It took me by surprise. Pictures don’t usually talk. But, this one, nestled in my Christmas tree, mocked me. Situated next to some of my treasured ornaments, among the uber-creative Christmas photo-cards of loved ones, this particularly gorgeous picture caught my eye. One beaming dad, one smiling pregnant mom, three beautiful biological children, and two precious foster children. They seemed to have it all. The picture taunted me: “If God was really in charge of your family all along, Sarah, then why doesn’t it look more like this family does?” I wouldn’t say that I am prone to compare myself to others or to engage in fits of jealousy, but in this case the accuser astonished me with his ability to perfectly time his attack, thereby exploiting my weakened state of mind. When I was off my guard, he got me good.
Only an hour before, I had been freely promoting my blog on Facebook. God had made it clear to me that He was calling me to a ministry of encouragement, so in obedient faith, I was boldly asking people to look at what I have written. Bryan and I had already made the decision to cope with our pain by standing on God’s promises, being honest, and proclaiming Christ’s redemptive power to everyone. Nevertheless, all of the sudden fear gripped me. Some of the material is very personal and potentially damaging to our family, particularly my husband. In this moment, I was thinking I must be the most unloving wife in the world. I must just want to destroy Bryan. I mean, he could lose his job… What could happen to my kids? What kind of maniac am I?
I sensed the photograph on the tree even more hotly pursuing me. In a 4x6 glossy, it screamed, “This is what victory looks like.” I thought about what it was going to take for our family to have victory over our losses, and I was overwhelmed with the prospect. The picture goaded, “Your dream for a family this happy is dead. Nobody gets victory over stuff this devastating.” A victorious, abundant life is what we want more than anything! We know it is what God wants. But, achieving that complete kind of victory--not just the “I survived it” kind--is going to require amazing humility and trust on our part. And, in that moment, I didn’t feel up to the task. I looked at the picture of my sweet friend’s family. I had read their Christmas letter only days earlier and had rejoiced over what God was doing in their lives. I knew that their reality wasn’t all champagne and roses. We had been neighbors, and I had watched as God grew their family and along with it a desire to live an extraordinary life devoted to His purposes. Their letter had inspired me. But, now, I was feeling green. Plain and simple.
“WHY?” I cried out to God. “I have been sold out to you since I was fifteen years old! I did everything in my power to choose wisely so that I could have a family like that! Why have you allowed this pain?” (Ugh. The pride in that sentiment makes me shudder as I recount it. But, I’m trying to be honest.) As I questioned God, all of the pain washed over me afresh like a raging torrent destined to wipe me off the face of the earth. It just might take me out, I thought. I wondered, “How am I supposed to deal with my disappointment and still trust you, God?”
In order to be disappointed, you first have to fall from your original ideal. And our beginning was as idealistic as they come. I met Bryan through a Christian fraternity at UT while playing on an intramural softball team. Friends told me he was interested in me. I didn’t know him, but I sure thought he was cute! One night, following a sorority meeting, I saw him outside the University Christian Church on campus wearing his tuxedo (he had just come from a choir concert). I watched that handsome boy (he was only 19) scan the crowd. Beautiful, sweet girls clamored for his attention. But, he looked over all of them in order to catch my eye. I was finished! We dated for three years as we completed college, and because his parents lived in Germany at the time, Bryan proposed to me in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France…four days before Christmas. It was a dream fit for a princess! As a wedding gift, my aunt made a scrapbook telling the story of our relationship and engagement. It was fairy-tale themed—castles, magic wands, everything. Everyone around us agreed that we were “meant to be.”
One of our first dates found us sitting on a picnic table in the courtyard of my apartment complex, chatting until sunrise about all of our dreams. As dawn broke and the paper boy threw out the day’s edition of the Austin-American Statesman, I asked Bryan, “What is the one thing you most hope to do someday?” I expected this young man to have some adventurous goal like climbing a mountain or traveling somewhere exotic. But, his honest answer? “I really want to be a dad.” I melted. I know, I know. You think that was a sure-fire come-on line meant to lure me into his clutches! But, coming from my tender Bryan it was pure. Straight from the heart.
After we married, we spent the first couple of years getting to know some families of the men Bryan worked with at Dell. One couple had a baby, and the other was pregnant. We had a ball babysitting, throwing showers, and dreaming about our own family all the while. When Caroline came along, we felt immense joy. She was our life. I think we invited 75 people to her first birthday party. It was admittedly obnoxious, but I didn’t know it at the time. All we were thinking was that she was pretty amazing. We got pregnant with Mary Claire when Caroline was only ten months old. It was a shock to us, but we plodded on, excited about how God was building our family. At her birth, the doctor said, “It’s a girl!” And, simultaneously, Bryan and I said through joyful tears, “A sister for Caroline!” Exactly ten months later, I went for a “girl’s night out” to see the movie “The Notebook”. I came home entranced in a romantic whirlwind…and, then there was Audrey. (Caution: Watching this movie may cause pregnancy!) Our quiver was full. Three years, three girls. We were busy. And, mostly happy, if unprepared to face the tremendous challenges of providing for a family and parenting three young children. We had a lot of learning to do. But, it seemed as if we were living our dream.
Then the bottom fell out, piece by piece. Depression, cancer, death, sin, betrayal, disillusionment. The pain and loss we encountered did NOT fit into my fairy tale. How had my lovely dream so quickly derailed and exploded into a fiery mess? “How am I supposed to deal with my disappointment and still trust you, God?”
The answer to that question is a long one, but I have found a solid foundation for my conclusions in the book of Job. I don’t know if you’re aware, but Satan asked for the chance to mess with Job, and God allowed him. I still don’t know why, but that one fact has caused me to challenge some of my notions of who God is. Anyhow, as Job faced the devastation—he lost everything including children, possessions, and his health—he certainly questioned God. And, many people around Job (so-called “friends”) tried to come up with explanations about why this must have happened to him. Job never abandoned God or cursed Him, but he wrestled with his concept of who God is and why He would allow or cause such misery. God is the most interesting character in this narrative, in my opinion. As a loving father, he listens patiently to all of the speculation for a while (nearly 40 chapters of it), but eventually He tires of it. Then, He draws a line in the sand for Job. His diatribe is much longer and harsher than my synopsis, but it goes basically like this: Listen, Job, I made you! I made everything! I know what I’m doing! Now, are you going to trust me or not?
It is notable that for a long time, God is patient with the process Job has to go through to get to the bottom of his pain. God has been at least that patient with me. I believe that it is natural and normal to have to wrestle through things if we are to get to a genuine and lasting faith that sets the course for the rest of our lives—not just a nominal one based on rules and on our own pre-conceived idea of what life is supposed to be like. So many passages in the Bible show us that it is ok to ask questions and that doubt is not the opposite of faith.
Trying too soon to bring someone to the conclusion that God’s sovereignty is enough of an explanation for their pain can cause more harm than good. I remember an older couple in my parents’ church greeting me soon after Audrey’s death. They were compassionate toward me, but their response was rather oversimplified for a grieving mom, “You know, the Lord knows best, honey.” It crushed me. How could the death of my daughter be part of the Lord knowing best?! But, they were not wrong, in principle. Their timing just stunk. The cool thing about God is that His timing is impeccable. He knows when we need His quiet tender mercy, and He knows when it is time to hear His loud declaration that He is God!
So, while God was tender with Job for a long time, when Job was ready for it, God was no-nonsense with him. I think of the conversation I had with my girls at the dinner table a couple of nights ago. I had been so patient with their little complaints about food…for a long time. I had tried to accommodate their individual tastes, and I had even tried to accommodate Caroline’s newfound aversion to meat and all other animal bi-products. After a while, though, this little dance we had at the table had become tiresome. If I had to monitor the number of bites they ate one more time, I think I would have lost my marbles. It was time for a declaration: I am the mother, and I am TIRED of all of this nonsense. After all, I plan the meals, I buy the food, I bring it home, and I prepare it. I know what is healthy. You don’t. End of story. Eat my food. Like it. Use your good manners at the table. Or, leave the table and don’t plan to eat until the next meal!
Wide-eyed, the kids knew I meant business. I didn’t have to remind them I loved them. They already knew that. What they needed was a quick reminder of who was in charge. The next night, Caroline choked down her chicken gratefully. “It’s just food,” she murmured to herself, all the while giving me the obligatory, “Mom, this is a yummy dinner.” No more bite-counting. It was heavenly.
Just like I had to remind my children who was in charge, God told Job, “You don’t know the half of what I know, so just shut up and trust me!” This is not really what I need to hear coming from my fellow travelers on this planet (or what they want to hear from me), but somehow it is more palatable coming from the God of the universe. I was not able to accept this truth when I first faced my disappointment and pain, but three years later, I can choose to respond like Job did. “Whoa. I’m sorry God. I had forgotten how HOLY you are. I’m sorry. Help me to trust you.”
Sure, my fairy tale life looked pretty good on paper. But, it was a fallacy to think my life was ever MINE in the first place. And, what made me think if I was the author of my own story I would be able to craft it better than God could? In fact, my own ideal, good as it seems, if I don’t surrender it, will most certainly hold me back from all the better things God has planned for my future. One of my friends, who is facing marital struggles, has learned the same lesson. In an email to me she wrote, “One of the toughest realizations I had over the weekend was that my idealism was actually a lack of faith. My "high expectations" were actually a ceiling and I was preventing myself from trusting in what God was allowing in my life. God has better plans that exceed my highest expectations or ideals. I'm planning to trust in Him instead of my ideals.” Wow! You go, girl! God’s plan is indeed far richer and grander than anything we could have ever planned for ourselves. God said it to Job, and he has (in his perfect timing) said it to me and my friend, too. “I am holy.”
Want to know the best part? Guess what happened to Job once he bent his knee to God’s holiness: God restored him. The very same God who allowed calamity to come upon Job restored to him more than he ever had in the first place. “And the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before…And the Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning.” Job 42:10b, 12
Now we’re talking! I want my latter days to be blessed more than my beginning! That may not come in the form of material possessions or more children, and it may not look like my original fairy tale, but I know that the God of the Bible is going to bless me beyond my wildest imagination as I trust Him. Either way, I know God is God and I am not. I can’t see what He can see. His purposes include things outside my own happiness. My life is not really about me anyway. God is holy. I will bend my knee.
The morning after the fateful encounter with the Christmas card, I awoke with a song in my heart. I had heard it once the day before, but only in the midst of a bunch of different songs. There was no conscious reason it should be running through my mind. But, I knew it was no accident. They were the words to a new Addison Road song, “What Do I Know of Holy?”:
“I’ve tried to hear from Heaven, but I’ve talked the whole time. I think I made you too small. I never feared you at all…What do I know of you who spoke me into motion? Where have I even stood but the shores along your ocean?...I guess I thought that I had figured you out. I knew all the stories, and I learned to talk about how you were mighty to save. But, those were only empty words on a page. Then I caught a glimpse of who you might be. The slightest hint of you brought me down to my knees…So, what do I know? What do I know of holy?”
It has been a long process getting to this place, but I am in awe of God’s holiness. I’m sure Job was, too. And, I’m wondering, as I’m sure he was, “What do you have in store for me next, Lord?” Instead of mapping it all out as I did in my younger days, I’m keeping my eyes open and my heart open and my soul expectant.
Have you suffered some deep disappointment? As a result, are you unsure if God is trustworthy? I get it. Been there. And, besides, God already knows. So, tell Him. Wrestle with your thoughts in prayer. Let it all hang out. Then, don’t be afraid when you hear God’s voice (when it is time) saying, “I am holy.” When He does, you’ll be ready to receive it. Chances are, when He speaks this way, He is getting ready to restore you beyond your deepest, most heartfelt dreams.
“How am I supposed to deal with my disappointment and still trust you, God?” Recognize Your holiness. Take You at your Word. Wait for You to finish my non-fiction fairy tale as You desire. Knowing the kind of author You are, it just has to end well.