A dear friend texted me today asking for advice on how to support her friends whose teenage son has been suffering from debilitating migraines for a year and a half. He is angry at God, she said, and can’t believe a good God would allow this kind of suffering. His parents are afraid he is going to renounce God, and she wants to know how to be there for them.
I wrote last year about my own experience with debilitating migraines and depression and struggling to find God in it all. When you are in pain and the life you know has been pulled out from under you, you naturally ask why. When you have prayed till your knees are bloody and cried out to God until your throat is hoarse, and still the pain continues, of course you wonder why a loving God is not answering you. Of course you do.
But when your friends and loved ones have prayed their own knees bloody and throats hoarse, and still you are not better, something else begins to happen. They may question God, too, but they may also — out loud or only in their heads — begin to question you. Are you sure you’re praying enough? Are you sure you have faith that God can heal you? Are you taking the right meds, have you tried acupuncture, are you eating right and getting enough sleep; have you tried everything you can? And the blame begins to shift, slightly, to the one in pain. It can be subtle or overt, but it echoes the person’s own questions and doubt. Are you sure you aren’t psychologically attached to the pain? Maybe you’re getting something out of it. Why did you stay up late last night when you know a regular sleep schedule is shown to help migraines? Maybe all of this is actually your fault?
In my earlier post, He suffers with us, I wrote that I didn’t find answers to my questions, but instead I found God’s presence with me in the pain:
Then, one day on a whim, I bought a little crucifix online. I was raised in the Protestant tradition and remember being told that Catholic theology was wrong because they kept Jesus on the cross, whereas Protestant crosses were empty, representing the resurrection. When the package came, and I took out the little plastic Jesus it seemed so strange — a little Jesus doll when what I wanted was the real man, present in my heart, mind, and spirit, as he used to be. But one day, when the pain was at its worst, I placed my fingers on the nails in his hands, studied his face and his body, and wept with understanding: Jesus was in pain, too. He was suffering, too. I might not understand why it was happening to me, or why he wouldn’t answer my prayers to take it away, but now I knew that He was in it with me. For the days and months to come I lay in bed, clutching the crucifix to me and crying.
That presence, that willingness to be with me, to suffer with me in the pain, was what I found in God — and it was what I most needed from my friends and family.
I don’t know how much you’ve read Job, but it has always been kind of a confusing book to me. I don’t understand why God would allow Job to lose his family and everything he owned. I don’t understand his friends’ advice really, or what God means when he shows up and silences them. And I don’t understand how everything is supposed to be okay when Job gets a new family and new riches. You can’t make the loss of children all better by having new children. But this quote by Buechner helped me to understand it a little more:
Words Without Knowledge
IT IS OUT OF the whirlwind that Job first hears God say “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” (Job 42:3). It is out of the absence of God that God makes himself present, and it is not just the whirlwind that stands for his absence, not just the storm and chaos of the world that knock into a cocked hat all man’s attempts to find God in the world, but God is absent also from all Job’s words about God, and from the words of his comforters, because they are words without knowledge that obscure the issue of God by trying to define him as present in ways and places where he is not present, to define him as moral order, as the best answer man can give to the problem of his life. God is not an answer man can give, God says. God himself does not give answers. He gives himself, and into the midst of the whirlwind of his absence gives himself.
But when God finally shows up, he does not give answers, he gives something better — himself. And that is what we need from each other, too: Not answers, but just presence, just understanding and listening and presence. I told my friend that even if her friends’ son does feel like renouncing God, or even if he renounces him, the best, most loving response his parents and friends can give is not arguments, but presence:
“It must hurt so much. I’m so sorry. I can completely understand that you would want to renounce God, and I don’t love you any less for it. If God is God, he will understand, too, and not love you any less for it, either. Go ahead and cry and swear and do whatever you need to do. We’re here.”
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