Since this blog is not even a month old yet, I have not ventured into the “guest blogger” territory. But I recently read something that I think needs to spread around the internet so that as many people as possible can be inspired, encouraged, and challenged by it.
I’ll never forgot the day, just over three years ago, when I was excitedly awaiting THE phone call, with the thrilled voice on the other end telling me all about my friend Pascha’s new baby. I was looking forward to the details – how long or short the delivery had been, what the baby looked like, what his hair was like, was he enormous like one of his older siblings had been at birth, etc.
When the call came, the voice wasn’t right. My friend Ivy told me in a scared, confused way that she thought little baby Owen had died. I was stunned. That couldn’t be right. No way. That doesn’t happen in our modern society! It can’t!! And yet, it did.
This is Pascha’s reflection on that day, and what God has taught her in the three years since:
Can the Story Be Complete Without the Why?
by Pascha Deam
In the journalism world, there’s a rule that in order to capture the full story, a writer must answer the five “Ws” of journalism– who, what, when, where and why. I’m all about writing rules, but I have to disagree with this one. Sometimes we just don’t need to know the “why.”
This summer, I was contacted three times by people wondering how to best support friends who lost full-term babies. That’s three broken-hearted mommies. Three lifeless babies. Three big question marks. Those question marks hover over the shock and the grief of the situation, prompting thoughts like “why us?” or “why them?” or “why this baby, and not one who was just going to be aborted or abused?”
My “why” time happened three years ago when Owen died, and of course, there’s still a big question mark. Yet I don’t feel left hanging, because there is a “W” so significant that, when answered and understood, the “why” becomes unimportant.
That “W” is the “who” of the story. Not the “who did this happen to?” but the “who is in control? Who could have stopped this and didn’t?”
That would be God.
And here is what I know about God. I know that He chose me and considers me His child, He takes great delight in me, He views me as precious and honored, and He longs to be gracious to me. God draws me with loving-kindness, loves me with an everlasting love, casts my sins behind His back and remembers them no more, and rises to show me compassion. I know He does not reject me but summons me by name, goes before me to level the mountains, and gives me a hope and a future. I know He searches me and knows me to the point of being aware of my sitting, my rising, my thoughts, and my words before I speak them. He hears my cries, keeps a record of my tears, encourages and comforts me, upholds me, renews my strength, refreshes and satisfies me, quiets me with His love, and puts a new song in my mouth.*
So, if He loves me this much and is this good, why did He let my son die? (ooh, there’s that pesky “W” again). As author and Bible teacher Beth Moore puts it “good does not always equal easy.” Take, for instance, a good thing we did for our one-year-old this summer: we had tubes placed in his ears after he was repeatedly diagnosed with painful ear infections. It was a quick, low-risk procedure, but it was scary and confusing for him. He was taken somewhere unfamiliar, was operated on, and woke up with strangers. I could hear his screams from the waiting room the moment the anesthetic wore off. He was frustrated with the process but Rob and I, as the wiser party, knew that his moments of discomfort in the hospital would result in great benefit to him. And they have. It was not an easy thing for Levi, but it was a good thing for Levi.
I like what philosopher Peter Kreeft points out about suffering: “At the time of Jesus’ death, nobody saw how anything good could ever result from this tragedy. And yet God foresaw that the result would be the opening of heaven to human beings. So the worst tragedy in history brought about the most glorious event in history … Similarly, as we face struggles and trials and suffering, we sometimes can’t imagine good emerging. But we’ve seen how it did in the case of Jesus and we can trust it will in our case, too.”
We can trust it not just because this was Jesus’ experience, but because God promises this in His word. Romans 8:28 says “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” Eph. 1:11 tells us that the Father “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of His will.” Scripture tells us that we will experience trials and encourages us to endure them and stand firm in our faith during them. In James 1, we’re even told to consider it “pure joy” when we face a hardship. Sounds insane, no? But the passage goes on to explain the reason we can view these difficult times as a positive thing: “because you know the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.” Other translations of the Bible use these words: “You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors” (The Message) and “for you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow” (NLT).
Here, then, is a glimpse of the “why” of suffering. It’s not specific to our individual situation, whether it be the loss of a baby, a rough patch in an important relationship, financial stress, or whatever it is we’re going through. But the general idea is that suffering has the potential to increase our faith and help us become more like Jesus. As my pastor says “trials can make you bitter or better.” Writer Elizabeth George believes crises in our lives should be seen as “another opportunity to trust the Lord.” In “How to Listen to God,” Charles Stanley writes “When great disappointment comes, [some people] wring their hands and become angry and bitter toward God. They fail to realize that God saved them from ruining their lives. The wise response when disappointment comes is always to ask God what He is trying to teach us and then respond to our disappointments with new insight into God’s plans and purposes.”
The thing with “great disappointments” is that they feel so crummy, and it can be hard to get past that. How often do we allow our emotions to become a greater reality than the word of God when we’re enduring something unpleasant? When we feel like God’s being cruel and unfair, we decide He is cruel and unfair, even though the Bible states the opposite (God does not treat us as our sins deserve, His compassions never fail, He doesn’t take pleasure in evil, His love surpasses knowledge, etc). So, what do we do about this emotions thing? When Owen died, the greatest piece of advice I received was from Elaine Slagh, the pastor’s wife who came to see us at the hospital that night (who’d had a similar experience a few decades prior). She told me “this is where it will be easy to go down the road of depression and anger, so you are going to have to really take your thoughts captive.” I clung to her advice. I did not let my mind dwell on the “why?” (although I did ask God – I just didn’t become obsessed with it) or wander along the path of “how could You do this to me?” or wallow in self-pity. I tried to do as Job, the poster child of suffering, did (described by Elizabeth George): “Job never asked why when he was suffering . He worshipped instead. Notice very carefully what carried Job through his ordeal. Unlike the stance of the stoic (grin and bear it – or at list grit your teeth and endure it) Job grabbed on to facts about God. Facts like – God is too kind to do anything cruel, too wise to make a mistake, too deep to explain Himself. Believing these facts about God should erase all whys.”
Now, let me be clear. I am not a proponent of stuffing or denying emotions. I just think we should experience our emotions WITH God rather than allowing them to distance us from Him. About two months after Owen died, my friend Jenny Meadows delivered a baby boy. She had an induction scheduled ahead of time, so I knew she was going to give birth and I spent the whole day anticipating news of the baby’s arrival. I was excited for her and anxiously waiting for word on how everything went. Finally that evening I received a message from her husband. I was genuinely very happy and relieved to hear that all had gone well. After I read the email, I went down to our basement to run on the treadmill and as I was about to turn it on, I was slugged with an overwhelming sense of despair. I suddenly was in a state of brokenness that almost equaled the way I felt when Owen died. Jenny was experiencing all those wonderful newborn things. That same day was my best friend Ivy Lasley’s daughter’s birthday. These two women were celebrating life and I – well, I had received Owen’s death certificate in the mail that day (talk about salt on the wound). It all added up to too much for me to handle. In that dim basement, I cried out to God “I do not want this to be my life! I do not want to be the one whose son died!” And I poured my brokenness at His feet until we had worked it out together and peace returned (peace being, in the words of Beth Moore, “the absence of fear and turmoil, not the absence of pain and grief”).
By the way, I have often drawn comfort from the knowledge that Jesus himself wasn’t just happy-go-lucky about all the events of his life. In Matthew 26, after Jesus confided in his disciples that “my soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he tells God “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as You will.” Jesus was about to be arrested and, soon after, crucified and at that moment, he was thinking “I do not want this to be my life!”
Fighting to keep our faith during suffering is largely a battle of the mind. It’s “taking thoughts captive” and keeping things in perspective. In my case, I may feel like I’ve lost my son forever and missed out on getting to know him, but the fact is, he’s just in a different place than I am right now and one day we’ll be reunited. I may feel that there could have been a better, less harsh way to bring about whatever “good” Owen’s death resulted in, but the fact is, God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom (1 Cor. 1:25). He knows what He’s doing. (“What if Owen would have chosen to reject God and ended up in hell?” my friend Jenny once gently mused. Well there’s a thought. I would much prefer to live with him forever on the New Earth than to spend a few dozen years with him on this Earth).
I really struggled with my feelings when I miscarried six months after Owen’s death. I was hurt that God had let me, for a second time, lose something I wanted so badly. I felt like He didn’t care about my desires or hear my prayers. I felt betrayed. I knew these emotions were contrary to what God says about His relationship with me. I knew I was mentally distorting the “Who.” I worked to fix this by making note cards for every negative thing I was feeling and filling them with Bible verses that applied to those feelings. I reviewed these truths until they became reality to me again (actually, I still occasionally use these note cards when I recognize one of those feelings cropping back up). This is what I’ve been taught – whatever bad thing you are going through, figure out what God says about it in the Scriptures, put effort into adjusting your thoughts or behavior to line up with His, and believe that “He who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:23).
Psalm 16:5-6 says “Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.” I love Beth Moore’s commentary of this passage: “The word ‘portion’ has strong ties to the concept of destiny. One author explains, ‘Here the ‘lot’ or ‘portion’ is an allusion to the way life has worked out; the psalmist is thinking of all the signs of God’s providence which have marked his pilgrimage.’ In our own words, we might say something like, ‘Lord, in all the chaos and crisis, all the threat and doubt, you caused my life to work out. Instead of me falling apart, the lines of my life have fallen together. Truly I can say that you have given me a delightful inheritance.’ No matter what life – or satan himself – hands us, the favor God has on His children causes that ‘lot’ to tumble out on the table in such a way that, instead of destruction, the child will discover that her portion turned into destiny one trusting step at a time. When all is said and done, she will see that the portion God assigned her was good. Right. Rich. Full of purpose.”
In the story of my life, I don’t have an answer for the difficult “whys.” But I know the “who”– it is a God who makes my lot secure. He is worthy of my trust. In this I am satisfied.
Pascha, Ivy, and me stuffing our faces with Candy Cake way back in our college days.