Imagining the Worst
Like most people, my mind sometimes wanders to places of doom, to places where my imagination entertains (what I perceive to be) the Worst. In my adult life, I had made this mental journey enough times that my Worst had developed with vivid detail.
My Worst was likely the same as that of many parents: the persistent fear that my child would die. But my Worst had a second layer for me.
As a youth pastor, I worried that my faith did not possess enough fortitude. God had given me a relatively comfortable life. Any white American male like me, raised in an affluent, stable Christian family, for whom friendships, sports, school, and career had come easily, surely would believe that God is good. I feared that if my Worst occurred, I would lose my faith. I would turn my back on God and walk away from Christianity, and, consequently, my spiritual failure would shatter the faith of hundreds of students to whom I had proclaimed the promises of Christ for over a decade.
My Worst, indeed, entered my life as tragically as I ever imagined it could.
On Sunday, November 10, 2013, finding my three-year-old son’s lost Lego ax prompted the most magical conversation of my life. After recovering his coveted toy, my three-year-old son, Cam, exclaimed, “Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus!”
Out of nowhere, my little boy started to ask serious spiritual questions. He asked if we could go see Jesus. When I explained that, while we couldn’t see him, Jesus is always with us, he asked if we could drive to see Jesus. After explaining to Cam that we would see Jesus when we got to heaven, my son turned his attention to heaven.
Cam asked if we would see Adam and Eve in heaven. He then declared, “I’m not gonna eat that apple.”
My wife and I reminded Cam that we all “eat the apple.” We reminded him that God sent Jesus because we all make the same mistake as Adam and Eve did: we all sin.
The conversation ended with my son saying, “Jesus died on cross. Jesus died my sins.” In the minutes following that sweet proclamation, my wife, Lauren, and I realized that we had witnessed the dearest dream of every Christian parent—our son had professed faith in Christ.
That night I went on a short, overnight campout with a leader and some students. I awoke on Monday, November 11, to three missed calls from my wife in the span of a minute. I then encountered a voice of terror.
My Worst had entered.
My wife pleaded for me to drive to the children’s hospital as soon as possible but offered no explanation. I pressed her for more information until she reluctantly delivered the worst news of my life: “Cam is dead.”
Lauren had found our perfectly healthy child lifeless in his bed. Paramedics were attempting to resuscitate him, but she assured me that it was futile. In what remains a medical mystery, our three-year-old child inexplicably died in his sleep, something that occurs to one in a hundred thousand children over the age of one. My child’s profession of faith was the last meaningful conversation I ever would have with him on earth. Our son’s life had ended in the blink of an eye.
The first half of my dreadful daydreams had become a reality. I had imagined this moment hundreds of times. Here was the point of departure between God and me. Here was that moment when my faith would crumble. In my imagination of doom, here was when I would curse God, resign from ministry, and pursue a life of self-interest as a bitter, faithless man.
But the Lord put a word in my mouth that surprised me. When Lauren delivered the tragic news, I said to her, “Lauren, Christ is risen from the dead. God is good. This doesn’t change that fact.” God gave me faith and hope while I stood squarely in the middle of my Worst.
The Narrative of Hope
That initial proclamation stood as the first of many moments of hopefulness as I discovered that God had been preparing me for such a tragedy during my entire life. Knowing that this day would come, God used lessons from Bible studies, conversations, theological reading, sermon podcasts, and previous trials to build a foundation that would stand when an overpowering wave of tragedy struck my life.
Throughout the journey of my worst nightmare—my descent into a dark, sad valley—the Holy Spirit would remind me of truths that comforted my soul and sustained my life. Very often in the month after Cam died, I would say to my wife or a friend that I could not conceive how anyone could survive such pain if they did not believe certain biblical principles.
How could a person survive if one did not know the gospel? How could one subsist if one did not accept the sovereignty of God? How would one function if one did not know the possibility of joy in suffering? How could one move forward without the hope of heaven?
There are some truths that mean nothing to a person who is gasping for existential air. When tears seem to flow continuously in your life, the nuances of the Trinity or the particulars of a certain end-times theory do nothing to comfort. However, other biblical concepts can walk a person back off the metaphorical or literal ledge when jumping seems so reasonable and appealing.
One night I sat down and wrote down all of these comforting theological principles as a personal creed. I began to realize that the Lord had embedded these individual truths in my heart that collectively constructed a narrative under which I could live during my Worst. This narrative gave me hope.
In the same way that Christ rose from the dead, so too can my life emerge from the darkness into light.
The road ahead of me is long and painful, but Christ has defeated sin and death through the cross. I can face reality and make this journey, because on the other side of the cross is the resurrection. In the same way that Christ rose from the dead, so too can my life emerge from the darkness into light. The gospel tells me that I cannot redeem myself; only Christ can heal and free my heart. My only hope is to trust him to do so. My tragedy has not disrupted the narrative of my life. My story remains God’s story, and that is a story of redemption.
Christ claimed that he was God. He claimed that he could forgive sins. He claimed that he will redeem the world. He rose from the dead and proved his promises to be true. God’s promises of redemption are not wishful fantasies. They are real, relevant, and powerful promises based on an event in history. If God has the ability to raise Jesus from the dead, then he can redeem all of my suffering and misery. The life of my Worst is buried with Christ in death and will be raised with him in resurrection power.
My need is so deep; I am desperate for help. God longs to be gracious to me. He rises up to show me compassion. He has called me to focus only on this hour, only on this day. The Lord deeply loves me. He is on my side. Out of this love comes his burning desire to help me. I can call on him, and he will give me just the grace I need for this hour of darkness. He will supply the grace for the next step. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus assure me that God cares for me and that he will go to the greatest extent to meet my need.
Even though I dwell in darkness and anguish, God can rescue me. I am not called to redeem myself. I am called to shift my burden to Jesus and to trust him to deliver me from this pain and despair. God can do it, and I can rely on him to be my redeemer.
God understands my suffering. He lived as a vulnerable, afflicted human being in Jesus Christ. When I cry, he cries. When my heart breaks, his heart breaks. I can trust him as a fellow sufferer who empathizes with me.
I am not alone. I may feel isolated, but the Lord never will turn his back on me. Nothing I can do will make him walk away. In my suffering, Jesus draws near to me. God always remains at my side, and I remain in his arms forever. Nothing can stand between the Lord and me.
Bitterness is my biggest enemy in the season of my worst nightmare. I am a sinner to whom God owes nothing. I am not entitled to anything and cannot resent God. God is not punishing me. Jesus removed whatever judgment I earned through my sins. In spite of my sin, God loves me through Christ.
My trial is not a random accident. Nothing comes into my life but through God’s perfect discretion. God remains in control of all circumstances. He has a hand in my painful circumstances, which means that his hand can extend to redeem my life. God is good. The evil in this world and the suffering in my circumstances do not represent his character. The perfectly kind and loving person, Jesus Christ, is the very image of the character of God. I can trust him, knowing that he is fully good and fully in control.
When I am confused and frustrated, I can express these feelings to God. I can share my doubts with him. I am a human being and not capable of fully comprehending why my child died. God knows this; he loves and accepts me anyway. I can be honest with God. Never will I have a satisfactory explanation in this life, but I take comfort knowing that God is good and his ways are perfect.
My life is not over; my despair is not permanent. I can have joy today—in this moment—through the presence of Christ. God can turn all my sorrow into joy, all my mourning into gladness, all my crying into dancing. Christ is making all things new. In his time, he can redeem the entirety of my pain and grief and give me a joyful life.
My life is not over. God has purposes and plans for me in this life until I enter into his paradise. He will use me to love and serve people. He may use my Worst as an avenue to comfort others who might share in a similar suffering in the future. God has purpose and meaning in every day of my life until he calls me home. I will live by faith and entrust my life to his service. He will give me joy and hope as I serve him and bear fruit for his kingdom.
My ultimate home is in heaven. There I will live in perfect bliss and peace forever. God will eliminate all my pain and misery. Many reunions await me in heaven with friends and family. In heaven, I will see Jesus face-to-face and he will hold me forever in perfect comfort. With every day I live, I move one step closer to my ultimate home of absolute joy and peace. God ultimately will bring heaven to earth and forever eliminate sin, sorrow, and brokenness.
Theology Brought to Life
One can view theological concepts as academic, arcane doctrine. Theology can seem so dry and lifeless at times. But theology breathes and becomes more than just information in a confession or textbook when it becomes the story of your life and when it constitutes bread in a desert.
The gospel is not just an evangelistic principle; it is a message that gets you out of bed in the morning. The sovereignty of God is not some debatable proposition; it is the assurance that your child’s death is not a meaningless accident. Grace is not simply a word in a hymn; it’s the very thing you rely on when you are so bereaved that you cannot imagine living another day. Faith is not just a cliché term for religion; it is the thing that picks you up off the carpet where you have been crying for over an hour.
God’s Word will offer you the most essential thing you need in the face of your Worst—hope.
This article is adapted from Therefore I Have Hope: 12 Truths That Comfort, Sustain, and Redeem in Tragedy by Cameron Cole.
As a parent whose child died four and a half years ago, I want to offer you two hopeful words about that wound in your heart that never will fully heal on this side of eternity.
In the early days, the pain and sorrow of losing my son were so intense that I could not focus on anything beyond daily survival. But hope prevailed.
Cameron Cole talks about losing his three-year-old son and how that tragedy and all the suffering it entailed has ultimately strengthened his hope in God.
Is it okay to ask God why when suffering? What do you do when you go through profound suffering?