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.
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.
This book considers 12 life-giving truths that Christians can cling to in the midst of tragedy—truths that brought vital hope and comfort to the author when grieving the sudden loss of his 3-year-old son.
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.
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.