A busy week ahead … I wanted to run a couple of “classic” posts that have themes I think bear repeating. In this one, I address the question of why terrible things happen to us . . . and how the God who “makes all things work together for good” redeems even the darkest moments of our lives. This one originally ran in “Canticle” magazine.
The snow fell – first gently, then with greater urgency – as I turned my car towards home. Having all but flunked out of my first semester of college (my newfound social life had taken its inevitable toll), I took my parents advice and got a job until I figured out what I was going to do with my life. Clearly, engineering school was not “it.”
The gently rolling hills of northern New Jersey have a few steep stretches, including one mile-long incline I had to navigate downhill on the last leg of my journey. As I neared that section of road, I almost stopped at my boyfriend’s house. But we’d recently had a falling out, so I took a deep breath and kept driving.
The last thing I remember was the flash of a yellow light, warning of the blind signal ahead. It said nothing about the solid sheet of black ice – or the poorly banked road that would send my skidding vehicle into oncoming traffic.
Choices of a Lifetime
It’s one of the great ironies of the human condition, that the amount of time spent pondering a decision is seldom proportionate to its long-term significance. The special dress you spent weeks finding, altering, and accessorizing is but a page in some dusty scrapbook. One impulsive passionate interlude, on the other hand, can have life-long repercussions.
My car accident might have been prevented had I made any number of small decisions a bit differently: not going in to work that day, or deciding to stop at my friend’s house. I would have been spared a great deal of suffering (at least the physical variety). But I didn’t – and to this day I carry the scars of those choices on my body: tracks along my legs and abdomen, spinal arthritis, disk rupture, and pinched sciatica. And yet, God sometimes allows His children to suffer terribly … in order to draw them as close as possible to Himself.
I was hospitalized for more than a month. During that time, my romantic entanglement was abruptly severed (he found out my injuries were serious enough that I might not be able to have children). Fortunately, I had the steady support of another friend, who assured me that any man who deserved me would find the scars beautiful, “Because those scars are a part of your story, part of what makes you … you.”
I took great comfort in those words, and in the realization that – for all that I had suffered – it had been a small price to pay. God had my undivided attention for the first time in my life. Clearly, He had spared my life for a reason, and I wanted to know what that reason was. I didn’t know what His plan for my life would be, but it had to be an improvement on what I had done with it so far.
Wounded … or Scarred?
A year after the accident, the pin that had been set in my left femur worked its way loose, and began to dig into my hip joint. Since the pin no longer served a useful purpose, I was scheduled for surgery to have it removed. Unfortunately, I had to wait a week for an opening. A week of lying in bed and trying not to move.
Two days before the surgery, I was visited by one of the church elders and his wife, who came to pray for me. They believed that God wanted to heal me not through the hands of a surgeon, but through prayer. Not seeing a graceful way out of it, I grudgingly let them put their hands on my leg and pray – and was amazed when, a few seconds later, I was able to get up and jump around the room. (The pin was removed anyway.)
I should have been thrilled, but I wasn’t. That night I gave God a good talking to. Why had He seen fit to heal my leg in this unconventional fashion, when I was going to have the problem fixed in a few days anyway? Why would He bother with such a trifle when He had not healed my sister’s cancer or my Aunt Rosemary’s ALS? Why would He use “faith healing” to fix my leg, when all over the world people were dying from injury and disease far worse than mine, without any medical assistance?
There was no immediate celestial response, no zap of lightning for my ingratitude. Through the years, I’ve come to recognize that this is the way God often operates. The mystery is part of His charm. He can handle our questions, though the answers are sometimes years in the telling. He has the answers, of course – and He knows when we will best be able to receive them.
It wasn’t until years later, when I first heard of the Incarnation Principle (that God initiates contact with the human race through the sensible world) that I began to understand what had happened to me. God had not shifted that pin merely to spare me a few more days of physical pain. Rather, He wanted to remind me that I could trust Him to tend to me – on His terms, and not on mine – as a loving father cares for his children.
Have You No Scars?
Whether our wounds are physical, emotional, or spiritual, the principle remains the same: God uses the painful consequences of our actions to draw us into deeper relationship with Himself. As we endure the pain and the scars begin to form, those marks can become a source of bitterness … or thankfulness.
If in our pain we choose to pull away from God (either because we think He’s abandoned us, or because we are trying to punish ourselves), our scars become a constant reminder of our own failings and weaknesses. However, if we let ourselves draw close to God – in prayer and through the sacraments – He tends to our wounds and teaches us important lessons that we could not learn any other way.
When this happens, He does not remove the scars entirely; the pain may stay with us for a lifetime. However, these marks no longer accuse us, no longer have any power to determine our future course. They have been transformed into reminders of God’s providence and mercy. And with these scars, we are turned a little more perfectly into the image of the One who was wounded for our sins, and the sins of the whole world.