Where is God when life is hard?
He’s in your local grocery store, at register twelve, standing in line with you as you cry into a shopping cart on a rainy day in October.
Let me back up a bit.
I love talking to people about Jesus. I mean, I won’t corner someone and force them to have a conversation or anything, but I do love a good, long talk about all things eternal. I especially love the honest kind of conversations, when people lay out their doubts and frustrations; when they have the guts to ask hard questions. Most of the people in my life know this about me, and every so often someone will come to me looking for such a conversation. I’ll drop everything to have a conversation like this – except my coffee. (Because for real, I maintain a constant death-grip on my coffee.)
Here’s the most common theme of these drop-everything conversations; this is the thing I’m asked most often: If God is real, if he cares, if he’s even there at all, then why did He let <insert hard thing here> happen? How can I trust a God like that? If I can’t count on God to keep me and the people I love safe, what’s even the point? Why would I ever want to put my trust in the Son when I can’t begin to trust the Father?
Today I figured I’d quickly answer this question in a blog post. Should be easy enough.
Except… it’s not easy – and I can’t quickly answer a question like this. I so can’t. There are things we won’t ever fully understand this side of Heaven. I’m certain though, there’s someone right now who is wrestling with this question. I’m certain there are a lot of someones who are. And while I can’t provide a quick and easy answer to put your soul at complete peace with the fallen world we live in, I can take you grocery shopping with me. So let’s go there, because I have something to show you.
On the morning of Friday, October 2nd, 2015, I went grocery shopping with my two small kids (ages three and nine months at the time) in the pouring rain. You may find it strange that I remember this shopping trip so specifically, but there are some things in life you can’t forget. I can’t forget this particular trip because it was the morning my mom, who was afflicted with pancreatic cancer, was admitted to the hospital. Things were declining very quickly. So much so that I’d been told if I hopped in the car right then and drove as fast as I could for four hours, it would likely be too late to say goodbye.
So I went grocery shopping. You may also find it strange that I went grocery shopping under the circumstances, and if so, perhaps you’re right. Even right now as I think about it, I’m questioning the decision. The thing about having a three-year-old and a nine-month-old, though, is they don’t stop eating because Mommy is sad. We didn’t have enough food in the house to make it through another day – and I mean that literally, because we’d just moved. I had a house full of boxes, a pantry full of dust bunnies, a heart full of grief – and two kids who just wanted some macaroni and cheese regardless of the circumstances. If memory serves me correctly, there was also a hurricane coming in that weekend. Perhaps this played into my decision not to make a long drive with the kids and to run to a nearby grocery store instead.
In any case, I went. Upon entering the store, I snapped this picture of my daughter in her rain gear, making good on a promise to my mom that I’d take a happy photo every day of her battle. Even if today was her last.
As pictures often do, this one portrays things far differently than they actually were. By all accounts this is a photo of an adorable, cheerful little girl who is making the best of a rainy day. How could her mama not be on the other side of the camera beaming?
Of course, on this particular day, this little girl’s mama was not beaming. This little girl’s mama was just hoping people would mistake her tears for rain. Because, like I said, it was pouring.
I made my way through the store, trying my best to stop crying – and failing miserably. At various points throughout the store I passed a certain woman, and each time we passed one another I could feel her eyes on me. I didn’t look directly at her, because everyone knows crying in the grocery store only counts if you make eye contact with someone. And I was not going to do that.
In the checkout line, I loaded items from my shopping cart onto the conveyor belt and accidentally let a fat tear escape from my eye. The tear fell onto a box of cereal and made exactly the pathetic splat sound you’re imagining.
The woman was hovering nearby and at that point she could no longer contain herself. She approached me and positioned herself in such a way that forced me to look up at her. I don’t quite remember how she introduced herself, but I do remember her telling me she had pushed her own young kids through the grocery store with those same tears in her eyes many times before. She told me her kids were older now, in school at the moment, but she would never forget how hard those little years were. “You’re doing a good job,” she said. “And you’re going to be okay. It gets easier.”
She thought I was crying because I was having a hard day with the kids, I realized.
Oh, how I wished I was crying over spilt milk and sleeplessness and one too many tantrums. (Let me just stop and say, if you’re a mom, there’s a good chance you’ve cried over such things in the grocery store. There’s no shame in that. We’ve all been there.)
Of course, I wasn’t crying over tantrums and sleeplessness, but I didn’t intend to tell her so. I intended to muster up a smile and say, “Thank you.”
But a strange thing happened. I opened my mouth to say “thank you” and said something else entirely.
“My mom is dying,” I said. “Right now. She’s in the hospital dying. For all I know she’s already gone.”
Several people glanced in my direction, and then quickly averted their eyes.
“My mom is dying and I’m…” I waved my hands over the heap of groceries on the belt and sobbed, unable to finish the sentence and unable to stop the tears. I was making a bit of a scene now. I was full-on losing it. It was uncomfortable, for me, and for everyone in the vicinity.
For everyone, that is, except this woman. She nodded as if she already knew all about my situation, and was just waiting for me to admit it. Then she took another step closer, and lowered her voice. “My mother died, too, when I was about your age. My kids were little, just like yours are. I still needed her so much. I thought it was very unfair.”
We looked at each other for what seemed like a long time. Then we said our goodbyes and she pushed her cart to another checkout line.
The cashier was ringing me up a moment or two later when I heard something like a commotion. I looked toward the sound and saw the woman abandoning her own groceries on the belt. She just left them there and made a beeline in my direction. She pushed her way through the crowded line to get to me, and began shoving my groceries into bags.
“I’m helping you,” she said.
“You don’t have to-”
“I’m helping you,” she said, sternly this time.
She packed my bags and loaded them into my cart. “Thank you,” I said.
“I’m not done.” She put raincoats on my kids, buttoning top buttons and lifting hoods over their tiny heads while I stood there in shock, hiccuping and sniffling. Then she said, “Come on. Let’s go.”
I didn’t move. I was too stunned to take a single step. “Go where?” I asked.
“To your car,” she said. “I’m helping you. We’re doing this together.”
“You really don’t have-”
“I’m not leaving you alone,” she said. “I’m going all the way with you. Come on.”
We left the shelter of the store and stepped into the cold rain. The drops came down harder and faster than before, bouncing off the pavement. We arrived at my car and she lifted my daughter into her car seat. (I need to pause and emphasize that I usually don’t let complete strangers this close to my kids, especially not in parking lots. This was a very bizarre circumstance.)
I was buckling up my son when a truck pulled behind my car and screeched to a stop. A man jumped out of the truck. I checked to make sure my kids and my purse were still accounted for – because this was the part where I got mugged and/or abducted, right?
No, it wasn’t. Without saying a word, the man opened my hatchback and loaded my groceries into the car. In the pouring rain.
To this day, I have no idea who the man was. It occurred to me months later, as I was reflecting on the situation, that perhaps he was the woman’s husband, but then again, I didn’t see him in the store with her. Who knows. Whoever he was – wherever he came from – he certainly deserves a mention in this story, because it shows how over-the-top these strangers were in helping me.
I don’t remember saying goodbye to either of them. I don’t remember thanking them. But I do remember sitting in my car for a while after they left and letting the windshield fog up in the rain as I cried my eyes out.
Here’s the truth: when I knew I was going to lose my mom, I was very afraid about what it would look like to live “less loved”. There’s just no one on the planet who can love you quite like your mother, and my mom was an especially good one. So, faced with the prospect of losing her, I was certain that I wouldn’t be loved anymore. Not like I used to be, anyway. Not perfectly. Not unconditionally. When I pictured a future without my mom, I pictured myself having to strive every second of every day to be lovable. Because otherwise, I pictured myself being left alone.
This was the moment, sitting in my car in the rain of the impending hurricane, when I realized my theology had been very misplaced. I realized I didn’t have a fraction of an understanding of how much God loved me. Which is funny, because I spent so much time telling other people how much God loved them. But I’d never really believed it for myself, because I never had to depend on it before.
I realized I’d never rested in God’s love before because I’d been substituting my mom’s love for God’s. A mother’s love is a really good thing, don’t get me wrong, but even a very good thing is a very poor substitute for God Himself.
So I had to come to grips with, then and there, the fact that God loved me more widely and deeply than I could comprehend. He loved me so much that he orchestrated this crazy encounter with this woman who had been through the very thing I was walking through. Maybe she could sense God’s hand in it too, or maybe she couldn’t. But he brought her to the store at the exact same time as me, and He nudged her heart again and again as she saw me throughout the store until she finally gave in and approached me. Let me tell you, there was nothing about me that was approachable on this particular day.
And then, He gave her the words to say – the exact words – to speak His Truth loudly into my soul. Because He loved me enough to meet me in the middle of my mess and get right up in my face and tell me something. I sat there, replaying her words in my mind, and here is what I heard.
“I’m helping you.”
…I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand (Isaiah 41:10)
“I’m not done.”
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future,” (Jeremiah 29:11)
“We’re doing this together.”
…Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9)
“I’m not leaving you alone.”
…For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.” (Hebrews 13:5)
“I’m going all the way with you.”
“…And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
Loud and clear, I heard from God in the parking lot that day. I sat in my car crying for so long afterward because I was still sad, yes – I want to emphasize that this encounter didn’t suddenly take away the sadness of the situation. Some things we have to walk through are incredibly hard, and it’s just flat out okay to be sad and to grieve. But another big reason I sat in my car crying was because I was sorry. I was sorry for not ever really leaning into God’s love before this moment, and I knew I was just scratching the surface of it. I knew I’d spend the rest of my life with my eyes open to how God was pouring down his love for me – His wonderful, Never Giving up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love, as the Jesus storybook Bible I read to my kids puts it.
I promise most of my other grocery shopping trips are very boring. Really. But now that we’ve gone on this not-so-boring trip together, I want to point out a few things before we go home and put the groceries away, so to speak. Here they are:
No one is immune to heartache, loss, sin, sickness, or death.
Deciding to put your trust in Jesus is in no way a ticket to living a life free from troubles, trials, and pain. There’s nothing in the Bible, not one word, promising you won’t have problems. In fact, there are all kinds of words promising you will have problems. For instance: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) Sometimes, when people ask me this “Where is God when things are hard” question, I get the sense they’re longing for a life that is free of pain. I get it. I long for that, too. The Bible says God has written eternity on our hearts – deep down we all sense that things in this fallen world are very wrong, and we long for them to be made right. Forever. There is a sense in all of us that there must be something more. As C.S. Lewis puts it, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” The promises of the Bible don’t fall apart when life gets hard. Quite the opposite, that’s exactly when they start to come together. Hope doesn’t end with death; it begins there.
God can bring purpose out of the ashes of our pain.
When life got hard for me, I can testify God was still intricately orchestrating the most ordinary moments of my day in incredible ways – in many more ways, probably, than I even know about. This trip to the grocery store I shared was one very small example. I can also testify that the Lord has brought purpose out of my pain. In this present fallen world, full of sin and sickness and death, God can take the worst possible circumstances – the things that don’t make any sense at all – and redeem them into something eternally purposeful. (More on that some other time.) He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. (2 Corinthians 1:4)
Hearing God depends on knowing what He says.
If I didn’t know what was in the Bible, I never would’ve heard anything that day in the store beyond the literal words the woman said. I wouldn’t have recognized the Truth God was speaking to me between the lines of her words. If we long to hear God, we must first find out what’s in His Word. This doesn’t mean you have to become a Bible scholar overnight. And you don’t have to be “all in” to start taking a look at what the Bible says. But you may be surprised at how much and how quickly you start to hear from God by reading even the smallest bit of His Word. For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires. (Hebrews 4:12)
I’ve shared a lot with you today, and I want to finish out this week with a final bookend to explain a little more about why I’ve shared it. Tomorrow, God willing, I will.
But first, I want to mention my mom held in there that day, and a couple days later the hurricane passed through. I got to drive down and spend two weeks with her before she left this world. During those two weeks I had the privilege of caring for her, and we got to laugh together and cry together and even bicker a little bit, which was strangely comforting. You can bet, too, that my mom – who was a phenomenal cook – spent considerable time dictating detailed plans for her final dinner party. And when she did go Home to be with the Lord, I once again ended up in the grocery store, following her instructions to buy petite croissants and sweet Gherkin pickles, among other things.
And while I certainly could’ve cried into my shopping cart once again, I found myself doing something else instead. I found myself resting in the peace of God’s wonderful, Never Giving up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love for me.
And lastly, I want to get right up in your face like the lady in the store did for me, and I want to tell you God loves you that way, too – with a wonderful, Never Giving up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love. You don’t have to strive to be lovable. You don’t have to be perfect or have it all together. Whether you know it or not, you’re already loved more than you could even begin to comprehend. May you rest in that today.
And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. (Ephesians 3:18)