Ruth Oates can’t draw for peanuts. The teacher and farmer’s wife hadn’t done any art since school and was never any good at it even then. But she didn’t want to hand over her children’s story about the mystery of suffering to an illustrator because “when you’ve got an idea in your head and someone helps you, it’s not the same.”
Ruth did a lot of fasting and praying while pondering how to illustrate her story about her granddaughter Lucy’s journey with a runny nose, snoring and eventually having her tonsils out, which turned into a children’s book called Why Do Things Hurt?
It’s a book for anyone going through hard things, looking at why God lets things happen and asks does he really care about our pain and suffering?
“We had a kids’ book where [the illustrations] had been done out of Plasticine and I thought, ‘I wonder if I could take a picture of something and then trace around it and copy it with thick Plasticine?’,” Ruth tells Eternity.
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So that’s what she did – she sculpted all of the pictures out of coloured Plasticine, including seven pictures of tissue boxes, one for every day of the week. Ruth explains that she took pictures of tissue boxes at different angles so she could get the perspective right. “And then I cut them out so I had my perspective. But if I’d had to draw the perspective myself, I would’ve really struggled to get it right.
“I prayed so much over those pictures. I really did. There was a lot of fasting and prayer that went into the whole book. I just felt ‘unless God builds the house, they labour in vain who build it’ [Psalm 127:1] and unless God was in it, there was no point in doing it.”
Ruth explains that she was inspired to write the book by seeing how many people lose their faith or reject God because of suffering.
“People say, ‘If this or that happened, how can there be a God?’ Or ‘How could he love me if he let this happen to me?’ And I thought with what I’ve lived through and what’s been going on in my own family, I have at least somewhat of a platform to speak because it hasn’t been all roses and moonshine, as they say,” she says.
“I have five children. Of those, four have autoimmune conditions. One of the kids is fine, and another is operating fairly normally. Another one is doing OK, but it does significantly impact his life. And then I have two daughters who were nurses who both can’t work anymore because of their health conditions. And my husband has stage four cancer. There are other things; we lost six family members in seven years. So we felt like we got good at doing funerals.”
Born and raised in Denver, Colorado, Ruth moved to Australia with her family as a teenager. At that time she’d decided she wasn’t going to go to church anymore. “But we ended up living for a short time with a lovely Christian family in Canberra. And because we were living with them, I really couldn’t not go to church with them. So I just drifted into going back to church and then when I was at uni, I had some really good teaching on having a daily quiet time and reading God’s word every day. That was a huge turning point for me. That was when I really started growing in my own personal walk with God.”
After a brief career as a primary school teacher, Ruth married a farmer and they quickly had children, all of whom she home-schooled on their farm in northeast Victoria. “We ended up with two nurses and a doctor and two in the engineering area.”
Ruth has been amazed at the positive reception her first book has had because she doesn’t view herself as an author.
“I just told a story with a point. Because of my teaching background, I always like to have a point, a reason for the stories. And then it was like, ‘How am I going to do the artwork and Lord, please help me!’ And I look at the pictures and I think, ‘Did I do that?’ I say it was God, you know. I’m as amazed as everybody else, probably more so because I know my lack of artistic ability.”
Tackling the problem of pain and suffering in an age-appropriate way was not the easiest of topics for a beginner children’s author. In fact, it’s probably near the top of the difficult issues Christians have to deal with.
“I wrote in the book that sometimes we don’t know why [God lets things happen]. But we know that we can trust God because he loves us. I’ve had a few things happen in life where I have found a why that satisfied me. And so that’s helped me trust for the times when I don’t get the why.”
For example, with her husband’s 6.5-year journey with cancer, “I don’t know what good will come out of it, but somehow through it, I’ve just been able to trust God. I just think our times are in his hands and I do trust him. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s a gift.”
Ruth ends her book with a challenging quote from Psalm 71: “You [God] have sent troubles and suffering on me, but you will restore my strength.”
“It’s quite a confronting Scripture because it tackles the issue of does God allow suffering or does God send the suffering? I’d like to say God doesn’t send any suffering; instead, God allows it. As I’ve worked on this book of Lucy’s, it’s clear sometimes that God sends suffering for a purpose, but never without a purpose or a reason.”