God Was Not Surprised

A sneak preview of an essay from the lastest issue of The Mockingbird, our print magazine.

Sarah Condon / 4.19.21

A sneak preview of an essay from the lastest issue of The Mockingbird, our print magazine. This issue is themed Surprise. You can purchase a copy here or sign up for a subscription here.

Several weeks after the death of both of my parents, I found a photograph I had never seen before. Of course, as the 38-year-old sudden guardian of generations of family photographs, I have stumbled across quite a few of those. But this one was of me.

It was taken by my younger brother. I can tell because the image was taken from a lower angle and is fuzzy. My parents and I are unloading the car in the drop-off section of the Medgar Evers Airport in Jackson, Mississippi. I was to board a plane to head across the country for my first year of college. The three of us look absolutely bewildered. Mom is looking towards the camera, and I can make out her mouth as she is saying my brother’s name, Aaron. Dad is in full-blown father mode, managing the luggage as a coping strategy. And I have the forced smile and hunched posture of terror. I am clutching my childhood teddy bear, a panda I call Matilda. I must have taken her on the plane with me.

The image stopped me short for a lot of different reasons. We live in an age when there is an endless pressure to be forever as beautiful as you have ever been. Perhaps it has been the untimely death of people I loved that has forced me to be less vain. Maybe I am just too tired for it. Either way, it was reassuring to see what I looked like as a younger woman, because I know that I will never again be that pretty. And I felt some relief in accepting that.

I was also jarred to see my beloved Matilda in the photograph. When I was a child, the Memphis Zoo had a panda bear exhibit, and my grandmother bought me my very own to take home. At four years old, I loved the song “Waltzing Matilda,” and so my most comforting childhood object was born. It was not surprising to me that I took her to college. What unhinged me now was that she had been the first object I looked for in my parents’ home after their death. And I have found myself comforted by her all over again. After thirteen years of marriage, my husband has adjusted to me suddenly bringing a stuffed animal into our marriage bed. He just looks at me and says, “Whatever you need, babe.”

But the photograph was most revealing for what was not there but had also been there all along. Namely, that even then, God knew about the death of my parents.

People get very anxious when we talk about the will of God in the face of our suffering. We are happy to include God in all of the moments in our lives that have been wonderful or redemptive. It was God’s will that the car crash did not kill us or that our mother survived COVID. It was God’s will that we managed to find an AA meeting or that the diagnosis the baby received in utero was wrong.

But somehow, when it comes to tragedy, we like to say that random things happen for no reason at all.

I am less interested in having a debate about whether or not it was God’s will that my parents would both die in a car accident. Even the phrase “God’s will” can sound like a kind of legal document. It can easily conjure the image of an elderly, golden-crown-wearing cartoon monarch wielding His will across the planet.

So for a moment, let me put the phrase “God’s will” to the side and instead offer this: I believe that God cannot be surprised.

When I see that photo of me from almost exactly twenty years ago, I think to myself that even then God knew, and even then God was preparing us for what was to come. When I think of the tough years of our relationship, and the love and mercy that healed it, I know that God knew what was to happen. When I think of the army of loving adults who adored my parents and who, after their deaths, have now shown up for my brother and me, I believe that God knew this was coming. When I consider the amount of time and honesty my parents gave me when they spoke about death coming too early in their lives — both the children of young widows — I know that God was not surprised.

People mean well when they say that God is uninvolved in the terrible things that happen. But people meaning well does not mean people are well. We all desire for things to fit neatly into the narratives of our own creation, and our spiritual and mental health hugely influence the way those narratives play out. All this is to say, I do not need bad theology when my life is at its worse. It might make the false theologian feel better, but it will make me feel abandoned. When we suggest that God is surprised by the bad things that happen in our lives, then we offer suffering people a creator who has no plan, and no capacity to respond when the bottom falls out. Basically, God becomes me in the photograph. Standing there, gripping a teddy bear, terrified.

When we declare that God is only involved in the good things that happen, we take away divine action in our lives at every level. When we follow such a biblically baseless claim to its natural end, we find a God who does not know what will happen from one moment to the next, a Risen Lord who is somehow taken unawares by the weight of sin that was placed on His shoulders. And this is no god for me. At this moment, my life feels so intersected by joy and sorrow, so cruciform. Only in the intersection of the horizontal and the vertical will I find God’s heart breaking for mine, only there will I recognize a Jesus who knew that the cross was coming.

These days, I have very little energy for anything beyond the immediate. I have become uninterested in theological debates about the will of God or really anything else for that matter. I find that when educated language gets thrown around, we begin to sound like petulant children arguing about who Dad likes best.

In the complicated and surprising work of grieving two beautiful lives, I can only trust that I am not alone. I can trust the words of others who have known sad and surprising loss. Comfort has been offered by the people who lost a toddler to drowning or a mother to cancer or an aunt, uncle, and cousins in a single car accident. And I know that when we huddle together in the darkness of our sorrow, we do not do it alone, because God weeps with us. Because God is graciously compassionate.

In my darkest hours of grief, God has made His face to shine upon me. I know this to be absolutely true. God knew this was coming. God has not been surprised.

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