When I think of Leanne Penny, two words come to mind: generous-hearted, and tenacious. Her tenacity comes from walking a path of multiple tragedies, and fighting her way through to a more hopeful destination. She shares of herself and her wisdom with great generosity, and I am privileged to call her my friend. I am so excited that she is kicking off this season of God and Suffering posts – I could not think of a better person to do so.
This past spring, my husband graduated from Seminary after a seven-year, marathon journey of taking classes when we could afford it, both time-wise and financially. He started on campus, and finished up with intensive courses and online.
To celebrate, we made the seven-hour trip down to Kentucky for the commencement ceremonies. As I took my seat after checking our two children into child-care a single, paralyzing thought occurred to me.
I am here alone.
I was surrounded by a gymnasium of people, clustered together to celebrate their graduates. Some had signs and balloons, most chatted happily as they waited for the ceremony to begin and there I was, literally alone in a crowd.
I started to cry, and masked it by flipping through the program, hoping no one would notice the lonely woman bawling.
Let me fill you in on a little of the backstory as to why I found myself alone that afternoon.
Shortly before I met him, my husband’s father died from two, rare types of brain cancer. The beginning of our relationship was steeped in his grief. His birth mother died a week earlier and, although he hadn’t had contact with her for fifteen years, her death was a hard blow as, with it, all hopes of reconciliation were shattered.
A year and a half later, I received a phone call from my Mother: my father had passed away overnight in his office chair after a sudden heart attack at the age of 49.
Five years after that, another phone call: my mother had taken her own life on the train tracks of our hometown.
So that afternoon I sat at seminary graduation alone, feeling the weight of our collective losses. It wasn’t the first time I felt the holes left behind by our parents, but this time it was particularly sharp.
So many people who should have been there beside me…
As the graduates received their diplomas the people who had gathered to honor them stood to cheer. A few names in, a paralyzing thought occurred to me: “I will be the only one who stands and cheers for him; he deserves so much more than just my lonely voice.”
God why did you have to take them all?
It wasn’t the first time I’d asked this question. I’ve asked it on holidays, birthdays, death days and Christmases.
God, why so much suffering and loss for one family, one couple? Don’t my children deserve at least one grandparent? Aren’t you supposed to spread these things out a bit?
Why is both an unhelpful and completely normal response to suffering. Every time Jesus was asked why God allowed suffering he side-stepped it, and gave a better answer that generally centered around God’s redemption of our pain.
Yet this question has threatened my relationship with God above all others: What hand does God have in my suffering, and how do I turn to him in my season of deepest hurt when it seems as though he may be behind it all, or at least could have prevented it?
I cannot deny that God gives and that He takes away but I have no idea how this goes down on His side. I know it has to do with a broken world and the gap between heaven and earth, but I generally cannot make heads or tails of it: some people receive miracles, some attend another funeral. It makes no sense.
I have stopped trying, really trying to answer this question. Don’t get me wrong, I still ask it from time to time but I don’t really seek out an answer.
So, I’ve told you my tough story and I’ve told you that I don’t have answers to your hardest questions.
But what do I know about God’s role in suffering? What would I tell you in the throes of grief and suffering that wouldn’t sound cliché or cause you to throw things and chase me out the door?
I would tell you that God’s story for your life is always bigger than your most painful chapter, or even the one you are in right now. Just because you’ve suffered incredible loss does not mean that your story is over; in fact it probably means that your upcoming chapters will be all the sweeter for the pain.
This does not make you thankful for your loss, but it shapes you into one who breathes the deepest gratitude for life’s great joy. For you know what it is like to wear sackcloth and ashes.
“There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the sun, a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant a time to uproot.” Ecclesiastes 3:1-2
In this life we are not guaranteed comfort, stability or security. I’m sorry, I agree it would be easier if we were, if following Christ and walking this earth came with better guarantees. Instead, we are promised seasons of birth and death, giving and losing. This is the story of humanity, and into your life these seasons will come, and it will hurt unspeakable. But you can go on, I promise. You will find yourself a new, scarred, beautifully broken person, but you will go on.
You will be sustained in ways you never knew possible and you will go on to sustain others in ways that you never knew you had in you.
I would also tell you that God is passionately obsessed with turning your pain into beauty, redeeming your worst moments for his glory. Again, I have no idea why he allows pain or stays miracles but I truly believe that he wastes none of it.
And yes, I have often wished he could have done his redemptive storytelling elsewhere, but I always land somewhere that looks like a resigned sigh.
“Okay God, it’s your story to tell. Please keep my seeking your truth and fighting bitterness and cynicism, for I’m beginning to believe that they are the enemies of redemption.”
Leanne Penny is a mother, writer, wife and wavering hope ambassador who is passionate about partnering with God on the business of redemption. She lives with her husband and two, almost three, children in West Michigan and loves yarn, wine, the big lake and staying up too late watching British Telly. Leanne blogs at leannepenny.com
“God’s story for your life is always bigger than your most painful chapter” – @leannepenny’s God and Suffering Story
How do I turn to God in my season of deepest hurt when it seems as though he may be behind it all? – @leannepenny
God, why so much suffering and loss for one family? – @leannepenny asks the hard questions (God & Suffering Story):
God is passionately obsessed with turning your pain into beauty – @leannepenny’s God and Suffering Story:
Over to you:
- What’s been your relationship with the ‘why’ question?