Questions, questions….

I wrote this for Through the Roof (www.throughtheroof.org) and it is reproduced here by kind permission.

Around 30 years ago I was just beginning to discover the extent of my daughter’s disabilities. She had failed to meet any of the normal milestones during the first year of her life, was not moving around, sitting unsupported, picking up toys (or anything else), moving her head or forming any intelligible words, and already the tightness of her muscles was beginning to pull her little body into a distorted shape. A paediatrician came to visit us at home with the diagnosis; she told us that Ellen had cerebral palsy, with “spastic limbs” and might lack the intelligence ever to learn any speech (which turned out to be overly-pessimistic). After she had gone away, I put Ellen to bed and as I looked down at her twisted form on the mattress of the Moses basket which she was still tiny enough to fit into, a poem of sorts formed itself in my mind:

Limbs like a corpse, too stiff to play,
Voice that says nothing to no one all day;
No wonder, then, pillowed alone in the dark,
You coil yourself into a question mark.

Over the years that question mark came to symbolise so many things for me: Where was Ellen’s guardian angel the day when her catastrophic breathing collapse caused major brain damage at the age of nine weeks? Surely this couldn’t be God’s will; but what kind of God permits things that are not His will? As part of my degree course I had studied several theodicies (ways in which Christian thinkers down the centuries have tried to reconcile evil and suffering with the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving God). I knew which ones I found convincing in theory, but in the face of the actual suffering, both physical and emotional, which I had to watch Ellen endure, all of them rang hollow.

And yet alongside the questions I was finding an ever-deepening embrace in the love of God. Somehow, as my experience of His love grew larger, the questions grew smaller. They don’t go away – there are some I would still dearly love answers to. But first of all I came to see that the answers were not important as the questions; because asking the questions was an act of honesty with God, and being real with Him drew me ever closer towards Him. And secondly, in that growing closeness, I came to experience Him as utterly trustworthy. He holds my questions for me, and for now I am content to leave them there and know that whatever the answer is, it all has to do with Ellen’s ultimate good and blessing.

As an A level student, I had read Camus’ “La Peste” in which a Catholic priest watches a tiny child die in agony from the plague, and then asks, in his next Sunday sermon, “Who are we to say that even a whole eternity of bliss could possibly compensate for a single instant of human suffering?” As a degree student I remember writing an essay about the man born blind from John chapter 9, in which I explored the idea that to inflict him with blindness so that God could display His own works through him seems like the action of a megalomaniac. Now I came to understand that it was far better and more blessed for the man to have been born blind and to have been healed than if he had been born sighted in the first place. Somehow, every instant of Ellen’s suffering was working for her an eternal weight of glory. And I believe I can say that without at all meaning that God caused, willed or planned her suffering.

When she was 4 years old we went to a large, international conference headed by a well-known evangelist (I am not going to name or criticise him; he is someone for whom I had, and retain, a great deal of respect). Among the congregation was a man who’d had a leg amputated. At the first appeal for healing prayer, he made his way to the front on his crutches, and asked for prayer that his leg would grow back. In this article I’m less concerned with that than with the attitude of the congregation. This man went forward with the same prayer request at every meeting. As the week went on, he didn’t wait for the appeal, he simply went forward before the sermon ended. I began to hear people talking about him. I noticed that people would enter the auditorium and begin looking for him, pointing him out to one another when they spotted him. I heard people speculating about when he would go forward, whether he would wait for the appeal or go up during the sermon, and whether this spectacular miracle would take place or not.

During the conference another internationally well-known evangelist announced that he would be holding a healing meeting at 1pm. By 12.15 there was a 300 ft queue of physically able people outside the venue. Like other disabled people, our daughter could not queue outdoors for 45 minutes. When the doors finally opened, able people all rushed in to fill the front rows and get a good view. We, and many other disabled people, were relegated to standing room at the back.

The conference had been trumpeted as an occasion when great miracles would take place. It’s not true to say that nothing happened that week. I personally witnessed one lady with MS who was apparently cured, enabled to get out of her wheelchair and walk normally for the first time in many years, and her joy was palpable – I was left in no doubt that God had given her a gift of physical wholeness and I rejoiced with her. But there seemed to be no understanding of the deeper healing that God can bring about even without a physical cure, and the results of the week certainly did not match the hype which preceded it.

During that week the impression I gained was that people had gone to watch physical cures as a spectator sport. There was something very disturbing about the way in which physically able Christians appeared to have come to be entertained by the misfortunes of people who had been promised a physical cure (even though God might not have seen that as their most pressing need at that time). I overheard people gossiping and speculating, and it was unedifying. As I reflected on the impressions of the week, I found myself turning to Mark 5, the story of the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead. Verses 37 and 40 stood out to me: “And He allowed no one to accompany Him, except Peter and James, and John the brother of James.” And “But putting them all out, He took along the child’s father and mother and His own companions, and entered the room where the child was.”

By contrast with the vast spectacle of a public gathering, when Jesus performed a truly outstanding miracle in which even death had to obey Him and yield the little girl back to her parents, He admitted only those people who loved her and those few who truly believed in His power. I thought of Galatians 5.6 where we are told that faith works by love. The kind of “faith” that manifested in that conference was not true mountain-moving faith because it was not fuelled by love. Perhaps there might even have been more physical cures in evidence if there had been more genuine love.

Over the years, I know that God has given me some specific promises for Ellen. I haven’t seen all of them fulfilled yet, any more than I have had all of my questions answered. But I know that His love for her is unimaginably deep and constant, and my faith is fuelled by that love, as well as by my own love for Ellen. I hope that 26 years on from that conference, the church is beginning to understand that God’s omnipotence does not equal doing things the way we tell Him to, and that if we do sense that He is asking us to trust Him for a miracle for someone, whether of the outward and visible or the inner and quiet variety, genuine love for the person is the vital ingredient to activate our faith.

Progressing towards uncertainty and doubt.

I’m taking a risk here, a risk of being misunderstood and labelled either a backslider or a heretic, so let me start by defining what I mean by certain key terms.

Belief is a mental assent to a proposition or set of propositions.
Faith is an act of total trust – it goes beyond mental assent to staking your all on something.
Unbelief is the absence of both belief and faith, and is an act of the will according to Hebrews 3.12 (“See to it, my brothers, that no evil, unbelieving heart is found in any of you.”)
Doubt is a process of questioning your set of beliefs, and of being prepared to relinquish any not found to ring true.

I grew up with certainties.  My parents had, quite literally, staked their all on what they knew to be true, and had given up a secure and well paid job to devote their lives to spreading the Gospel.  And before I go any further I want to make it clear I don’t have an ounce of criticism for them; they were faithfully following God on their journey, as I am following Him on mine.  And so the faith I inherited was hedged around with certainties, and I believed them.  I knew what you had to do to be guaranteed heaven.  I knew who was in and who was out.  I knew what God was like and what you had to do to please Him.  I knew whom He was displeased with (very often me, actually).  I knew exactly which box God fitted into, and if I heard something about God that I couldn’t find in the Bible, I could safely dismiss it as error.  I knew where God was to be found, and that to look for Him anywhere else was a dangerous occupation that could lead to demonic deception.

I also knew it was my duty to “witness”, and so I went round proclaiming these certainties to everyone I knew and praying for those who rejected them.  This made me a pain in the butt, a smug, superior, holier-than-thou know-it-all.

Since then, a lot has happened to change me.  I discovered that you can pray all the right prayers but your child still winds up with multiple disabilities.  You can do all the right things, pray, fast and agonise and still end up divorced.  You can meet with callous accusations of inadequate faith from fellow-Christians but a Bah’ai friend totally demonstrates the accepting, welcoming heart of God to you.  You can do a Religious Studies degree and find whole chunks in the Qur’an and the Guru Granth Sahib that you can say a hearty Amen to.  You can try to keep God in that box He was in when you were growing up but He keeps breaking out all over the place.

I discovered that doubt, far from being a sin, was an authentic way to evaluate your beliefs and end up with truths you can really put your faith in.  I discovered that certainty about God simply means you have made Him in your own image and stopped being open to some startling revelation from Him.  I discovered that many people who were seeking God in places I had once thought dangerous were actually on a journey, catching glimpses of Him without always recognising Whom they were seeing.  Some might never come to recognise Him but for many, loving a God whom they encountered outside Christendom might be the first step on a path that would lead them to Jesus.

I discovered that some of those certainties were absolutely valid and survived the scrutiny process intact.  I absolutely affirm that Jesus is the Incarnation of God, that His name is above every other name in the universe and that one day He will return in glory and every human knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  I’m no longer sure that if you don’t understand this you are automatically “out”.

In many ways it has become more uncomfortable to try to hold on to old certainties than to live with uncertainty.  Some scriptures which can seem very legalistic become so much more expansive when the filter through which you’re looking at them is love rather than duty or expectations.  Three years ago I lost my home, my husband, my ability to do my job –  and the one unchanging, solid, dependable thing in all of this was Jesus.  Now I feel as if even the Jesus I thought I knew doesn’t exist and I must begin all over again getting to know Him as He really is.  It’s totally disorientating. Sometimes I feel as if I’ve lost my bearings in life – and yet it’s also good because it’s where He wants me.  Above all, I’m finding out that His love and mercy and forgiveness have heights, breadths and depths that I have never dreamed of.  How can I not accept myself, just the way I am, when He is apparently never unaccepting of me, no matter what I do?  How can I hold on to old resentments and unforgiveness when He loves the other person no matter how much they have hurt me?

I remember one of the lasts visits of Roy Hicks Jr to our church, shortly before his untimely death.  He talked about James and John demanding to sit either side of Jesus in His kingdom.  Jesus asked if they could drink the cup He was about to drink, and be baptised with the baptism He was about to undergo, and with great bravado they assured Him they could.  He didn’t slap them down and say, “Oh no you can’t!”  He actually agreed that they would do those very things, but even so, it wasn’t for Him to grant their request.  And Roy Hicks pointed out that they didn’t take umbrage or go off in a huff, because they had been around Jesus long enough to know that even when you’ve fulfilled all the conditions to get what you want and you don’t get it, Jesus is still worth following.

I have a Jesus who didn’t intervene to stop me being abducted as a child, who didn’t send guardian angels to prevent my daughter suffering massive brain damage, who didn’t save my marriage, even when I fasted, prayed, forgave over and over, and, despite my mistakes and imperfections, obeyed every single instruction I was aware of Him giving me.  I don’t have a Jesus I can believe in the way I used to do.  But I have a Jesus I can put my faith in, a Jesus whose plans for redeeming and making use of my life experiences go way beyond my wildest imaginings.  I have a Jesus who doesn’t say, “Come unto Me in the right way with the correct formula and a sufficiently sincere degree of repentance and I will start work on cleaning you up and making you acceptable.”  I have a Jesus who says, “Stay right where you are, I’m on my way to rescue you, and the amount of love I’m about to shower on you will blow all your circuits.”  I have a Jesus who sometimes patiently watches me fulfil all the conditions to get what I’m asking for and then does nothing to ensure that I get it.  And in the process I learn that it’s not all about me, it’s all about Him, and that in overturning a lot of my beliefs, I’m left with a Jesus I can put my faith in; a Jesus who won’t stay in my neat boxes, who does things I could never have predicted, who includes people my pride would once have kept outside the door, and whose very unpredictability fills my life with a lot of joy and fun that was absent from all my former certainties and beliefs.