Westmont Magazine Surviving Tragedy-- And Spiritualized Spin
By David Thomas ’67
The title “Why?” on the book jacket caught my attention while I was waiting for a meeting to start in the coffee-house bookstore our church recently opened. The subtitle increased my interest: “Trusting God When You Don’t Understand.” A meeting for parents of junior high students was about to begin, so I had just a moment to pick up the book and glance through the opening chapters. The words “death of a child” jumped out at me. I made a mental note, and the next time I was in town, I dropped by the store and bought the book.
As a father who lost his only son 10 years ago, I had hoped to find some measure of relief from the burden of unanswered questions, sorrow, bewilderment and disillusionment my wife and I have carried year after year. So I began reading Anne Graham Lotz’s latest book slowly and deliberately, holding it like a cup of cool water to parched lips. The introduction by Joni Eareckson Tada hinted at refreshment ahead, but the clouds brought only the promise of rain. Like so many well-intended but dis-concerting observations directed my way (“God must have had a special assignment for your son”) the book brought me no relief. I should have recognized this when I first glanced through the book, but I missed an important clue in the second chapter.
The author offered a disclaimer, but I missed one small word: “not.” “While I have not suffered to the extent others have endured,” should have warned me that the “collective storm of suffering” compelling the author to write fell far short of my experience. She speaks of losing 102 trees in her backyard to a hurricane, having the daunting task of planning three weddings for her children in eight months, and dealing with a home-remodeling project that never got off the ground. Compared to losing a child, these events don’t seem earth-shattering. Lost trees can be easily replanted and the stressful and demanding weddings occurred because she had children who survived adolescence. Our son did not.
For those who have not suffered over-whelming circumstances — for which there are no answers and no seeming relief — help comes most often from those who have endured devastating, irreversible loss as well. Even the verses quoted by people such as Corrie Ten Boom, Elisabeth Elliot and Ron Dunn don’t offer the promise of escape or false hope for the despairing. They speak of God’s comfort amidst suffering rather than His promise to help us miraculously avoid it.
What happens when we focus on certain biblical passages and build our response to suffering only on those? One example is the narrative about Martha, the sister of Lazarus, and her four days of suffering and anguish. But Martha soon witnessed a miracle and the end of her sorrow. Had I experienced something similar, I would have been more inclined to find the silver lining in it all. What do we learn from the story of Lazarus? Should we look for this kind of miracle to happen in the midst of our suffering?
A great divide separates Martha from those who do not experience a miraculous end to their suffering. They, like Joni Eareckson Tada, remain in their wheelchairs. The recipients of miracles may even proclaim “God is never too early or too late but always on time.” For someone like myself who arrived too late to save my son, this is offensive and hurtful. Those who will never witness a miracle find it difficult to hear from those who have.
The loss of one’s hopes and dreams is hard enough, but the ripples keep disturbing you when you least expect it. Suddenly, the paint gun wars end, groups of teenagers in the driveway disappear, and work in the garage on the old van ceases. There is no graduation, no budding career, no daughter-in-law, no grandchildren. A terrible tide has sucked your life dry.
That’s why it’s difficult to hear well-meaning people assert that the proper exercise of faith can bring about a miracle. All at once, you have sunk below the line of despair. To suggest that we would have seen our son’s life spared (or even raised from the dead?) had we exercised proper faith is anguishing. Wasn’t Lazarus’ death and subsequent resurrection meant to strengthen the faith of the disciples and bring glory to the Son of God? If this is the case, the story is really much bigger than Martha. Perhaps her faith grew as a result of this miracle, but it certainly didn’t produce the miracle. The text never indicates that she expected her brother to be raised from the dead or had the faith to believe he could be.
Being told that God will release a miracle when we totally trust in him is difficult. This kind of thinking produces unending introspection, heartache and despair in believers who never see miracles. Where was Martha’s faith displayed? She objected to rolling the stone away and probably didn’t lift a finger to help. The miracle came anyway, and it’s cruel to suggest otherwise. God had higher purposes; it wasn’t about Martha or her recognition of her limited resources. Most of us realize our own limitations. What compounds our pain and suffering is the suggestion that we can help bring about the miracle we desperately seek if we exercise perfect faith and obedience.
Why are we so often urged to thrust ourselves into biblical miracles, as if our paltry faith can somehow help to reproduce them? Why do some Christians proclaim that God allows our suffering to increase so that our relationship with Him and love for Him will deepen? That thought rings hollow when uttered in the context of four-day miracles like Martha experienced. Such people seem quick to proclaim the beauty in suffering, to quote only those passages where biblical heroes sidestep the flaming fires. It seems smug and insensitive when spoken by those who have escaped the flames yet proudly proclaim God’s protective presence in the midst of them. The others are too wounded to respond.
Selectively extracting verses can skew the intent of Scripture and lead to despair: “God preserves the way of His Saints”; “The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord”; and “Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down.” Did Jim Elliot miss something? Or the apostles? Does this mean that our teenage son who died at 17 was not a “good man”? In the midst of our suffering, we want God to act. We desperately desire a miracle. And when it doesn’t come, we experience a crisis of faith as we question God and wonder why he created a universe with evil and suffering.
Although we can argue that we each deserve to suffer the consequence of our own actions, it is difficult to accept suffering caused by the actions of others. As we stand at the graveside, it is not enough to be told that God feels our pain. What we want is relief from it. We need more than empathy, especially an impotent empathy that merely offers condolences. In the midst of our anguish and suffering, we long for heaven now, but it’s not possible. That is what lies at the heart of all our “whys.” By raising Lazarus, Jesus demonstrates he has the power to do this at any time or in any circumstance. But for reasons we can never fully grasp, He chooses not to. It is particularly grievous to hear from people who have never personally experienced tragic circumstances, that those who continue to suffer should find comfort in knowing that God draws glory from their suffering.
In this life, all miracles are temporary. Lazarus returned to the grave. We best focus on the ultimate miracle, the resurrection. Anything less is bound to skew our understanding of the real hope we have as believers. False hope points to the four-day miracles and takes our focus off what ultimately matters. False hope places us on a treadmill of contingencies struggling to find total obedience to God and his word so we can taste heaven now.
Fortunately, God reaches toward us as we lose faith, not because He remains at the center of our focus. It is presumptuous to think we possess the power to release a miracle. Our trust in God’s goodness is more likely to persist if we come to accept his silence and the mystery of pain and loss and suffering. Being told we can expect miracles (after all, God raised Lazarus) compounds our heartache and disillusionment. Our faith can only survive if it is grounded on real hope, a hope that keeps us centered on the Lord, not on the possibility that our suffering may somehow cease or our hopes and longings be miraculously fulfilled.
Finally, I turn to the book of Job, perhaps out of necessity, as so many of our “whys?” seem to ultimately lead us there. Would Job have been encouraged by reading the book of Job, I wonder? Probably not. There are still so many questions left unanswered, questions that would inevitably confound and trouble Job: Why did God remove the hedge of protection even though Job prayed specifically for the protection of his children? The fact that Satan was allowed to touch Job raises a number of other questions.
Where is the fine line between allowing and authoring evil, we ask? All we know is that we, like Job, would be speechless if faced by questions such as, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” We, like Job, would have come face to face with the inscrutable, the holy, the unattainable. Our inquiries would only lead us to further mystery and finally silence — not because God is not there, but because God is not obliged to speak to us. Our lives are lived in a crucible with little knowledge or perspective. Our task is not to shout or whimper until we are acknowledged. Rather, it is to praise him in the face of silence and sorrow and to learn that it is possible to patiently endure the flames of adversity with His grace — without being given the answers we seek. That is all we can know.
The removal of Lazarus’ burial clothes points to our ultimate hope: that one day they will be removed permanently. He will walk again and be reunited with those he loves forever. Likewise, Job will one day embrace the 10 children he lost. It was never enough to replace them by the 10 that followed, even though friends or authors may have insisted that he was blessed all over again. That was never enough to silence the longings of his heart. The Lord knew that. Someday Job will embrace all 20 of his children, and his scars, along with our own, will be erased and our hearts mended. But that will come in God’s time and His way. That will come.