God is light

Mark McDonough was the oldest of five boys. At the age of 16, when his father was away on a business trip, an unspeakable tragedy occurred: a faulty TV accidentally set the family’s home ablaze while they slept. By a terrible irony, this happened while several uninstalled smoke detectors lay on the kitchen counter. Dad had intended to install them before he left, but didn’t have the right batteries. He decided to take care of it after he got back. No hurry…

Mark’s mother and youngest brother died in the inferno. He himself barely survived as he tried to rescue them. He was left with life-threatening burns over 60% of his body, and had to endure months of excruciating treatment and multiple reconstructive surgeries.

As McDonough tells the story in his memoir Forged Through Fire, there were times when he wrestled mightily with God. The searing physical pain which engulfed his body, combined with overwhelming grief and a sense of shame that he couldn’t save his mother and brother, left him wanting to die. Throughout the treatment, trauma was piled on top of trauma. And often, he prayed for God to take him, to end the suffering.

But God, apparently, had other plans. Through an out-of-body, near-death experience on the operating table, McDonough’s faith in the goodness of God was renewed. He endured through the subsequent ups and downs of his recovery, finding his way even through a bout with alcoholism, and eventually became a reconstructive surgeon himself.

His story reminds us of how endurance is possible even through the greatest of physical and emotional trials. That’s not to say that we won’t yell at God from time to time as McDonough did, or as the psalmists did. But we need such reminders: God’s story is bigger than our story; God’s goodness is bigger than our pain.

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James, as we’ve seen, wants his readers to consider any and all trials to be opportunities to grow in faith, to learn to endure. Even the temptations we face can be taken as such. What James doesn’t want us to do is blame temptation on God; this is slander against God’s character. In no uncertain terms, James declares that God cannot be tempted and does not tempt anyone (1:13).

James goes even further in painting a positive portrait of God’s goodness:

Don’t be misled, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all. (James 1:16-17, CEB)

God isn’t the source of temptation — he’s the source of every good and perfect gift. This is because of who God is, because of his nature and character. As the apostle John writes, God is light; there is not a bit of darkness in him.

As James writes, moreover, God is (literally) the “Father of lights.” From ancient times until today, people look up at the night sky and marvel at the moon and stars; many believe that they hold the key to our fate and future. But God is greater than these, and his character doesn’t change. It’s the King James translation of this verse that gives us the memorable line from the hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness”: “there is no shadow of turning with thee.” You can count on the faithfulness of the Father of lights.

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Trials and temptations are tests of our faith. At such times, part of the challenge is holding on to what we know of the goodness of God. We’re tempted to doubt God’s goodness, to repeatedly ask the agonized question: How could God allow such pain and suffering to happen? And to be clear: one thing we’ve learned from the Psalms is that it’s okay to ask the question, even to complain that God seems deaf or asleep.

But the psalmists are also good examples of endurance. Even in the midst of deep lament, they intentionally bring back to mind the stories of God’s faithfulness. Sometimes, these are stories from the psalmist’s individual memories, tales of the times when the psalmist experienced the rescue or deliverance of God personally. Sometimes, the stories are drawn from communal memory, the tales of exoduses large and small.

We need to know the biblical stories of God’s faithfulness to remember them. We need to see our own stories in light of God’s story. That, I believe, is part of what James means by wisdom, which itself is a gift from above. And we need to tell our stories to others, so that they become part of our shared memory, so that as a community of believers we can together inhabit a community of faith that trusts God’s goodness even when things go desperately wrong.

In a world of darkness, in a world of trauma and pain, we need to know and help others to know: God is light.