When I began listening to praise music five years ago, my most powerful reactions were to two types of songs: those that express gratitude for the cross, and those that describe the patient suffering of a parent confronted with the loss of a child.
There is no experience in life that more powerfully contradicts the premise of a loving God than to watch an innocent child succumb to cancer. The experience of the Amish families that lost five daughters to a gunman in 2006 is far more shocking, but the faithful can rationalize it as the work of an external evil working through fallen humanity. The silent killer that consumes from within is a horrifically intimate violation.
The pain of that struggle is captured powerfully by Mark Schultz in “He’s My Son”. It takes real strength to face this loss without anger.
So why does it happen? Why does God allow this, and so many other bad things, to happen to good people?
The depth of our outrage is sharpened in the West, where so many religious traditions teach us that we have only one life to get it right. I’ve touched on this before in On Dying. When the nature of the soul is revealed, it will be obvious that reincarnation occurs, and that – as our Eastern siblings have been telling us for so long – we have many chances to free ourselves to spend an eternity in the divine embrace.
But even so, why should good people have to suffer?
It might help to back away and look at a case that is not so terrible. I have a friend, a great strong man, that cross-dresses. He has married and had children, but is overcome with the need to wear women’s clothing. He shared with me one particular experience: he served in the navy on an aircraft carrier. They were at port, and on this occasion all men had been called to their quarters in preparation to return to sea. My friend grabbed a dress, changed, and went out on the flight deck. When he was spotted, an all hands was issued. Changing back into his uniform, he participated in an exhaustive search of the vessel for a female stow-away.
When I heard this story, I had an apprehension of a father holding his daughter while their ocean liner sank. He had promised to keep her safe, and had failed her. She was afraid to go out into the world again, and so was journeying with him in this life to overcome her fear. That was, in part, why he had joined the Navy.
When I listen to Mark’s song, I have similar visions. In the child is a spirit that has never received love, and suffered terribly in a past life as an adult. They need some strength to face that journey again, some reason to hope. So they come into the world to have some time with parents that love them. They push all their pain into the disease that consumes them, and leave it behind when they die, filled with the love that their parents have poured into them.
Yes, it is a heart-breaking work for parents to perform, but so beautiful and full of purpose.
The story of the Amish children has a similar sense to it. The girls were trapped in the schoolroom with a deeply disturbed man. When he determined to kill them, the eldest girl stepped forward to say (I paraphrase) “I am oldest. Leave these others alone and kill me.” In that moment, she conquered his evil. And during the preparation of the bodies for burial, the elder watched the women at work and counseled “We must not think evil of this man.” In fact, the community gathered resources to sustain his family.
In The Soul Comes First, I interpret the Bible from the perspective that good people are medicine used by God to heal the wound of selfishness. What these experiences have given me to believe is this: bad things happen to good people because their light is needed in the darkness. While Jesus confronted the greatest darkness – the evil of systems of justice that destroy the people that come to bring healing to the world – all good people carry that cross to a greater or lesser degree. We bring light, and the world that suffers in darkness attempts to steal it from us.
So, please, if you can: when confronted with evil, or pain, don’t collapse into resentment against God. Just open your heart wider, and let his love brush back the pain of the world around you. Maybe you won’t change the people that prey upon you, or heal the diseases of those that you love. But you will give hope to others that suffer as you do, and leave them with the strength to do better next time.