Something happened recently that made me wonder for the first time in my life whether God is cruel. Rather than a loving Father, was he actually more like Zeus, that tempestuous Greek god who sometimes entertained himself by hurling lightning bolts toward earth?
Our pastor’s teen-aged son Thomas had been on dialysis and in need of a kidney for some time. Finally, the perfect donor was found, a family friend. We all rejoiced, called it a miracle, an answer to prayer. Our pastor’s wife, Sarah, was enduring her own health crisis. She had just been through chemo and was facing radiation, but thankfully a break in the treatment afforded her the strength to be with their son when he received his new kidney.
The day of surgery was girded by prayer. By mid-afternoon, an email was sent out: All went very well. Both Thomas and donor were doing fine. When Thomas awoke, he whispered to his mother, “I’m so thankful it’s done.” And everywhere, you can be sure, God’s people rejoiced.
Early the next morning, the second message came. Thomas had undergone emergency surgery. The kidney had somehow developed blood clots and couldn’t be saved. The transplant had failed.
I stared at the flashing cursor on the screen, feeling stunned. And that’s when the thought came to me that maybe God is cruel. Had this been some sort of joke, a Zeus-like lightning bolt aimed at good people who had trusted him?
I was angry. I was scared. In that moment, and for the next few hours, I doubted the very foundation of my life. And I did something I hardly ever do: I cried.
Once upon a time, a ship got caught up in a deadly storm at sea. The storm lasted not just for a night, or for several days, but for two full weeks. Wind and rain pounded the ship so violently and relentlessly that finally, as one man later wrote, “All hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.”
That man was Luke, the author of the book of Acts. He was traveling with the Apostle Paul, who was a prisoner being taken to Rome. Finally, the ship ran aground near the island of Malta, and while the ship was lost, all the men survived. They were welcomed by the inhabitants of the island. A fire was built for them, and they were fed.
And then some wonderful things began to happen. Paul prayed over a sick man, a man of some prominence on Malta, and he became well. When the news spread, others who were sick came to Paul, and he prayed for them, and they too were healed. The islanders marveled as they witnessed the power of God. In turn, for three months, they generously provided for all of the needs of the shipwrecked crew (see Acts 27 & 28).
Once upon a time, a raging tempest left a ship’s crew devoid of all hope. But in spite of what they felt and how it looked, there was hope. Paul and Luke and the others were brought by that very storm to a place they never expected to be, a place of healing, and rejoicing, and hospitality and camaraderie. A place where good things happened.
A basic tenet of Christianity, a message every evangelical Christian has heard: God works all things together for good—all the storms, the shipwrecks, the trials and tragedies, the failed kidneys.
Something else to consider as well: Sometimes while he is working all things together for good, God cries.
Certainly he did when he was here on earth. You see, when I was angry about the failed surgery, I ranted at God, telling him he has no idea what it’s like to live in this world, to face the daily struggles, the heartache, the loss. But he stopped me with the words: Yes, I do. Don’t you know that by now?
Jesus, God in the flesh, experienced everything we experience. While on earth, he was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. He knew temptation, hunger, disappointment, loss. When one of his closest friends died, Jesus wept—even while he was walking toward the grave to raise Lazarus back to life. Even though he knew the ending, he still suffered the grief.
Even though he knows the ending to each of our stories, I believe he grieves with us today in all our sorrows, because we belong to him and he loves us.
When the surgery failed, our pastor wrote: “God is no less faithful today than he was yesterday. God is no less loving today than he was yesterday. Our faith is unshaken even if our understanding is reeling.”
God’s goodness is unlimited. It’s our understanding of his goodness that’s limited. We simply can’t always know what he is doing, what island the storm is taking us to for our own sake and for the sake of others. But God knows.
Just as Jesus told Peter, “You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand” (John 13:7).
Until we do understand, we trust. And we believe in and hold on to God’s love, because it’s the one thing that sustains us through all our trials, and brings us to the good places we are meant to be.