“I knew I could trust God to heal me,” Eltonza said. “I didn’t know I could trust Him to walk with me through this.” Eltonza, a soft-spoken woman of strength with a powerhouse name, was one in the circle of women around the table at the Wednesday morning Bible Study. She had been diagnosed with some frightening health problems and was coming to terms with the recommended treatments and repercussions. Her home church was a place where God’s glory was, at times, revealed in an honest-to-goodness, on-the-spot healing. Unlike the other young regulars at the Bible Church where we met weekly, she had no problem believing God could just do that because He is, after all, God. But in the absence of the swift healing she had sought, she recognized her need to know a God who could come alongside her, sustain her, undergird her through long and troubling difficulties.
The rest of us could not so readily confess faith in a God of such miracles, at least outside the biblical record. Rather than having a potent view of how God could mightily deliver us from pain or danger, we were more likely to adhere to the religious notion that if pain or distress came, we must endure as best we could, maybe “suffering in silence” as well as in solitude.
We had cut our spiritual teeth on Romans 8:28. Even so, “all things work for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose” was more comfortably interpreted as “only good things will come to those who love God,” keeping serious harm at arm’s length for God’s chosen ones. Or even as, “If it’s happening to those who love God, it must be good,” a more tortured rendering requiring psychological gymnastics to hold both faith and experience in tension in the face of unexplainable grief or loss.
What could it mean for us, still in the early years of our adult faith, if we had to admit that the same hard things that happen to other people could happen to us? And that God could use even those heartbreaking things to work for our good, even if the “things” themselves were anything but? How might God walk with us through the perplexing, painful, difficult, or even devastating realities of our earthly life?
I’ve carried Eltonza’s comment with me for decades, further into family and community life, from the American South to the American Midwest and back, and to points abroad, feeling it resurface time and again as need arises. And the needs have been deep and many and persistent. It’s been handed down to us that “in the fullness of time, God sent His Son” (Galatians 4:4); “His name shall be called Immanuel, which means ‘God with us’ ” (Matthew 1:23). What comes to mind in such times is that “God with us,” manifested in Christ Himself, very often makes His presence known through the companionship of His people.
We lost our oldest child, our daughter Anna, suddenly in April 2008 at the age of 27; our other three daughters and three sons lost their beloved sister. Two months later, a longtime, long-distance friend of my husband was visiting us. As we sat together on our screened porch after dinner, he confided that he had been so shocked when he first received the news of Anna’s death in an accident halfway around the world that he almost didn’t respond at all. What immobilized him initially was the unimaginable thought of such harm coming to his own oldest daughter.
But he had gathered himself up and sent an eloquent letter to us, accompanied by one of the most beautifully specific gifts we have ever received – a gift rich with profound meaning. We were so moved at the time; even now, this powerful symbol and the thin stuff of words never fails to bring comfort and provide a window into that greater life. “What if,” I mused with him that evening, “you had kept silent? What part of us might not have mended, or been carried even for that day?” I know that my husband and I have survived the pressing weight of this profound grief in large part because of the grace of God conveyed through those who have gracefully moved toward us and chosen to sit alongside us.
How much grace do we withhold when we hold back? How much more might this suffering soul, this wounded Body, this broken world be healed if we who belong to Christ would simply move toward instead of holding back, or even retreating, in the face of anguish? How often do we respond not in any sort of “fullness of time,” but only at our convenience, restrained by our measured degree of comfort, if at all? Sometimes I wish He didn’t trust us so much. Sometimes I wish He didn’t entrust us with so much.
When we make ourselves available in companionship to the human family we are in proximity with, we walk alongside the same ones Jesus came in holy love and sacrifice to redeem. We participate in the healing of lives in this beautiful, bent, brilliant, broken vale.
Three months ago, another one of my daughters was in a severe accident in the city where she lives and works. Until last week, I was there with her too, offering care and managing life logistics as best I could while she endured long surgery and the first steps of a slow recovery. She spent five weeks communicating with notebooks and gestures. When she regained her voice, we spent some of our unhurried conversations on the concept of freedom. It is not, we realized, the touted non-attachment of modern life, the laxity to remain uncommitted (which is, after all, another form of fear, is it not?). It includes, rather, the ability to move toward the complicated, the suffering, the painful. Freedom is undaunted by the mundane, unglamorous, and commonplace tasks. It enables us to share in the fellowship of suffering with those in our spheres.
This Advent, as we turn again – individually and corporately – to watch and wait for, to worship and adore, the Lord who both has come and will come again, will we believe that he can deliver us from all that threatens our groundedness in Him? Can we become capable of trusting that He will walk with us in the hardest of times? Will we participate in His presence with someone who suffers when it is not easy, or publicly acknowledged, or personally rewarding, or mercifully brief?
“When I stand face to face with Jesus Christ,” Oswald Chambers has written, “and he says to me – ‘Believest thou this?’ I find faith is as natural as breathing, and I am staggered that I was so stupid as not to trust Him before.”
I want to stand right there, too, face to face, with Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, finding faith – in His miracles as well as His abiding presence – as natural as breathing. I want to be next to my sisters and brothers who have, by His grace, borne me up in the hardest of times in this damaged, earthly life. There is room there before Him for all.
Mary Woodiwiss is the mother of seven, mother-in-law of one, and grandmother of one Foreign Service granddaughter who lives too far away for her to sufficiently squeeze on. She has been married to her husband, Ashley, for 34 years. She currently serves on her parish church staff as Coordinator of Christian Formation. On almost any day in a still-too-busy life, she’d rather be gardening.