To my Western Christian brothers and sisters,
I come to you as a fellow Christian and as a pediatric ICU nurse with a burden and a plea.
I come to you as someone who knew in theory and through some personal experience before I became a nurse, that this world can be cruel and unfair. I come to you as someone who has had my share of struggles, but who has also had my share of privilege and comfort. I come to you as someone who, like you, wants to have a deep foundation of hope and faith – and wants to share a real hope and faith for others who may be searching.
I come to you from my perspective as a nurse who has worked for 11 years at the bedside of two-, five-, eight-, fourteen- year-olds who were playing at school just last week, and today are near motionless in an ICU bed after an explosive night of unrelenting abuse, a freak car accident, a suddenly ruptured brain aneurysm, an insidious raging blood infection. Some of their parents are in jail. Some parents are faithful, upright citizens in their community. Some parents are nowhere to be seen. Some parents are addicted to drugs but limping along and now devastated by the critical diagnosis of the once-healthy child they’ve been trying so hard to get their life together for. There is no rhyme or reason that I can see for what has happened to who.
I have been at the bedsides of these patients, tending to their little broken bodies. I have stood with their parents in stunned silence. I have literally picked their parents up off the floor. I have not had any easy explanation for why? Why did this happen to us? How did we get here? How do we go on?
I come to you because I see your desire to also be people of hope and faith, to be people who cultivate a hope and faith that is worth sharing with a hurting world.
I come to you because I have a burden for me and for you.
I am burdened with the sense that we are a people who struggle to gently, patiently, courageously, honestly allow for the reality of present suffering and grief in a world where we also believe God to be present, loving and good.
When we sit up close with someone in the throes of acute suffering and loss, or someone in the weary and isolating cell of chronic illness and disability, we are at times too quick in our acknowledgment of the very real pain. “Oh I’m sorry that hurts – but REMEMBER GOD LOVES YOU, AND KNOW THAT HEAVEN WILL COME ONE DAY!”
Is this real faith talking? It might be. But I know for myself, it’s usually a response borne more out of my discomfort with the hard fact that God allows this present suffering. It’s my fear of inadequacy in helping the sufferer with this current pain, and so all I can do is promptly ask all of us to look away from it to some future day. It’s a response borne out of my own struggle to see how God is right here, right now, even in this awful mess of grief. I am learning how dismissive and outright hurtful our half-present platitudes can be to someone who may very well know that they will be at least a little better in the future, but in the present, they sit under a weight that is unbearable alone, feel ashamed by their inability to contribute to a culture addicted to “positive vibes only,” and feel dizzy trying to navigate a life that feels acutely upended.
A lot of our struggle to gently, patiently, courageously, honestly allow for the reality of present suffering and grief is cultural. I fear we have not paid sufficient attention to the ways our culture has seeped into our perspective on faith (hello, prosperity gospel) and our approaches (or lack thereof) towards real, drawn-out, presently-unfixable suffering.
In a previous blog post, I’ve touched a little on why we don’t know what to do with grief. The broader Western culture feeds and informs our perception and definition of the good life. A comfortable home with a comfortable salary is a great place to start, so that any problems can be rather easily remedied. A busted pipe? Frustrating and inconvenient, but throw some money at it and it’ll be fixed in a few days. Running low on a necessary personal item? Order it on Amazon and it appears on your doorstep potentially that same day. Feeling a little chilly in the winter months? Invest a bit in a new heating / air conditioner unit and keep the home at the perfect temperature all year round. Feeling down? Eat your feelings at this trendy restaurant – or better yet, get their food delivered right to your doorstep. Feeling lonely? Log onto this app and chat with any willing stranger within seconds. Don’t like the sad news about suffering people in other parts of the world? Just turn off your TV and your notifications so it doesn’t get you down.
We are a culture that almost exclusively defines a good life with immediate comfort and quick resolution. We’ve come to expect it. This is a key issue happening in our minds and hearts, the issue of expectation when it comes to our discomfort and suffering. We don’t just hope for comfort and resolution – we expect it, and we expect it fast. This is a very pervasive mindset in our culture.
What then, about God? Somewhere in there, I think we’ve come to expect that God too should provide quick fixes the way the world provides quick fixes (because otherwise, is He really much better than what the world can offer?) It’s easy to start thinking, well as God, He should be both faster and stronger. If He doesn’t seem to be faster and stronger than the world is with quick fixes, then is something wrong with Him?
My brothers and sisters, don’t you see this is the very lie that Satan himself tried to tempt Jesus with in the desert? “Jesus, if you are really God, then stop your pointless suffering from hunger and turn those stones into bread already. Easy! Jesus, if you want to show you’re stronger than death, then throw yourself down from this pinnacle and let the people see how the angels swoop in to save you. Easy! Jesus, if you say your purpose is to be glorified among the nations, forget all that foolish talk of the cross and that brutal, unjust death – just worship me and I’ll give you all these worldly kingdoms; you’ll have all you want the easy way.” Over and over, Satan pressed Jesus for the easy fix. Over and over, Jesus Himself said that simply was not the way He would go about things. He would walk the long, painful, agonizing, shameful, unjust road in order to meet us and walk with us on our own long, agonizing roads.
This interaction between Satan and Jesus doesn’t explain the shocking cancer diagnosis, the freak car accident, the horrific child abuse. My heart still aches as I think upon the patients in our ICU, past, present and future. But it does tell me something about what Satan wants us to believe about God: Satan wants us to believe God should give us the quick and easy fix in every form of struggle, and if He doesn’t, He’s not worth worshiping. The exchange also tells me about the nature of lowly Jesus: He knows the long road of suffering, and He chose to walk it all the way, out of undefiled love for us. He chose to love us this way, out of worshipful obedience to the Father.
Church, my plea to you is this.
When you meet someone who is walking a long, hard road of suffering and grief, don’t rush to look for ways to assure them God will turn their stones into bread. You can’t say if He will or not. Acknowledge their hunger pangs, and walk with them as they work out what trusting the Father looks like when they feel weak and depleted on this road.
When you talk with a nurse like myself who is overcome with anger and anguish over the deaths I witness in my patients, don’t rush to swoop me up with the angels towards heaven quite yet. Acknowledge that I am looking at the brute agony of death square in the face, and walk with me as I work out what faithfulness to God looks like when – before the resurrection – I still have this issue of death to wrangle with.
When you see in your own self how you would prefer to focus on all the riches and glory of a comfortable kingdom before you, don’t rush too quickly to dismiss the possibility that maybe this is a temptation from the devil himself and not the true fulfillment of God’s ultimate promises. Maybe, before we enter into that glorious future kingdom, we still have a road to the cross that we need to walk – gently, patiently, courageously, and honestly – with our Savior, the suffering, and each other.