This is a continuing series about meaning and pain. To read from the beginning, start here.
So what am I to do with all of this? My wife and I have lost a child. This pain can’t be denied, ignored, or found trivial. It’s meaningful to me, but in a negative way. Shall we stop there? Is that all there is?
To ask whether the universe as we see it looks more like the
work of a wise and good Creator or the work of chance, indifference, or malevolence, is to omit from the outset all the relevant factors in the religious problem.
Christianity is not the conclusion of a philosophical debate on the origins of the universe: it is a catastrophic historical event following on the long spiritual preparation of humanity which I have described.
It is not a system into which we have to fit the awkward fact of pain: it is itself one of the awkward facts which have to be fitted into any system we make.
CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain
In a sense, it creates, rather than solves, the problem of pain, for pain would be no problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of this painful world, we had received what we think a
good assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving.
I’m attempting what Lewis is suggesting here. To square the facts that I know with the pain that I feel. If you’re reading this and experiencing something like what we have, know that my attempt may not be adequate. In fact, if you’re looking for something to make you feel better, I can guarantee it won’t be. This is a post about grief and pain, and the fact that it matters. I am not trying to fill all of the silence.
The day we received this news, I came across Stephen Colbert’s interview with Anderson Cooper, where he paraphrases a certain quote from Tolkien:
I thought this a good word in itself, but this quote does a little better with some extra context. Tolkien was answering questions about death in his writing. In Lord of the Rings, men were given the “gift” of death. Elves were immortal by design, but men had expiration dates. Men in Tokien’s tale, as they do here on earth, dreaded death. So why did the elves call this the Gift of Ilúvatar (God)? Tolkien answers this question in an unpublished letter with this statement, which Colbert is paraphrasing:
“A divine ‘punishment’ is also a divine ‘gift’, if accepted, since its object is ultimate blessing, and the supreme inventiveness of the Creator will make ‘punishments’ (that is changes of design) produce a good not otherwise to be attained”J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R Tolkien
There are two things that stick out to me about this:
- He refers to it as a punishment, but I don’t think that’s necessarily what he meant. It’s more like suffering that must be endured. Men didn’t cause mortality in Tolkien’s world, at least explicitly. They were given it from the beginning. They simply had to endure it.
- Ilúvatar never gives the answer to what happened ultimately in death for men. It remained a mystery, even to the reader.
So if we make a leap and grant Tolkien his point: that suffering is also a gift, and if we accept it it comes with something that could not otherwise have been attained, the natural response, in my mind, is “Okay, let’s assume that’s true. Why should I believe that the gift is worth it in the end? I might be willing to accept this bargain if the pain is small. But what about the loss of a child? I’m just supposed to move forward in the definite and visceral pain with the promise that there’s some gift that is worth enduring all that?”
And this is where Christian faith comes in. Faith is often, in the modern debate about religion, construed as “irrational belief”. That is, belief without (or in spite of) reason. Interestingly enough though, it’s not often how we use the term “faith” in everyday life outside of the religious context.
I believe my wife is faithful. In other words, I believe she’s worthy of trust. A parent might have faith that their children can find the right spouse, make the right decisions, and otherwise grow into functioning adults upon leaving the home. We trade paper for goods and services “in good faith” that the paper isn’t counterfeit and neither are the goods purchased. When we use it in this context, “faith” seems more like trust. Rational trust.
So, then, if we’re to take Tolkien’s position that this suffering comes hand in hand with a gift, why should I have faith (trust) that the gift is worth it? In any bargain, any trade of this manner, the real question has to be “Who is this gift giver? Why should I trust this exchange? Why ought I have faith in this system of immense suffering?”
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize…Hebrews 4
This is where I find only the gospel has an answer to that question. The scandal of God becoming man, entering into this suffering, was done for us. God Himself being hungry, tired, seeing friends die… himself being beaten, tortured, and ultimately killed… It was all for us. If that is the God giving the gift that accompanies the suffering, that’s a God I can trust. That’s a God I can have faith isn’t exposing me to suffering that’s not worth it, despite how painful it might be, because He’s been through it. Despite the fact that in times of immense pain, I wonder if my faith is justified.
I will end my thoughts on this topic with a story that has always stuck with me: A lawyer named Horatio Spafford wrote the words to the 19th century hymn “It Is Well With My Soul” while on a boat traveling to Europe. He was supposed to meet his wife and four daughters, but the ship carrying his family sank and all four of his daughters were lost.
When he set out to meet his wife, he asked for the boat’s captain to tell him when they were crossing the approximate location where his daughters perished, and that’s where he penned his famous hymn:
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
The pain I am feeling regarding my unborn child is real. I won’t diminish it. The meaning behind that pain is real. I won’t deny it. The fact that in a very real sense this Should Not Be is indisputable. I won’t trivialize it.
But the reason that Spafford could write those lyrics are as true for me as they were for him: My Savior loves me. He knows all this. I will have faith that this suffering comes with something truly good that could not have been attained without it. I won’t minimize the pain, but I’ll endure it as best I can. Because He has earned my trust.