I had been warned - I had warned myself - not to reckon on worldly happiness. We were even promised sufferings. They were part of the programme. We were even told, 'Blessed are they that mourn', and I accepted it. I've got nothing that I hadn't bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not in imagination...
I thought I trusted the rope until it mattered to me whether it would bear me. Now it matters, and I find it didn't.
~ C.S. Lewis, from A Grief Observed
I see "faith" and hope and expectation all around me. Relentlessly, suburban folks, claiming to be of Christian faith, seem to believe they deserve happiness, a stable if not grossly prosperous life and all of their family members kept healthy, strong and successful. Many personal prayer requests (I have been witness to) seem to be designed around the flourishing of the family, the curing of illness in the immediate circle of family and friends, the banishment of difficult times, just as soon as possible. Many even seem to believe that their good fortune is ordained, that good begets nothing but good, that every day-to-day coincidence is orchestrated, hand-selected for them, by God.
Didn't you knock? Certainly the door would have opened for you. Didn't you ask with faith? Why, if you had, it should have been granted. That is so sad that, despite your prayers, two of your sons died..., now God, please be certain to continue to keep my family safe and healthy and happy.
I imagine it's splendid to have this flavor of faith, this perspective on prayer, if life has gone relatively smoothly. If prayers are mostly perceived to have been "answered". When, for instance, disease and illness are hurdles that have been overcome, when children are growing and thriving, when family members succumb to death only after a relatively long and full life lived, when real trauma has stayed just far enough away not to impede too much on daily life, or to disprove long-held beliefs. I wish this Sunday school faith could sustain me now, but it mocks Zachary's suffering and death, and the suffering of so many others outside of the safe enclave of the first world in which we live. If Zachary had survived his illness, everyone would have said "Praise God. Our prayers were answered." Instead, all I hear is silence, most would-be faith responses scattering as far away as possible from our horrible, unexpected tragedy.
Does anyone really understand the senselessness in what happened to my otherwise healthy son? Can anyone begin to fathom the torture Zachary endured? Does anyone know how his death and B.W.'s death affects our family, permeating every facet of our life and faith, and permanently? Can anyone explain how Zachary's suffering and death are part of God's plan?
I know in my heart the answer is no.
When I inspect my disillusionment with my faith closely, I am deeply hurt and confused. Am I angry at God for not answering my (most authentic, most important) prayers, for not sparing Zachary's life? Yes. Am I angry about the empty promises of pop culture Christianity, the lies my subconscious held onto despite their precariously weak link to excerpts from God's word? Yes. How will I ever have the courage to pray boldly for anyone or anything, ever again? Will I ever feel anything but disgust when I hear someone attest to the power of prayer, but with full knowledge that it failed my Zachary?
All I can come up with to stop from spiraling into total disbelief, in my broken state, are three promises God made to believers and would-be believers. As simply put as I can...
1 - Salvation (after death)
2 - Suffering (in this life, in this fallen world)
3 - The Holy Spirit (God with us, in this life)
If these promises are 80% on point from a biblical perspective, my faith fatigue is, well, misplaced. God didn't promise me, or anyone else, happiness. He didn't promise that my family would be whole or that my children would outlive me. He didn't promise that life would be easy or comfortable or free of tragedy and deep, deep, lasting sorrow. He didn't promise to answer my prayers like a genie in a bottle. (I can just see the Christian community nodding along, at least partially. And, even that confounds and upsets me because most of them have never had to "trust the rope" with their child's life in the way I have. Most have never had it fail them under such tragic circumstances.)
My soul is crushed and my hope is emptied. People ask me what I would have them pray, on our behalf. The truth is, I have no idea. I don't know that it matters at all. Does anyone remember that hundreds, if not thousands of us, were on our knees, imploring our almighty God to return my Zachary to his state of health? Does anyone remember how that turned out? He died. Contrary to all expectations, in the presence of so much love and relentless prayer, he died. My faith, as misconstrued as I'm sure it is, is shaken to its core.