If someone sought a way to poison my faith and trust in God, they couldn’t have hit upon a more vulnerable spot than my grief over my daughter’s death and that painful question: why didn’t God spare her?
Bereaved moms carry deep grief which can fester into troubling thoughts of false guilt and even accusations against God. On occasion, random people seem to want to fan the flames of these ruminations. A Christian woman I hardly know confidently and without any sign of malice explained to me that my daughter Mary Evelyn’s death from cancer at the age of eight was not God’s will for her, that it only happened because the people in her life didn’t pray in the right way for Mary Evelyn, and there was probably some kind of sin blocking the prayers we did pray for her.
I know bereaved moms who have been told these same things in much the same way. It is a devastating thing to say to a grieving mom because it is one more way of saying your child died because you didn’t do such and such a thing right, except this version of it involves the character of God and removes Him as a source of comfort and hope for them.
Most of us bereaved moms wrestle with middle of the night thoughts about why this happened to our child and how it might just be our fault. Was it something I did while pregnant? Did the food I fed her make her sick? Those questions torment us, but they are just flies in the pie compared to this one: did God intentionally give my child cancer and allow her to die because I did something wrong?
The last one is especially harmful because it disrupts our relationship with the One who can most comfort us. Apart from a loving God, what hope do we have when our child dies? Thinking God wanted our child to suffer and die implies some very ugly things about the God who loves us all so dearly. Who is this god that would make a child like sweet Mary Evelyn suffer for the sins of her mother? Such a god is not one who you feel you can run to when you need him. He’s a god to hide from and hope he never finds you –or to shake an angry fist at. This is often the type of god that atheists reject.That is not our God.
Satan taunts people with thoughts like this. He whispers to abused children that it was really their fault that terrible things happened to them and that God doesn’t love them because He didn’t stop it from happening. He tells teens that God is a big bully in the sky who only cares about rules and not about them personally. Satan wants us to believe that God is a god we should reject — a god who wants to boss us around and then make us suffer when we’re not good enough. Is that our God or is that just stuff we tell ourselves so we don’t have to realize how terrible humans can be and face the truth that tragedy can strike any of us with seeming randomness?
Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself? Job 40:8
But why didn’t our loving God heal my Mary Evelyn?
Does God only heal children who are prayed for in just a specific formula or with just the right emotions? Is He up there saying, “once more with feeling, Edna, and then maybe your baby won’t have to keep suffering”. Is that a right view of God, the one who loves us and gave His only Son for us? Doesn’t God love the children whose families have a different faith or no faith at all? Believing that God withholds merciful healing to children of atheists until their parents get their beliefs just right is sickening to me, but it’s the logical extension of “God didn’t heal Mary Evelyn because we didn’t know how to pray”.
I was hurt by the things this lady said to me — one of my first reactions to this conversation was to walk away from her muttering “I don’t have to listen to this” while tears rolled down my face, but these comments were not much different from dark thoughts of my own which I’d already wrestled with. In a few moments, I pulled myself together, said a quick prayer, and decided not to let the confrontation end this way. I went back and spoke to her calmly, trying to bring peace. Hopefully, this article is a lot more articulate than whatever I said on the spot. I’m sharing this because pretty much every church has someone who might just spout off this kind of thing to someone who has experienced a profound loss. I want to comfort others who are hurt by these comments with the reassurance that our God is a God of love and He will be near us in our darkest moments.
In a way, I was the perfect person for her to say this to because it wasn’t hard to deflect both poison darts. Mary Evelyn was prayed for by an army of prayer warriors. This dart, the dart that she’d still be alive if we’d prayed for her in the right way, missed its mark because I’m confident there was no lack of prayer for Mary Evelyn. I also am aware, from being in the hospital with them, that there are many children who are not specifically prayed for the way Mary Evelyn was. There are children who face cancer alone in their hospital room because they are in foster care or have families that can’t or won’t be with them. Children with cancer might have any kind of parents- cancer doesn’t care about sin. God loves all those children, He hears their lonely prayers and cares for them. Sometimes, in His wisdom, He heals them though medicine or through a miracle.
God didn’t heal Mary Evelyn, He allowed her to die from a terrible, painful disease. Her entire illness and her death was, and is, traumatic for me and for those who love her. This is a grief I carry every day, a loss that affects all of my relationships, and is a burden on my heart. I don’t know why she got cancer in the first place, why it came back, or why God allowed it to kill her.
I do know Mary Evelyn lived eight beautiful years on earth, and for three of those years she fought a particularly aggressive cancer. In all eight of those years, she was loved and cared for.
She was a spunky, beautiful girl who loved others and was loved by them and by God. Her life impacted many other people for good- but she was a silly willy magpie-full of joy and enthusiasm for life. Mary Evelyn died, yet she lives, the life that we all say we’re aiming for, a life in heaven. That life transcends this one in unimaginable ways. If we truly believe that this life is preparation for that life, and that the real living begins in the world to come, then what does eight years instead of eighty matter compared to that? In eternity, will her cancer still seem unfair?
In Mary Evelyn’s eulogy, Father Jacob told the story of Lazarus. Jesus tarried and allowed Lazarus to die instead of rushing over and saving him. Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary, were heartbroken and confused. They were friends of Jesus but He had delayed coming and now their brother was dead. Jesus hadn’t made a mistake and there was no blame assigned to Lazarus, Martha, or Mary. Jesus intended to come just when He did. When He arrived, greeted by Martha’s faith, which was strong even as she wondered why He hadn’t arrived in time, and Mary’s tears. Moved by their grief, He wept, but then Jesus did something incredible. He raised Lazarus after four days in the tomb and that comforts me. Like Lazarus, we will rise again but not just for a longer earthly life, but an eternal heavenly life. Someday, Mary Evelyn and I will be together. Her healing would have been a miracle, but a small miracle compared to what is coming for us. Like Aretha Franklin sang in this beautiful spiritual: Mary don’t you weep, Martha don’t you mourn, Pharaoh’s army drowned in the Red Sea. We have faith for the future because we’ve seen how God has already delivered us from despair in the past.
We believe in heaven, but we naturally cling to life on earth. When a child dies, we wish we could understand why. When tragedy strikes someone else, it can be easier to believe it was something they did or didn’t do because then maybe we can avoid it by doing something different. Some of us back away slowly, like the tragic event is contagious. We all want our stories to have a neat ending, like a movie, but most of us have hard questions swirling around that hurt us. Why them? Why us? Where was God in this?
Faith is a choice. I don’t know why my Mary Evelyn got cancer or why God didn’t spare her from it and sometimes that bothers me, but mostly I realize that those are audacious questions- why would I think that I should understand such things? Does God have to explain Himself to me? I have faith that God’s purposes are bigger than my capability to understand them and that somehow, God was caring for my daughter, and for me, every step of the way in the best way He saw fit just as He is caring for you, and your loved ones.His answers to our prayers are often not what we hoped, but He is God and we are not God. His mercy is expressed in ways that are beyond our understanding- that’s why we need faith.Don’t let anyone’s words take away your prayers or your faith and trust in His love and caring for you. God is love, and His ways are loving.
Then Job replied to the Lord: “I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. Job 42:2-3