I just finished watching The Impossible, a new film in which a youngish couple played by Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts bring their three boys to Indonesia and settle into a coastal bungalow just in time for the 2004 tsunami―the largest on record. The family is frolicking in the swimming pool when they hear a great rumbling. They look up to see birds flying away from the ocean and trees bending in the wind. Then a great wall of water comes up over the buildings, flattening everything in its path and tossing people around like dolls.
The family is completely separated by the tumult, and we watch as they search for each other in the wreckage, helping others along the way. Calamity has cut a great swath across the coast. There are injured people pinned under roof beams, infants crying in floating cars, dazed children in the tops of trees.
The father has the awful job of searching the entire area for his wife and children. He combs through sprawling makeshift hospitals and impromptu mortuaries where the dead are stacked like firewood. There is some degree of organization, but our hero is able to gather only the haziest details to help him in his search. There is confusion and pain everywhere. The tsunami has brought down a blanket of misfortune. The worst aspect of the people’s suffering is uncertainty; everyone has lost a wife, a child or a friend and must wait for order to be re-established to know whether they will get their loved ones back.
The irony that forms the central theme of the film is the beauty that emerges in the middle of a colossal disaster. Those who still possess able bodies and calm minds go to work to save the dying and put the families back together. Even those who are injured and separated from spouses and children get into the action. Helping proves to be the single most powerful survival strategy for all and a natural tranquilizer as well. Comfort given comes back multiplied. The joy of comradeship eclipses the vast suffering.
Some readers are saying to themselves, “But this is just a movie.” True. However, I have no doubt that in the destruction that fell on Indonesia nine years ago, the ones who came out of it well were the ones who sought life in the middle of a great cataclysm. They sought it by trusting that there was still a reason to hope for recovery, reunited families and human kindness. There was still cause to trust in God even when loved ones ended up dead or maimed.
This is the lesson I have found in the hard experience of losing my sister. This sorrow came on the heels of other considerable misfortunes. When it happened, I realized I was going to have to decide once and for all whether I was going to trust God or give up on him. I was so low in my spirit that, though I knew I didn’t have to let it simply roll over me, I actually wanted to. I was exhausted. But I felt God telling me he was pinning me down on the crucial issue of trust. We don’t get to choose when we deal with life’s dilemmas.
Through these trials, I realized that I was hesitating to trust God because it would mean giving up my righteous anger over the copious injustices of life. Somehow, inside, I was keeping a list of all the bad things that happen under the sun, particularly the perfect evils of cruelty to innocents and betrayal of trust (strangely the very things that happened to Jesus when he lived as a man).
What good is accomplished by holding onto hurt? And yet that is what I was doing. The alternative would involve accepting the fact of evil and relaxing my inner war against it. At the end of the day, my anger can’t move the establishment of evil a single inch. Only God can, and trusting him would involve forgiving him for allowing the whole hideous spectacle to begin with.
Many of us get hit so hard by life’s equal-opportunity thrashings that we end up resigning ourselves to them. It isn’t as though we like being beaten. But we can begin to believe that evil is more powerful than good―that it is the central reality of life. But if we trust, we will see peace, love and goodness prevail, because God is sovereign, and he hasn’t given up on this world.
We can have every material benefit and wind up bereft of hope―or we can have unending challenges and overflow with it. The pivotal factor is our response. God is always at work, through circumstances good and bad. He isn’t offering to make marginal improvements when disaster strikes; he is offering potent blessings that come in turbulent wrappings. The embroidery of God’s ministrations transcends the worst temporal circumstances. But we will miss the blessing if we aren’t trusting him. This arrangement is a corollary of God’s established order of human free will: We get to choose death or life. Indeed, we are forced to; there is no middle ground.
The truth that we can trust God with everything is elusive. When we are on the mount, it is stunningly present, illuminating every crevice in sight. When we are being tested, there isn’t a ray of light to be found, and our mountaintop experiences have become like cruel jokes. God makes the outrageous demand that we seek him in the middle of our worst times, when we are utterly spent. However, he isn’t asking for something we cannot give. Trust is a switch inside our spirits that we can reach no matter how exhausted we become. The sorrows of this fallen age are going to run their course. Our part is to choose whether we will be torn apart—or strengthened by them.