I’d like to welcome all the new readers of my blog who came here from my article in Christianity Today. Now just to be clear, I consider that piece one of the better ones that I’ve ever written, which means that the stuff you will find here is just trash, pure trash. No, that’s not at all true. In fact, I feel much more comfortable writing on my blog because I know that the readership is much smaller and more actively interested in what I have to say. And so I often write in a more informal tone here than I would elsewhere, employing words and grammar that professional editors would never let me use, like run on sentences that go nowhere but only exist to add words to the page on which I’m writing right now. Or incomplete sentences. Fragments. Stuff like that.
I received a lot of comments and emails in response to my story, nearly all of them very encouraging and positive. But there was one question that was mentioned more than a few times: Your story is nice, but what if you hadn’t experienced a happy ending? What if things hadn’t turned out the way they had? What if Carol had not gotten better, and had passed away? What if Jonathan did not survive chemotherapy, and we had lost him? What if indeed, as the doctors had told us, Carol had been made infertile by the chemo and we never had Lucy?
These are difficult questions for me to answer because they force me to entertain hypothetical situations. I can perhaps imagine what I would have done or thought if my life had taken a different turn, but the truth is, I don’t know. I would hope that my faith would have remained intact, but it is impossible to tell. I’m not so foolish to assume that the suffering that has caused so many others to crumple to the floor would not do the same to me.
There are lots of ways to address the question, and here is one of my thoughts. But let’s not forget that this is a question that has plagued humankind from its very inception, so please, temper your expectations:
This might sound crazy, but I would hesitate in calling my story a “happy ending”, for several reasons. A “happy ending” implies that a situation has come to a neat and tidy conclusion where all loose ends tied, and all questions answered. And yes, I was privileged to see God perform an incredible work of salvation in regards to my children and my wife. But that doesn’t mean that I did not struggle, suffer, and fail in many other parts of my life. The church plant I started was forced to close its doors, which hurt me more than I let on. We lost a child to miscarriage only months before Carol’s diagnosis, an event that was eclipsed by what was to come, but painful nonetheless. Our house and property has been violated time and time again, both during that season and afterwards. And so it’s not as if a “happy ending” in one part of my life necessarily answered the struggles in the other parts of my life. Sure, that victory provides deep encouragement and perspective on those struggles, but does not address them directly. Aside from Christ and the hope of new life in Him, there is hardly a happy ending that can address all the different ways in which we struggle in life.
Also, I would hesitate in calling it an “ending” of any kind. That would imply that that is the end of the story, as in “happily ever after”. I can’t make that claim. There is no “cure” for cancer, and my wife’s cancer may come back. In fact, her particular type of breast cancer has a high rate of recurrence, the thought of which plagues me daily. I still don’t know where I will be working at the start of the year, and whether we will have health insurance in four months. And just because my wife and children were saved in that particular circumstance does not mean that they won’t be threatened again, or that I will never see tragedy in the future. I am only 34, and so I know that it is inevitable that I will.
So rather than calling my experience a “happy ending”, I would instead call it an “amazing glimpse”. That sounds like nothing but semantic gymnastics, so let me explain: You see, through the circumstances of the past year, I caught a glimpse of the miraculous and strange ways in which God works. I was reminded, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that he does work, although in ways that I cannot begin to comprehend. This scarcely means that every sphere of my life is now struggle-free, nor that I and my family will not suffer in the future. But for a moment, I saw God, that he truly exists, how he works, how he loves me, in an undeniable way. And that moment sheds a unique and reassuring light on all of the other circumstances that I face, currently, and in the future. It does not terminate nor ensure me against suffering, but strengthens me as I face it. I will suffer in the future, and I may not get off so easy then. But I know, just know, that God is with me, and as a result, I have hope, both for this life and the next. No, not all of us get “happy endings”. But I would suspect that quite a few of us get “amazing glimpses”, which we are often quick to minimize or ignore altogether.
A good example of this comes from the book of Job. I wrote on this a year ago or so, but I think it’s worth mentioning again:
In the Bible, the focus of a divine debate, Job loses nearly everything in life, and becomes terribly afflicted himself. He mourns his loss and questions why this happened to him, given logical but flawed advice by his friends. But it’s okay! Because by the final chapter of Job, God has shown up and given him TWICE as much as he had before, more camels, more livestock, and more beautiful daughters! (Not kidding) And now, we can make sense of the circumstances of Job’s life more easily, that he suffered so that he could be even more richly blessed. Ah ha! Blessing makes sense of suffering! The moment of resolution in the book of Job seems to come in the final chapter where it says this: “The LORD blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the first.” Good ol’ fashioned happy ending.
But actually, the epilogue of Job is truly not the climactic turning point of the book, the moment at which Job gains insight into his situation. That actually occurs in chapter 38, where after all of Job and his friends’ philosophizing, it says this:
1 Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said:
2 “Who is this that darkens my counsel
with words without knowledge?
3 Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.
4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
6 On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
7 while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?
And so begins a few remarkable chapters of God’s challenge to Job from the center of a whirlwind, where He calls Job to account for his presence in the most profound moments of Creation’s history. And it is after this, in response to this divine revelation of God’s presence and His words, that Job says this in reply:
2 “I know that you can do all things;
no plan of yours can be thwarted.
3 You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
You see, redemption for Job did not come in the epilogue – it comes before then. He did not come to have peace and understanding regarding his situation through success and victory and more camels and beautiful daughters, but when he is faced with the identity and presence of God – or in other words, through an “amazing glimpse”. He found peace when he met God, not when he got his stuff back and more besides. True redemption is not circumstantial, nor is it material – it is divine, and personal. Our redemption is not in our circumstance,but in Christ.
But we are so deeply rooted in the American way of life, where happy endings are mandatory, where loose ends are tied, the good guy gets the girl, and everyone is better off than where they started. It HAS to be that way, otherwise something is just not right, and we do not feel settled, our faith in God shaken. But we must have forgotten our church history. There is no “happy ending” for Paul, or Peter, or James, or Stephen. The final chapter of their earthly life does not read, “But they all became rich and famous and married and lived long and healthy lives – praise God!” No, their final chapter reads thusly, that one was beheaded, the next crucified upside down, the third thrown from a building by a mob, and the last stoned to death.
But as hard as it is to believe, they had already had their happy ending. They had already discovered peace, redemption, resolution, purpose, and hope. They had already discovered these things years ago, not in circumstance, but in Christ. They did not need their life to continue on an upwards trajectory, because in faith, they knew they were on an eternal one instead. Think of Simeon, who triumphantly prays to God, “Now I can die in peace because my eyes have beheld your salvation.” What exactly did Simeon see Jesus do?…nothing! His brief but amazing glimpse of Jesus was enough to give Simeon peace and closure to his long life of faithfulness. And how desperately I, and I suspect so many of us, need to reclaim this same dynamic in our lives. We need to divorce our joy and peace from the ups and downs of our circumstances, the hectic EKG of success and failure, and plug them instead into the constant character of God.
Does this mean that I do not believe in hope, that better days are ahead? No, I do believe in both of those ideas very strongly, especially in an eternal sense. But my hope for the future is not really based on my certainty that circumstances will improve, as it is the fact that God will be with me and my family, no matter the circumstances. I realized this during one of the more sober moments of the past few weeks, where Carol and I were sitting together, pondering the decisions we would have to make, the uncertainty that was before us. We sat quietly, a little overwhelmed by it all. But we looked at each other, and the pictures of our children, and I said, “You know, we’ll be fine no matter where we go, as long as we’re together.” And we both knew that was true. And so it is with God – our faith is not in the consistent improvement of our circumstances, but in the faithful presence of God in all circumstances.