What I remember most about my grandfather’s death is the way my grandmother screamed.
I was in the third grade. My mother’s mother—the other grandmother, the one who hadn’t just lost a husband—had helped dress me up in a little dark, frilly dress for the funeral. She and my mom had explained to me carefully what funerals and wakes were, and what they were for, and what they meant. I understood that my Pawpaw had died, but that he would wake up with Jesus—and so even though I was sad, I also had comfort.
I asked if my Mawmaw was okay. Yes, people assured me. Jesus would help her through it.
And yet the minute I walked into the funeral home holding my other grandmother’s hand, little me at the back of a line led by my bereaved grandmother, I watched her walk up to the casket with my grandfather in it—
–and promptly collapse on it, screaming and wailing his name.
I started screaming and wailing, too. My other grandmother picked me up and walked me out in a hurry. I remember that everyone in the room looked stunned. I was so upset by the scene that I announced I wanted to burn the little frilly dress.
In later years, I remember thinking that my grandmother’s collapse over the coffin was—well, of a piece with her temperament. I promised myself that, when people died, I would do my best to grieve “as one who had hope.”
But now I wish I’d had a little more compassion.
There is a school of thought—a wrong one—that says hardship, suffer, struggle and pain never really touch believers. That through the alchemy of God’s grace even hurts feel like nothing and that we are therefore, in a sense, always spared suffering. In this world, diseases fade away with a single righteous prayer, believers are never confronted with questions of harsh injustice, and death is only something that happens to you once you’ve conceded to God that you are cheerfully done living your life.
But I have known believers to suffer. To suffer much and to suffer unfairly. One of the kindest, God-beloved ladies I know lost her believing husband of over fifty years to suicide. My father has worked his entire life at a job that has taken a harsh toll on his body, and his compensation has hardly been just. In spite of this, he refuses to miss work unless absolutely necessary. Both of my grandmothers suffered from dementia and the early stages of Alzheimer’s. One of my Christian students, who exhorts me constantly to grow in faith, came within a breath of being deported despite being here legally and even now faces a precarious future. My mother is currently struggling with a severe illness of unknown origin as doctors put their heads together to try to identify a cause.
Believers suffer. And not from the slings and arrows of imagined persecutions but from real, aching hurts.
Yes, believers are commanded to turn the other cheek, but the Bible doesn’t promise that the slap to the face won’t hurt. Sorrows still grieve the heart of the Christian. Unanswered questions haunt the spirit of the Christian. The teeth-grinding truths of unfairness render us mute with frustration.
Philip Yancey identifies mature faith as a sort of fidelity: a faith which does not childishly announce “God’ll take care of it!” to every tragedy or pretend obliviousness or naivete in the face of suffering, but one which endures suffering, knows that every question may not be answered, knows that we may not receive a desired response, and says, like Job:
Though He slay me, yet will I hope in Him.
Honestly? This is the Christianity few people want any part of. People want miracles. People want alchemy. People want reassurance. No one wants to think, and few Christians like to admit, that it is possible to cry out to God and perceive no response. No one likes to think that God’s answer to Job was, fundamentally, “I Am, and that ought to be enough for you.”
But to choose faith in the face of such circumstances, as Yancey points out, has cosmic significance in a way we likely do not and cannot understand. It matters deeply to God. And it is perhaps one of the few gifts we can give Him of any worth.
A while back, an atheist friend of mine breezily commented, “I so admire the faith you have. I just don’t have it in me, you know?”
But faith isn’t a pre-existent skill or sense conferred upon me by my salvation, an automatic Christian gift that kicks in whenever circumstances conspire to tempt me into disbelief. Faith is a deliberate choice in the face of suffering, doubt, silence, and fear:
I believe what You said.
I believe who You are.
I believe what You promise.
In hopes of a future they did not see before they died, so many of my ancestors in the faith walked the course of their lives making exactly that choice. And I, perhaps more starkly than ever, have realized that this is also my choice to make, daily. This is the salvation that works itself out with fear and trembling. This is the choice to look at my life and everything around me not with human eyes (which cannot see God working in much of anything) but with eyes of faith (that trust He is there and working, regardless).
I choose to believe just like the woman I know whose husband passed away. Like the father I know who grieves for a still-living son. Like my student. Like my grandmothers. Like my mother.
I choose to believe when my prayers feel like they’re falling into a void.
I choose to believe when nothing seems good or just.
I choose to believe when my heart fails because I want to trust God more than I trust myself.
I mentioned that I remember my grandmother screaming over her husband’s casket. But what I also remember is that, in the years after, she still spoke of the goodness of God. She still read her worn Bible cover to cover and wrote so much in the margins in her spidery script that we marveled at it after her passing. She testified to God’s grace and always remembered her salvation.
And I choose.
And all of us every day, we choose.
Do I believe, or don’t I believe?
And I believe.