I. Secular Love
Several years ago, after about seventeen years of marriage, I had a few brief affairs, because I found myself unequipped to handle certain unusual circumstances in our marriage, which I won’t discuss here because they intrude on my wife’s privacy. In the process of that I also came to realize I can’t do monogamy and be happy. Since this was going to come to light eventually, about two years ago I confessed all of this to Jen and told her I still love her but I would certainly understand if she wanted a divorce. Despite all the ways we work together and were happy together, this one piece didn’t fit anymore.
Rather than divorce right away, Jen offered to try an alternative for a while to see if that would work for us. So we agreed on some rules and have had an open marriage for almost two years now, and it’s helped us work through a lot of things, and has helped us both in very different ways.
If, as Mrs. Humphry charges, Mr. Humphry abandoned her because she has contracted a potentially fatal disease, then many troubling questions arise about the man who has led an effective international crusade for a humane ''right to die.''
Mrs. Humphry, now 47 years old, says her husband ''panicked'' at the thought of having another wife die. ''The long and short of it is simple: Derek Humphry, unable to cope with the fact that his wife of 13 years was struck with a life-threatening illness, simply walked out,'' she wrote to board members. She had surgery on Sept. 22. He left her on Oct. 13, four days after she began chemotherapy. She said she has been told she has a 75 percent chance of recovering from the cancer.
II. Arminian Love
If you would have told me yesterday that I would find myself in sympathy with a controversial ethical position taken by Pat Robertson I wouldn’t have believed you. But here we are. Christian Post blogger Olabode Ososami’s article “Divorce and Pat Robertson’s Alzheimer’s Gaffe” has changed all that. In an interesting article Ososami points out that Robertson defended divorcing a spouse stricken by Alzheimer’s Disease because, as Robertson says, it is “a kind of death”. Ososami goes on to quote Robertson as follows:
“I know it sounds cruel, but if he’s [the husband] going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again, but make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her….”
Robertson then added:
“Get some ethicist besides me to give you the answer.”
Ososami was not sympathetic to Robertson’s controversial position. And it is easy to understand why. This seems to be precisely the kind of situation covered in the “for worse” part of the martial vows. Thus divorcing a spouse at such a stage seems to be a cruel abandonment, like the cancer-stricken wife who finds her politician husband cheating on her.
I am sympathetic with that reaction. It may be right. All I am saying is that I am sympathetic with Robertson’s reasoning as well. This is what ethicists call a moral dilemma, one which is more complex than Robertson’s critics are recognizing. Why? Well Robertson asked for an ethicist to give a defense of his position so I’ll give it a try. Yes, I’m defending a controversial ethical position taken by Pat Robertson.
III. Christian Love
Then it happened. On March 27, I arrived in Peoria, Illinois, to begin a one-week conference on prophecy under the direction of the Moody Bible Institute. I was sitting in the motel room beside the telephone on Sunday afternoon, waiting with joyful anticipation. It was prearranged that Elsie would call me at four o'clock, Illinois time. The telephone had been a vital link between us whenever I was away. A man many miles from the one he loves becomes lonely.
With the first ring of the telephone, I picked it up and answered. The voice I heard on the other end of the line, however, was not the one I expected. Our son Richard was calling.
"Dad, the news is not good. Mother had a stroke." He gave me what information he had. I told him I would make flight plans and call him back.
I put down the telephone and just sat there stunned. After fifty years of a happy and trial-free relationship, why should the roof cave in like this? That Sunday in March was the darkest day in all my seventy-one years. Now, as I write these lines, it is nine months to the day since Elsie was stricken. The severity of the trial has not diminished. At times it has been even more severe.
I have been teaching the Bible and preaching sermons and writing books for forty-five years. I have set forth fervently, and sometimes dogmatically, the great doctrines of our historical Christian faith. I sought to comfort, console, and cheer sorrowing and suffering Christians. But trial and tribulation are now my constant companions. Truths that I once knew intellectually and academically, I am now learning experientially. There is a great difference.
In this book I am writing the testimony of that which is taking place in my own life during these months of watching my dear Elsie suffer. Her stroke was serious, and her recovery limited. Since her discharge from the hospital in mid-June, I have been caring for her twenty four hours every day. When you watch the one person suffer whom you love more than you love your own life, you reach a turning point. I am at that point now.
Hospitals have waiting rooms--small enclosures where people go to wait and hope for a favorable change in the condition of a loved one. Many of the people I have seen in hospital waiting rooms were anxious, worried, and frustrated.
I have been in God's waiting room since my wife had her stroke. God in His faithfulness has enabled me to bear the trial. Elsie remains paralyzed, and she needs my love and care twenty-four hours every day. I too am waiting and hoping for a favorable change; as I wait I am drawing upon the infinite resources of God's grace. This unexpected trial has changed my well-laid plans, but I know that God's plans are far better than mine.
Even so, this business of waiting is one tough assignment. I had never learned experientially that waiting is a necessary part of Christian training. This is my first experience in God's waiting room. If "Waiting 101" were an elective course in God's school, you may be certain I would not choose it. But God didn't give me a choice--it was a required course. He made the choice for me, knowing I needed it. So I continue to wait.
It was Wednesday, April 14, 1982. Eighteen days had passed since Elsie's stroke. The neurologist in charge requested that I meet with him. I waited expectantly in the corridor outside Elsie's room. When the doctor appeared his remarks were brief and pointed.
"We are making arrangements to move your wife to a rehabilitation center in San Diego."
"What led you to this decision?" I asked.
He hesitated. I detected a bit of concern in his delayed reply. I was right. His words came slowly.
"There is nothing more that we can do medically for Mrs. Strauss." He placed his hand on my shoulder and patted it gently. "I'm sorry," he said, and he walked away.
For a few seconds I stood motionless, my mind almost blank. Then I walked slowly into the room, kissed Elsie, and sat in the chair beside the bed.
She spoke first. "What did the doctor tell you?"
"He said that you will be transferred to a rehabilitation center in San Diego."
I took her hand in mine. Then I assured her that there was nothing to fear because God was in control.
But did I really believe that God was in control?
I am learning that there is a large gap between studying truth intellectually and knowing that truth by personal experience.
Is it wrong for a minister and teacher of God's Word to be perplexed? Although most of us don't admit it, all of us at some time have been tempted to walk away from God.
How do I draw near to God? I could pray. But at that moment I was affected emotionally to the point where I couldn't articulate an intelligent prayer.
I had just told Elsie that God was in control. But at that moment, I was being controlled by an experience that perplexed me.
After spending seventy-seven consecutive days with Elsie in the hospital room, I knew full well that we were facing the severest trial in our fifty-one years of marriage. For forty-five of those years, I had been preaching and teaching the Word of God to others. Never once did I doubt the truths I was called of God to declare, but I must confess that I had never experienced much of what I preached and taught.
Quite honestly, until our recent trial, I had never been put to the test in my own personal life. I saw how God's Word comforted others in their trials and sorrows as I read it to sick, suffering, and bereaved Christians.
While Elsie was in the hospital, each morning I would thank Him for blessings and mercies, which I mentioned one by one. Then, after a request for guidance, I would go immediately to the Word. After I read and meditated quietly, I selected a verse, typed it on a 3 by 5 card, and began my drive to the hospital. On the way down I memorized the verse. Throughout the day I read it to Elsie at intervals, and before leaving her at night we would recite it together. This became our daily practice, and it continues to be the main source of strength and comfort to us.
These questions have confronted me in vivid and unpleasant ways over the last ten to fifteen years. I have been interested in the problem of evil for much of my life, and in various degree programs I wrote theses and dissertations addressing the intellectual problems evil raises for a theist. For many years, I thought the intellectual answers I had constructed would be sufficient for someone in the midst of trials and afflictions. All of that changed for me in 1987 when my wife was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease.
Huntington’s disease is a genetically transmitted disease that attacks both mind and body and involves the premature deterioration of the caudate nucleus of the brain. On the physical side, the symptoms involve a growing inability to control voluntary movements. Among other things, this results in a loss of balance, difficulty in swallowing, slurred speech, and involuntary twitches in various parts of the body. Psychological symptoms can include memory loss, deterioration of attention span and mental function, depression, hallucination, and finally paranoid schizophrenia. The disease develops slowly, but over a period of decades it takes its toll, and it is fatal. In my wife’s case, symptoms first appeared when she was twenty-eight. As bad as this is, however, just as bad is the fact that Huntington’s is controlled by a dominant gene, so each of our children has a 50–50 chance of getting the disease. At the time we received this diagnosis, we already had three children. Since that time, progress has been made in research about this disease, but to date there is still no cure.
When news of this disease came, a host of emotions came with it: bewilderment, a sense of hopelessness and helplessness, a feeling of abandonment, and anger. As a Christian, I knew we aren’t promised exemption from problems and trials, but I never expected something like this. With one diagnosis, a dark cloud had formed above my family that would not dissipate for the rest of our lives. At that point, the problem of evil moved from an intellectual problem that I could calmly reflect on in the solitude of my study to a real-life trauma that has to be confronted every day of my life.
One of the reasons for my confusion over what was happening was the previous thinking and writing I had done about the problem of evil. If anyone should have been ready for this crisis, it was I. But during this time of emotional and spiritual turmoil, none of the intellectual answers proved to be even the least comforting. As I thought about that, I came to an important realization. The religious problem of evil, the crisis of faith precipitated by suffering, at rock bottom is not primarily an intellectual question but an emotional problem. There are, of course, intellectual questions that the sufferer asks, and at an appropriate point in the grieving process when the afflicted is ready to hear the answers, it is appropriate to offer them. However, that point rarely comes during the shock of the terrible news. At that point, the sufferer needs comfort and care, not a dissertation on the logical consistency of God’s existence and evil.
While there are many things one can say and do that won’t help the afflicted cope with trials, other things can and do help. In what follows, I will present what helped in my case, not as a how-to for comforting the afflicted but rather as a personal testimony and explanation of why I am still a Christian in spite of the evil that has befallen my family.
One of the first things that helped came in a conversation with my father. I was bemoaning the fact that this had happened and that I had no idea how I would be able to cope as my wife’s condition became progressively worse. My dad responded, “John, God never promises us tomorrow’s grace for today. He only promises today’s grace, and that is all you need.” Though at the time I wasn’t handling well the reality of my wife’s situation, I hadn’t completely collapsed. More importantly, my wife was still quite capable of functioning. Part of the grace for those early days was finding out the diagnosis at a time when the full burden of my wife’s care didn’t fall on me.
With this reminder from my dad, I began to readjust my focus from imagining what the disease would be like in the future to dealing with it in the present. I began to ask God each morning for the grace I would need to make it through that day. As I saw those prayers answered each day, I became more confident that when things got worse, I would still need only one day’s grace at a time, and it would be there.
At other times during my struggles with this disease, I am reminded that despite what is happening, God has been gracious to us in other ways. First Peter 5:7 tells us to cast our problems on God, because he cares for us. At times it doesn’t seem this is true, but it is. In our case, I realize that despite my wife’s disease, there are other problems that God has kept from us. Some people lose their spouse to cancer or a heart attack or in an automobile accident, but that has not happened to us. God doesn’t owe us such protection, but he has graciously given it to us. That is a sign that he really does care.
There is another realization that is difficult to swallow, but it is true. When tragedy strikes, we often blame God, but God didn’t give my wife this disease. In Romans 5:12, Paul explains that through Adam sin entered the human race, and death resulted from sin. In other words, people die as a consequence of sin. I am not suggesting that this has happened to my wife as recompense for being a horrendous sinner. Rather, we live in a fallen world, and death is a consequence of sin. The particular death that befalls a person doesn’t come from a specific sin he or she commits, but rather from the fact that the human race as a whole has fallen into sin. But if people die because of sin, they must die of something. One of the causes is disease, and some of those diseases are genetically controlled.
So while it is human nature to blame God for what happens, Scripture is clear that these things happen because we live in a fallen, sinful world. If we are going to be angry, our anger should be directed toward sin, not God. Our problem ultimately stems from not seeing the gravity of sin. But when we stand at the graveside of a relative or friend, or when we receive a diagnosis, we begin to see just how serious a matter sin is. The realization that something bad has happened because we live in a fallen world is not likely to comfort the afflicted, but it can help to assuage our anger at God, and it should help us redirect that anger to the proper target.
Some may grant the point about the cause of affliction but still object that an all-loving, all-powerful, all-gracious God should prevent evil from happening. Such a suggestion reflects a misunderstanding of what God’s attributes obligate him to do. Many think that because God is all-loving, he is obligated to do every loving thing possible. His grace obligates him to do every gracious thing possible, and so on. However, this is an incorrect assessment of God’s obligations. In my judgment, it would be very loving for God to make us all multimillionaires, but I can’t think of anything that obligates him to do so. God’s love doesn’t obligate him to do every loving thing possible. Rather, everything he chooses to do (though he isn’t obliged to do everything he can do) must exhibit his attribute of love. As to God’s grace, at most it means that the things he chooses to do will exhibit his grace, but even here we must be careful. Grace as undeserved favor is by definition never owed, so we can hardly demand that God act graciously toward us. The key point is that before we mount a case against God for failing to do what his character requires, we must be sure that we understand what he is obligated to do.
In spite of this point about God’s attributes, I still felt something was amiss. Granted, my wife’s disease resulted from the sinfulness of the human race, and granted, God didn’t owe us exemption from this problem because of his attributes, but still, not everyone has to deal with such a burden, so why should we? It seems God has been unfair in letting this burden fall on us when others escape such problems.
I believe this complaint is at the heart of why many believers and nonbelievers alike turn from God in the midst of affliction and feel justified in doing so. God hasn’t treated them fairly, so he doesn’t deserve their worship and devotion. As I reflected on this matter, several things came to mind. First, as I reflected on God’s fairness or justice, I began to think of my philosophical training about matters of justice. Philosophers often distinguish between distributive and egalitarian justice. Distributive justice gives to each person exactly what they are owed, reward or punishment. Egalitarian justice requires that each person receive exactly the same thing.
With this distinction in hand, I realized the nature of my complaint. I was angry because God gave me something different from what he gave others. Egalitarian justice requires that each of us get the same thing. Others escape such problems, so we should have too. As logical as this sounds, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t think of any biblical or nonbiblical principle that requires God to deal with us according to egalitarian justice.
In contrast, Scripture teaches that God functions in his relations with us in accord with distributive justice. Distributive justice is about what we have earned—what we deserve and what is owed to us. If we want God to treat us justly, that means we want what we deserve. But what do we deserve? Given God’s moral governance of our world and the fact that we have broken his laws, we deserve punishment. None of us deserves exemption from problems and punishment for sin, for all of us have sinned against God. We may chafe under this system of moral government, but God as Creator has a right to set things up this way. And given this setup, he has done nothing unjust by not exempting my family from this affliction. If we are speaking in terms of justice, God owes none of us egalitarian justice, and in terms of distributive justice, he owes none of us blessing.
Still, I harbored residual anger toward God. Though I came to see that my desire for egalitarian justice was wrong and that according to distributive justice I didn’t merit exemption from affliction, it seemed unfair that others who don’t deserve exemption from problems have not been asked to bear this burden. Eventually I came to see that my complaint was that God has dealt with others in grace, and I felt that I should get the same grace.
As I pondered such thoughts, however, I came to see how wrong they are. I was demanding grace as though God owed it to me because he gave it to others. But grace is unmerited, undeserved, unearned favor. That is, you get something good that you don’t deserve, haven’t merited, and aren’t owed. Grace is not given to reward good deeds or upright character; it’s not a reward at all. It is given out of the generosity of God’s heart. As unmerited blessing, grace is never owed—that’s why it’s grace and not justice. So God has done nothing wrong if he gives you grace that he doesn’t give me.
One of Jesus’ parables beautifully illustrates this principle. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1–16), a landowner hired workers at various times in the day. Those hired early in the day were promised a denarius for the day’s work. Others were promised only that the owner would do right by them, and still other workers were simply told to go to work. At quitting time, those hired last were paid first. The landowner paid them each a denarius, even though they had been hired a mere hour or two before the end of the day. In fact, he paid every worker a denarius. When the landowner paid those hired first the denarius he had promised, they were angry. They had worked the entire day, but those hired near the end of the day had received the same wage. Their complaint amounted to the following: Somebody got a better deal than I did, and that’s not fair!
The landowner replied that he had not treated them unfairly. They had made a deal, and he had given them exactly what he had promised. Justice says you give people what they earn and what you owe. But if the landowner wanted to be generous with the others, what’s wrong with that? If he wanted to extend them grace, why is that wrong? Whose money (whose grace) is it anyway? The message of the parable is clear: Our standing in the kingdom of heaven depends on God’s grace, and God has a right to give grace and withhold it as he chooses. Never begrudge someone the grace that God gives them, especially when he doesn’t give you the same grace.
Coming to this realization about whether God owed me exemption from this trial was a major breakthrough in my experience. It made me realize that if I were to mount a complaint against God over what he had or hadn’t done, I had no ground for such a case. I had been angry at God without adequate reason. While this realization did not remove the affliction, it made me feel more comfortable with God. After all, he had not caused the affliction, and he didn’t owe me release from it. But he hadn’t abandoned me either. He gives me grace to sustain me through each day. I don’t deserve that either, but it is there!
A final major factor in helping me adjust to what had happened and removing my anger were the many tangible signs of God’s love and care for us. Many people displayed generosity and kindness, showing us that there are people who care and who will help when things grow worse. But why do these people show us this love and concern? I know it is ultimately because God moves them to do so, and hence, we have periodic reminders that God cares for us and loves us.
There is much more to our story and many other things that also helped me cope with this affliction. I would not delude myself into thinking that everyone’s situation is like mine or that what I have said will solve the personal crises of faith others confront. However, much of what I have said touches on very common, human themes, so others may find it helpful.