Not Happy Endings, but Amazing Glimpses

August 22, 2013  31 Comments

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.

peter

Posts

Husband and Father of 4. Pastor of Peace Fellowship Church in Washington D.C. Aspiring Writer, Former Musician

31 responses to Not Happy Endings, but Amazing Glimpses

  1. You have put into words exactly what I believe and am living right now. My husband lost his job of 21 years and the possibility of another job at 60 years old is completely in God’s hands…and our daily hope and peace comes from our walk with Christ….whether or not he finds a job. Thank you. I plan to read this blog many times over the next few weeks to keep me focused on the Truth.

    • my prayers are with you and your husband paula, that you would discover the God is truly the provider, Jehovah Jireh. and in the meantime, while you wait, may the many glimpses of God that you have seen throughout your life give you strength to persevere!

  2. Great follow-up. Thanks for these thoughts and the encouragement.

  3. Amen! This makes me really miss your messages! My friend from Texas read your article in Christianity Today and asked if you were my former pastor, your writing is reaching out to alot of people!

  4. As I said in a previous reply, your writing is compelling for the reader. I usually read a few sentences or paragraphs of a blog, article, or book and somehow ADD kicks in and I say to myself, I’ll read the rest later. This time I read the blog straight through. Two things I concur with in your post. As I read Job, he did reach his pinnacle of peace with God after God spoke from the whirlwind. (By the way I’m still waiting for someone to give a commentary on what that whirlwind represents). Job was settled even before the “collateral blessings and healings” of replinishment by God occurred in the end. The bible doesn’t address this, but because Job’s first family and property were not restored (i.e. brought back to life or returned from raiders, or miraculously phyisically restored, we don’t know whether Job still grieved at times for his initial loss. We can reason that he was finally at peace until the day he died, and experienced joy with his new family. Job had a new way of looking at himself that expanded his understanding of who God is. A paradigm shift I believe some call it. That can carry many of us a long way. The other is we are not in control of our destiny as so many false gospels convey. I frankly use to sit in church sometimes and be amused at testimonies of people thankful for finding their lost bird, cat, or dog, or praises for a $5.00 rebate or refund from the local drugstore, or exalting God for helping them find their way when they were lost temporarily going to a concert. I don’t condescend their praise loke I once did and becasue of my own suffering, I think I more understand that their “simple prayers of thanks for simple things” was more pleasing to God than my tendency to give Him praise only when the “big things” work out. Job had realized that God is sovereign and each day we can get up out of bed or breathe God’s air is a reason for thanks and praise. We live in a world of expectation of happy endings. We are programmed to think we deserve all our blessings. Our literature, movies, and books almost universally provide for this happy ending expectation. My hope and prayer though is God will by His grace allow less suffering in your life if it results in God being glorified by the gifts and blessings He’s given you. Sometime we observers need “a” happy ending for “some trials” or at least an understanding that a person who has suffered, like Paul, is still grateful though it all, to encourage us. i see this in your blog. Praise God.

    • thanks william – there is much wisdom in what you wrote. “happy endings” aren’t evil, and perhaps are derived in some way from the promises that we are given by God. but they are not an “ending”, but food for a journey, water on the road. perhaps that’s where we get this most wrong…

  5. This is one of the best thesis on suffering I’ve ever read. It resonates with me as my husband is suffering from terminal cancer and will die any day when God calls. However, we do have peace beyond understanding. He even plans his memorial service! This is the truth, like you said, “our faith is not in the consistent improvement of our circumstances, but in the faithful presence of God in all circumstances.” I grieve, but not hopeless, knowing that His way is higher than mine, and that He loves me more than I love myself. That’s why I trust Him, and He grants me grace that is enough, and strength that’s made perfect in weakness.

    • oh irene, my heart breaks and rejoices with you. what a tremendously difficult season that you guys are in…but may you find that faith was made for just such a moment. praying for comfort, love, and a peace that surpasses anything that this world can offer.

  6. Thank you for your blogs and articles. Your writing is like a light on a hill, relevant, fresh and full of profound truths. I ponder the things you write, chewing on them for days sometimes weeks which is growing my faith. Your ability to be completely honest and relevant to how life is lived shows God’s divine hand. Watching you wait on the Lord and seeing your faith refined in the furnace is incredibly inspiring. Like the prophets of old may this generation hear your voice. thank you again

  7. vivian robertson August 22, 2013 at 6:23 pm

    Thank you so much for writing this article. It really helped and encouraged me greatly.

  8. Yes indeed, thank you! My favorite part is your discussion of Job’s redemption.

  9. Thanks for your writing! I was inspired by “Daddy, Why Do People Steal from Us?”

    Something to consider: I believe God doesn’t want to merely comfort us through our circumstances; He wants to lift us up to Him above our circumstances, to experience perfect peace, and yes, even joy, while the chaos of the world rages beneath us. We need spiritual eyes to see that God is much more real than what we can see with our eyes or touch with our hands.

    • thanks david – amen, he provides comfort AND eternal perspective, joy and peace that make no sense to those around us…thanks for the reminder!

  10. Peter, thank you for putting things into perspective especially with the tide of health, wealth prosperity gospel. The day you write a book and get it published, I’ll be sure to buy it. Love you bro…keep shining for Jesus.

  11. Thank you for speaking out of your loss to others experiencing loss. The CT article was powerful, and a friend to whom I sent just sent this blog article to me! I have been traveling this road of discovering what, in truth, God has promised us. My husband, a businessman, and I have been involved in urban ministry for years, even starting a now successful inner city Christian school. We have two children, now in their early 40′s, who have given us 9 beautiful grandchildren. When our kids were 18 and 16, after much leading of the Holy Spirit, we adopted a precious biracial baby boy, Z, and two years later, a beautiful biracial baby girl, J. The fruit of our labors and the unsought praise from others hailed us as truly blessed of God. Our family had harmony and fun and basked in the graciousness of our loving God.

    When our adopted son hit adolescence, things began to change, and he eventually defied every authority in his life and became a felon at age 19. In spite of his giftedness in every area–sports, music, academics–he gravitated instead to drugs, crime and eventually, homosexuality. During this time we and his older siblings, siblings-in-law younger sister kept close relationships with him, even while we agonized and longed for him to be free. And all of us felt assured by God that he would be delivered. But in Dec of 2009, 3 days before Christmas, although he was excelling in premed studies, he died of an accidental drug overdose at the age of 22. We were all devastated. What about all those scripture promises we had claimed? What about him being delivered? At his funeral, all the family stood and raised our hands to God as we sang “Amazing Grace/ My Chains Are Gone”, and we reluctantly believed it.

    Four months after Z’s death, as we found ourselves in the depths of the profound grief over the death of a child, Z’s younger sister J, now 20 and a sophomore in college, who had her struggles with adoption issues but was generally happy and well adjusted and had always found her security in the Lord, got drunk with friends and was involved in an awful accident where everyone could have been killed. But three girls were badly injured, and she was charged with a felony DUI. Since that time she has become very bitter and belligerent, going back and forth from her walk with God to rage, extreme sexual immorality, and most painful, extreme bitterness toward my husband and myself.

    Over the past almost 4 years, I have learned the lessons you write about. As the song “Held” by Natalie Grant says, who told us we’d be rescued? It continues:

    This is what it means to be held
    How it feels, when the sacred is torn from your life
    And you survive

    This is what it is to be loved and to know
    That the promise was that when everything fell
    Wed be held

    If hope if born of suffering
    If this is only the beginning
    Can we not wait for one hour
    Watching for our Savior

    Today, J has graduated from college with excellent grades. She is beginning to soften toward us, but she is far from healed. No happy ending. Yet.

    Some of our friends, many of whom prayed and fasted with us for Z over the years, as well as some family, have not been able to accept that we are not “over it”. They have “lovingly” urged us to move on, expressing concern that we are not “back to normal” yet. And as you have no doubt learned, they cannot understand and we wouldn’t want them to have to go through what we have in order to do so! But it makes the journey lonelier.

    There is no understanding a God whose “way is past finding out.” He has carried us, but often we weren’t able to sense his presence because of our pain. We have learned things we never even wanted to learn. But as we have mourned, we have seen that he truly is not a big teddy bear in the sky. C.S. Lewis was very accurate in describing him as a lion who is “not safe, but he is good.” Thank you so much for a beautifully clear observation on suffering. I pray it is a blessing to as many as it has been to me.

    • Linda, I think it would be foolish and coarse for me to say I understand what you have been through. I have perhaps seen similar things, intense suffering with glimpses of grace, but nothing to the extent that you describe. My heart breaks for you and your family, and my prayers are with you, especially J, that she might one day comprehend the love you have for her, and also glimpse the Father’s heart at the same time. Blessings, dear sister in Christ.

  12. I thought I was blessed by the Christianity Today story about your family (my first intro to y’all) but this one has done it one mo’ ‘gain. Thanks for pointing out that Job was redeemed prior to the material blessings God bestowed on him, as I have always hated on the idea of a man being placated by a replacement family after losing everything. You have no idea how much your story, and now blog, keep touching me, even making me repent about some ugliness in my heart. It also encouraged me to keep blogging to connect with others, though it takes time and effort after long days with the kiddos. Your kids are so dang beautiful so I wouldn’t be mad the Lawd if He surprised you with one mo’ (but maybe you not tryna say “amen” on that one? even two are keeping me on my toes). God bless you and your family!

    • jihee, i don’t know you hardly at all, but i’ll say this: YOU. CRACK. ME. UP.

      • THANKS, but this is me tryna keep it more formal for the comments section on a pastor’s blog, dag! do you happen to know my friend Pastor Dave Choi, based outta Chicago but speaks all over the world? small world esp. among ko-am christians who got nothin’ but love for Black culture. he and i share the same humor and compete about who has more street cred (me).

  13. Peter– I really like the way you think. Little things like people knowing they can trust you in using your hose. It says allot to me about you. As a reader of Kenneth Bailey (Through Peasant Eyes) I’ve come to learn about some Biblical issues. In his book he spends allot of time with the parables of Luke and the style of writing in Hebrew poetry. With the chi style of writing the climax of Hebrew writing being not at the end of the piece but in the middle. In the western form we are used to the climax at the end. It’s a poetical form but also in narrative form. I was at one time very frustrated by Elijah’s weakness after defeating the prophets of Baal and then running when Jezebel wanted him dead. The beginning of the Elijah story is very much like the end and the major point is found in the middle. Job is the same; everything being restored at the end. This is so interesting to me so I look for this structures when reading, I think this may be a form that fits our lives more accurately than our western form. We are born, can’t walk, need to be fed, lives our lives out, grow older, need to be fed, walking begins to fail etc. If you haven’t read Bailey, give him a go. Through Peasant Eyes, Jesus Through Mediterranean and Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes. Bailey lived most of his life in the the culture of the Bible and his quest is to show us what Jesus was saying to those of his culture and the difficulty in interpreting from a western view. I’m praying for your next few months and there is anything we can do, let us in. Bob

    • yes, an excellent point – narratives are very different in western culture, which are very focused on endings. job is a good example of that “chi” structure, or even the life of Jesus. seeing the world through that lens allows us to give more room for process and allows us to think less linearly, being more open minded to the seemingly random ways of God. thanks bob!

  14. I have saved your devotion and i will read it often. So true in every sense. May God bless you and give you the desires of your heart. May Jesus complete the healing of your beautiful wife in HIS time. Would love to met you someday. Keep up the writings. Such a blessing to read them.

    • thank you – if you are ever in DC, i preach at a church called peace fellowship church. we’d love to have you!

  15. Hi hi indeed its an amazing glimpse. I read a few times and keep it for my devotion I worked hard all my life try to reach for the goal of “happy ending”… Fifty over years facing a financial crisis and in the brink of closing down my company…. things just happens beyond explanation. Seen his Grace and Mercy through out my life and tried every ways to please and honor him. But this set back gives me a doubt in all that i do at this moment of age and time…. Some friend quotes parable in Job:” surely you are sinful “……
    But I thank you for the encouraging letters and insight you share with us. May the Lord reveal his wonderful works in you and your family.
    Shalom

  16. Hello. Thank you for your wonderful article in CT. I passed it onto my friend who’s friend has just been diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. We also have just found out she is also pregnant. She has just had surgery and they will wait till the second trimester for chemo. The article has really encouraged her husband and also all those that r supporting them. The timing could not have been more perfect. God bless u and yr family.

Leave a Reply