Paul Prather

How to navigate the troubled, crooked path between grief and faith after tragedy

A May 31 op-ed on the New York Times website addresses the oldest question in religion: does faith help us cope with tragedy?

Amber Scorah, author of a forthcoming memoir, “Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life,” tells of losing her infant son after having already lost her belief in God.

Raised a devout Jehovah’s Witness, Scorah rejected her church, moved to New York City and started over.

After a few years, “I felt sure I had encountered all the situations I might possibly need to get used to in my new life,” she writes.

Then her 4-month-old son died suddenly, without apparent cause.

“What I had not prepared myself for was death,” she says. “Grief without faith. Which is to say, death without hope.”

Her op-ed chronicles her inability to recover her faith and her eventual discovery that it’s possible to find healing without the assurance of her or her son’s eternal life.

The comments readers posted about Scorah’s essay — more than 500 by the next day — are as interesting as her original piece.

There are the usual, predictable screeds.

A few hardcore churchgoers assure her God exists and all is well and her son is still alive, waiting on her in heaven. Anti-religious folks lambast religion in general (something Scorah doesn’t do) and mock the absurdity of seeking comfort in fairy tales.

But other comments are tender and insightful. Readers refer to the book of Job and its mysteries. They tell their own stories of grief.

The troubled, crooked relationship between faith and grief is a subject I’ve mulled endlessly. I’ve lost enough of the dearest people in my life, and talked with enough people who’ve lost the dearest people in theirs, to have developed some observations.

First, faith isn’t a choice. No one can be coerced into believing what he or she doesn’t believe. It’s never helpful to heap guilt on a grieving person (or anyone else) for not trusting God. It’s mean and destructive, and if you’ve done it you ought to be ashamed.

Trying to force somebody to believe is like trying to force him to change the color of his eyes from blue to brown.

Second, faith is of limited help when we’re first gobsmacked by tragedy.

Losing a loved one, or suffering any other great loss, is the psychic equivalent of losing both your legs and breaking your back in a car crash.

It doesn’t matter how much you love God, the pain is unbearable. Faith isn’t an anesthetic. A crushed spine hurts the same whether you’re a bishop or a backslider. So does a crushed spirit.

Regardless of your tenets, you’ll become despondent, disappointed, furious. You may curse God. You may curse yourself for ever having been so stupid as to believe in God.

All of that is natural. That’s the pain talking.

Third, bromides never help.

Scholars say Job is the Bible’s oldest book. Its villains are the spiritual swells who arrive to “comfort” the title character during his mourning. They spout every cliché. They tell Job he’s being punished for his sins. They tell him God’s got a greater purpose in his suffering.

Turns out they’re ignoramuses. They don’t have a clue.

Turns out no one else has a clue, either, including Job. Turns out suffering is an enigma.

And that’s where we remain today, thousands of years later. You can’t figure it out. You can only endure it.

Fourth, in the end, tragedy doesn’t rob us of faith or imbue us with faith. It reveals faith. It’s like what biographer Robert Caro has said about character. He says political power doesn’t forge or corrupt character; it reveals whatever’s already present.

Similarly, while there are exceptions — non-believers who experience dramatic conversions or preachers who become atheists — generally if you go into a tragedy without faith, you’ll emerge from it without faith. You’ll see your experience as proof you were right to have doubted God.

If you go into the same situation with faith, you’ll eventually emerge with faith, albeit a faith that’s tempered and matured.

Finally, grief often leaves its recipients better people than it found them. This is true of the religious and non-religious alike.

I don’t think this is why we suffer — to make us better. But I do think this is one of suffering’s salutary benefits, maybe its only salutary benefit.

Trauma pulls our blinders off. It crucifies our pretensions. It makes it hard for us to delude ourselves.

We realize we’ve been born with death hovering over us and so has everybody else. We’re all on our way out and have no idea when that end may come or what other darkness might befall us beforehand.

We develop compassion for everyone, because whether or not they know it, they’re mortal, too.

The other day my grandson, Harry, 4, crawled up beside me on the sofa to look at family pictures on my phone.

We chatted and laughed. I could smell the scent of shampoo on his hair as he nuzzled my cheek.

Then, clear as the pictures on my phone, I saw our end. It won’t be long before I’m gone from him, I realized. It won’t be long until he’s gone. We’re only vapors.

Yet in that instant, having Harry beside me became precious beyond any promise of heaven itself. I cherished his little chest breathing in and out.

Death’s constant presence makes each fleeting moment of life holy.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at pratpd@yahoo.com
  Comments