When questions you thought you had settled long ago rise again to the surface, it is easy to side with the sceptic in questioning the very goodness of God.
The questions flowed freely, as though a massive reservoir of bitterness and sorrow had burst open. “How do we know that we can trust the Bible? How can we be sure things won’t just happen as they always do, whether we pray or not? How do we know God is listening? How can we be sure He’s even there?” As Ravi has often reminded us, behind every question is a questioner. It was no exception in this case. There was a questioner behind these questions, two, in fact: both of my young boys.
As painful as it is to admit it, it is sometimes possible to cast rash responses at questions like these when standing before hundreds of anonymous people in an open forum. But it’s a different story when you are personally and deeply immersed in the circumstances within which the questions have been fomented.
This time, the questions were occasioned by the news that a dear friend, Anastasia Artuch, had lost her battle against cancer. Our boys had prayed for her every chance they got, with every meal, for about one year. She was the first person they knew fairly well and loved dearly who had died. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look of resignation on their faces and the painful words one of them uttered when the news reached us: “I can see how people become atheists.” Then followed a torrent of questions for the next few days. What complicated the whole situation was the fact that the questions were not merely intellectual. I had to keep in mind that they were driven by emotional factors and they could therefore not be fully resolved through carefully thought out responses. We had to live through them.
Perhaps a little background will help put all this in a better context. As any international student will tell you, the excitement of being in a new country, miles away from home, can be rather short-lived. Reality begins to set in when, a few months into your new life, you realize that you cannot see your family and friends at will and that you have no choice but to adjust to the new environment. (As an aside, I may note that it is no small matter to minister to international students. Many of them go back to their countries to become prominent leaders, and some never get to visit an American home or hear the gospel while they are here in the US.) Such was my experience as a college freshman, until a fellow student invited me to his home in Pennsylvania. He came from a very loving family, he said, and they would love to have me over for Christmas.
That’s how I met the Artuches. From the first day I set foot in their home, Anastasia welcomed me with open arms. It is impossible to do justice here to someone who literally treated me like her son for so long. Welcoming me to her home and waiting for me at the train station many times during my college days, she and her husband represented my parents during my wedding in New Jersey, prayed with me for many hours in her living room, hosted other international students again and again at her home when I mentioned to her that many didn’t have places to go during the holidays, sent books and resources to pastors in Africa to support our teaching ministry there, and much more. Needless to say, her love and generosity were also not lost on my family, hence our commitment to pray for her so fervently during her illness.
The faith of a child
One of the best-known descriptions of a believer’s walk with God is the phrase “childlike faith.” It is exalted by some as the ideal recognition of the all-sufficiency of God and derided by others as a sure impediment to critical thinking. Apart from the fact that the phrase is not to be found in the pages of the Scriptures,1 it is a serious mistake to underestimate the ability of a child to grapple with tough experiences and ideas. Whatever the phrase means, it cannot mean blind trust, for children certainly ask some of the most profound questions anyone can ask about life. I am convinced that a good number of people are drawn to apologetics as the direct result of difficult questions innocently and disarmingly raised by a child they love.
An example from the life of C.S. Lewis might help illustrate this point. When Lewis was nine years old, his mother was diagnosed with cancer. Lewis prayed again and again that God would heal her. He had heard that prayers offered in faith would be answered. As he writes in Surprised by Joy, he hoped to produce by sheer willpower the results he desired. Even after his mother died, Lewis still continued to believe that she would miraculously rise from the dead. When it finally dawned on him that his prayers would not be answered as he had hoped, “all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable”2 vanished from his life, and it was to be many years before he would again embrace and defend his faith in God.
At that very moment when you are numbed by the pain, when you find yourself vacillating between moments of grief and disbelief, when questions you thought you had settled long ago rise again to the surface, it is easy to side with the skeptic in questioning the very goodness of God. Yet eventually we must confront this paradox: the deeper the pain and the more intensely we resist it, the greater the affirmation that it ought not to be! And if it is true that it ought not to be, then it is also true that there is a locus of perfect goodness that every human being longs to find. I know of no explanation to this undeniable fact of our experience that even comes close to the biblical answer. We are personal beings made in the image of a personal God. We care because He cares—for He is perfect goodness.
Thus I am unable to side fully with the skeptic. The pain itself points to a reality beyond our current experience, and to deny that is to trivialize human life itself. For if it is not true that the pain and suffering ought not to be, then it makes no sense to resist them, for whatever is just is. But the good news is that our God is no stranger to the experience of pain and suffering. He who saved others did not save himself (Mark 15:31), and he who hung on the cross anticipated the moment when those who hated him would shout at him, “Physician, heal yourself!” (Luke 4:23).
We shall never see death
Jesus endured the pain and bore the brunt of our sin so that death would be forever defeated. That is why those who, like Anastasia, are surrendered to God’s will are able to inspire and encourage others even in the midst of their own struggles, right up to the very gate of death. Early on in my walk with Christ, another dear friend lay dying on a hospital bed. Moments before he took his last breath, he turned to those standing around him and said, “It is so beautiful, can you see it?” I couldn’t help but think of the astonishing claim of our Saviour that those who keep his word “will never see death” (John 8:51). Jesus backed it up with his own resurrection from the dead, and he continues to confirm it to his followers.
But between our earthly life and the resurrection life stands the veil of death that casts a foreboding shadow over those who are left behind. We don’t grieve like those without hope, but we do grieve. The emptiness gnaws at our hearts, reminding us that in this world we have no permanent home. And so I can’t pretend to answer all the questions that my boys are asking, for in the end, the answer will not be the conclusion of an airtight syllogistic argument. It will be a person: Christ himself, bearing the marks of crucifixion on his welcoming hands. It is to him that we cling, for he understands and he comforts.
Anastasia had asked that I speak at her funeral, which was held on December 1, 2011. When I was leaving for Pennsylvania, one of our boys did something he has never done before. He has always been a giver, and from the time he was a toddler, he always made sure his brother also received whatever was given to him. But on that morning, he picked up a Ziploc bag, put a few pastries in it, placed it on my carry-on bag, and informed me that he wanted to make sure I had something to eat along the way. That was his way of letting me know that he understood the magnitude of the task before me.
In addition to the questions, tough experiences have a way of bringing into clear focus the things that really matter in life. To focus on those things is our calling and privilege, and my hope is that we will continually learn to say with Joseph Gilmore,
And when my task on earth is done,
When by Thy grace the vict’ry’s won,
E’en death’s cold wave I will not flee,
Since God through Jordan leadeth me.3
- While Jesus speaks of receiving the kingdom of God as children, he does not use the phrase “childlike faith” or even “faith” in his description (see e.g., Matthew 18:4 and 19:14; Mark 10:15; Luke 18:16-17).
- C.S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1955), 21.
- From the hymn He Leadeth Me by Joseph Gilmore, 1862.