It’s been three years since my 4-year-old died from brain cancer, but sometimes it feels like it was yesterday. The memories can come roaring back in the blink of an eye, leaving me motionless, breathless, and aching. Sometimes I long to hold little Henry like I long for air. Even as I push forward, I encounter reminders of loss everywhere.
Two years ago we moved half-way across the country. In part, we moved to escape the reminders. We left behind the empty bedroom decorated in oranges and blues. We traveled 1,150 miles away from the library with the fountain in the front and story time on Tuesday mornings. We put days of driving between us and the pediatrician’s office with the green vinyl-covered chairs and matching industrial carpet. I left Henry’s shadows, but I can’t seem to outrun the reminders.
When I hear about a toddler being snatched and killed by an alligator, my blood runs cold. A weight sinks into my chest and doesn’t lift for hours. I know what it feels like to hear your child scream out in pain. I’ve walked through helplessness, terror, and disbelief. I know about the birthday parties his parents will never throw, the presents they won’t buy, the holidays that will feel somewhat empty and off.
I understand the pain they’ll feel as they watch other children his age grow, enter kindergarten, and learn to ride their bikes without training wheels. I realize the strain that this type of loss will put on their relationships, perhaps even their identities. I know how, even years into the future, they’ll feel like something is missing when everyone is present.
When mass shootings occur and sacred lives are senselessly slaughtered, I am completely undone. I can’t seem to find words or formulate thoughts through a fog of horror and grief. My heart turns towards the loved ones facing funerals filled with polite and sympathetic conversation. Afterwards, they’ll watch as the shock fades for everyone else. The masses will disperse back into the groove of life while they instead limp forward, tired, cautious, acutely aware of the cruelty this world can dish out. There will be no going back to “normal.” Normal is forever changed. They are forever changed.
And when I come across yet another Facebook status about yet another child diagnosed with terminal cancer, I freeze. I spend a few moments locked in the painful silence of remembering, reliving, dreading for them what lies ahead. We live in a world where pain is everywhere.
Why is the world this way? As Christians, how do we make sense of all this? The Bible says that God is all-powerful. Can’t God stop an alligator? Or vaporize a tumor? Scripture also says that God is love. Doesn’t God want to paralyze a gunman with murder on his mind?
Does God lack the power or the desire to prevent unspeakable pain?
I know I’m not the only one who has wrestled with this question. Some of you may have wondered: Did God lack the power or the desire to prevent my rape? My miscarriage? My cancer?
Some Christians attempt to answer these questions with phrases like “Everything happens for a reason” and “Sometimes we just can’t see what God’s doing when our eyes are blurry with tears.” Other times we’re told that suffering is “sent to refine us,” is a “blessing in disguise,” or is simply a necessary part of “God’s plan to glorify himself.”
These ideas stem from the assumption that everything is happening according to God’s perfect plan – his meticulous, divine blueprint. But I think it’s time to question that assumption.
After all, how can we call God love if God is the one orchestrating our devastation?
How can we sincerely worship a God whose glory-seeking plan requires alligator teeth in toddler flesh, bullets spraying through a crowd, or terminal brain cancer in a 4-year-old?
How could this God be considered praiseworthy? If God plans all our pain in miniscule detail, then his character doesn’t strike me as loving or praiseworthy. At best, it seems mysterious; at worst, it seems sadistic.
Finally, how do we reconcile this picture of God with God’s self-revelation in Jesus? The Bible says Jesus was the exact representation of God’s essence (Heb. 1:3). Yet when we look to Jesus’ ministry, we see a God who healed the broken… he didn’t break the healthy to glorify himself. Does God in Spirit hold a different standard of morality than his flesh-and-bones representation?
Several years ago, I began to compare God’s self-revelation in Jesus to my picture of a God who designs humanity’s suffering. That’s when I discovered a huge chasm. And during the process of engaging my questions, I found new, more satisfying answers.
Now I stand with a growing number of Christians who think it’s time for us to take another look at one of the most important questions in the world: If God is loving and all-powerful, why do we suffer? In my experience, the answer points us to a God who is more stunningly beautiful, more pure, and more loving than most of us have ever dared to imagine.
Find Jessica Kelley’s book on Amazon: Lord Willing?: Wrestling with God’s Role in My Child’s Death
Jessica Kelley is a writer, speaker, and author of Lord Willing?: Wrestling with God’s Role in My Child’s Death, (Herald Press, April 2016). She has a B.S. in Psychology, a M.S. in Counseling & Human Development, and experience as a School Counselor. Born and raised in the South, Jessica now lives with her husband and five-year-old daughter in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She survives the absurdly long winters by going to the gym, dreaming about the beach, and eating copious amounts of chocolate. You can find her processing her faith journey at JessicaKelley.com.
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I turn to the book of Job. Job suffered and suffered greatly, including the loss of his children. A lot of people condemn his wife, but I think the woman herself suffered, after all, they were also her children. “Curse God and die” she told job. That was how she felt. She was in the depths of despair.
The thing I find interesting about the book of Job is that as a story, it does not work, and it does not work, because it is not a novel, it is real life in the raw. In a novel, all the ends are tied up and there is a satisfactory ending. Not so with the book of Job. Even when Job is restored to health, God does not explain things to Job about how the Devil taunted God and said that Job only worshipped him because God blessed him but if he suffered then he would curse God. God has revealed that to us, but not to job. Instead he pointed job to who he, God is and his majesty and what he has done. Even with more children, Job and his wife had still the grief of those whom they lost in the first place. I do not think giving simple slick answers is a good idea. All I can say is, God identifies with your loss and suffering, even when we as human beings cannot fathom it. Often in suffering we have no idea what God is doing for his glory and we should not pretend that we do. However Job was able to say that he knew that his redeemer live and though he slayed him, yet would he trust him and I hope you can say the same thing.
Thanks for the feedback, George. I often think of Job as well, and in fact, devoted an entire chapter to the Book of Job in my book. In it I offer an interpretation from scholars who say that the author of the book described Job’s stoic resignation not to advocate his position, but to refute it. I hope you’ll check it out. You can also check out this 4-part series on my blog if you’d like: http://jessicakelley.com/2015/01/20/the-lord-gives-and-takes/
“I began to compare God’s self-revelation in Jesus to my picture of a God who designs humanity’s suffering.” WOW. Thank you for sharing this profound writer. I appreciate your words. xoxo #glorybe
Thank you for reading, Carolina!
I don’t believe in God’s judgment of “America”…a recent post and I don’t believe God planned for your child, Henry, to die (My brother died two years ago and his name was Henry too).
God says “he causes the rain to fall on the just and on the unjust”…God is no respecter of persons…a God of grace, love and great compassion. I believe that He sees us through the trials of life as this beautiful song says:
“Through” By The Gaither Vocal Band says it all, and Guy Penrod sings this and tells it beautifully…hope this blesses you…
…sending you love and a big hug ☺
Thank you, Judy 🙂
I read this post, and then immediately purchased a Kindle edition of the book. 🙂 And finished it in a few hours.
The theodicy and theology is quite familiar to me – the denomination I grew up in and spent over half my life more or less taught very similar things. What I found especially helpful was the clear and relevant arguments for this way of looking at God and his interactions with Creation, including us.
A couple of young women were killed in an auto accident this week in our small (pop. 2900), close-knit town located on an island in SE Alaska. It has hit all of us very hard. And it really caused questions to arise in my mind about God, theodicy, and whether faith is even worth it. Reading the book has helped reopen my sight to unseen realities and the promise of hope through faith/trust that God/Christ is still at work.
Thank you so much for reading, Mark. It is heart-breaking to hear that your small community just lost 2 young women. I’m thankful that you found the book to be meaningful as you process that loss. God bless you.
Hi Jessica, I am trying to purchase your book on my kindle but it will only let me download a sample. I lost my 31 year old son, David, 18 months ago in a motorcycle accident and have felt so alone with very similar thoughts as you had. I have struggled so much with God that I have begun to wonder if the way I feel means I am not really the Christian I thought I was. A friend asked me the other day if I had learned what God was trying to teach me through my son’s death. After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I said you can’t be serious. I am finding I don’t align any more with a lot of my church friends and the old Christian cliches – God is in control and everything happens for a reason. Can you tell me the best way to purchase your book for my kindle? I think reading it could help me understand my own thoughts. And I am truly sorry that you lost your sweet Henry. I wouldn’t wish this kind of pain on any mother. Sincerely, Terri
Hi, Terri. I’m so very sorry to hear about your son and completely resonate with your struggle to accept the old Christian cliches. I think you would really enjoy “Lord Willing?”. Here’s the link to purchase on kindle: https://www.amazon.com/Lord-Willing-Wrestling-Childs-Death-ebook/dp/B01ETTLILM/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1471468130&sr=8-1#nav-subnav
First let me say how sorry I am for your loss. My husband and I have lost 2 children, a daughter to SIDS and a son to a chromosomal disorder. We heard all the usual explanations but mostly that the deaths were God’s will.
As the years went on I began to wrestle with this idea that God had willed my baby’s death. I simply couldn’t buy that explanation since I did have an understanding of a real enemy at work here on earth. A good friend of ours recommended God at War by Greg Boyd. He lays out a warfare worldview, which takes into consideration the fact that we live in a war zone. Anyway, sounds like you think similarly. Maybe you’re familiar with his book?
Our surviving children are now grown and we’ve been blessed with grand children. If you’ve ever seen the movie Fried Green Tomatoes (one of my favorites) there’s a seen where Jessica Tandy (Ninny) is sharing with Kathy Bates (Evelyn) about her son who had died in his sleep. She exclaims how she “sometimes can’t wait to see him in heaven”, or something along that line. We have lots of living to still live, but we do look forward to a very special reunion.
Thanks for your voice in this discussion. I look forward to reading your book ☺
This is my first time commenting and just want to say I appreciate Jory’s voice as well.
Thanks so much for reading and for taking the time to comment, Monique. I’m very sorry to hear about the loss of your two children. I’m glad that “God at War” resonated with you. I’ve read it as well and have so appreciated that perspective. My book aligns with that message and I hope you will enjoy reading it 🙂 God bless!
Oh boy, I feel a little silly. After checking out your book, I see you’re very familiar with Greg Boyd 🙂 Anyway, his teaching and books have been such a blessing to me and my family.