LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–My mother would have been 59 back on the first of March, and would have made 59 look like 45. She was a godly, sweet woman, yet she never saw 57 due to her death from colon cancer.
We watched as a family as God gathered her home to Himself. There were countless tears shed as the cancer progressed slowly for six years. There were numerous questions — questions that never got answered — questions that, in many ways, should not and cannot be answered until the coming day of the Lord Christ. Such answers would inevitably extinguish faith, and so we continue to live by faith (Habakkuk 2:4).
In the past two-plus years since her death, there has been much soul-searching that has included occasions of near breakage of personal faith. I am a professor of theology, but theology professors are not impenetrable fortresses of unshakable faith, and no amount of academic training can prepare someone for the pain that is felt when a treasured family member wilts under the weight of such a disease. What textbook can prepare a son to watch his mother essentially starve to death, withering to a mere 82 pounds?
Those who have wrestled through the suffering of a loved one know full well that platitudes are of little comfort in the face of death. The Lord summons His people to study His character and nature as revealed to us in His living word in such circumstances. What is longed for is not the word of man, but the Words of the Lord God. Like Job, we long for Him to speak (Job 38-42).
Yet at the same time it can be difficult for me to flee to Him, given that this was, after all, His plan for her days before there was one of them (Psalm 139). I may delight in His sovereignty, but do I believe in His goodness? Is He truly good? How can goodness delight in suffering? God is good, and all things work together for good to those who love and are called by Him (Romans 8:28). But when what we know doesn’t square with what we see and experience, there is a battle in the dark night of the soul. It brings to mind the honest cry of Mark 9:24, “I believe, help my unbelief.”
In a seminary chapel service a few months ago, Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. made a statement that was tremendously helpful to me as I have been thinking and praying through the issues of God’s goodness vis-à-vis His wisdom. He asserted, “To change it would make it worse.” To change it would make it worse. In other words, to elicit a change or to remove the painful experience, were we able to, would injure God’s purposes in and for suffering. This is “Plan A,” and to alter it in any way would be to make it less “good” and therefore, in the end, less glorious. This is such a sensible statement, and an almost blinding flash of the obvious for those who take delight in the sovereignty of the Lord God.
Such an acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty, in my mind, is essential for an understanding of His goodness. But it is much easier, I would suggest, to acknowledge the Lord’s sovereignty than His goodness and wisdom when faced with suffering. Saying “God is in control” is indeed a great comfort and truth worthy of thoughtful reflection. Yet it is much more difficult to say, “It is good and wise for my mother to die of cancer.” What I mean by this is that for one to assert the Lord’s goodness and wisdom in the midst of such a circumstance is to say, “God is in control, and since His actions are good and wise, her death is good and wise in His sight.” In the end, my own mother’s cancer will be seen to have been a good and wise thing. As God’s child, I must believe that. The Scriptures teach me this. Yet grief and suffering can sometimes make it seem that God is not good, though He is fully good. I cannot merely acknowledge His sovereignty at the cost of His goodness or wisdom; I must also acknowledge His goodness and wisdom in this circumstance, since He is all of these things.
Yet, such is extremely difficult. While I do believe in God’s wisdom, there is gnawing disbelief, particularly on special days such as her birthday. “How can this work for good?” I ask. I do not yet know. Still, in faith I do assert that to change it would indeed make it worse. We exist somewhere between the making and the embracing of that assertion. Theologian John Frame pointedly crystallizes a central point that I personally must reckon with. He writes, “[God] declares His goodness, and He demonstrates it richly. [But] we don’t merely know the bare fact that God is good; we know Him.” Thus, I must seek Him, and at the same time am being upheld and guarded by the very One whose goodness and wisdom I may doubt, yet at the same time, believe.
Barry Joslin is assistant professor of Christian theology at Boyce College of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.