There’s a reason for everything, right?
A little over two months ago, I woke up in the middle of the night with excruciating pain in my shoulder. I couldn’t breathe without sitting up. Thanks to my wife, I went to the doctor first thing the next morning.
You know you’re in trouble when your doctor calls 911. I got an exciting ride in an ambulance. In the ER, they diagnosed Bilateral Pulomonary Embolisms (blood clots in both lungs). I was treated in the hospital for a few days, then began a very slooow recovery at home. Every doctor I’ve seen since – and I’ve seen at least seven – has looked at the report and told me how lucky I am. I’m still not 100% (some would argue I never have been). My impatience and frustration often overwhelm the thankfulness I know I should exude.
So why did this happen?
Obviously, God was mad at me. I had done something very wrong. Or maybe it was an accumulation of small commissions and omissions. God got fed up, reached down, and clogged my lung arteries. Bad things happen because of the bad things we do, or because we fail to do good things. I just need to figure out what that thing, or those things, are, and repent, and everything will be okay.
That certainly makes sense. It’s fair. According to the Prosperity Gospel, God pours out material blessings on folks who please God (especially by donating generously to Prosperity Gospel ministries). Punishment for those at whom God is angry is just the commutative property (a+b = b+a . . . sorry, you didn’t know there was going to be math) in action.
I don’t like that explanation, though. Here’s another I’ve heard . . .
It’s the devil’s fault! It’s Satan that’s pissed off. I’m doing such a good job as a Christian and especially a pastor that Satan conjured up some clots in my lungs to slow me down. My PE’s are arterial affirmation of my church’s proclamation that “God loves everyone . . . No Exceptions.”
Let us consecrate my condition!
That approach seems a little too self-aggrandizing.
So maybe it was just that God had some things to teach me. But I’m not thrilled with that explanation, either. Certainly there are things I can and even should learn from this experience (when I’m done feeling sorry for myself, maybe), but I just don’t see God throwing down some pulmonary embolisms so I’ll be a better Christian. That’s pretty harsh pedagogy. And I thought Mrs. Demerit in sixth grade was tough . . .
The truth is no explanation is going to be satisfactory.
The only honest answer to, “Why did I go through this?” is . . .
I don’t know.
My dad died when he was only 52-years old. I’m going to be 55 this month. I figure that’s three bonus-years so far.
I have said and written before that my dad’s death was one of the cornerstones of my agnostic/atheist outlook in my 20’s. A good man suffered for years – he had a triple bypass with a bonus stroke when he was just 42, and was diagnosed with cancer at 48 – and then died way too young. It was senseless, and seemed to confirm my conviction that belief in God was for weak, stupid people.
But something said by the pastor who ministered to my mom the morning she found my dad dead in bed stuck with me. It forms my ministry now that I am an unexpected pastor. As my mom told me later, that pastor said . . .
“I could try to tell you why this happened, but I won’t. Because I can’t. There is no explanation. But I am here for you”
Beware those moralizers who would explain God. Beware the pontificators who would interpret the real reason behind every event. Notice that their explanations will only confirm their biases. Remember the TV pastors who said the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina was because of “the gays”? How convenient that a hurricane would confirm their hateful world view.
Here’s what I know is not true:
“Everything happens for a reason.” Sometimes stuff just happens. If there is a reason it is beyond our comprehension so it is irrelevant anyway. Attempting to figure out the “why” when trials and tragedies strike (as well as triumphs) is a waste of time. The inevitable results are frustration and error.
Also, “God never gives you more than you can handle.” That bit of “wisdom” is not in the Bible. It is proven false by experience. I know there are times when I’ve dealt with things beyond my ability to handle. The last two months for starters.
What I know to be true is that this world is messed up.
It is populated with people who are messed up – people like me and everybody else. Bad stuff happens. People get sick. They suffer. Sometimes evil seems to win. Injustice is rampant.
But that is exactly the world the Bible describes. A world gone wrong. Relationships with God and with each other scarred and torn.
In Jesus, God entered the world to put things right, to restore our relationships with God and with each other. His violent suffering and death demonstrated that he entered our messed up world, the real world. His resurrection proclaimed that evil does not have the last word. And that even death does not have the last word.
Following Jesus is not insurance against bad stuff happening.
It is not a guarantee that suffering won’t occur. In fact, the Christian life lived faithfully in our messed up world might actually precipitate more suffering, or at least more inconvenience.
The assurance is that we won’t walk through this mess alone; that our messed-up selves will not separate us from God’s presence and God’s promises. Following Christ is not just or even especially eternal life insurance . . . it is assurance right here and right now that we are not on our own.
Stuff happens that just plain sucks.
My recent health challenges,for example. There is no “why” for that, but there is a “Who” – God who was with me all through it, even though most of my prayers were complaints (in my defense, so are many of the Psalms).
Now I’m able to tell folks I’m getting better. Sometimes they respond, “God is good!”
The reality is that God would still be good if I hadn’t made it.
And God will still be good someday when I inevitably won’t.