Wracked with pain, miserable, and so weak and exhausted that standing could only be done for a few minutes and if I positioned myself just so and held on, I was still called to sing. You could say called by the choirmaster, who happened to have chosen “Holy, holy, holy,” but I would say called by God, who knew perfectly well what I was going through and wanted to know if I would still stand up and declare Him holy. I did; but it is what I can only call “a broken and holy hallelujah.” Or, as I text messaged a friend later in that evening, with tears streaming down my face, sometimes the harder it is to say something, the more true it is.
I have been facing a growing frustration with how many people and places I see touting that horrible things are gift. Most recent was a post I read entitled “The Gift of Lack: Infertility, Miscarriage, Singleness and the Long Wait.” Maybe, as I grow in maturity, discernment and perspective, I will grow to agree with this view point. But also, maybe not. While I understand the quest to find God holy in every situation, I’m not sure that I can reconcile myself to understanding “the emptiness” as a gift. The broken and the holy hallelujah seems to have fallen somewhat out of favor in preference to giving thanks FOR all things (which I see as very much different understanding than my reading of giving thanks IN all things).
Maybe, perhaps, Job was supposed to sit there in his loss and misery and say, “Thank you, God, for the gift of emptiness and loss and loneliness.” Or maybe he was just supposed to give exactly what God pulled out of him in the end: that broken and holy hallelujah, the one that says, “This isn’t fair, this is horrible, I see no goodness in this at all. Yet You have declared Yourself to be good, and I must acknowledge it as truth for no other reason than that You are holy.”
For no other reason.
I see people (not just the post I mentioned above) tying themselves in knots trying to explain how all the hard and horrible things are gifts. I had people trying to tell me that I would look back on the time when I was sick and would see the gift of it all. But you know what? No. Listen–this world sucks. This cursed world is full of things it was never meant to be full of, including sin and death and suffering and lack and betrayal. And while God is at work to redeem, it doesn’t come to its fullness in this age, and we still have it all–sin, death, suffering, misery, grief, and much more. He can work in those things, and through those things and in spite of those things, but I, personally, cannot find the grounds to call those things gifts. Jesus, hanging on the cross, did not say “Father, thank you for the gift of all of my friends running away from me at my hour of greatest need.” He said, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?”
He was quoting a psalm, of course; the psalms are full of people crying out from the darkness, from the pit, from their loss and their lack and their heartache and their wretched loneliness. And they didn’t call that wretchedness a gift. That He often sends a blessing in the midst of the darkness does not make the darkness in itself a gift. That He uses a curse to redeem those under a curse does not make the curse any less of a curse, even though He paradoxically works beyond it to bring great blessing.
Maybe perhaps you think I am splitting hairs. Maybe perhaps you think there is no wrongness to mashing together the two concepts of praising God in spite of everything, from a low and shattered existence, and praising God for everything, since He can use anything for our good and so it must be a gift. Maybe I am not pious enough, like Corrie Ten Boom and her sister giving thanks for head lice, and maybe, if I just got my spiritual act together, I could begin to see that my times of grief and longing are in fact, their actual selves, gifts.
But I am not yet ready to yield that. Because what I see reinforced and encouraged by that view point is the condemnation of suffering. The teaching that if you are truly miserable, and the holiness of God is a hard thing to find on your lips, then it is no one’s fault but your own that you are incapable of accepting God’s gifts. Now, God does give good gifts; but that is not the entirety of our relationship to God, anymore than it is always Christmas or always your birthday, and all of life is never anything but happiness and presents.
It would be an easy jump to point out that God also gives discipline, which is true, but I mean more than that. I mean that it is not a one way street, and God also requires things of us. He describes Himself as a jealous God, and His anger when we chase after other things; He requires faithfulness. Faithfulness is not a property of a response to gifts; faithfulness is a property of a response to kill your own son, to have your children and your possessions stripped from you and your friends to tell you it’s all your fault, to declare the truth of God even when you know it will result in hell-in-a-stove or death by stones. And God also requires holy fear — awe and silence that come from recognizing the vastness of God’s greatness and the tiny pitifulness of our own smallness. You can’t have a broken and holy hallelujah without first being broken.
To condemn suffering is also to condemn those who cry out to be delivered. Because to consider it as a gift means to be grateful for it, and to be grateful for it means that you should have no need to beg for it to be taken away. I see that nowhere, least of all in the psalms. And I sure don’t see Abraham or Hannah or many of the other devastatingly childless people in the Bible sweetly sitting there saying, “thanks for no kids!” They cry out. “Be fruitful and multiply,” says the Lord, and in this broken, busted world that doesn’t work the way it ought, some do not get to have part of “be fruitful and multiply.” God answers some of their pleas, like Hannah, but the list of people who have died childless is soberingly long, and grievous.
Is God always working good works? Yes. Does God give good gifts? Yes. Ergo, is every black and empty thing a gift? No! No. That God can work redemption through even black and empty things does not mean that we’ve reached the fullness of redemption and that all things ARE good. He created all things as good, and then sin entered the world, and all thing are NOT good, even though God Himself remains good. It is by faith, and only by faith, that it can be said that God is good, when it becomes devastatingly impossible to see good in the horrors around you. And faith is pleasing to God. And being broken is pleasing to God, who values broken and contrite hearts more than the sacrifice of the cattle on a thousand hills. And recognizing the holiness of God is pleasing to God, who stoops to reach down to us but is by no means lowered to our meager depths. And the broken and the holy hallelujah rings true, in His ear and in the cloud of witnesses.
I will not, like so many I’ve seen, stand up and make a smarmy (if perhaps heartfelt or well intended) pledge on Facebook about how I’m accepting God’s gift of singleness and will live joyfully before the world with this beautiful blessing of singleness. It’s not true; I don’t believe it. Instead I will sit here, and say much more quietly, that sometimes in my longing I think maybe I understand better what God means when He says He is longing for the wedding feast of the Lamb. Aha! you say, see! Singleness is a gift — see what you understand better? No, I say; it’s not the gift OF singleness, it’s a gift found IN singleness, a gift given in spite of the longing and the empty. You don’t wish a gift to be over; and yet isn’t it described as God Himself wanting the time of waiting and longing to be over?
Maybe I am lacking in piety. Maybe I am lacking spiritual maturity. Maybe I lack perspective. Or maybe God is drawing out from me that which He wants to receive: The broken–and the holy–Hallelujah.