Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Trusting God Through Tragedy

A friend asked me to write a short paper on whether I continue to believe that God is sovereign and loving after Micah's death. Here are my thoughts:

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For most of my life, I have believed what the Christian Bible says about God. Along with most Bible-believing Christians, I believe that God is both sovereign and loving. Admittedly, however, until tragedy struck, intellectual objections to the goodness or sovereignty of God seemed esoteric. Significant suffering was something that happened to “other people.” My life seemed to go going along quite well, and, as a result, it was easy for me to espouse the traditional Christian view about God.

In July of 2009, I experienced a type of suffering that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy—the death of my oldest son. Our little oldest son Micah, then nine months of age, was in perfect health. He loved to play with his parents, to laugh at our dog, and to wave his little hand at passers-by. He would be content to ride in our stroller as my wife, Heather, and I pushed him around our neighborhood or around one of the lakes of South Minneapolis.

On Thursday afternoon, July 23rd, 2009, Micah had fallen out of his high chair reaching for his toes. While he sustained a black eye from his fall, no one felt that his condition was serious, much less life-threatening. On each of the next two days, various pediatric doctors saw Micah because he developed a low fever and an unusual cough. The doctors diagnosed Micah with pneumonia, probably as a result of inhaling something down his lung when he fell. However, the doctors were not concerned. They felt that whatever was causing his pneumonia in his lung would probably dissolve in a matter of days, and he would be back to his normal, energetic self in short order.

On Sunday morning, July 26th, I drove to the local Target to fill a prescription. When I arrived home, my wife came running out of our house screaming at me, “Micah has stopped breathing! Micah has stopped breathing!” Within two minutes, the EMTs arrived. A few minutes later, the ambulance arrived. But no one could revive Micah. The gravity of the situation hit my wife first, then it hit me. I held my wife in my arms on our kitchen floor as we screamed and cried together, praying as earnestly as we could that God would allow our little son to take a breath and come back to us. But God didn’t answer our prayer. We never heard him cry again.

Micah was eventually taken to Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis, where the doctors were finally able to revive Micah’s breathing. But after nearly one hour without oxygen, there was no hope for any brain activity. Over the next 24 hours, we prayed that our sovereign and good God would miraculously heal our little boy. But by 10 am the next morning, we were told that Micah had so little brain activity remaining that there was no hope for recovery. We were told that we needed to say goodbye to our pride and joy, our little boy. After a very emotional family gathering around Micah’s bedside, each of us had our own opportunity to say our last goodbyes. Heather, deciding that she could not be in the room when Micah’s ventilator was removed, said her final “goodbye” by encouraging Micah to, “Run to Jesus, sweetie, run to Jesus.” A few minutes later, I held my son in my arms as the doctors removed the ventilator and other equipment that was keeping our son breathing. In the single greatest moment of anguish that I have ever or will ever experience, my son’s little heart stopped beating.

Following Micah’s death, doctors determined that Micah had aspirated a pea when he had fallen from his highchair trying to touch his toes. The following Sunday morning, when trying to cough up the pea, the pea became lodged in his windpipe. The pea lodged itself in just such a manner as to block any airflow. According to pediatricians, the chances of this occurring are infinitely small.

No longer just an esoteric or theoretical question, Heather and I have grappled with this very real question of how a good and sovereign God, if He exists, could allow this happen. If God could create the stars, planets and the human body, master the precision of gravitational forces, how could He allow a pea to kill our son? How could this happen to our son, when no pediatrician has even heard of this ever happening before? But rather than pushing me away from God, Micah’s death has, paradoxically, actually drawn me closer to God. Looking back at my life since Micah died, I believe that Micah’s life and death has impacted me in many ways that are consistent with what the Bible says, generally, about how and why God uses significant personal suffering to achieve His purposes. Allow me to briefly share three ways in which Micah’s death has changed me and caused me to trust even more fully in a sovereign and loving God.



STRENGTH

First, Micah’s death has provided an insight into my own powerlessness and God’s strength. Most cultural leaders tell us that in order to be successful, we need to trust in our own strength—“to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.” Most of us live by the credo penned by Ralph Waldo Emerson when he wrote, "Trust thyself, every heart vibrates to that iron string. Discontent is the want of self-reliance. It is infirmity of will."[1] Similarly, 7-time Tour de France cycling champion Lance Armstrong lives by the mantra, “Live Strong. “ But I can't think of phrases and ways of life that are completely contradictory to how I now live my life. Rather than a “Self-Reliance” or “Live Strong” mantra, my day-to-day mantra is more like "Live Weak." To the extent that I used to rely on my own efforts, my own self-will, I can do it no longer. The death of my son is, among other things, the clearest demonstration possible that that I am not, in any way, “the captain of my ship…and the master of my soul.”[2]

During Micah’s lifetime, I pictured my future as being a good dad to my son. I envisioned helping Micah with his homework, fixing his broken bike, or talking him through important decisions. I thought I be the “fix-it” man for my son. But on that Sunday morning, July 26th, 2009, I learned that I am absolutely powerless, on my own, to carry out my dream of being the “fix it” man for Micah. In that whirlwind of activity, all of my strength, my knowledge, my love for my son didn’t make a difference. After a half hour of failing to resuscitate my son on our living room floor, the paramedics moved Micah out of our living room to the ambulance. So instead of helping my son with homework, broken toys, sports teams, relationships, school, job and life choices, I found myself doing the only thing I could—holding the door for my son’s now-lifeless body and the paramedics as they quickly left the house, never to return. And with them departed whatever sense of control, strength and self-reliance I had left.

Micah’s death has caused me to believe, subjectively, what has always been objectively true—that I am an impotent little creature previously mistaken about my ability to affect change or accomplish goals. Ironically, the Bible teaches that this realization of powerless, this self-emptying of pride, is a good thing. Jesus taught that it was through weakness that God’s power would be demonstrated. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted."[3]

In his second letter to the Corinthian church, the early Christian leader Paul notes how he pleaded with God, in prayer, to remove certain suffering from his life. Eventually, God made it clear to Paul that God was purposely choosing not to answer Paul’s prayer in order that, through Paul’s suffering and resulting weakness, God’s power might best be demonstrated. Of God’s response to his prayers for healing, Paul writes, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”[4]
I cannot honestly claim to want suffering in my life, as Paul did. But I can attest to how God has used my weakness to showcase His own power. I have no other explanation as to how I can even keep a job, stay married, and be even remotely conversant at social functions. If it were up to me, if it were up to my own ability to “pull myself up by my own bootstraps,” I would have given up on life following Micah’s death. But by breaking me of my self-reliance, God has demonstrated His power to me.



JOY

Second, God has used Micah’s life and tragic death to begin to change the source of joy and happiness in my life. I cannot adequately describe my anguish as I sat in the hospital next to my little son’s body. I determined in those moments that, so long as I live on earth, there could never possibly be any set of earthly circumstances that could provide my wife and me with sufficient joy to make up for our loss. As much joy as marriage, children and family have (and will) bring to us, there will always be a place missing at the dinner table, a child absent from family pictures, and gifts lying unopened under the Christmas tree. His death has left such a void in our hearts and in our home that no set of circumstances can ever make us or our family “whole.” The moment that my son’s little heart stopped beating, my dreams for happiness on this earth died along with him.

Micah’s death has caused me to re-examine every aspect of my life and where I find joy and happiness in my life. Is my joy from my job? But what happens when I lose it? Is my joy in my hobbies, my athletic pursuits or my entertainment? What happens when I lose my sight or my ability to run or walk? Is my joy in my spouse and children? What happens when my child or spouse dies? How will I have any ability to carry on in life if all of my joy was centered solely in my child or spouse? To the extent that you use your life circumstances as the sole means for joy in your life, I believe that you are living in a dream world, for sooner or later the fa├žade will come crashing down, and you will have nothing left. What of joy then? Where will your joy come from then?

Rather than suffering as a demonstration that there is no good God, I see suffering as God’s clear demonstration to us that joy in life cannot be lived centered around our circumstances. It is not that God is cruel and doesn’t want us to experience joy—He wants us to experience joy. But rather than allowing us to live in the artificial joy of happiness in circumstances, God desires that we have a profound, eternal joy. This eternal joy can only be found through His son, Jesus Christ. Jesus himself told His disciples that the reason for his teaching was for our eternal joy. He said, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”[5]

In the Bible, we see several examples of people centering their affections for God and not their own circumstances. One of these was King David who, as King of Israel, led the Israel through its greatest, most successful years. But rather than focus on his own circumstances and significant earthly successes as the source of his happiness, David tells us that it was God that ultimately brought him joy. In Psalm 27, David says, “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.”[6] David said, “I say to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you’…The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot.”[7]

Heather and I want to follow David’s lead in finding ultimate joy in God. Suffering has a way of souring the taste of anything that competes with one’s affections for God. Like David, we have come to believe that no earthly joy tastes as sweet as a joy centered in God.[8] It is my hope that Micah’s death serves to increase my joy in God alone.

SIGNIFICANCE

Third, through Micah’s death I have recognized the degree to which God brings significance to all of life, even to life’s darkest hours. Rather than believing that God was “asleep at the switch” when that pea blocked Micah’s windpipe, I believe that God’s designs for Micah’s life are greater than what I could have imagined, and that He is somehow using Micah’s death to achieve his purposes. Of course, this means that we must live in faith that God is indeed good and working in ways we cannot see.

The author of the Biblical book of Hebrews writes, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”[9] One of the greatest biblical examples of faith in the Bible is the story of Abraham. In the book of Genesis we are told that God promised Abraham that he would become the father of a great nation—what would become the nation of Israel. But God took his time to fulfill this pledge. Not until well past their child-bearing years did God finally and miraculously give Abraham and his wife a son, Isaac. Later, when Isaac was still a boy, God commanded Abraham to take Isaac to a nearby mountain and sacrifice him.[10] Obediently, Abraham took Isaac up the side of a mountain. At just the last moment, when Abraham’s knife was raised to sacrifice his long-awaited son, a ram was provided as a substitute sacrifice.

In Abraham’s case, the story ended well. Isaac was spared, and Abraham became the father of the nation of Israel. But not many of us will achieve anything close to Abraham’s earthly significance, particularly our children who, like Micah, are lost in infancy. Many parents who lose a young child struggle over the lack of significance that other people attach to their child’s life. In the minds of the parents, the child never even had the opportunity to succeed, to accomplish something, to be significant. And, if there is nothing beyond our sensory experiences, then achievement, fame and fortune alone dictate significance, and the death of a young child is truly insignificant.

But rather than thinking that Micah’s little life was insignificant, we believe that it is significant because God is using it to accomplish his designs. One of the most audacious claims of the Bible is that regardless of where we go, we cannot escape God. Even in death, God is there.[11] God holds the power to give life and take life. Since God is using each and every action to accomplish something greater in our lives, every life is significant. Who knows the full impact that Micah and his death had on us, our family and friends, the medical community, and others? It would be highly presumptuous of us to think his death had no meaning when we lack the omnipotence to fully understand how God uses human events to achieve his purposes.

The Bible does not apologize for the clear fact that God sometimes chooses to use the worst human suffering imaginable to achieve his purposes. Based upon the descriptions of Jesus in the Bible, Jesus deserved human acclaim. He healed the sick, taught about love, and challenged hypocritical religious leaders. He deserved to be significant in the eyes of the world, and to become a “significant” person in the eyes of the world like a president, king, or emperor. But instead of becoming the new king of Israel, he died an agonizing death on a cross. Through the cross, Christians believed that He accomplished something more than He ever could have accomplished if He had been just a great political ruler. Through his perfect life and agonizing death, we believe that Jesus redeemed my life, and the lives of all of His followers, for all time.

The cross of Christ is the symbol of hope for Christians in the midst of even the most terrible circumstances, for it means that there is meaning and not absurdity in the cruelest of all human sufferings and that, somehow, God will turn our greatest sufferings into our greatest joys. God promises that just as He used Christ’s great suffering to bring about great purposes, so also He works in our lives, even in our darkest hours, to accomplish His purposes.[12] The Bible says that, “…neither death nor life…nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[13] Even though we continue to struggle at times with why God’s plan must involve our earthly separation from our son, Heather and I continue to see Christ’s death and resurrection as a clear demonstration that God can indeed use Micah’s death to achieve His plan.

I often return to the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son as a source of encouragement in my own faith. The story is indeed difficult to understand; in many ways, it doesn’t make logical sense. But to me, that is the point. Like us, Abraham had the capacity for logic; he could have questioned (or defied) God’s demand because it didn’t make logical sense. But Abraham, without questioning God or his ways, was ready to be obedient to God, even to the point of the death of his own son at his own hand. In the book of Hebrews, we are told that as Abraham led Isaac up that mountain, he considered his son already dead. Abraham, “considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.”[14]

For Heather and me, we have learned that we must walk as Abraham walked with God—in faith. We will not know what purposes God achieved through Micah and his death, at least not until we see God and Micah again. Even through anger at God, unfulfilled dreams and nights of weeping, we believe that God’s plan for us and Micah involve peas wider than windpipes, little graves, and short earthly lifetimes. We believe that God has power over death, and can bring significance even through Micah’s death. Through these difficult circumstances, our faith, the “assurance of things hoped for,” has become dearer to us than it ever has before.

Someday, I will hold my little Micah again in Heaven. Our happiness in being together will have not been reduced by the pea that stuck in Micah’s throat. Instead, we will be able to spend eternity together learning about the endless wisdom and power of God, worshipping God for how He divinely orchestrated human history to display His wonderful attributes to us. Until then, I can be thankful, and live in faith, that God uses events in our lives to teach us more about Him, including how He wants us to find strength, joy, and significance in Him.

[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance.
[2] William Earnest Henley, Invictus.
[3] Matthew 5:3-4.
[4] 2 Corinthians 12:9-10.
[5] John 15:11.
[6] Psalm 27:4.
[7] Psalm 16:2,5.
[8] Psalm 34:8.
[9] Hebrews 11:1, 6.
[10] Genesis 22.
[11] Psalm 139.
[12]About God’s power, Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
[13] Romans 8:38-39.
[14] Hebrews 11:18-19.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing your heart and faith. My tears and prayers are still with you and Heather.
    ~ Jess Sanborn

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  2. Sweet Jesus, lay your Wounded Hand upon my head and bless me. Stretch forth that same dear Hand and bless each one at home. Give me your staff. Help me to go around in Your fold just for today doing Your work in Your way. Push me back when I would go wrong and make me go forward when I am afraid to do right. Be with me in my dealings with each soul with whom I come in contact and grant that each may know, love and serve You better for having passed by me.
    I want to know, love and serve You above all things. And when life's little day is ended and its task complete, give me a place at Your Feet to rest for all eternity.
    My dearest Lord, what do You send me today? Humiliations, contradictions, physical sufferings, bad news which I do not expect: an aching heart, a failure? Shall I see myself misjudged, wrongly suspected, despised? All that you wish, O my God; I accept it all in advance, and if I weep through weakness, oh, regard it not; if I murmur, check me; if I am forgetful, forgive me; if I am discouraged, raise me up. But through it all, teach me to say "Thy will be done." Amen

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  3. I just want to say thank you for this. I can relate to this pain. Death of a loved can forever change you. I am twenty years old and the oldest of four kids. I grew up loving the Lord and my faith was shaken when I watched my mother die of a heart attack this past Christmas. I am trying to be strong but of course questioned God. Your post gave me some hope. Thanks again and I will bless the Lord at all times and continue forward.

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