I’ll never forget the shock with which I read the last chapter of My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult. For the entirety of the book I had followed the struggles of a family fighting to save the life of their daughter with leukemia. Kate’s life was in the balance – she and her family were in constant turmoil, torn between hope and fear, and her sister, Anna, under pressure to donate her kidney to save Kate’s life. All the way through the novel I was willing Kate to live, cheering on Anna to come to her sister’s rescue. But in the final pages, perfectly healthy Anna dies in a car crash.
Nothing is certain. No matter how healthy or secure we feel or appear, life is precarious and fragile. This strikes me most when I watch or listen to The News and someone has died in a fire, more have been killed in the Israel-Palestine conflict, or there has been a hurricane that has taken the homes and lives of hundreds. It should be called The Bad News! Every news item like this means that someone has lost a brother, sister, mother, father, son, daughter or friend and is deeply grieving their loss just as I would if it had been mine. And maybe they saw that precious person just that morning, and everything seemed fine. I know it’s morbid, but I won’t apologise. We live in a dangerous world.
And it’s not just life and death that’s uncertain. Times of joy and suffering are also completely unpredictable and uncontrollable. Sometimes people fall in love, land their dream job, meet great friends and have children. But sometimes jobs are lost, partners leave, relationships break down or women are childless. What are we supposed to do with that? How do we cope with the reality that nothing we treasure is truly secure? How are we supposed to live with not knowing what trial is around the corner?
Here’s what I do. I collect up all the things that are most precious to me into a pile, and I huddle around it, fiercely protecting my pile of precious things as best as I can. In my pile of precious things is my marriage, my family, my friendships, my health, my lifestyle and my hopes for the future. I guard my pile and if I see anything coming towards me that poses a potential threat to something in my precious pile I will do anything I can to deflect it. Is my husband safe? Phone and find out. Protect the pile. Why does my Mum want to speak as soon as possible? Has something happened? Protect the pile. Are we going to have enough money to buy the house we want? We need to save more. Protect the pile. What if I can’t have a baby? I must make sure I can. Protect the pile. And when something in my pile is attacked, and I go through difficulty, I find myself willing it to be over so I can get back to protecting all that is precious in my world. There’s nothing wrong per se with fearing for the safety of loved ones, or agonizing over future plans but I’m beginning to realise that my fierce defence of all things precious is a bit of a waste of time.
I won’t pretend I’ve endured any huge tragedies in my life, because I haven’t. But I’ve gone through difficulties and every time it’s because my almighty creator, God has allowed it, and his will is outworked no matter how protectively I guard my precious pile. I cannot second guess his will and I cannot change it. Isaiah 14:27 ‘For the LORD of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back?’ I don’t need to fret and protect, I need to trust.
But nothing is certain! How can I trust him when I don’t know what could happen? How can I rest easy knowing that my precious pile is in the hands of a God who gives and takes away? Well I suppose my questions lead me to my answers. I must trust him even though I don’t know what could happen. And I can rest easy, knowing that my God, who gives and takes away as he pleases, is a good God. But trusting God doesn’t mean knowing that everything will stay safe and sound. I love the picture CS Lewis paints of Aslan, in The Lion, The witch and The Wardrobe: ‘“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”‘ He is also a God who is far more interested in shaping my character than giving me an easy ride. The frustrating fact of the matter is, my faith strengthens and grows in uncertainty. In his book, A Loving Life, Paul Miller writes, ‘Faith grows in the rich soil of ambiguity. Because everything is uncertain, we find ourselves praying through the day or through relationships.’ Sensing the danger and uncertainty of life bends my heart towards God on a daily basis, and I find myself actively and consciously depending on him in prayer. Ambiguity leads to a richer, closer relationship with God. And, grudgingly, I confess that he is well worth it.
But what if something really terrible happened? I have dear friends who’ve lost family members in car accidents, been diagnosed with terminal illnesses or had spouses walk out on them. How would I hold up under torture or severe persecution? How would I survive? Do I only trust God because, so far, life hasn’t been too awful? It’s difficult to comprehend how I might deal with these imaginary trials, but the answers don’t lie in me. God promised Paul, as he promises us, ‘my grace is sufficient for you’. Paul’s experience of God’s grace given in times of great need led him to welcome difficulties! Of which he had many. ‘I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.’ (2 Corinthians 12) Time and time again in scripture, we see people of God not only surviving trials and tragedies, but triumphing in the midst of them. In Acts chapters 6 and 7, when Stephen was seized by the leaders in the synagogue and false witnesses set about accusing him in order to condemn him, he was filled with the Holy Spirit and boldly preached one of the most incredible sermons ever recorded. And when they drove him outside the city in order to stone him to death, he was filled with the Holy Spirit and saw Jesus standing by the Father in Heaven. Even as the stones were being thrown, he was praying for his accusers. God gives us the grace we need in the moment, through the power of his Spirit. I don’t need to ask how would I cope? God will sustain me. I don’t need to ask with what strength would I endure that? The Holy Spirit will give me the strength I need. That’s not to say I wouldn’t feel the wrench of loss or the agony of illness. But I know that his grace would be enough.
In the ambiguity of life, one thing is certain. There is something that, for a Christian, cannot be altered or taken away. It is the eternal future that awaits us in heaven. Jesus tells his disciples, ‘In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?’ (John 14) Peter tells us that, through Christ, we have ‘an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.’ (1 Peter 1) We read of the new heavens and new earth that are shown to John in the book of Revelation and that God will dwell among his people, and wipe every tear from their eye. God promises a glorious future, where nothing is uncertain anymore. We will have true peace and deep joy! And this future is the ultimate outworking of God’s purposes. Jesus’ followers faced great uncertainty when they saw their leader arrested, tortured and murdered. But God’s purpose of salvation for his people throughout history was being fulfilled as the nails were driven in and the cross was pulled up. Behind all the danger and uncertainty, God was weaving his story of certain life for all those who trust him. Because of this, we can be deeply certain of his love for us. In fact, his word tells us that there is absolutely nothing that could ever change or take away God’s deep love for his people. Of this we can be certain! ‘ For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.‘ (Romans 8:38)
And how do we live in the meantime? In our present uncertainties, we can love. Although our world is full of unknowns, we are certain of our future and certain of Jesus’ love, and we know what he has asked us to do. ‘No matter how fuzzy our circumstances, we can always love. Our world may be ambiguous but our calling isn’t. Instead of fighting the uncertainty, we can love in it.’ (Miller)