If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.1 Corinthians 15:19
That fateful morning, exactly eight weeks ago, when it became clear to me that my baby was dead and that God was not about to answer my prayers to bring her back, what came over me was a kind of despair I’ve never felt before.
The only Person who could save me—save my daughter—from the power of death, and save her siblings from the trauma that would follow, seemed aloof, his strong hand lifted from holding and covering us, leaving us exposed to the elements of a fallen world and the taunt of the enemy.
Death had the upper hand, its power so strong, it’s sting excruciating. Its terror paralyzing.
Death, it appeared, had the final say and there was nothing I or her wretched father, or anyone who loved her could do. At first I thought God was punishing us by taking her away from our careless hands. I felt we were to blame for her death: if only we had been more attentive and acted quickly!
I felt a mixture of relief and grieve. I was relieved that now she was in the safest hands possible and didn’t have to be at the mercy of my poor parenting skills, but also sorrowful that I had failed her terribly and disappointed God who had entrusted her to me.
However, my intense sorrow was soon to turn into intense fear. What next? Who next? Since I couldn’t see God’s hand still covering us, my reason for confidence was gone. I would never have believed I could fear death. I have wished many times that I were dead. Death meant rest from problems. It meant being at home with the Lord. I looked forward to heaven, to rest, to death. But now death haunted me.
Perhaps for the first time I felt the intensity of the horror of death. Death is nothing to look forward to even as a passage to heaven. Death is punishment, a necessary evil, the dreadful river to be crossed before we get to the yonder shore. Yes we long for heaven, but death couldn’t be desired. Jesus wrestled at the face of a brutal death; even when he knew the outcome, he did not downplay the sting.
Christians in my tradition have been taught—consciously or unconsciously—to downplay the power and devastation of death, almost the same way Halloween downplays death and the world of evil. Somehow we have come to believe that to mourn like those who have hope means not to mourn at all.
I wonder that Jesus, in John 11, did not dismiss Mary’s grief with a wave of the hand since he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead anyway. It seems pointless that he should weep with her and the others. His gesture shows that he recognized and respected her suffering even when it was to be for a short time.
Like Job’s friends, we are either embarrassed, angry, or disappointed at the bereaved’s prolonged grieve. We think that we should celebrate death rather than dread it, and are quick to commend those who seem to snap out of their grief speedily. I have learned that sometimes the option is not ours.
It is also assumed that the spiritually strong are above despair. Like Eliphaz says to Job, “Your words have supported those who stumbled; you have strengthened faltering knees. But now trouble comes to you, and you are discouraged; it strikes you, and you are dismayed,” (Job 4:4-5). But that’s exactly what it should be! We all need comfort in our troubles. To be honest, I was ashamed to admit I was despaired or afraid, I who knew the truth. Or was it simply grief that felt like fear?
After the death of his wife, C. S. Lewis writes about a similar experience thus:
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”Lewis, A Grief Observed, 2004, 3.
I bless God that such a man could be so vulnerable as to put these words in writing for my sake! My own fluttering went beyond my stomach; it coursed through to the tips of every blood vessel down to my feet. One minute I am animated, the next I want to be alone and cry. A sort of darkness invaded my life. I had peace only when I was asleep; every waking moment brought back memories I wished were a nightmare I could wake from.
The valley of doubt…
A few days later, another thought gained an upper hand. I began to wonder about my baby’s state. Was she in heaven or in some intermediate state which I could not quite envision, and who will take care of her there? Or was that the end; had she disappeared into oblivion? Was I ever going to see her again?
Unlike many people feel when bereaved of a loved one, what I felt towards God was not anger. What I knew and believed about him would not permit such an emotion. He is absolute power and absolute goodness. And he never make mistakes. The only other explanation had to be that perhaps there wasn’t even a God to begin with, let alone the kind I had come to believe in.
Strangely, I decided that it didn’t matter whether I saw Anya again or not. It felt safer to maintain that she was now free from every harm and all the disappointments that await the living. She had passed through the worst; she was safe now, whether in oblivion or in heaven.
Before you judge me for my moment of doubt, consider that most of the time, our beliefs are nothing more than convenient judgments of what seem most plausible given what we know. In this case, faith is reasonable even when it is inexplicable.
There is no such thing as an unreasonable faith; we reason ourselves to faith. Another way to put it is, sometimes our proclaimed belief is a blind embrace of a truth we had no reason yet to question.
But when what is at stake is very precious; when our very life or that of someone very dear and close to our heart depends on it, belief automatically comes under intense scrutiny until it can prove that it is worth our trust. C.S. Lewis captures it more succinctly when he says:
You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it?Lewis, 23.
Reading C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed helped me greatly. At least it helped me make meaning of my suffering by ascertaining that my doubt and fear was not peculiar to me. I was such a wreck that I could not pray. Isuwa had to pray with me and read the book with me. But I read my Bible consistently because it was the only time that my fear subsided, which was strange because nothing in it gave me any particular comfort or the assurance I desperately wanted about the present state of my precious baby.
Believers, I know, will go to heaven and be with the Lord on the Resurrection Day at his Second Coming; but where would they be in the meantime? I dreaded that my baby could be floating alone with no one to care for her until then. Or was it?
I couldn’t comfort my children beyond just saying, “I am sorry.” The usual optimistic statement, “God will protect/take care of us,” with which I encouraged them in the past was now meaningless. Why didn’t God protect their sister from dying? The words escaped me a few times, though, and the hollowness horrified me. For my children, their silent stares told me they didn’t believe me anymore than I believed myself.
Although C. S. Lewis helped me to understand my fear, his moment of doubt about the state of his dead wife left me momentarily shocked and embarrassed for his own sake. At the same time, the embarrassment mirrored my own, but I am not the great Christian thinker and apologist that he was.
Couldn’t his great intellect help him understand better? But, of course, active minds have greater propensity for wandering thoughts. They are good at casting doubts on fixed belief. Yet, when it is settled, they are belief’s most ardent defenders. He writes,
After the death of a friend, years ago, I had for some time a most vivid feeling of certainty about his continued life; even his enhanced life. I have begged to be given even one hundredth part of the same assurance about H.Lewis, 8.
H is what he uses in place of his wife’s name in the book. Where was she, he asked? Was she free of pain, he wondered?
Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.
Unless, of course, you can literally believe all that stuff about family reunions ‘on the further shore,’ pictured in entirely earthly terms. But that is all unscriptural, all out of bad hymns and lithographs. There’s not a word of it in the Bible. And it rings false. We know it couldn’t be like that. Reality never repeats.Lewis, 25.
C. S. Lewis never said there was no resurrection or after-life, he simply doubts that we understand that reality right. Suddenly I started a desperate search of my own to find for myself what the Bible actually says about these things. My own doubt was more than his own. While he was able to reason out his, mine was jumbled thoughts of a wretched soul.
I read the entire book of Revelation within a few days. Even though it assured me of the presence and power of God and of life after death, it said nothing of my daughter’s present state. If anything, it filled me with dread. I felt that God was too powerful to care about our petty emotions. Or about my tiny Anya. Well, he killed his only Son! Who was I to challenge him about her death or present state?
This possibility, however, did not nullify for me the fact that God is good. His “Goodness,” whatever it means, might only not be what I understand goodness to be. Then came the strangest bout of doubt I have ever experienced: could I then trust such a God, a God whose goodness could turn out to be so cruel and mercilessly painful? A God who cared only about his purposes and not about what I feel?
Over and over, the thought returned that perhaps my baby had gone to oblivion and that I and the rest of the family will do so when we die, which means it will not matter at the end whether or not we would see her again.
The crux of the matter
It was at this point that I felt a sharp, albeit, gentle rebuke and a stern warning. Almost as if God decided to come out of his self-imposed silence and distancing in order to save my drowning soul. To doubt the truth of the life-after, I was told, is to doubt the central message of the gospel. It is to doubt the reality of both heaven and hell.
If there will be no resurrection and no life after death, Christ died in vain and the Christian gospel is null and void. Paul addresses this matter passionately in 1 Corinthians 15 (a passage I was led to) then also 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and several other passages.
To believe that my baby is not lost is not simply for my comfort, it is the central message of the Christian gospel. Paul says if it is only for this life that we have hope in Christ, then we are of all men most miserable. Our ultimate hope is not for this life but for the one to come. In fact, what is seen—the present life—is temporal, it is what is not seen—the life to come—that is the real thing; eternal.
Jesus came purposely to save humanity from eternal death; he did not come to make this present life permanent. His miracles were not the purpose of his coming, even though it demonstrated the presence and power of God, and made life bearable for that moment. He came to defeat death which he did through his sacrificial death.
Jesus’s miracles always pointed to something beyond this earthly existence. When he fed people physical bread, he invited them to accept him as the bread of life. When he offered them water, he claimed he was the living water. When he raised the dead, he claimed he was the resurrection and life and those who believe in him will never die. Yet physical death is inevitable for the moment. It is the last enemy to be defeated.
Jerry Sittser, in his A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss, captures it powerfully:
In his earthly ministry, Jesus performed signs and wonders as signs of God’s presence on earth. The deaf were made to hear, the blind to see, the lame to walk, and the dead to live again. But sooner or later those who had their hearing restored went deaf again—if not before death, then obviously in death. Those who received sight went blind again, those who were made to walk went lame again, and those who were given life died again. Suffering and death won out in the end. In other words, Jesus’ miracles were not the ultimate reason for his coming. His great victory was not his miracles but his resurrection. The grave could not hold him, so perfect was his life, so perfectly sacrificial his death. Jesus conquered death and was raised to life by God to a life that would never die again. The Easter story tells us that the last chapter of the human story is not death but life. Jesus’ resurrection guarantees it. All tears and pain and sorrow will be swallowed up in everlasting life and pure, inextinguishable joy.Sittser 2004, 165.
This is an important truth for a generation of Christians who believe that genuine faith or the highest demonstration of it is in performing or experiencing miracles. If Anya had received the miracle of healing, she would get sick again someday. If God had answered my and her father’s desperate prayers (later, her grandma’s too) and brought her back to life, she would still die again in the end.
Death always triumphs over mortality. Anya’s fate (or victory if you wish) awaits us all. As C.S Lewis will say, “What we call the living are simply those who have not yet been unmasked. All equally bankrupt, but some not yet declared.”
Without fully understanding the gloomy darkness and hopelessness associated with death, it is hard to appreciate fully the redemptive work of Christ which dealt a deathblow to the power of death. Death is not synonymous with rest; it is darkness and torture.
Physical death can lead to rest only for those whom Christ has already paid the price for their release. Death cannot hold down those whom Christ has set free, but until that final victory, death remains a horror.
Yes, I will see Anya again. Wherever she is right now, I know she is in God’s hands like she was when she was here and even before she got here. That she has gotten rid of her mortal body means she is free of all the suffering that is associated with our mortality.
But when I am finally reunited with Anya in death, it might not be in the same manner like it was here on earth. I may still be her mother, but she would no longer need my care and provision and protection. It will be a new relationship or, at least, a new understanding of the old one. I don’t know what it will be like. At present, she is like a beacon, beckoning me to my eternal home, keeping me focused on the things that truly matter. That will do for now.