Book review: ‘Lord Willing?’
People who have experienced devastating loss, like the death of a child or a terminal diagnosis, are familiar with the Christian clichés offered with loving intent but that do little to assuage their suffering: “This is all part of God’s plan.” “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” “God must be trying to teach us something.”
Jessica Kelley writes that these attempts to comfort should make us uncomfortable, as they suggest an image of a God who is impetuous, unjust, judgmental: characteristics that do not capture God’s essential being, which is love.
As someone acutely acquainted with suffering — her 4-year-old son succumbed to an aggressive and painful brain tumor — Kelley has had to wrestle with the dominant Christian understanding of God’s role in human suffering. Her fabulous, heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful book, Lord Willing?, invites readers to wrestle with this image as well.
Kelley narrates the life and death of her son, Henry, whose fairly normal childhood was disrupted by an ultimately fatal brain tumor in 2012. She movingly writes about the first awful moments after Henry’s initial hospitalization, taking readers day by day through their family’s painful journey toward a terminal diagnosis. She lets us see just how quickly her child’s life turned from health to rapidly spreading disease.
Yet Kelley lets us know, through wonderful description, that Henry’s fatal tumor was not the sum of his life and that he was a beautiful, cheerful, active boy with an infectious laugh. “I lived for that laugh,” Kelley writes. “When Henry laughed, every cell in his body participated. . . . Waves of joy would emanate from his delighted body and flood the atmosphere. That laugh was positively magnetic.” Henry was a doting older brother to his sister Miriam and loved spending time with his best friend, his grandfather. Kelley’s narrative reminds us Henry’s death should not diminish the short-but-rich life he enjoyed. He should be remembered not as a sick boy who succumbed to an aggressive tumor but as a fully alive, fully present boy much loved by his family and community.
Much of Lord Willing? considers the difficult questions about why Henry died. Kelley deconstructs the dominant Christian theology of suffering, which she calls “blueprint theology”: God has a plan for everything that happens, and even really painful experiences are part of God’s great and mysterious plan.
Kelley argues blueprint theology does not reflect God’s essential character of love. Though meant to provide comfort and a sense of God’s plan, blueprint theology does little to assuage suffering. It requires an unsettling understanding of God: either God causes everything to happen and is therefore vindictive and heedless of the pain people incur for some purpose only God knows, or God allows everything to happen for a mysterious greater good, standing aside while people suffer, inexplicably glorifying God’s power.
Although Kelley embraced this perspective of God growing up, she began to question it as a young adult. She decided that God, whose nature and character is love, would not permit suffering, either by causing pain or by allowing pain.
Through her study of Scripture, she formed the framework for her new understanding of God, a view she carefully lays out in Lord Willing? Because of God’s unending love for the world God created, Kelley writes, there is free will, and this necessarily means suffering will occur. Jesus’ death on the cross shows that God knows and feels suffering but does not cause it. The resurrection reveals that pain will some day be overcome with good. Until that time, God works and weeps alongside those who suffer. It is a holy partnership that brings good to the world.
This alternative framework, which Kelley calls the “warfare worldview” (because God and humans are fighting against evil and for good), was extraordinarily useful to Kelley in the months and years after Henry’s death, when she heard these explanations about why Henry suffered from friends and family and from the books she received by leading evangelical writers, including Joni Erikson Tada and Steven Curtis Chapman.
In part three of Lord Willing? Kelley examines the explanations of suffering deeply embedded in Christian culture. She suggests that these views provide no hope for those who have suffered deeply, nor do they explain why some divine plan would mean her child had to die.
She wonders why a God of love would allow a child to suffer a painful death for some imagined great plan. Why would God use this plan to somehow bring glory to God? (And would anyone want to worship a God who caused a child to suffer as a means of reflecting God’s glory?) Why would God use this plan as a means of disciplining and refining God’s children? Did a 4-year-old really need to experience suffering as a way to know God better?
By asking these questions, Kelley continues the hard work of deconstructing blueprint theology. She then offers another vision of God and of suffering — one that much more adequately describes why evil, suffering and pain remain in a world God loves.
Kelley challenges us to wrestle with difficult questions about the nature of God rather than accept the theologies we’ve been spoon-fed — theologies that do not compel us to consider the complex, mysterious and beautiful world God created. For Kelley, contending with these questions is an important part of a believer’s relationship to the Creator. It allows her to see more clearly God’s limitless love for her and for her son, Henry, whose death God mourned deeply, as if Henry were God’s very own son — which, of course, he was.
Melanie Springer Mock is professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore.
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