Two decades ago, my tiny baby couldn’t lift her little head. Slightly bigger than an American Girl doll, she wasn’t growing – not getting longer, not gaining weight. Four months old and she still loved being tightly swaddled. Not once did she try to break free from the confines of a blanket wrapped around her. Something was wrong.
Our family doctor looked down over his Bugs Bunny necktie to the latest plot marks on her growth chart and shook his head at the horizontal line. This was beyond his realm of expertise. The specialists must be consulted. So we tested her blood. We tested her sweat. We scoped down and we scoped up. We snipped tissue samples. We watched on the monitors as the chemical milk rolled down her throat and through her digestive system. But there were no answers. None. The doctors were baffled.
As I conducted what felt like non-stop feedings, the parade of early intervention specialists marched through my living room and dining room. Feeding therapist. Physical therapist. Occupational therapist. Social worker. All the while, everyone we knew was praying. Adding my teensy girl to this prayer list and that prayer chain. Whispering her name to God, pleading for a miracle.
And just as inexplicably as she stopped growing, she started growing. Though a little behind schedule, she began to reach milestones, She gulped down whatever expensive, nasty, magical formula I offered. And she worked up a baby sweat playing with the physical therapist and all her toys.
Friends and family rejoiced, “God is good!”
And God is good. Don’t get me wrong. But something didn’t feel right about that response.
A decade ago, my husband lay in a hospital bed. Monitors screamed to alert us of every abnormal series of heartbeats. The beeping was nearly non-stop – until finally we asked the nurses to silence them. His pacing medicine wasn’t working. His internal defibrillator had shocked him – as if a sizzling, electricity-channeling horse kicked him square in the middle of the chest, sending a jolt through his entire body. Four times.
The tired doctor in his white coat ran his hands through his graying hair. He was running out of ideas. A higher dose of pacing medicine would bring his blood pressure dangerously low. The runs of out-of-sync beats were not sustainable. This was beyond his realm of expertise. We needed to fly to Boston.
In Boston, a surgical procedure was successful. We consulted with specialists — the kind who specialize in very specific subsets of the speciality — Super-Specialists. These super specialists corrected a misdiagnosis and gave us a proper treatment plan. For the time being, things looked hopeful. The immediate threat to life had passed.
Friends and family rejoiced, “God is good!”
And God is good. Don’t get me wrong. But this time, that response made me angry.
It seemed trite. Shallow. God was good because my husband was alive? Is that how it works?
My friend’s husband died. She had to make the excruciating decision to turn off life-support. I’ve known too many women who have labored through birth to deliver a baby who would never cry. No happy balloons at their hospital room, only the somber wreath on the door alerting hospital staff that this family grieves. I knew an active preschooler who got an infection that attacked his heart and left him dying in a hospital bed. He never went home. I’d even known a family who lost six of their children in a random gas line explosion. Six children! An entire lively, boisterous, loving household gone. Just like that.
God is good. I appreciate that truth. But saying it in response to good health news or when we get the answer we wanted — well, that makes me squirm. When God answers our prayers the way we want and our response is “God is good,” then the implication is that God is good because God gave us what we wanted. Because our outcome was happy.
I believe God is good. But God can’t be good just when God does what I want God to do. When things go my way. When my child grows strong and healthy. When the money comes in to pay the rent. When I get the job. When my husband is healed.
Yes, God is good in all of those moments. But God is also good when my baby lies lethargic in her swaddling, unable to lift her tiny head, failing to thrive, and we don’t know how the story will end. God is also good when the transplant fails. When the bank forecloses. When the diagnosis is terminal. God is also good when the boss announces layoffs. When the marriage crumbles. God is also good when the treatment for the heart causes side effects and those side effects complicate the diabetes. And the decline is gradual but steady. And he’s still gone far too soon. When kids still need their daddy.
When we get our way and we respond, “God is good,” we imply that God wasn’t so good to the people who are suffering devastation.
So what does it mean for God to be good? Does it mean we get what we want? That nothing bad ever happens? That nobody ever dies?
Of course not. It can’t mean that.
Is something only good if my finite brain can see it as good? Is something only good if it feels good to me?
I think of the story of Job and how God finally asked Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know! . . .”
I think of the childhood taunt thrown my way when I was being a bossy know-it-all, “Who died and made you God?”
Years ago, when I was mourning the end of a season of my life, I heard someone say that it’s good to throw up our hands and cry Mystery! That recognizing the mystery is part of being human, limited, finite.
So maybe my understanding of good is limited. I don’t know the whole story. So much of life is still a mystery to me. Maybe good goes way beyond my getting what I want. Maybe good goes way beyond the years we spend on this planet. Maybe God’s goodness can’t be squeezed into earthly lifespans and earthly concerns – what we’ll eat and where we’ll live and what job we have and whether we lie in bed sick or climb mountains with strong bodies.
The longer I live, I do believe God is good. And I believe it even more now – after things have fallen together and fallen apart, after broken bodies and broken hearts, after the pain. Because in the middle of all the hard stuff, God has been with me.
I’ve sensed God in the quiet moments when I’m alone with the prayers I cannot even form into words. Be still and know that I am God. When God comes as a soft, fluttering whisper of the Spirit within me. I’ve sensed God’s comfort through the words written in the Bible. Old words that come alive and wrap around my soul. I’ve sensed God through the phone calls and text messages from friends, through golden, bubbling chicken pot pie and warm, gooey chocolate chip cookies delivered to my doorstep, through gift cards in the mail from friends hundreds of miles away who want to buy me dinner. God has been with me.
God is good. Because God knows suffering and longing and heartbreak and physical pain and death. And God doesn’t leave us alone in the mess and devastation of it.
And yeah, I know that when someone’s home is ripped apart by a hurricane or when a child stands next to his father’s coffin, it seems heartless to say, “God is good.” But it’s just as true then as when the cancer screening comes out clear and the pregnancy test is positive and the job offer comes through.
God is good. Even when goodness is a mystery to me.