A few days ago after I finished taking a shower, I absently grabbed a new deodorant stick to apply it. Rather than gliding across my skin it scraped. And hurt. Upon closer inspection, I realized that I had failed to remove the protective cap that came as part of the packaging. I had simply neglected to look. Thankfully, the pain was over in a flash and I could move on, but something in the back of my mind said: Pay attention. Something’s up.
About this time my husband and I went out on a date night, which we usually conclude with some sharing and prayer. (We do this in our parked car at ice cream parlors, train stations, parks. I wonder what people think we are up to, eyes shut tight, hands clasped, lips moving). As we talked about the areas where we needed help, some pretty profound words poured out of my mouth. They went something like this: Why does God keep passing me over when looking for someone to fill jobs I’d love—and have indeed been trained—to do? And why has God instead chosen me for the monumental task of raising an autistic child?
In other words, I have been feeling like my natural gifts and talents have yet to find their fullest expression as my son and I both get older. Instead, my strength and intellect are conscripted to a task for which I did not prepare—a task which sometimes yields little joy because it is steeped in such struggle, heartbreak and frustration. It’s not that I don’t love my boy. I’d do anything for him to thrive, and have spent every day since his birth trying to make his experience on earth both positive and productive. Overall, parenting him is a privilege and an honor. It’s just that I have dreams of calling myself a true writer instead of an “aspiring” one. I long for more creative outlets that extend beyond the confines of my home. And I have yet to understand why I toiled so hard to get a PhD in Biblical studies when that expertise has not been tapped very much so far.
When I had the chance to get alone with God and journal about all this, my questions distilled down to: Do You not find me worthy? Am I too flawed to serve You? What do I lack that Your others sons and daughters have—the ones with jobs, titles, paychecks, and pensions?
And beneath those desolate questions lay one even more desperate: Why have You rejected me?
Whoa. Full stop.
I freely admit that the course of my life as a Christian has been defined by inner conflict. This is mainly because I grew up in a conservative home headed by a mentally ill and abusive father. He grew increasingly fanatic in the expression of his faith, especially as his mental condition deteriorated. So the sicker he got, the stronger my negative associations between earthly and heavenly fathers became. It really doesn’t help when the person hurting you (parent or no) explicitly claims to speak—and act—for God.
Thus I have often felt punished by God in the midst of struggle, as if He were holding me to a higher standard than everyone else. While He might turn a blind eye to others’ trespasses, he seemed to search mine out with an eagle eye, always looking to condemn. (This was an ingrained habit of my father’s, which only worsened as my older siblings left the house and the bull’s-eye on my head got bigger).
I have also felt betrayed by God—as if he were the Big Faker in the sky who could claim that he was a good protector and provider, while actually being something Else. When I turned sixteen my father moved my mother and me to the Dominican Republic, so that he could pastor a Chinese church there. I’ll never forget watching him walk across the front lawn of the building one day, his arm slung over the shoulders of a teenage boy, as if offering him wisdom and comfort. The sight embittered me, because I had never received such demonstrations of love and support from him. Far from it. As I scour my mind for memories of him ever consoling or guiding me, I come up scorchingly empty.
Many a hymn of praise was sung and a fervent prayer was lifted in my youth, and life didn’t get better for me behind closed doors. My dad just grew more enraged and violent (but never in ways that could be sussed out by others). That does something to a person, particularly to their faith in God, if they have any.
You would think that a person with a personal history like mine would not be surprised by rejection—because my father was constantly showing me that he rejected me. As his child, and as a fellow human being of inherent worth. One whose very existence was a gift to the world she inhabited.
But pain of all sorts—undeserved punishment, betrayal, rejection—can ambush you at any time. It’s just part of this broken world’s packaging. Sooner or later each one of us is going to get scraped by a sharp emotion, whether from the past or from the present. What we do when that happens?
There’s a story about someone being blindsided by horrific pain found in 2 Kings 4 that has helped me answer that question. At first glance, one would not see her as a vulnerable person—quite the opposite, in fact. Named only in the text as the “Shunammite” (after the location of her home), we learn that she is married, wealthy, insightful, proactive, and hospitable. Having fed the prophet Elisha several times as he passes nearby on his travels, she sets up permanent lodging for him. She builds a room on the roof of her house where the itinerant “holy man of God” (her words) can rest whenever he needs to. (2 Kings 4:8-10)
Wanting to reward her kindness, Elisha learns that although she basically lacks for nothing in the present, she has no male child to support her in her widowhood when her elderly husband dies. Immediately taking action, Elisha declares to her that within a year, she will conceive a son. Tellingly, she does not simply collapse in a heap of gratitude. “No, my lord, O man of God, do not lie to your servant,” is her reply (1 Kings 4:16). Meaning: Don’t you play with me. I’ve lived too long with this loss to entertain false hopes.
But, sure enough, the prophet’s words prove true, and the Shunammite gets the son she thought would never materialize. And he grows up, old enough to go in search of his father in the fields the family’s servants are reaping. Then the axe falls, right there in the context of plenty. When the boy suddenly complains of head pain, his father has him brought home to his mother, where the child promptly dies. The son and heir she thought she would never have never makes it to adulthood. Cruel joke.
But not one this particular woman would take lying down.
Placing her child’s body on Elisha’s bed; she makes a beeline for the party she ultimately holds responsible for this dreadful situation. “Did I ask my lord for a son?” she asks the prophet. “Did I not say, ‘Do not lie to me’”? (1 Kings 4:28) Notably absent in her speech now: the title “Man of God.” In that moment, Elisha might have appeared very duplicitous indeed—playing the bestower of blessing when what he had really been dispensing was delayed trauma. She had built a room for him and he had built a prison for her—pain she knew she would never get over. Her meteoric rise to happiness had only made her plunge into despair more excruciating.
To his credit, Elisha jumps right on the problem by sending his servant ahead to lay his power-channeling staff upon the dead boy’s face. When this measure fails, and the man of God reaches the boy himself, he goes to his rooftop room and does something rather strange:
When Elisha came into the house, he saw the child lying dead on his bed. So he went in and shut the door behind the two of them and prayed to the Lord. Then he went up and lay on the child, putting his mouth on his mouth, his eyes on his eyes, and his hands on his hands. And as he stretched himself upon him, the flesh of the child became warm. Then he got up again and walked once back and forth in the house and went up and stretched himself upon him. The child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes. (2 Kings 4:32-35)
If we accept that the man of God’s actions in this resurrection scene represent those of God Himself, three things emerge for a person waylaid by pain.
First, Elisha’s tactics speak of extreme identification with the victim. It is not enough for the prophet to simply pray for the boy (mighty as those prayers may have been). He makes intimate physical contact with the boy’s mouth, eyes, and hands, by placing those same parts of his own body on top of them. As I visualize this scene, I cannot help but notice that Elisha may have assumed a cruciform position on top of the corpse. If this is true, then this man of God’s actions align with a future man of God’s, declaring: If you die, I die. So that you, in the end, may live.
Second, Elisha’s miracle of resurrecting the boy requires no small amount of perseverance. So many times the prophet could have given up on the whole endeavor. When his staff proves ineffective. When his initial prayers go unanswered. When his prostration on the boy yields nothing. Even when the child’s body begins to grow warm, Elisha doesn’t stop there. Rather, he pushes through with more prayer and prostration until definitive signs of life are achieved: breathing (the sneezing) and consciousness (opened eyes).
Third, Elisha does not consider his work finished until he has called the Shunammite to the rooftop room and commanded her to reclaim her lost child. “Pick up you son,” he says to her ( 2 Kings 4:36). To my mind, he might as well have added: Pick up your faith. God really does care.
If I consider all these points together—God identifies with me in my pain, God perseveres with me in my pain, God gives back what I have lost—they boil down to a single truth, one the tenacious Shunammite herself underscores. Her insistence that Elisha take full responsibility for the child he speaks into the world suggests that perhaps the Creator who conjured all life by saying, “Let there be” feels the same way about his creation. Maybe he feels incredibly, immeasurably, responsible for you and me, so much so that he draws especially close to us when pain takes us by surprise.
The question is: do you and I have the guts to open our eyes—really open them—to see whether there are eyes staring back at us, a mouth speaking into us, hands that are grasping ours? And if we do not feel these things, are we willing to persist until we lay hold of them? Will we, like the brave and bereaved mother, take no rest until we’ve secured the miracle that we need?
These are weighty questions, I know. I’ll be reflecting on them for quite a while. But in the meantime, I’m going to try approaching the man of God who stretched himself out for me as One who neither punishes nor passes over me. The one who cannot help but feel pain when I feel it, because he was fully human. The one who is not in the slightest rattled by it, because he is fully divine.
Persist with me, Lord. I really need you to. Persist with all of us during this insanely painful and scary time that has taken us all off guard.
Let us know You are here. With us, in us, and for us. Always.