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The paradox of the beautiful mess

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I hear “I don’t know how you do it” a lot. It’s said with a tone of admiration, but the underlying message is: “I’m glad I don’t have your life.” No one chooses pain.

Last fall, church health staff person Dave Jackson took Canadian MB conference staff through a reflection exercise: draw a “symbol timeline” of our major ups and downs from birth to present – happy pictures above the line, painful ones below − and then share them with another team member.

Here are a few of my highs and lows: marriage, miscarriage, seminary, layoffs, motherhood, my children’s Asperger’s diagnoses, launching my writing career, losing my grandparents.

My partner’s feedback was “So much has been out of your control.”

Sovereign through design or presence

That’s why I’ve become a fan of the sovereignty of God. When I was in college, the concept of “God’s plan” was stifling. Now that life has hit me with gusts of the unexpected, I find comfort in the idea that all the messy details of my life fit snugly into the big picture of God’s glory. Unlike many Christians who attribute the seeming randomness of pain to fallen angels, systems, and human free will in a fallen world, I resonate with a God who’s in charge of the details, because I know that I am not.

I’m intrigued by the fact that some who face hard times swing further toward the conviction that God had nothing to do with it. For them, the suggestion God intervenes to steer some careening cars and not others smacks of divine favouritism. “God is present in this,” they affirm, “but he sure didn’t send it.”

It’s funny, but I find no comfort in thinking God didn’t choose my children’s disabilities. Asperger’s is so intertwined with their personalities, it begs the question: who did God plan to send our family? And while I’d never tell a grieving mother God took her child, wondering if my miscarriage was just a fluke of nature brings up heartbreaking what-ifs and if-onlys; accepting that the short life inside me fulfilled a meaningful, inscrutable divine purpose and lived every day in the Master’s book (Psalm 139:16) gives me peace. If God weren’t intentionally and interventionally bringing glory through the unique struggles and triumphs of myself and all three of my children, then where could I look for a redeeming purpose to my pain?

Gifts of joy and pain

The paradox of suffering is that we don’t want it, but without it we’d miss out on these invaluable gifts. After my miscarriage, God gave me a picture of his arms around me and a sparrow above me, superimposing over that painful moment of “unanswered” prayer a new memory of his care for little sparrows that fall (Matthew 10:29). Despite my pregnant pleadings with God for “easy children,” being a mother of children with Asperger’s has gifted me with empathy for other parents (2 Corinthians 1:3–5), a fearlessness toward the future, a testimony of God’s presence, and precocious kids I wouldn’t trade with anyone.

Jesus begged God to “take the cup” of suffering from him, but I’m so glad he didn’t. As Mike Mason writes in Champagne for the Soul, joy is like our bodies: “tidy on one side – the outer – and messy on the other. The happiest thought in the world is the shed blood of Christ.” Our faith is rooted in the paradox of beautiful mess.

It’s interesting how our emotions, particularly grief, can shape our theology so profoundly, and yet take us in such different directions. It has implications for how we choose words of comfort. And it has implications for how we discuss theology – with sensitivity. Consider, any debate on sovereignty may mask a cry for a lost child, parent, dream. May my words fall softly.

Two things I know for sure: no matter which side we emphasize – the human choice or the divine – we all need to hold both in tension. Both are evident in Scripture (take Pharaoh’s hard heart: Exodus 7:3, 8:15, 11:9) and our experience. And second, as long as we keep talking to him and to each other in our pain, the glory and the comfort will flow, whether we call him “present” or “in control.”

He is.

Angeline Schellenberg, Copy Editor

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