Suffering and healing. Emotive issues. Ones with lots of questions and few answers. At least few answers that do it for me.
I come from a family with what can only be described as a ‘difficult’ history. I met my dad for the first time that I can really remember a few months ago (I’m 34). I grew up with my mum. Just me and her. She sacrificed so much to give me the best she could. She faithfully followed Jesus and lived generously with what she had. At the age of 62, almost 3 years ago she died of cancer, 3 months after her diagnosis. I watched Ruth, a 22-year-old who interned with me lose her battle with cancer several years ago. I saw Andrew, an incredibly gifted leader, surgeon, preacher, husband and father of 3 young children lose his battle with cancer in his mid-thirties.
In church I hear a lot about healing and praying for healing and that God can heal anything and anyone. We’ve seen people healed and rejoiced with them. God is a good God and a loving Father who wants what is best for his children. But God doesn’t always heal and make people better. My mum died. She may have still received the ultimate healing of a resurrection body but she isn’t here any more. Her last months were painful. For me too. It still hurts. And it hurts when I hear people say God can heal anything. I know He might be able to but He doesn’t. And please don’t even try to trot out the line about “all we need is faith…” I worry about people being given false expectations that ignores the reality that we live in a broken world and life is just tough sometimes.
I believe that God is good and can heal. I don’t believe He always heals. I don’t know why but I know that sometimes He speaks and works powerfully in the midst of suffering. As my mum was dying and I was losing my family I got engaged and gained another family. In a beautifully redemptive moment as my mum lay in the hospice I met and embraced one of my uncles for the first time.
Then there is the Calvinist line that takes a belief in God’s sovereignty down to the fine details. That uses the language of “God ordains…”. Suffering becomes something God ordains to teach us stuff. My story of meeting my uncle becomes the reason for the suffering. I worry about the sort of God that this view portrays. One who wilfully causes suffering just to teach us stuff. That doesn’t sound like a loving Father to me. I’m sorry but I cannot believe that God prematurely takes lives or brings illness just for our learning. In this perspective this understanding of suffering comes from trying to maintain a view of God as being totally in control of every little event.
I do believe God is sovereign but I don’t believe he controls every action. That makes us into robots without freedom. I believe God gives us the dignity and freedom to choose.
All these thoughts have been swilling around my mind and occasionally come flooding out in the odd rant.
Then on Sunday Alain Emerson came to speak in church about his experience of hope in the midst of tragedy. He articulated so much of what I’ve been struggling to articulate for so long (and what I’ve been trying to articulate above). You can listen to his talk here.
He talked about how each of our stories find meaning in the kingdom of God. He went on to say that if we go to the extremes of theology (either everyone gets healed or no-one gets healed) then our stories don’t fit. For me this was a lightbulb moment that expressed my struggles and frustrations.
He reminded us that we follow a God who is familiar with suffering, who took on our suffering and is present with us in the pain. He reminded us that there is grace and hope in the pain. In my case mum was able to make it to my graduation, see Emily and I get engaged and get to know Emily’s mum – passing on lots of stories even I didn’t know. Even though I had no words when it came to prayer I felt myself being carried along. Meeting my uncle was part of the process of my dad and I meeting. In the midst of loss there were moments of healing and reconciliation.
In the midst of pain and suffering I experienced hope and grace. But to say that God brought about my mum’s death so he can do those things I don’t think I can believe. And to suggest that God wants to heal everyone. Well, where does that leave those of us who didn’t experience healing?
Getting our theology right matters. Alain’s words that we need a really robust theology of the kingdom of God really resonated.
We live in the in-between. The older I get I realise there is more grey and less black and white. God is not a puppeteer. As his image-bearers He gives us the dignity of freedom and making our own choices. We live in a world full of brokenness and things that should not be. But the kingdom of God is breaking in and one day God will make everything right – that’s the hope I cling to.