On Suffering, sovereignty, AIDS orphans, anxiety, giving thanks and all that

Instead, I think sovereignty is the promise that it will all be healed in the end. Sovereignty means that all will be held.

I still remember reading Ann Voskamp’s book Ten Thousand Gifts for the first time in college. I fell into her poetic style and devoured it. Her practice of finding God and finding gratitude in every day as a way to battle back her anxiety came at a time when I was making war with my own anxiety, and wondering how to get through each day. There is so much good in that book. But there was an underlying idea that the whole book rests on that didn’t rest easy with me. It was this idea in the air-tight sovereignty of God; that a child getting run over by a tractor is just as much God’s will as sunshine slanting off a wet wheelbarrow, and while we begin by giving thanks in all things, we grow to give thanks for all things, because God works them for good.

Her book is about contentment. She has anxiety, she’s trying to get away from her impulse to control and run the world, and instead lean in to surrender and trust. I get that. But is it God’s will for Ann’s friend to die of cancer, leaving behind several children? Is it God’s will for famine and earthquakes and drunk driving accidents? Can you just “lean in” to that and accept it? Ann comes to the conclusion—yes. Because for her, the other option is too horrible: that God is not in control, that this world is spinning out in chaos, that these are all random acts of suffering, that we’re at the whim of chance and evil. If God is not in control, then we are lost.

The problem of pain and the sovereignty of God is one I’ve always struggled with (who hasn’t?!) and when I read this book I had the vague notion that if this is the way the whole thing works, maybe I’m just to spiritually immature to handle God’s sovereignty and suffering.Because I didn’t like this perspective one bit.

I remember senior year, hanging behind in my Contemporary Christian belief class to talk to my professor about it. We were probably talking about freewill in class (because, you know, that’s what every philosophical conversation circles back to on Christian college campuses) and I asked him about Ten Thousand Gifts, and the idea that God’s behind cancer and tractor accidents. He said the problem with strict Calvinistic thinking is that people get trapped in their own logic, and can’t embrace paradox. And that God could still be sovereign and also not be behind cancer. That God could be in control and be against suffering just as much as I am.

Later that semester I went to a Christian writing conference and I heard Ann speak. Hearing her speak gave me so much more sympathy for her as a person. Sometimes you read someone’s writing, and you think they’re on a higher spiritual plane than you, and they’ve got it all figured out and are judging you from on-high. (Ahem, Jim Eliott). Seeing her in person made me realize: she’s not kidding when she says she’s literally clinging to these gratitude lists every day to keep her sane. She gives you the feeling she’s at peace and quiet, but only because she is bravely clinging to God as a lifeline.

There was a time for questions, so I asked her something along the lines of:

“If all things, even the bad things, come from God, why pray? Why ask him to change circumstances, and why bother to act and change circumstances ourselves if we’re just meant to sit in them and be thankful? What about the earthquake in Haiti, or children infected with HIV from their parents?”

She said prayer is surrendering our will to God’s, and letting him make us into people who go out and help the broken in the world. That’s true. And she did seem to say we should act to end suffering (heck, she has been the one pushing action on the refugee crisis and other amazing social justice campaigns). But, I still feel like she didn’t answer my question.

Because if we’re taking this thing to it’s logical conclusion, the conclusion where we give thanks for tractor accidents and friends dying of cancer, why not give thanks for HIV, and why do anything to change it? 

And then I went to work with iThemba in South Africa, and the questions just got bigger. When you hear stories of preschool children being raped, of orphans living with negligent grandparents who won’t give them their ARV’s and so they end up dying, of children abandoned in hospitals, of fathers who are alcoholics… I can’t give thanks in this, let alone for this.

And I don’t think God wants me to, either.

One reason why I love reading is because it’ s a way to find community. You know you’re not insane, because someone else as had the same thoughts as you. I’m reading Sarah Bessey’s new book ,Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith, and I got to the chapter called “Obey the Sadness: on lament and grief” and I read these words:

Sovereignty is a promise, not a threat. I no longer think of God’s sovereignty as what theologians call a “blueprint” plan for humanity. I can’t say things like, ‘Well, God ordained you to be poor.” Or, “God ordained for your baby to die.” I know that some people find comfort in believing that God’s sovereignty, his plan for all things, is behind their suffering and grief. It gives meaning to our grief, I get that. But I don’t think it’s true. In fact, I think it’s a crappy thing to say and a crappy thing to believe about God. God’s sovereignty is not an excuse or a reason for the bad things that happen in our lives: God is light and there is no darkness to him. No one will ever convince me that God made my babies die or that God killed our friend with cancer or that a hurricane is an act of God as punishment for sin. Instead, I think sovereignty is the promise that it will all be healed in the end. Sovereignty means that all will be held. That God is at work to bring redemption and reconciliation, that somehow at the end of all things, we don’t escape from the goodness that pursues us, the life we are promised, the love that redeems.”

I’m going to lean in to the paradox that God is in control of everything, and that he is grieved and angry about the suffering in the world. I think God wants us to make war against suffering and darkness and pain and sadness. If he was willing to send his own son to bring about our reconciliation, if he is making war against this darkness, then I don’t have to sit back and accept it.

People, this is quote just a snippet of all the goodness in the book! It will give you SO much to think about, and SO much to be comforted by– but you’ll have to buy the book Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith to read the rest. It comes out in stores on November 3rd, but you can pre-order it on Amazon now.


(And let it be known I love Ann Voskamp still, and get so much from her writing and blog, and it is probably that she’s not even saying things I think she’s saying it’s just all my interpretation etc all that ).

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Our Father

Sizwe shares a laugh with some of his Life Group boys. (He's in a very cold bucket  of water, because it was an object lesson on faith).

Sizwe shares a laugh with some of his Life Group boys. (He’s in a very cold bucket of water, because it was an object lesson on faith).

I just heard this morning that only 37% of children in South Africa live with both their father and mother. This means that over half of South African children are being raised by one parent, or aunties, or grandparents. On the one hand– wow, I am so thankful for all the grandparents and hard-working moms and aunties that are out there looking after South African children! I think we need to do all we can to encourage and support these carers, many of whom are very loving and sacrificial. On the other hand, since stats show in a one parent home children usually stay with their moms, my heart breaks that so many children won’t grow up knowing their fathers like I did.

Even when children know their fathers, it’s not always a positive relationship. In Life Skills classes a few weeks ago, the iThemba staff were teaching children about domestic violence, and many children explained they thought that it was the role of the father to beat his wives and children. Once an iThemba staff member noticed some regular attending children were absent from his Life Group. When he asked the other kids about it, they calmly told him, “Oh, they’re hiding from their alcoholic father who abuses them when he’s drunk, so they didn’t want to come today in case he found them. They’ll be back when it’s not so close to month-end (pay-day).”

I think because I had such a loving, caring father, stories like this are what make me so sad. When I pray the Lord’s Prayer and think of God as my father, I immediately associate him with my own loving, wise, and giving father. When I thought about dating and getting married, I had a pattern in my mind for how a good husband and father should treat women and children, and so I never even considered dating any creeps. I had the self-confidence that comes from knowing I had loving parents, and so I didn’t have a need to go out and prove my self-worth by being sexually active at a young age. By having a loving father I have been privileged compared to the majority of South Africans (especially the children in Sweetwaters).

I had the chance to share at my church’s Missions evening, and I shared a story that my co-worker Sizwe sometimes shares. He had made a visit to a new Life Group that Thulani was running, but the next week he wasn’t there. A child came up to Thulani and asked, “Where is my Father (Baba)?” Thulani didn’t know his father, and so was a little worried that maybe this boy’s father was missing, or maybe he should have remembered something from his home visit earlier in the week. But eventually it came out that the boy was talking about Sizwe, who had visited previously . Usually the term for someone Sizwe’s age would be uncle (malume). If a child was being very respectful, he would have called him “Baba Sizwe” (similar to “Mr. Sizwe”). But the fact he repeatedly referred to him just as Baba showed how desperate he was to have someone in his life he could call Dad. 

I think it’s so cool that there are iThemba staff members like Sizwe, Thulani, Syv, Nathi and others that are walking life’s road with these kids on a daily basis, introducing them to our God the “Father of the Fatherless and defender of widows and orphans”, (Psalm 68:5) and giving them a living, breathing example of what a loving father can be like.

Join me by continuing to pray for these kids, and if you have been blessed by a father, or a “father figure” in your life, go give them a hug today!