On November 8, 1985, Mary Beulah Morgan née Poindexter died in Clark County, Kentucky. My great-grandmother was the first member of my family to pass during my lifetime, but I was too young to remember much. Her name still comes up when the family gets together, so my memory of her loss comes secondhand. The first funeral I can remember was that of my great-grandfather, Roger Lee Wingate—I recall standing in light snow at the graveside in late December of 1990. The next summer, my maternal grandfather, Edgar Shanks, passed at the start of a hot July. His funeral was the first time I remember seeing people openly, sometimes distressingly, bereft. My childish illusion of his final repose as something like sleep evaporated as my uncle, weeping, pulled my grandfather’s body, so unnaturally stiff, up into a hug.
There we are, alone as we’ve ever felt, in spite of the sermons we’ve heard assuring us that God is always with us.
Looking back at this span of six years, I can see the path sorrow takes as it creeps into our lives. When we’re young, our experience of loss is childlike. We see only the effects of loss in those around us. Written on the faces we look up into. But it gets personal—sooner or later we feel loss for ourselves. The mixture of a new, immense emptiness and an overflowing ache is written on our own faces. The death of a loved one is perhaps the most in-common and inevitable way we experience loss, but there are countless other ways, both large and small. Relationships that fail, addictions that win out to calamitous ends, dreams we wake up miles away from. We all have a collection of moments when we realized the door we just went through was the wrong door, even as it slammed behind us, and we will never be able to go back no matter how hard we pound and holler and cry. Yet there we are, slumped on the threshold with bruised knuckles and puffy eyes, as alone as we’ve ever felt, in spite of the sermons we’ve heard assuring us that God is always with us.
Something I’ve heard many times from kindhearted people searching for words of comfort is, “God never closes a door without opening a window.” I understand wanting to offer a person something to look forward to, but I’m saying maybe let’s not rush to any conclusions. Suppose, after all, the window is shut, too. And the side door and the back door and the cellar door and even the chimney. If God is near, we might ask, what exactly is He doing? What can you say to a God who is present even as you continue to ache?
Believing as I do in the incarnation, in Jesus as God with us, I find that a story from the Gospels offers help with both of those questions. Namely, it’s the story of two sisters, Mary and Martha, and their dead brother Lazarus, which is found in John 11. Martha and Mary are friends of Jesus, so when Lazarus falls gravely ill, the sisters rush word to the man they know could heal him. But when He hears, Jesus waits two days before heading that way, and Lazarus indeed dies. The sisters grieve four days and, I imagine, wonder where Jesus is. Soon enough, these two women stand beside their brother’s grave, and God the Son stands right there next to them. They’re looking God in the face and, I believe, speaking what we would if given the chance.
What can you say to a God who is present even as you continue to ache?
Martha meets Jesus first, and her words are fraught. “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). She follows, though, with a rather expectant-sounding “Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.” Almost as if she is asking Jesus outright for an unthinkable miracle. Almost. But when Jesus says her brother will rise again, she hedges her bets with a theologically accurate statement: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24). It’s hard not to feel as though she’s guarding against disappointment in case Jesus won’t or can’t bring Lazarus back to life.
I relate to Martha very much when I’m trying to grieve on my best behavior. I have endured seasons of unemployment and underemployment, and Martha’s mixture of “Why didn’t You prevent this, Lord? Maybe You could fix it? But I know I’ll die and go to heaven someday, so I guess that’s always something” has definitely come out of my mouth in prayers. Yet in those moments, I’ve always known I was holding something back. That I didn’t want to show God my full anxiety, even anger at my situation. To do so would reveal me, incontrovertibly, as a self-righteous, entitled brat God would absolutely not help find a job. I thought expressing hurt to God would be tantamount to blaming Him, and there’s no way that could be okay.
Well, but let’s look to Mary. When she hears Jesus is looking for her, she rushes to Him. And she, too, says, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32). But that’s it. She doesn’t gild her pain with good theology to make it presentable. She says, Lord, I’m wrecked by heartache You could have stopped, and she weeps.
I thought expressing hurt to God would be tantamount to blaming Him, and there’s no way that could be okay.
The phrase “If You had been here”—and it’s used by both sisters—exudes faith, but also pain. A feeling of abandonment, perhaps even betrayal. This phrase is the beginning of what I have found to be the hardest part of Christian faith: encountering God’s silence. The financial windfall does not come. The marriage continues to crumble. The phone doesn’t ring. Often, we see a clear path to health, happiness, and fulfillment, but we are not allowed to set foot on it. We wonder, God, where are You?
I’d guess each of us has a dream life that, if we could live it, would be only minimally painful in a “we got each other the same Christmas present” kind of way. None of us hopes to be miserable. Dreams have weird logic, though. When we build a life pursuing them, we can begin thinking the absence of pain equals the presence of health. But when our imagined perfection eludes us enough times and we come to the end of our rope, we’re heartbroken. We can’t imagine a healthy soul alongside dreams gone wrong, because it hurts too much to miss them. The question at the heart of God’s silence is, How could health and pain possibly co-mingle?
The thing about jobs and mates and kids and money is that our hope for them never really dies. There’s always a chance. God could always open another window. We peruse job postings on bad days at work because our hope for meaningful vocation is never really crushed. When we lose a romantic relationship, our friends tell us, “There are plenty of fish in the sea.” And over time, we find they were right. To understand the truly irreplaceable, we must return to death. It is the one door that shuts tight. The closest experience I’ve had with death is when my wife’s mother, Chom Moran, suddenly passed four years ago at the age of 59. There was no other mother who could come into the picture for my wife. There was just the one. The sorrow impacted every facet of our life, sometimes hidden well below the surface for a while. But we would find it at the root of some conflict between us. Struggling alongside and sometimes against each other through dark seasons—the loss of a job, the difficulty of raising brilliant and exasperating boys—we would realize anew that grief had silently amplified the stress. Her mother’s death has been the door that can’t open. The pain of that grief has tested and tried us both, leaving us raw to other struggles that might otherwise have rolled off thicker skin. Many times in the past few years, I’ve found myself in a dark tunnel resounding with echoes of my crying out, “Lord, if You had been here.”
The miracle I see in Mary and Martha’s story, aside from the obvious one, is that Jesus receives both sisters equally. Especially, He does not rebuke Mary for leaving out her theology. In fact, He’s so moved by her anguish that—in full knowledge of what He’s about to do—Jesus Himself weeps. It’s a moment I haven’t been able to get off my mind for months now.
Lately, I’ve been reading a book called The Voice of the Heart, which Chip Dodd wrote as a guide for tending to those wounded by loss. In it, he says something quite striking: “Our hurt reveals our hope” that something will heal our pain. For Christians, the predicament is twofold. First, it’s possible for us, like anyone else, to get hung up on things that only dull the hurt without healing it. But second, believers profess that our true hope has a name: Jesus Christ. To continue to suffer while naming this hope threatens our very idea of who God is, because what kind of God would be present and allow our hearts to ache? We may try to talk like Martha and put all of our hope off until the end of days, but when the wound goes deep enough, we all find ourselves as unabashed as Mary.
The mystery of our faith is that resurrection and the end of pain are two different things. God does not want to numb us with easy jobs and loads of money and friction-free friendships. God wants to raise us from the dead. The gift of God’s silence is the opportunity to hurt, to feel our pet hopes rise to the surface and truly see how we fail to deal with what’s going on in our soul. If pain is a dark tunnel, the end isn’t to finally arrive at the thing we dreamed would make it all better. The end comes with stepping out of the dark and seeing by the light of the world (John 11:9). By that light, we see the things we thought were riches are actually frail and fleeting. It can be a painful realization filled with mourning. But, in crying ourselves empty, we finally become poor in spirit.
There may be other ways to start the journey Jesus maps out in the Beatitudes, but suffering has been mine, so it’s the one I can tell about. In turning our ideas of blessing upside down, Jesus invites us to a sense of health that doesn’t hinge on what we have or what we lose, and so it has room for pain. It may hurt to exchange our old hearts for strange new ones. Part of us has to die to do so. But ours is the kingdom of heaven. Ours is a Father who is never really silent, though He may be still and quiet and weeping with us until we are able to listen.
Illustrations by Nancy Liang
Research shows that when we allow ourselves to cry without judgment or negative self-talk, we feel better afterward. Crying improves the mood and reduces tension. In the Bible, countless people from Hagar to David to Jesus Himself cried. When we weep, we are facing a broken world and our own dissatisfaction with it. The good news is that we can look forward to the day when God “will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes” (Revelation 21:4).
Mary and Martha respond to their grief in different ways. As one who can articulate real truths in the midst of her hurt, Martha responds more from her head, whereas Mary responds more from the heart—she is transparent and vulnerable with her emotions, even while they’re unresolved. We may identify more strongly with one sister, but we can also ask what we can learn from the other.
It’s almost hard-wired into us that living right should keep us away from hardship, and some really nasty doubts arise when the equation doesn’t balance. I am convinced that learning to seek God—and find Him!—even in our grief is a crucial part of the journey to Christian maturity. The blessing on the other side is that we are equipped not only for handling sorrow the next time it visits us but also for loving others well in their grief.