This last weekend we welcomed our daughter, Eloise (EL-oo-eeze), into the world, and I couldn’t be more proud of my wife. I don’t think she was nervous at all, and when the time came to finally push, it only took one. She was so chill that she treated the whole thing like a trip to the grocery store. If they would have let us, she would have packed up and gone home a couple hours later. Here’s an adorable picture of them both from Sunday morning:
Ridiculous, right? I can’t handle it.
Anyway, however calm Abigail was, I was the opposite, at least from about Monday to some time Thursday evening.
Let me explain. I have a hard time when any of us have to go to the hospital for anything other than a bad cold. It’s because of what happened in 2011, when my first wife, Ashley, passed away without warning. It’ll be seven years in a few weeks, and I’ve healed from it, except that I struggle with fear.
It’s a different fear than what you’re imagining, more than the simple fear of experiencing the trauma I did seven years ago, of bearing the loss again. If I’m completely honest with you right now, I’m afraid of God.
Looking at my loss through the lens of scripture led me to find out something about him that’s hard to handle—that while God is indeed merciful and gracious and loving, he is also willing to allow his children to suffer to make them holy. Now, holy is a big word, but what I’m talking about is the sort of holy that draws us nearer to him and makes us more like him.
Think of Joseph and his words, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” Joseph’s suffering had prepared him to lead the Egyptian nation and protect God’s promised people during a time of famine. And think of Job, that while he was a very righteous man, he was inflicted with self-righteousness that tried to exalt itself above God. Job’s suffering wasn’t God’s idea, but he was pleased to use it to make Job even more holy. Consider David before he became King, running from the madness of Saul. His experience in the wilderness brought him ever closer to God. Finally, think of Jesus, who was perfectly holy yet was still afflicted with the suffering of the cross as the final and greatest example of what holiness looked like.
So I know this about Him, that while he wants a good and peaceful life for us, he’s also willing to let us suffer. Which makes coming into times of uncertainty difficult for me. I find that I’m caught in this paradox of trusting him, trusting that he is good, trusting that he is kind, trusting that he is gracious, yet knowing at any moment the things I love most might be taken from me.
This weekend was a time of uncertainty. Any number of things could have gone wrong during childbirth. Consider that the US has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world. Consider that a friend of mine nearly lost his wife because she started bleeding out right after she had their second child. Consider the possibility of Abigail having some hidden condition just like Ashley did that could manifest in the throes of labor to take her without warning. And that’s just what could happen to Abigail. I won’t even get into all things that could go wrong for the baby.
I know I sound paranoid, but put yourself in my shoes. I used to rest, like most of us, in the comfort of the statistics, that the unspeakable probably won’t happen, at least not to me. It happens to those people over in Syria, or that van of hockey players, but that won’t happen to me, we tell ourselves.
The morning Ashley died was just like any other morning. I got up, made breakfast and a cup of coffee, then kissed her on the head as she still lay sleeping. A few hours later I got the phone call that I never thought I would or even could.
The truth is that the worst can happen, and God just might allow it.
It makes me understand atheists, really. It would be much easier to just believe in the general goodness of people and chalk up all the suffering in the world to natural selection and random chance. At least, then, no one is responsible for it. Especially not God.
Except that He’s revealed himself to me over and over again. I’ve seen legitimate miracles—the deaf hearing, the lame walking, that sort of thing. But what’s more is the minor miracles I’ve watched in my own life, in myself. Like how when Ashley was still alive, I was a relatively irresponsible, haughty, and self-righteous person. I was often condescending to her, and mistreated her. Her death brought my treatment of her into sharp relief, that I hadn’t valued her as the person she was, cherished her as she deserved. So I repented, came to God with hands held out asking him to change me. And then something crazy happened inside of me. I softened. I became kinder. I found the courage to be a father and husband. Ask the people who knew me then and know me now. I’m a completely different person from the guy who married Ashley.
I’m not an atheist because none of those changes in myself make sense if Jesus didn’t actually rise from the dead and give me new life by infilling me with the Holy Spirit. Like King Herod, we often come to God and ask for a sign that he might prove himself to us, but the truth is that he’s been trying to prove himself inside of us for years, convicting us of sin, urging us to holiness. And he offers the strength of will to become that holy person without cost. It’s not flashy, and it’s not Benny Hinn knocking stadiums over with his coat; it’s a quiet, gentle, minor miracle. But it might be the most important kind he performs, taking our hearts of stone and giving us hearts of flesh.
So, back to this last weekend. We scheduled an induction for Friday morning, and I started to feel that fear first thing monday, like a switch had been turned on in my heart. Up that point, I hadn’t really thought much about the trip to the hospital. I was focused on renovating the baby’s room and getting my work done ahead of time for my paternal leave. I woke up monday morning, though, and there it was, all the possibilities of tragedy trying to flood my heart.
I tried to ignore it. I asked for prayer from a friend who struggles with the same thing for the same reasons. Yet, the more I tried to suppress the fear, the more it seemed to bubble up. It all came to a head on thursday night. I’d been working all day, and by the time I came home around nine, the fear had just about taken over. I snapped at my wife when she asked me to do something simple. Funny how fear drives us back to becoming the person from which God redeemed us.
I stopped myself. I took a shower to clear my head, praying the whole time, trying to figure out how to beat this thing. Afterward I sat on the bed, putting my socks on, and just prayed a silent, desperate prayer.
Holy Spirit, I surrender to you. I’m afraid, and I don’t understand how to not be afraid. But do a work in me now.
And a minor miracle started to happen. It wasn’t instantaneous. I had to sleep on that prayer, to consciously surrender to it’s work. But I woke friday morning with peace. It was a weird peace, because I could still look in my heart and see the fear there, the dread of the statistical knowledge that tragedy had found me once and might find me again, but somehow I couldn’t feel it. All I felt was nonsensical peace.
I only have one explanation for that.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7.