A while ago, I wrote a post entitled, “Because We Really Don’t Know,” which made the point that we have no idea how our actions or words impact others. I like that one. I told some good stories and I think it’s an awareness that can change how we treat people and even how we see people, if we let it.
I have two friends whom I love. I haven’t seen them in some ridiculous number of years. They’ve been through a lot. Actually, they’ve been through hell.
My friend Dan says that the homeless guys he ministers to will all go to heaven because a)they have cried out to Jesus, and b)they’ve already suffered hell on earth and God is just. Nobody can ever really grasp or quantify another person’s suffering. After our son Isaac died, I did a whole lot of thinking about grief and suffering and loss and concluded that you can’t really compare. Is it better to lose your son at 8 hours or 8 years or 28 years? Who suffers more?
We were staying in the Ronald Mcdonald House,* just in the aftershock of Isaac’s death, when a woman there started telling us about her child. Her little boy was six. He had third degree burns over 80% of his body (believe me, that wasn’t a number I could forget) including his face, from a reaction to something he’d been exposed to that would never bother the rest of us. She described his skin, the efforts to feed him, his process of healing. They had been in the hospital a long time.
We were stricken with grief and most days just numb and quiet. Our daughter was not yet two, so we spent time with her and wandered around. We weren’t chatting with a lot of folks. But this woman had wanted to talk to us. Afterward, it came home to me so clearly: death is unbearable, but sometimes life is too much, as well.
If you’re still tracking with me, I have these friends. They are godly, hilarious, ridiculous (in all the best ways), quasi-saints who walk among us and brighten lives everywhere they go. They have loved broken kids for years measured in decades. And one of them is now on hospice care and nearing the time to leave this earth. They’ve been through so much, for so long, and with all that we’ve suffered I look at them and cannot understand how they’ve endured this, much less how they continue to be wonderful people. I don’t get it. Except I do.
You can’t compare suffering. It just doesn’t quantify that way. But the real mystery is that God is present in our suffering. He doesn’t make it go away. He doesn’t fix it or solve it or wave his magic wand. He does heal people sometimes. I believe in miracles. But sometimes people are healed and they live in God’s miracle for years and then, for reasons so far beyond my grasp, they go. I mean, they die. Our sister-in-law, my cousin’s wife, my friend Fred, all of them had years beyond what they were “given” by the doctors–doctors don’t actually give or take years; life and death are not in their hands, but God’s. They merely give estimates–and those gift years were all miracles, though sometimes life is too much, as well.
In all of it, God is present. God does not abandon us in our suffering. Sometimes God is hardest to perceive when we are suffering; that’s how I felt in my grief. God had not left, but I couldn’t experience his presence with me for three years. But other times, in our suffering God is closer than ever before. Fred described this to me as he was dying, in his final months and weeks. I could see it in him, even as he was leaving us. The barrier between him and God was lifting. Fred knew it. He told me, “I wish you could experience what I’m experiencing but without the cancer.”
Your ways are not my ways and your thoughts are not my thoughts, God says to us in Scripture. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so far are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.
I have no explanation of suffering or how God works through it. I certainly cannot “solve” the problem of evil; I stopped trying a long time ago. I can give you my best explanation of how I think all of this works, but let’s be clear, my thoughts are as far below God’s as earth is below heaven–and I don’t even know how far that is!
What I have are stories of people who know God through suffering, who have found God in the midst of suffering, who continue to cling to God when there is nothing else but suffering. My story is that I rejected God because of my suffering and God would not be rejected. I told him to F— off and he wouldn’t go away. And when I finally was able to see him again, there he was, right where he’d been the whole time, with me in the deepest pit. With all due respect to those footprints in the sand, God just sat next to me in my pit while I screamed and flailed and called him horrible names. He didn’t carry me away, he didn’t go away no matter how many times I told him to, he just stayed by me. I couldn’t see it then and no one could see it for me, but I’m now certain that Jesus suffered with me. When I tell you the story of why I follow Jesus, the cornerstone is he loved me through my own hell.
So now this is Lent and what does this have to do with my friends?
Sometimes we really don’t know who is paying attention, who is watching, who is being influenced or helped or given the tiny sliver or hope through our mere presence. God answers people’s prayers through us without asking us or mentioning it later. We are the answers to prayers that we never knew were prayed. I know that because I know that’s how God runs his Kingdom.
But sometimes we do know. Sometimes we’re depressed and discouraged and stop doing what we were doing because we’ve lost hope that it matters, that it makes any difference to anyone. Those are lies but they don’t seem like lies when they’re shouted so loudly in our ears. A few quiet words of affirmation, a gentle thanks for our efforts is easily drowned out by the thunder of those lies.
But who is the Father of Lies? And what is his word next to the word of a quasi-saint?
This is for you, my beloved and long-missed friends. Sometimes we know that someone is paying attention, and we just have to hand this hope we share back and forth between us. I wish I could alleviate your suffering, but I can’t. I’d explain it if I could, but we both know that wouldn’t change anything. I am praying and I am giving you this meager gift I have, trusting that the God who holds us together will make it into the treasure I wish it were by breathing his Spirit through it.
None of this can be explained, but we’re beyond explanations now, aren’t we?
Soon you will see face to face.
*I’m no fan of McDonald’s, but the Ronald Mcdonald House ministered to us in our first weeks of grief, letting us stay there as long as we needed. I will always testify to their kindness.