I remember leading a wake service for an elderly woman in her early 80s who had died at the end of a slow decline into dementia lasting about five years. Her husband, whom I’ll call Bert, had been her caregiver for over four years until caring for her in their home became overwhelming. After the wake service, Bert asked me if could stay for a while until all the well-wishers had left. I agreed to do so seeing that there weren’t very many people at the service because Bert and his wife were both up in years, and their remaining close relatives afl lived out-of-state. When we were finally alone, Bert thanked me for staying, and then “confessed” that he was so angry with God after his wife’s long terminal illness which had caused them both so much heartache, he was afraid that he no longer could believe in a good God. Bert recounted what a wonderful person his wife had been her whole life, so gifted, thoughtful, and generous. His eyes were filled with tears even as he was describing her to me. He said it seemed so unfair, and even cruel that God could let her suffer an illness that, during the last couple of years, had left her a living shell who could no longer even recognize her loving husband of over 50 years! The most painful part was that, occasionally, his mere presence near her was a cause of great anger or fear on her part.
Many, probably most, people caught up in dealing with the death of a beloved spouse, especially if it had been preceded by a long painful illness, discover that at some point that they are angry with God. Perhaps enraged! Some fear that they may be losing, or have already lost, their faith in God. But if they were truly lacking in faith, they would not even have such a fear. Personal tragedy always tests our faith, however strong our personal faith may be.
We naturally wonder why we “deserve” any traumatic personal tragedy. But no one “deserves” tragedy! (That is different from the fact that we can experience painful consequences from poor personal choices.) The tragedy of the painful end of a marriage just seems way out of proportion to one’s many past poor choices. That is why anyone can be angry with God! Most of us grew up somehow picking up the notion from parents and religion teachers that if we were “good”, God would somehow preserve us from bad things which only happened to the “wicked”. This well-meant teaching turns out to be false! As we grow up, we discover painfully that bad things happen to people whether people judge them “good” or “wicked”.
The true bedrock of our Christian faith, whether we “feel” it or not, is that our faithful God is somehow with us in any painful personal darkness, as God was with Jesus in his suffering and dying which became evident in Jesus’ being raised to new life. How do we know that this is true for us as it was for Jesus? First of alt, we have the assurance of Jesus that his Abba (tender-loving Father) is our Father also, even in suffering and dying. Beyond that, whenever other people in our life reach out to us in compassion during any painful darkness of ours, it is possible for us to catch a glimpse of God’s Spirit of tender and faithful compassion empowering them to do this.
Bert responded to me that he did have to admit that the support he had received from long-time friends, especially those who had lost their own spouses, was a real grace for him. His reaction to my assuring him that anger with God was quite common in the face of overwhelming tragedy, and why that was so, was that for him this was a whole new way of looking at everything, and that he needed to really think it over. He admitted that it did seem to give him a much wider perspective. For the moment we left it at that. In any case, I assured him that, in the end, God is not “offended” by any anger of ours. God just sees it as a symptom and expression of great pain in our life-journey which we find impossible to figure out. Meanwhile, God continues to accompany us on that journey, even as we fear that we are being overwhelmed by our grief.