In the shadow of thy wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by.
No, I don’t mean “I prayed fer The Lord ta spare mah family/life/house/pets/car and bah gum He did! Not a branch scratcht a so much as a winder!”
That’s not what I’m talking about. Because, you know, these folks prayed too:
Did they not say the proper words in the proper order to the proper God in the proper way, and thus their prayers did not save them from the mighty wrath of a vengeful Lord?
It doesn’t work that way. The “God answers all prayers, but sometimes the answer is no” line that gets trotted out is a facile evasion. God doesn’t answer all prayers. He’s not a heavenly Santa with a kid on his lap who, instead of saying, “Ho ho ho-no, Timmy, you can’t have a pony! Where would you keep it?” says “Ho ho ho-no, Timmy, I can’t cure your mother of cancer! I need her here to keep the angels company!”
That’s not it at all. Prayer isn’t a wish list. It’s a turning to God. It’s a reconfiguration of ourselves in the light of God’s love and omnipotence. Certainly, we request things in our intentions and petitions. We request them not because he needs to know what we want, for “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” We request them so that we can know what we want, and that, in knowing, we realize all we have is dependent upon God.
Go ahead and assume that God knows you don’t want your house flattened by a hurricane or your children killed by a falling tree. Every person who lost a home or a loved one during Hurricane Sandy prayed for mercy and protection. When those didn’t come, they asked God to give them back their child and take them instead. They prayed that it was a dream and they’d wake up and things would be the way they were, but it never is. We don’t store up good deeds and prayers and then cash them in, like Green Stamps, for an intention. I wish you could, but you can’t. God doesn’t owe us. He already gave us all creation and our lives, transitory and volatile as that creation may be, and brief as those lives certainly are.
If my house had been destroyed or my child harmed would I be cursing God right now for ignoring my prayers? I hope not, but no one knows until they find themselves there. I’ve seen enough people dignified and faithful in the face of utter ruin and soul crushing tragedy to know that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, some of us hold fast to God and find a kind of peace in tragedy. Why that grace, so good and powerful, is not granted to all is a cruel mystery I’ll ponder till my dying day.
But this I do know: suffering can bring growth, and wisdom does not come without pain. In Edith Hamilton’s famous mistranslation of the Agamemnon by Aeschylus, we read that “He who learns must suffer / Drop, drop– in our sleep, upon the heart / sorrow falls, memory’s pain, / and to us, though against our very will, / even in our own despite, / comes wisdom, / by the awful grace of God.”
You can pick up an infant and not be able to tell if she’ll be pretty or homely, a success or failure, married or spinster, happy or sad, blessed or cursed. But one thing you can know for sure: she will die. Hopefully later, possibly sooner, but it comes for all of us, as does pain, and sorrow, and suffering. “God had one son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering,” writes St. Augustine. We take the good as our due, and the bad as some horrible glitch in the plan, yet as Job wisely asked, “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?”
I’ve written before about a passage in Luke 13 that haunts me, about the people killed when the tower fell at Siloam. Random violence, unexpected death, sudden tragedy. None of it’s new. But what does Jesus tell us about it? He tells us there is the death that takes life, and this comes for us all. This death is not a judgment and is not to be feared. The cross shows us as much. Worse is the death that claims the soul. Tragedy has a tendency to turn our eyes back toward the Lord. Pain is God’s way of getting our attention. And as St. Augustine writes, it is not without meaning:
Wherefore, though good and bad men suffer alike, we must not suppose that there is no difference between the men themselves, because there is no difference in what they both suffer. For even in the likeness of the sufferings, there remains an unlikeness in the sufferers; and though exposed to the same anguish, virtue and vice are not the same thing. For as the same fire causes gold to glow brightly, and chaff to smoke; and under the same flail the straw is beaten small, while the grain is cleansed; and as the lees are not mixed with the oil, though squeezed out of the vat by the same pressure, so the same violence of affliction proves, purges, clarifies the good, but damns, ruins, exterminates the wicked. And thus it is that in the same affliction the wicked detest God and blaspheme, while the good pray and praise. So material a difference does it make, not what ills are suffered, but what kind of man suffers them. For, stirred up with the same movement, mud exhales a horrible stench, and ointment emits a fragrant odor. (City of God, I.8)
Watch the news and see the people rising to help one another. See the self-sacrifice. See the people huddled a little closer and remembering what really matters. Know that sometimes God allows us to suffer in order to draw our gaze back to Him, and that sometimes a whole nation is allowed to witness devastation and suffering to remind us that what holds us together in fellowship is far more important than what divides us in ideology.
Some ignorant people are saying that the storm was God’s judgment on this or that, but those people aren’t Christians. The Bible tells us that God was not in the storm. He wasn’t in the earthquake. He wasn’t in the fire.
He was in the silence that ensued. And sometimes we need to pass through the storm, and the earthquake, and the fire–and, yes, death itself–in order to reach the silence where the still small voice can speak to us.
And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.