I’m afraid of messing this up.
That’s the thought running through my mind as I recline in the bed next to my daughter, who catapults hard questions into the inky hollowness above us.
I can’t see her tears, but I can hear them. It’s the way her tiny voice wobbles and squeaks. I reach along my side, to find her hand in the dark.
“Why doesn’t God answer my prayers, Mom?” She snaps out the words, like they’re hot, like she has to spit them out before they burn. “Doesn’t He hear me?”
I let out my breath in one steady stream, into the quiet above her polka-dotted comforter, begging silently for some shred of inspiration that I can offer to a 10-year-old girl who is asking the hardest questions.
The only words I can find hover like useless syllables above us: “I don’t know, Lydia. I just don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t.”
I blink back my own tears. I want to offer more. I am her mother, the one she is trusting tonight with the answers. And this is it? A series of “I don’t knows?”
Truth is, I’ve uttered the same questions in those moments when my prayers boomeranged back without the answers I begged for. I’ve pounded my fists into armchairs and bed-pillows and the carpet when God hasn’t acted the way I wanted him to.
I’ve hurled furious questions into the darkness, too. Lydia’s voice wobbles again: “I’m angry, Mom. Sometimes, I’m angry at God. Do you think He’s mad at me when I say that? Will He still love me?”
I turn on my side and rub her cheek. I do know the answer to this one: “God loves you. Always. And Lydia, don’t you ever forget it. You promise? No matter the pain, or the heartache, or the mystery of this world. No matter if you can’t see one step in front of you, or if you can’t make sense of anything behind you, He always loves you. He loved you all the way to the cross and back. And that, my daughter, is a promise I believe with every ounce of my life.”
I keep caressing that soft cheek. And we let the answers hang there awhile.
It’s a bittersweet moment.
Sweet, because this is what I’ve always wanted: honest exchanges about faith with my two daughters. I’ve never wanted them to be ashamed of their questions, or to feel the need to sugar-coat their feelings, or to shellac their ache with cliches´. I’ve only wanted them to be gut-level honest with a God who knows what they’re feeling anyway.
But it’s bitter, too. Bitter because of the pain that led to these honest questions that she casts out into the dark. She’s 10, but she has seen how the unthinkable happens to vulnerable people in a crooked world:
* One of our daughters’ young friends recently died.
* A young Haitian boy we love has been very ill.
* And in two days, Lydia will return to the operating room. Back in April, she had a skin-graft to cover a hole in her eardrum. The surgery failed. And she’s scared to go back.
Here in the dark, she reminds me how we had prayed together, right here in this bed, for a successful surgery. Did God not hear those prayers? That’s the question she wants the unvarnished answer to. And what about when Jesus said that whatever we ask in prayer, if we believe, we will receive?
In moments like these, I freeze on the inside, and I become self-focused enough to think that my words will make or break something. Like, if I say the right or wrong thing, she’ll gain — or lose — another ounce of confidence in her Father.
As if it were entirely up to me.
I am only beginning to learn that it might be OK to whisper a raspy “I don’t know” into the dark. (Especially in these moments when I actually don’t know.) And I’m beginning to wonder if every “I don’t know” carries more light into the dark places than the clichéd answers I’ve picked up along the way.
I’ve also learned to embrace the doubts, because – odd as it might seem – they’ve been the starting blocks in my own race for truth. Many years ago, at a point when I was crippled by doubt, I highlighted these words in my study Bible: “Silent doubts rarely find answers.” Back then, I had just begun to ask questions of myself, and of God. In that exchange, God and I began to develop a relationship of trust. I came to understand that God wouldn’t ostracize or punish me for my questions. Instead, He has been a patient friend, continually keeping the door open for more conversation.
I’ve also learned to invest valuable time looking in the rear-view mirror of my life, reflecting back to see where God’s hand was working all along in places I couldn’t see when my present pain clouded my vision.
And, as Philip Yancey said, “I have learned that faith means trusting in advance what will only make sense in reverse.”
Even in reverse, not everything makes sense right away. We might have to get to heaven before we find out the answers to some of our most pressing questions. For years, I have written some of those unknowns on little slips of paper, filing them in a manila envelope labeled “My Mystery File.”
Lydia’s surgery? Tonight, it feels like Mystery File material. But in three days? It might make total sense. We’ll have to wait and see. That’s what I tell my daughter in the dark.
I tell her we may have to look in the rear-view mirror to see where God was working all along. Until that moment of clarity, it’s okay to say “I don’t know” or “God, I don’t get this.”
Lydia and I are learning that faith has less to do with what we understand, and more to do with what Jesus Christ undertook.
Indeed, personal suffering can lead the thoughts of a believing child and her mama back to a Savior who fully grasped pain at its most unfathomable level. And that part? I do understand. Even if it’s just a small beginning, a little light, enough to see in the dark.
And I think Lydia understands, too – that if Jesus loved us enough to die for us, He won’t abandon us in the middle of our toughest questions.
We say our prayers, and I kiss her goodnight, and we know that even if we don’t have answers when the sun rises tomorrow, we will still have a trustworthy God.
This essay was published in the newly released book, For the Love of God: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Faith and Getting Grace by Jenny Lee Sulpizio. Used with permission.
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