This time last year I was reeling because an older acquaintance ended her life, leaving her family stunned and grieving. This year I am again reeling because a young friend died unexpectedly from an aggressive form of cancer. Last year, one woman wanted her life over, the other fought with all she had to stay alive.
Early in my friend’s battle, I sat with her in the ER as she struggled against pain. She was young enough to be my child, and her fight astonished me into silence, as I sat alongside her, watching her struggle against pain the disease inflicted. Unseen powers – the cancer and the meds -- clashed within her and robbed me of words to describe the impression of being permitted on holy ground.
I had just started Timothy Keller’s book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering shortly before my friend was diagnosed. I couldn’t remember anything worth repeating! But, she wanted me to sing – hymns of comfort . . . croaking was all I could manage.
I am reading Dr. Keller’s book slowly; aware of her struggle, but also with the awareness that so many people are hurting, and Bible-speak is no comfort! People don’t want victory chants or verses – we want a hand to hold, a shoulder to lean upon – a guide who knows the way through dark, scary, hurtful places; a friend who is faithful. Fancy arguments and religious jargon can quickly become like gibberish or weapons. (Remember Job’s friends?)
I thought I knew most of the arguments Dr. Keller would advance in his book. However, seeing my young friend and her family suffer reminded me how inadequate my understanding is – especially when no words properly describe the anguish disease inflicts.
. . . Suffering takes away the loves, joys, comforts that we rely on to give life meaning. How can we maintain our poise, or even our peace and joy, when it happens? The answer is that we can do that only when we locate our meaning in things that can’t be touched by death.” (p. 40)
But what thing could ever be untouched by death – or decay?
So far, reading through the book has been like studying a huge quilt, skillfully pieced together so that I can discover again God’s personal handiwork. Dr. Keller shows us the big picture of how humans cope, how Christians cope, and how individual Christians cope – Philosophy, religion, and faith views. Describing a diversity of views on suffering – contrasting them with that the Bible says about why people suffer – he has pieced together a work that is as useful and necessary as a warm quilt on a cold night. Some see pain and suffering as a crazy quilt of anguish; the Bible sees an order and purpose – and often with a dimension that is not discernible in the here and now. The Bible tells me, a person, not a thing, gives meaning and purpose to what looks senseless. (Isaiah 45:7) God is the border of the quilt, and He is its center point. And God stitches it all together.
I hear Christ ask Martha, Do you believe this? (John 11:25-26)
Whenever or however death ends life, it changes how we who survive live. So far, in the book, I can see that I can come under this quilt for protection, or stand outside of it, critiquing the handiwork.
“I can’t help them; God can; and I will let Him . . .” (p. 229)