A Journey of Suffering and Hope

lord_willingDuring this Advent and Christmas season as we anticipate and celebrate the birth of Jesus, someone somewhere is dealing with the death of a loved one, with a miscarriage, with a painful job termination, an ongoing mental or physical illness, or some other situation that brings deep suffering, that causes them to wrestle with God’s role in all that they are going through.

I’ve been there, and maybe you have too–or perhaps you’re going through that dark and seemingly endless valley even now.

That’s why I thought it might be too difficult to read Jessica Kelley’s Lord Willing? Wrestling with God’s Role in My Child’s Death (Herald Press, 2016). In it, the author tells the heart-breaking story of how her four-year-old son, Henry, was diagnosed with brain cancer, how he endured four surgeries in 28 days, until the best treatment option left was for his parents to take Henry home and care for him there during his final months.

The author writes:

We were home, and we had a mission. We were going to celebrate, savor, and infuse every moment left with the joy of a lifetime. So despite the October warmth, we launched into Henry’s favorite holiday.

We made gingerbread houses. We lit cinnamon candles. We decorated our ten-foot Christmas tree, set the fire ablaze, and played Christmas classics on TV. We celebrated with gifts and giggles and giant meals with extended family.

Our house was filled with love and the evidence of God working. At times, the quiet undercurrent of dread was almost imperceptible. We were all distracted by the priceless relief of being home together. (page 134)

It was a different kind of Christmas–celebrated early due to Henry’s condition, with an undercurrent of dread for what was to come, yet full of love, laughter, and hope.

“I want to go to heaven!”

Time stood still when [Henry] said it on Thanksgiving Day. Our extended family had just gathered to pray for the meal. He repeated it later that afternoon to an actor posing as Santa Claus. The jolly old man had been hired to come over and brighten our holidays. But when ol’ Saint Nick heard it, he froze like the rest of us. I couldn’t bring myself to meet his gaze. I wanted to cry, to apologize, to make it all go away.

I heard him advise Henry softly, “Don’t be in a rush.” The twinkle in his eye seemed to fade a bit after that. I’m sure he had heard all sorts of Christmas wishes. But nothing in his big red bag could help a terminally ill child exclaiming “I want to go to heaven!” (page 159)

One week before Christmas, Henry got his wish.

During the months between Henry’s diagnosis and his death, his parents lovingly cared for him even as they wrestled with deep questions of faith. Where was God in the midst of their pain? What did God’s love mean in light of their experience?

Instead of assuming that God controlled everything according to some divine and mysterious blueprint, Jessica came to understand more deeply that God is love, that God never wills human suffering, and actively works against evil. From Jesus’ parable of the field of wheat where an enemy has sown weeds among the good crop, she learns that God is not responsible for evil.

…just as a farmer would have no desire for weeds to devastate his crop, so also God doesn’t desire evil and horrific suffering to devastate humans. I imagined a young couple grieving over the baby they lost, and it was as though the words of Jesus sprang to life.”An enemy did this.” I thought of the pain that surrounded my parents’ broken marriage, my damaging relationships, and my destructive choices. And I recognized that the one who delights in broken roads is not God.

I considered all kinds of radical suffering, from tsunamis to tornados, from human trafficking to deadly disease, and I realized: “An enemy did this. ” The farmer sows good seed; so whenever I encountered evil, I wasn’t witnessing the work of God. And I could stop blaming the farmer. (page 70)

As you can tell from these brief quotes, Lord Willing? is personal, thoughtful, and thought-provoking, grounded in Scripture and theologically engaged. Thank you, Jessica Kelley, for sharing your story in such a beautiful and inviting way. Thank you to Herald Press for providing me with a complimentary copy of this book, and as always, the views expressed are my own.

Here’s more in the author’s own words in the video below:

Writing/Reflection Prompt: (taken from the Reflection Questions included in Lord Willing?) “It can be difficult to know how to comfort someone in crisis. In the aftermath of a tragedy, when do you feel it is best to be silent? When is it best to speak? When have you needed comfort? If others have offered their silent presence during your time of need, how did their silence help or fall short?”

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Categories: Book Reviews, Theology

2 replies

  1. Thanks, April for bringing this book to my attention. We lost a premature newborn many years ago, and I came to the same conclusion as the author (I listened to the video) .It will be interesting to follow her thought journey, so will definitely put this book on my reading list.

    • Thank you for sharing, Elfrieda – I think you will appreciate this book. There’s a statement in the author’s note that “the victim drives the theology car.” Strictly speaking, I would say that it’s God who drives the theology car, and the author demonstrates that in the way she turns to Scripture. But I also understand her desire to protect those who suffer loss from being pushed or argued into anything by others. I value her approach in being clear about her own wrestling with God’s role and at the same time recognizing the journey of others.

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