When I first contacted a new client about his book, I emailed him words of consolation: “Though I’m sure you’ve heard this far too many times, I’m sorry that you and your family had to endure such a loss. It’s unfathomable.”
In early 1998, Dwight Fletcher’s nine-year-old son lost his fight with cancer. The book he asked me to edit was Time on the Cross: A Father’s Tribute, a memoir of his brave young son’s battle.
Dwight quickly replied to my email: “Interesting that you used the term ‘unfathomable’—that’s how I ended one of the chapters.”
Suffering of any sort is difficult for me to truly understand, but the kind of suffering Dwight’s son and his family endured shocks my sense of morality into spiritual paralysis. I can’t fathom it. To complicate matters, I edited Dwight’s book in the months after welcoming my first child into the world—a son.
I would read heart-rending stories about the multiple surgeries and rounds of chemotherapy Dwight’s son endured while listening to my newborn coo in the other room. I would read Dwight’s life-affirming, God-loving, grace-abounding honesty in light of his son’s plight and wonder, “Would I still believe the same in his shoes?”
Then, secretly, “God, don’t place me in his shoes.”
I would meet with Dwight to talk over the book’s progress and think, “Do you ever get over something like that? Are you supposed to? How do you keep your faith when you lose a child?” And along with the dozens of trifling fears that would assault me in the brief moments before my weary eyes would close for the night—or at least for a few hours—specters of SIDS and sickness and accidents and cancer would dance before me, momentary flashes of my helpless son’s mortality.
Then I’d pray, “God, protect him.”
If I didn’t hear movement on our monitor every so often, I’d reach over my wife to see the screen.
“He’s fine. You worry too much.”
“I know. I know.”
“Go back to sleep.”
I’d go back to sleep, sometimes.
But sometimes I’d get up, go to his room, and watch his tiny belly rise and fall and rise and fall again. The movement was almost imperceptible, but it was enough to assuage my deepest fears about the most improbable of events.
Then I’d pray, “God, help me.”
I probably shouldn’t put it into writing, but we’ve been pretty fortunate with the little guy so far. Even though he was three weeks early and we spent almost a full week in the NICU, he was still the largest baby in that room. He’s had one cold so far. We feel blessed by his temperament.
But I’m human and I’m a new dad, so I find things to worry about—like the first time he’s really going to get hurt. It’s an inevitability because the world is just that way. But I hope that first hurt doesn’t hurt too much. I hope he recovers swiftly and happily and with grace for whomever or whatever does it to him. I hope I’ll be able to say the same for myself. I hope the hurt doesn’t make him afraid. I hope he can learn to see whatever the pain may teach him.
But, really, mostly, I hope he never gets hurt. To see your child in pain is to feel a different kind of pain. I know that now, though I never really want to know it to the same extent Dwight does.
In the few quiet, focused, spiritual moments of the last few months, I’ve thought about Dwight’s son and suffering and my son and why the world is the way the world is.
Which led me to a Christmas song, of all things.
I wondered if Mary knew her son would one day suffer a death so unfathomable that historians would deem it the most gruesome, torturous, and agonizing death a person could suffer. Knowing that he was the Son of God, did she still watch his tiny stomach rise and fall in the middle of the night just to make sure he was still breathing? Or did her faith outweigh her mothering instincts in those moments?
Did Joseph, a well-calloused carpenter familiar with the pain of physical suffering, fear for his son’s future pain? Did he have an inkling of the unfathomable end his son would have to endure?
Did they know that they would be the ones to complete the sacrifice Abraham was called to halt? Did they know that their son was going to be the unblemished, sacrificial sheep for all humanity?
If they had known, would they have done anything differently? Would the call of faith have outweighed the call to parent? (They didn’t have What to Expect When You’re Expecting God-in-the-Flesh after all.)
We can’t conceive of what Christ truly endured, even as we (pretend to) understand the true depth of his suffering sacrifice. But the unthinkable death of God, when his immense suffering absorbed and removed our guilt for all-time—when sin was erased with the blood of a King—turned the greatest suffering into the single greatest blessing for all of history.
There’s so much I don’t understand about being a parent, about suffering, about why some people endure so much more than others, about God and how he redeems such suffering, and about why the world has to be this way.
But, these days, I breathe more easily and sleep more soundly because I believe God loves us more than my wife and I love our son, and I can’t even put into words how much we love him.
Photo used by permission: LeeKay Photography