I was reading Dr. Reinders’s book this past September while Hurricane Dorian was wreaking havoc on the nearby islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama so close to the Florida coast. In his chapter on “Cosmic Fairness,” I was struck by the idea that the “Why?” question “gets smothered in silence” (p. 50), though sometimes it also gets overwhelmed by unceasing screaming winds of destruction. He ended the chapter by saying that “the important question is what difference the belief in God’s promises makes for how we respond to what happens in our lives” (p. 51).

Stories and the Search for Answers

Baylor University Press, 2014

In this respect I found Dr. Reinders’s use of first person accounts also striking. As I read these accounts, so many memories of our family’s pain (silent and screaming pain!) and loss and confusion came flooding back into my mind from 37 years ago. It was both hard to read and profoundly good. You see, I am the father of a profoundly disabled daughter. In her first few months of life, when “something was wrong” tests were done—which, back then in the early 1980s, took weeks to come back. We eventually found, to our surprise and shock that our daughter would live with a chromosomal anomaly. It was officially labeled as 8p+. No name, no support groups, no long-term prognosis. Her condition falls into that small percentage of anomalies that are essentially unique.

As a young couple working in Christian ministry with Young Life, we went into a theological free fall. In God’s providence, we turned to graduate school to study theology—not only to prepare for a continued calling for ministry, but desperately to search for answers. So I resonate strongly with the perspective that theology needs to “clean up its own mess” (p. 10). I needed a lot of cleaning up.

Sadly, my own mother, seeking to help, gave me Rabbi Kushner’s book that had just come out, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. As someone from the same theological perspective as Dr. Reinders, I could never recommend that book. Rabbi Kushner, seeking to answer his own deep wounds from his son’s disability, offered the classic argument that since evil (and disabilities) exist, either God is sovereign but not good (otherwise He would intervene and change such things), or He is good but not sovereign (and is unable to help those confronting the seeming random acts of disability). Kushner comes down on the latter, painting a picture of God as one who is “rooting for us” from heaven, but unable to intervene and change things. His bottom line is that we do the best we can.

Scripture’s Third Way

I found it to be a theology of despair. But in God’s kindness, the theological education I received taught me that Kushner’s construct was, according to Scripture, a false dilemma.I have come to see that for the Good News of historic Christian faith to be “good,” we must embrace the corresponding truth of the “bad news” of sin, brokenness, and a fallen world. Scripture tells us that God is both sovereign and good, therefore, with respect to disability, loss, and the seeming chaos of the fallen world, there must be a tertium quid, a third way. God is up to something quite different from what we might expect.

I have come to see that for the Good News of historic Christian faith to be “good,” we must embrace the corresponding truth of the “bad news” of sin, brokenness, and a fallen world. Only when we see ourselves as desperately needy people can the Good News become “good” for us. I have seen, similar to Dr. Reinders, that disability provides a profound and unavoidable presence in our midst, of our need for redemption, body and soul. In the West, life is so often so easy and so comfortable (and incidentally, we do such a good job of hiding those who live with disabilities) that, as Craig Gay said in The Way of the Modern World, we can live as if God does not exist. Living as practical atheists, much of Western culture and thought has bought the concept that we simply need a little help, that there is always room for improvement. God becomes a mere crutch to help us. But historic faith tells us, on the contrary, that a little help is not enough. We need new life, new creation.

In this way, I agree with Reinders that providence “is the notion that God will provide what is needed to bridge the gap” between the “before” and the “after” (p. 93). It is how God “sustains people” (p. 94).

Songs of Suffering

I was particularly impressed with Reinders’s method: he carefully and patiently laid out the textures of the hard “Why?” question and then bravely, but again patiently and carefully, unpacked Calvin’s theology of providence. Calvin is too often an easy foil for skeptics. How good it was to see someone show us that Calvin, though a careful student of Scripture and theology, came to the place of saying essentially that we cannot ever know fully the ways of God. This brought to mind—and I would have loved to have seen Reinders quote—Cowper’s famous hymn “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” Written by a man who lived with much personal darkness, Cowper was able, in a few lines, poetically to condense Calvin’s theology:

Deep in unfathomable mines, Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs, And works His sov’reign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break, In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face.

Blind unbelief is sure to err, And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter, And He will make it plain.

This also brought to mind a simple yet powerful illustration often used by Corrie ten Boom about God as the Great Weaver, creating a tapestry. My wife was a weaver so this really spoke to us that God is doing something far more beautiful than we can imagine, even while weaving “darker threads” into the story of our lives:

My life is but a weaving between my God and me.
I cannot choose the colors He weaveth steadily.
Oft’ times He weaveth sorrow; And I in foolish pride
Forget He sees the upper and I the underside.
Not ’til the loom is silent and the shuttles cease to fly
Will God unroll the canvas and reveal the reason why.
The dark threads are as needful in the weaver’s skillful hand
As the threads of gold and silver in the pattern He has planned.
He knows, He loves, He cares; nothing this truth can dim.
He gives the very best to those who leave the choice to Him.

My wife points out that unlike other weaving, a tapestry has only one side where the artist’s intention is clear. The underside is full of dangling ends and unconnected threads. The full picture is only vaguely apparent—and sometimes not at all. In this way, though I deeply appreciate and agree with Reinders’s closing that transformation is at the heart of God’s providence, I would have liked more thought from him on the eschatological aspect of Christian hope.

My friend, Joni Eareckson Tada has famously said, “God sometimes uses what He hates [sin, brokenness, disability] to accomplish what He loves” even our adoption, sanctification, and ultimately our glorification as God’s children.

My daughter has never spoken words; but her life speaks and turns people to consider the goodness and purposes of God. His ends are His own glory. I dare to say she has taught me more theology than my most respected professors. Recently in worship, our church choir sang a rendition of “Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy.” As they sang the chorus, our Jessica broke into smiles, looking upward:

Come ye sinner, poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore.

Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pity, love, and power.

I will arise and go to Jesus; He will embrace me in His arms.

In the arms of my dear Savior, oh, there are ten thousand charms.

The immediate, temporal benefit of providence is a transformed life of contentment even in deep and abiding loss. But the prospect of a final, eternal transformation in our heavenly home brings hope to the wounded. The doctrine of providence that Reinders unpacks can be difficult—providence is often dark and hard as Cowper said. But providence, rightly understood by faith, brings comfort and deep consolation when accepted by a faith-filled and transformed heart.

There are oh so many good things in Dr. Reinders’s work—I will use it and quote from it liberally going forward. I am deeply grateful for his focus on God’s purposes worked out in providence.

Disability, Providence, and Ethics: Introducing the Symposium
Kirsten Birkett | Oak Hill Theological College
Calvin, Providence, and Pain
Kirsten Birkett | Oak Hill Theological College
The Disabled God
C. Ben Mitchell | Union University
Your Maker is Your Redeemer: Job and the Faithfulness of the Hidden God
Nathan Barczi | Christ the King Presbyterian Church
Hymns of Pain and the Purposes of God
Michael Beates | The Geneva School
Disability, Calling, and Transformation
D. Christopher Ralston | Joni and Friends International Disability Center
Disability, Providence, and Ethics: A Rejoinder
Hans Reinders | Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam