At 5:04 pm, October 17, 1989, something happened. The Loma Prieta earthquake shook the San Francisco Bay Area and my world was reshaped. Only I didn’t know all that then. I only knew that the earth ought not shake, but it did. That people ought not be crushed by roads and buildings, but they were. Or if it did happen, it shouldn’t happen in my neighborhood. That was too close to me. I was supposed to be protected from tragedy. I always had been, I was always supposed to be. Wasn’t I? What kind of God would allow bad things, very bad things, to happen to me?
The old question answered by many became a new whisper to me: Is God good or is he powerful? Because if he’s good, he’s not very powerful. And if he’s powerful, he’s not very good. I felt the aftershocks to prove it.
We switched Sunday School classes that month to study the book of Job. The teacher was some radical lay-minister – a homeschooler of all things (who would do that??) – a man who talked about God’s sovereignty a lot. What does that even mean? I wanted to know. But we moved to Texas.
Everything is bigger in Texas, they say. And they are right.
After the earthquake left my faith shaken, I was afraid I had discovered that if God is good he isn’t very strong, and if God is strong, he isn’t very good. It seemed to be the most obvious conclusion to the pain in the world, pain that became real and intimate when the earth rolled in waves under my feet.
We were settling down in Texas and I was leaning toward a view of a God who was good, but hindered from doing good because of all the evil in the world. Yes, I was calling God weak. I didn’t kick sand in his face, but I was a little embarrassed for him.
I remember at the age of 21 (4 years before the earthquake) telling a friend that there was no need for me to go to Sunday School anymore because I already knew it all. I had read the bible at least 3 times through by then. All of it, even the begats! “I’ve heard it all,” I said. What I should have said was, “I’ve heard the same old Southern Baptist Sunday School material over and over my whole life.” In truth, I actually knew very little about the Bible. But I knew a lot about Southern Baptist Sunday School material. I knew the answers to the easy questions – how you should not offend your brother or sister by doing things you think are fine that they have trouble with, how you should give 10% to God via the church, how you can’t work your way into Heaven (amen!), and a few other things that may have stuck.
Until recently (this morning) I have blamed that institution for my lack of training in ther harder, bigger questions. But now I’m wondering if it was the teaching or the pupil? Maybe I wasn’t ready for it? Maybe I wouldn’t have heard it if it was taught? I don’t know, but I need to be careful in laying blame, that’s for sure.
I will say though, I had no tools for dealing with the question of why evil touches those who love God. Other than missionaries who knew the risks of their work, I felt that God’s children would always be safe. That I would always be safe. That’s what the Proverbs say, isn’t it?
After a big fight at our local church in Texas (the pastor was a … less than honest person), we decided to be bold and venture out into “non-denominational land”. There can be all kinds of oddball theology in non-denominational land, but there can be all kinds of good, too. It was the first time I had a pastor who was a teacher. I mean he really taught. I was gaining a bigger understanding of Bible history and human history. And he taught, of all things, a very big God. I wrestled with man’s choice versus God’s sovereignty. (There’s that word again!) It was a very violent wrestling match. Just read the book of Job and you’ll know what I mean.
But God, in his gentle way, reminded me of something from a few years earlier.
When my daughter was an infant, we had to let her cry it out one time. She had been sleeping through the night for months and months, but then started waking up in the night for a feeding, then two feedings, then three.. It had to stop. Her sleep/eat pattern needed to be reset. I researched it, I warned the neighbors in our building, I had everything ready. The night of the Big Cry Out, I camped outside her bedroom door. She woke up, I let her cry for a few minutes, came in and patted her back, walked out of her room, closed her door, and cried. This happened a few times. The next night, she slept the entire night through without waking up. But I’ve never forgotten the impact it had on me.
Lying on the floor, hearing my daughter cry for me, and me not going to help her NOT because I wasn’t strong enough to help, and not because I didn’t love her, but because she needed to get her nights and days back in order was a big life lesson.
My daughter could never understand at her age why I wouldn’t pick her up and feed her. If she was capable of such thoughts, she might even think I didn’t love her anymore, or that I was mad at her, or that something had hindered me. None of that was true.
If “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” then my only conclusion is that it takes a very big God to let his children doubt his power and love. He’s willing to risk my adoration of him for his good purpose for my life, and for his world.
All the bad in my life is being worked for good, for God’s good purpose. Often we don’t see those purposes at the time. It truly is a matter of faith. How big is God?
How big is God is the question I have to ask at every turn in my life. Is he big enough to hold me during hard times? Is he big enough to watch over my children? Is he big enough to let bad things happen to those who love him, or to those I love? Is he big enough to let earthquakes and crying babies point to his fearless love?
He’s probably even bigger than that.