In honor of Memorial Day, I want to touch on a subject that has become deeply personal ever since the death of my father: the practice of praising God for saving a loved one’s life, healing a disease, diverting a tornado, or dissolving any other dangerous situation, supposedly in the name of “having a plan” for that person.
Today is a day for honoring those who were not chosen by God to “save.” They gave their lives – bravely and not without suffering. This kind of sacrifice is reminiscent of Jesus’ command to his disciples: Take up your cross and follow me. It is also an example of the verse from John 15:13: Greater love has no man than this, than one who lays down his life for his friends.
If there is anything that Christianity has taught me, it’s that death is not the end of the story. Death does not have the last word, and suffering does not have to be in vain. God, instead, suffers with me. Furthermore, if Jesus Christ himself was not spared agony, why should any of us?
What I often see as I scroll through my Facebook newsfeed is praise for God healing a tumor, but no thanks to the doctors and oncologists for their roles in the treatment process. Most recently, the mother of a boy who fell into a gorilla exhibit praised God for protecting her child, but did not give any credit to the zoo officials who had to kill the gorilla to save her toddler.
I get that these statements come from a place of gratitude. The person saying them likely has no clue that people like me could receive their words negatively. But people who lose a loved one due to tragic circumstances are likely already questioning God’s goodness; the last thing they need is additional trauma to their faith by hearing, even implicitly, that God must value some lives over others. This is the message that is being communicated to the bereaved, regardless of the speaker’s intent. This is the message that triggered a massive anxiety attack at my church last fall, and has made me too afraid to return.
The expression “Everything happens for a reason” is not in the Bible, although many Christians seem to believe it is. I think this verse gets confused with Romans 8:28, He will make all things work for the good of those who love Him. But if this meant sparing people from pain and suffering, no one would die despite prayers all around the world requesting healing. That is not the reality of the world we live in, or else Christians would be stationed at every hospital to pray for patients (and possibly run medical staff out of business).
I don’t exactly know what that verse means, but I don’t see anything in it that suggests believers are exempt from suffering and death. I agree with Rabbi Harold Kushner that God designed nature to function a certain way, which gives credence to the verse from Matthew 5:45: The rains fall on the just and unjust alike. And we may never know why that is.
If believing that God personally reached out and plucked you from a sinking ship is vital to your faith, I won’t try to take that hope away from you. All I ask is that you consider how it might sound to grieving families before you post that story on Facebook.