You write that at the end of your husband's life "it seemed as if the goods of marriage were present more intensely in that hospital room than had ever been before." How can we experience good in the midst of evil?
Difficult circumstances of whatever kind tend, at least in the context of marriage, to move you faster in the direction that you were already going. I have friends who had a handicapped child some years ago. And the person that made the diagnosis sat them down together and said, This will make or break your marriage. And she says that really happened. They decided to be on each other's team and to pull together through this very unexpected and tragic thing, which was open to blessing at the same time.
And I think that certainly was what happened to Hyung Goo and me. The difference was that we encountered it even before we were married. And so we had to decide whether we wanted to embark upon this, under the circumstances.
When you're faced in a very direct way with the limitations of your life and the reality that there will be worse as well as better, it can sober you up. You have to do it together or you won't be able to manage.
What did you learn about Christian marriage from your experience?
When Hyung Goo and I were deciding whether we wanted to marry each other, I noticed how everybody, Christians included, thought that the only sane way to step into marriage was if you could maintain your fantasy that everything will be fine forever. That meant we shouldn't do it because marriage is supposed to be this pathway strewn with rose petals. And you have to be able to pretend that it will be only that way for the foreseeable future. But it's not. And knowing that is actually helpful for making marital decisions.
You're not choosing a particular future when you decide to get married, you're choosing a partner for whatever the future brings. And you're choosing to look upon a potential marriage partner as the person that, no matter what happens, I want to do this together with you. That can help to lay a more solid basis for a marriage. You're always going to be hit by curve balls and even the things that you expect are always going to be more challenging when they arrive than what you had imagined.
When you married Hyung Goo you knew he was HIV-positive, and given the state of medicine at that point, you knew where that was going to lead. Did you still have a lot of surprises to deal with? Was the reality more difficult than you expected?
I don't think anybody really knows what they're getting into when they get married. But what surprised us was how rich it all was. People in love, people deciding to get married, think that they've reached a really deep mature point and that if anybody really knows what love is, they do. That's certainly the way we felt. And a few years later we realized that we'd had no idea.
The biggest surprises lay in the fact that there was so much to being intimate partners and so much to know about each other and so much to learn about how to do it together and how to give each other space and be intimate at the same time. Those things you only learn by doing.
Another thing was that we had a lot of help. Most of us go through life thinking either we don't need help or we shouldn't need help. And nobody else seems to need help. But we could not possibly have thrived the way we did without all the help we had.
You wrote about your counselors, about the people at the clinic, and—after a certain point—friends that were invited into that helping circle.
That was also a surprise, to realize just how much help help could be. Lots of us don't ask for help in difficult situations because we think, What difference will it make? They can't make the bad situation go away. So, why should I ask for help, won't it just be exposing and embarrassing and messy and unhelpful?
Since the situation could not be changed, what were the most helpful things that happened out of other people's concern?
Most of us when we face a difficult circumstance are frightened and we sort of freeze. We think that our first inclination in terms of response must be the best and only response. And if that doesn't work, we just do more of it or we give up.
The most helpful thing was having people around who had a broader perspective and more experience and were more flexible and were willing to say, Now what if we tried this?
And it was good to have that safety net around us where we didn't have to feel like if we didn't hang on for dear life with knuckles clenched, that there wouldn't be anyone to hold us together. There were lots of people to help hold us together so we could spend more of our energy really trying to face up to it and cope together.
One thing I learned from our talking together with the social worker and the counselor was that it's not that the counselor solves your problem, but that the counselor is sort of in charge of the situation so that you can let go of the being in charge part and connect with each other or do whatever else it is you need to do to get to the next point.
One theme of your book is openness and privacy about difficult matters. It's one thing to deal with professionals, like the social worker and the counselor, but what about family and friends?
We had as long a history with our families as anybody else does and as many odd things going on in those relationships as anybody does. And we were not terribly open with our families.
We wanted to be more so than we really were. We took both families into the clinic at a couple of points, with the idea that people there would help facilitate conversation. But our families weren't quite up for that.
Various of our friends really did become a part of our lives—and especially after Hyung Goo's death. I spent a lot of time behaving in socially inappropriate ways, just crying everywhere all of the time. And there were times at least when it was refreshing for all of us, because those social barriers would keep us from actually showing what we feel and showing what we need and appreciating it when it's given. Those barriers fell away, and it was a good thing.
Openness and bearing one another's burdens is a two-way street. You have to be willing to let people see enough of your stuff that they can be there to help. But they have to be willing to look at it. And often both of those pieces aren't there. But they were there frequently for us. And it was a really good thing.
This is something I sorrow over with my students, because I get the sense that they haven't had too many experiences where they were able to be honest with themselves and others about what was really going on and find ears that were willing to hear and hearts that were willing to be open.
It's hard to listen to somebody who's really hurting or facing a challenge that you can't fix. It feels like if you can't just fix it then you can't do anything, and so you just don't want to help.
You devote half a chapter to saying that the church needs a different vocabulary for talking about HIV/AIDS. What would that sound like?
I think AIDS is hard for everybody. Any subject where sex and death are right next to each other, that's hard for everybody.
AIDS is also hard because it's inevitably so messy that even if you paint an ideal scenario in terms of marital faithfulness or somebody who's really ready to face death and illness, there are still just so many aspects of uncertainty that most of us haven't had a chance to explore. It's confusing, and it's frightening. And then you overlay something like AIDS that is so often associated with such darkness in people's lives and such destructive patterns of behavior. It can be so much easier to issue blanket condemnation and then walk away.
AIDS magnifies the responses that we have to other situations. For example, issues of death and dying and life care get magnified with AIDS, even though they're present in lots of other places. And issues of intimacy and sexual relationship get magnified with AIDS, but they're present everywhere else. AIDS offers a real opportunity for Christians to face up honestly to human brokenness and the need that we have to depend on one another and to care for one another, even in the midst of messy situations. It doesn't matter whose life you look at, if you get below the surface, it's messy, it just always is. One of the things that keeps us from intimacy with one another is that we're afraid people will see our stuff. And yet it's so much better when we can be in it together, when we can be honest. It opens doors to redemption and to letting light shine in on some dark places.
Shouldn't we expect people to be broken and have to deal with their brokenness in the context of the church? Shouldn't church feel more like an AA meeting than a health club?
I'd like for church to be a place where together, as a group of people who are all broken one way or another, look together toward the Lord and toward the healing, the redemption, the vision, the wholeness, and the compassion he has to give.
Marriages, like people, move through life stages. How did having a terminal illness in the marriage from the beginning change that process?
It means we missed all the middle. We were young, and then we were old. And we never had the maturing in a life of work or career, we never owned a home, we never raised a family, never had a child. All those middle-stage things that people do, we didn't do. And we really felt it at the time. We were very conscious of not being in those life stages that most of our peers were in. It seemed like our marriage was more like the marriages of our friends who were 10 or 20 or 30 years older than we.
It was odd to be in a marriage and know it was never going to have any of what we think of as normal things. But it was very enriching to realize how much we did have. There were these very, very deep rich relational places that we had. And it gave a certain kind of maturity and completeness to our marriage.
I remember talking with somebody the Christmas after Hyung Goo died, and I cried rivers of tears. And he said, How long were you married? Four years? And I was startled because it felt like my whole lifetime.
I talked with another friend about that conversation later, and he said, Well, if you have a set of 50 blocks and you build something that uses all 50 blocks, that would be more complete than if you had 500 blocks and only used 50. With 500 blocks, you would never figure out what the definitive building looked likes. But with the smaller number, it's possible.
It was a wonderful image because our marriage was a whole marriage, with a beginning and a middle and an end. It was a very different experience from the friend I have who was married for only seven years before her husband was killed in an automobile accident. They had never imagined that they would have so short a time. That really strikes me as a marriage that goes up, up, up and then it's kind of cut off as it's still getting launched. And ours, even though it was shorter, it had a real sense of fullness to it.
Out of your reflection on your experience, how do you relate to the various ideas about God's providence?
I see God's providence as being very particular and very mysterious. I have realized increasingly as time has gone on how mysterious it all is. That makes me Calvinist, but not the sort of Calvinist that says, God has his plan and let me tell you what it is.
For Calvin, the providence of God is so comforting because it is a dangerous and unpredictable world. You never know what awful thing is going to happen to you except that it's probably going to happen. And what can possibly be a comfort in such a world, if not knowing that the God who is completely loving and completely dependable is also completely in charge, including the things that seem utterly mysterious to us? I really have the sense that in this broken, hurting, and often opaque world, there really are Everlasting Arms underneath us.
I wrote a doctoral exam on Calvin and Wesley, and they have very different understandings of providence—and very different understandings of human knowledge of God and human knowledge of good. Calvin says, God is perfectly good and perfectly wise and perfectly loving and, therefore, whatever God does is just. And we often can't understand that because we don't see fully. Our created frame prohibits it. But we can trust God.
Wesley says, I could name some things that would be blatantly unjust, for example, if God condemned some people not to be saved purely because he decided. That would be evil, and because it's evil, God would not do it. Wesley presumes that he can know the good and therefore put things that are not good on a list of things that God would never do.
Calvin would say, I can know the good if God shows it to me. But God's idea of the good is far deeper and more mysterious than I could ever possibly understand.
The ripples of Wesley's sureness that he can know what is good and therefore what God would and would not do, and of Calvin's thought that God is mysterious and that he cannot know, but he can trust—the ripples of that run throughout Wesleyan and Calvinist theology. I have to say I really am a Calvinist.
For Paul, the providence of God, the mysterious acting of God beforehand, is always good news. And it's really interesting to see my students semester after semester be terribly worried that if they trusted their friend's salvation purely to the providence of God then that would be bad because God might damn them or hurt them or something. They would much rather that their friends had free will and were on their own. And I say, Really? Really? You'd rather trust your friends to themselves than to God?
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Sing Me to Heaven and My God and I are this month's selections for CT's Editor's Bookshelf. Elsewhere on our site, you can:
Read our review by David Neff.
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Read an excerpt fromSing Me to Heaven.
Buy Sing Me to Heaven and My God and I online.
Peterson earlier wrote about her husband's death in a 2000 Christianity Today article. She also wrote about depictions of witchcraft in popular culture for our sister publication Books & Culture.
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