Nine years ago Jennifer delivered Leah stillborn. The next Sunday her congregation sang, “God is so good.” The words caught in Jennifer’s throat, and she could not sing. Instead she found a place to weep alone.
“I’m dead inside,” Becky says. Her church, shepherds, family and friends had begged God for sixteen-year-old Joshua. But Jeff’s and Becky’s only son died as a result of surgical complications nearly a year ago. “How, God, can this be the reality of my life?” Becky asks.
Though for six months Liesa had requested special prayers for her only son, 23-year-old Chad died in a car accident one year ago. Feeling the overwhelming shock and loss, Liesa, along with her husband Ted, struggles to find the heart to worship.
Like Jeff and Becky, we also named our only son Joshua with the prayer that God would make him a leader among his people. He lived sixteen years before his weak body lost its long struggle with a genetic disorder two years ago.
Since October Becky and Jeff, Liesa and Ted, and Jennifer and I have met twice a month to share our hearts and thoughts. We cry and pray together. We study Scripture and discuss the twists and turns that happen in our lives. We vent our feelings and hurts.
Grief has not created intellectual doubt within our group. We believe God is there, but we do wonder why God is not here. We believe God exists, but we wonder why he permitted such horrendous loss in our lives. Like C. S. Lewis, after the death of his wife of three years, we are not “in much danger of ceasing to believe in God” as much as “coming to believe such dreadful things about Him” (Grief Observed, 5).
Grief has not attacked the intellectual dimensions of our faith but did create an emotional distance between God and us. We do not doubt God’s reality, but he feels so distant. We feel angry. Did God not hear us? Did he forget us? We hurt. Did he decide to leave us in pain instead of continue our joy? We feel betrayed. Did God give us such wonderful gifts of life only to, as Job says, take them away? (Job 1:21). We even sometimes feel abandoned.
The lament Psalms ask similar questions. “Why do you hide yourself, Lord, in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1b). “How long, O Lord…How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” (Psalm 13:1a, 2). “Lord, where is your steadfast love of old”? (Psalm 89:49). “Why do you hold back your hand; why do you keep your hand in your bosom?” (Psalm 74:11).
We discovered that our relationships with God enabled total honesty with him. In grace we are free to be honest—-to pray what we authentically feel. Before God and with each other we are able to be who we are rather than pretend who we are “supposed” to be. We bonded as a group because we shared the same journey in our lives. Indeed, through the journey we have experienced God’s presence through confronting him with our hurt and anger.
Most—-perhaps those who have not lost a child—-would be appalled at the words we speak. Many would not understand, and some might condemn. We do not expect everyone to understand. Perhaps without experiencing loss of this magnitude there is no genuine empathy or understanding. We feel safe in our little group because of our shared experience. We verbalize our feelings, confess our ignorance and wrestle with God together. It is our “safe place” to express our faith through doubts and questions. All grievers need a “safe place.”
Can faith doubt and question? The doubts and questions are real, but it is faith nonetheless. Genuine faith perseveres and is sustained through faithful lament. Without lament emotional doubt would eat away faith like a cancer, but through lament faith speaks to the one who alone can heal that emotional pain and close the distance. God, we are confident, will hear us and comfort us through our lament. God will draw near even as we at times feel so distant from him. He will carry us when we cannot walk and he will be present even when we are angry.
Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief.
Originally published in New Wineskins (May-June 2003)