Everything changed on March 20, 1998. I was a sophomore in college and had just arrived home for the weekend when my parents, red-eyed and somber, broke the news that would forever change my life.
“Carrie is dead. She was killed in a car accident this afternoon.”
Carrie and I had been dating since high school. In “normal time,” that was only three years. But in “high school and college relationship” time, it was an eternity. We had a healthy relationship, even surviving the long distance between us while she finished high school and I started college. And this was in the days before text messaging, Facebook, or even e-mail. We had talked of marriage and even circled a potential date on the calendar.
But all of that changed, in an instant, on March 20, 1998.
And I was angry.
I was filled with the questions any normal person would ask when tragedy like this strikes: Why me? Why her? What will I do now? Will I ever love like this again?
And as a young Christian, most of my questions were directed to a God I thought I could trust. Aren’t you supposed to be good? Why don’t these things happen to bad people? How can I ever trust you again?
Looking back on 13 years of experience and maturity, it seems my questions were a natural and healthy avenue for my grief. At the time, though, I am not sure I honestly thought I would receive satisfactory answers from God. Or anyone else for that matter.
But, as Athol Dickson says in his book, The Gospel According to Moses, “God loves an honest question.”
A month passed by. With my wounds still deep and questions still lingering in my mind, I remember watching Jeopardy! one weekday afternoon on my couch. The curtains were drawn, and I was supposed to be in class. But I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t motivate myself to move from my dungeon.
A knock on the door startled me, but it didn’t seem to faze Alex Trebek. What does? At the door, with a bag of groceries under one arm, was Joe Belzer. Joe was the campus minister with the ministry I was nominally involved with at the time. It was a large ministry, and I had never met Joe. Yet here he was, with groceries, entering into the mess of my life.
Joe asked questions about me and about Carrie. I cried and told him stories of our past. He asked if I had any questions, for him or for God. I said I did, and he finally asked the question that changed the course of my life yet again: “Can I walk with you for a stretch and we’ll see if we can find the answers together?”
As the semester painfully drew to an end and summer approached, I found myself with no roommate, one class, and a part-time job flipping burgers. I had nothing but time. And those lingering questions.
Joe and I made a plan to read through the New Testament once a week every week of the summer. We would get together several times each week, over coffee or a cinnamon roll, and discuss what God was revealing to us through his Word. I would start on the first page of an empty spiral notebook and fill it with my questions and discoveries and prayers. When the last page of that notebook was full, I’d start on another. I filled several notebooks that summer.
As I consumed the New Testament, I knew God was untangling my heart in order that I might see him for who he truly is. He answered some of my questions, but not all. A good father doesn’t necessarily give his children everything they think they want. But he does pull them close and embrace them. And in that embrace, they feel love and know he is the source.
This realization was a crucial step in my journey toward healing. I needed to know that God was good and that I could trust him in spite of the pain I felt. I needed to hear him say, “I am for you, and not against you” (see Romans 8:31).
In Romans 8:28, God promises that all things will work together for the good of those who love him, those who are called according to his purpose. Deep inside, I longed for something good to come of this mess. That desire, combined with God’s promise in Romans 8, moved my weary heart to a place of complete and divine vulnerability, where I could learn to love.
I was baptized into Christ at the end of that summer. I was not magically healed of all that ailed me as I rose out of the muddy waters, but I was beginning to get a glimpse of the good things God was weaving together. Romans 8:29 illuminates that God does not bring all things together for our good so that we might be comfortable. Instead, he does it so that we might be conformed to Christ.
Now, nearly 13 years later, I am serving as a campus minister. Like Joe, my campus minister before me, I now have the privilege of walking with students through their questions. It’s my prayer that I will be faithful, as will you, in pointing people to the source of the answers they seek. After all, he loves an honest question. And the words he speaks are, likewise, true (John 17:17).
Brandon Smith serves as campus minister with Christian Campus House at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, Missouri.