Back when I attended evangelical churches, I often heard providential events ascribed to a benevolent deity, as in: “It was a God Thing.” Negative events were “spiritual attacks,” “temptation,” or the results of one’s “own selfish desires.” These were not “God Things.” Every circumstance fit into one category or another, never both at the same time, with the possible exception of “Dark Nights of the Soul,” which felt like the latter but were in fact the former, in disguise.
Most people seemed to have little trouble determining where an event fit into the larger scheme of things. But I wasn’t so sure. A mission worker’s chance encounter with a spiritually receptive young man might well be “A God Thing.” So might switching on the TV just in time to see Billy Graham, or, say, a chance encounter with the teachings of the Buddha. But what about The Crusades? The Holocaust? September 11? Was God seriously tiptoeing around, prearranging small coincidences, while ignoring the big stuff? I wasn’t sure where to draw the line between God Things and not-God Things. I began to doubt that there was even a line at all. Between the narrow but wide spaces of black and white spirituality in the evangelical church was what appeared to be a vast gray area. At first this caused me great anxiety; more recently, it has been a source of comfort.
Now that I’m a parent, that gray area seems even larger. In fact, I’m convinced that spiritual reality contains more ambiguity than certainty, more gray than black and white put together. In my heart I know for sure that God calls us to care for the poor, the vulnerable, and the needy. Other matters, like how to discipline my children, feel like muddier waters. It’s hard to swim in mud: to pick out potential dangers, to gauge how deep the waters. But I believe God is with me even more in the ambiguity than in the certainty. If I didn’t believe this, I would be lost.
This summer our family decided to host an older child from a Russian orphanage with the idea that if we all “clicked” our family might pursue adoption. The girl who arrived is beautiful and smart, friendly and moody, an emotional roller coaster, a sponge for love. In other words: a teenager.
When choosing a child to host, I imagined a calm, mild-mannered girl who would blend in seamlessly. Instead, as my husband observed, “it feels like there’s a wild animal loose in our family.” Our host child’s preferred method of connection is tickling, teasing, and chasing — while letting out screams that could peel the enamel from my teeth. When she and our six-year-old daughter bicker, I feel as if a hand is squeezing my heart. I worry that there is no real affection between the two.
But for all our struggles, our host daughter is helpful and bursting with life, funny and playful, affectionate and eager to please. If she and my daughter were related by blood, their relationship might be just as fraught. What siblings don’t fight? Yet I wonder if this is asking too much of my daughter, for whom this visit has triggered painful memories of her early life in Russia.
And so we find ourselves in the spiritually gray area of an agonizing adoption decision. We are an awkward match with this child, yet we also love her. I do feel a responsibility to care for the homeless, the orphans of this world. I also have a responsibility to myself and to my family.
Scripture says: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress . . .” Jesus also said, “You will always have the poor among you.” We can take a risk and help this child. Or we can wait — there will always be children who need love and care. As we wrestle with the decision, I hurt for her, for all the children in her circumstances, for our family as we try to decide what’s best.
I long for a simple decision, for black and white certainty. But so far there is none. If we adopt our host child, we may be happy together, or it might be terribly difficult for all of us. On the other hand, we may choose not to adopt her and be haunted with regret. Whatever we decide, I am choosing to believe that God will work, is already at work, here in our very own gray area. I find myself in muddy waters again, but I’ve been through the mud before.
There are no black and white answers in this place, no clear lines between what is a God Thing and what is not. That’s the thing about gray areas — there’s room for more than one choice. I no longer believe that the hard decisions are about rightly choosing whether to turn to the left or the right. Maybe they’re simply about taking a deep breath and stepping forward — having faith that no matter where that step leads, none of us is truly alone.