By Meri Beth Arbogast
If you spend any length of time around me, you will know that I love learning and that most of the knowledge I have includes random–like seriously random–subjects. For instance, last week I spent a solid amount of time googling and reading articles on the faith of Abraham Lincoln and his parents’ faith. Shortly before that topic, I was polling my friends about their knowledge of relatively unknown presidents, just because I learned that most people recognize Alexander Hamilton as a former President over Chester Arthur (Hamilton was never a President, but he is on the $10 bill, FYI). I become fixated on random topics, because of my desire to know why. Why does Lincoln speak about God in his speeches in a way that would lead one to believe he had faith in God, but yet never become a member of a church? Why is Chester Arthur less likely to be recognized as a President than Millard Fillmore? (I really enjoy US Presidential history if you can’t tell) I explore deeper into these random tidbits to satiate my desire to answer that one question: Why?
Even greater than desiring to know why certain things are true or false is my desire to know why I even want to know why! I wholeheartedly believe that is because I, as a human being created in the image of God, desire to have a purpose and plan for the ultimate reality of this life. Ephesians 1 tells us that God chose his Bride in Christ before the foundations of the world (v. 4). The next verse emphasizes God’s plan for his Church even more: “In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace,” (v. 5)
And if these two verses don’t convince us of God’s eternal purposes, Paul goes on to write even more about how, through Christ’s atoning death and resurrection, God has made known to us his previously mysterious will, which is according to his purpose, that Christ would be the One to save his people from their sins–which God planned for the fullness of time (vv. 7-10).
And even following those incredible verses, Paul again writes to explain how the Church obtains its inheritance all because God predestined this to be so according to his purposes through which he works ALL THINGS according to the counsel of his will (v. 11). Y’all, at this point Paul is basically yelling from a loudspeaker: God has a purpose and has eternally had a purpose to save his people through Christ.
I emphasize all these verses in Ephesians 1 to make this point: Because God made a plan before time even began, to save sinners like me through the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, every single thing about my life has a purpose. Therefore, when something happens in my life, and I ask the ever-so-familiar question of “why,” an eternally glorious answer can always be given.
However, I haven’t always been convinced. But this week I am so incredibly grateful that God has pressed that truth into my heart.
You see, on May 23, 1997, a beautiful, kind, 5 year old girl passed away after a long battle with leukemia. Her name was Anna, and she happened to be my older sister. I knew my sister for only 3 short years. A majority of her life on earth but only a small portion of my now 22 years. Tuesday, May 23, 2016, marked nineteen years since her death. For all of us who have lost loved ones, we realize that his/her death is never something we totally get over; it’s something that becomes easier to learn to live with over time. I don’t think of Anna as much as I did when I was 3, nor can I recall as many memories. But as I live on, with every changing season of life I abruptly come face to face with this reality: my sister, my best friend, is not here to laugh, cry, fight, worship, advise, annoy, encourage–all of the things that sisters get to do that I feel like I’m missing–with me.
Over the course of my 22 years, I’ve never asked God “Why?” more times than I have about the death of my sister.
“Why did you only give her 5 years?”
“Why did she have to suffer through cancer of all the ways to die?”
“Why didn’t you take make me instead?”
“Why did you take her the year after my parents divorced? Do you even care that I don’t have a family?”
And most importantly…
“Why do my parents, grandparents, and church members keep telling me that you’re good when you are SO unfair and awful? I’ve seen what you’ve done to my sister; you’re not fooling me. I hate you.”
I honestly feel shivers as I write that last question that I harbored for so many years. After my sister’s death, on the outside I was a girl who was troubled, but eventually seemed good to most people who knew me. On the inside, though, I was a girl with a dead heart full of sin who didn’t want to have anything to do with God. Unknown to me, though, God was using these very questions to bring about his purpose in my life: my salvation through the grace of Christ Jesus.
By God’s glorious grace, the death of my sister only grew my parents’ faith in him. In a time when it would have been so easy to grow bitter toward God like I had, God softened the hearts of my mama and daddy and used Anna’s death as the most significant avenue of growth for their individual spiritual lives. For that, I am so incredibly thankful to God. For literally years of hearing them tell me over and over again how God is good, sovereign, wise, loving–and so much more– and that we can trust him no matter what happens, something changed in me. Instead of being full of hate and internal chaos, I was filled with peace and trust in the God I had been taught about since I was literally in my mom’s womb.
What happened in my heart was not magic, biological maturity, mental instability, or a change in mind brought about by my own personal initiative. What happened in my heart was a miracle.
In Romans 3, we learn that not even one person on this planet, except Jesus, is righteous and lived a life without doing anything wrong. Does verse 14 remind you of anyone? “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” In the midst of my bitterness and cursing toward God, he opened the eyes of my heart to see the length, depth, and height of my sin against him. God created each of us to love and enjoy him forever! He is the almighty Creator and Sustainer, and therefore he gets to determine what is right and what is wrong. This would be a scary thought…if he weren’t infinitely wise, all knowing, and kind (which he definitely is).
God brought me face to face with who he is, and all I could do was realize my utter need for help. Who was I to say that I hated God? Who was I say claim that I knew better than he? Who was I to claim that God was intentionally picking on me? After all, I was the one who was spewing hate and bitterness toward him–an infinitely perfect God who is without any trace of wrong doing.
Since God is the eternal, perfect Creator, and I am his finite, sinful creation, the consequences of my sin toward him deserves eternal punishment.
“But God…being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph 2.4-5)
As a sinner before God, I deserved eternal punishment, but God has forgiven me. He did not sweep my sin under a rug and overlook it. He did the exact opposite. He took on flesh, became a man while still being fully God, lived a 100% flawlessly perfect life, and then was brutally murdered on a Roman cross. Through his death, he took every ounce of eternal punishment that my sin deserved. He was dead for three days. On that third day, he rose from the grave, showing that he conquered every weight and consequence of my sin that could possibly keep me from being redeemed to my original purpose–enjoying and loving him forever. Praise be to God!
And here is when I finally learned the answer to all of my “Why” questions: Jesus Christ.
If my sister had not passed away, would my parents’ faith have grown as it did following her death? If my parents’ faith in God had not grown, would they have shared their faith with me so earnestly and prayed for me so eagerly? If they had not shared and prayed, would I even know my precious Savior?
God’s ways are higher than ours, and we cannot fully understand his plans and purposes (Rom 11:33-35). But this is one thing I do know: God used the death of my sister to bring salvation to my soul and glory to his great name.
Last night, my husband Nick preached a sermon on John 9, a story where Jesus heals a man blind from birth. At the beginning of this story, Jesus’ disciples assumed that the man was born blind as a result of either his or his parents’ sin. Jesus responded: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (v. 4)
This healed man is later questioned by the Pharisees concerning Jesus, and all he had to say was that “though I was blind, now I see” (9:25). At the end of chapter 9 in verse 36, this healed man is again found by Jesus and confesses his belief in Jesus and worships him.
I don’t know why God made this man blind from birth. And I don’t know why my sister died from leukemia at age 5. I do not know why each instance of suffering takes place daily on this earth. Like the blind man, one thing I do know is that once I was blind, and now I see.
God is good, and he is worthy of all of our praise and adoration through times of joy and times of sorrow. When life is difficult and you want to know “Why,” look to him and trust that it is a part of God’s sovereign plan to bring you to faith in Christ and to grow your love for him.
So as I write this blog post (that turned into a small novel!) and recount the death of my sister 19 years ago, I can be sorrowful while still rejoicing in all that Christ has done. When seasons of life change and the Anna-shaped hole in my life comes to the forefront of my mind, I can look to Jesus and be comforted by his grace. When I meet others who have lost loved ones, I can share the story of how God gave me sight and point them to the Comforter in their time of sorrow (2 Cor 2:3-5). When I desperately miss my sister, I can know assuredly that one day we will meet again and together worship in the presence of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
“And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.”
Meri Beth Arbogast, a native of Sylvester, Georgia, is a student at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky where she is pursuing a B.A. in Biblical and Theological Studies. She lives in Henryville, Indiana with her husband Nick (who is Associate Pastor for Students and Families at FBC Henryville) and their beagle Winston. You can follow her on Twitter at @merrbeff.