You give and take away,
You give and take away,
My heart will choose to say,
Lord, blessed be your name.
I hate that song. I've hated it ever since I started listening to the lyrics. I can remember the first time I really listened. I was on stage leading worship in chapel at Taylor University and I started sobbing and couldn't finish the song. Not a cool thing to happen in front of all your friends and professors. But I wasn't thinking about that. I was thinking about my friend Phil, whose funeral I had been to the previous week. I was in mourning, and my heart was not about to say anything worshipful about God's name. It was that moment when I realized I didn't trust him. And I hadn't trusted him in a long time.
Because this was not the first time God had taken away. When I was five, my dad was hit by a car while jogging. He was in a coma for several days and when he finally woke up, my mom sent my brother and I to Grandma's house so that we wouldn't have to see how he didn't know who we were. He had suffered a traumatic brain injury, and while he would regain many of his faculties, he would never be the same. He woke up a different person.
When I think about how to answer the question of how I came to know Jesus as my Lord, I could tell about that one night when I was four years old and I prayed with my mom to receive Jesus into my heart. But this whole business of giving him actual lordship over my life, well...that's a sloppier story.
The day I couldn't finish that song--up until that day, in my mind, God had been simply a giver. He was the one who poured out his love for us, the one who provided for all of our needs. And really, I had been provided for my entire life. From the day I was born, I have enjoyed an incredible set of privileges. I have never felt the effects of discrimination against my race, sexual orientation, gender, age, nationality, social class, physical ability, or level of education. I was teased for being short in Jr. High--that's about it. Any complaint I might have had about the deficits in my life or my dad's disability, I didn't share them. I praised God as the giver of good gifts. He loved me, and that was all I needed to know.
Until my friend Phil died. He was also hit by a car while jogging, and I couldn't ignore this ugly, nagging question that had been there all along beneath the pain and confusion that I had buried throughout my childhood: if God loved me so much, why did he allow the people I loved to be run over by vehicles? Why did he take away?
"The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;"
Job first uttered those words after his whole life had been stripped from him, and lay naked in the ashes covered in sores.
"Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised."
That last part gets me every time. It's one thing to accept the reality that God loves you but will allow horrible things to happen to you. It's another thing to praise him in the midst of it. God is good? Some of the time. And some of the time? God is good. That was how I answered that question for a long time.
I didn't understand how Job could adopt this attitude, but otherwise I couldn't get enough of his story. Here I was, a young, healthy twenty-something with a huge scholarship to a private Christian university, and the person I identified with most in the Bible was Job. But his questioning echoed my questioning. I looked fine on the outside, but on the inside, my spirit was naked, covered in ashes and sores. He became my hero, refusing to chalk this all up to his own moral failings, refusing to let God off the hook. There are 33 chapters of this tortured discourse before God says anything. But when I finally got there, I so identified with Job, that God's words seemed to speak directly to me:
2 “Who is this that obscures my plans
with words without knowledge?
3 Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.
4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
6 On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone--
7 while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?
And on and on it goes. For four chapters God lays into Job and I like this, reenacting his creation and sustaining of the world. But the most breathtaking moment in all of this comes at the very end, when Job responds:
My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.
Job, a righteous man, who--the bible explicitly and repeatedly states--had not sinned in all of this, repented. God had not actually answered Job's questions about why he was afflicted, but he seemed to understand something that I would grow to accept also, which is that something greater than our wellbeing and security is at steak. The reason God took away from Job is the same reason he gave Abraham a son only to ask for him back in a sacrifice, the same reason he delivered the Israelites from Egypt only to lead them into the desert; the same reason Jesus promises abundant life and then asks that we drop everything, leave our families and follow him, even into martyrdom--throughout all of this, God's motivation is summed up over and over with the same words: for the sake of my name. God's concern is not primarily for our safety and security but for his reputation. For his glory. For his the sake of his name.
Whether he is giving or taking, weather I am for him or against him, God is determined to be glorified in my life. By the time I graduated college, I had learned that lesson. I was on God's side now. Or so I thought.
I married Courtney, my wife, the summer after we graduated college and we moved out to California so that I could go to seminary. While we were out there, we had two big surprises, both of which were growing inside my wife: Norah, our daughter, who is (at the time of this writing) a very precocious four-year-old, and the brain tumor. We had known about this tumor's existence, but it had sat benign (not growing) for 10 years like an undetonated bomb. It was deep in the brain, near the stem, in an area that controls motor function. Several neurosurgeons had said over the years that it was inoperable, that any attempt to remove it would likely yield a permanent and severely debilitating outcome.
But it was growing now and the whole situation seemed fatalistic: there was innate danger both in removing and not removing the tumor. I could feel the resentment building up inside of me again. We spent thousands of dollars enlisting one of the top neurosurgeons in the country and we asked our church to pray for us when we were too numb and cynical or pray.
When the day of the surgery came, we went to the hospital, I kissed my wife and told her I would see her in a few hours. Then I paced in the waiting room with our sleeping infant daughter and wondered if I would soon become a single father. And I couldn't pray. I knew that the only thing I could trust God to do was to glorify himself through whatever happened, and that was going to have to be enough for me.
On that day, God chose to glorify himself by giving Courtney back to us.
I wish I could tell you that I learned to completely trust God through this experience. Some days I do and some days I don't. Intellectually, academically, theoretically...I believe that God is good and deserves my worship. But my relationship with God, just like any other relationship I have, doesn't really exist in this realm. It's personal. It's contentious. I love the Lord, but I often don't like him. Following Jesus is not something I simply decided upon long ago. It's a daily decision.
That's where I'm at today. But, of course, it's not where this story ends. I look forward to the day when my doubts and disputes will be dwarfed by the glory of his presence. After all, how ferociously glorious must God be to make the devastation of Job's entire life seem petty by comparison? That's the hope that I hold on to.