Where is God when things fall apart?
March 26, 1976, was a beautiful Friday morning in Los Angeles. But for Vicky Olivas, it was a grim reminder of happier, brighter mornings before her husband broke his marriage vows and left Vicky alone to care for two-year-old Arturo. Shaken and fearing an uncertain future, Vicky picked up her purse and headed to her car for a job interview. She had to start somewhere.
Vicky had difficulty finding the address the employment agency had given. There were only factories in the general neighborhood. She debated about forgetting it and just going home. But after showing the address to a passerby, she found the building, parked her car, and walked down an alley to the last door on the right.
The door was unlocked. She stepped into a dim front office. She saw dust on the typewriter. The floor was strewn with papers. A damp, closed-in smell filled the place. I hope I don’t get this job, she thought. Peaking around a corner, she called, “Hello… is someone here?” She cautiously made her way down a hallway that opened into a warehouse, where she found two men sitting at a desk.
After a few introductions, the man behind the desk, obviously the boss, leaned back and looked Vicky over. Suddenly she was aware of her peach pantsuit. She felt the weight of her waist-long hair. She blinked her eyes, her lashes false and feathered and heavy. Everything seemed weighted under his stare. They discussed résumés and applications. Vicky was directed back to the front office to fill out more forms. She was relieved to be away from the warehouse and near the front door. I shouldn’t be here… something’s not right, she nervously thought as she filled in her address and social security number. At that point the boss entered the room, closed the door behind him, and clicked the lock. A chill shot up Vicky’s spine, but she dismissed it as nerves. The boss led her to a side hallway in another warehouse. It was then the nightmare began.
The man grabbed Vicky around her chest, throwing her against the wall. She hit a toolchest and stumbled. “I asked them to send somebody just like you,” he hissed, grabbing her blouse and ripping it. Vicky wrestled harder, straining to push him away. Suddenly, a bang. The room and the man spiraled round and round as Vicky slumped to the floor. She was paralyzed. Panicking, the man dragged her into a bathroom, her face rubbing against the cold tiles, which reeked of urine and filth. Something wet, warm, and red trickled down her neck. Dizzy… faint…. Now where is he taking me? Is he going to kill me? Dump my body?, she wondered, half-conscious as he dragged her to a car.
In a crazy turnabout, the man dumped her off at the emergency room of a nearby hospital and then fled. While doctors worked on her, Vicky told the whole story to a policewoman. Nobody believed her until the police went back to the warehouse and found her purse, blood, and a gun in the trash pail. The man was arrested.
The story sounds like a television movie-of-the-week, but it is not fiction. And the ending has an even sadder twist. The attacker, who had three other convictions of attempted rape, was released after three years in jail. Vicky will spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair, completely paralyzed.
Injustice by Design
I first met Vicky at a rehab clinic. When I wheeled up to her, I was deeply moved by the anguish on her face. You can understand. You don’t even have to be paralyzed. She’s sentenced to a wheelchair for life and the criminal goes scot-free. She could have written Psalm 73:3-4, “For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong.”
Maybe you could write the same. And those you envy may not even be arrogant or wicked! You could be a devoted young mother who must watch her two-year-old die slowly of cancer while other parents worry about their children’s scratched knees and bruised elbows. You could be a 39-year-old single woman who has served God faithfully for years and who desires to have a partner; yet it’s your spiritually shallow 25-year-old friend who weds a wonderful, godly man. You could be a hard-working salesman who holds fast to good ethics, but a conniving co-worker cheats his way to the top, receiving praise and promotion.
Life isn’t fair. It’s full of injustice. Inequities hit us from all sides. The odd thing is, God has designed it this way. Ephesians 1:11 says that “in Him (the young mother, the single woman, and the salesman) were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of Him who works out everything (children with cancer, other girls who get all the blessings, and conniving co-workers) in conformity with the purpose of His will.” And when it comes to convicted rapists, “the LORD works out everything for His own ends, even the wicked for a day of disaster” (Prov. 16:4, emphasis added).
Exactly why God has designed it that way has been the subject of theological books throughout the ages, and I’m not about to solve it in this short article. But a hint as to the “whys and wherefores” behind injustices, insults and injuries maybe found in Ephesians 1:12: “in order that we… might be for the praise of His glory.” Cut and dried. Short and simple. It’s all for our good and His glory.
God’s Perspective on It All
“It’s all for our good and His glory? You’ve got to be kidding.” This truth almost added insult to Vicky’s injury. It was like rubbing salt into the open wound on her neck. As she flipped through the pages of her Bible with her mouth-stick, the message was the same. Wherever she looked, Scripture was replete with what sounded like God’s bravado. He’s in charge for our good and His glory, so snap out of it and learn to “rejoice in suffering!”
It’s difficult enough to swallow Ephesians 1:11-12 when you’re hurting, but add injustice or “unfairness” and you really choke.
But wait. Scripture seems to present us with a view of life from the eternal perspective. This perspective separates what is transitory from what is lasting. What is transitory, such as injustice, unfairness, and pain, will not endure. What is lasting, such as the eternal weight of glory accrued from that pain, will remain forever. Everything else, numbing heartache, deep disappointment, and blatant injustice, everything else, no matter how real it seems to us on earth is treated as inconsequential. Hardships are hardly worth noticing.
The Apostle Paul had this perspective when he said, “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:17). And regarding his own experiences with injustice, he added, “I consider them rubbish” (Phil. 3:8). Wait a minute. Did he say, “Troubles, light”? “Inequities, rubbish”?
The Apostle Peter had this perspective, too, when he wrote to Christian friends being flogged and beaten. “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1 Pet. 1:6). Rejoice? When you’re cheated out of a fair trial and thrown to lions? The apostle expected believers to view their problems as lasting… a little while? What sort of wristwatch was he using?
These verses did not, at first, comfort Vicky when she and I began to study the Bible together. In fact, this kind of biblical nonchalance about gut-wrenching suffering used to drive her crazy. She wondered, Lord, I will never walk again. I’ve got a leaky leg-bag… I smell like urine… My back aches. Maybe You see all of this achieving an eternal glory, but all I see is one awful day after the next of life in this stinking wheelchair. It’s not fair, especially since that awful man is out of jail and back on the streets!
Our pain and sense of fairness always scream for our undivided attention, insisting “Forget the future! What’s God going to do to make it right now?” Time does that. It rivets our attention on temporal things. And suffering doesn’t make it any easier. It tightens the screw on the moment, making us anxious to find quick fix-its, escape hatches, or fair and just solutions. That’s what it was like for Vicky as she pitied her plight in her wheelchair. And the fact that her attacker escaped real justice only weighted the scales against God. When she read in Romans 5:3, “rejoice in our sufferings”, her first thought was, Sure, God, I’ll rejoice the day You make things fair! And if You don’t, what’s going on? Are You trying to convince me that I’m in spiritual denial? That my hurt and pain are imaginary? When it came to her affliction being light and momentary, God was obviously using a different dictionary.
The Lord, however, does not use a different lexicon when He picks words like “light and momentary” to define earthly inequities. Even if it means being sawn asunder, torn apart by lions or shot in the neck like Vicky and plopped in a wheelchair for the rest of one’s life. The Spirit-inspired writers of the Bible simply had a different perspective, an end-of-time view. Tim Stafford says, “This is why Scripture can seem at times so blithely and irritatingly out of touch with reality, brushing past huge philosophical problems and personal agony. But that is just how life is when you are looking from the end. Perspective changes everything. What seems so important at the time has no significance at all.”
It’s a matter of perspective. The scales of justice are meant to tip off kilter on earth. Our unsatisfied sense of human fairness is not meant to be balanced. But that’s good; it is to our benefit that we are not satisfied in a world destined for decay. “Therefore we do not lose heart,” 2 Corinthians 4:16 says. “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:17). What could possibly outweigh the pain of permanent paralysis? The pain of a life of singleness? The loss of a child from cancer? “We fix our eyes not on what it seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen it eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18). The greater weight of eternal glory is clear:
One day the scales of justice will not only balance, but they will be weighted heavily, almost beyond comprehension, to our good and God’s glory. It will mean…
Greater glory to God
A new appreciation for the justice of God, not fairness, but justice. The final destruction of death, disease, and devilish men. The vindication of God’s holy Name. The restoration of all things under Christ.
This means an eternal weight of glory for the young mother who holds fast to God’s grace as she watches her two-year-old die of cancer. It means a richer reward for the single woman who perseveres patiently. It means a more exalted eternal estate for the salesman who holds fast to ethics. And these things outweigh thousands of afternoons of not feeling or moving for Vicky and me. Mind you, I’m not saying that cancer or singleness or my paralysis or Vicky’s plight are light in and of themselves. Paralysis, disappointment in marriage, or cancer only become light in contrast to the far greater weight on the other side of the scale. And although I wouldn’t normally call almost 20 years in a wheelchair “momentary,” it is when you realize that Vicky, you, and I are only “a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (Jas. 4:14).
Looking at Life from the End
Scripture is constantly trying to get us to look at life this way. Our life is but a blip on the eternal screen. Pain will be erased by a greater understanding; it will be eclipsed by a glorious result. Something so superb, so grandiose is going to happen at the world’s finale, that it will suffice for every hurt, atone for every heartache, and make right every injustice. It also helps to know that the state of suffering we are in here is necessary to reach the state we want (more accurately, God wants!) in heaven.
This is why Jesus spent so much energy emphasizing the end-time perspective. The Lord had come from heaven and He knew how wonderful it was. Thus, He was always focusing on end results, the harvest of the crop, the fruit from the tree, the close of the day’s labor, the profit from the investment, the house that stands the storm. He knew if we were to rejoice in our suffering, our absorption with the here-and-now would have to be subdued. How else could He say to those who mourn, “You are blessed”? How else could He tell the persecuted to be happy? How else could He remind His followers facing torment and death to “count it all joy”?
Nothing more radically altered the way Vicky looked at her suffering than leap-frogging to this end-of-time vantage-point. In fact, she began to wonder how other people could possibly face quadriplegia, cancer, or even death in the family without such a perspective. It meant no more wallowing away hours, scorning Romans 8:28 and muttering, “How can it say all things work together into a pattern for good in my life!” God’s pattern for her earthly good may have smelled like urine and felt painful, but she knew the end result in heaven would exude a fragrant and glorious aroma: Christ in her, the hope of glory.
It’s all a matter of time. God makes all things beautiful in His time (Eccles. 3:11). Many won’t see the beauty until the end of time. But time will solve the dilemma of Romans 8:28, as well as all the other problems of evil, injustice, suffering and pain.
All’s just in the end
Whenever I have a tough day and need to be reminded of such things, I give my friend Vicky Olivas a call. She is the one who now often counsels me, reminding me, “Joni, fairness isn’t the issue… God’s justice is. One day He’ll make it all plain. In the meantime, we trust Him. And we pray… just like I pray for that man who attacked me.”
She’s right. One day her true-grit faith will turn up the wattage on God’s glory. Her perseverance in paralysis will pay off in eternal dividends. And unless he comes to Christ, her attacker will be crushed like a grape under the wrath of God. Hopefully, though, that man will find healing under the power of the prayers of his victim. Philip Yancey touches on the irony:
It took the most unfair act in history, the execution of Jesus the Christ, to satisfy divine justice in a world full of injustice. That event made it possible for the least deserving of all people (a convicted thief dangling on a cross), for example, to gain an eternity of undeserved happiness.
Justice will have its day in the end. Justice will either doom a rapist dead in his transgressions or release that rapist alive in the righteousness of Christ. If Vicky has her way, it will be the latter rather than the former. She understands that the value of a soul, anyone’s soul, far outweighs the inconvenience of an immobile body. She also poignantly understands that she, paralysis and all, is no better than a convicted thief on a cross or a criminal released to the streets. By all that’s “fair,” she knows she should be on her way to hell; and there was nothing “just” about Christ paying the penalty for her sins. The whole drama in which she has wheeled on stage is called “mercy.” And should her attacker find Christ, God’s mercy will be magnified.
Amazing. This is what an end-of-time vantage-point does to a heart bent on trusting God. Even I, with earthly eyes, can see that the glory that will one day result from Vicky’s life will be blinding and brilliant. And I was reminded of this last April when I received a note of encouragement from my friend.
I’m being prepared to touch the wonderful scarred hands of our Lord. To know that I’m sharing with Christ in suffering is really uplifting and comforting. I can truly say that my “wheelchair” is a gift from God and that earth can never meet my deepest longings, only Christ can. I want to throw off all that hinders my path to heaven. When I meet Jesus face to face, I want to have as much tangible proof as I can to show Him that I love Him and have been faithful. Our journey has been a difficult one, and for as long as the Lord has us here on this earth, it will continue to be hard. But what an honor to suffer for Him.
Your sister in Christ, Vicky
Joni Eareckson Tada