If you haven’t watched the body of someone you love lowered into the ground while holding your breath and praying, praying, praying that somehow, some way this isn’t real then maybe you can’t imagine what it feels like not to be spared.
Me? It doesn’t take but a single breath to go from “everything is alright” to “my world is shattered”. I feel every. single. death. added to the tally coronavirus or mass shooting or tornado destruction leaves behind.
And this weekend I add my aunt-the last of my grandmother’s siblings, the last of a generation-to that number.
So what do we do if we aren’t rescued? What do we cling to if our family isn’t spared?
What if all the prayers lifted on behalf of ones I love don’t stop death from claiming them?
When Jesus entered Jerusalem He was hailed as a hero. But when He didn’t perform as expected He was cast aside.
Will I choose to believe even when it’s hard?
So what if I’m not rescued?
What if my family isn’t spared?
What if all the faithful prayers lifted on behalf of ones I love don’t stop death from claiming them?
Will I still believe?
Will I still trust that God is a loving Father who is in control and working all things together for His glory and my good?
I first shared this some years ago as I was beginning to work through the theological implications of a God who did not intervene to save my son.
I thought I understood who God was and how He worked in the world because nothing that had happened to me challenged those assumptions. Things were neat and tidy with clear edges that demarcated “those who love God” and “those who refuse Him”.
But God is not confined to a box I or any other human can construct. He is GOD.
That’s a hard, hard truth to digest but it is truth.
It’s possible that you haven’t thought of it this way, but if you are a believer in Christ and have yet to walk through faith-shattering trials, you may have placed God in a box.
I know I had.
I thought that after decades of walking with Jesus, reading and studying Scripture and wading through some fairly significant trials I had God pretty well figured out.
I could quote verses for every occasion, open my Bible to any book without looking in the Table of Contents, and had something sprirtual to say about everything.
We are a people who love a good mystery as long as it leads to a good ending-bad guys vanquished, questions answered, motives revealed and a tidy resolution.
But real life is rarely so neat and squared away.
There are smaller mysteries that sit at the back of our minds but we can ignore and then there are the big “What ifs?” and “Whys?”
The cosmic questions that rock our world and threaten to undo us.
These are the questions that filled my mind and kept me awake at night after burying my son. Questions I was free to ignore before they took up residence in my soul and echoed in my head with every thump, thump, thump of my beating heart.
I have to admit that when I read the book of Job NOW, it’s no longer an intellectual exercise or detached theological foray into suffering and the sovereignty of God.
I was always appalled at what Job and his wife (remember her!) suffered. I was always a bit confused by God’s question to Satan, “Have you considered My servant, Job?” I was both comforted and confounded that God set boundaries but set them at the bare minimum to spare Job’s life.
Just being honest here.
Pastors and teachers love to talk about the sweeping arc of the story. They love to pull out lessons about how to comfort others in suffering, how to endure suffering ourselves and how, in the end, God restored to Job the things that had been robbed from him.
But my heart walks slowly through those pages. My soul weeps with every new blow struck against a man who, by God’s own account, was a righteous servant of the Most High.
I wonder if David knew the story of Job. It’s believed to have been one of the oldest books in the Old Testament.
If he did, I wonder if he took comfort in the knowledge that God eventually restored Job to a place of blessing, honor and safety.
David certainly knew what it was like to ride high on the wave of God’s favor and then to be dashed to bits on the rocks of adversity. He slew Goliath and then he was anointed king. He was Saul’s musician, ultimately his son-in-law and then his enemy. He knew that God declared his glorious future but he lived for years hiding in caves, eating what he could find and serving random wealthy patrons in hopes of a little peace between Saul’s attempts on his life.
So when he survived yet again, he wrote this Psalm as praise and prophecy.
He rode upon a heavenly creature,[a] flying; He was carried quickly on the wings of the wind. 11 He took darkness as His hiding place— both the dark waters of the seas and the dark clouds of the sky. 12 Out from His brilliance hailstones and burning coals broke through the clouds. 13 The Eternal thundered in the heavens; the Highest spoke; His voice rumbled [in the midst of hail and lightning].[b] 14 He shot forth His arrows and scattered the wicked; He flung forth His lightning and struck them. 15 Then the deepest channels of the seas were visible, and the very foundations of the world were uncovered At Your rebuke, O Eternal One, at the blast of wind from Your nostrils. 16 He reached down His hand from above me; He held me. He lifted me from the raging waters. 17 He rescued me from my strongest enemy, from all those who sought my death, for they were too strong. 18 They came for me in the day of my destruction, but the Eternal was the support of my life. 19 He set me down in a safe place; He saved me to His delight; He took joy in me.
Psalm 18: 10-19 VOICE
Again, David paints a vivid picture of God as Mighty Warrior.
But not just any warrior, raging through battle, unaware of who may be on His left or right. God is the One who protects His anointed. He is the One who reaches down and rescues.
God set David in a safe place. When He declared, “Enough!” no enemy could come further.
David had the sure promises of God to lean on. He knew that God is in control even when things feel out of control.
In the same way, the Lord established a hedge of protection around Job. He set the limits for Satan. He had him on a chain.
Of course there’s no indication from Scripture that Job knew his suffering had any limits. And while he didn’t sin by accusing God of wrongdoing, he certainly voiced his pain, indignation and desire to end his suffering through death.
I feel like I’m living in a space between the personal, rock-solid promises God gave David through Samuel and others and the blind faith of Job where God’s hand and purpose were concealed.
I know that every promise of God in Christ is “yes” and “amen”.
I know that the end has been written and everything that has been stolen, broken or touched by death will be redeemed, restored and resurrected.
But some days I wonder how long I’ll have to wait until I see those promises fulfilled. I wonder how much more I might have to endure, give up or lay down before I reach my heavenly Home.
That’s when I call my heart back to this picture of God as a Warrior who will always rescue me-both here and in the hereafter.
God has put my foot on a solid Rock.
When sorrow threatens to drag me deeper than my heart can bear, He reaches down and pulls me up.
When fear finds me in the dark and whispers lies in my ear, He makes His Presence real and speaks comfort to my soul.
Like Job and David and millions before me, I can trust the One who promises.
I can rest in His unfailing love and absolute sovereignty.
He never lets go.
If you are like me, sometimes we read Scripture like a story book-we already know the ending and often ignore the very real human drama people were living through. Does it help your heart hold onto hope to know that even after God rescued David from the hand of Saul, he (David) was still not in full possession of the promise that he’d be king? Why or why not?
Child loss is absolutely the most devastating blow I’ve suffered in my life and it was a long, long time before I was able to look up in my brokenness and look for blessings. When I did, I found that while there was no cosmic scale that could balance my loss with whatever I might still have or gain, my heart was strengthened when I noticed blessings again. Are you able to look for blessings yet? If so, does it encourage you? If not, would you be willing to try to find one little smile-inducing good thing a day for a week?
I love, love, love David’s words: “He reached down His hand from above me; He held me. He lifted me from the raging waters.” Our God is a personal God who does not despise us because we are weak and unable to save ourselves. He delights in reaching down and lifting us up. How do those words make you feel? When have you felt God reach down and lift you up?
We end our study of this Psalm with verse 19: “He set me down in a safe place; He saved me to His delight; He took joy in me. ” We are ultimately set safely in the redemption of Christ (if we have received that gift by faith). But I also believe we can live our lives in a safe space even in the midst of suffering when we choose to focus on Who God is and refuse to let circumstances blind us to His love, His goodness, His promises and His strength. What concrete steps can you take to help your heart focus on truth when your feelings threaten to drag you into falsehood?
You are the lover of my soul, my Mighty Warrior, my Savior and my Good Shepherd. Help me hold onto those truths when life threatens to undo me.
Give me the courage to face pain and suffering in the sure knowledge that You see me, You are with me and You will rescue me. I may not get a miracle or even a medical cure, but I will have the final victory in Christ.
When death and the awful darkness of grief roll over me like a flood, push it back with Your light, love and life.
Let me hear You singing joy over my soul.
***I combined today and tomorrow’s writing assignments***
It’s honest and exactly how I felt after Dominic was killed.
Like any healthy human relationship, forgiveness is a key component in allowing us to grow closer to those we care about. Intellectually, I believed that God is perfect, and could do no wrong. I could agree with all the scriptures I had read since I was a child that told me God cares for us with an everlasting love. But what my heart felt was that God had done Cathy and my whole family an injustice. As long as I held onto those feelings, I knew I could never move forward.
So one evening alone at home, I simply said these words out loud: ‘God, I forgive you.’
When I was finally able to let go of my ‘justifications’ for feeling angry at God, something inside of me shifted. There were no heavenly rays of light breaking through the clouds, but I could tell that much of the mental turmoil I had been struggling with was being replaced with a quiet peace.
The thing is, I knew deep down that God did not need to be forgiven. The forgiveness was meant for my sake. It opened my heart to begin to listen and allowed me to receive more of what God wanted to teach me about who He really is.
~Warren Ludwig, Jewels in the Junkyard
It may be an affront to our religious sensibilities to even suggest that we “forgive” God.
But it is a bold rendering of the betrayal my heart felt. Why MY son? Why ME?
It’s true-as long as I held onto the reasons God had “done me wrong”, I was unable to lean in and trust Him again.
Like Job, I thought I had Him figured out and could hold my own in a debate with the Almighty One.
But also like Job, when confronted with His holiness, perfection and majesty, found all I could do was cover my mouth.
And when I shut up long enough to hear Him, His voice brought comfort.
He [Christ] said not, ‘Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be trevailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased,’ but He said, ‘Thou shalt not be overcome.’
~Julian of Norwich
I no longer feel betrayed.
I still don’t like this life.
I would never have chosen this life.
But I will trust the One Who made me to carry me through it.
Even though I knew better, one of my first thoughts after I got the news that Dominic had run ahead to heaven was, “Is God punishing me?”
Because when something THIS awful happens, it seems logical to assume it is in response to a massive cosmic imbalance.
As a matter of fact, even though it sounds counter-intuitive, it’s almost more comforting to believe there is a discernible reason behind my son’s death than to swallow the truth I may have to live the rest of my years not knowing.
I combed through my life-searching every nook and cranny-for what I did that deserved this kind of retribution.
And while I, like all of us, have a closet full of sin, I could not find a single transgression that rose to the ranks of demanding my son’s life in payment.
But then I realized that any of my sins-whether I counted them big or small-DID demand payment.
And God sent HIS Son to pay for them.
To us, the greatest demonstration of God’s love for us has been his sending his only Son into the world to give us life through him. We see real love, not in that fact that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to make personal atonement for our sins.
I John 4:10 PHILLIPS
They HAVE been paid for. All of them. Every single one.
There is no sin debt outstanding.
That’s an important concept to grasp. It is absolutely critical that bereaved parents (and others who suffer horrible tragedies) get this theological point right.
God is not out to extract payment for sin.
Now, He may well allow us to suffer the natural consequences of our sinful actions. There may be things we must endure because of sinful choices we make.
But that is very different than suggesting God is visiting sickness or death or ill fortune on a heart because of unconfessed sin.
As a matter of fact, that was precisely the charge God Himself laid against Job’s friends when they simply would not let go of the idea that Job must have done something to justify his suffering.
After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.8 Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and offer up a burnt offering for yourselves. And my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly. For you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”9 So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the Lord had told them, and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.
Job 42:7-9 ESV
Even Job wanted God to explain Himself.
While the Lord showed up, He never did give Job an answer.
Instead HE asked the questions.
We like to think we can figure God out, dig up the reasons why this happens or that doesn’t.
Truth is, we’d do better to follow Job’s example once he encountered the Living God:
Oh, I am so small. How can I reply to You? I’ll cover my mouth with my hand, for I’ve already said too much. (Job 40:4)
Before I knew only what I had heard of You, but now I have seen You. Therefore I realize the truth: I disavow and mourn all I have said and repent in dust and ash.
Job 40:4 ; Job 42:5,6 VOICE
God’s thoughts are not my thoughts, His ways are not my ways.
But He is perfect.
He is SO perfect that He has provided the once and for all sacrifice that satisfies the price of sin by the blood of His Son, Jesus Christ.
I may not understand (DO not understand!) why He has allowed my son’s death. But is was NOT punishment. God does not lie.
I honestly thought I had a fairly accurate and well-rounded theological grid before Dominic ran ahead to heaven.
I had studied Scripture diligently for over 25 years, read extensively, engaged in active and insightful conversation with thoughtful believers and swallowed some difficult truths.
But when faced with my child’s untimely and sudden death, I realized that I had also swallowed some untruths and half-truths.
I thought I had God figured out, that I knew how He worked in the world and that I was definitely on the inside track to gain His favor and blessing.
I was wrong.
I wrote this a couple years ago, but it is something I have to come back to over and over in this Valley of the Shadow of Death:
Every idea of [God] we form, He must in mercy shatter. The most blessed result of prayer would be to rise thinking ‘But I never knew before. I never dreamed…’ I suppose it was at such a moment that Thomas Aquinas said of all his own theology, ‘It reminds me of straw.’
—Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (1964)
It’s possible that you haven’t thought of it this way, but if you are a believer in Christ and have yet to walk through faith-shattering trials, you may have placed God in a box.
In case you are wondering, there appears to be no limit to the depth or number of struggles one may be required to endure this side of heaven.
Sure we’ve all read Job and give mental assent to overwhelming breadth of his loss.
But, really, how can our hearts even begin to comprehend it when devastation upon devastation is given within seven verses-everything he owned and everything he loved (except his wife) was stolen or destroyed.
It’s so easy to read it and not to FEEL it.
I’m here to tell you I know parents who have lost more than one child. Parents who have lost their only child. Parents who have lost a child and then lost their living children’s love and companionship because their family fell apart. I know bereaved parents who are homeless because they couldn’t keep a job after burying their child.
In addition, there are the everyday struggles we all have to deal with-bad bosses, financial troubles, health issues, frustrating interpersonal relationships.
Right now our family is facing the culmination of a situation that began before Dominic ran ahead to heaven. I’m not free to discuss it but it’s the kind of thing where you need legal advice.
And you want to know what’s harder than dragging my fanny through this nasty mess?
The salt it’s rubbing in the wound of my broken heart.
Because if Dominic were here, he’d be three years out of law school and ready to rock and roll. I’d have a personal hot line to all the legal counsel a body could stand. And if he didn’t know the answer, he would have access to the kinds of resources that could find it.
Instead we have to rely on strangers and hope that they have at least a smidgen of the commitment our own son would have were he able to represent our cause.
I hate so many things about this life.
I hate that the life I thought I would have-the life our whole family thought we would have-is not the one we are stuck with. One of the things I hate most is every moment when Dominic SHOULD be here and he’s not.
I miss my son.
Not only for the free legal advice, but because his presence lent courage to my heart.