Jesus: Taking the Ultimate L.
Real photo of an actual live hacker according to a free stock photo I found on the internet!
My late sister's Facebook account was hacked a few days ago by someone attempting to hock fake Louis Vuitton purses. I always imagine a hacker as a wan, anemic someone sitting in a dim basement illuminated only by the blue glow of a triptych of screens, listening to evil-sounding EDM over the rapid arrhythmic clicking of keys as they virulize the WWW and entrap hapless folks who feel an LV purse will confer at long last the status they seek. (Who is actually impressed by a Louis Vuitton purse, genuine or otherwise?!?!) I won't lie, I cursed said hacker mildly and then a fresh wave of grief took me by surprise. I wept. A lot. It reminded me of the time we walked out of my parent's house the morning of my sister's funeral to find glittering dashes of glass hail on either side of Steven's truck. Someone had punched out two windows in the night, looking for cash or anything worth cash, I guess. Or the time I ventured out, the day after my dad died, to dig up his late dogs' headstones, the retrieval of which was his sole deathbed request of me. They had been shattered into shards, too small to piece back together, as though someone had spitefully taken a hammer to them. Turns out they did. The result, I was told, after some investigation, of some stupid landlord-renter feud between two people my dad had never met. Apparently one believed he was hurting the other by destroying the slate slabs my dad had specially ordered and engraved for his beloved pets. I'm being melodramatic, yes. Somebody just wanted to sell their LV purses at scandalous prices cause they fell off the back of a truck and who wouldn’t want to capitalize on a fabulous stroke of luck like that while also offering said purses at costs so magnanimously low it’s basically an act of charity?!
But it hurt. Anonymous, random, faceless, yes. But hurtful. That same morning, I'd read Matthew 10:29, the classic: "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father's will." Your Father's will. Your Father's care. Your Father's knowledge. No translation allows one to completely escape the theodical scourge and existential succor of God’s sovereignty and providence. From every translation, and also every angle, every denominational funnel, every theological system, every taxonomy of faith, there is no completely straining out or explaining it away.
Scourge because it means God has at least allowed human beings an obscene (do not be offended but bear with my creative diction in love, I often use this word to mean “a degree exceeding common decency” and I use it here to mean “a degree exceeding that which I find acceptable or reasonable in my limited human purview” but in this sense I would also call God’s love in Jesus Christ obscene, which would not score me any points among those who feel Cory Asbury’s use of the descriptor “reckless” is heretical NOTE: I have since noticed that Rich Mullins was in fact perhaps the first to use "reckless to describe God's love in his wonderful song "The Love of God"!) latitude of freedom, which we use all too often to wage war, betray, kill, maim and otherwise harm one another and creation. God seems to allow... everything. The deepest depravity, the cruelest violence.
My husband finds this totally untroubling, however. Well, he finds the violence and cruelty troubling, of course, but doesn’t countenance the idea that God is in any way complicit in it, even through the act of allowing human liberty. He says it’s easy for him to “take the big L,” he says, speaking the language of the youth, as part of the sinful human race, sons and daughters of Adam, through whom sin came into the world, as Paul states in Romans 5. “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned-“ (Romans 5:12). He finds no reason to try and badger God into “taking the L”, in the sense of attributing any blame to Him for this rancid mess of human history.
Sovereignty is succor, however, because it undergirds everything with meaning. In fact, I can’t imagine any other foundation of meaning. It reminds me that the world isn’t careering haphazardly toward some Waiting for Godot-style absurdist end, or rather not-toward anything at all because it seems to be that if even one thing is purposeless and outside the scope of God’s care (including a sparrow falling from the sky) then everything must be purposeless. And there must be a reason I am reduced to tears every time I listen to the hymn “Whate’er My God Ordains Is Right” and turn to it again and again whenever life feels like it is indeed careering wildly through cold, hostile black space. (Sandra McCracken’s version is a particular favorite)
When I read of some vile injustice or heinous act of evil and it sears my psyche anew with the, well, evilness of evil, the utter sinfulness of sin – I am psychologically fragile in being able to handle such knowledge, so I try to avoid hearing about things or watching / reading anything dark, but evil has a way of invading even the most curated of lives, and perhaps insulating oneself too aggressively from the pain of the world is a first-world luxury and not what God calls us to, anyway – I’m tempted toward despair: how can this have a purpose in God’s good plan? How can this be redeemed? Surely even when Jesus returns and wipes every tear away, the stain of this particular brutality will linger?
If you abandon sovereignty here, you might temporarily feel a reprieve from the problem of evil. But it's not long before you're sent reeling into a netherspace of a weak God and a strong sense of absurdity. Who IS God if he's not not control, steering this heaving ship, every buzzing molecule and every wild human vicissitude, toward an undreamt-of destination? And if God is not in control in some substantial way, who IS?
The two seemingly irreconcilable truths drive us to theologies that draw certain verses out in codified relief while recessing others. Free will. Sovereignty. Omniscience. Human liberty. It's too much. The paradox is insufferable. I could never be convinced by the materialists that free will is an illusion. It is simply too apparent a reality. But the sovereignty of God is more subtle, hidden, a jewel buried in a field. A bitter heart curses it, a cynical one scoffs at it. But a poor and needy one, perhaps, can embrace it. A humbled and broken one can, perhaps, cleave to it with a desperate hunger. Sometimes it, and it alone, is the only salve that will do, incomprehensible as it is. The aroma of Christ is putrid to one, multidimensionally sweet to another - so the apostle Paul tells us. And so it is with the sovereignty of God, and so it has been to me in different seasons.
When heinous things happen, as I know they do all the time, I wonder about the sovereignty of God, and it offends me. It seems ludicrously impossible that this thing could be redeemed, and further that the redemption could become all the sweeter for the suffering. When people I love die, I wonder about the sovereignty of God. When someone unwittingly salts my grief-wounds, thinking they were committing only petty vandalism or cybercrime or misdemeanor theft and property destruction, I wonder about the sovereignty of God. Okay, when I'm awake I wonder about the sovereignty of God. I wonder, I wander, into the barren wastelands of bitterness, of interminable questioning, where there is no rest, only turmoil. I swing between theological extremes, finding comfort in no manmade system designed to relieve the tension, designed to abrogate what feels an impossibly heavy burden when you’re loitering on the outside of it, tentatively peeking in only to pace away anxiously again, vainly looking for certainty elsewhere: trusting God. Heavy, impossible. I can’t trust God, I protest, not with this anxious volley of questions constantly plaguing my heart, not with all the heinous things that happen every day all over the world, not without being able to understand it all, not without carefully explicated to-my-satisfaction answers to, well, everything. I sit on my therapist's couch. Her office is a mosaic of muted mauve, gray, beige. Stacks of books. Tissues. Nerve-diffusing white noise. Little birds - maybe sparrows, even - flit around below the familiar eaves of neighboring buildings outside the window. I clutch my first tear-soaked wad of a tissue, worrying it in my fist. "It just seems like... it just seems like God would allow *anything*," I gulp. She nods, slowly, looks down. “It seems like he would allow anything!” I cry, thinking maybe, due to her lack of response, I didn’t quite drive the point home. "You know about my daughter, right?" she asks. Not the response I wanted. Yes, I say, a bit. I brace myself. "She was born severely disabled. Small brain. Never verbal." I grimace, in sympathy, in wonderment that God allows such suffering. "The last year of her life, she often had episodes where she’d scream repeatedly. Daily, even,” she says quietly, her measured tone never quaking with anger, as mine does, as mine would. “But no one could figure out the source of her pain.” "But that's CRUEL," I say, as fresh tears spill down my cheeks. "Why would God allow that?! Someone who can't even articulate or understand their pain? That's CRUEL," I grit my jaw as I say it and it comes out more angrily than I meant. Or perhaps just as angrily as I meant, as my heart feels. But I’m embarrassed at my own bile. She nods a little, not in agreement, I’m guessing, but sympathy. Sympathy for how things appear, for how things hurt, for how things, apart from God’s sovereignty and thus apart from His peace, feel unbearably absurd and cruel and nasty and pointless. She doesn't say anything in response, except this: "You know what verses I had read at her funeral?" And instantly I know I've lost in this wrestling match with God yet again. Now I know God is about to deliver the coup de gras, the fiery dislocation of my hip, the wound from a friend that burns like no other but which can always be trusted. "I wanted the doxology from Romans 11 read," she says. I'm already crying in that beat before she starts.
"Oh, the depth of of the riches and wisdom of God!
How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!
Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?
Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?
For from him and through him and to him are all things"
she recites softly, from memory, as I sob. "To him be the glory forever," she finishes. And I'm slain. To him be the glory forever. There is no other path to peace, I know.
But it couldn’t be true without Jesus. For from him and through him and to him are all things, and “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:17)
Death reigns because one man sinned. It seems unfair, unjust. But life now reigns and will reign forevermore because Jesus, in whom the fullness of God dwells, died for us. What profligate injustice. What flagrant unfairness. What extravagant grace.
To him be the glory forever. As people die, as the world bleeds, as the severely disabled person cries out in indecipherable pain. Because and only because of this: Jesus Christ, the eternal Word, became one of us, suffered horribly and died for us, and rose again. There is no other hope, there is no other story big enough to hold all this death and dying and suffering in this mad ravening, raveling world.
I always come back to this, in life, in writing, I know. I’m incorrigibly predictable. But there is simply no other place to end if we are to know hope at all.
I listened to “Whate’er My God Ordains is Right” again while writing this and yes, I cried:
“Whate’er my God ordains is right;
here shall my stand be taken;
though sorrow, need or death be mine,
yet I am not forsaken.
My Father’s care is all around me there;
He holds me, I shall not fall;
and so to him I leave it all.”
My Father’s care, My Father’s will, My Father’s knowledge. It is all around, and I surrender myself to it again, knowing it is our only refuge. To him I leave it all.