“God Does Not Owe Us a Happy Ending”

In the past I’ve disagreed with Tim Challies (see here), but in the following I’m with Challies.  There’s always going to be that danger in we telling God how he should act and what we expect of him, for him to be God in our lives and be worthy of our praise and devotion.  So we become disappointed and disillusioned with God, even to the point of crafting our own imprecatory type psalms, but God now is our enemy.  (emphasis below are mine)

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It is a visual age. Cameras are ubiquitous, software is cheap, computers are powerful, and together they give us a video for every occasion. We, as Christians, have a video for every occasion. I love to watch the ones that tell the story of a husband and wife who had been on the verge of divorce but rekindled the flame, the ones about the godly wife who was willing to reconcile with her adulterous husband, the ones telling about the couple who endured the difficulty of a long and complicated adoption but were able to return home triumphant, holding that precious child in their arms, the ones about the dear, elderly man who found joy and contentment in caring for the wife who could no longer recognize or acknowledge him.

These videos provide a glimpse of God’s grace in the lives of his people and they are inspiring in the best sense. They give us hope that if we were to find ourselves in those situations, we would experience the Father’s kindness and blessing.

And yet, not every story has a happy ending. This world is so broken, so marked by sin, that many of our stories do not end with a kiss, they do not end with fulfillment, they do not end with a clear purpose. I love these videos just as you do, but they tell only select stories, not every story.

For every powerful story of repentance and forgiveness and reconciliation, there are many husbands who break their vows and never repent, who walk away, never to return. There are wives who are willing to grant forgiveness, willing to save their shattered marriage, except that the husband will not have it. There are husbands who are repentant but wives who cannot or will not forgive. These stories are equally real, but we do not make films for them. We don’t see the soft camera shots and hear the music swell dramatically as she gets served with the divorce papers.

There are the adoptions that fall apart at the last moment, the man and woman who had set their hearts on a child, who had fallen in love with him, who had traveled across the world to pick him up, but who had him snatched away. I have watched a family adopt a child only to find that he was so scarred by his time in brutal Eastern institutions that he returned their love with violence, threats, and sexual deviancy so dark they felt they had to relinquish him. There were no cameras to capture the story and to inspire us with it.

I love to see the film of the elderly husband caring for his dear wife who suffers from Alzheimer’s. It’s powerful and effective and inspiring and I want to be like him should the situation ever befall me. But there is no film for the man whose wife no longer recognizes him and is terrified of him and who, locked into deeper and deeper dementia, must be placed in an institution far from the husband who loves her. There is no narrator to speak words of hope and inspiration.

It is as natural as the sunrise to want to find meaning in our suffering and often we find it, or believe we find it, in a happy ending. It was a grueling time, but I endured it and now I can say it was all worth it because I have the baby in my arms, my marriage has been renewed, my husband is reconciled to me, my prodigal son gave up his rebellion and returned home. But sometimes—oftentimes—the answers are not so readily apparent. So often these films do not represent life as we actually experience it.

But the Bible does. The Bible is full of unhappy endings or unexplained endings. There are Psalms of all praise and all rejoicing, and there are Psalms of pain and bewilderment. There is joy in the Bible, but there is grief too. God saw fit to capture many stories that end without a word of explanation. And these, too, matter to him. These, too, are important and are full of meaning and significance.

There is danger in our dedication to happy endings. We may come to believe that God extends his goodness and grace only in those situations that end happily. We may believe that a happy ending is what proves God’s presence through it. We may believe that the experiences that do not have a happy ending mean that God is somehow removed from it. We may resent the times that we do not hear the crescendo of the music and see in our own lives a story other people will want to hear.

We all desire happy endings to our suffering. Of course we do. But God does not owe us a happy ending and he does not owe us the answers. At times he chooses to give one or both. At other times he does not. Some day these things will make sense and and in that day we will acknowledge that God has done what is right. But until then, it is faith in his character and in his promises that will sustain us far more than a happy ending.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts (Is. 55:8-9).

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation. (Hab. 3:17-18)

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4 Responses to “God Does Not Owe Us a Happy Ending”

  1. Simon says:

    I think the question should be framed differently. The issue of happy endings and suffering should be separated. Of course God wants “happy endings”. Anyone who thinks otherwise hasn’t read the last chapters of Revelation. The question of how to deal with human suffering is quite separate from this. It is right to say that there is no guarantee of being free from suffering until the age to come has been fully realised. However, we can still find joy and rejoice in our sufferings as St Paul says. And I think finding joy in our sufferings is one of the consequences of our life in Christ.

    The Scriptures also do not give us systematic answers as to why there is suffering. It does give us assurance that there will eventually be victory. It also provides an impetus for humanity to help those who are suffering. As to why there is suffering, we have no real satisfactory explanation. It is a reality that has to be dealt with in our lives. However, we are given hope and ways to respond lovingly to suffering. That’s the best we can do as we wait for the time when suffering is no more.

    • TC says:

      Simon, yes, reframe the matter. But for Paul, finding joy in the midst of his suffering was about his perspective, being in Christ and his relationship with the Triune God.

      It’s interesting that you mention Scriptures do not give us systematic answers as to why there is suffering. In my reading through the Psalter, I came to psalm 73 this morning, where this very subject is central, but the psalmist’s response it to throw himself ultimately on God.

  2. Simon says:

    TC, that was exactly my point about suffering in this life – I said “And I think finding joy in our sufferings is one of the consequences of our life in Christ.”

    Again, completely agree with your take on the Psalms. They are not meant to be a treatise on suffering. But what they do is help align ourselves with God, put our hope and trust in him in times of suffering and despair. They are a spiritual, not intellectual, aid for our lives. I did not say that Scriptures do not deal with suffering. I said that they don’t give systematic answers as to why there is suffering. And they don’t. Throwing ourselves onto God in times of despair is not a response that is rationally discerned, but can only be comprehended spiritually by those who are open to the grace of God.

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