I remember when my grandma, my father’s mother, was nearing death after years of fighting cancer. I’d flown home for spring break, and we drove up north to where my grandparents lived, to say goodbye to her. On the way back to the airport, my dad said to me, “I’m not ready to lose my mom.” He was 49-years-old, and even though I would be 20 years younger than that when I lost him—and even though we had years of warning with my grandma and mere days of warning with my father—there is no difference. No one is ever ready to lose someone they love, age or preparation or anything else aside.
There are a lot of things people say to you when your father dies. I try to see the good intent behind them, but I’ve never found much reassurance in platitudes. “He was so young.” “It’s so unfair.” “It didn’t have to happen.” What is “young”? My father was not perfect, but he did the best he could, for as long as he was on this earth. That’s more than many people decades older than him can say. And death is never “fair.” It’s unnatural, a consequence of the Fall, a thing that God did not intend, that only entered the world by riding in on sin’s heels. And it has to happen, to everyone who walks this broken planet. Does it really matter how or when?
I’ve been reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, a science fiction novel I’d been wanting to pick up for a while and felt a peculiar urge to purchase a few weeks back, though I knew nothing about the story. I told this to my brother, who’s read the book, and he said, “It’ll be a good read, especially in light of what’s just happened.” I’m beginning to understand what he meant. In the book, there’s a group of people called the Foretellers, who can see into the future and answer questions about it, for a price. Every asker gets an answer, but it rarely takes the form he expects. When asked why they practice this art, one of the Foretellers replies, “To exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question.”
I can ask why my father died. I can ask if it could’ve been prevented. I can even ask what I’m supposed to learn from it. I probably won’t get the answers, though I might, but none of these “what ifs” can tackle the problem before me: how to navigate this web of unfamiliar terrain, weighted by a pain no one can tell me how to carry. I keep thinking of a scene from The Lord of the Rings, when Frodo and Sam are being held hostage in Osgiliath, caught in a battle between men and Orcs. Worn and ragged, Frodo rasps, “I can’t do this, Sam.” “I know,” Sam says. “It’s all wrong. By rights, we shouldn’t even be here. But we are.”
My father was young. We had so little warning. His death, in many ways, could have been prevented. My family, myself, his friends—none of us should be here, rebounding through this shock wave of grief. But we are, and in the face of what is, all of the “what ifs” become useless, burdensome, even dangerous. If I spend all my time asking the wrong questions, I’m never going to get an answer to the right one, the single query beating at the heart of everything I say and think and do: how do I get through this?
A couple years ago, I began writing a memoir. It’s been an interesting process for a thousand different reasons, but primarily because it’s allowed me to connect the dots in my experiences, to see God’s hand in situations I once accused Him of being absent from. It’s also helped me realize what it means to move through pain. It’s this. Right here. It’s writing about it, praying about it, talking about it, feeling it. Letting myself cry, and each time, in every act, picking it up and bringing it to Jesus and saying, “Help me. I am not strong enough to carry this.”
In My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers writes, “An average view of the Christian life is that it means deliverance from trouble. It is deliverance in trouble, which is very different.” I don’t know why we’re so surprised to find pain ripping at the seams of our existence. “In this world, you will have trouble,” Jesus says. Not might, not could, not are likely to, but will. He doesn’t leave us with this, though. He concludes by imploring us, “But take heart! I have overcome the world.” And this is where we, as believers, reside: one foot in this life, one in the next, we dangle between the ache of being alive and the knowledge that God has triumphed over our agony. This means we can live in victory, assured in the depths of our beings that even great suffering will not have the last word. This also means that our lives will, at times, cause us tremendous pain.
The closer I get to Jesus, the less I find myself asking “why.” This is completely counterintuitive to the way I once operated—I, who lived for answers, desperate to solve every puzzle, needing to know with unquenchable yearning why certain things happened and others did not—I have been softened by my Savior. I have learned, as Le Guin writes, “the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question.” So many things just seem to happen. So rarely do we know exactly why. In the end, no matter what the situation, no matter the hurt or the injustice or the unimaginable strain, there is only one question that matters: am I getting through this with Jesus?
In “A Servant to Servants,” Robert Frost writes, “He says the best way out is always through. / And I agree to that, or in so far / As that I can see no way out but through.” There is no escape route. If you want to follow Jesus, you cannot avoid picking up your cross, and if you do not want to follow Him, I would ask what instead you intend to rely on. Your intellect? This has its limits. Your strength? This can be broken. Your friends? They, too, are human, subject to the same faults and failings as you. Only Jesus is all-knowing, all-powerful, and faithful even when we are so far from it. Only Jesus can get you through this life because He’s the only One who knows the way out.
No way out but through. I have seen this repeated in my own life, time and again. Being of the stubborn, fitful, fighting sort, my tendency is to worry myself sick about whether or not I’m learning the needed lesson or moving through my pain at the right pace. But every single time, I return to this truth: if I live each day as best I can, being honest about my struggles and handing over to God what needs to be handed over, one day, without even realizing how it happened, I’ll find myself out of the woods. The only way to do this with any hope, not just of survival, but of coming out better on the other side is to walk this dark and dangerous road with Jesus.
There’s a song by Steffany Gretzinger called “Steady Heart.” I’ve been listening to it a lot lately. In the second verse, she sings, “Though the sky is dark / And the wind is wild / You’ll never leave me.” No matter who you are or where you’ve been, what belief or dream or path you’ve concocted to convince yourself that you can make it on your own, the dark skies and wild wind will find you. It is not a matter of “if,” but “when.” In my own seasons of “when,” I find tremendous reassurance in Jesus’s words in Matthew 28:20, “And be sure of this, that I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” And so, even in my grief, I can sing the words that conclude this song: “And as the dawn breaks / And the clouds clear / In an open space / Together we will run.”