Guest Blogger: Sarah Bickle
Sarah may or may not interact with the comments. It might be a little much for her. But I think she will read them.
During Thomas’s illness, we have been cared for by a lot of people of faith. Of course they are burdened with sadness for us and for Thomas. There is a secondary grief, however, that seems to flicker behind our saddest conversations. Questions like, “Why weren’t our prayers answered?” or “Why won’t God make Thomas better?” are unsaid but present.
Those are good questions, ones that theologians have been arguing over for hundreds of years. I don’t have any good answers, but I’ve had a lot of bad ones suggested to me since Thomas became ill. There are a couple theories that I pretty sure are bull-oney:
Theory #1: “We didn’t pray hard enough / have a good enough attitude / enough faith.” This one makes me the angriest. Half the saints of the South have been praying for us with fasting, alms, and tears. If cancer was a popularity contest, one using prayers or good works as “votes,” Thomas would have won.
Besides, that whole theory puts God in a bad light. It sets God up to say things like, “Sorry, Christian moms in Darfur whose children are stolen, raped, and made into soldiers. You didn’t have enough votes. Your child loses, while all kinds of good and bad parents in the US get to raise their kids in peace.”
Now, I don’t mean to discourage anyone from praying. I just think that, at best, the process of being healed is a mystery. It always has been. The Bible says Jesus was a healer, it’s true. But if you read those stories as examples of Jesus rewarding people for extraordinary faith or good works, I think you’re reading wrong. The hero of those stories is Jesus, not the heal-ee.
Before evangelicalism evolved in the US in the 19th century, Christians believed that Christ identified most with those who were suffering. They believed – Theory #2 - that suffering deepened our humanity and thus our identification with Christ. I believe that suffering simply sucks, but at least this is one theory that doesn’t blame the victim.
The main trouble I have with Theory #2 is that it quickly warps into Theory #3: “God makes you suffer so He can teach you something.” Lord, I hope not.
I’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons through the joyful events in my life. I also grew up believing that God was the source of creativity and wisdom. Theory # 3 would have me believe that God is slowly and painfully killing my son just to teach Thomas or the people who love him a lesson. I’m not buying it.
Sure, we’ve learned some things during this time. We’ve learned how to give intravenous meds; how to identify pain in an unconscious or sleeping child; how to make very, very sad phone calls. But there are plenty of people up at Children’s hospital who know these things and whose kids are going to get better, or who simply read about them in their medical text books. Suffering happens, and you learn things. But it’s clear that each can happen separately as well.
I’m obviously not going to wrap up the arguments over theodicy here. But what I do know for certain is that most people, religious and irreligious, are uncomfortable sitting with grief. I sure am. I’d rather believe anything else than the truth: this is happening; I can’t stop it; it’s going to hurt.
So this is my theory: Death is a mystery. Even for those who believe we’ll meet again in the sky, suffering and death are scary and sad. A thousand years may be a day for God; but for you and me, the space between the difficult now and the glorious hereafter is an awfully long time.
Interestingly, my bravest friends, be they Christian pastors or confirmed heathens, have tended to explain the least. Instead, they have quietly anointed us with their kindnesses. They have prepared meals for us in the presence of our bitter enemy. They are holding our hands as we walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
They have been, I mean, like Christ. We’re all scared as hell, but I think this is the best we can do.