When God Hides His Face A modern-day Christian couple relives the questions of Job.
By David Van Biema
Senior Writer, Time Magazine
In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. He had seven sons and three daughters, and he owned 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels. He was the greatest man among all the people of the East.
-- Book of Job
In a subdivision in Nashville, Tenn., live David and Nancy Guthrie. They own no sheep or camels, but they have a late-model Infiniti and a wide-screen Sony TV. They would never lay claim to blamelessness, but they are regarded as upright and God-fearing among their friends, who place high value on those traits. Sometimes those friends compare the Guthries to Job.
The odds of carrying a recessive gene for a terrible disorder called Zellweger Syndrome are 1 in 160. The odds of two carriers meeting and having a child who suffers from the syndrome are about 1 in 100,000. David and Nancy, already the parents of a healthy son, Matt, drew that 1 in 100,000 chance, when 2 1/2 years ago Nancy gave birth to a severely disabled daughter named Hope, who struggled with life for 199 days. After Hope was found to have the ailment, David got a vasectomy. The odds of a woman's becoming pregnant after her partner has had the procedure are roughly 1 in 2,000.
It is a warm, hazy day at the Harpeth Hills Memorial Gardens. Nancy, wearing a pink maternity suit, kneels down to wipe dirt from a plaque reading Hope Lauren Guthrie. A woman whose son lies nearby has hinted repeatedly that Hope's plot is due for a resodding. "I'm gonna have to tell her," says Nancy wearily. "You know what? We don't need to replant that grass because we're gonna dig it up again soon. We're gonna have this baby," she glances at her belly and then at the grave, "and we already know that's where he's gonna go."
Her new child is due on July 16. He will almost certainly be dead within a year.
Such a situation would call out to God regardless of the humans involved. But the language of faith is particularly apropos to the Guthries, who inhabit the center of progressive evangelical Christian thought. David is a vice president at Word Music, a Nashville Christian music power. Nancy is a publicist whose clients include inspirational author Max Lucado and Anne Graham Lotz, Billy Graham's preaching daughter. Their reaction to their dilemma--their "Christian witness"--presents a window into modern evangelicalism's approach to questions that obsessed Job's author 2,500 years ago.
At birth, Hope Guthrie had clubfeet; she would not suck. The doctor said, "There are a few little things we want to look at, but it's not Down's or anything." It was in fact far worse. Zellweger devastates essential bodies called peroxisomes in every cell. Zellweger newborns are severely brain-damaged, often blind and deaf, unable to take food orally.
Nancy asked whether the syndrome was fatal. The doctor replied, "There's no cure, and there's no treatment." That night David crawled into Nancy's hospital bed. They prayed, "God, our hearts are broken, but we still want to trust You."
To celebrate Hope's short life, Nancy and David threw her monthly birthday parties. But in between, the details were grim. In month three, Hope developed seizures. In month four, doctors inserted a gastric tube to make feeding easier. They said she lacked the brain capacity to suffer, but Nancy is not so sure. Some nights her daughter whimpered for hours. One night in the seventh month, David went to check on her. "I just touched the back of her leg. Her body was really cool. Even though you prepare yourself..." He woke his wife and said, "She's gone." Nancy changed her daughter's diaper a last time.
Hope's memorial service, at Nashville's Christ Presbyterian Church, was a showcase of faith's bulwark against sorrow. For all the tears shed, one guest called it a "victory," not just for Hope in heaven but also for David and Nancy, who had emerged with faith intact. There was, without boastfulness, a sense of a challenge met and of completion.
And then, 1 1/2 years later, David and Nancy, informed by a placenta-sampling test, stood before their congregation again. David recounted Hope's brief history and reported on his "medical procedure." Then he announced that "amazingly, in spite of that, we're now expecting a child, a little boy." His listeners oohed, aahed and applauded. "Thank you," David said. "And this little boy will be born with the same syndrome Hope had." Quite audible on the videotape of the event is the sound of several hundred people gasping.
IS IT PERSONAL?
In the Bible, Job correctly assumes he is personally targeted. (The reader knows he is the object of a wager between God and Satan.) The Guthries must wonder: Have they too been selected for their fate?
In the 1600s, such a couple might have seen their plight as evidence that they had sinned or were passed over for salvation. But American Protestants have largely abandoned such harsh Calvinism. At Hope's memorial, the Guthries' pastor, the Rev. Charles McGowan, recalled Jesus' encounter with the blind man. When asked, "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus replies, "It was not this man...nor his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him," and Jesus heals him.
Evangelicals' insistence on God's active presence inclines many of the Guthries' friends to regard them as singled out, maybe in a good way. "I think David and Nancy have been entrusted with something He couldn't entrust to anybody else," says Dan Johnson, a Christian filmmaker. He turns to David. "I think God is intrigued with your faithfulness." David does not reply. He refuses to believe God custom-tailored this situation, although he holds out hope that through it he may learn something of his ways. "I don't think this is a lesson designed FOR us," he says. "I think this is a situation with lessons to learn IN it."
There is, of course, another active party in the Job story--Satan. Again, David is loath to see supernatural manipulation. If evil is involved, he sees it as part of the general and far-reaching brokenness that resulted from Adam and Eve's sin. "We live in a fallen world that's full of pain and disease and death mixed in with the joy of our being here," he says. "And consistent with that, I think Hope was born to us because we are carriers of a received genetic mutation."
Nancy's idea of what's going on is a bit more personalized. "If God would ask me to suffer this significantly, I think he has something significant he wants to do with it through me, if only just in my heart," she says. Her concept of evil is less abstract than David's. The Bible is replete with instances in which "Jesus may not be the author of evil, but he permitted it (for reasons of his own)," she notes. She recalls Jesus telling Peter after the Last Supper that Satan has asked "to sift you like wheat," a metaphor suggesting agony.
Do the Guthries feel sifted?
"There are moments," says David.
"Here's the thing, David," says Nancy. "We're not even at the hard part yet."
IS GOD JUST?
Along with everything else, Job's friends eventually turn on him. By contrast, the group of fellow believers with whom the Guthries have met every Sunday night for seven years has been an unfailing pillar of strength. They are a high-powered crowd--music executives, a state senator, a former Tennessee deputy education commissioner--who originally saw Hope's illness as a medical challenge to be overcome. As she declined, however, they recast her fate as a call to radical faith.
"With Hope, the rubber met the road," says member Wayne Buchanan. "At a time like this, you either believe or not." He says the group finally concluded that "we will go down with the ship, believing in our hearts that God is in control."
Some thought this recommitment may have been part of God's plan for Hope. At her memorial, Bob MacKenzie, a group member who has since died of heart failure, said, "The Bible says, 'A little child shall lead them.' Make no mistake about it; this dear, precious child did lead us."
But that rationale was more satisfying before the news of this new pregnancy. "Why twice?" asks Bob's widow, Joy MacKenzie. "What can God be thinking? Why not give somebody else this experience and let them do some growing?"
Rabbi Harold Kushner has written that the greatness of the Job story lies in its focus on three propositions that can't be simultaneously true: 1) God is all-powerful; 2) God is just; 3) Job, whom God lets suffer, is a good person. But the debate in Job actually concludes on a fourth assertion, stated by the Lord from out of the whirlwind: Job has no business questioning him. ("Where were you when I planned the Earth? Do you show the hawk how to fly?")
Some believers are frustrated by this pulling of rank, but the Sunday group accepts it. Says Joy MacKenzie: "I think we're shortsighted when we try to think of why God does things in relationship to us. That presupposes it's about us. Maybe it's about something that we don't get." Adds Nancy, "I don't think God is obligated to relate his reasons to me."
Referring to Jesus' initial pleas to his father to be spared, Nancy says, "Jesus understands what it feels like to make cries and petitions to the One who has the power to make a different plan, but the book of Hebrews says (Jesus) learns obedience." Perhaps, she says, she can do the same.
The disadvantage to such obedience is that it risks suppressing the understandable human indignation that suffuses Job. David relates that recently a neighbor said to him, "Forgive me. I'm not as holy as you are. This kind of thing makes me want to look up and say, `God? What the f------ are You doing?'"
Sheila Walsh, a Sunday-group participant, remarks of God that "if you (God) took my son, I wouldn't doubt you were alive; I just wouldn't talk with you anymore." Nancy recalls that after Hope died, she was reading the story of the leper who says to Jesus, "Lord, if you are willing, make me clean." Jesus cured him, replying, "I am willing."
"When I looked at that," says Nancy, her eyes welling up, "I thought he was saying to me, 'I was NOT willing (to spare Hope).'"
Evangelicals perceive God as doing miracles daily in response to prayer. Many prayed that he would heal Hope, and now the prayers are flowing again. The Guthries are surprisingly unreceptive. Unlike a tumor or an infection, David explains, "the gene mutation our son will be born with is in his fabric, the way this little one is made." In that context, healing prayers can seem less like requests that God change a wrong than that he change his mind. "God's thoughts," Nancy believes, "are perfect."
She has even begun to wonder whether such prayers aren't a bit lazy, the "believer's version" of secular America's tendency to seek comfort rather than moral challenge. Nancy was surprised when several Christian friends suggested that no one would judge her if she had an abortion, an option the couple never considered.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
Today the Guthries have returned to the neonatal ward of Nashville's Baptist Hospital, where Hope was born, to discuss the coming birth. They recognize a nurse. "Jackie!" shouts Nancy. She reintroduces herself. "We had a little girl who didn't live that long." "Oh, I'm so sorry," Jackie replies. Then, surveying Nancy, she brightens. "But I see some good things in the making."
Says David a little later: "Without a couple of bedrock assumptions, none of this makes sense to anybody. You take that away and, boy, it is..."
"...bitter," says Nancy.
"It's all bad," says David.
In Job's 42nd chapter, Job, chastened, says to God, "My ears had heard of you; but now my eyes have seen you," and he surrenders his grievances. Where some readers see defeat, Nancy finds triumph. "God reveals himself," she says, "and in that process Job's questions disappear." Here is the classic evangelical understanding: Suffering is not an injustice, nor a punishment. Rather it is a harrowing invitation to a higher dialogue.
Nancy has been working out some thoughts on paper lately. Job, she writes, "was blessed through his brokenness, by his restless pursuit of God. He had a new, more intimate relationship with God, one he could never have found without pain and sorrow."
"In the darkest of days," she writes, "we've experienced a supernatural strength and peace." Like Job, "we often cannot see the hidden purposes of God. But we can determine to be faithful and keep walking toward him in the darkness."
And so they do.