Once again, in an effort to appease the copyright police, I feel compelled to share that "Chapter One of 'The Grace of Catastrophe' by Jan Winebrenner (2005) appears by permission of Moody Publishers."
Grace in Doubt
Since that messy, frightening arrival in Texas, I have faced many other obstacles, many that were much more painful, much more life altering than a job crisis and a real estate deal gone sour and the loss of a few material goods. I’ve had to retake that exam on “Practical Theology,” and many times, I’ve failed.
I’ve doubted that God is really good.
I’ve wanted to curse, not sit and read Psalms.
I’ve refused to pray, because in those moments of greatest agony, I wasn’t certain that God would hear and answer, that He could be trusted with my pain.
I’ve wondered, really wondered, if there is a plan to all the chaos. I’ve doubted if God was going to come through for me.
In my worst moments, I’ve wondered if He cares, if He loves. And I still, at times, wonder if He is really as good as He says He is, as good as I need Him to be.
I’ve said with David the psalmist, “Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” ( Psalm 10:1)
Will you forget me forever?How long will you hide your face from me?How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?—Psalm 13:1–2
You’ve probably echoed David’s sentiment. You’ve felt the pain of loss and the desolation of loneliness. You’ve struggled to believe the truth and wondered if maybe, just maybe, you’ve gotten it all wrong. But have you ever echoed these words of David?
I trust in your unfailing love;My heart rejoices in your salvation.—Psalm 13:5
I will praise the LORD, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me. —Psalm 16:7
David, grubbing for food in the desert, sleeping in a cave with vagabond mercenaries, fighting for his life, discovered that grace could be found in unlikely places. God Himself counseled him in moments of confusion. Listen to his testimony: “You have made known to me the path of life; you fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Psalm 16:11).
A Gift of Opportunity
Catastrophes come to all of us, in forms too numerous to count. But with every catastrophe comes this gift—the opportunity to see God at work in our lives, on our behalf; the gift of opportunity to experience what we say we believe—about God, about His kingdom, about His people. It is through the grace of catastrophe that we begin to experience the theology that, for most of us, is too often relegated to the academic, the theoretical, realms of our existence. By the grace of catastrophe, we are offered the opportunity to enter into our theology, humbly, and with great anticipation. We are gifted with the chance to experience God in ways we never before imagined, nor hoped for.
John Bunyan wrote, “Let it rain, let it blow, let it thunder, let it light[ning], a Christian must still believe."9
The thunderbolts reverberate from every corner of the world, it seems. The echoes of suicide bombs shake us in the depths of our souls. The sounds of gunfire in our world, in our cities, in our own communities, send us in search of shelter, if there be any. The Internet brings us images of beheadings, images of torture and ignominy. Our hearts reel at the kind of catastrophes that greet us in the morning paper—and this before we’ve had our first cup of coffee, before the phone rings with news of a family crisis, a job crisis, before we’ve had a chance to enter the fray of our own chaos—kids, jobs, road rage. Everywhere we turn there is catastrophe on some level. Everywhere we turn there is the challenge to believe.
We must still believe that God is who He says He is; that He is as good as we hope and pray He is; that His kingdom purposes will prevail, regardless of the storms that encircle our world.
The Christian must still believe—theology must be lived out in the midst of whatever mess we might find ourselves: the international/global kind that makes the evening news, as well as the interpersonal ones that greet us when the kids climb out of bed in the morning, when the boss walks into the office with less-than-good news, when the car engine refuses to turn over, when the medical tests reveal something awful, when the parent/teacher meeting is negative. When life happens, we must still believe. We must hold on to the truth. And as we deliberately choose to hold on to the truth, which is holding on to God Himself, we discover His presence to be more loving and tender, more astoundingly personal than ever before, and catastrophes become for us a means of grace—a means of knowing and delighting in God.
But what does it look like to “hold on to” an invisible God? Can our fingers actually grip His hand? Can we wrap ourselves in the warmth of His regal garments?
Years ago I discovered that I could hold on to God through pen and paper. It was my mother’s suggestion to me when I was a young mother of two, struggling to stay a few steps ahead of despair. Ken was traveling heavily, my children were babies, and I was lonely, weary, and battling a growing cancer of bitterness. Every day held its own catastrophe—whether an emergency visit to the pediatrician for a shot that would enable Molly to breathe, or a broken air conditioner on a summer day when the temperature soared to 113 degrees (we lived in Phoenix).
Mom visited me one day when I was especially haggard. She could do little to help out because she had her own crises to deal with at the time, but what she offered that day changed the complexion of my spiritual life.
“Honey, why don’t you keep a notebook with your Bible and try writing down how God is dealing with you? Write down verses that mean a lot, the ones that encourage you, and keep a record of God’s faithfulness.” No one else was offering me a remedy for peace that day, so I did what she suggested. I bought a notebook the size of my Bible and my life of faith has never been the same.
I began by rewriting passages from Psalms, putting them in language and metaphor that I could connect with. Later I began shaping them into poems. Often having only snippets of time, I wrote verses on scraps of paper, carried them in my pockets or stuffed them in the cup holder of my car and memorized them while my hands were busy with other things. Later I played with them in a notebook, writing and rewriting them, squeezing every ounce of truth and meaning out of them.
Now, looking back over nearly thirty years, I can see that this has been my means of holding on to truth and leaving markers—markers that still stand as monuments to God’s goodness, love, and faithfulness.
I have been tracking grace.
In her book The God Hunt, Karen Mains calls it keeping a “life list,” keeping a record of “divine activity”10:
These are not mundane accounts. . . . They have to do with the Creator of the universe chasing after me in crazy love so that his nearness, his closeness, his within-ness can be recognized and known by me.11
Call it journaling, call it your “life list.” Call it whatever you like, but for me it is the tracking of grace.
Paul closed the book of Philippians with this encouragement to the Christians he loved: “Receive and experience the amazing grace of the Master, Jesus Christ, deep, deep within yourselves” (Philippians 4:23 THE MESSAGE).
Somehow, that grace seems to plow deeper into my soul when it has been moistened with tears and softened by suffering. Its tracks are more visible. And always, those tracks lead to greater knowledge of God, greater intimacy, and a kind of deep interior joy that can’t be touched by circumstances, or catastrophes—large or small.
The Path to Joy
I hope as you read and study about the character of God and His kingdom, you will grab a pen and “track grace” in your own life. I hope and pray you will anchor it in ink.
I hope you will recognize, in that moment when pain pierces, or when the weight of life presses on your chest until it hurts to breathe, that hiding from God isn’t the answer. That running away is not the way to go.
I hope you will run to God. That you’ll open His Word and read and listen, with a pencil in hand. I pray that as you write what you hear and what the Holy Spirit makes known to you, you will sense truth being traced on your soul—that you will recognize the indelible mark of grace. I pray that the reality of God’s unfathomable love will imprint itself on your heart and that you will experience His powerful presence in new and wonderful ways.
I pray that whatever catastrophe, large or small, you encounter today or tomorrow will cause you to hold on to truth, to cling to God Himself.
As you cling, may you develop a record of His grace, tracking your own path to intimacy and joy.
And in those tracks, may you see the nail-scarred foot prints of Jesus your maker who, for “crazy love,” is chasing after you.
If we come to believe the wrong things about God, we will think the wrong things about ourselves, and we will live meanly or badly. Telling a person a lie about God distorts reality, perverts life and damages all the processes of living.12
Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” - John 8:31–32
1. Write a description of God as you believe Him to be. Be honest.
2. Describe the kind of relationship you could have with the God you’ve described.
3. Thinking about the most recent catastrophe you’ve experienced, what did you expect
from God, if anything?
4. Read Psalm 9:10. Write your response. Now, try writing the verse in your own words,
keeping in mind that trust can also be understood as “to be attached to,” “to be secured,”
or “to have expectations.”
5. Write a prayer to God, or a poem, based on Psalm 9:10.
8 Henri Nouwen, With Burning Hearts (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1994), 49
9 A Golden Treasury Of Puritan Devotion, Compiled and edited by Mariano DiGangi (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 1999) from “Jerusalem Sinner Saved”, 96
10 Karen Mains, The God Hunt (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003),137
11 Ibid., 137
12 Living The Message, 190