I have Cerebral Palsy, which is just a fancy way of saying that oxygen was denied the brain. In my case I was born with it, and the signals from my brain to my legs don’t work the way that they should. I walked on crutches until I was 38, and then I suffered a spinal cord compression in my neck, perhaps from walking bent over on crutches on those years, which landed me in a wheelchair. The wheelchair was not as much of a setback as you might think. It’s not like I was running track before! I would walk only to get from point A to point B, and I have always done all my best stuff sitting down, anyway. However, the wheelchair does mean that I have to be creative about where I can go, especially where I live in hilly Atlanta, GA.
But boy, has my life been blessed! I was born into a family that loves me. Growing up, my father had a good job with good insurance that afforded me all the surgeries, therapy, and equipment that I needed to make the most of my abilities. I was surrounded by friends and support, both in my church and my neighborhood. On top of that, my parents were fighters who fought to give me access to every opportunity. I was also blessed to get an education. I have a wonderful wife and fantastic kids. I serve a church that has placed amazing opportunities and challenges in front of me. I get to use my gifts, and I have met some incredibly faithful Christians along the way. God is good all the time!
These days I am an itinerant preacher. My disability makes me stand out. Everybody remembers the pastor in the wheelchair, but my presence also causes cogitative dissonance. Most people have never met someone still in their working years with a significant disability. They “admire” me but they instinctively feel that it is unfair for a man of God to be confined to a wheelchair. Folks don’t know what to say to me after worship. Many settle somewhere between awe and pity, saying things like, “At least God made you a pastor.”
In my younger years, comments like these annoyed me. I’d say to myself, “I didn’t realize this was a tradeoff. I would be happy to go sell shoes for the Lord, instead!” As I have gotten older, I realize that folks are just trying to make sense of a crazy world. But I flatly reject any suggestion that God causes hunger, natural disasters, or my disability. Tragedies exist because we all live in a deeply broken world. If I am honest, I have to admit that the vast majority of the pain in my life is self-inflicted. Other pain happens because whole systems in our world are rife with brokenness, and still other hurts exist because other people visit their sins on us. But none of it is a test or punishment from the Lord. The God that I worship is a Giver of Good Gifts.
But if God is so good, why are there starving children all over the world; why do some parents have to bury their children and some children lose their parents way too early; why is there unemployment and bad news from the doctor? Where is the goodness in any of that?! Our struggle with suffering is essentially a search for fairness. Of course, it is fairness on our terms. When you and I are hurting, we automatically compare ourselves to those that we think have it easier, better than we do. We rarely compare ourselves to those who are worse off than we are, and usually, we do not even know about much of the pain that is all around us. We are a self-centered lot. You and I are intimately acquainted with our own pain, and we quietly wish for some blessing, some compensation, even if we are smart enough not to speak such things out loud. After all, it is only “fair.”
And that brings us back to the well-meaning comments at the church door.
I am convinced that we need to give up on fairness all together. I know that sounds harsh. But we live in a world of crime, violence, inequity, and injustice. We see it 24/7 on our screens, and none of it is fair. We strive to convince ourselves that goodness is always rewarded, that evil is always punished, and pain is always balanced out by blessing, but such efforts risk turning us into the rigid folks from John 9 who asked about the blind man, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” The answer is that no one sinned, or everyone sinned! The point is that blindness happens. It’s tough to let go, but fairness is simply not a word that works in a messy world.
Instead, I choose to believe in a powerfully gracious God. The Lord of Life is constrained by the decision to give you and me free will. A real relationship with human beings is not possible without it. So God gives us the power to act as we choose and with that, more often than not, comes our ability to sin, both individually and corporately. God hates it, and God suffers right along with us, but God allows you and me to sin because God loves us enough to want us to grow into our own people, just the way we parents often grieve the naive and foolish choices of our not-yet-grown children. The opportunity for sin is sewn into the fabric of the universe.
But our God is too strong and too loving to just sit back and do nothing when we are hurting ourselves and others. More than anything else, the Lord of Love yearns for abundant life for you and me. So God is constantly punching holes in the darkness that we cause ourselves to let the light shine in. Our Heavenly Father blesses us with joy and laughter, work and rest, friendship and peace. The God of the Resurrection works tirelessly to bring life out of death. But for our own mental health, we have to stop looking for fairness on our terms. Cholera in Haiti, war in Syria, hunger in Africa, and depression in the United States; if we are looking for something to balance out this horrendous pain, we will frequently be disappointed on this side of the grave. There is no “making it right” to the worst pain that you experience. There is only God crying right along with you and loving you in and through it.
Like it or not, fairness in the world doesn’t exist. Instead, we must search diligently for the grace of God because that is all around us! For me, God’s grace comes in every good meal, every stimulating conversation, and every afternoon nap, and yes, because my Lord made me a pastor. It’s no tradeoff, and it’s not “fair,” but it is good nonetheless.God’s ultimate answer to the pain of the world will come in the resurrection unto eternal life for us all. I can’t wait! In the meantime, there is pain, but there is also blessed goodness.•