Scripture describes hell as a place of loneliness, weeping, wailing, darkness and separation from God, and that is where I thought I must be.
When the phone rang at midnight, I expected to hear my son say, “Hey, mom, it’s me. I’m on my home from Kelly’s” But instead I heard, “Mrs. Betters, this is the Christiana Hospital. Your son Mark has been in a car accident. You need to come.”
“Is he okay?” I asked.
Instead of saying, “He’ll be fine, she hesitated, then replied, “He’s in critical condition.”
As we raced past the unrecognizable wreckage at the accident scene, we realized that our son might not have survived. When we reached the hospital, the nurse took us toward the room on the left – the place where they took family members to inform them of a death.
“I’m a pastor. I know the routine,” my husband said to her. “Is my son dead?” Instead of shaking her head no to his question, she nodded yes. Instead of meekly surrendering to this horrific interruption in my life, I screamed “No, no, no!” while pounding on my husband’s chest. Thus began our descent into the valley of the shadow of death.
Later that evening, the wails of our other two young adult sons, the emptiness in my daughter’s eyes, the gaping, raw grief lining my husband’s face, and my own longing for Mark convinced me that surely I must be in hell. And to be present in our home must have felt like being there as well. Although surrounded by loving friends and family, we felt indescribable loneliness and abandonment by God.
How often we had stood on the precipice of this valley, peering into the darkness as it swallowed up friends, terrified by what we could not see. How many times we had heard of others who received the phone call every parent dreads, always praying that God would exempt us from this terror.
I had tried hard to understand the deep sorrow of death, but I had never come close, and suddenly I understood why the Bible calls death the greatest enemy. I was helpless to defend myself against it.
Death is as real as life, and ignoring it does not change it. We will al find time to die and death will interrupt the lives of people we know and love. What will be our response? Grief is not a spectator sport; it demands involvement. The Bible commands us to join others in their suffering:
Weep with those who weep. (Romans 12:15 NKJV)
Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. (Hebrews 13:3)
In the two following passages, God connects spiritual maturity with the ministry of comfort:
Carry each other’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Chrsit. (Galatians 6:2)
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself form being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)
In the weeks and months following Mark’s death, I learned how God uses seemingly small acts to make a big difference. When we see our role as that of helping our friends find strength in God, rather than of making everything right for them again, we are free to let God use our service to draw to Himself those who hurt.
Sometime we refuse to step into another person’s pain because doing so forces us to face our own mortality and question our own beliefs. We do not want to upset our Disney-like lives.
Job’s losses, as recorded in the Old Testament book bearing his name, challenged the belief system of his friends. For seven days they sat silently with him. What a gift! But then they felt compelled to come up with an explanation for Job’s suffering.
Why was this so important to them? Because Job’s pain challenged their faith. His losses, they concluded must be his fault because such extreme suffering did not fit their understanding of a just God. They wanted to believe that they could control their destiny (i.e., control God) by behaving properly. It was important, therefore, that Job be made responsible for his own calamity, otherwise they would have to face the fact that they were powerless to keep such tragedy from striking them. Job’s circumstances challenged everything they wanted to believe about God, and that challenge frightened them.
May Job’s words describing his friends not be said of us:
A despairing man should have the devotion of his friends, even though he forsakes the fear of the Almighty. But my brothers are as undependable as intermittent streams, as the streams that overflow when darkened by thawing ice and swollen with melting snow, but that cease to flow in the dry season, and in the heat vanish from their channels. (Job 6:14-17)
More recently, events like the senseless massacre at Virginia Tech in April, 2007, confronted the world with the need to dig up reasons for the deaths of so many innocent people. Job's friends needed to answer that question for their own good rather than Job's. In our own grief journey, we concluded that there is no reason good enough for a parent’s heart and that is why God doesn’t give us answers other than, “Trust me.” Along with the search for answers, reporters, especially those who were parents themselves, frequently commented, “How does a parent survive the death of their child?” From our own walk in darkness, we learned that it is only by leaning into the pain and wrestling to reconcile God’s love with His sovereignty that we found a new level of normal. We discovered that God’s channel of grace is often the biblical encouragement of others: actions and words (sometimes deemed insignificant by others) designed to help turn our heart toward Him.
As we pray for families of who endure tragedy, ask God to send encouragement that will help turn their hearts toward His love and compassion and open their souls to the message of hope that only Christ can give.
Sharon W. Betters is Executive Director of MARK INC Ministries (www.markinc.org). She is the author of Treasures of Encouragement, Women Helping Women in the Church as well as Treasures in Darkness, A Grieving Mother Shares Her Heart. Both books are published by P & R Publishing, Phillipsburg, New Jersey.