We have a baby in our congregation who was born very prematurely – at just 27 weeks – and in the few weeks since his birth he has had many serious problems. A rampant bowel infection that antibiotics couldn’t control meant that he needed surgery, even though he was thought to be too ill to survive it. More than that, the doctors were fairly certain that his bowel was completely dead and that surgery was unlikely to do any good. When the surgeons operated however, they discovered that much of his small intestine was good and they were able to perform a bypass. Even so, they didn’t expect him to survive the night. That was ten days ago. The baby (his name is Wilfred) is still alive and making gradual and significant improvements. He is still very sick and has a long way to go, but ‘thus far the Lord has helped him’ (1 Sam 7.12) which encourages us to keep praying fervently for him. No matter what happens in the future, there is so much to be thankful for already.
A situation like this one inevitably prompts God’s people to reflect on the mystery of his sovereign purposes. We don’t doubt his power to control all things – he determines all that happens (Isa 45.7) – and we know he is good and kind and gracious. If we – who are far from perfect – wouldn’t let a child suffer, why would God permit this to happen?
There are no easy answers to this question. We don’t know how a situation like Wilfred’s can possibly fit into the perfectly wise plan of a perfectly good God. Deuteronomy 29.29 says that ‘the secret things belong to the LORD our God…’ – there are many things in the Lord’s purposes that are secret. He doesn’t share them with us or explain them to us.
But just because we don’t understand them doesn’t make them any less wise or good. Instead we hold on to what he has revealed; the rest of Deut 29.29 says, ‘…but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.’ And what has God revealed? Amongst other things he has told us that he is working all things together for the good of those who love him (Rom 8.28). We may not be able to see how this or that situation can possibly contribute anything to the good of God’s people, but that is what he says is happening.
Imagine for a moment that God could explain the whole of his purposes for the universe to you. Of course he can’t, because you would need to have an infinite understanding to be able to take it in and make sense of it – but imagine that he could show you how every single circumstance in every single human life fits into his grand plan for the universe.
With our finite, limited vision we can barely understand how the one tiny little sliver that we can see intersects with a few of the other things that are going on around it, never mind all the millions of ways, seen and unseen, that any one event impacts on and interrelates with all the other things going on around it.
We see so little of the picture – we have such a skewed perspective – we are in no position to critique God’s masterplan because we see such a miniscule part of it. If we could see it all laid out in its detail and perfect completeness – if we could understand how each little sliver connects in millions of ways to all the other slivers then we would see that it couldn’t have been any other way. That this was the best way to bring about the best outcome. If we could see everything from God’s perspective we would say, ‘Now I see why it had to happen the way that it did’ and we would want it to happen that way.
Who can say what God has been doing through Wilfred and his parents in the lives of the nurses and doctors and surgeons treating him; in the parents of other sick children on the ward who have seen up close how Christians cope with the most distressing situation imaginable; in the friends near and far who are following Wilfred’s story?
But we can’t see it. Because we’re not God we don’t have his infinite understanding and knowledge. Even if God showed it to us we couldn’t take it in – our brains just don’t have the processing power to grasp it all. But just because we can’t see it and understand it doesn’t mean it isn’t true. And so we live by faith not by sight (Heb 11.1). We trust that God does know what is best. That he knows the best way to bring about what is best. That he really is doing all things well. And as we stay our minds on him and as we cling to these truths revealed, we enjoy his peace (Isa 26.3; Ps 119.165).