Finding God in the Ruins – A Book Review
“Ultimately all the unredeemed really want is to know that they are capable of being redeemed in some way – that even if we have been pawned off by random life circumstances (our family of origin, past mistakes, simple human nature,) we still have it in us to morph into something beautiful and useful.”
For most of my life, I was disappointed in God.
I felt let down, ignored, abandoned. If God was indeed our Father, He was living down to the example of fatherhood in my family. A far-away, unreachable entity who absence loomed larger than any presence in my life.
Here is the thing about disappointment, it can’t enter the room unless judgment’s already there.
I judged God for not preventing my abuse, I was angry at Him for not punishing my abuser- except you aren’t allowed to do that, right? You don’t get mad at God. You certainly don’t get to judge Him.
But what if you do? What if you’re allowed to talk back? What if God can take it?
In Matt Bays’ brilliant new book, Finding God in the Ruins: How God Redeems Pain, he examines his relationship with God and questions the way we, as people of faith, talk about redemption in the face of suffering, loss, and trauma.
He uses the circumstances of his own life, his childhood abuse, the loss of his brother, his alcoholism and his sister’s battle with cancer to explore the difficulty of having a faith capable of sustaining you when you are in crisis or grieving. When your cries for help are met either by a seemingly silent God or with well-intended religious platitudes more suited to a cross-stitched pillow than as a source of real comfort for someone who is in pain.
I’ll be honest, the notion of having a relationship with God always seemed like such malarkey to me. If God did know about me He didn’t care about me, no matter how much I loved Him. That’s not a relationship- and if it is, I am in a relationship with George Clooney (call me!)
I couldn’t reconcile a God that was omniscient and omnipotent knowing such evil existed and doing nothing. He either didn’t know, in which case He was the oblivious substitute teacher being made a fool of by the very students He was supposed to be managing, or He was uncaring, or worse- complicit. Handing out tragedy as some sort of litmus test for worthiness. Either way, He was a small god indeed.
A relationship has to work both ways, there needs to be connection and communication. Give and take. The God in whom I believed but had no faith was far away. Unaware at best, disinterested at worst. I had no time for a clueless or feckless God. And I wasn’t allowed to be mad about any of it? I was even supposed to be grateful in the face of my pain and assume it would all be worked out in the absence of any evidence to that effect? I just could not.
In AA we talk a lot about ‘the God of our understanding.’ That’s where this book helped me the most, in understanding God and my relationship with Him differently. Better.
I think at our rock bottoms, when we are on the floor undone, we look around and we see gratuitous pain and needless suffering. We proclaim it a junk heap. Worthless scraps.
This book reframed that for me. Now I believe my God surveys the same scene, that wreckage of hurt and loss, and He sees a salvage yard.
The cover is perfect. Those ruins- the rubble, the stones, the man-made crumbling walls- they are not trash. Our pain and suffering are not trash. They are raw materials. God meets us where we are and uses them- and not in some tidy, convenient ‘lemons and lemonade way’ although that’d be nice.
He repurposes our trauma, upcycles our tragedy. He doesn’t prevent it and He doesn’t take it away- and let’s face it, that’s what we really want. We want redemption to be an Etch-a-sketch or a magic wand. Not so much.
He exchanges our pain. That is, as the author reminds us, what the word redeem means, after all. The act of exchanging one thing for another. We want to decide what the exchange rate is, though- we want to PICK. We want to negotiate.
I think we get stuck because we are limited by our understanding. We hear Romans 8:28, look at the shambles of our lives, the unanswered prayers, and think, “No good can come of this!” The notion seems ridiculous- insulting even. I felt that way. I felt that way about my abuse, about the demise of my marriage, about my alcoholism- that it was pain for pain’s sake.
I don’t believe that anymore. This book helped me with that.
I keep thinking about back when I worked in special ed. Best job ever. I adored all of my students- but one of them… man. He just broke my heart into a million little pieces. I still think about him every single day.
He struggled. Oh, how he struggled. He’d get frustrated and act out, become aggressive. He’d wail and throw things and hit, and collapse in a heap on the ground- and I would say the same thing, every time. “When you are ready I will help.”
That’s it. Those same seven words, over and over. And I would sit on the ground with him. And wait.
Eventually, we’d get up off the linoleum, we’d pick up the things he’d thrown, and we would move on. We’d do the work, because he was finally ready. He needed to be done before we could begin.
Maybe all of those years I ran and numbed, all of those years I suffered it was because I would not meet God there, in the ruins. I would not sit and sift with him. It was a war of attrition and I was determined to out-negotiate (my version of prayer) or out-wait Him. I was throwing punches in the air, railing against the hand I’d been dealt. I would not surrender and examine the remains- I could not do it, right up until I did. Right up until I met him there in the wreckage. Right up until I was all done and ready to begin.
So He watched and waited. He suffered for me. With me. And when I was ready, He helped.
There are still aspects of redemption about which I am not certain, and the author doesn’t claim to be, either. There are no easy answers in this book, just thoughtful questions and complicated truths. Faith is never tidy, though- not like belief. This book is beautiful, but it’s not pretty- it’s raw and at times uncomfortable. But I could feel those little seismic soul shifts as I read it- you know those moments? When the little tectonic plates of your heart are disrupted and rearranged?
The author is frank about his life, his doubts, his struggles. His writing is blunt and lyrical- that’s an unusual and compelling combination. Equal measures grit and grace.
I read this book in one sitting, and then almost immediately read it again. I never do that. I bought extra copies, and have given them away- which seems appropriate because this book is a gift. Truly.
It’s not so much that perfect is unattainable, as it is that it simply doesn’t exist. The best things in our lives are mosaics made of the broken pieces of me, and the broken pieces of you, put together in such a way that they are made beautiful. Show up and sit amidst the lovely ruins, friends.
*I was given an early, complimentary copy of this book in exchange for agreeing to participate in this blog tour.
*I 100% got the better end of this deal.
*Page 197. Total Game-changer. Especially for survivors. Like, whoa.