My whole life I’ve been in and out of the wilderness. By ‘wilderness’ I mean suffering whether it is in the form of sound and fury or moments of quiet desperation. Our desert experiences can consist of a major crises or experiences of quiet angst.
Growing up, I felt my whole life was a wilderness. Eventually, I entered into the Promised Land. But then as I continued to age and grow in God, I was plunged back into the wilderness again-like we all are. As John Stott wrote in the Cross of Christ, “Do you want to be holy? Then you will suffer.” I’ve discovered Stott’s words to be true.
It seems like we spend our lives in and out of the wilderness until we reach the Promised Land of life after this life.
Some experiences last longer than others. But I’ve found that God can meet us in those experiences like nowhere else. It seems to me that God forms us in two ways: through suffering and through being loved well by others. Jesus and many throughout Scripture spent times in the physical wilderness and also experienced the internal desert. There’s no doubt God used those experiences to shape them into his image.
I write about many of my own wilderness experiences from my childhood up through the present time (at least up until the time my book went to press) in a modest effort to show how God meets us in such experiences.
Here is an interview I did with Ellen Painter Dollar. In this interview, I give the context for my experiences. I hope you’ll take a moment to read it. I’ve included the first part here. But please head over to Ellen’s blog to see the rest:
“A Beautiful Disaster”: Marlena Graves on Suffering, God, & a Child-Like Faith
June 2, 2014 By Ellen Painter
When people get all in a tizzy about how the Internet is ruining real human relationships, I get exasperated. Because thanks to Facebook and online journalism, I have a cadre of writing colleagues with whom I have almost daily contact, and whom I also consider friends. One colleague/friend is Marlena Graves, who is one of the most genuinely kind, lovely and encouraging people I know. Marlena’s new book, A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness has just been released by Brazos Press. In it, Marlena writes about times “in the wilderness,” when we experience grief, isolation, or disappointment, and how God forms us through such wilderness experiences and as others love us well in our troubles.
Here is a Q&A I did with Marlena to dig a little deeper into the stories she tells in the book. To enter to win a copy of Marlena’s book and several other Brazos publications, visit the blog tour page for A Beautiful Disaster.
“A Beautiful Disaster” invites us to see the many ways that suffering (or “being in the wilderness” as you describe it) can draw us closer to God and allow God to shape us. But while you clearly believe that God uses our suffering to change us for the better, you stop short of saying that God orchestrates suffering (or gives us particular trials, in order to change us for the better). Can you tell us a bit about your take on that age-old question of how to reconcile an all-powerful, good and loving God with a world where terrible things happen? How have you made that reconciliation in your own life?
This is a hard question, Ellen. I regularly struggle with the problem of evil. And I’ve never been able to find a satisfactory answer for it. Philosophers, theologians, clergy, and lay people have thought about it for centuries. And still—nothing satisfactory. I don’t believe that God, for example, says, “I am allowing you, your child, or loved one to be sexually abused or brutalized and murdered for the sole purpose of teaching you to trust me.” I don’t think God is that way. But I do believe he seeks to reveal himself amid our suffering and that he can use it to transform us.
Renowned philosopher-theologian, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has some good things to say about suffering. During WWII he was deported to Poland from Germany. Half of his family died in the Holocaust. Heschel didn’t blame God for the Holocaust or the death of his beloved family members. He blamed evil people. Sin. Wickedness. Moreover, he partially faulted those (including Christians and American Jews) who didn’t speak up on behalf of the Jewish people and the others targeted by the Nazis.
I think he’s right; evil is not intrinsic to God. Scripture tells us that in God there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). People, including Christians, cause much of the evil in the world. We unleash destruction in the world through the sin we allow to take root individually and systemically. I unleash evil in the world when I choose death instead of life. And we allow evil to proliferate through practical indifference when we fail to do what is within our means to stop it or reverse it. Paul tells us that we are to overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:21). Dallas Willard called overcoming evil with good “the divine conspiracy.”
When I am struggling and angry with God over the problem of evil, I eventually return to his love and goodness. I recall the testimony of the great cloud of witnesses and his goodness to me. I think about all of the good, true, and beautiful things in the world—all coming from him.
I have no idea why God allows the murder, abuse, and torture of innocents. I do not know why natural disasters, other acts of nature, or illnesses bring so much misery upon the earth. Scripture’s testimony about God’s character, my experience of God’s love and goodness (often translated through beautiful souls) amid what I’ve suffered, and the testimony of others anchor me in him.
The problem of evil is a mystery. But here’s the premise of my book. I’ve observed two things about our spiritual formation: God can use our various experiences of suffering and being loved well by others to form us into the image of Jesus.