By Stephen D. Bryant
This is one of a series of letters between Stephen Bryant and a friend here called "Tom." "Tom's" mother died a traumatic death. He entered counseling but also wanted to work through his struggle with his faith and with God in the face of the suffering his mother had undergone. He asked Stephen to engage in correspondence around a series of theological questions concerning faith, suffering, and God's will.
Thanks for writing me. Your mother's death came as a shock to us all, and we are very sad with you. I've said this before, but we want you to know we love you, are thinking of you often, and are keeping you in our prayers. I will be interested to hear how your counseling sessions have gone.
I was really struck by how well you articulated the questions that you want to deal with. I suppose most people never think about these questions until life forces them to. After I read your letter I was overcome with my own ignorance. Obviously, I do not know the "answers," if there are any neat answers to what God's will is and how to reconcile our life experience with the conviction that God is both all loving and all powerful. I thought I could simply share my faith and my own understanding of things with you. I have never experienced the kind of loss and grief you have been undergoing. Those experiences are like crucibles in which our ways of seeing life and God are reshaped, so sharing with you may do me good. You can push my understandings at the points where they don't square with life as you have experienced it.
The word will as in "God's will" comes from a Greek word that carries feeling and even passion. When we say "What is God's will?" we are asking, "What is God's deep, heartfelt desire for our lives and our world? What does this God who loves us want for us above all? What is God committed to accomplishing on our behalf no matter what the cost? What is God passionate about? What is God 'willing' which flows out of God's deep and unending love for us?" That's really different from the way we often hear the word used: "Well, it must have been God's will" or "Do you think his accident was God's will?" That kind of “God's will” is scary because it so often sounds like cruel fate. The image of God that goes with it is God as an ancient Near Eastern king or despot. But the image of God that goes with the true meaning of "God's will" is that of One passionately in love with the creation and with us as God's children—a God "willing" to give the divine self with complete abandon for our good. That's the kind of God we see in Jesus: not a despot who remains removed from the human situation but a Lover who surrenders any advantage over us in order to become as we are: "Bearing the human likeness, revealed in human shape, he humbled himself, and in obedience accepted even death—death on a cross" (Phil. 2:8, NEB).
This is a very important image shift. The God of Jesus is a God of compassion. That means God "suffers with" us. We all want a Benevolent Despot who will kindly take away human problems. But what we have is a Divine Lover who is completely involved in the creation and who will be found fellowshipping incognito with the lowliest of creatures. God is sooner found standing at the bedside of the dying than sitting on the heavenly throne removed from us and our lives. The power of the Lover and the power of the Despot are not the same. The Despot God has the power of know-how and authority to fix our problems if we are granted mercy. But the Lover God has the strength of love to share our struggles and the power to persevere as our companion through them. The Lover God's deepest hope and desire for us (i.e., God's will) is not simply that we have a pain-free life but that we grow to be like God: to have the strength of love to share with God the burdens of others and to persevere with grace as a companion to the Companion in [Christ’s] suffering love (2 Cor. 1:3-7). God's will is that we grow in the likeness of Jesus Christ and learn to live in grace in the midst of the best and the worst this world can dish out. This is God's passion.
God’s passion is not to remove every hardship life brings our way but to remove every obstacle to our living a life in grace.
God’s passion is not to remove every hardship life brings our way but to remove every obstacle to our living a life in grace. Not that God wills hardship and suffering! But given the way life is, God working through our faith wants to turn those very hardships (and even wrongs) on their head. Instead of chambers of death in which we quietly suffer life's assault on us and die, those experiences become the crucibles of new life through which we mature spiritually and grow in grace (Rom. 5:1ff). That's what God does in the cross: turns an experience of ultimate defeat, suffering, sin, and death into a doorway to salvation, grace, and new life for those who pay attention to what is really going on. Paul asks derisively, "O death, where is thy victory? Where is thy sting?" (1 Cor. 15:55-57). God didn't remove the cross or the suffering that came with it. But God did redeem them through One who did not understand where God was in the events of Holy Week but who was willing to face even his own murder with openness to God's grace.
Yes, creation is a mess. Evil is always there in the Bible, unaccounted for; there is no explanation of the origin of the serpent in Genesis 3. Evil has no place in God's creation, but it is always there. It cannot be explained or explained away. Maybe it is a tendency (like chronic sleepiness) in creation to revert to original chaos (Gen. 1), to disintegrate on every level, to resist the work of being re-created in God's love. What saves me from the despair of feeling that life is a cosmic misfortune is focusing my attention on God's goal and call to us to lay aside our complaints about the way life is and become co-workers in God's task of recreating and redeeming.
I am strengthened when I remember that we are not supposed to get accustomed to evil. God doesn't get used to it either! I think we are called to share God's pain and struggle with the condition of this world, not to passively accept it with the help of various religious rationalizations. Jesus opposed the idea that God brings about handicap, illness, or tragedy as punishment of people's sins (John 9), or that such calamities reflect some "fate" which we must simply accept. Jesus liberated people from the weight of those notions. And in their place he gave people God's companionship and communicated God's forgiving, healing grace. I think we are supposed to be outraged with Jesus over innocent suffering. Our anger and hurt can then become passion for bringing healing to other people who are feeling crushed by this world.
It also helps me to realize that God, too, is outraged and brokenhearted over the death of your mother. God must feel some responsibility for the pain this life brings to so many people. And yet God does not faint and give up but perseveres, I suppose, because God deems life and the human experiment worthwhile despite the cost. God keeps on sustaining the world and giving people like you and me hope and faith that there is meaning in living. In this way God enables us to persevere, too.
Tom, to a lot of traditionalists my way of talking about God is too human. It differs from the "classical theist" position which describes God in grand philosophical categories which are not necessarily biblical ones (for instance, omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, impassibility). Yet Jesus shows us the humanness of God, a humanness that far exceeds our own because we are afraid to be that open to people and their hurt and that vulnerable to the power of love upon us. We want to remain above it all. Jesus gives up that advantage. He throws in his lot with us and our problems. His divinity is the incredible depth of his humanness, a humanness to which we are all called and which his Spirit gives us. His power is his strength to love and care, his capacity to give and forgive, and his commitment to remain with us in life, in death, and in life beyond death. Jesus shows us how human God really is. This may not be the kind of God we want. This God may not exercise power to fix things the way we had hoped. But I believe this is the kind of God we have and the kind of consolation, meaning, and purpose our God gives us when we begin asking the ageless questions.
Obviously, the questions you ask cannot be answered once and for all, but the healing your questions really seek does not come from answers anyway, as you know. I like what Henri Nouwen says in The Living Reminder. He writes that the healing comes when we begin to realize that we do not carry our painful wounds in isolation. Our wounds are intimately connected with God's own suffering. Healing begins when we start making connections between our sufferings and the great story of God's suffering in Jesus Christ, between our little life and the great life of God with us.* That's why I think it is really good that your mom's death has led you to struggle with your own faith. Even if the pain won't go away soon, one day the memories will no longer incapacitate you. On the contrary, they will strengthen and deepen you as a person and a Christian.
You need to feel free to respond very honestly to the things I have written so this can be the kind of dialogue you asked for. Let me know what is helpful and what is unhelpful. I tend to write a lot once I get going. I do not want to be preachy.
Let me hear from you. Thanks for the chance to share myself with you.
*See Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Living Reminder (New York: The Seabury Press, 1977), p. 25.
Adapted from “Letter to a Friend” by Stephen D. Bryant. Originally published in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, May/June 1989, Vol. 4, No. 3. Copyright © 1989 The Upper Room.