Sometimes life is lousy. And when storms come, frequently our first reaction is to lash out at God. Why me? Why are You letting this happen?
I have done my own share of wailing at God. The worst occurred when I was pregnant with my second child. The day after my ultrasound, everything seemed to go into slow motion when the phone rang and the doctor said, “You’d better come in, because there’s something wrong with his heart.”
Over the next few weeks my husband and I learned that our son had a serious heart defect that would require a series of surgeries. These operations, however, would only prolong his death, not save his life. He would deteriorate, grow very short of breath, and suffer until he finally died.
I walked through the rest of my pregnancy in trepidation and frequently cold, brutal terror. Yet when my son Christopher arrived on August 6, 1996, he was healthier than we expected him to be. We were praying that he could avoid surgery, and that he might even improve on his own, but God did not answer that prayer as we would have liked. As his heart began to fail, Christopher grew increasingly tired and lost weight instead of gaining it. The surgery was his only hope, even though the doctors gave that only a 25% chance of success.
On the morning of his operation, when I handed him over to the anaesthetist, I was terrified I would never hold him again. But the surgery went well, and the doctors grew optimistic about his chances. Five days later, however, Christopher’s breathing again grew rapid. That night my mother watched our older daughter Rebecca so my husband Keith and I could visit our son together. “Mommy loves you, sweetheart”, I whispered as we left his room.
He was only 29 days old when he died later that night. I had never known what it was for a heart to truly break until that moment.
C.S. Lewis, after the death of his wife, remarked that grief felt a lot like fear. It was the same sickening pit in your stomach that precedes something truly awful. That’s what I felt, too. But what is it, exactly, that we’re afraid of? Facing the future alone? Forgetting? Or that this feeling will never end?
Perhaps it’s a combination of all of them. After Christopher’s death I was scared simultaneously of forgetting and of never being able to cope well again. During his illness and after his death I wailed many questions at God to try to make sense out of what was happening to me. In many ways, though, this quest was self-serving. I reasoned that if I could just find the reason for this storm, then it would stop. So I searched my repertoire of explanations for suffering in order to make sense of it. As I did so, these are the questions that vexed me.
What is God trying to teach me?
About a decade before my son’s illness, my mother also faced a serious one. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, and the surgeon believed, based on the size and type of tumour, that it had already spread. At the time I convinced myself that this must be happening because I hadn’t been reading my Bible enough lately. God was trying to get my attention.
It’s easy to dismiss such adolescent musings now, but many of us adults entertain similar thoughts. The reason the storm is raging is because God will use anything at His disposal to make His point. When Christopher died, my husband Keith and I received some condolence cards by very well meaning people who wrote things like, “smile through this! God is teaching you something!”
Besides being a ridiculous thing to say to a grieving parent, I am not sure that it’s even true. The insinuation is that God wanted to get my attention, so he’s sending pain. It’s for my own good. And if it’s for my own good, then I had better smile, as if it really isn’t so bad.
But is there any evidence that this was Jesus’ attitude? After all, when Jesus’ friends died, Jesus wept. He wrestled in prayer for His disciples. He even wept over Jerusalem! Jesus felt the pain that we all experience as part of life, and didn’t try to deny the reality of that pain by saying, “it’s all for your good”. Even when it was for our good—when Lazarus was raised so that we could see Jesus’ power—He still wept! Feeling grief is not denying God’s goodness in our lives; it’s being true to our humanity.
But even if storms are legitimate occasions for grief, does God still send horrible things to lead us to Him? After all, throughout the Old Testament, the nation of Israel was consistently punished because they did not listen to God. However, this only happened after Israel had been told repeatedly what to do, and had ignored it. It wasn’t God’s first choice for making His point. More than this, when Jesus wanted to teach people something, what did He do? Instead of inflicting suffering, He laughed with them, spent time with them, entered into their lives. While He did rebuke the Pharisees on a number of occasions, His modus operandi was to woo with love, not to zap with lightning. There are times when God does send hardships to call people back to Him, but this seems to be the exception, not the rule.
Of course, storms are excellent growth opportunities, as Jesus’ brother James told us, “the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” (James 1:3). You will mature through this storm. It does not necessarily follow, though, that a spiritual deficiency in you caused the storm in the first place, so learning a lesson may not necessarily end it, either, as much as we would like it to. There’s probably more going on here than a simple spiritual lesson.
Whom is the storm really about?
Trying to figure out what God is teaching us or how we’re to blame are common reactions to storms, even though they often block us from the comfort He longs to give. But there’s another fundamental problem with these reactions. Think about all of these questions: What do I need to learn? What did I do wrong? How could I have caused this? Do you notice how all of them centre around “I”?
When my son was ill, I remember talking to our minister about why God might be doing this. Trying to appear very mature, I said, “I just want to learn whatever God is trying to show me.” And then my pastor said something that absolutely floored me. “Why do you assume any of this has anything to do with you?”
What did he mean? Christopher was my son! Nothing had ever affected me this much! And yet, the beginning of a nagging doubt was born: perhaps I was asking the wrong questions.
In 1964, Helen Roseveare was a missionary doctor in the Congo. When that nation erupted in a coup, rebels took her, along with some of her fellow female missionaries, captive. Over the next few months, she endured many beatings, rapes, and other horrors. In the middle of one of the most degrading experiences, she remembers a question that was whispered into her mind. She says, “God asked me, “can you thank me for trusting you with this, even if I never tell you why?”. And Helen realized that God did trust her, that He was using her, even if she never saw the fruits. She was part of a plan that went far beyond her.
History is filled with examples of people who have endured horrendous storms because God was accomplishing something bigger through them. Martin Luther King, Jr., the biblical Joseph, and the martyrs of the Christian church all suffered, and their families shared in their agonies. Maybe you can’t see God’s purposes now. Maybe you never even will see what God is doing on this side of heaven. But you are part of the story that God is writing.
When my pastor challenged my assumptions, it was like God was finally pulling me back from the cliff towards shelter. I had had everything backwards. I hadn’t realized that in trying to find answers I was actually walking further into the storm, rather than towards God. I thought God wanted me to seek out reasons, when really God wanted me to seek out Himself. This storm, you see, is bigger than me, but it’s not bigger than Him.
Looking for reasons for those storms is only natural. But as we voice those questions, yelling into the wind, God is simultaneously calling us towards shelter. Even if He never tells us why, He is the one in control, He trusts you, and He will carry you through.
Excerpted from How Big Is Your Umbrella, copyright 2006, Sheila Wray Gregoire.