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Riding the Two Rails of Grief: Faith and Suffering

After the unexpected death of our son, my wife and I learned that faith informs pain, but it doesn’t erase it.

Grieving after a tragedy

In 2009, at the age of 12, my son Connor contracted a MRSA staff infection that ravished his body and stole his life. Of our three children, Connor was the healthiest, but the infection transported him from perfectly healthy to dead in just 10 days.

In my book Dating and the Single Parent, I write a little about how losing him has recalibrated my wife, Nan, and me. It’s a contrast of before and after.

Before: I prayed “if the Lord wills” such and such will happen, just like the book of James says to do.

After: I realize that I didn’t mean it when I said that. I said “if the Lord wills,” but I never gave it an honest thought that my plans for life wouldn’t really come about. I was smitten with the illusion of control. If I just worked hard enough, prayed hard enough, lived right enough, things would pretty much work out. Now when I say “tomorrow I will do this or that” I don’t have any illusion that it will really happen … unless the Lord wills. My illusions have been ruptured.

Before: Nan and I thought we knew what it was to be and have friends.

After: We have discovered the faithfulness of a few amazing friends who are willing to walk through darkness with us, day after day, year after year, even when we can’t be for them who we once were. We have also learned that lots of other “friends” can’t handle our pain—and won’t handle our pain. Never before have we experienced social isolation and loneliness until we entered the valley of death.

Before: I thought a bad day was the flu, a flat tire, or a flight delay.

After: My definition of a bad day has been recalibrated. Watching my wife dig her fingernails into our son’s grave while screaming “I want my son back” or helplessly standing by as one of Connor’s brothers now drowns night after night in the fear that another family member will die now qualify as a bad day.

Before: I thought trust and faith were the antidotes to pain.

After: I’ve realized that the train I now travel sits on two rails: the left is sadness (deep, deep sadness) and the right wonderful memories. The left is anguish, the right hope. The left anger, the right trust. The left sorrow, the right peace in the arms of Jesus. Neither rail invalidates the other. Neither excludes the other. They coexist. For example, faith doesn’t end grief, and the hope of heaven still allows room for asking “why?” I travel these two rails, side by side, on an unstoppable train … till Jesus comes.

Faith and suffering can co-exist

It’s this last observation that frequently draws the most feedback from readers and listeners. Recently, for example, I shared my testimony with a group of ministry leaders. Time and again people have sought me out to comment on the “two rails” analogy.

“It’s so true,” said one person. “My situation is different than yours, but it’s kind of the same. I’m struggling with a physical injury; I find myself trusting in God and mad at God all at the same time.”

One woman made an insightful observation. “You can’t have problems at church. We always tell people we’re fine when we’re not, because when you do open up people tell you to ‘have more faith’ or ‘trust in God’ as if that will take away your suffering. But it doesn’t.”

That’s exactly my point. Faith and suffering are not mutually exclusive; rather, they stretch across the territory of our lives like two railroad tracks, side by side, and the train we are on rides the two rails. I do believe that my faith informs my pain, but it doesn’t erase it.

Joy helps us endure

That’s why the author of Psalm 88 can in one breath cry out for help and in the next ask, “Why, O Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?” (Psalm 88:13-14 NIV). And it’s why Job, who after coming to a deeper faith in God and seeing Him more clearly than he ever had before, acknowledges that he is still relegated to the ash heap, mourning “in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6 NIV).

There are times of great rejoicing over the Messiah, the Rescuer, the Redeemer. And yet … many of us carry a deep sadness over the circumstances of our lives. Joy and sorrow can live side by side. Just look at Jesus.

Isaiah 53 reminds us that even Jesus, the “suffering servant,” was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (verse 3), yet the writer of Hebrews says that it was joy that helped Christ endure the cross. Christ’s pain and suffering were real to him. As is mine to me and yours to you.

He prayed in the Garden first for deliverance, then that the Father’s will be done, all while asking His friends to pray with Him that He might have strength to endure. Maybe you and I should, too.


Adapted from Dating and the Single Parent (2012, p. 50-52) by Ron L. Deal, Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Used with permission. All rights to this material are reserved.

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