As I shared in “Forever,” Part 1 of “Losing Seth,” the death of our son Seth four years ago raised many questions for me. Most remain unanswered. Foremost has been the question of God’s presence in this experience of immeasurable loss and suffering.
In his well-known book, Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff reflects on the death of his own son Eric, noting the connection between suffering and love. I shared some of his thoughts along with those of my own at a memorial service at Bethel College in Kansas, where Seth was set to return for his senior year:
To the why of suffering the Christian gospel gives us no answer. It eludes us. Instead of explaining our suffering, God shares it. For some unknown reason love in our world is suffering love. Some do not suffer much though, for they do not love much. Suffering is for the loving. If I hadn’t loved him, there wouldn’t be this agony.
When I called one of my closest friends that day to give him the news, he simply repeated, “No! No! No!” Suffering is the shout of no by one’s whole existence to that over which one suffers—the shout of no by gut and gland and heart to pain, to death.
Thank you for your no. Thank you for your suffering—alongside us, alongside one another, alongside God. And thank you for your love—your love for God, your love for one another, your love for us, and your love for Seth.
In a chapter I wrote for the book A Road Too Short for the Long Journey potentially to be published by a colleague on grief, I tried making sense of the “mysterious presence” of God which I had experienced largely as absence. There I wrote,
Where is God in all of this? My youngest son Isaac said, “God was the first one to cry when Seth died.” Such an idea, if thought about too carefully, might throw many into a crisis of faith. But without another explanation, I need this to be true. How else to understand God’s silence? How else to account for God’s absence?
Sometime later, during Lent, the solidarity I had felt with God was wearing thin. The God I thought I knew had been completely, delinquently, irresponsibly absent. I desperately wanted to give God a chance to break the silence, and decided there was only one thing left: to match God’s silence with my own. To listen. To sit quietly and wait. After some weeks, I spent two days at a Catholic retreat center to continue my vigil. The spiritual director there, a compassionate and wise nun, suggested that I write this Absent God a letter. Through anguish and tears and nearly an entire box of tissues, my soul groaned:
God, I’m tired. I’m tired of the pain and the sorrow. I’m tired of walking down this path alone. Tired of the grieving. Where have you been? You’ve been absent since that day, that day I prayed like I’ve never prayed: “Please God. Please.” And what difference did it make? None. I have a lot of questions and you have a lot of explaining to do.
About a year after Seth’s death a friend and his family were involved in a terrible car accident in which a passenger in another vehicle was killed. Later, as he spoke to some others about this traumatic experience, he referred to God’s provision of safety for his family.
Still unable to find anything of God in my own tragedy, I became sensitive to the inadequacy of talk about God. Knowing he would understand and not take offense, I wrote a long email inviting my friend into a conversation:
I have wondered why—if God can and does act in such ways—he chose not to (or was not able to) in Seth’s case. I have yet to come up with an answer that is satisfactory or even makes much sense. Other than the fact that God allowed it and would no doubt desire good to come from it, I can see no other part for God in what happened to Seth. I have prayed often for my sons’ well-being and can imagine a dozen, a hundred, a thousand good reasons why God might want each of them to live long lives.
But if God desires such good, and indeed acts in the world in the way your comment implied, then why would God not protect Seth (or, for that matter, the person in the other car of your accident whose family was also praying at the side of the road) in the same way as he protected your family?
Not everything happens as God would wish it to. I believe that God was indeed happy that no greater harm came to your family. But certainly God found no joy or purpose in the death of the other person or in Seth’s death as some like to suggest about such tragedies. I’m beginning to think that God is neither all-knowing nor all-powerful as we like to think. Perhaps God experiences and responds to what happens in the world just as we do.
What I had previously accepted as reasonable was becoming problematic in light of Seth’s death, and as a seminary graduate I felt foolish that I had not questioned it sooner; that God’s relationship to the evil and injustice of the world—what theologians like to call the problem of theodicy—had to become personal before I more seriously considered what John Caputo refers to as the weakness of God.
Old, inadequate notions of God were being discarded. New ones would take more time. Faith reconsidered. I was reminded of something that C. S. Lewis had written following the death of his wife:
Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not “So there’s no God after all,” but “So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.”
There is no danger in saying no to the dreadful belief in a magical deity who arbitrarily intervenes on behalf of some and abandons others. That is not a mystery but a misconception about the Divine. There is no reward, no gain, no redemptive outcome, no compensation or justification, no sacrificial exchange for some higher good, no rationale or explanation—theological or otherwise—for an irreparable loss such as ours.
Susan, Eli, Larry, and Isaac Dunn
My no to that event four years ago is a yes to a future hope, one still unimaginable in Seth’s absence. But God is nothing if not the possibility of the impossible. I do not yet know what the promise of God offers for me, or for Seth. But for now, perhaps Ann Weems, in her book, Psalms of Lament, describes that hope best:
O God, in your mysterious power
you make the oceans roar
and the starfish
wash upon the shore.
And my son lives
in the heart of heaven,
and I live
in the heart of earth,
but we live together
in the heart of God.
(From Psalms of Lament by Ann Weems. © 1999. Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press)
—Larry A. Dunn, Fresno, California, is Associate Professor at the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies, Fresno Pacific University. He has worked for nearly 30 years as a mediator, trainer, consultant and educator in conflict resolution and is author of Discovering Forgiveness: Pathways Through Injury, Apology, and Healing. He and his spouse Susan are parents of three boys, Seth, Eli, and Isaac. Larry welcomes interactions with this post, whether through the comments section or to his e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.