Thursday, July 26, 2012

One Thousand Gifts, chapter 5

In Chapter 5, Voskamp steps into deeper waters: Can I thank God for the bad as well as the good? Can I thank Him when evil steps into my life?

She approaches the question through her son's farm accident, in which he injures his hand. Unlike the lovely snippets of sunlight on her List, she calls events like this "the hard eucharisteo." The hard thanks. Joni Tada calls it (as Scripture does) "the sacrifice of praise" -- praising God through tears, when you can barely breathe, and just assenting to Him is a sacrifice of your soul. Hard days. I've had those.

Voskamp notes early on that light can emerge after darkness; she uses the example of an amaryllis given to her by her mother-in-law. The bulb was the 1000th item on her List, just before her mother-in-law died. After death comes resurrection. After burial in the dirt comes a glorious bloom. After desolation comes wisdom and relief. Perhaps the best writer on this subject is Elisabeth Elliot, in her excellent book A Path Through Suffering.

Voskamp clearly struggles hard with suffering. She asks bold questions. "Life is loss," she says. "What will I lose?"  And I want to answer her, 'Nothing! All is returned, and more, in the New Earth!' She asks, "When will I lose?" And I want to answer, 'Never! That's what eternity is all about -- never losing anything good.'  She then asks, "Who will I lose?" And my reply is, 'No one!' All your brothers and sisters in the Lord will be with you there.'

She asks, "What in the world, in a world of certain loss, is grace?"  And my answer of course: 'Certain gain! We have a hope that is secured in the heavens. This life on this earth is a pig sty compared to the New Earth awaiting us.'

She can't hear my replies, and I suppose she knows these answers anyway. But she doesn't mention the Christian's great hope. This chapter focuses on despair and dealing with it somehow here. Some days we are living in the pain. Ann is looking for the right glasses to use, the right perspective to use, when examining suffering and evil. On p. 86/87, she finds the perfect lens through which to look:  The Word. I was excited to read those pages.

On p. 88, she drifts into deeper waters yet. She ruminates on the nature of evil, a subject that hefty theologians like Augustine and Edwards have wrestled with and not mastered. Voskamp compares evil to a shadow, an absence of light. This is, I think, Augustine's view. She says: "That is what a shadow is, an empty space, a hole in the light. Evil is that -- a hole in the goodness of God." I was stunned at that sentence, at the idea that God's goodness could even have a hole, a lack, a break or an imperfection. And if God's goodness could have a gash in it, I would never imagine it to be filled with ... Evil. I'm really uncertain of what she means there. I don't want her words to mean what they actually say, so I'm hoping she just did a bad job of expressing herself. Regardless, it's important to note what she's saying: Evil is an absence of good; Evil is not a thing in and of itself.

Quickly, she leaps into the real message of this chapter. Her theme is that all bad things are transfigured into good things. "So God transfigures all the world? Darkness transfigures into light, bad transfigures into good, grief transfigures into grace, empty transfigures into full." (p. 97) That's another passage I stumbled over; my mind snagged on it. It just doesn't sound right to me. Shocking, yes. Right, no.

I agree with so much that she's dancing around -- that God allows grief and pain, that He then uses it in our lives for our gain and His glory. We all know this. I posted this just days ago, in the video by Steve Saint. If you didn't watch that, you need to. He offers such profound, mature understanding of this subject! The mature Christian understands that the blows of this life are the chippings away from the Sculptor's hand. Only He -- only He! -- can do such miracles with fallen men and fallen events! Another thrilling example happened just this past week in Colorado. Did you hear about Petra, a victim in the Aurora shootings? A bullet was shot into her head, entering her nose and passing through her brain to the back of her scull. Yet her brain was virtually uninjured. Why? Because from birth she'd had a defect (a defect!)  in her brain, a channel of fluid running (you guessed it) from her nose through her brain. Only a CAT scan would have ever revealed it. The bullet went in at one end of that channel and traveled, like a pea through a straw, through her brain. I'm sure such an event could not have been replicated, not if one tried again and again.

Clearly a miracle. God's glory and power shown. And what were His tools? A brain defect. A demented shooter. A bullet. A surgery. Those are all fallen things. He uses them.

But they're still fallen. It's important to remember that. Violence and hate and illness and injury and death -- they are all evil things. They do not get renamed or remade. Or transfigured. Oh how important it is that we not fall into the mistake, in our desperation of understanding Evil, to somehow call it Good. "Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; who substitute bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter." (Isa. 5:20)

We must keep these eternal issues straight.

You see, Ann ponders, and she wonders, "That which seems evil, is it a cloud to bring rain, to bring a greater good to the whole of the world?" And later she asks, "What if that which feels like trouble, gravel in the mouth, is only that -- feeling? What if faith says all is . . . " (95)

Yes. God can use it all. Even the evil things of this world are tools in His hands, and He manipulates them as He wishes. Without illness we could not know healing; without loss, gain; without weariness, rest; without death, resurrection. 

But it is one thing to say that God uses the bad in order to bring forth the good for us. It is quite another to rename the bad, and call it good. When Ann says, "What which seems evil," or "that which feels like trouble," I'm perturbed at her words. When she states that "bad transfigures into good," I do not think I can agree with her.

We knew a man whose wife died, and in his deep grief and trouble, he struggled with how to define Death. Scripture clearly tells us that Death is our enemy. It is of the fall, it is conquered by Christ, and it has no place in God's Kingdom. Death will not exist on His New Earth. But this man, as he groped for a way to understand his loss, came to the conclusion that Death is a friend -- the friend who takes our hand, removes us from this place of toil and sickness, and leads us into heaven. Death is our Friend -- see, that's so wrong! Just because we're struggling to understand deep issues, doesn't mean we can begin redefining terms.

I'm afraid that Voskamp may well be doing that in this chapter, and I can't go there with her. She asks, "Is there anything in this world that is truly ugly? That is curse?"  Her answer to that question is "no."

No curse? On this planet? Yes, the curse is here. When my precious friend held her dead baby, only a day after his birth, that is the curse. I will not tell her, "Actually, friend, this is a good thing. Death is your friend." When I hear of a child abused for a decade, chained to a potty chair, starved and beaten, that's the Curse. When I read of Treblinka, that's the Curse. The Curse is definitely here. And just because I have a God who can rescue and use evil for His own ends, doesn't mean that Evil isn't still ... Evil.

I would like to think I'm misunderstanding Voskamp here. I don't think I am. So much of what she says is very good, very useful. There's just a slice of it, a significant slice running straight through the middle, that I must cut out with a scalpel, if I am to do her book justice.

"Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; who substitute bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter."


  1. I supoose being on holiday I've missed the full thrust of your Gifts project. So I've been unlazy and read down through the theme. Apologies for my throw-away comments thus far. This is very interesting. I am, as I said, waiting for the book, and will be reading it with a "double eye" now. Glad to have you ahead on the path. Will be calling out to you now and then!

  2. Just to add: there's tons that is very beautiful, and very good, in the book. I can't address it all, of course. My "job" (as I see it) is to examine the material and look for any discrepancies with orthodoxy (as I see it). I'm trying to be careful, but nobody's perfect. So I hope the reviews are helpful. I don't know that anybody's ever done a chapter-by-chapter before :)

  3. MK, some disjointed thoughts...

    You and I are in total agreement. It bothers me when folks change Scripture and to call evil good, or any implication thereof, is changing Scripture. I don't care to what end, it's wrong. I can think of MUCH in this world that is "truly ugly"...there's no end to "truly ugly" because in this world, there's no end to satan. Christ has overcome but satan rules this world.
    Yet, as Joseph told his brothers, "you meant it for evil but God worked it for good". There's the story of life, my life at least. The evil and bad God ALLOWS to happen so He can WORK it for good, His glory...when I submit.
    The only thing "good" about death is, it takes a Believer Home and, oft times, relieves pain and suffering.
    Any Believer who seeks to follow Christ with their heart, and not just with their mind, knows the heart sacrifice that *must* occur if one wants to grow in Him. With me, it takes a while, doesn't happen immediately but, bless God, it does happen. I'm not growing at a pace that someone else might approve of but God knows my heart and He's with me every heart beat.
    Voskamp is wrong when she says evil "is a hole in the goodness of God". Evil is the absence of good, the absence of God, the absence of Light. She gets it right when she says "absence of Light" yet for me evil isn't a shadow. The shadow is still God's light, softened, deflected so I still bask and stand in His glory but gentler. It's those times when I'm too weak to bear His light, He allows His shadow to fall over me; letting me know He still loves me and I am still His even though, due to my weakness, I can't bear His full glorious Light.
    Sometimes God's love overwhelms me; it's then, His shadow holds me gently and sustains.
    MK, I'm not expressing myself very well. Don't know that I ever could but, because of Him, you're a good and gentle soul and I trust you with my heart.

  4. Dear Sandra -- you are precious to me, and to the Lord. You are living out the things the rest of us are only talking about. There is wonderful wisdom in your words -- He's changing me very slowly too. It's taken years and much trial. Bless you! I wish I lived closer and I'd come help you tend animals and sit on your porch!


Hello! I hope you leave a word ~ I will get back to it as soon as I can!