We rode out the storm through the night, our family of five, including our newborn daughter, huddled in the bathroom of our little ranch house. The idea of a hurricane was foreign to us – just a windstorm, right? But as we heard the destruction around us, and as the lights flickered and went out, we realized it was something bigger. Much bigger.
As the winds abated and day dawned on September 23rd, 1989, we crept cautiously out of our hiding place to survey the damage. If you have lived through a big storm, hurricane or tornado, you know what we saw. The mind cannot accept or register that enormous trees can snap off, that houses can be moved from one spot to another, that so much destruction can happen when the wind blows. Charleston’s Mayor Riley, seeing the enormous job ahead of us all, and knowing what we had been through, made his famous statement that now it was time for “The second test of character.”
Tests in this life come and go. Writing from my perspective as a 62-year-old I fully realize that, as long as you live on earth, every fiber of your being will be tested, stretched and challenged, as we stumble headlong toward our destiny. Remember when you took your test for your driver’s license – the preparation, the written exam, the sweat-drenched drive with that stern stranger who held your fate in her hands? And the exultation of waltzing out of the DMV, holding the prize high? That kind of test is fun, if not grueling, and just a tiny harbinger of what life will bring.
When trials come, when tragedy pays a visit, when we are pushed to the boundaries of our strength, what is going on? Are we being played like chess pieces in a universal battle? Is there some mastermind arranging the moves? In the whirlwind that is life, is there a God who sees our struggle to survive the storm?
I was pushed to my own limits in the Fall of 2003, when the doctor performing the heart catheterization commented on how difficult it was to push the probe past the aortic valve – he said he had never not been able to breach the valve. Since I was awake, I asked “Can you fix it?” to which he replied, “You don’t fix it, you replace it.” And, just like that, began one of the most terrifying tests of my life. After the horrors of open-heart surgery – about which my greatly confident surgeon said, “It’s routine” – I realized that I was about to experience Mayor Riley’s “second test of character.” I had made it through the storm, terrifying as it was, and now I had to begin the days, weeks, months of recovering my life.
But I didn’t answer my own questions.
Theology is the study of God, the finding out what His ways are, who He is, His character, His intents, His purposes. After an adult lifetime of seeking, I can’t tell you what is going on behind the wind, I can’t tell you if your struggles are part of a big game and you are just a pawn, I can’t tell you that a mastermind arranged the moves. But I can tell you something with confidence.
There was a man named Job who lived in ancient times, perhaps even 4,000 years ago. He apparently was a good man, and his story begins with this description:
“He was honest inside and out, a man of his word, who was totally devoted to God and hated evil with a passion. He had seven sons and three daughters. He was also very wealthy—seven thousand head of sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred teams of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and a huge staff of servants—the most influential man in all the East!” Job 1:1-3
Job had it all. But over the next 37 chapters he saw his world fall down, a complete and total train wreck, a literal calamitous windstorm that wiped all he had off the map. Job lost it all – his wife, his children, his 7,000 sheep. Nothing was spared, not even his health. But he remained resolute, taking this attitude:
“Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?” Job 2:10
We cannot fix the why or when or how of the tragedies that will befall us, just as we cannot claim to know the why or when or how of the blessings we enjoy. Everyone you know will certainly be there when times are great and you share your feast, they will offer toasts of congratulations on your success and celebrate the joys of your life. Nearly everyone you know will also try to tell you why you are sick, why your wife left you, why your 7,000 sheep died. It is called armchair quarterbacking, and we humans are famously good at it.
And that is exactly what happened to Job as he lay in his misery and loss. His best friends came by one by one. They offered up their theology, their interpretation of why he suddenly found himself covered in sores and sitting in ashes. They all had it figured out, they all knew from their own righteousness why Job was going through tough times. Obviously, he had done wrong. Obviously, he had displeased God. Obviously, he deserved what he was getting.
So back to my original questions.
I do not know what is going on when trials come, when tragedy pays a visit, when we are pushed to the boundaries of our strength. I do not know if we are being played like chess pieces in a universal battle. I do not know if there is some mastermind arranging the moves.
But I do know this.
“The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind…” Job 38:1
I suspect that most of what happens to us is called Life, with a capital L. I suspect that being alive on planet Earth brings with it trials and tragedies, sickness and disease, fear and pain as part of our existence. But I also know that it brings victories and success, health and happiness, hope and joy. It is a beautiful tragedy that we are born into, and living it is the second test of character.
In Job’s case his life was restored beyond measure, but only after he realized that the universe was something bigger than himself, after he was driven to this realization:
“I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” Job 42:2
I cannot tell you why we have coronavirus, I do not know why a tornado ripped through our city, I cannot provide a meaningful answer as to why a 4-year-old boy died. But I can tell you that, in the midst of your calamities, while in your battle with cancer, when life seems to offer up nothing but despair, there is a God who sees. And if you seek him, you will find Him.
He will answer you out of the whirlwind.