Note: This post was originally published at Hope Mommies.
Recently, “Lord Willing?" by Jessica Kelley came to the attention of women in our Hope Mommies private community. We are so thankful our community is a place for discussion and sharing of our ideas and journeys. Our shared Hope Mommies community has been founded upon a set of beliefs about the character and ways of God. So, when appropriate, we want to carefully provide a review for you of material introduced to our community that we consider outside of the scope of the Biblical beliefs this organization was founded upon. We extend to the author our own tears and sorrow over the loss of her dear son and are saddened by the trauma that she, her son, and her family experienced as he departed from this world. Thank you for understanding our efforts here to be desirous of sacrificing neither our calling to provide a theological review of this book for our precious community nor our extension, here, of our heartfelt sorrow to the author.
The theological decisions that we make as we come through grief are significant and do shape us—but we can also re-evaluate them. God gives us opportunity and even the call to consistently re-evaluate our beliefs based upon Scripture. So, as we grapple today with some of the most challenging questions that face us as Hope Moms, my prayer is that we can be tender-hearted toward the Bible, letting it speak to us. Today, we’ll go through a brief summary of Lord Willing?: Wrestling with God’s Role in My Child’s Death by Jessica Kelley, and address her main points together.
Kelley takes us through a brief history of her life prior to marriage and children in which she greatly struggled to understand and accept the love of God and assembled what she called a “piecemeal theology.” She experienced anxiety, depression, and a nervous breakdown as a twenty year old. She describes having her first child, nine years after that, as what she felt was the fulfillment of God’s plan for her life. At this point, Kelley begins to explain the beginnings of a new understanding of God.
The middle section of her book describes the details of discovering her son had a malignant tumor. He received the surgery necessary to save his life, and she learned that the surgery he nearly died from was unsuccessful. The surgery was considered ineffective in removing the tumor and providing a chance for her son to live. Kelley, her husband, and son experienced a torturous period of recovery, and then, decided to not pursue further treatment—based upon there being no recommendation from the doctors to do so—and finally, returned to their home where their son would eventually die. Kelley then expounds upon the reasons for her new understanding of God and her gratefulness for this understanding. She shares reasons for seeing it as a viable Christian option and interacts with popular voices in the Christian community regarding her view.
Problems at the Outset
Kelley cites Gregory Boyd in her book; his recommendation is on the back cover; and in her acknowledgements, she dedicates a paragraph to him for how he has helped her to form her “beautiful, new picture of God based on the person of Jesus Christ” (pg. 280). According to the helpful summary provided in this article, we can learn that Gregory Boyd is a prominent voice for what’s called open theism, which is a “rejection of classical theism’s doctrine of God’s exhaustive foreknowledge.” This means that it rejects that God knows all things in the future.
A broad body of evangelical believers, who do feel free to hold differences of opinion on other matters of Biblical interpretation, came to this conclusion about open theism: “Open theism necessarily denies the inerrancy of Scripture, since a God who does not know the future cannot guarantee that Old Testament prophecies will come true.” Ten years ago, the healthy and necessary debates within the Christian community of theologians and scholars of Scripture who love the Lord and His Word concluded that open theism is not an “orthodox evangelical option.” This means that when we consider that God’s Word has no error, we cannot also hold this view. Yet, Gregory Boyd does believe in open theism. And his work is the background of Kelley’s thought.
While a review like this one cannot adequately address all of the material presented in a book of nearly 300 pages, we will discuss three themes she presents. Throughout my read of this book, which I believe was well-intentioned toward the reader who has also experienced loss, one adage repeatedly came to mind: a half truth is still a full lie. So, I want to address 1) the author’s assumption of mankind’s innocence, which 2) makes her unable to come to Biblical conclusions about God’s love, and 3) causes her, therefore, to misunderstand God’s power.
In the beginning of her work, Kelley describes what she calls the blueprint plan. By a person’s belief in the blueprint plan, or, the sovereignty of God—that is, believing He is all-powerful and could have saved our children from earthly death, but did not, and that He is in absolute control of everything that happens in our lives—Kelley states that a person also believes the following:
…consider a father who is standing by the family swimming pool, watching his toddler drown. In the strong form of the blueprint worldview, the father is the one who pushes the child in. In the weak form, the father never touches the child but also refuses to intervene as his baby creeps near the edge and reaches for a bobbing beach ball. In either form, the father won’t rescue the child, and instead allows the trauma to unfold for his own mysterious purpose. (pg. 59)
Before we consider any other death and sorrow in the world, we have to start with Adam and Eve—the first people who experienced death and sorrow. When we start at the beginning, we see that there is a critical element of theology missing from this understanding in Kelley’s analogy and the analogy cannot fit. The analogy divorces our understanding of suffering from the Bible storyline. Outside of what she presents in this example, Kelley gives no other starting place for understanding God’s sovereignty. So, her view is to assume that Adam and Eve did not know better than what they were doing. It would assume Adam and Eve’s innocence and lack of moral responsibility in original sin. The Bible teaches the opposite of Kelley—that there is a starting place to consider and that is in Genesis. God gave Adam and Eve a wonderful, beautiful life in an idyllic garden where they dwelt with God Himself—we cannot comprehend this level of goodness, knowledge, love, and purity.
Then, the Bible presents that they, morally responsible beings, said to their Creator, “I, knowingly, want to choose the way I think is right and good instead.” What an affront to a perfect, worthy, majestic, glorious, and purely good Creator who gave only pleasure to His people! We know Adam and Eve had moral responsibility because our good, holy, and just God saw that it was right and fit to respond to their decision with consequences (Genesis 3). We can trust our perfect and good God to have given mankind the best possible created representatives of mankind in the garden, meaning, we would each have done the same as them. So, when we are tempted to blame God for our pain, we can hold onto this truth: if, hypothetically speaking, mankind had never sinned, we would never be experiencing child loss.
This has impact upon how we view God in the midst of suffering child loss. You see, all is not right with this world. We know that evil—from which comes suffering and death—is not the end plan; it will not be in the heavenly kingdom, it is not God’s fault (Habakkuk 1:13; Psalm 5:4; 1 John 2:14; 1 John 1:5), and it is never ascribed in Scripture as originating with Him.
God’s great love is demonstrated at the cross. Kelley understands the love of Christ at the cross to minimize God’s righteous and holy judgment of mankind’s decision to sin. She cites Hebrews 1:3: “And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature,” as reason to focus on Christ’s compassion and diminish, in her view, the Old Testament’s teachings about the wrath of God (pg. 49, 53).
Yet, even if the cross of Christ in the New Testament were all we could consider—which it ought not be because all of God’s Word is equally authoritative—it is there at the cross we see God to be both just and the justifier (Romans 3:26). The cross is a display of God’s just wrath. The cross is a display of His justifying, sacrificial love. And we understand His love better as we more fully grasp His just wrath. Sacrificial love is understood in view of our incurred punishment for sin, for He freely took the punishment from us by paying for it justly Himself.
And even if diminishing the Old Testament—which, again, we ought not—Kelley neglects a large portion of the New Testament about Christ—the book of Revelation. In this book, Jesus Christ pours out judgment onto the world, and we as people will see that He has always done right by us: “Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war” (Revelation 19:11). There is much about the wrath of God in Scripture, and it all points to our need for Christ and prompts us to think of the gift of Christ!
The cross demonstrates the power of God, for He brought about this salvation in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies and promises. He was powerfully able to overcome sin and death—bearing God’s holy and righteous wrath—on the cross. How great is His love! God is love (1 John 4:8); when we were His enemies, He saved us (Romans 5:10). These truths go hand-in-hand. Yet, it is from distorting mankind’s (pre-regenerate) position before God and, therefore, distorting God’s love to rule out His just wrath concerning sin, that Kelley draws the conclusion that God is lacking in power—for, according to her, He must not be in total control of this kind of world.
The God who powerfully conquered sin and all of its consequences, like eternal death, on the cross, is also powerful enough to have saved our children from earthly death. Yet, He did not. And He is good. Kelley says that this view emphasizes mystery in terms of God’s purposes and leaves us there (pg. 237).
I believe that God ordained the day of my daughter’s death; I believe He did no evil to me in planning this. I believe that is true because death itself is a consequence of mankind’s sin against an infinitely worthy and holy God. Sin came through man; man had moral responsibility. And in a way only God could do—He works even this together for my good (Romans 8:28).
On the cross, He demonstrated His great mercy, His great grace, His sacrificial love, His faithfulness to His promises and more. I do not know or understand the full mind or purposes of God. Yet, I can understand that if He prevented sin, He could not have demonstrated mercy, grace, sacrificial love, and covenant faithfulness to us who would worship Him for them. You and I as believers could not know what it is to experience a love lavished on us so great that we have been redeemed so undeservedly. We could not worship Him as Redeemer, the Lamb who was slain. There is so much we could never know about Him. And He is our highest good; this belief and passion does not come through as a theme in Kelley’s writing.
We do not know the full mind of the Lord; this is how the book of Job concludes (Job 39-41). Yet, we do know much. God glorifies Himself; we are given fulfillment and joy when participating in glorifying Him. God will demonstrate that He is worthy; and we are blessed to worship Him. God shines through it all as our highest good; and we are humbled to know Him like we do. He gifts us as believers and our children eternal pleasures; and we will enjoy Him forever. Seeing revealed, one day, the mystery of Christ—this is our prize and reward! He is the culmination of His plans and promises for us.
At this point in our review of Kelley’s theology, I am weary of calling Kelley’s god “God,” because he is not. Kelley concludes that her god did everything he could have done to save her son (pg. 238). In Kelley’s view, god failed; he was overcome. Yet, she still believes that god will make the world right one day. How could she possibly know? Further, how could her god possibly know? How could a god capable of failure—trying as hard as he might and failing—possibly know that he will right every wrong in this world and wipe every tear away? Kelley’s god fails a lot every single day—think of every instance of suffering in the world, or at the least, in the lives of Christians, if she limits her views to that. She doesn’t address this logical hold-up; and in her writing we see confirmed the conclusion of theologians and scholars referenced above: this god cannot be counted on to fulfill prophecy and promises.
In sum, the Bible is clear about much: Mankind is responsible for our sin and contracting sin’s consequences (Genesis 3). These consequences are just and come from a good, just God (Deuteronomy 32:39; Isaiah 45:7). Evil did not come from God (Habakkuk 1:13; Psalm 5:4; 1 John 2:14; 1 John 1:5). God is good and created all things good (Genesis 1). His future kingdom will not have sin and sin’s consequences (Revelation 21:4) because He has rescued us as believers from them (Colossians 1:13) when we did not deserve it (Romans 5:10). God demonstrated His love on the cross (Romans 5:8). God was not surprised about evil because He knows all things and knew before time that He would be so loving as to save us who believe for His glory (Acts 4:27-28; Revelation 5:12). Because God is so good and powerful, He can work in the experience of the death of our children for our good (Romans 8:28) and His glory—giving purpose to our suffering (Romans 5:2; 8:18). Our highest good, reward, goal, passion, and prize is Christ (Psalm 15:5-6; Mark 10:18; Psalm 73:28). He can never be taken from us (Romans 8:38-39).