We get a lot of hard emails — hard emails to read because they articulate very hard struggles in the dark places of life. Today’s email is such a one, from Josh in Ohio.
“Pastor John, my wife and I have been praying for a child for over two-and-a-half years. A year ago we got pregnant for the first time, but it ended with a miscarriage. We continued to pray and we got pregnant again seventeen weeks ago. Now the doctors are saying our son probably has a chromosomal abnormality, likely Down syndrome.
“We are not high risk for this. My wife is 28. I’m 31. There are so many terrifying scenarios ahead. I struggle to see God’s goodness in this. We prayed for years for God to give us a child that is healthy, and that we would grow to love him. It feels like he is stealing our joy and peace. I know that he works good for all those who love him, and that good is to be more like his Son. But it seems cruel to afflict my son with a disease just to teach me a lesson. Please help us make sense of this.”
Opposite of Our Prayers
One of the things that makes all sorrows even more sorrowful is that they are often such opposites of what we hoped for, prayed for, and expected. That’s certainly true for Josh and his wife. It isn’t only the painful fact that their whole life is now changed by the prospect of parenting a disabled child, but that this comes as a crowning response to their prayers for the opposite.
“It’s not wrong to rejoice in the gift of a healthy child, but it is wrong not to rejoice in the gift of a child with a disability.”
But we have to be very careful. What looks like the opposite of what we asked for may not in fact be the opposite. Let’s think about the three things that Josh says. We’ll take them very seriously and very literally.
One, he says that he struggles to see God’s goodness. Two, he says that God seems to be stealing their joy and peace. Three, he says it seems cruel that God would afflict their son in order to teach them a lesson. Let me say a word about each of those three things.
Walk of Faith
First, Josh says, “We’re struggling to see God’s goodness in all of this.” That’s exactly the right way to describe the difficulty. Namely, it’s a problem to see. The problem is with us, not with God. That’s exactly right. The struggle is with our seeing goodness, not with God being good.
There is some measure of seeing the ways of God in this world: “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” (Psalm 34:8).
On the other hand, Paul says, “We walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Many times, we have to say with the psalmist, “I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Psalm 27:13–14).
In other words, we believe, but we have to wait to see. There is a seeing in believing, but we long for the fuller revelation of how it’s all going to work for good.
In the meantime, we hear Jesus say, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). If we can only see him, this will get us through many seasons when we can’t see the goodness in our circumstances.
Birth of a New Joy
Second, Josh says that it feels like God is stealing their joy and peace.
“One of the things that makes most sorrows even more sorrowful is they are often such opposites of what we hoped and prayed for.”
It’s not wrong to rejoice in the gift of a healthy child, but it is wrong not to rejoice in the gift of a child with a disability. Both of these acts of joy are miracles. They are produced by the Spirit of God when the joy is really in God and thanks are really being offered to God.
Here’s the rub though. The transition from the hoped-for joy in a healthy child to the painful joy in the disabled child is a huge transition.
The first joy dies. It’s a real death, and that death is painful. That wonderful joy disappears. It’s gone. All that is happening while the new joy is struggling like a little seed to push its way up through the rocks of disappointment and fear and sorrow.
There are days, and weeks, and maybe months of transition from the death of one joy to the full flower of another joy, and those are not easy days. They require enormous patience as we wait for the Lord.
The Lord has to do a miracle of creating that other joy in a gift we did not pray for and which we didn’t want. That’s a miracle. It does come, and it is right, and it is beautiful. The transition from the death of one joy to the full flowering of the other is a painful season.
Josh, God is not stealing your joy. He is replacing one joy with another, one you did not ask for, and perhaps one you just now are not able to embrace with joy. It will come.
I say that, first, on the testimony of Scripture, that every trial is a cause for joy (Romans 5:3; James 1:2). I say it also on the basis of the testimony of 33 years of watching many parents who would not trade their disabled child for any other. That’s the second.
Three Final Thoughts
Here’s the third and last thing. Josh, when you say, “It seems cruel to afflict our son to teach us a lesson” — namely, conformity to Christ, according to Romans 8:29, as you quoted — please consider these three things as you ponder that thought.
1. Ten Thousand Purposes
The connection between your child’s disability and your sanctification is only one of the ten thousand connections God is making between your child’s life in this world and your life in the world.
You and he are entering for decades of life and countless connections you can’t now see. Life is never simply “one thing causes another thing.” There are always thousands and thousands of things God is doing that we cannot see, like in the birth of a child with Down syndrome.
Beware of reducing the reality of your child’s disability to a simple instrument of your own transformation — even though that itself is not a simple thing, but a gloriously deep and complex thing.
2. Fallen World
Always take into account when considering the brokenness in the world, in your family, and in your bodies what Romans 8:18–25 teaches — namely, there are sufferings and brokenness in this world that are part of the vast fallenness of creation and not explainable only in the immediate terms of how we experience them.
“The transition from the death of one joy to the full flowering of the other is a painful season.”
There is a groaning of the whole creation, which we are to understand as labor pains, ready to give birth to a new world. Here’s what Paul says: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:22).
Sometimes, we need to just step back and put our hands over our mouths and believe that all the miseries of this fallen world are leading to something glorious, like the pregnancy of a new age. He calls it “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
3. Christlike Affliction
Keep in mind that Jesus Christ was afflicted precisely so that we might be made whole.
You don’t want to find yourself among the number who call this “cosmic child abuse.” You don’t want to call God cruel for afflicting Jesus that you might be saved.
The Bible says this was the greatest act of love ever performed, even though it cost Jesus his life. It was done for the good of others.
There are mysteries in why some suffer and others do not. But benefits come from the suffering of others. This is in fact how the gospel spreads — Christians willing to suffer in order to take the gospel to others. This is how God does all his saving works.
One suffers and serves, another leaves. Josh, be very slow to see the afflictions of your child as cruel. They may in fact be more Christlike than anything you can imagine.