I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking about as I sat on the train from DC, just my bone-weariness and the weight of the stories of the suffering. Leaning back into the headrest, eyes closed, I prayed, or maybe just thought, “Is life on earth just sorrow after sorrow and only that?” The question still hanging in the air, I turned to look out the window just as we crossed the Susquehanna river. The sun was setting on the horizon, and the water caught and reflected back its radiance. The beauty was familiar yet breathtaking. What I saw with my eyes, I knew in my soul as God’s answer.
I’d asked if life on earth was filled with sorrow and sadness only. He spoke before I uttered an amen.
I have been meditating lately on the mystery of the good. That there is still such beauty and joy to be found in this world and in our lives, broken though they may be. For me, the consideration of why this evil? is linked experientially to why this good? It is the flip side of asking about God’s sovereignty in suffering, me recognizing that his ways pertaining to the good and beautiful are just as inscrutable to mortals as his ordaining the bad.
The question first arose as I’d held my newborn son on a hospital bed. Having just walked through a season of grief where I couldn’t perceive God’s reasons for my suffering, I realized I was equally unable to comprehend the scope of his purposes behind the good. I held my son to my chest, pressed my face into his fuzzy head, and wondered, why? Not, “why is there good in this world” in the abstract, but why this blessing? Why for us? For me?
“Because God is good and he gives good gifts,” was the answer Scripture held out for me then, and still does now. No specifics I could grasp, just sufficient reason in who he is and what he wills, leaving me to reverent wonder and grateful praise.
Sometimes, I think in trying to correct the false notion that God is only good when we get the things we want, we can shy away from seeing his goodness through his gifts. I may uphold the truth that God has loving purposes for suffering while failing to see his gracious heart and divine wisdom behind every blessing. It’s true that God is not good because he gives us good things. But the Scriptures teach he gives good gifts because he is a good Father (Mt. 7:11, Ja. 1:17). It may seem obvious, but it is something I need to deliberately meditate on.
I am prone to taking life with all its attendant blessings as a given— givenness not in terms of it being a gift, but as it being an impersonal default. Perhaps this is one reason why gratitude is so important for God’s people, why we are so often exhorted to give thanks. Because we are wont to live as deists, as if God programed the world and left it to run by itself, interrupting only intermittently in the form of the rare miracle or painful trial.
In reality, the only reason the universe does not completely unravel, ceasing to exist this very moment, is because God is upholding it by the word of his power (Heb. 1:3). The truth is the sun rises today on the good and evil because God calls it forth from its chamber as an intentional act of grace (Mt. 5:45). Not a sparrow falls to the ground without his knowledge, which is to say each one is completely within his scope of care (Mt. 10:29). All that happens today, bad and good, he has ordained freely and consciously in his perfect will.
Thus, gratitude for the good things he gives is more than about finding a way to emotionally balance out the hard ones. It is not an adult version of the lollipop after a shot at the doctor’s. To recognize God’s hand behind the good we receive from him is to remove our blinders and see the world as it truly is, filled with his mercy and grace in thousands upon thousands of specific ways. We are recipients of blessings we’d never have thought to ask for, of good gifts we could never have earned even if we’d worked our whole lives for them. Blessings are gifts to be traced back to our loving Father who grants them out of his creativity, faithfulness, and good pleasure. To thank him is to train our hearts to recognize his steadfast love and active involvement in our lives and in the world.
When my children were infants, I was hyperaware of the fragility of their lives, the way their tomorrows were not guaranteed to us. I’d lie down to sleep and, with my head on my pillow, look at them through their crib slats. They were swaddled and so small, and me drifting into unconsciousness meant I had to leave my vigilant-mom post. More than once, my last thought before sleep was the simple request that God allow them to see morning. Each day with them that followed such a prayer felt like a tangible answer from God. A gift, and if I were to probe further into the whys, a mystery.
Really though, today is no different for all of us. Every breath we draw is freely and gladly given by God who sustains our lives by his will and power. We receive our daily bread from his loving hands. And this is just life in its barest form. Even in a world that is groaning for redemption, he fills our days with the good and beautiful— with laughter and open skies, with timely encouragement and faithful words, with work to do and people to love and be loved by.
We put together a last minute escape room for our kids last month, a special birthday celebration for one of our girls. The Chang kids worked impressively as a team, retrieving hidden messages from between piano keys, in a narrow-necked bottle filled with colored water, inside a board game. Jeff and I did pretty well too, I thought, linking clues together for the passcode to a tablet containing messages from aunts and uncles which in turn led to a final “laser” protected clue. The kids loved it, and we loved watching them love it.
What if I walked through life as my kids in that escape room, I wonder, looking out for the intricate ways God has woven goodness and mercy in and through all my days? I have a hunch that I’d be less irritable in the day-to-day, more aware of God’s nearness, patient with those he’s called me to love. In awe of his attentiveness and goodness, might I grow in humility and contentment, abounding in thanksgiving as my prayers slowly conformed to the kinds of petitions described in the epistles (Col. 4:2, Phil. 4:6, Col. 2:7)? Might it even help me to feel more keenly his presence and kindness in the practical graces and consolations he gives in the midst of trials?
What if we were more attune to the ways the good, lovely, admirable, and praiseworthy things in our lives are evidence of his wise and perfect care for us?
Faith in Christ means we hold onto promises regarding the eternal, fixing our gaze on the unseen. But the Holy Spirit also lifts the veil that keeps us from truly seeing the things right before us. As Christians, we recognize the eternal and unseen behind, beneath, and upholding the temporal and earthbound. The good we are given is not meted out by some distant algorithm, but from a Person, in his divine purposes and steadfast love. We know that the Father who did not spare his own son for us is the One who graciously gives us all things (Rom. 8:32). Surely his ways are beyond tracing out. Still, the threads we catch of them here and there inevitably lead us back to him.
I watched the skies the rest of my train ride, grateful for the way God was loving me through rolling clouds and flashes of lightning in the gathering darkness. While I was pouring out my heart to him in the train car, the heavens had been pouring forth speech over me, and God in his kindness had me turn to catch a bit of their message at just the right time. They spoke beauty and glory. They declared that he is God and that there is still good in this world. Even now, they proclaim this. And to their praises, I add my Amen.
Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to rouse the honest. They are the first knock at our door of things that are not yet, but have to be, understood. – George MacDonald
He held my hand as we walked through the church lobby. My brave boy had made his way up from the basement, across the church, and to the second floor to tell me about the tornado warning. We were making our way back to the basement when I heard sniffling. “Are you afraid?” He nodded, and I saw his tears. So I held him, and we prayed.
Why did God make tornadoes?, he’d asked me the week before that warning. His question is evidence of his growing understanding of the world and of the Christian claim. At four years old, he is making connections: God made everything. God loves and does what is good. The destruction and death caused by tornadoes are not good. Not knowing how to hold all of that at the same time, he wants to know why? He’s not the only one in our family asking.
For my son, it was tornadoes. For me as of late, it’s been the suffering of beloved, the sinful actions of professing believers, the evil done by man to others who bear the image of God. Why do you allow such things, God? Why do you ordain them? Why haven’t you answered? My why’s rode in on the tail of weariness and persistent discouragement, and an inexplicable sadness that descended on me like clockwork every night.
Why do I believe all this again?
It feels silly, maybe presumptuous as I write it now, but I think I honesty believed I was done with doubt. It isn’t that I’ve ever felt my faith to be particularly strong. Whether because of temperament or experience, I live with a keen awareness of its smallness. Often it feels as if I am just a razor’s edge away from falling into a chasm of unbelief. Sometimes, it’s only when I feel my heart steadied in the congregation— as we worship, recite the Apostle’s creed, take communion — that I realize how shaky it’s been. Even times I feel most certain of what I confess to be true, I know the surety to be a gift for today, not necessarily guaranteed for tomorrow.
In highschool, I grappled intellectually with what seemed to be contradictions between faith and science. In college, the exclusive claim of Jesus among other faiths and the veracity of the Bible. Guilt drove me to questions of my own salvation and an outright declaration to God that I didn’t believe he could love me. For a time doing campus ministry, I just felt a lingering uneasiness about my faith as I fielded questions from skeptics. In the aftermath of miscarriage and as a foster parent, I doubted God’s goodness.
In each instance, God mercifully met me, and in hindsight, doubt was a signal that my faith was being forced to mature in painful but vital ways. Still, I think I’d hoped I’d come out to the other side of it enough times to avoid reliving that rug-pulled-out-from-under-you sensation, the disorienting fog of uncertainty enveloping all that seemed clear just moments before. As I’ve brought my questions to God during this new round of doubt, I’ve seen the anger that drove it, and behind that anger, grief. In this, I’ve found a companion in Job.
I used to plow through the first 37 chapters of Job, the back-and-forth poetry between Job and his friends. I knew the gist of those opening arguments— Job suffered deeply and demanded a counsel with God, his friends blamed him for all that happened to him— and I thought that was all I needed to know before getting to the good part, when God finally shows up. This time, my stomach tensed as I saw Job’s friends grow increasingly angry at him, their charges crescendoing from well-meaning but mistaken to hostile. And when Job spoke, I nodded, underlined, cried, and soaked in his words.
There are many good, helpful answers addressing the problem of pain and evil, but it isn’t my intent to draw them out here, only to say that I felt the mercy of God in giving his people such an account as Job’s. I think of the way people turn on songs and put playlists about heartbreak on replay when they are hurting, and the way we are helped somehow by listening to recording artists expressing our pain with their music. Job gave words to my grief, anger, and perplexity.
At times, dealing with the dissonance of knowing God is in control in the face of evil and pain, it feels like the only two choices put before me are to either reject the Scriptures, or to resort to dealing with suffering as a theoretical construct, as if Job’s children didn’t die, as if his disease-ridden body wasn’t made of flesh and bones. Job disciples me in a different direction though, urging me to go to uncomfortable places beyond a simplistic, unfeeling theology or sinful unbelief.
The complicated reality of life as a believer in a fallen world is that deep despair and great faith can reside in the same person at the same time. Job curses the day he was born, but refuses to curse God. It’s his insistence on the goodness and justice of God that makes his suffering so difficult for him to understand. He holds God responsible for his suffering, yet won’t say God is or does evil. Job won’t stop believing and because of that, he won’t stop asking.
The climax of Job has God establishing his right to do as he chooses. Here, the line is drawn in the sand between doubt and rebellion, questions asked in good faith versus the demand that we be judge and God be accountable to us. Job, having hovered that line, repents for the way he’s crossed it. But it isn’t the theological argument itself that settles things for Job. The resolution is found in his encounter with the One he’d been calling to question. Job exclaims after being forced to reckon with God’s questions for him, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5.)
This is a great mercy and mystery— how often God’s people have found that on the other side of that “door of things that are not yet, but have to be, understood,” is God himself. So Job is interrogated in a whirwind, and Thomas is invited to touch Jesus’ wounds. The disciples wonder at this kind of man who rules the waves, and the man who prayed “I believe, help my unbelief!” witnesses the healing of his child. It is a pattern in Scripture, God in his kindness revealing himself to those who use what little faith they have to cry out to him. He meets doubters, so that those who had once heard of him, now see him. This is the testimony of my own life, so that doubt, though unsettling, is not quite as scary as it used to be.
Faith, no matter how small, is a gift from God. I know it to be true to my core, the way I have believed in times I thought I’d fall, the way it has been sustained with a supernatural strength not from myself. Sometimes, the questions we hurl in desperation to the sky signify our refusal to let go of the mustard seed of faith entrusted to us, even though we walk weary and broken in this world. Sometimes our whys come because we are holding onto this precious gift in a world where tornadoes exist. So we pray, whisper, and wail the whys as doubt knocks hard on the door. Because there is good reason to hope that God himself will meet us on the other side, and Jesus has promised seed-sized faith will be sufficient until then.
And just like that the girls have come to the end of their school year. I know “just like that” is an understatement. But it’s honestly what it feels like. These long months have passed in a blink.
I am grateful. Proud of the ways my daughters have been more resilient than I understood they were being at the time. I think of that morning I saw my brave girl reading at her desk, sitting in the Zoom waiting room for so long I asked her what was going on. Her class hadn’t signed on when she thought they would. She’d been doing so well virtually, I didn’t think to ask until then if it was hard being apart from the rest of her class. She nodded. Then the tears came. Oh, my sweet, tough and tender-hearted girl.
It’s been a tough year, but my kids have flourished and grown, and are healthy and well. There is so much to thank God for.
I also feel a sense of loss for them, more than I’d expected. It started when it finally hit me they’d really come the end of the school year without learning in-person with the amazing teachers they’ve come to love. Jeff felt it too. When he brought them to the school on the last day for ice-cream, he watched our oldest running in the field with her friends. “She got to just be a kid,” he said.
Grief and gratitude. There have been good reasons for both this year. The world is so broken and God is so faithful. Neither truth negates the other, and today my heart is experiencing the interwovenness of both.
It was the same this Sunday, our first day back at church in person after half a year apart. Months ago, Jeff had come home to find me crying. I missed singing with our people so much, longed for the day the worship team wouldn’t be standing in front of an empty sanctuary. Still the joy of gathering again yesterday was mingled with sorrow as I realized how many hard things remain unchanged. Some dated to before the world shut down and some since. There were faces missing— one beloved now worships with the Lord; many other beloved are drifting from the faith.
There is space for both lament and thanksgiving in the Scriptures, and not in a compartmentalized way either, as if they are to be kept for separate places and times. We see it as we read the Old Testament, how at the rebuilding of the temple, some “wept with a loud voice” and others “shouted aloud for joy” so that “the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping” (Ezra 3:13). The legitimate grief of those who’d known the glory of the former temple was expressed alongside of the equally legitimate joy over the new one.
It’s interesting to me that it says both the weeping and joyful shouting were loud. Holding both grief and gratitude is not like mixing cold and hot to get a tepid middle temperature. They don’t balance or cancel each other out. The voices of both were distinct, yet not easily separated. It can often feel that way in life. In the midst of a global pandemic, even more so, I think.
Our lists are long with staggering losses and life-giving graces. There are thousands of reasons to weep. And just as many to give thanks.
So we lament loud. God, we’ve lost so much! There is so much yet to be mended and made whole! How long? Have mercy, come quickly, and make it right!
We praise loud. Lord, for all that has been and is being restored, for all the foretastes of kingdom come, for the grace seen and unseen, we cannot thank you enough!
We will cry and we will shout. We will rejoice and we will mourn. And it’ll be ok if we can’t tell apart the sound of one from the other.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? – Mary Oliver
I saw a dear friend this weekend. Since college, each of us has been witness to God’s firm commitment to keep and lead the other. There’s this different peace about you, she’d said when I first told her about me and Jeff. Later, she stood up front with me at my wedding, and I at hers. Now, the men we married took the kids we’ve had since then out for a hike so we could catch up.
We sat on my deck and talked about how we’ve been wrestling to own the things God has put on our hearts. What it’s looked like for us figuring out life as moms while carrying a specific sense of his calling for work outside the home. Like William Wilberforce, God has put before her a “great object”— a need in the world she has been called to meet as a trailblazer. She has a sharp mind, a passion for justice, a bold faith, and a history of receiving unique opportunities from the Lord. The direction she’s moving in feels obvious to me as her friend, though in this season of life it has taken time for her to walk in it with confidence.
I talked about my own desire, more nebulous than hers, but real nonetheless. She’d known to ask me specifically about it, then told me, “That’s always who you’ve been. It’s almost like, part of the essence of Faith Chang.” I’ve been walking the uneven terrain of self-doubt for a while, and her words were a steadying hand.
It strikes me now how parallel our journeys have been, though hers has her globe-trotting with her family and me rooted in Staten Island for over for a decade. More specifically, in recent years, both of us have had to stop looking to other women for exact models of how our lives ought to look, stop trying to duplicate the obedience of others, however godly those examples may be. In other words, we have needed to learn to discern what it looks like for us to walk in God’s ways.
For years, I’ve had in mind to write a blogpost titled, “That Blogger Doesn’t Know You.” The idea came to me when, as a younger mom, I had to stop reading the flood of Christian articles I’d immersed myself in, mom-blogs especially. Women wrote about how they were led by God to certain convictions about raising kids, serving in their churches, supporting their husbands, and working in the world. The logic of their choices flowed from the Scriptures and made sense to me, so I (often unconsciously) took their standards as my own. The problem was that their choices came out of the way they were called to obey God and though they described one application of God’s truth, their examples were rarely meant to be prescriptive for me. I had to recognize that because I have a different family, am called to a different church, and just am a different person, many of the specific ways I love God and neighbor are necessarily different.
What I’m not saying is that God’s Word is relative, or that it’s okay to excuse disobedience because of our circumstances. Christians don’t just “do you,” following our hearts no matter where they lead. Jesus says we’ll know a tree by its fruit, and Scripture is clear about the kind of fruit a believer ought to show. Following God’s way for our lives can never look like not following his commands. Still, the way we obey his command to love him and neighbor can vary. There are many types of trees that bear good fruit. You do sanctified you.
A few weeks ago, praying with another dear one as she steps through some incredible doors God is swinging wide open for her, I thought of how there is no one else in all of history who has lived or will live her life. Later, I thought about how this is true for every one of us who have ever walked God’s good earth, and well, that took my breath away.
Parents (or aunties and uncles) of a set of siblings know what it’s like, seeing up-close the uniqueness of a child as distinct from his siblings. “She looks like herself,” is what Jeff would say when people asked who our firstborn looked like, but I tried to place her, describe how she was like me or her dad. As she and her siblings grow older though, as I observe differences between them in the questions they bring about God, the way they experience the world, the fears and dreams (literal and figurative) they have, I know their dad is right.
The point of the God-given uniqueness of each individual, that each person in the history of the world is “like himself” or “like herself”, teeters on the incomprehensible to me.
As a kid, I played a computer game that began with the user creating a set of blue, egg-shaped characters. You’d make each one by choosing their hairstyle, eyes, nose, and legs, which was fun until you had to make a lot of them at once. At that point, your best bet was to click on a picture of two dice, the random Zoombini generator. The game only allowed for each character to have one duplicate. Who has enough patience to create 20 computer game characters with four traits each? Not me.
God, though. From the beginning of humanity, through every era, he has fearfully and wonderfully made each of his image bearers, forming every one in his or her mother’s womb. Not only so, but he has determined the times and places for each one of us that we may turn to him. He has not auto-populated human history with the roll of dice. A person’s learning style, height, temperament, tastebuds, and reading pace? Whether or not he’s comfortable in a crowd or she’s always the first to spot the lonely? The things that move you, make you wonder, and catch your breath? These are determined and have been (and are being) shaped by the the Holy Maker of all things and all people.
Moreover, Scripture says that we who are saved by grace are his workmanship. Created in Christ Jesus, God has prepared good works for us to walk into (Eph. 2:8-10). There is such specificity here, how as we go through life, God has wisely set out tasks before for each of us to discover along the way.
Though we imitate the faith of others walking in Jesus’ narrow way, in a very real sense, he is leading us on a road never taken before by any other. And as much as it would be simpler to follow another’s map, more necessary and precious is the promise of his Spirit and guidance, the nearness of our Teacher who speaks to his people, “This is the way, walk in it” (Is. 30:21). What about John?, we may ask. “What is that to you? You must follow me,” replies our Savior (Jn. 21:21-22). So we take one step, then another, though we know not where to.
There is a measure of freedom we experience here, and a sense of fearful trembling too, acknowledging the uniqueness of the one life we alone are called to live before God. He releases us from the crushing yoke of using another’s life as a measuring stick for our own, from trying to live in ways we were never equipped for or expected to live. In some ways though, it can feel harder. It means searching the Scriptures when I’d rather scroll the internet for soundbites of truth. It means I need hard-earned wisdom that can only come through walking daily in the fear of the Lord. It means waiting with patience, seeking his face even more than his guidance, trusting that Jesus meant it when he said his sheep will know his voice (Jn. 10:1-18), believing that even if I get turned around, he won’t leave me behind to fend for myself.
I’ll spend a lifetime learning to walk this way. Seeking to love God with my particular set of desires, talents, limits, sufferings, regrets, preferences, weaknesses, and strengths. Learning to love others as myself—both as much as I love me, and in a way only I can. Being made more like him, and more like me, in my time and place. I expect to be praising God for his wisdom in future years, glad that his course for me turned out to be different than my own vague predictions regarding it. Or maybe, as sometimes happens, I’ll be even more surprised to find that I was right on some counts.
As soon as the husbands and kids returned, my friend’s family had to leave to make it to their dinner plans. The two of us dragged our feet saying bye, even more than the kids did. I hadn’t thought to say it then, but there is a different kind of peace about her, the kind that comes from the Spirit. She is growing into herself, courageously walking the path of obedience that is hers alone to take. We both are, I know. But I see it so clearly in her and it’s beautiful, which gives me hope it might also look that way in me.