Today I am excited to introduce my friend, Jessica Kelley. She and I have a somewhat morbid relationship in which we love to talk about death. Jessica is a loving mother who has two beautiful children, one of whom is no longer with us on this earth, Henry. I sobbed through her testimony, and not because it’s sad to hear a mother describe such a gut wrenching loss, but because she is so fierce in her relationship with God through her grief, you can’t help but be wrecked by the strength she exudes. I hope you enjoy her words here today.
“Did you watch it?” I asked my husband, Ian, when he got home from work. It was a few months after our 4-year-old, Henry, had died from brain cancer. Earlier that day someone had sent us a video profiling several Christian parents who had also lost children.
“Not yet, let’s watch it together,” Ian said as he joined me at the computer. After a few quick clicks we found ourselves glued to the screen, hungry and hesitant. We were searching for clues, wondering how our lives would play out. These parent had walked our painful path for years, some for decades.
We leaned-in, listening past sorrowful piano notes and churchy soundbites, straining for answers. Would our pain fade? Would it always be so intense? Could we ever feel happy again?
As we scrutinized tones and studied faces, we found flashes of the anger so familiar to our grief. We recognized streaks of pain, coated in quiet sadness. We noted an earnest desire to honor God. We saw hope for restoration in eternity. But something seemed . . . off.
Something was lacking as these parents robotically resumed their old hobbies of gardening, golfing, and taking nature walks. Something was scary about the dullness of their expressions, their mouths turned downward, and the way they seemed to be idly passing the time. Something was painfully absent in their eyes when they spoke of God.
But what? I thought about it for days. There was so much I recognized from my own grief—the pain, hope, anger, faith, and sadness. But what was missing from their stories that seemed to punctuate my life and permeate my loss?
Finally, it hit me. Passion. In their eyes and smiles and body language I’d seen hope, but no passion. And when it came to God’s role in their loss, defeat seemed to coat their cookie-cutter answers. I remember one father weakly offered something like, “God taught me that he was all I needed.”
These testimonies were meant to encourage us. They were success stories of parents who had faced the worst and didn’t abandon their faith. Unfortunately, their understanding of God’s role in their tragedy seemed to be robbing them of their passion for God.
They all embraced the common notion that God had specifically allowed their suffering for a mysterious higher purpose. After all, an all-powerful God has the ability to unilaterally step in and prevent tragedy, right? So if God didn’t intervene to save their children, it must mean that it was all part of his plan.
This worldview is often expressed with clichés like, “Everything happens for a reason,” and “God works in mysterious ways.” With explanations like these, those parents’ lack of passion is completely understandable. How could they be passionate about a God who stamped “Approved” on their worst nightmare? I couldn’t.
The idea that a good God specifically allows horrors like brain cancer, deadly tornados and school massacres must be reexamined. I believe this notion acts as a quiet undertow, tugging the passion of broken Christians into a sea of unanswered questions. It shakes our trust in God’s character and causes us to doubt his love.
It paints a picture of God that doesn’t look like Jesus. This is a huge problem because Scripture says that Jesus is the exact representation of God’s essence (Heb. 1:3). He is the one with whom God is one (John 10:30). Jesus is God’s own image (Col. 1:15), his own form (Phil. 2:6), his own self-revelation (John 1:18). He is God in flesh (John 1:14), and all of God’s fullness resides in him (Col. 2:9). Jesus is the one who created all things (John 1:1-3), is the heir (ultimate point) of all things (Heb. 1:2), and in him all things hold together (Col. 1:16-17). So when we examine God’s role in suffering, we must start with a picture of God that looks like Jesus.
Let’s do that with a real world example. Let’s imagine that Jesus was physically present at Sandy Hook Elementary School on the morning of December 14, 2012. Let’s pretend that he knew the shootings were planned and he possessed the power to stop them. But he didn’t. Instead, let’s say he did in bodily form what many claim that God does in supernatural form. Picture Jesus nodding in approval (saddened or not) as a deranged gunman took twenty-six lives. Perhaps he whispered to the shooter after twenty-five slayings, “I’ll allow one more,” because twenty-six victims was somehow the specific number that would bring him the most glory. Does this sound like Jesus?
Of course not!
Yet this is how we portray God when tragedy hits and we say, “God is in control.” It seems to me that within this understanding, the best that Christ-following, traumatized persons can aspire to is stoic resignation. It also leaves them with a stark realization regarding God’s character: It’s mysterious.
If God is good, why didn’t he intervene when that psychopathic man was loading his automatic rifle? It’s mysterious. If God is loving, why didn’t he find a way to warn the victims beforehand? It’s mysterious. Why did God protect some children and not others? It’s mysterious.
When it comes to God’s character, mystery leaves battered hearts primed for passionless hope.
Mystery allows room for hope that suffering will one day cease. But it fails to embolden victims to passionately embrace and proclaim the love of God—the same God who specifically allowed every second of their devastation. The kind of “love” that steps aside while evil transpires would evoke rage, dismay, and confusion if we saw it exhibited by humans. These feelings are no less vivid when the one who’s supposedly complicit is God.
When we evoke clichés like, “God’s ways are higher than our ways,” we are trying to convince ourselves that evil somehow reflects God’s loving will. In doing this we end up making God’s love mysterious—something we cannot recognize. But love is something we must recognize, because Scripture commands us to be imitators of God and love as he does (Eph. 5:1-2).
We can only follow commands that we understand. We can only show love if we know love. And we do. The Bible says that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16), a love defined by the self-sacrifice of the Cross (1 John 3:16). And when our God of love took on flesh and bones, he spent his ministry healing the sick, raising the dead, and rebuking ailments as coming from a powerful enemy.
For the sake of the wounded, we must begin to reexamine our view of God’s role in evil and radical suffering. As someone who has experienced devastating loss, this endeavor has made a profound difference in my life. My son wasn’t healed from brain cancer, but as I’ve reexamined the character of God revealed Jesus, I’ve come to believe that God did everything possible to maximize good and minimize evil as a vicious disease thwarted his loving will. And I’ve found that the more convinced I am that God is adamantly opposed to evil, the more compelled I am to share his love. I believe this is what distinguishes my grief experience from the grief I saw in that video.
Within my grief there’s a belief—a belief that creates a spark. It’s an ember that glows red-hot when I speak of God’s role in Henry’s death. I can say with passion: God didn’t plan this. God didn’t do this. God didn’t want this. God wasn’t passive in my child’s death and he wasn’t trying to teach me something by watching my son die. God loves us! He loves us with a love we can recognize.
God looks like Jesus, laying down his life, even for those who hate him. The Resurrection demonstrates that this powerful, transformative love of God cannot be conquered by brute force. We can rejoice in the hope that God will eventually bring an end to suffering. But until that day, we can also passionately embody God’s love by becoming the hands and feet of Christ, bringing comfort, aid, and a beautiful understanding of God’s character to all who are wounded.
Jessica Kelley is a writer, speaker, and survivor of child loss. She is the author of the forthcoming book “Lord Willing? Wrestling with God’s Role in My Son’s Death” (Herald Press 2016). A Virginia native, Jessica now resides with her husband and daughter in Saint Paul, MN. She likes to work out, eat plants, discuss theology, and ingest copious amounts of chocolate. She processes her faith-journey at JessicaKelley.com.