What storytelling has to do with grief and suffering.
Let me tell you some stories.
A father, afflicted with bipolar disorder attempts suicide and succeeds, leaving his nine year old daughter to make her way through life, even though all she wants to do is hide from the world.
An four year old orphan is rescued from a Jerusalem orphanage by an Australian missionary just before the second world war, but life doesn’t really pick up for him. He nearly dies from measles, is left with another family for two years and then narrowly escapes death on his trip to Australia. His teenage years are lonely and he does his final school exams while he works part time to support himself, hiding his tears every night.
A young mother dreams of a large family but tragically loses her third baby just a few days after he is born. A fourth pregnancy offers her a chance to heal from the pain, but her little girl is still-born and she plans two funerals with tiny coffins in three years.
A mother takes her three children back to her home country to visit her father who is facing a tough battle with aggressive lung cancer. Her mother picks her up from the airport but on the way home the car is in a massive accident. Her mother dies. Her young daughter has two broken legs. She has a fractured skull and gets meningitis in hospital.
And I know what you’re thinking.
You’re thinking this: “What happens next? What now?”
The first of those stories was one I made up. It’s my novel, Invisible, written for teenage girls. Sounds tragic, I know. If I’d written a happy story about a little girl who’s in a pleasant situation in a nice town with a stable family, my audience would put it down.
To be a good author and tell a story worth hearing, I have to put my characters in really hard situations. There’s grief. Loss. Pain.
It has to be there. And the story comes about in the answering of the question: So what happens next? What now?
* * *
In life, we are not short of stories with loss, grief and pain. The orphan, the young mother, the car crash above, those are all true stories. The story of Job in the Bible, who lost his family, his wealth, his health, that’s a true story too.
A lot of time we spend our energy asking the wrong question about loss, grief and pain when it happens to us or people we know. We ask: why did it happen to me? What is God doing? How is this fair?
Really, though, the question is found right in the second chapter of Job. It’s not explicitly said, but the unsaid question from Satan, questioning God is this: "If you take Job's stuff, possessions and health away, What happens then? What now?"
* * *
If we see God as author, it’s easier to make sense of it all.
The story of Job is not really about a guy's suffering. Instead it's about this premise that God tells Satan: People don't just follow me because I give them nice stuff, okay? There's more to the relationship. The suffering is the means of telling the story.
Poor Job. He can’t see the reason for everything he's going through. He does, like all of us, ask for an explanation. “I need to know,” he says. “You’ve got to tell me why.”
But God doesn’t sit down with a cup of tea and give him the skinny. “So, here's the deal, Job, old buddy. Satan came one day and kind of threw the glove down. You know, challenged me. I figured you’d be up for it, so….”
No. Instead, he reminds Job that he’s the author.
He basically says, "Look, stuff that’s bigger than you goes on. You’re not going to 'get' everything that happens. But I do."
Job has to trust.
So do we.
My characters do not know there’s a wider audience seeing what they're going through. They don’t realize that their suffering is going to be redemptive in the end. Their suffering is a crucial part of my bigger story.
Your suffering – and mine – is part of God’s bigger story.
Because the question is: What happens next? What now? Will I, as the suffering character in this story, stick with the author to the end, trusting it's for some purpose I can't see? Or will I do what Satan taunted God with, and curse him? Because once I do that, the story's over. The audience puts the book down, disappointed that the characters couldn't last until the end. Overcome. Win.
The best stories don't necessarily end with a happy and energetic victory. They end with the character on his last legs, holding out, doing things that would have been way beyond his or her strength at the beginning. You just have to stand up long enough to see the end. That's it. That's all. Just last the distance. The author can fix up the rest.
* * *
Do you want to hear what happened in the four stories from the beginning of this post?
The young girl who struggled in life found her way through the calm, loving mentoring of a teacher who saw in her a spark worth saving. (You can read that story here.)
The orphan married the woman of his dreams, brought up a happy family and had an extremely influential ministry all around the world. He's now retired and writing books.
The young mother, in the middle of her heartbreak, asked herself, "If I could do anything, what would I do?" and immediately knew it would be stand-up comedy. She's currently in the middle of a tour around the State with her one-woman show. (You can read our book of letters about friendship and grief here.
The family in the car accident (which only happened this year) mobilised a global outpouring of prayer and support that I have never seen the likes of before. Their words about sorrow, loss and grief have already touched the hearts of thousands and I expect that their experiences will enrich their ministry and influence in the future.
Because there is a future. There can always be a future. Because the purpose of suffering is so that we can answer that all-important question: What happens next? What now?