Nov 10, 2015

Suffering, Faith, and the "Unsolvable X"

By Rebecca Conner



We claimed our usual spots on the sagging, retro-hideous youth room couches, waiting for the late arrivals so that we could begin our women’s Bible study. This evening, though, there was no light-hearted comparing of notes about the week’s minor misadventures with kids and schedules. Our hearts were heavy with recent news: the impending death of someone dear to us, whose busy life of service was being ravaged by fast-gnawing cancer.

We just sat with the weight of it for a moment. Then, voicing the common cry of humanity faced with seemingly senseless suffering, someone said, “It just doesn’t make sense. It just doesn’t. All those rapists and child molesters and criminals, just going on their way, while she, doing so much for so many, sharing Jesus with everyone, she . . .  I’m not saying I don’t believe in God, but it just doesn’t make sense.”

When she began talking, she was addressing the room in general, but by the time she finished, she was looking hard at me. The other damp eyes in the room slid to me as well. It was pretty clear that no one else was interested in fielding this one.

My grief-sodden mind protested, The last time I talked to her, when she told us that she couldn’t take the chemo, couldn’t even hope for a year, she asked for prayer, and reached for our hands, and my husband prayed the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful prayer. And then he promised her that we, all of us, would help her finish well, and all the while I was totally bewildered by the surreal finality and unfairness and terribleness of it all.

My heart was also crying, “I want to believe that there is a reason for this, that there’s a plan and a purpose. But it just doesn’t make sense.

I was hardly the person to offer some brilliant answer to the age-old question of suffering.

By now a few more women had filtered in, and everyone was still looking at me. The red eyes and aching hearts in the room, mine included, weren’t really interested in extended theodicies. We didn’t need to reprise the theological fact that there’s no such thing as bad things happening to good people, since of course there’s no such thing as “good people.” We didn’t need to paper over the sadness by speculating about specific ways God might be working in the situation. We needed to see through the dark tears, to remember and cling to the truth that the hidden ways of God are still the ways of a good God.

I took a breath and found myself rather uncharacteristically responding by repeating a familiar little story that I first encountered in Randy Alcorn’s writings:

“Two men owned farms side by side. One was a bitter atheist, the other a devout Christian. Constantly annoyed at the Christian for his trust in God, the atheist said to him one winter, ‘Let’s plant our crops as usual this spring, each the same number of acres. You pray to your God, and I’ll curse him. Then come October, let’s see who has the bigger crop.’

“When October came the atheist was delighted because his crop was larger. ‘See, you fool,’ he taunted, ‘what do you have to say for your God now?’

“‘My God,’ replied the other farmer, ‘doesn’t settle all his accounts in October.’”

The story seemed too simple in light of the grief that filled the room. I was almost embarrassed to have spoken it. But then the heads around our circle in this farming community slowly nodded. The edge of anger in the room faded back to sadness.

Farmer-philosopher-writer Wendell Berry noted, “The practical use of religion, then, is to keep the accounting in as large a context as possible—to see, in fact, that the account is never ‘closed.’ Religion forces the accountant to reckon with mystery—the unsolvable X that keeps the debit and credit or cost and benefit columns open so that no ‘profit’ can ever be safely declared . . . . Practically, this X means that all ‘answers’ must be worked out within a limit of humility and restraint. . . .”

The dynamic in our Bible study room had changed as we recalled our limits, returned to an appropriate humility regarding matters beyond our understanding. We remembered: all flesh is as grass, as a fast-fading flower. Our God is eternal, and in perfect justice, He will balance all the accounts—eternally. More’s the wonder: our once-bankrupt accounts overflow with eternal riches in Christ Jesus. As we wait for the dawning of that glorious Day, straining through dark sadness for glimpses of the light, we fix our eyes on the One who willingly shrouded Himself in our weak and vulnerable flesh. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 4:6).

Come quickly, Lord Jesus. Teach us to fix our eyes on your precious, suffering, compassionate, glorious face as we wait.


***


Rebecca Conner is still surprised by the ironic machinations of grace that somehow resulted in the following description of her life: a pastor’s wife who homeschools her five children in a small-town, farm-country parsonage and anticipates in hope the birth of her sixth living child in May.  


Post image from HERE.

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