I just can't!
“I can’t” That was the one phrase that I did not want to hear out of the mouths of my children as they were growing up. Too often it was a misstatement of “I won’t try” because “I am afraid to try” or “I don’t believe I can.” Even recently I reminded my daughter that effort and desire often supersede intellect and ability. This is ingrained in the American ethos and reinforced by thousands of motivational memes on the internet. As a father it is my role to help my children to believe in their abilities and respond with “I can” when faced with a realistic challenge. However, on this day I heard a woman say, “I can’t” and I realized it was useless to tell her she could. She was dealing with the one discouragement that could not be simply overcome by an encouraging word or by just trying harder, the loss of a child.
As a believer I was a bit scared and saddened when she said, “I don’t believe in God anymore… How can I believe in a God that let this happen? I just can’t…” By “this” she meant her daughter, a twenty-three year old mother of three children, dying of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Perhaps she intentionally directed these words to me knowing that during my visit to the hospital I spoke to her daughter about believing and living in the Kingdom of God in every life’s breath. Her daughter could barely speak being intubated but she looked me in the eye and mouthed the words, “I believe.” As profound as that moment was I could not translate that to her mother at the moment of the memorial service. Instead, to my surprise I said, “Don’t even try.”
“Your heart is encased in sorrow; all you can see is pain and grief right now. That pain needs to heal some before you can see beyond it. That may take a while; I can’t even say how long before you can see beyond your pain enough to believe in anything. For now don’t even try, just take the time to heal.”
My words seemed neither inspired nor inspiring. But how can the broken-hearted believe? “For it is with your heart that you believe.” In that moment I was remembering an Old Testament story about human effort falling short. The story starts in Genesis Chapter 15 when Abraham received the promise that his descendants would be like the stars of the sky and through them all the world would be blessed. His response: “Abram believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness.” Even still, in the very next chapter the situation gets all fouled up by human effort.
Abraham’s wife Sarai not seeing how God could make the promise happen given that she was childless at an advanced age came up with a plan to have her husband conceive a child through her Egyptian slave, Hagar. Abraham not seeing that human effort does not always bring Godly results went along with the plan. Afterward, seeing that she was the one carrying Abraham’s baby Hagar gets an attitude. In response Sarai decides to put Hagar back in her place. This is actually the kind of story that lets me know the Bible keeps it real because it is like first coming of the Jerry Springer show: WIVES WHO GIVE THEIR HUSBANDS A HALL PASS TO SLEEP WITH THE HOUSEKEEPER, on the next Jerry Springer. However, in the story we see that God begins where human effort fails.
There were no women’s shelters so Hagar runs away to the desert to escape the physical and emotional abuse. God finds her and consoles her with promises of the future of her children, assuring her, “the Lord has heard of your misery.” Hagar acknowledges the profundity of God seeking her out to console her and titles Him, “the God who sees me!” That was the God that the woman who had just lost her daughter and the mother of her grandchildren needed, the God who would seek her out and speak to her despair.
I had no consolation that would restore faith. Her sorrow was beyond the healing that comes from human effort or even encouragement. Her expression of “I can’t believe” was an expression of her misery. The one thing I would not want to imagine is losing a child; I imagine it like being stranded in an emotional desert desperate for cool water to restore a dried up heart encrusted with sorrow with no relief in sight. I pray in faith that God will hear this bereaved mother’s misery just as he heard Hagar in the desert. I also pray for her to one day see God’s blessing in those three children left behind; through them her daughter’s life is continually multiplied.
References for those playing along using the Bible home game: