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Life in the Midst of Mess

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Chapter One of The Grace of Catastrophe by Jan Winebrenner (2005) appears by permission of Moody Publishers.

God is what He is in Himself. He does not become what we believe. 'I Am that I AM.' We are on safe ground only when we know what kind of God He is and adjust our entire being to that holy concept.1

A. W. Tozer

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.

Ephesians 1:18-19

Desperation makes us do strange things—things like sit up all night in a cheap motel and read the Bible out loud.

It’s not something I’d usually do after a day on the road. On my best day, I’d probably watch a little TV, read a novel, then turn out the lights, and get to sleep early.

But let a catastrophe strike, and God has my attention.

Like the day my husband, Ken, and I set out on a cross-country move only to discover that the company transferring us to Texas had been sold. There was no job. That was the day we left town anyway—there was nothing to stay for. We were leaving behind an unsold house in South Carolina and heading toward one that the night before had just been flooded by torrential spring storms in Dallas. And so there we were: no job, two houses, and a truck full of furniture rolling along somewhere on Interstate 20.

That’s the same day we were burglarized in the parking lot of a Holiday Inn on the outskirts of Atlanta.

Thugs now owned the few things we’d been reluctant to trust with the moving company, if they hadn’t already discarded them in a Dumpster. Gone was Ken’s wedding ring, his briefcase, our Bibles, clean clothes to change into, my special treasures, including six chapters and all my research and study notes for a book I was writing.

After doing an inventory and filing a police report, we climbed into the car and continued our journey west toward whatever fate awaited us.

I can’t remember a time in my life when I felt more forlorn.

It’s been a few years since that miserable, chaotic time in our lives, but it all seemed so recent when I read Charles Colson’s words:

Life isn’t like a book. Life isn’t logical or sensible or orderly. Life is a mess most of the time. And theology must be lived out in the midst of that mess.2

Looking back, our lives couldn’t have been messier.

We had been stripped down to nothing in less than twenty-four hours. Our ideas about God were being challenged at the most basic level. That day, huddled together in a motel room in a Dallas suburb, we reached for the Gideon Bible in the drawer of a tacky nightstand.

We had nothing else to reach for.

The Most Important Question

That night we sat for a major exam in “Practical Theology.” And the first question on the test: What do you really believe about God?

That’s what catastrophe does for us, isn’t it?

It forces us to confront our beliefs, maybe for the first time, maybe for the hundredth time.

It forces us to admit that maybe, when it comes to what we say we believe about God, we’re frauds. It forces us to see where our trust really lies.

It forces us to face what we really believe we can expect from the God we call our Father.

All through that long night, Ken and I wrestled with these questions. We discarded what we thought were the wrong answers and pulled out what we thought were the right ones. And then, the next question loomed: How does that belief affect your life in this mess?

Which, of course, begs the next question: Does what you say you believe affect your life at all?

These were the questions that most needed answering—not, what will we do? Or, where will we live? Or, how will we live? And the answers would reveal the truth about us—if we really believed what we had for years claimed to believe; if the knowledge we held of God was biblically accurate, or false; if we were living authentic lives of faith.

What We Really Believe

A. W. Tozer wrote, “The difference between a great Christian life and any other kind lies in the quality of our religious concepts . . . i.e., what we think of God, what we believe about Him.”3

Nothing so challenges us to examine what we believe about God like catastrophe.

That our idea of God corresponds as nearly as possible to the true being of God is of immense importance to us. . . . Often only after an ordeal of painful self-probing are we likely to discover what we actually believe about God.4

We face difficulty, and we have to ask: Do we really believe God is strong and faithful? We face pain and illness, and we wonder: Is He as good as I’ve always been told to believe?

Death comes, and weeping, and we ask: Is heaven a reality? Is prayer effective? Does God really hear? The struggles and disasters of our lives prompt us to ask these questions, and dozens more. Every tragedy, every crisis, offers us this:

It can be a means of grace—an instrument used by God by which we can cease floating passively on all manner of external attractions. It is by the grace of catastrophe that people sometimes come to themselves and see what is before them as if for the first time. Catastrophe can, like a mighty wind, blow away the abstracting veils of theory and ideology and enable our own sovereign seeing.5

-Eugene Peterson

It is the testimony of the ancients, as well as contemporary saints, that the greatest lessons of faith have been learned against the backdrop of suffering. The theology we say we believe takes root in soil watered by tears and bears fruit in lives characterized by peace and righteousness, lives that delight in the person of God Himself.

The “grace of catastrophe” comes through in places where our theology is tested, our faith forged, our knowledge of God made personal and practical, and our love for Him impassioned.

On the Brink

John Piper wrote, “Every moment in every circumstance we stand on the brink between the lure of idolatry and the delight of seeing and knowing God."6

Our stance is never more precarious than when we are in pain—any kind of pain. The voice of God whispers in our souls, “Love Me, worship Me, trust Me.” But His soft words are hard to hear over the raucous voices in our culture and in our own hearts—voices that shout at us to berate God, to ignore Him and move on in search of other comforts, if there be any—any that don’t wear off after a few minutes or hours.

Still, Jesus calls us to come close, to cuddle in His love and rest in the certainty of His goodness and His sovereign power. He invites us to take comfort in all that He has promised to be to us—savior, friend, healer, lover.

This is the challenge we face with each day as we step out into life.

Will we seek God and take our refuge in Him when our path is littered with broken dreams? Or will we turn elsewhere? We have only these two options when catastrophe strikes. If we choose God, then catastrophe becomes for us a special grace-gift, ushering us into the place where we can experience God in ways we never before imagined. We find ourselves poised on the brink of life’s greatest discovery: that God is the ultimate presence in the universe, and that knowing Him, interacting with Him, by faith, is more satisfying, more exhilarating than anything the human heart ever hoped for or imagined.

Practical Theology

“What do unwounded servants do? They become arrogant, join country clubs, sell out to middle-class mediocrity. . . . Only the protected have the privilege of making theology a discussion; the endangered cling to it and weep."7

When we are wounded, hurting, crying in our pain, our theology—what we believe about God, about His kingdom—becomes suddenly very significant, very practical. We don’t have the luxury of keeping it superficial. The truth of God’s power and love and goodness, the truth of who we really are in Christ, the reality of His purposes for His people, the church, is suddenly relevant in ways we didn’t consider in easier, more comfortable times.

We have no room for arrogance—the arrogance of certainty—when the unimaginable happens to us. Now, when our own souls are aching, we are suddenly haunted by the trite answers we so blithely tossed at others in their times of sorrow and fear.

It becomes painfully obvious to us—we don’t have the privilege of making our theology a mere discussion. What we believe about God is now suddenly more important than anything else we will ever believe. It is more important than the doctor’s opinion or second opinion. It is more important than a judge ’s ruling, more important than class rank, salary, retirement portfolio, or any of the other things that concern us in the course of our seventy-or eighty-odd years of life on this planet.

Theology, for the struggling disciple, is more than theory, more than a stimulating topic of discussion. It is more than the text of Sunday school curricula, more than the subject of a sermon. Theology is the truth that hauls us up out of the chaos and into the place of comfort in God’s arms. It is the message that gives us courage to keep on living when everything in our lives seems to be decaying and deteriorating.

It is the truth of God, revealed in His Word, spoken in our hearts by His Spirit, lived in front of us by the incarnate Son that lifts us up. Without it, “we remain little people with little concerns who live little lives and die little deaths."8

Grace in Doubt

Since that messy, frightening arrival in Texas, I have faced many other obstacles, many that were much more painful, much more life altering than a job crisis and a real estate deal gone sour and the loss of a few material goods. I’ve had to retake that exam on “Practical Theology,” and many times, I’ve failed.

I’ve doubted that God is really good.

I’ve wanted to curse, not sit and read Psalms.

I’ve refused to pray, because in those moments of greatest agony, I wasn’t certain that God would hear and answer, that He could be trusted with my pain.

I’ve wondered, really wondered, if there is a plan to all the chaos. I’ve doubted if God was going to come through for me.

In my worst moments, I’ve wondered if He cares, if He loves. And I still, at times, wonder if He is really as good as He says He is, as good as I need Him to be.

I’ve said with David the psalmist, “Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” ( Psalm 10:1)

Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and every day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
—Psalm 13:1–2

You’ve probably echoed David’s sentiment. You’ve felt the pain of loss and the desolation of loneliness. You’ve struggled to believe the truth and wondered if maybe, just maybe, you’ve gotten it all wrong. But have you ever echoed these words of David?

I trust in your unfailing love;
My heart rejoices in your salvation.
—Psalm 13:5

I will praise the LORD, who counsels me;
even at night my heart instructs me.
—Psalm 16:7

David, grubbing for food in the desert, sleeping in a cave with vagabond mercenaries, fighting for his life, discovered that grace could be found in unlikely places. God Himself counseled him in moments of confusion. Listen to his testimony: “You have made known to me the path of life; you fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Psalm 16:11).

A Gift of Opportunity

Catastrophes come to all of us, in forms too numerous to count. But with every catastrophe comes this gift—the opportunity to see God at work in our lives, on our behalf; the gift of opportunity to experience what we say we believe—about God, about His kingdom, about His people. It is through the grace of catastrophe that we begin to experience the theology that, for most of us, is too often relegated to the academic, the theoretical, realms of our existence. By the grace of catastrophe, we are offered the opportunity to enter into our theology, humbly, and with great anticipation. We are gifted with the chance to experience God in ways we never before imagined, nor hoped for.

John Bunyan wrote, “Let it rain, let it blow, let it thunder, let it light[ning], a Christian must still believe."9

The thunderbolts reverberate from every corner of the world, it seems. The echoes of suicide bombs shake us in the depths of our souls. The sounds of gunfire in our world, in our cities, in our own communities, send us in search of shelter, if there be any. The Internet brings us images of beheadings, images of torture and ignominy. Our hearts reel at the kind of catastrophes that greet us in the morning paper—and this before we’ve had our first cup of coffee, before the phone rings with news of a family crisis, a job crisis, before we’ve had a chance to enter the fray of our own chaos—kids, jobs, road rage. Everywhere we turn there is catastrophe on some level. Everywhere we turn there is the challenge to believe.

We must still believe that God is who He says He is; that He is as good as we hope and pray He is; that His kingdom purposes will prevail, regardless of the storms that encircle our world.

The Christian must still believe—theology must be lived out in the midst of whatever mess we might find ourselves: the international/global kind that makes the evening news, as well as the interpersonal ones that greet us when the kids climb out of bed in the morning, when the boss walks into the office with less-than-good news, when the car engine refuses to turn over, when the medical tests reveal something awful, when the parent/teacher meeting is negative. When life happens, we must still believe. We must hold on to the truth. And as we deliberately choose to hold on to the truth, which is holding on to God Himself, we discover His presence to be more loving and tender, more astoundingly personal than ever before, and catastrophes become for us a means of grace—a means of knowing and delighting in God.

Tracking Grace

But what does it look like to “hold on to” an invisible God? Can our fingers actually grip His hand? Can we wrap ourselves in the warmth of His regal garments?

Years ago I discovered that I could hold on to God through pen and paper. It was my mother’s suggestion to me when I was a young mother of two, struggling to stay a few steps ahead of despair. Ken was traveling heavily, my children were babies, and I was lonely, weary, and battling a growing cancer of bitterness. Every day held its own catastrophe—whether an emergency visit to the pediatrician for a shot that would enable Molly to breathe, or a broken air conditioner on a summer day when the temperature soared to 113 degrees (we lived in Phoenix).

Mom visited me one day when I was especially haggard. She could do little to help out because she had her own crises to deal with at the time, but what she offered that day changed the complexion of my spiritual life.

“Honey, why don’t you keep a notebook with your Bible and try writing down how God is dealing with you? Write down verses that mean a lot, the ones that encourage you, and keep a record of God’s faithfulness.” No one else was offering me a remedy for peace that day, so I did what she suggested. I bought a notebook the size of my Bible and my life of faith has never been the same.

I began by rewriting passages from Psalms, putting them in language and metaphor that I could connect with. Later I began shaping them into poems. Often having only snippets of time, I wrote verses on scraps of paper, carried them in my pockets or stuffed them in the cup holder of my car and memorized them while my hands were busy with other things. Later I played with them in a notebook, writing and rewriting them, squeezing every ounce of truth and meaning out of them.

Now, looking back over nearly thirty years, I can see that this has been my means of holding on to truth and leaving markers—markers that still stand as monuments to God’s goodness, love, and faithfulness.

I have been tracking grace.

In her book The God Hunt, Karen Mains calls it keeping a “life list,” keeping a record of “divine activity”10:

These are not mundane accounts. . . . They have to do with the Creator of the universe chasing after me in crazy love so that his nearness, his closeness, his within-ness can be recognized and known by me.11

Call it journaling, call it your “life list.” Call it whatever you like, but for me it is the tracking of grace.

Paul closed the book of Philippians with this encouragement to the Christians he loved: “Receive and experience the amazing grace of the Master, Jesus Christ, deep, deep within yourselves” (Philippians 4:23 THE MESSAGE).

Somehow, that grace seems to plow deeper into my soul when it has been moistened with tears and softened by suffering. Its tracks are more visible. And always, those tracks lead to greater knowledge of God, greater intimacy, and a kind of deep interior joy that can’t be touched by circumstances, or catastrophes—large or small.

The Path to Joy

I hope as you read and study about the character of God and His kingdom, you will grab a pen and “track grace” in your own life. I hope and pray you will anchor it in ink.

I hope you will recognize, in that moment when pain pierces, or when the weight of life presses on your chest until it hurts to breathe, that hiding from God isn’t the answer. That running away is not the way to go.

I hope you will run to God. That you’ll open His Word and read and listen, with a pencil in hand. I pray that as you write what you hear and what the Holy Spirit makes known to you, you will sense truth being traced on your soul—that you will recognize the indelible mark of grace. I pray that the reality of God’s unfathomable love will imprint itself on your heart and that you will experience His powerful presence in new and wonderful ways.

I pray that whatever catastrophe, large or small, you encounter today or tomorrow will cause you to hold on to truth, to cling to God Himself.

As you cling, may you develop a record of His grace, tracking your own path to intimacy and joy.

And in those tracks, may you see the nail-scarred foot prints of Jesus your maker who, for “crazy love,” is chasing after you.

Tracking Grace

If we come to believe the wrong things about God, we will think the wrong things about ourselves, and we will live meanly or badly. Telling a person a lie about God distorts reality, perverts life and damages all the processes of living.12

—Eugene Peterson

Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” - John 8:31–32

    1. Write a description of God as you believe Him to be. Be honest.

    2. Describe the kind of relationship you could have with the God you’ve described.

    3. Thinking about the most recent catastrophe you’ve experienced, what did you expect from God, if anything?

    4. Read Psalm 9:10. Write your response. Now, try writing the verse in your own words, keeping in mind that trust can also be understood as “to be attached to,” “to be secured,” or “to have expectations.”

    5. Write a prayer to God, or a poem, based on Psalm 9:10.


1 A. W. Tozer, That Incredible Christian (Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, Inc., 1964), 27

2 Charles Colson, Loving God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), 218

3 A.W. Tozer, The Divine Conquest (Wheaton: Living Books, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1950), 4

4 A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge Of The Holy, (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961), 10

5 Eugene Peterson, Living The Message (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 181

6 John Piper, The Legacy Of Sovereign Joy (Wheaton: Crossway Books, Good News Publishers, 2000), 70

7 Calvin Miller, Into The Depths Of God (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2000), 144

8 Henri Nouwen, With Burning Hearts (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1994), 49

9 A Golden Treasury Of Puritan Devotion, Compiled and edited by Mariano DiGangi (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 1999) from “Jerusalem Sinner Saved”, 96

10 Karen Mains, The God Hunt (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003),137

11 Ibid., 137

12 Living The Message, 190

Related Topics: Suffering, Trials, Persecution, Women's Articles