Over the years I’ve read five books by Christians who suffered a family tragedy: Lament for a Son, by Nicholas Wolsterstorff; Sometimes Mountains Move, by C. Everett Koop and his wife; In God’s Waiting Room, by Lehman Strauss; A Grief Observed, by C. S. Lewis, and Where is God? by John Feinberg.
Feinberg is a Christian philosopher and theologian. He’s the son of Charles Lee Feinberg, the Messianic Jewish Bible scholar.
Wolterstorff is a Christian philosopher with a Dutch-Reformed background.
Koop is a Presbyterian layman who was converted under the ministry of James Montgomery Boice.
Lewis is, of course, the Oxford Don, Christian apologist, and Anglican layman.
Strauss is a Bible teacher and fundamentalist.
Both Koop and Wolterstorff lost sons to mountain climbing accidents. Lewis lost his wife to cancer. Feinberg’s wife was stricken with Huntington’s disease, a degenerative and terminal neurological disorder. Strauss’s wife suffered a massive stroke shortly after their golden anniversary.
Of the five men, four underwent a crisis of faith brought on by their bruising experience. Strauss was the only one whose faith was not shaken by the ordeal.
This, of itself, is interesting. After all, Feinberg, Lewis, and Wolsterstorff are men of considerable theological sophistication.
You can see how personal tragedy would trigger overwhelming sorrow—and even anger. But why would that cause them to doubt their faith?
Feinberg distinguishes between the intellectual problem of evil and the emotional problem of evil. Having the right answers doesn’t make you feel any better.
This is a valid distinction up to a point, and it’s a vital distinction in pastoral theology, when ministering to the grief-stricken.
But it’s also a little too facile, for as you read their accounts, there is also an intellectual problem that aggravated the grieving process and precipitated a crisis of faith. They were not merely devastated by the experience—they were disillusioned.
In the case of Koop and Wolterstorff, they couldn’t understand why God would allow this to happen.
Now, in context, this doesn’t seem to require any special explanation. Mountain-climbing is a high-risk behavior. That, indeed, is part of the appeal. The element of danger. Tempting fate. Holding your life in your hands.
A better question to ask is, why wouldn’t God allow it? If you take an unnecessary, calculated risk, you may lose. It’s as simple as that. It’s not that simple emotionally, but it is that simple intellectually.
You may say I’m missing the point. When a person is in a state of in mourning, he isn’t going to think straight. He’s overcome by emotion.
Yes, I understand that. But these books are written in retrospect. Yet while they were able to work themselves back to a state of faith, they never seemed to work their way through the intellectual problem. Or, to put it another way, they never seemed to recognize that there was no intellectual problem which cried out for an answer. If you indulge in high-risk behavior, you put yourself at risk. What’s there to explain?
Likewise, Lewis knew that his fiancé had cancer when he married her. So why would Lewis act like he was caught off guard when she died? Sure, the separation would be emotionally wrenching. But why would that be a reason to question the providence of God? It’s hardly surprising that a cancer patient would die of cancer. Once again, what’s there to explain?
In the case of Feinberg, he felt for a long time that God had deceived him. God led him and his wife into believing that it was his will for them to get married.
After she was diagnosed, he felt that God has tricked him. He was angry and confused.
He finally came around to the view that God had willed them to marry so that he could care for her.
But the unspoken assumption is the assumption that you can know God’s will for your life on such topical matters as whether you chose to marry the right spouse.
What all these things have in common is a false expectation: an expectation that God would intervene to prevent some event which he never promised to prevent in his Word.
God never promised that if you or a loved one engages in a hazardous recreational activity, your faith will confer immunity from mortal injury.
God never promised that if you knowingly marry a person with a life-threatening illness, he or she won’t succumb.
And God never promised that if you pray about who you’re “supposed” to marry, you will receive a divine sign of his approval or disapproval. Why assume that there’s just one right person for you? If Scripture is silent on many detailed questions, why not conclude that there may be more than one morally licit option?
Some readers may feel that I’m being censorious or judgmental. But these are questions which the writers themselves are raising. They are questioning God out of a tacit assumption that what happened was somehow inconsistent with the providence of God.
And it’s that false expectation which is aggravating their grief as well as triggering a lapse of faith.
There is a link between thinking and feeling. The link is indirect. There is often a lag factor or delayed effect. And the two never coincide.
But thinking influences feeling, and feeling influences feeling. For example, both Wolterstorff and, to a lesser extent, Feinberg have readjusted their theology to their false expectation by moving away from classical Christian theism and closer to process theism. Feeling drove their thinking. Instead of questioning their expectations, they question their God, and bend their belief in God to conform to their prior expectations.
A sandy foundation is easier on the sole, but a rocky foundation is easier on the soul. A barefoot faith is tougher than a padded faith.
Contrast their reaction with the reverent resignation of Lehman Strauss. Now perhaps the difference is due to his spiritual maturity. He was a seasoned believer at the time his wife suffered a stroke.
Or perhaps it’s because we expect old folks to suffer a stroke or heart attack. And so, even though that is emotionally shocking, it isn’t intellectually or spiritually shocking. The emotional trauma isn’t magnified by a sense of divine betrayal.
It is important to get your theology on track before disaster strikes. It won’t spare you heartache. But it will spare you gratuitous heartache, and it will hasten the healing process.
Nothing can prepare you for the emotional kick in the groin that comes of losing someone close to you or watching a loved one disintegrate.
But it is much harder to take if, at the same time, your expectations are dashed--for when the props are knocked out from under you, you have nothing left to catch your fall Wishful-thinking is no match for the worst that life has to throw our way.
Indeed, a false expectation is a form of false assurance. It sets you up for the fall.
One problem many Western believers have is that we’re cage-fat. We have a sense of entitlement. Two-hundred years ago, death and suffering were to be expected. There were no painkillers or anesthetics. When you got sick, you stayed sick, or got worse. In your weakened condition, other opportunistic diseases moved in. There were no antibiotics or miracle drugs. Many mothers died in labor. Infant morality was astronomical. Most men and women, boys and girls were nursed at home and died at home. You were likely to die at any age—whether young or old.
Death was conspicuous and ubiquitous. Suffering was omnipresent. Sorrow was a way of life.
It’s not that I’d like to turn back the clock. But we need to guard against taking our blessings for granted. To remind ourselves that we are all living on borrowed time, drawn on the good credit of God’s mercy in Christ.