Written by Michael S. Beates |
Monday, November 14, 2022
God is creating a great tapestry of which we are a part, even our dark threads. We sometimes have doubts and confusion about this divine tapestry because, even though the Artist knows, sees, and continues to create the intricate design woven on the upper side, we see the tangled lower side with dangling threads and only a faint image of the beauty to come. So we hope in Christ. We cling to the promises of God that nothing is wasted—even our brokenness and sorrow will be used for good.
I write these words on a lovely Friday afternoon in late September—the same week we Floridians experienced a rather tortuous Wednesday and Thursday as Hurricane Ian blew through town. It’s a beautiful day today, but earlier this week, we watched in horror as homes were swept into the surf or water rose and rose into homes bringing damage and destruction. So, naturally, the question rises in our minds, “Where is God when destruction seems to reign unabated?” Where is God when the doctor says, “It’s cancer and it’s serious”? “Where is God when the darkness seems never to let up?”
Seeking to answer such questions falls under the broad category of theodicy, which is defined as “a vindication of God’s goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil.” It’s an age-old problem we all face as people living in a fallen world. We all know that, again and again, life is unjust: the best person too often does not get the job or the credit; the wrong person bears the blame and punishment; sickness and loss come unexpectedly and leave us crying, “Why, O God? How long will this go on?”
The classical construction of the argument goes something like this: Since evil and suffering exist, either God is good but not sovereign (otherwise he would intervene and right the wrongs), or he is sovereign but not good and does not care (since evil continues to ravage the earth). But the Scriptures affirm a tertium quid, a third way: God is both good and sovereign. So the real question is, “What is God seeking to do with us through the darkness of pain, despair, and loss?” This is the essence of the book of Job, which is considered a biblical theodicy seeking to establish that God is righteous and good even in the midst of evil in this life. Marilynne Robinson put it well in her book Gilead when the lead character, John Ames, says, “Strange are the uses of adversity” (Gilead, p. 95). Indeed, sadly, adversity, loss, and pain are the ways we seem to learn the most precious lessons. I told our graduating seniors at commencement last May that in all likelihood, they would learn nothing of lasting value from comfort and pleasure. Rather, the deepest lessons in life come through the hardships.
I have often said that Romans 8:28 is frequently quoted yet little believed by God’s people: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” This reminds us that all things work for good—not for all people, but for those who love God and are called by him as his children.
But let’s be honest: Not all things are good. Heartbreak, loss, disabling conditions, crime, tornados, death—these are all ultimately products of the Fall and sin. Romans 8:22 also says that the whole creation groans “together with the pains of childbirth.” But our God is a Sovereign who takes our sin and our brokenness and turns it, in his providential wisdom and timing, into his blessings for his people.
But let’s also be clear: Sometimes bad things happen, and it just gets worse. For those who are outside of God’s redemptive promises, bad things can happen and despair leads to hopelessness.
But biblical hope is another reality altogether. The letter to the Hebrews calls hope an anchor for the soul. And when the storms of life threaten to break up the ship, you need an anchor that holds: the promise of redemption—body and soul. When all things are not good in this life, we know that in Christ all things will be perfect in the next.
Tolkien wrote that joy and sorrow are very close to each other. “The Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story — and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love” (Letters, p. 100).
In another essay, Tolkien said sorrow “is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium [Good News!], giving a fleeting glimpse of joy, joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief” (Tree and Leaf). And Paul said the same thing two thousand years earlier: saints can live “as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10). In the lives of Christians, both realities are often experienced at the same time.
At The Geneva School in our upper school chapel, we recently heard from Dr. Wesley Baldwin (pastor at Aloma Church in Winter Park and dad of several Geneva students). Speaking about the life of Joseph, he said one of the lessons we learn from Joseph is that we can trust God despite whatever is happening around us, even if those things are bad. We know this is true. “Material things are so vulnerable to the humiliation of decay” (again from Robinson’s Gilead, p. 100).
But the Good News of Christian faith is that Jesus came to redeem our suffering through his suffering. And because he died and rose from the dead, we have the hope of a time when there will be no more death, or mourning; no more tears, or sorrow, or pain (Rev. 21:4).
Our friend Joni Eareckson Tada—who survived a diving accident in 1967 and has lived as a quadriplegic for fifty-five years—famously and wisely says, “Sometimes God uses what he hates to accomplish what he loves.” Linger over that. Let it settle in for a moment. This is a different facet, a new angle, on Romans 8:28. While not all things are good, God is so gracious that he promises to use even our broken lives for much greater purposes such as to make us like Christ and to exalt his glory.
God is creating a great tapestry of which we are a part, even our dark threads. We sometimes have doubts and confusion about this divine tapestry because, even though the Artist knows, sees, and continues to create the intricate design woven on the upper side, we see the tangled lower side with dangling threads and only a faint image of the beauty to come. So we hope in Christ. We cling to the promises of God that nothing is wasted—even our brokenness and sorrow will be used for good. So we take heart.
Mike Beates is a teaching elder in the PCA, serving out-of-bounds as chaplain at The Geneva School in Casselberry, Fla. This article was written for The Geneva Courier, published in the Fall ’22 edition.