Welcome God on the road of suffering

Photo: Christian Chen, Unsplash. Photo: Christian Chen, Unsplash.

Recently a spiritual director introduced me to a prayer by contemplative Thomas Keating:

Welcome, welcome, welcome.
I welcome everything that comes to me today because I know it’s for my healing.
I welcome all thoughts, feelings, emotions, persons, situations, and conditions.
I let go of my desire for power and control.
I let go of my desire for affection, esteem, approval and pleasure.
I let go of my desire for survival and security.
I let go of my desire to change any situation, condition, person or myself.
I open to the love and presence of God and God’s action within. Amen.

The first time I read this prayer, I was vaguely offended by it. Of course everything that comes to me isn’t “for my healing.” Sometimes people are just jerks. Sometimes life is just randomly cruel. The whole prayer seemed to smack of theological ideas I’ve long since left behind: that God causes everything, no matter how terrible, for some good but mysterious reason; that the best response to suffering isn’t to seek to change the circumstances but simply to lie down and take it.

However, as I started to pray this prayer daily, I began to experience it differently. Not as a theological statement about the cause of suffering. Not as a command to passively accept the things I can change. But as an invitation to consent to the presence and work of God in the suffering I cannot (faithfully) avoid.

In my judgment, one of the most misunderstood verses in the Bible is Romans 8:28: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Paul is not arguing here that God causes all things for some mysterious good reason. The biblical story suggests that God, humans and even other free-willed beings have real agency in shaping creation. A great deal happens in history that doesn’t align with God’s good desires.

What Paul is suggesting in Romans 8 is that no matter what situation, no matter how or by whose actions we ended up here — wherever here is — God cannot be shut out of any room. Not even hell itself (8:38-39). This is why there’s always hope (8:24): because when evil deals us pure manure, God starts fertilizing.

In fact, this is precisely the story of the cross. The death of Jesus is evil’s ultimate play — lights out, game over. Yet this tragedy, this triumph of evil, is wrested back and reshaped by God for the purpose of healing and hope. Evil could produce the event, but it could neither control nor constrain the outcome. The worst intentions of the darkness are overwritten by the light. Such is the extraordinary goodness of God that wherever God is present, even death is turned inside out to serve the purpose of life.

So what exactly is the role of consent in this “conversion” process? Suffering certainly doesn’t wait to be ushered in. Cancer. The betrayal of a spouse. A recession. A global pandemic. These things have a way of bursting through our door whether we “welcome” them or not. Evil doesn’t wait for consent.

But God operates differently than evil. God knocks and waits patiently for our opening. God waits for the moment whenxq our deep inner “yes” cracks the door to a new world of possible meanings.

The spirit of “welcome” toward which Keating’s prayer points is not based on the conviction that God wills all the suffering that comes to us. It is based on a trust that anywhere, even here on the broken road where I find myself today, God is present.

And wherever God is present, evil has lost control of the destination. All roads, long or short, straight or winding, bumpy or smooth, end by God’s grace in greater wholeness. Every road — painstaking, step by step and stone by stone — is being redirected toward my healing.

When I remember this, I am suddenly, strangely unafraid of evil and its games, of life and its random cruelties. I welcome everything that comes to me. Not because it is good but because God is good. And the goodness of God has claimed the right to finish every story.

As Julian of Norwich once wrote, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Meghan Good

Meghan Larissa Good is teaching pastor at Trinity Mennonite Church in Glendale, Ariz., and author of The Bible Unwrapped: Making Sense Read More

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