For Our Good?
by Ted Schroder
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) How can God work for the good of those who love him in the midst of tragedy? How can trials be occasions of joyfulness? How can the testing of our faith produce endurance so that we may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing? (James 1:2-4)
James Bryan Smith in The Good and Beautiful God, relates about when the doctors told he and his wife that the little girl she had been carrying for eight months had a rare chromosomal disorder that would likely cause her to die at birth. Up to that point in his life nothing terrible had happened to him. From painting his child’s nursery he had to plan her funeral. He asked, “How does a Christian, one who believes in the goodness of God, respond to something so tragic and heartbreaking?”
Their daughter, Madelaine survived the birth, but weighed only a few pounds, had a heart defect, was deaf and could not keep food down. They were told she would not live more than a year or two. One day a pastor whom he had known for years took him to lunch. While Jim was in the middle of eating his salad he asked, “Who sinned, Jim, you or your wife?” Jim replied, “Excuse me…what do you mean?” He said, “Well, one or both of you must have sinned at some point to have caused this to happen.” Job’s comforters again! If Romans 8:28 is true then you must not be loving God if something bad is happening to you!
Madeline lived for just over two years, and then her little body gave up the fight. Over those two years, and the year after, people said some outrageously ignorant and tactless things to them. During the viewing the night before Madelaine’s funeral a woman said to his wife, “It’s okay honey, you can have another child.” The comments that bothered him the most were the theological ones explaining what God was up to in all this. “Well, I am sure the Lord had a reason for this,” several people said. “I guess God just wanted her in heaven more than he wanted her here,” said another. “Sometimes children are too beautiful for this earth,” said yet another.
The pastor who asked the question, “Who sinned?” was operating from the most prevalent narrative about God among Christians: “God is an angry judge. If you do well, you will be blessed; if you sin, you will be punished.” A study conducted by Baylor University concluded that this is the way most conservative Christians think about God. His daughter, however had not sinned and caused this disease. What possible sin could his wife or he have done that God would force a small child to suffer for it?
Jesus encountered a man who was born blind, and was asked a question by his disciples, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (John 9:2,3) Jesus was making it clear that there is no correlation between someone’s sin and his infirmity. Instead Jesus healed the man. If he believed that the man’s blindness was a fair and just punishment for his sins he could have walked away. Instead Jesus healed the blind man and so revealed the power of God.
Merrill Tenney concludes, “Jesus refused to accept either alternative suggested by the disciples’ question. He looked on the man’s plight, not as retribution for some offense committed either by his parents or himself, but as an opportunity to do God’s work. Jesus did not consider the blindness as punishment or as a matter of irrational chance; it was a challenge to manifest God’s healing power in the man’s life.”
Jim Smith believes, that we never know, in this life, why anything happens to any of us. There seems to be little justice in this life. St. Augustine tells us that one day we will understand:
“When we come to Judgment Day not only will the judgments passed there seem to be most just, but all the judgments of God from the beginning will be likewise clearly fair. Then too it will also become clear how just the judgment of God is in causing so many – in fact, almost all – of his judgments to evade men’s grasp of understanding. Those who have faith will not fail to realize that such hidden judgments are just.” If Augustine were his pastor he would say, “We cannot know these things here and now – they are beyond our grasp. But I believe that one day it will all become clear. One day you will fully understand why God allowed your daughter to be born with a birth defect and why she died young, and I believe that when you understand why, you will see that God was not only just, but good.”
Jesus said that his Father was good. Jesus also refused to affirm the idea that external rewards and punishments are given by God on the basis of our good or bad works. Rain falls on the good and the bad. Sometimes we pray for rain (for our crops), and sometimes we pray that it will not rain (for our picnic). Both good and bad people get rained on, whether they want to or not. (Matthew 5:45) Jesus faced suffering, rejection and alienation, and the people jeered at him as he hung on the cross, questioning whether God was really with him. And Jesus believed. And he believes for us. He believes even when we cannot. He prays even when we cannot. It is a gift from the Holy Spirit to believe in a God who is good even when things look bleak.
A year after Madelaine died Jim Smith reflected on the pain of hearing the news from the doctors, the countless sleepless nights on hospital floors, and the dark, rainy day, when they placed her body in the earth. He turned to God and said, without thinking, “Maybe it would have been better if she had never been born.”
That was when he received one of the clearest experiences of God responding to him that he had ever had in his life. On that day, at that moment, a little voice penetrated his mind, the voice of a little girl, a voice he had never heard but immediately recognized as Madelaine’s. “Daddy, you should never say that. If I had never been born, I would not be here now. I am so happy here in heaven, and one day you and Mom and Jacob will come and see me, and we will live forever together. And there is more good that has happened because of me that you can’t see now but will one day understand.”
Two years after Madelaine’s death Jim’s wife became pregnant again. For eight months they lived with a lot of anxiety, mixed with a little faith. When it came time to have the final sonogram, their hearts were in their throats, bracing for bad news. The technician, who did not know their story, kept saying things they loved to hear: “Perfect hands….perfect heart…your baby looks just perfect. Do you want to know the gender?” They said yes. “It’s a little girl.” They both smiled. “What are you going to name her?” she asked. At the very same moment they said, “Hope.”
We can grow much more through our trials than through our successes. They can work for our good, if we allow them. God has his purpose. It may not be seen in our lifetime, or on this earth, but it will be fulfilled. In the meantime we are sustained by the knowledge that God suffers with us in all things. He gives us the strength to endure, even to experience joy, and above all he gives us hope if we trust in him, that he is good and that he is love. For he is Jesus.
September 13, 2009
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