answer them in ways that are undeniably His doing. I can only pray that though the road may not be easy, the discoveries they make will strengthen their faith rather than shake it. I pray that the Lord will continue to make Himself real to them in ways that are uniquely personal and will change their hearts and lives forever.
“Call to Me and I will answer you and tell you great and incomprehensible things you do not know.” [Jeremiah 33:3 from the Holman Christian Standard Bible]