It’s been a harrowing week for Ellen and those who love her. We finally finished sorting through her father’s effects and, as she has asked me weekly since he died, I gave her his collection of cassettes and CDs. But music is Ellen’s main way of communicating with, and understanding, the world. Every one of those music tracks reminds her of something about her father. She has been hit by a torrent of grief so overwhelming that her self-harming almost landed her in hospital and the doctor has had to prescribe tranquilizers. The bewilderment on her face betrays an emotion all the more crushing because she lacks the vocabulary to articulate it, and so cannot tame and constrain it in the way that words do.
I’ve spent today with her and, unable to restrain my own tears, I have found a curious relief in the discovery that my heart is not so calloused that it has become inured to her pain. I have had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the things God has promised me for her. It’s almost thirty years since God spoke to me unmistakeably clearly about her physical healing, that it would be in the land of the living, not in the sweet by-and-by.
I grew up in a very conservative evangelical tradition that would have denied the possibility of God even speaking to me like that, and would have dismissed it as a misinterpretation. This tradition took a fatalistic approach to life which, while it acknowledged that God could in theory heal if He chose to, had no expectation at all that He ever would, and was more likely to view a sudden healing as a demonic counterfeit than a divine miracle.
As an adult I parted company with that religious tradition and threw myself into the life of a church that encouraged a much more real and living faith – a faith that took God’s promises seriously and expected Him to live up to His word. I found this a much more satisfying approach because it lacked the gulf between faith and practice or belief and reality which had marked the religion of my upbringing. (I still belong to this same church, thirty-five years later, a mark of the fact that the church has also not remained static but its corporate journey has mirrored my individual one.)
The problem is that neither of these ways of relating to God can confront and deal with the unanswered question, the question that would receive a glib answer from either of them: what happens when a promise remains unfulfilled for thirty years? The beliefs of my childhood would say that I was wrong to claim such a promise, and that is the end of the matter. I should resign myself to Ellen continuing to suffer as she does, and go on believing in God despite it all. The beliefs of my early adulthood would blame my inadequate faith or lack of prayer.
But both these answers are cop-outs. They are different ways of denying either God’s desire or His ability to heal Ellen. What is more, both are counsels of despair. If God is powerless or unwilling to help Ellen, there is no hope of change. If it depends on my mustering more faith, I have already scraped the bottom of that barrel so often that I’m through to the bare ground.
It might seem that this leaves me no alternative but to doubt the goodness of God. Certainly that’s a stage I have passed through (I remember once saying to my pastor that the Romans had it right, the gods are capricious), but I’m thankful that it never became my resting place. I am still expecting God to fulfil that promise; I do believe He spoke to me, and I don’t believe the passage of time negates His word. But there is still no sign of the promise’s imminent fulfilment.
I know this is a journey; who knows where I will be a month, or a year, or a decade from now? But here’s where I am today as I witness Ellen submerged beneath a tsunami of sorrow, and desperately will her not to drown. There is a place in God where questions are unanswered. He is silent. The lack of any response from Him is the most deafening sound of all. And in that place is the immense relief of discovering that God is beyond my control. Nothing I do or fail to do can manipulate Him into acting in a particular way just because I want it. Which means that He is big enough to hold my most insistent, unanswered questions for me, and vast enough to sustain and embrace me in the middle of any storm.
A God whom I could command to do my bidding would be no God at all. Richard Dawkins has taught us to fear, or at least despise, the idea of mystery. But what would God be with no mystery? A God who was small enough to be comprehended within the little limits of my mind would be no God at all. I stand dumbfounded in the presence of an impenetrable and silent mystery. I feel I have an inkling of what Moses must have experienced when he encountered God in thick darkness.
It’s like standing, some moonless night, on a deserted beach before an arch of rock, and stepping through the arch, expecting to find the cold sea lapping at one’s feet, the wind chilling one’s bones and the vast emptiness of a dark ocean stretching away for an infinite distance; but finding instead that one has stepped into a light, warm, soft-lined and homely room where the richest fragrance and the sweetest music permeate the air. Sometimes it’s in the bleakest of silences that God is found.