Adam Norton

adam(February 9, 1975 – February 6, 2014)

Last February we lost Adam Norton, Ed and Peggy Norton’s son, Lisa’s husband, Nick, Warren and Brianna’s father, Melissa, Emilie, Bethany, John, and Joy’s brother, and our friend. His death was an awful thing, the result of a long struggle with a mysterious illness. Death is an enemy, but this death was especially cruel. Adam began to suffer blinding and debilitating headaches that eventually cost him his job. Doctors could not find a cause or a cure. People prayed for healing, and eventually the headaches went away, and he began to work again. But the headaches returned with a vengeance and then seizures and weakness. He gradually lost strength in his muscles and had frequent muscle spasms that caused dangerous falls. Some physicians thought that he was showing signs of stiff person syndrome, an extremely rare neurological disorder, but the doctors that he was required to see by Medicaid rules would not allow that line to be investigated or treated. Mayo Clinic said that they would examine him, but they needed $20,000 upfront. By this time Adam and his family had moved in with his parents and there was no way to get that kind of money quickly. He remained friendly and upbeat throughout, but what was happening to him was at times almost unbearable to his family. Right up to his death they continued to believe God for his deliverance.

What do you do when the faith that you have had relied upon suddenly seems unable to bear your weight? How do you continue to have confidence in the love of God in the midst of such devastating loss? Most of us have suffered losses of some kind, and we mourn them, and we receive comfort from those around us, yet there seem to be some losses that defy consolation. How can we respond ourselves to such loss and how can we help others that are suffering?

One thing is sure. Relying upon or offering easy religious platitudes is not helpful. Being told that God had bigger plans for Adam, or that God was sparing Adam some greater grief offers no consolation and only serves to make the Lord to be the kind of god that no one would want to serve. We can take our cue from Jesus who wept unashamedly when He saw the grief of His friends Mary and Martha. If there is one verse that is helpful in this situation, it is that shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” He wept then, and He weeps with us today when we suffer loss.

Perhaps the place to start is with the final promise of Jesus to His disciples. He said, “And behold, I am with you, to the end of the age.” Jesus is coming again bodily and in power and will once for all put and end to sin, suffering and death. But until that day, He promises to be with us in the Holy Spirit. In the beginning, in the Garden of Eden, God was with the people He created. At the end of the story, Revelation paints us a picture of God with His people on the earth for all eternity. God is with us. He is the One who was, and is, and is to come.

After the Fall God continued to make Himself known to Cain and Enoch and Noah. In fact the story of Israel is the story of the Lord coming to live with His people even after they proved themselves unfaithful. When they lived in tents, He came to live among them in a tent. When they came into the Promised Land and lived in houses, He came to live among them in the temple. Now God has come to live with us and in us by the Holy Spirit. Jesus said to His disciples that the Spirit is not received by the world, but they knew Him because he dwelt with them and would be in them. (John 14:17) That day has already come. God poured out the Spirit on all flesh for all time on the day of Pentecost. He is called the Comforter because He knows the awful consequences of sin and the destructiveness of evil. Hebrews 9:14 says that Jesus offered Himself to God through the Spirit. The Spirit knows the isolation and the destructiveness of the evil that Jesus endured. Jesus, with the help of the Spirit, has experienced all the hatred that the fallen world can give. He is able to give comfort to sufferers because He has been through suffering.

angel

In the book God and the Victim, Marie Fortune has said that in the midst of unexplainable suffering, we want answers. The only thing worse than suffering itself is meaningless suffering. We all understand that when we mess up, we cause ourselves pain. Everyone has been there, and if you haven’t yet, you will be. How can I say that? I can say that with confidence because we are all sinners. When we are young, we may think that we are the good guys. We are the people who follow Jesus, so we won’t mess up. But we must not allow ourselves to be deluded into thinking that we are exempt, or that somehow our failures will not cause heartache and pain. Christopher J. H. Wright observes in his book, The God I Don’t Understand, that much of our suffering is the direct result of our failure and the failure of those around us. No one escapes. If I mess up, my wife and children suffer, our church suffers, and other believers suffer. The pain moves out like the waves a rock dropped in a pool makes. Make it a big enough rock, and you make a tsunami of pain.

splash

Yet the pain from Adam’s suffering resists this explanation. This was not the emotional wrenching of the terrible consequences of sin, nor was it traceable to bad habits, poor diet, or negligence. We understand what happens when we use drugs or ignore health problems, but this defies easy answers. For that matter, why do people who have pledged to love honor and cherish each other violate that pledge knowing the pain it will cause? Why does someone use an addictive drug knowing that he is killing himself and destroying his relationships? Why does evil exist in the first place? Wright notes that he scripture does not tell us that. It only describes how evil got an entrance into human life. It made no real sense for Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. He had everything he needed. Eve was deceived, but Adam indulged for no good reason. As Wright says, that is the thing about evil: it just does not make sense, nor will it ever make sense. It is senseless. Stiff person syndrome is evil. It has no purpose. It does no one any good. It is an affront to those made in the image of God, and one day it will be no more.

So how do we understand something as painful as this, and how can we keep our confidence in the Lord? The book of Job is often touted as the book that deals with how to understand God and suffering, and deservedly so. Job suffered for no reason that he could understand. His friends were compassionate, to be sure. They sat with him for seven days without a word. That is an example worth emulating. But for all their good intentions, in the end God condemns them because what they have to say does not represent Him. (Job 42:7) What did they say? Their view of life is this: those who mess up pay the consequences. If you do well, you will be blessed. If you don’t, bad things are on their way. (By the way, that way of thinking is closer to Islam and Hinduism than Christianity.) Job himself thinks this way. He has the habit of making sacrifices for his children in case they have done something wrong. Job wants control of life, and his vision of the Lord is a God who is predictable, who can be controlled. Mark H. Glenn notes that the constancy of God’s identity as God does not make Him predictable. Job and his friends have treated God like a vending machine that gives you want you want when you insert the correct coinage. He knows that he has done nothing to deserve the terrible things that have happened and he has demanded that the Lord explain Himself. He is in a terrible place. His illusions about God as predictable, mechanistic, and ultimately controllable have been shattered, and he does not know where to turn. His friends offer no help in this because they still live with the same illusions that Job did. So, like Peter saying that he has no one else to turn to after Jesus tells people to eat his flesh and drink His blood and many turn away, Job turns to God. When life is incomprehensible, we can do what Job’s friends did and stick with their illusions, do what many of Jesus’ disciples did and walk away, or do a “Job” and turn to God. We may be angry, hurt, confused, and threatening even, but we must be found pounding on His door, not hiding our face or walking away.

Job gets his audience, but the Lord does not explain. Instead, the Lord tells Job of rain on desolate land without people, of stupid ostriches that outrun horses, and of untamable hippos and fearsome crocodiles. He reveals something of His freedom and pleasure and extravagant generosity in creation. God’s answer is not an explanation. The answer is God Himself. How do we know this? We know because of the remarkable transformation that happens in Job. He is again willing to trust God with children after suffering the pain of losing ten, and he has abandoned his practice of always pushing the right buttons. Ellen F. Davis points out in her book Getting Involved With God that he names his daughters dove, cinnamon, and horn of eye-shadow, exotic names, not the norm, and he gives them an inheritance with their brothers, a radical and extravagant act. Now the careful, almost fearful, Job loves with generous abandon, trusting God to provide in the midst of a chaotic world, and willing to face the possibility of pain because God is with him.

How do we understand Adam’s suffering and death? I don’t think we do, but we do experience God’s presence and love through the Holy Spirit and through each other. When God created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden, He gave them a commission, a stewardship over the earth. They were to tend and keep it and fill it up with people. In fact, God intended for them to fill the whole earth. He intended for the whole earth to be filled with the knowledge of the Lord through the image-bearers He had made. (Is. 11:9) Terence Fretheim says that, in effect, God made humanity His partner in His purpose for the earth. God limited the exercise of His power for the benefit of a relationship with the people. Here is how Fretheim puts it:

For the sake of a genuine relationship, God thereby freely chooses not to be the only one with power in the world, entrusting creatures in the use of their God-given powers. God moves over, as it were, and makes room for others to be what they are created to be. What they do counts with God. (from Creation Untamed, 105)

What He wants is a relationship with every person, and the Father has sent the Spirit both to effect that relationship with every person and to use them to make Himself known to others. We are the ones God will use to make His comfort known.

friend

Sometimes people need us to confront them with their sin so that they don’t experience the full consequence of the direction they are headed. More often, they need our compassion, and our presence, not our explanations. Paul wrote about the comfort that we can give because of the help that we have received from God Himself.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Cor. 1:3-4)

God gives Himself to us so that we can give ourselves to others. We may be strangers and aliens in this life that is filled with suffering, but we are harbingers of the new age that is coming where sin and suffering and death are no more. Our partnership with God in the coming of a new heaven and earth means that we are charged to make God’s comfort known to the suffering and those touched by evil until that day comes.