I remember the first time I ushered those words. Down the phone, a concerned friend tried to help me unpack the confused and dark feeling I was attempting to label with words – words are not usually difficult for me to orchestrate, but this time was different. Suddenly with a trembling voice, there they were, words I hardly dared speak: I know he’s sovereign, but is he really good? My throat did that strange thing where it seems to produce invisible bubbles to choke words it doesn’t want to publish. But there they were. The second time was a couple of months later, sitting on my bed, my housemate who had walked with me on this roughly pebbled road sitting at my dimly lit desk: is he really good?
I have read a few end-of-year posts over the past few days in which people look back over the year, and highlight key moments or lessons learned. How was 2011 for you?
Having had the blessing of a rich heritage of the faith and a good Saturday-night-bathtime-style soaking in the Bible, I knew that Christians were called to give thanks to God, “for He is good”. I had been, thousands upon thousands of time, a beneficiary of this, of his, goodness. I have known what is nearing a quarter of a century full of goodness, of contentment, love, opportunity, excitement, provision. And yet…”is he really good?”
It is not as though I had known even a fraction of the suffering so many others face today. And if this year is the worst yet, I’m sure I’m doing well compared to a lot of you. Trust me – I have debated whether or not to write this post and even feel guilty now, posting it. But…maybe each of our storms do matter. I remember listening to a talk given by a greatly respected Christian apologist after the Japanese earthquake happened earlier this year: he spoke of how the earthquake was real for the Japanese, and our personal earthquakes were also real for us (not dismissing the absolute horror of such events or taking away from their severity). Our suffering is real, however small it may seem, or indeed be. Our tears, I have realised, are seen. And so I hope you don’t think I’m being dramatic, or even heretical – I am aware that this is perhaps the most personally honest I have been in public writing and whilst it feels like exposing myself as a frantic goldfish in a bowl the world watches and picks apart, I know also that sometimes, what I need most is to hear of the footsteps of others to continue in my own.
In New Year’s wishes over the past few days, I have heard, and felt, the words: “let’s hope this year is kinder to us than last.” 2011 was difficult. I’m not into listing events about my life on my blog, nor do I wish to rust your ears with my own series of ‘unfortunate’ events. For the purpose of contextualisation, 3 empty chairs are now found at our family’s table, various family members and friends seemed to be caught in dark shadows of various forms for long periods throughout the year (some of them now ended; some of them not – I do not come offering you a happy-ending-cure), and I found myself deeply disheartened by the exposure to dark things, a knowledge of which has been necessary on my path of fighting for justice, teamed with the loneliness of settling into a new country.
And so, maybe because I failed to deal with these things individually and instead allowed them to crowd together so that their impact was more powerful – this is one of our human flaws – I still knew that God was there; that he had plans, that he had spoken and that he had won the battle, that he was in control, that he was sovereign. What became faint and, in these times, doubted, was my awareness of his awareness of me (that, I think, is, probably selfishly and narrowly, how I defined ‘goodness’). Did he know what was going on? Did he care? Was he really ‘good’, or was he fairly impersonal and would piece together the big Lego blocks of the world out in the end without worrying too much about the small, funny-shaped ones? He had given me the gift of salvation (which indeed, is the ultimate act of ‘goodness’), would take me home to himself when my earthly life was over and was directing that earthly life…but did he actually care about how it was going? Perhaps he had written it and left it to play out itself. Did he see our fire-hot tears? Had he heard those harshly-spoken words? Could he feel our hearts breaking? Did he notice the darkness in that tiny corner? I wish I had written all of my questions down. A tangent lesson I learned through the year was that it is ok to acknowledge questions and things that we don’t quite know how to make sense of, even if they seem selfish, or silly…and even though, when I finally put my fear into oral words, I felt as though my world might cave in. “God is good” was part of the furniture. But sometimes I think these things are whipped out like carpets from under our feet so that we see them, we behold them again to better acquaint ourselves with them, so that their reality and vivacity is before us afresh.
In looking back, I think my question was maybe more that of Susan Pevensie in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as she quizzes Mr and Mrs Beaver about Aslan, the Lion, the King.
“Is he—quite safe?”
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
I didn’t feel “safe” as I would have wanted in 2011. I wanted my family to stay alive and not to know pain or deathbeds, the bitter loss of life-long companions or the goodbye of a mother. I wanted those close to me to be loved and cared for, not tossed and thrown around by those they trusted. I wanted to see light and hope in everything, rather than the thunderous face of injustice and exploitation. I grew tired of discomfort and wondered if God was watching. I knew from what I had tasted in the past that He was good…but what was he doing?
He’s not safe. Not in human terms, anyway. He doesn’t promise smooth sailing. Life with him is not easy, nor is it always happy. Death kicks, with the deafening reminder that pain exists in each of our lives. Heartbreak of one colour or another will be present in your life’s picture. Rose-tinted glasses are part of our uniform. When we know him, he does not place us in a small and cosy storehouse until the battle is fought. The victory is his, and indeed, he has won through his own suffering greater than ours, that afforded us the greatest gift of goodness…but we join in the battle, riding behind him. We see things we’d rather not; we walk on roads that make our feet hurt; we feel things that make us feel as though we just can’t take anymore.
My eyes had grown so weary of looking and straining to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel that I forgot the truth that surrounded me in the tunnel itself. It’s easy to let that happen, isn’t it? But it was just that: I wasn’t expected to find my way through a pitch-black tunnel walking towards an ultimate act of light and goodness from God whilst he waited, unaware, or at least unconcerned, by what was happening to me.
The first reminder of his goodness, then: whispers in the tunnel. The very fact that he whispered. He was answering what I hardly dared ask. Whispers that sounded like…
“And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) My sister recently shared with me the picture of a prince riding on a white horse, storming the castle of his enemy. She reminded me that we get to ride with him – but behind him. It is not upto us to go and storm it ourselves. He has a plan. He is with us. When difficulty arises, we are not called to go it alone. He is with us. He is good.
On from that: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31) He is for us. There was a particular time in the year when I felt as though I could not bear one more knock – I had no more tears left but I felt like I was to hold my breath until the next one and I didn’t know how I was going to face it. I came across a song by Kari Jobe that reminds us of the truth that he is for us. This goes hand in hand with something else: she also paints the picture of him writing on our hearts who he is: may that be the case. I love how the hymnwriter David, in the Psalms, is seen to remind himself of truth no matter his circumstance: whether he is on a mountain top where everything seems peachy or whether he is in the valley (and valleys he certainly knew), the truth he ‘preached’ to himself remained the same. God is good. God is mighty. God is victorious. God is with him. God is praiseworthy. May we study His word and enter into ever-closer communion with him so as to know him better each day. He is loving, faithful, gracious, powerful…and somehow, THAT God, him, He is for us.