Chaos gets a bad rap. We cling to order and calm, presenting nice, tidy images of ourselves worthy of Facebook and Instagram and Pinterest. Behind them we hide, loathe to let others see what’s on the other side of the curtain. Yet, it’s often when things are upturned, broken, and exposed that we experience true growth and change. In her book, A Beautiful Mess, author Danielle Strickland suggests that God actually uses chaos to transform our lives and draw us closer to him.
A major in The Salvation Army in Los Angeles and an Ambassador for the global anti-trafficking campaign Stop the Traffik, Strickland knows how messy life can get better than most. Through her own encounter with the Lord and her ministry to brothels, she is intensely familiar with the ugly, dirty chaos of this world. Rather than run from it, Strickland chooses to embrace it.
“My experience of life with God is messy,” she says in her introduction. “It’s a mix of failure and success, courage and fear, faith and doubt. It’s-well, a beautiful mess…It’s beautiful because it’s a witness to the creative design of God’s love in the here and now of our lives. My life doesn’t look anything like it once did…I’ve been re-created by a designer who loves to recycle.”
This serves as a thesis statement for the rest of the book. What follows are stories of God working through the chaos of people’s lives to accomplish his good purposes. Interwoven between these is Strickland’s ongoing exhortation to embrace the messes we encounter rather than try to hide or cover them up.
One of the strongest points of A Beautiful Mess is the probing questions Strickland asks, and she starts right out of the gate in the first chapter. “What if the pursuit of order has created a love of the status quo and has removed the passion for justice? What if we have made a friend of comfort instead of change and as a result removed ourselves from the responsibility that demands that we fight for change to happen?”
Throughout the book, Strickland continues to prod the reader with these types of questions. They cause the audience to stop, to think, to reconsider. In harmony with her premise, this upends the nice little boxes we might have stacked neatly in our minds, creating the kind of discomfort that challenges long held beliefs. Somewhat ironically, she also adds orderly numbered questions at the end of each chapter as well, making it easy to use in a discussion group.
Chaos, Strickland says, is necessary to create something; and, in fact, an over devotion to order actually leads to breakdown. She writes, “If instead of clinging desperately to order we allow God to set the priorities, then the divine can and does speak a different kind of order into existence that promises permanent and lasting meaning for us personally and in the work that we are a part of.”
It can feel like chaos to give up control, to wait on the Lord’s voice and His timing, and it requires a healthy dose of courage. According to Strickland, however, it is only when we wrench our grip from the wheel and hand it over to the Lord that we can enter real life. Of the many stories the author tells in A Beautiful Mess, one of the most profound is a story that starts with an affair. After catching her husband being unfaithful, a friend of Strickland’s found her entire life turned upside down. Yet amidst the chaos and mess, she sought out the Lord. It was then that he led her to Africa. From what seemed to be a dead end, God used this woman to serve widows and orphans in desperate need of her gifts. Stories like this remind the audience that there is a bigger picture; that on the other side of messy suffering is a new path, renewed life.
“What is emerging from her chaos is something so beautiful and rich and different than her life would have been,” writes Strickland. “She now has the ability to look back and see that even the chaos was an opportunity to see God’s order emerge in her life. Even the darkness helped her [move] toward God’s Divine Order for her life.”
Chaos also often uncovers the truth we hide from, Strickland says. An experience in Russia just after the collapse of the Soviet Union taught her about the failures of scientific and orderly modernity to answer the deep internal questions. Strickland learned from her Russian translator, Olga, that the government had fed the people many lies to make them believe that things were good. Everything appeared neat and tidy on the outside, but the eventual collapse made it evident that this was not true. The citizens of the Soviet Union chose to believe the lies they were fed until the chaos forced them to see the truth.
Strickland writes, “It is sometimes simply easier to believe that things are ordered, reasonable, predictable, and completely under our control. But the reality of our world is that it is unpredictable, often random and unreasonable, chaotic and completely out of our control. And that’s when modernity’s promises run empty and its progress reports run dry.”
This is not limited to secular governments, Strickland says. The church also often trips into the same pitfalls, settling for “whitewashed tombs” rather than accepting the kind of chaos that asks hard questions and risks failure. “The truth would rather embrace honest chaos than continue to whitewash the tombs of our culture so we die looking good,” Strickland writes. “It’s really about allowing chaos to show a bit, and even enjoy it.”
Finally, Strickland says that chaos can actually bring light to darkness and allow us to join with God to create things. Injustice casts a pall over our world and when we seek to bring an end to it, a mess often ensues. As uncomfortable as this might be, it is necessary if we wish to make any kind of progress, if we want to join God in bringing his kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven. Strickland describes it beautifully. “We need a ‘curtains being pulled back in the morning’ moment where light or revelation floods in.” If we’re standing still in fear of the chaos, she says, we will never experience this kind of moment.
Strickland concludes A Beautiful Mess by encouraging the reader to create a timeline in which to track times of chaos within one’s life. This, she says, will help identify the process of God’s “Divine Order”, of how he uses the mess to bring us into his light. “We get to be a part of this incredible work of beauty – this art called life,” she writes. “And then we rest. We step back and breathe in the beauty of a love-filled, creative God. A God who uses every shade and vibrancy of colour to re-create our lives in ways we could never have imagined or dreamed. We get to stop working, and celebrate the incredible truth that we are, all of us, a beautiful mess.”