Tuesday, August 23, 2011

This Is How We Know

One night last October I slowly moved through my pre-bedtime routine feeling lonely and discouraged. After months of enjoying spiritual refreshment and encouragement, it felt as if busyness, change, and health problems had dried up my insides, leaving them shriveled and brittle.

Anxious to shrug off my despondent thoughts, my mind searched for something to uplift my laden spirit.

I immediately thought of my fiancé, who had blended me blueberry smoothies almost every day we'd seen each other since the onset of my illness five weeks earlier. “An anti-oxidant blast,” he’d say. “We’re going to blast this virus out of your system.”

I felt my soul swell with gratitude for this relationship, this gift from almighty God, and sighed with satisfaction as I asked him, “Why me, Lord? Of all the people in the world, why did you give me this man?”

“Because I want you to know how much I love you.”

His words startled me; I wasn’t expecting him to answer. But his voice like raging waters filled my parched soul.

Almost a year later I am single. The tan line from my engagement ring has faded, but the hopes I had last October—for a life companion and family of my own—have not. I meet them around every bend in the road and see them dance by in every flickering shadow. I feel their poignant prick at my heart daily, sometimes sharp and fierce like a knife plunged into my flesh.

The answer God gave me last October hasn't faded from my heart either.

“Because I want you to know how much I love you.”

I feel his words burn hot like embers, and then I count my recent losses. And as I count I know that God, in his goodness, shows us his love just as much by giving as by taking away. But I can't help but wonder exactly what I mean when I say that there is goodness in the taking.

A few months ago, while bed-ridden and discouraged by my chronic illness, I called the phone number on the back of my computer's external hard drive hoping some techy somewhere could help me set it up. My call was routed to the Dominican Republic where I was helped by a patient Haitian man.

While he and I waited for something to download on my computer I asked him a bit about his life. He described his family, his church, and the day he gave his life to Jesus Christ. Then he told me about the day of the earthquake.

He said he had a nine-year-old little girl who loved Jesus. He said she was full of life but her life was short.

He recounted pulling her limp, cold body out of the earthquake wreckage, and then holding her tiny frame high in the air, his face turned toward the sky as he said, “God is sovereign; he is good; and I will still praise him.”

Like Father Abraham, holding his son up to the altar, this seed of the nations a sacrifice to a good God.

A good God who gives and takes; who gives knowing he will take.

A good God who sometimes, after the taking, gives back: A heaving sigh of relief; tears washed in with laughter; a cry of thanksgiving for a good provision.

But what about when God doesn't return what he's taken?

What can we say of his goodness then?

In my house, whenever we're enjoying particularly fine fare—a bar of swiss chocolate, fresh peach cobbler, a plate of homemade krumkake—my dad is known to pause between bites, food in hand, and say, "Now that is good. That is really good." We always chuckle, and maybe even pass him the rest of the treat, because we know what he means is that whatever he's eating is satisfying and desirable and he'll probably want more.

This is how I have understood goodness.

It is pleasing and welcome.

It doesn’t sear sorrow into our hearts of flesh.

When it became clear that I would need to call off my imminent wedding, my epistemology—or way of knowing what is good and true—was rocked. I found myself wondering how in the world I could know anything with confidence.

I had been so certain God wanted me to date and eventually get engaged to this man. I had recognized his voice, assuring me the budding relationship was his idea. Then I had sensed his leading toward the altar—I had even seen him open doors to provide for our upcoming wedding.

Hadn’t I followed Jesus close enough for long enough to recognize his leading when I saw it? Hadn’t godly friends and even acquaintances marveled at our love story, and blessed our engagement and deemed it God's gracious provision?

I had been so confident; could I have been wrong?

I must have been blinded by emotion, I concluded, reeling from the pain and confusion of the break-up. My hopes and desires must have clouded my thinking, making me believe I had heard God's voice and sensed his leading. Maybe the peace I had was nothing more than the byproduct of hope colliding against hope.

Weeks passed and my doubts snowballed. I revisited old memories, traversing my history to reevaluate every time I thought I had sensed God's direction. What had it felt like? Looked like? On what basis did I ever feel confident I had correctly sensed God's leading?

I felt like I was teetering on the edge of a precipice, about to plummet from my previously sturdy and reliable epistemology into the murky marshes of "not knowing."

Then I had an epiphany.

I realized my problem wasn't my epistemology; it was my assumptions.

I had assumed that God’s goodness wouldn’t allow him to clearly and intentionally guide me to a place of loss and sorrow; that if my life bled into sorrowful shades of gray it was my fault, or the Enemy’s.

In short, I had thought I understood God’s goodness, and had believed that if I held my idea of goodness up to God’s, the two would match.

But when my ring-less hands shakily raised my glowing idea of goodness and placed it alongside God’s, I saw that his Goodness was completely and utterly “other.”

There was no comparison between his and mine.

It was as if I held up a candle to the sunset,

A single note to an orchestral symphony,

A paper doll to a man of flesh.

It was unlike anything my wild imagination could create.

It was the kind of Goodness that smears spit and mud in a man’s eyes to give him eyes that see and heart that lives,

And lets a dear friend Lazarus die young so that he can breathe new life into his rotting body.

A Goodness Who once allowed flippant soldiers to twist nails into the flesh of his only Son so that he could remove the sin twisted into our decaying flesh.

A Goodness who is less concerned about giving us lives we think are good, and instead pours out grace that awakens us to his Goodness.

A Goodness who knows that His glory is our greatest good.

A Goodness that is “other”;

Distinct; Set Apart; Holy.

This goodness that is other has changed the timbre of my days. Now, when deep sadness stirs in my spirit it is accompanied by an unwavering confidence that this sorrowful journey was God’s idea. In his great and holy goodness he gave so that he could take away.  

And he took away so that he could give back. He always gives when he takes, but he gives something “other.”

He dashes hopes so that he can give us a Hope that is stronger than the grave.

He pushes us into valleys of weakness so he can give us his power that sculpted the mountains.

He leads us into deserts of desolation so he can breath Divine consolation into our withered souls.

He removes the Hell from our hearts so he can give us a new Eden.

Because his goodness is not concerned with making bad people good, but dead people alive,

And He is a God whose goodness would make us “other”;

Distinct; set apart; holy.

This week two years ago I toasted to God's goodness with my roommates at the beach. This week one year ago my former fiance and I toasted to God's goodness in the park on our engagement day. Both times I was thanking God for the flickering candle-sized vision of goodness I thought lay in store.

I never dreamed he'd give me a sunset.

This sunset, in all its glory, has temporarily disoriented, burned, and blinded me, and I think this is the nature of holiness. God's holy goodness is not something frail eyes can behold and a dying heart can comprehend. That's why the Apostles Paul and John fell to the ground as though dead when they saw the risen Jesus face to face on the Road to Damascus and the Island of Patmos. But this risen Jesus wants to give us more of his holy and good self because he is our Greatest Good, and so he must give us eyes that can behold his loving face and a heart that lives in him.

But first he must remove our vision of the good life so he can give us his eternal, perfect vision; he must sear the scales off our candle-accustomed eyes and burn the black sin out of our fading hearts. He must make us the kind of creatures whose sturdy souls can delight in his holy goodness. And as he works, our clearing eyes will gradually see and be captivated by the golden light that creeps westward on the enflamed horizon; this radiant light a reminder to our changing hearts that one day we will see a Good and Holy God face to face, and he wants us to be ready for that day. And so he gives, and he takes, and he gives back more than he's taken: he makes us holy.

And this is how we know how much he loves us.

© by scj


  1. Sarah this is so beautifully written. You are so gifted. Thank you for writing because I can so clearly see the Lord through it. Love you.

  2. sarah this is so moving. you have an amazing gift of recording our thoughts and making connections... i love how God is using every part of you to glorify him. love you.

  3. What a testament to God's working in you. ((hugs)) If you ever feel you have a book in you, I know a publisher...

  4. Now that is good, that is really good.

  5. Sarah, This blog touched a very soar and tender heart. Your thoughts and our experience over the last lifetime, though much shorter than mine, reminded me of some very important truths. Recently I have been drawn back to II Corinthians 1 where Paul speaks of the process of comfort in our personal life and out ministry life.
    I know a bit about what he is talking about. I haven't been "beaten with rods," except maybe that time your dad and I were fishing the North Umpqua his rod smacked me when he was trying to cast (don't stand too close, he's dangerous, kidding). Almost been ship wrecked. Have been Honda wreck, but not sure that counts.
    However, as a chronic pain sufferer in a body that is not the one I will have, I have come to admire those who may ask, "Why, Lord." Not just once, not just whining and complaining but genuinely desiring to know. I get tired of those who flippantly, or in all serious say, "If you will confess your hidden sin, then you can experience His forgiveness, and then, you will be healed by his healing stripes." Come on, let's put that one in context."
    I have a few years on you. I on the Godly wisdom side, you are doing pretty good. We have a God (the God) who loves us so much that if we only look around us, for a moment and count what we have, there will be no doubt. That struck me at the side of your Grandpa's grave.
    Keep blessing us with your wonderful missives of life in this world, in this wonderful extended family that is getting bigger and bigger, and our Wonderful Counselor, and Prince of Peace and God of ALL Comfort.

  6. I am so encouraged my your words, Miss Sarah Jackson!! God's given you an incredible gift to share His message. Lots of love to you! OXO, Lindsey

  7. Sarah I'm glad I hopped over to your blog, this post was killer. One read through doesn't do it justice. I'm going to have to dig in again.

  8. Thank you all for your kind and encouraging words!

  9. Ah, dear Sarah. Your comments so match what I've been thinking about the wonderful gift God gave to me in Blair--and though he is gone, God wanted to show me how much He loved me too!

    As I struggle through my sad days though they are becoming less, I realize how much God loves me in his giving and taking away.

    Shirley Graybill

  10. Sarah--I have always loved reading your thoughts, and this blog reminded me why. I love your honesty, and they way you clearly seek the Lord in all times-good and bad. You are an inspiration to me and many others, I'm sure. Hope to see you around Talbot soon...I am finally attending! :)

  11. Uncle Steve, thank you for the reminder that grace is splashed across every page of our stories. I pray that your chronic pain lessens this week and that you feel the nearness of the Savior who will one day give us new bodies. Love you.

  12. Shirley, you have come to mind more than once as I have struggled to process the last year. I am so thankful that we can find shelter and rest in the shadow of the Almighty.

  13. Lauren, it is great to hear from you. :) Thank you for your encouragement. I hope your first semester at Talbot just knocks your socks off (it did mine!). I would love to see you around—I'm sure I will!

  14. Oh Sarah, this is truly amazing! It really touched me deeply. You have a wonderful way with words and very deep insights. God has really gifted you! Thank you for touching my life.

  15. Thank you, Lisa. It is so good to hear from you. Just the other day I was thinking about how I would love to have you come babysit and give me a living room concert. ;) I hope you are well!

  16. Dear Sarah,

    I am truly honored that you befriened me on Facebook, but even more amazed that by your invitation I was directed to your blog. This was no mistake, as we know God does not make mistakes.

    I also wanted to say how incredible of a writer you are, sharing so much with others that we truly would never know of you otherwise. It's a blessing to see that side of how God made you.

    So much stood out in your blog, but what I wanted to share the most was so simple. Perhaps because I am a pre-school teacher, simple anologies stick with me most. OR perhaps I AM a pre-school because simple analogies stick with me the most :), regardless...
    When you were talking of your Dad's comments on extra special treats, "Now that is good, that is really good." my thought was, the treat disappears. God has given it, and before we know it, it is gone. BUT that does not mean at the time you had it, that it wasn't good, just because it is now gone. What God give us is good for whatever time frame He choses to give it to us. And you are so right, if He choses then to take it away, if we continue to seek His will, He truly takes our spark and turns it into a ball of fire. (I believe your wording was much better :) )
    Thanks for challenging my mind set, and directing it back to God's mind-set.

    God's best to you Sarah! And we very well know that that might look different than what we have imagined! <3

    In Him~ Viola

  17. Oh Viola, your reminder about God's timing (and the goodness we can enjoy in the moment) was such an encouragement. And, I have to say, some of my best "Aha!" moments have come working with kids! Oh how they teach us about the Kingdom of Heaven.

    Thank you for stopping by, accepting me on facebook:), and for your encouragement. I hope you are well, and I pray good things for you and your family today.


  18. Hello Sarah:

    Very insightful. I just sent you an email. A year and a half after you wrote this, God is using your words to STILL change lives. Amazing.


    1. Jon,

      Thank you for sharing. I am so thankful that our gracious God is using this post to do is good work in my readers.

      I've just responded to your email.