If I was writing a story for a great movie, the last 2 years is not the story I would write for us. What I long for—and what I’m drawn to in great movies and books—is that ultimate redemption that comes in the midst of great tragedy. Epic stories all have great tragedy. The moment when all seems to be lost and has gone hopelessly astray. Where we yearn for justice to come, good to prevail, and life to be set right again. I feel it when I watch Lord of the Rings and orks are overtaking the armies of good and Frodo and Sam are on the verge of giving up. Or a massive alien being is overtaking the city of New York and it all seems to be too much for the Avengers to turn the tide. My heart brews with anger as I read of Joseph being betrayed by his brothers, thrown into slavery, and unjustly locked into prison. Or Jesus walking to his death with a cross on his shoulders after years of nothing but bringing life to the world. But what makes all of these stories great is that our longing is finally met. Restoration comes. Good prevails. The world is set right again.
But what if the movie ended and we didn’t get to see redemption? What if the story continues but we still find ourselves at a place where the world around us is not as it was meant to be, and yet the immediate pages ahead of us remain unknown with no promise that they will hold restoration that makes even the great tragedy understandable? It’s not the story I would write. In fact, it can feel like a story that shouldn’t or couldn’t be written because it doesn’t match up with the built-in longings of our heart for redemption. It doesn’t seem to match up with our God who redeems. When we see such a story around us or find ourselves in the middle of it, we can try to explain it away, or ignore it, or convince ourselves that something better is just around the corner. But what if the story is exactly how it was intended to be, and the Author has written it that way? What then?
When we found out about Sophie’s diagnosis well over a year ago, it was absolutely devastating but neither Lindsey or I ever wrestled much with the “why” questions of God. Honestly years of wrestling with singleness before Lindsey and I met had forced me (after much wrestling and grief) to come more face to face with the fact that God was sovereign and good, his plans were the very best for me, and his character and these truths were not altered by my circumstances. I did not understand why our first daughter had anencephaly, but honestly the need to understand wasn’t heavy on my heart. While we were in deep grief and sorrow throughout our pregnancy with Sophie and in the months after her birth, there was a continual hope at the root of both the joyful and sorrowful days.
I still believe that much of that hope was directly from God as he used his Holy Spirit to sustain and guide us. But I also see now that some of that hope was not a hope in who God was, but a hope in what God would DO, a hope in what our hopeful circumstances would be in the future. I would have done just about anything to enable my daughter Sophie to remain on this Earth alive and fully well with us. But knowing I had little control over that—and that was hard as a father to be limited in my ability to protect my daughter—I had hope that while Sophie would be in Heaven under God’s perfect love and care, God would enable us to have more children to remain here on Earth with us. It wasn’t until the days that followed Dasah’s diagnosis back in May that this hope in our hoped-for future came crashing down, and I began to realize where some of my hope—that I thought was in God—was actually being planted. In the midst of this, the questions of “why?!!” and wanting to understand what in the world God was doing were now far more important than they ever were with Sophie.
In the days that followed, the first passage I found God leading me to was Psalm 42:5, which says,
“Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.”
As I read over it again and again, I knew why my soul was cast down. There was no question about that. But I was struck anew by the command to “hope in God”. I was realizing I really didn’t know what that meant. What does it look like to truly find my hope in God alone? Not hope in what I think he will do, or how I think he will benefit me. But to simply have hope in who He is. At a time when I needed hope, it did not seem like an ideal time to see my foundation of hope being changed. So we began to pray—and have been praying every day since—that God would teach us what it means for our hope, joy, and faith to be firmly planted in who He is, and not what we hope he will do.
Over the summer, Lindsey and I began reading Tim Keller’s book Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (the best comprehensive book I have read on grief founded in the Bible…I highly recommend it to everyone regardless of whether you are or have ever experienced deep grief). There are so many things I could highlight from the book. But one portion struck deeply on how I viewed God.
In the book, Keller recaps Elisabeth Elliot’s novel No Graven Image that she released in the late 1960’s. The book tells the fictional story of a missionary woman who spends years preparing and then moving to a tribe in Ecuador to translate the Bible into their native language. She builds a relationship with the one man in the tribe who has the language abilities to help her translate the Bible into their language. But when the man becomes ill and the missionary unknowingly gives him medicine that he is allergic to, the man dies. Devastated, the missionary returns home because there is no other person in the tribe that can unlock the language for a Bible translation to be done. God closes the door for the Bible translation. When the book was released it got tremendous push-back from Christians who, as Keller says, “protested vehemently that God would never allow such a thing to happen to a woman who had so prayerfully dedicated her life to his cause.”
But Keller got to hear Elisabeth Elliot explain the book in a lecture she gave at the seminary he attended.
“She went on to explain to us that the graven image, the idol of the title, was a God who always acted the way we thought he should. Or more to the point—he was a God who supported our plans, how we thought the world and history should go. That is a God of our own creation, a counterfeit god. Such a god is really just a projection of our own wisdom, of our own self. In that way of operating, God is our ‘accomplice,’ someone to whom we relate as long as he is doing what we want. If he does something else, we want to ‘fire’ him, or ‘unfriend him,’ as we would any personal assistant or acquaintance who was insubordinate or incompetent.”
As I read this, it struck a deep cord. This was at the heart of my wrestling with God since Dasah’s diagnosis. As we had walked with Sophie, I had great hope that God would heal our daughter, but I knew that God was God (and I was not) and it was up to him and according to his bigger, sovereign plans if Sophie would be healed. I had peace in His sovereignty regardless of what He chose. But, I also had great hope that God would give us more children in the future that would be fully healthy and remain on this Earth with us for decades to come. And while I had never articulated it in words—even to myself—I believed God would never have us walk through the same grievous journey with any of our other children. How could He?!! That would not be the redemption and silver lining that I was longing for, hoping for…and not just hoping for, but hoping in. In my mind, my hope was of course in God, but more specifically in what God would do…that he would give us future healthy children that we would get to parent and watch grow up.
And so when we discovered our second daughter was also diagnosed with a terminal condition, it felt even more devastating and heavy than Sophie’s diagnosis. This wasn’t how the story was supposed to go! How could our God of redemption and restoration write a story like this?! I was now questioning how to find hope in God because he hadn’t come through as I was certain he would. And as I read this portion of Keller’s book, God began to give me a deeper look at where my hope “in Him” truly was. Not in Him, but in what I thought he should or would do. I was at a loss. So I began to pray he would teach me and enable me to have hope securely in who he is, and not in my current or future hoped-for circumstances.
Months have gone by, and while I haven’t often felt this deep intimacy with God, he has been showing me much about Him and myself and the brokenness of our world. And I’ve kept praying he would teach me to truly hope in Him, not knowing what that really looked like. Then a few weeks ago I got to pull away from the busyness of life and spend a day with God. I journaled, read, talked with God, and got to listen to him. And as I was driving home, seemingly out of nowhere, it suddenly hit me. Over these months God has been teaching me what it looked like to hope in Him…and I didn’t even realize it. I didn’t realize it largely because I was looking for a “hopeful” feeling. A comforting sort of warmth inside my heart (my wife could probably do a much better job putting words to these emotions!). But God was teaching me not about a comforting feeling but to know Him, to know his character, and in knowing Him to trust Him more. I know that he is good. I know that he is loving, and that he loves me, and Lindsey, and Sophie, and Dasah more than I even have the capacity to understand. I know he is righteous. I know he is powerful. I know he knows all things, knows the much bigger story on an eternal scale, and he is in total control of this story…his story. I can thus trust him with the life of my daughters and my wife and my own life…I can trust him with the story of our family. And as I get to know more and more the One who I am trusting in these things, I have great hope.
A book I’m reading right now is When Your Family’s Lost a Loved One by David & Nancy Guthrie (a great practical book if you have lost a loved one or want to know how to help someone who has). In it, Nancy Guthrie shares, “The truth is, we’re often more interested in getting what God’s got—not getting more of God…But God knows exactly what we need, and His purposes are grander than giving us what we want. He’s doing something deeper.” -pp. 57-58
I see this in me. As I get glimpses of what it looks like to truly hope in God, I still often just want God to give me what I want. I want to be god instead of trusting God. But when I step back from my immediate feelings and momentary circumstances, I really do believe God’s much bigger story is so much better. It’s a story that is eternal (and not just about the immediate pages ahead that I can’t see). It’s a story centered not on me, or my family, but on Him because He is the one that all were designed to know and to be fulfilled in knowing Him. It’s a story of deep sadness, deep heartache, and also deep joy (and not just for us, but God also). It’s a story of greater redemption on an eternal scale. But finally, Romans 8:32 reminds us, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” Because of God sending Jesus to live, suffer, and die alongside us and for us, this story God is writing in our family is a story of hope. Our great God is not withholding anything from us so that we might suffer. Our God has given everything—even the life of his only son—so that we can know Him, now and for eternity. In Him and simply who he is, I’m learning to find great hope.