Every once in a while, I will repost, or share, an article I have come across that says the things that are in my heart far more beautifully than I ever could. This article was written by Naomi Zacharias McNeil, director of Wellspring International at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) in Atlanta, Georgia. It appeared in the August 11, 2016 issue of "A Slice of Inifinity", an e-newsletter created by RZIM. The original text follows. Click here to read and access the original article.
My little girl was just sixteen months old when her younger brother arrived. I rocked her to sleep every night before he came. She was not one who slept through the night, and I had wakened with every cry, holding her again at various hours and countless times in a night. As each week fell into the next she began to show her growing displeasure—her annoyance, even—at my protruding baby belly as she tried to find a place on my shoulder where it didn’t get in her way. I saw this as a kind of symbolism for the impending change to her small world and tried to use those days where I had enough arms to hold each child as an opportunity to affirm her invaluable place against me.
I researched how to prepare siblings for the arrival of a new little one. I placed her tiny hands on my belly as the baby kicked and explained that he was talking to her. I took her to appointments to see his black and white sketch on the screen of the doctor’s office where she lay nestled in the crook of my arm as I pointed to toes and elbows of “her baby.” After many months, an appointment to my doctor’s office resulted in the instruction to drive straight to the hospital, for labor had begun early. Instead, we first drove back to the house to tell our two little ones where we were going, to have one last moment as the family of four familiar to us all to navigate before receiving the tremendous gift to be five; to give them a hug and kiss before sleeping away from them for a few days; before introducing them to their baby brother whose arrival would change their world as they knew it.
I had been concerned she would resent him. But she didn’t. She welcomed him, she kissed him, she longed to care for him from the moment she saw him. She didn’t hold it against him seemingly at all. It was me. I had not read that, I had not prepared for the fact that it was me she could feel abandoned her or betrayed her. While always close to her daddy, she suddenly attached to him with an adhesive that forbid another to come close. As hours and days melted into weeks and then months of eternity for me, she resisted all of my attempts to hold her, to be close to her, or to care for her even when she was sick. Each morning as my husband left for work, he had to peel her off of the safe zone of his shoulder and she would crumple to the floor in a pool of sobs that would break your heart and crushed mine. Her beautiful round, light brown eyes were flooded with an ocean of hurt, full lips trembling through the sobs. I tried so hard and so gently to get close, bending down and holding my arms out to comfort her. But she refused and angrily pushed me away, choosing to ache entirely alone. I felt deeply rejected, but even more, it literally pained me to see her hurting so much and opting to endure it alone rather than allow me to provide comfort. So I stood at the distance she demanded, tears streaming down my own face as I watched her struggle day after day. “All I want to do is to love you, to help you, and you won’t let me even comfort you,” I felt and audibly whispered.
And a parallel was not lost on me, with an awareness never considered before. For how many times have I refused to allow God to come close in comfort and instead in my anger and lostness, forced Him to a distance in favor of my lonely puddle of fear, confusion, and grief?
As I thought about it, I realized that I don’t think I have ever gone to God purely for comfort—not really, not sincerely. I cry before Jesus when I am asking for an answer to a prayer for him to prevent, save, or restore. But when what was lost was not resurrected in the way I hoped, I have opted to withdraw alone into my grief, with feelings of abandonment or even anger rather than know what it means to let him sit with me in the sadness of the “it will not be so.”
Several years ago a good friend drew my attention to her grandmother’s favorite verse, words written by David in Psalm 56:8: “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” I loved this affirmation that David saw, that God recorded the wounded parts of my story. It revealed that someone—not just someone, but God Himself—bore witness that provided a kind of validation of those tears and their birthplace. Some months later, I was in the country of Turkey and on a mission to find an old glass tear bottle. I had learned that families used to use these to bottle their tears and bury them with dear ones lost as a testament to the fact that they were loved. So at my request to find this hidden treasure, a friend took me to an old market in Istanbul. She was not certain we would find them, but there in the midst of the maze of stalls filled with jewelry and scarves was a shelf with a handful of vintage tear bottles of various shapes and colors. They were one of my greatest finds and served as a reminder that my Creator, my Comforter, keeps count of even my tears and the experience behind them.
But I still missed it, for God’s comfort carries potential far greater than just keeping a journal of account; I missed that He longs to step inside.
I didn’t recognize what I now see as a longing to comfort, or my role in relegating God to the sideline. Perhaps I have tended to see God as this distant presence, reminding me from lofty places of the verses that tell me to trust Him, to pray that his will be done, to desire the greater good. And while all of those desires may be right, the picture carries the image of someone you choose to avoid in your angst because while they may have the answers, they don’t engage in the raw grief part of the process where words don’t really find a place to sink in. Because if we are honest, true and even kind reminders of perspective can often serve to make us feel only more alone and communicate a greater sense of a failure when we are engaged—and losing—a momentary struggle to peel ourselves off of the floor of defeat, devastation, and sheer grief.
But I missed it. I did not see God as one who wants to enter into my very grief itself, the messy part before any acceptance and answer can be embraced.
It was when I stood helpless beside my little girl, feeling her sadness and desperately longing to simply be in it beside her that I caught a glimpse of how God, too, has perhaps stood on the sidelines of my grief when He longed to participate. In the thick of her sadness and limited understanding she saw me at best as one who exacerbated her pain, perhaps at worst the one who caused it. And oh, how my memory instantly put me on that familiar floor and pool of tears where, like a frightened animal, I would not let Him enter in.
This image of Jesus is one that causes me to feel like a little girl again, to easily fold into tears and want to allow him near my broken spirit and dreams. What if I could allow him to come into that unkempt and broken space with me, not for answers or reversals, but to experience God as Comforter?
With fondness I remember a Western woman I met in a Middle Eastern country several years ago. There was an immediate ease to our conversation, even a mutual affection. She shared a story from years past when she was preparing for the mission field and learned she was pregnant with her first child. And then she told how she lost her infant son when he was only weeks old. I well remember her describing the moment of her indescribable loss; how as her husband, with tears streaming down his face, said a prayer of acknowledgement that their son returned to his maker. Instead, she cried out in protest, for she was not ready for him to go. Brokenhearted, she could not bear to think of the mission field, a journey she had imagined with the son part of that vision. And it was twenty years before she ultimately found the healing needed to go. Where do you think God was with her in those twenty years? I do not think He was angry or impatient. I think He was sitting on the floor of her sadness and grieving with her.
The Gospel of John tells the story of the death of Lazarus. When Lazarus got sick, his sisters, Mary and Martha, immediately sent word to Jesus. But Jesus did not come for three days, and in the meantime, Lazarus passed away. When finally the women heard that Jesus was coming, Martha ran out to meet him, but Mary stayed inside. I wonder if she felt betrayed or forgotten when he did not come in time for the miracle she hoped for. John tells us that when Martha returned inside, she told Mary that Jesus was calling for her, and instantly she stood and ran outside to him. I picture this wounded woman who had felt abandoned by the one person she put her faith in. And so even when she hears he is near, she doesn’t go to him. But then, she hears he called her by name, and she runs. Maybe it was that demonstration that he had not forgotten her. Maybe it was because he was the only one who could really comfort her. And so she allows him to enter in to her disappointment and questions and grief.
She goes to Jesus and falls at his feet and weeps. She weeps that Jesus did not come and that her brother is gone. And what did he do? He wept. He cried with her even though he knew that the life mourned was about to be resurrected and her pain relieved. First, he stopped to grieve with her for the loss she endured—the experience of losing her brother and perhaps the many other disappointments in that story he knew she felt.
It requires a dying to the self and an awakening of heart and mind to see God as Creator and Savior, but we are invited to a particular vulnerability to also know Him as “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3, emphasis added).
God keeps count of all our tossings, bears witness to all that happened, and remembers. Jesus will sit in the lonely room where we grieve. He will come and weep even when there is a miracle to come, and how much more when there is a loss to endure. He asked Mary, “Where have you put him?” And she led him to a tomb. Does he ask us, too, where we have laid our loss, and when the answer is the tomb of our heart, does he also ask to enter in and weep alongside us? I believe he does—sometimes for the moment, sometimes when it takes twenty years, and for a lifetime when that is how long it is endured. Yes, we all want the miracle. But while on this temporal earth that holds both beauty to know and mortality to hold, loss is a part of our experience in living. How comforting to know that he who dwells in the heavenly heights is able—and chooses—to descend to the floor of our sorrow. Can we let him come close?
For the God of Righteousness, the Lord our Sanctifier, the Everlasting God, is also the God of all comfort today.
Glory B's unifies all of what I love most—the earth and its natural elements like stone and wood; the creative arts, whether through the written word, or photography, or paint; and helping others to make the world a better place.