I have a friend from college that I exchange letters with — old-fashioned, pen-and-paper, “snail mail” letters. We could talk on the phone, but because of where he lives, letters are the most preferable and convenient method of communication for us. Plus, who doesn't love to get a letter in the mail? Our letters are pretty infrequent, but that’s more because of my crazy life with three small children than anything else.
Several years ago, my friend went through a very painful and personal season of suffering, one in which the effects are still being felt today in his life. Trey and I grieved with my friend and supported him as best we could as he walked that difficult road. For years to come, my friend will wake up each morning with the reminder of that season of suffering, and I wonder if that reminder might never go away for him. I hope it does, though. In the most recent letter I received from my friend, he divulged to me that he has walked away from his faith in Jesus.
In college, my friend and I were close. We hung out with the same group of friends, and we had many hilarious and exciting times together. We also shared a mutual faith in the Lord, and that faith compelled us both to pursue lives of ministry. Yet today, things look much different for both of us. While at one time our lives and our worldviews were similar, today we hold competing and mutually-exclusive worldviews.
When my grief and pain was greatest in our experience with Alisa, I often considered how my faith in Jesus influenced my interaction with suffering. In fact, a question I often asked aloud as I talked with others about my deep heartache was this: “Of what purpose is my faith in Christ if it cannot sustain me through this time?” I meant that completely, even as I allowed my heart to explore faith issues and to wrestle with what I believed. Circumstances did not allow me to cling to shallow faith, and I mulled over those deeper questions of life. In the end, my experience in that very difficult season brought me to an “other side” in my faith journey that is both deeper and more precious to me than it ever was before that season of suffering.
But even as I recognized the Lord ministering to my heart and carrying me through that painful time of my life, I also knew that others do not always believe this to be the case in their experience. I have often wondered at the reality that while trials and tragedies draw some closer to God, for others, it drives them as far away from faith as possible. Even the same exact circumstances of tragedy might produce in some a faith that transcends this life, while in others it produces a firm and stubborn unbelief. Today, I strive to live a life of genuine faith in Jesus, while my friend rejects everything he once held dear. Our circumstances were different, but each of us came to a fork in the road. He went the way of rejecting Christ, while I chose the way of pushing further into Him. Why is this case?
The answer to this question is much more complex than I can address in one blog post, but I think it is an important issue to explore. I do not think that I or anyone who comes away from tragedy or suffering with greater faith in God is better than someone who arrives at a different conclusion. We are not “holier” or more special than them on our accord. So what is the difference?
Some might speculate that it has to do with the “genuineness” of a person’s faith. Maybe that person who walks away from Jesus was never really a Christian in the first place. While this might be true for some, I would never dare generalize it as being true for all who walk away from their faith. I also know that it is not my duty to speculate on the realness of another’s salvation. My friend who has walked away from his faith once lived a life that produced the fruit of a disciple of Jesus. I heard him speak of who God was and how Jesus had changed his life. It would be hard for me to conclude that he was never really a follower of Christ. I also know that my friend’s story is still being written, and I will not accept that he has finally and unchangingly chosen the path of rejecting Jesus. I cannot accept that.
The fact remains, though, that we both walked through our own painful trials in life, yet we have both arrived at different conclusions about God.
In my search for an answer on this issue, I have discovered several questions that we all grapple with at one time or another when we face great trials and tragedies in life. I've come to see that our answer to these questions determines the substance, the quality, and the endurance of our faith in the most difficult realities of life. The first question is this:
“Where was God when…?”
My friend asks this question, only he finishes that sentence in relation to his circumstances. Over the years, I have heard others ask this question, too, with varying details:
Where was God when that drunk driver recklessly sat behind the wheel of his vehicle, ultimately taking the lives of my loved ones?
Where was God when my father/uncle/friend repeatedly abused me as a child?
Where was God when my husband left me and our children?
History asks the same question:
Where was God when Hitler directed the course of an entire nation in annihilating thousands upon thousands of Jews, disabled individuals, and those not fitting his perception of a “perfect race”?
Where was God when eight misled but devoted extremists flew four airplanes into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the ground?
Where was God when a madman mercilessly slaughtered twenty innocent children, along with some of their teachers and administrators, at Sandy Hook Elementary?
Indeed, I, too, asked this question as Alisa was growing in my womb and even in the beginning months of her life, not so much in anger but in realization of this question's implications. Where was God on the day that extra chromosome was knit into the fabric of her DNA? Was it even done by His very hands? Or was He simply there, observing and allowing the consequences of a fallen world to continue on as they have since the moment sin entered our reality?
As I’ve said before, we don’t know and probably never will know on this side of eternity how it all breaks down in actuality. I think there comes a point at which the human mind can only comprehend so much; we are finite, limited beings wrestling with infinite, eternal issues. And no matter how we might search, it seems that God is silent on providing the exact answers for which we search on some of these more specific issues.
However, God is not afraid of the question, and He does not shy away from us asking Him these tough questions. Indeed, He also does not leave us entirely without answers.
Asking this question — “Where was God when…?” — forces the follower of Christ into a place of tension and discomfort. But in a world that cries out for authenticity and demands realness and not fluff, we must be brave enough to trudge into the tension of this question and to wrestle with its implications. Perhaps the act of entering into and exploring this question will allow our faith to endure even the most tragic of circumstances. It will also allow us to offer deep and meaningful Truth to those who cry out for understanding in their greatest heartache. Maybe it will even keep some from abandoning their faith altogether when the unexpected in life occurs.
Are you ready? Come back next time and sit with me, and we will continue to ponder the deeper things...