When nothing helps—faith and doubt amid unbearable loss
Rev. Dr. Corey Fields
September 12, 2019
It was a devastating headline to read on a Monday morning: “Husband of Christian blogger and father of 6 dies in beach accident.” The referenced blogger is Shannon Dingle, who describes herself as “a disabled activist, freelance writer, sex trafficking survivor, and recovering perfectionist.” In one of those tragic accidents that barely seems possible, her husband Lee died while they were playing at the beach. He was 37.
It was just earlier this year that many Christians and seekers were trying to process the death of prominent Christian author and speaker Rachel Held Evans. She succumbed to complications from a serious and multifaceted illness. She was also 37, and also a parent.
I’m a pastor and a lifelong Baptist. I’ve heard and said countless times that Christians need not fear death, and need not grieve like those “who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). But I have also been on the front lines of some tragic or unexpected deaths: a teenager killed in a car accident, a husband found in the backyard having committed suicide, and a toddler strangled by a swing, just to name a few.
I know this: such things shake you to your core, no matter what you think you believe. As Nadia Bolz-Weber said at Evans’ funeral, even though we may know that in some spiritual or eternal way, death has no sting to it, “it stings right now.”
Rachel’s husband Dan, in the post that announced her death, wrote, “This entire experience is surreal. I keep hoping it’s a nightmare from which I’ll awake. I feel like I’m telling someone else’s story.” Weeks after Rachel’s death, he wrote: “There have been press inquiries and tweets and posts and articles. But none of it changes the fact that Rachel is dead. This gaping raw wound in my life isn’t something I can fix.”
Shannon Dingle also shared initial reactions reminiscent of Dan’s reflections: “I wasn’t supposed to be saying goodbye at 37. I don’t know how to be a grown up without him, but I’ll learn. I just wish I didn’t have to.”
But her followers on Twitter have also heard another angle of her experience. In a thread about her husband’s status as an organ donor, she said, “While we are grateful Lee’s organs will live on in others, please never use this to try to paint a silver lining around our deep grief. We would rather have him here.” This tweet is seemingly directed to others on the platform who have responded and sent her such messages, as was another one: “I really do love you guys, but PSA: I’m really not interested in a story about how a really big wave hit you once and you thought you were gonna die.”
Dan’s and Shannon’s reflections help remind us of the raw, blunt force of grief, especially sudden, unexpected grief over a life lost too early. Shannon’s responses to those who have sought to comfort her remind us of another aspect: that although grief and loss touches every single person — even though grief is one of the world’s most common experiences — we somehow remain so inept in responding to it in others.
It seems that many of us, myself included, have a knee-jerk reaction to intense emotions that makes us either retreat from the pain or try to abate it. One can easily imagine the comments to which Shannon was responding. “But just think how many lives his organs will help save!” someone probably said, while others may have told stories of big waves as a retreat from the pain, or perhaps an inability to even process that level of tragedy and horror.
Grieving people report hearing such messages quite frequently. They come from very well-meaning people who love and care for the bereaved, but for someone in the throes of grief, they fall quite flat, and sometimes even hurt. “God must have needed another angel up there.” “At least he is in a better place.” “At least you still have your other children.”
Daniel G. Bagby, Theodore F. Adams Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Care at the now-closed Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, had a great way of explaining how so many of the things we say to a grieving person are actually an attempt to manage our own discomfort and anxiety. We don’t know how to sit with and hold the pain, so we use religious platitudes to try to mitigate the sense of loss. But it can’t be mitigated for the bereaved. It can’t be fixed. So what is meant to “make it better” or “cheer them up” actually leaves them feeling alone in their darkness.
Deaths like those of these two 37-year-olds don’t just leave their loved ones in pain, but also with doubts. Insofar as we have a difficult time holding grief and loss, we are often even more aghast at doubt. We are known to go so far as to scold people for expressing doubts and questions about how a good and faithful God could allow their loved one to be taken tragically.
Some of the prayers of the Bible, particularly in the psalms and on the lips of some of the prophets, express not just doubt but even accusation against God that dwarfs modern expressions of such. Jesus himself recited the first verse of one of them, Psalm 22, from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Psalm 44 cries out, “Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.” (Psalm 44:23 NIV)
Many of us know the old assurance that’s also the title of a hymn: “God will take care of you.” People who claim to know how to hold that promise perfectly in balance with a mother of 6 being widowed and left to raise traumatized children are not being honest. If the authors of the Bible got away with not just grieving, not just doubting, but accusing God of leaving them, why do we today equate normal grieving as “taking it hard” and doubts as “a lack of faith”?
If the authors of the Bible got away with not just grieving, not just doubting, but accusing God of leaving them, why do we today equate normal grieving as “taking it hard” and doubts as “a lack of faith”?
Our ministry in this world of heartache desperately needs to include two things. First, we need the courage and willingness to acknowledge, enter, and sit within the darkness and wreckage of a life upended by one of life’s tragedies. Job needed someone to sit there with him, but his wife could only say, “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9), and his friends could only say, “You must have done something wrong, dude” (to paraphrase). Nadia Bolz-Weber did this beautifully at the funeral of Rachel Held Evans. She challenged us to hear Jesus’ question to Mary at the tomb, “Why are you weeping?” (John 20:15), not as an accusation but as an invitation; permission to share what it is that breaking our hearts. She said, “I believe our love-soaked grief is holy to God.”
After a teenager in my church was killed in a car accident, I had given his parents the book Lament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstorff, a man who had also lost a son. I had read it and found it poignant, and upon giving it to them, I said, “I hope it helps.” I will never forget the father’s response: “Nothing helps.” That was a lightbulb moment for me. I cannot give them what they really want. They don’t primarily want food, cards, or visits, although such things may be appreciated in the situation. What they really want is their son back. All I can do is sit with them in their pain. It may feel to someone on the outside to be idle or futile, but it is anything but, and ancient practices like “sitting shiva” developed for a reason.
Secondly, we need spaces of faith where doubt and questions, as difficult as they can be to digest, are welcome at the table. We often talk of doubt as the opposite of faith. They cannot coexist, some say. But what if doubt is actually strong evidence of an ongoing quest for the heart of God? Where did we get the idea that the mark of faith is the ability to gloss over tragedy and say, “God has a plan”? Is it really a sign of strong faith if I can step back and say, “God has a plan; I don’t question,” or could that actually be a sign of disengagement? If you ask me, it is only the person of deep faith in a loving God who can question that God in light of suffering.
A friend and mentor of mine was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. I said to him, “You spent 4 decades ministering to people who were in the position you’re in now. Can you share what’s been most meaningful for you being in the situation yourself so that I can better minister to people?” He said there are two things that people say (and more importantly, demonstrate) that mean the most: 1) “I love you,” and 2) “I’m not going anywhere.”
When tragedy strikes, when loss leaves a life in shambles, may that be us.
The Rev. Dr. Corey Fields is senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Newark, Del.
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