Why does bad stuff happen?
Michael Jensen on wrestling with the agony of grief
There’s a couple of lines from a 2011 hymn by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty called The Perfect Wisdom of our God that make me well up with tears every time we sing them:
“Each strand of sorrow has a place, Within this tapestry of grace.”
If you have not known the agony of grief, you will.
To be sure, this world has many strands of sorrow. A little over twelve months ago, my cousin’s beautiful 16-year old son died of cancer. He had a strong faith. He wanted to serve God.
That strand of sorrow seemed more like a cable, to be honest.
If you have not known the agony of grief, you will. If you have not known the urge to cry unto heaven “why?” or “just do something!!” then you must live in a very secluded and safe place, or be emotionally stunted.
This experience is the human experience. But if you believe in a God who is sovereign, it presses you with particular force.
I read recently the atheist novelist Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life, a memoir he wrote reflecting on the death of his wife from brain cancer. Throughout the book, as he wrestles with his grief, he keeps reminding himself “it’s just the universe doing its thing.”
He resists the impulse to think of it as a meaningful event in some way. Her death was not part of some grand purpose, however comforting it might have been to think of it like that.
For the Bible, though, God the creator is that God who works out his purposes “as year succeeds to year.” He is revealed to us as the kind and merciful God, whose pity for the plight of human beings is well known. The events of human history have their meaning which we cannot see immediately. But “all things work together for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose,” we are told by the New Testament.
How can the darkness be so prominent?
And yet this arguably makes our suffering more intense, because what makes no sense to us should make sense. But how? How is the breakdown of a marriage an event that “works together for the good” of a person earnestly desiring to serve God? What possible purpose, however good, justifies the utterly helpless experience of parenting a child with cancer? We simply cannot imagine the “tapestry of grace” that could ever be woven from these terrible threads.
And, what’s more: if God is really sovereign – which means that he is master of the events of human experience – then how can it be that evil runs so rampant? How can the darkness be so prominent? How can the world of our experience be so filled with people determined to make a wreckage of the world?
It’s not a logical so much as a moral question. If God is supremely powerful, and also supremely good, then why are things not better arranged? In which case, we start to doubt either his power or his intentions. Maybe God is not as sovereign as all that, and he’s wrestling with evil just as we are. Evil has appeared unbidden by him and while it will finally be defeated by him, there is a space in which it runs rampant.
Or maybe God is indeed not just in control but controlling, such that there is nothing that happens that is not planned by him. But if we stare at that thought for a while, it is hard not to conclude that God directly wills cruelty. Is the devil, then, just God in disguise? Saying “God is in control” may not be comfort, but rather a frightening prospect.
But we are only seeing a tiny part of the whole.
Perhaps the metaphor of the “tapestry of grace” is illuminating here.
We are supposed to imagine God like a weaver combining threads together to make a cohesive and beautiful picture. As we see her at work, we don’t see the picture that she has planned. She picks up colours and shapes that seem to clash. Some of the threads she picks up to put in her picture are stained, frayed, and dull. It seems chaotic and unplanned, even improvised. How could anything come from this?
But we are only seeing a tiny part of the whole. Only slowly does an image emerge from the weaving. In fact, we looking on may not be able to see it while we are watching. But we know the artist: she is a skilful weaver who knows what she is doing. So, what looks random and unformed isn’t anything of the kind.
This metaphor helps us to understand the wider context of God’s rule over all things. We can’t see what he sees. It looks to us as if the death of child (for example) can have no possible place in a “tapestry of grace.” It’s true that we can’t see how. But just because we can’t see it, and we can’t make sense of it, doesn’t mean that it has no meaning ultimately.
It’s a risky strategy, we might say.
But there’s more to say. Because the world as we experience it is not a world in which there is only one actor. The Father of the Lord Jesus Christ has created a world in which there are many actors. There are many wills in his world. Creatures who he has made have a degree of independence. Though they are made by him, according to his will, they have their own intentions.
That means that the sovereign rule of God includes and incorporates the independent intentions and actions of his creatures.
It’s a risky strategy, we might say. Doesn’t this allow for pain, horror, suffering, and mayhem? Isn’t he giving us something we can’t handle – a bit like giving a toddler a handgun?
At this point it is important for me not to give an answer, because only God can give one. I could say, “He takes the risk because the outcome is far greater.” I trust that it is; but I am simply not in a position to imagine what outcome would overturn the reality of evil in this world.
Certainly, by allowing a degree of human independence of will, he makes possible a universe in which there is love. Love cannot be given by a robot.
“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good …”
Still: sometimes it is really important to be silent in the face of real suffering, and sit with the other person in the dust, and just weep. We know that God is good. We know that he hates evil. He is in control. Yet evil is what occurs.
But a further insight is given to us in the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. You remember that moment when Joseph meets his brothers, who sold him into slavery years before. Joseph says to them, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good …”
God works his purposes out through the back and forth of human events, as much as over them. The genius of his sovereignty is that he is able to weave in even human malign intentions, and produce something extraordinary from them.
Nowhere do we see this more than on the cross of Christ Jesus, where the Son of God was tortured to death. It was the intention of those who killed him to damn him to hell. But it was in the complete darkness of this event that God worked his greatest good. Like a sailor using the wind to go in a different direction than the wind, God makes use of the dark plans we make and does what he intends. We find ourselves doing his bidding.
God’s first answer to our cries is “I know.”
But that’s not all. I was reminded recently of the classic poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, the 19th-century Jesuit priest, Carrion Comfort. The poet is in the grip of despair, which is his ‘‘carrion comfort” – that is, a comfort that is like decaying flesh. It’s a harrowing poem about how bleak life can sometimes be. He wrestles and agonises over it. Only in the last line does he have the realisation that he “lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.” He refers to the words of Jesus on the cross, and the story of Jacob wrestling the angel all at once here.
And here’s the point he’s making: all the while we find ourselves crying out to the silent sky in sheer pain “why?”in Jesus Christ, God is with us. In Christ’s cry of abandonment we find the most masterful act of God’s sovereign plan: that the God who made and rules the universe has shared our experience of despair and pain. God’s first answer to our cries is “I know.” Like Jesus beside the tomb of Lazarus his friend, the sovereign God knows what it is to weep tears.
So through the trials I choose to say: “Your perfect will in your perfect way.”
Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of several books.