The phone rings. The voice on the other end says, “I need you again,” then hangs up. Through the tonal pitch of anxiety in her voice, no other information was needed. Her voice trembled with the uncertainty of a jovial future, for the demon of her past has reared its ugly head once more. Such is the exasperation of demons. Through trial and tribulation, you pray fervently as it whispers temptations of giving up in the back corner of your mind. Somehow, you muster the courage to continue praying. You realise the strength comes not from within, for there is none of your own strength to summon. It comes from without—the God of mercy who lends His limitless strength.
Yet her demon has returned, and like a knight I grab my Bible as my sword and a prayer of faith as my shield as I make my way to her home.
Before I knock on her door, it opens as she exclaims, “Pastor! Please, come in.”
I adjust my clerical collar and walk in. Her home smells of lavender, bringing to mind memories of my own. Cowering in the corner of my bedroom, I await the inevitability of my suffering. As I hear the heavy footsteps coming up the stairs, my drunken father bursts through the door to beat me.
“Pastor Ben?” she says. “May I get you some water?”
“Sure, Amanda. That would be great, thanks.” I replied, having almost forgotten where I was.
“Please, sit. I’ll get your drink.” She motioned for me to sit on her sofa. As I sat, she quickly ambled her way to the fridge and poured a glass of water.
She handed me the water and sat next to me, saying, “Thank you for coming. I wasn’t sure you’d come. I lost signal right after I said I needed you.”
“It’s my pleasure, Amanda. What can I help you with?”
“Remember when I was suicidal, and you helped me see the Light?”
How could I forget? She was my first suicidal congregant member as a new pastor five years ago. Her son had died at only three days of age from sudden infant death syndrome. He appeared to be perfectly healthy, until one night he suddenly stopped breathing and passed away during the night. It tore Amanda apart, as it would any mother. With no husband to turn to, who had died in Afghanistan, and no friends she felt would understand, she turned to the only thing that would listen to her: the demon in her mind who convinced her life was no longer worth living without a son and husband to love.
“Of course,” I said. “What about it?”
She hesitated. “I feel that it’s kind of ironic I never killed myself then.”
Shocked, I said, “Why do you say that?”
“Because now I have cancer.”
I stared at her in bewilderment. Not only was this horrible news, but I also did not see that coming.
“What?” I exclaimed. “When did you find out?”
“A couple weeks ago. And before you say anything, it’s not treatable. I have an inoperable malignant tumor in my brain the size of a lime. There’s no way for them to get around it. I only have a few more months to live.”
Tears were filling my eyes. “I’m so sorry, Amanda. What can I do for you?”
She chuckled, “It’s kinda funny. Years ago I was so convinced life was not worth living, and you convinced me that it was. That it was only a demon giving me those thoughts and I can still live life with the love of my other family, my friends, and my brothers and sisters in Christ. Then I get cancer and I’m gonna die anyway. How hilarious is that?”
I frowned and said, “It’s not hilarious at all, Amanda. It’s tragic.”
“That’s why it’s so funny—it’s a tragicomedy! My life is so tragic it’s hilarious. Why would God make this happen?”
Her blame came to me as no surprise. Whenever things go right, people are quick to thank themselves rather than God. But as soon as something bad happens, God is to blame. Not themselves, and not the Devil.
“What makes you think God made this happen?” I asked.
“Well He certainly didn’t do anything to stop it!”
“So if you see a car accident about to happen and you do nothing about it, does that mean you caused it?”
“No, of course not. That’s absurd.”
“Is it not just as absurd to say God caused your illness when He did not stop it?”
“How is that different?”
“God has the power to do anything. I’m powerless to stop a car accident.”
“That’s true. God really can do anything, and you don’t have the power to stop a car accident. Yet having the authority to do something doesn’t mean it’s wise to always act on that authority.”
“Then why wouldn’t God act on His authority?”
“I can’t tell you that because I cannot assume to know God’s reasoning.”
“See? It is God’s fault.”
“No, it’s not. Tell, me what is the opposite of good?”
“Evil, of course.”
“The Bible teaches God is good, right?” She nodded. “Since God is good, who is the opposite of Him?”
“I guess that would be Satan.”
“Precisely. So why is it that in your suffering, you’re quick to blame the Good One over the evil one?”
“Because God has power over the Devil and He didn’t do anything to stop him!”
I could understand her reasoning. I, too, suffered with the same concept for many years. After my father had abused me, I blamed God for a long time because of His inaction. If God was good, why didn’t He stop my father? If He was all-powerful, why didn’t He remove Satan from my life?
“Have I ever told you about my father, Amanda?” I asked.
“No, you haven’t.” She was intrigued.
“My father was an abusive drunk. Every night he would come up to my room and beat me.”
“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry.”
“I’m not.” She looked confused. “Because of what my father was, I learnt what a real father looks like, which enables me to be the father I am now with my beautiful wife’s help. It also helped me to see how God is my Father. Everything my father was not, my Father in Heaven is. My Father in Heaven is gentle; my earthly father was not. My Father in Heaven forgives freely; my earthly father had no sense of the concept. My Father in Heaven loves me in spite of my failures; my earthly father hated me because of my failures, even self-imagined failures. Most of all, I learnt that the presence of evil does not mean God is absent.”
She sat in silence, and I didn’t say anything further. I wanted her to focus on those last few words: The presence of evil does not mean God is absent.
“But… how?” she finally said. “How is God present when evil is present? If there’s evil, and God is good, how can God be there?”
“When I was a missionary in Africa, evil was ubiquitous. I smelled the Devil, I felt the Devil, and I saw the Devil. I smelled the Devil in mass graves of the slaughtered innocent. I felt the Devil when people who were ill or stabbed died in my arms. And I saw the Devil in the eyes of evil men whose only love was the massacre of innocents. Yet in the midst of this profound suffering, I saw God. In spite of their suffering, the people rejoiced in the Lord. They gathered in church every day—every day!—to sing praises unto the Lord. The children still summed up the fortitude to play outside. The people prayed together, sometimes for hours. The people were extremely towards each other and even me, a white outsider. Somehow, in the midst of this horrific suffering, there was joy. Joy that I had never seen until I came there. It was the utter joy of the Lord.”
Amanda was in tears. “How in the world could they have so much joy with all that horrible suffering?”
I leaned in close to her, cupped her hands in mine, and said, “Because, Amanda, they had Jesus!” I could see that hit her—the Holy Spirit was moving—as she began crying more. “If there’s anything I learnt during my time there, it’s that even when you have nothing, if you have Jesus, you have everything. In Romans 8 Paul said, ‘For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.’ God didn’t give you cancer, Amanda. The Devil did. This crap happens because of the sinful condition of the world we live in—fallen human nature and the fallen world, which the Devil is to blame. Yet your suffering will be so insignificant when compared to the glory of Christ you will soon encounter. So we suffer in this life. So what? We will dwell in the glory of Christ when our suffering ends.”
“But,” she said through sniffles, “how can I experience the joy those African people had in my own suffering?”
“Turn to God and praise Him, even when you don’t feel like it. I don’t doubt for a second that those African people were not in the mood to praise God by any means. They lost hundreds to the evil tribes. Yet as they turned to God in prayer and praise, they found joy in Him.”
Not having planned it, I walked over to her piano and started playing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” We sang the first verse and the refrain several times:
Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father,
There is no shadow of turning with Thee.
Thou changest not, Thy compassion’s, they fail not,
As Thou hast been, Thou forever will be.
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided,
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!
After we finished, Amanda had a sudden smile on her face.
Four months later, I sat at Amanda’s deathbed. The nurse had informed me that Amanda wanted to speak to me alone. As soon as she saw me, she smiled.
“Pastor Ben,” she said with a weak voice yet vibrant joy. “You were right, that one night several months ago. I know now that God didn’t cause this to happen, even though He didn’t stop it. I realise our suffering is merely another opportunity for God to shine His abundant mercy and grace upon us, and for us to return that grace to our neighbour. Even when the Devil gets his way over God’s faithful, God still wins because we return to Him in eternal peace and grace, and life infinitely better than the life I would have lived as a healthy woman.”
I didn’t say anything, but merely smiled and held her hand.
She died five hours later, her family noting at her funeral that she had died humming to herself, with a small grin on her face, her favourite hymn: Great Is Thy Faithfulness.