A Father Grieves The Loss of a Child

by Lewis B. Smedes

Lewis B. Smedes, who died in 2002 after a fall at his home, was professor emeritus of theology and ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary.

This article is excerpted from his book, My God and I: A Memoir, © 2003 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Used by permission.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, May 3, 2003, pp. 38-39. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


God, we hope, will one day emerge triumphant over evil — though, on the way to that glad day, God sometimes takes a beating.

About four years into my teaching profession, Doris gave birth to a beautiful baby boy who died before he had lived the whole of a day. God’s face has never looked the same to me since. Because of my Calvinism, God’s face had had the unmovable serenity of an absolute sovereign absolutely in control of absolutely everything. Every good thing, every bad thing, every triumph, every tragedy, from the fall of every sparrow to the ascent of every rocket, everything was under God’s silent, strange and secretive control. But I could not believe that God was in control of our child’s dying.

It was not as if I had found a forgotten Bible verse or saw a familiar one in a new light. It was more like something that happened to me when I was 15, hitchhiking through Georgia, waiting at the docks for a ride with a trucker. I heard a young white man curse an aging black man who had gotten in his way, cussed him out with God-rattling oaths; and what is more, he did it in front of the old man’s friends. I had never known a black person. I had never before seen racism in action. But when I heard its words and saw its face on that early morning in Atlanta, I knew for sure that racism was a terrible thing.

That’s how I knew for sure that God did not micromanage our baby’s death. I had been intellectually excited by John Calvin’s tough-minded belief that all things -- and he really meant all of them, including the ghastly and the horrible -- happen when and how and where they happen precisely as God decreed them to happen. A "horrific decree," Calvin conceded, but if it works out to God’s glory, who are we to complain? On the day that our baby boy died, I knew that I could never again believe that God had arranged for our tiny child to die before he had hardly begun to live, any more than I could believe that we would, one fine day when he would make it all plain, praise God that it had happened.

I learned that I do not have the right stuff for such hardboiled theology. I am no more able to believe that God micromanages the death of little children than I am able to believe that God was macromanaging Hitler’s Holocaust. With one morning’s wrenching intuition, I knew that my portrait of God would have to be repainted.

I was well aware that every day other people are suffering tragedies infinitely worse than Doris’s and mine. And I remembered that I had consoled people whose loss was much greater than ours with the comforting assurance that God knew best. But grief can be a self-centered thing; I had no tears for the wretched and the poor of the earth that day. I had tears only for Doris and myself.

We had spent a decade making love according to a schedule set by four different fertility clinics in three different countries. And finally, after one summer night’s lark on the sand dunes of Lake Michigan with no thought but love, Doris became a medically certified pregnant woman.

Six months along and doing fine, we thought -- with God answering our prayers it could be no other way but fine -- she suddenly one night began losing amniotic fluid. I called her doctor. ‘She’s going into labor," he said. "Get her to the hospital as fast as you can." And then he said he was sorry, but our baby was going to be badly malformed.

"How badly?"


We fumbled silent and bewildered into the car. I told her. We cried. And we promised God and each other that we would love the child no matter how damaged she or he was. After Doris had been tucked in, I went to the waiting room to worry for a few hours. Suddenly, Doris’s doctor broke in and exulted: "Congratulations, Lew, you are the father of a perfect man-child." I told Doris the news. She was skeptical, but I went home and danced like a delirious David before the Lord.

Next day, just before noon, our pediatrician called: I had better come right down to the hospital. When I met him he told me that our miracle child was dead. Two mornings later, with a couple of friends at my side and our minister reading the ceremony, we buried him "in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection." Doris never got to see her child.

A pious neighbor comforted me by reminding me that "God was in control." I wanted to say to her, "Not this time." It seems to me that the privilege of being the delicate organisms we are in the kind of world we live in comes at a price. The price is that things can go wrong, badly wrong sometimes, which should come as no surprise.

The blossoming of every flecklike zygote into a humanoid embryo and an embryo into the astounding creature we call a baby is beset with so many threats along the way that any baby who gets delivered into the world as the pride and joy of its mother is nature’s most marvelous success story. Every healthy newborn child is a biological miracle; if we did not know that it actually happens every day, we would say that the very notion was a wild man’s fantasy.

Doris and I cried a lot, and we knew in our tears that God was with us, paying attention to us, shedding ten thousand tears for every one of ours. Neither of us had a moment’s inclination to give up on God, to quit believing in God or to quit trusting God. In fact, God never seemed more real to either of us. Never closer. Never more important. I could stop believing that God had micron-managed our tiny boy’s dying. But I could not stop trusting that God was still with us,

Four decades later, on the morning of September 11, Doris and I, with people all over the country, were stunned into silence by the sight of two airliners crashing into the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. A gargantuan evil -- not a breakdown in physical nature this time, but an evil conceived and willed by human beings. Pure evil does not happen often. Most of the time, evil wears the mask of decency. But this time it wore no mask, and when we saw if, we spelled it with a capital E.

It is true that the purity of another’s evil does not make our own ways good. But this time, no matter how hard I tried to find one, I could locate no stain in our national behavior dark enough to temper the purity of this evil. What happened that terrible Tuesday was born in the evil intentions of evil men’s hearts. The evil of the thing only makes our question the more urgent: Where was God and what was God doing when this evil happened in front of our eyes?

Calvinists seek their answer in the eternal past when God charted the course of every human event. There, in eternity, God wrote the entire script for the whole human drama yet to come. God, not Osama bin Laden, was really in charge when the terrorists murdered all those innocent people. And they have a splendid hymn to comfort them:

God moves in a mysterious way

his wonders to perform.

He plants his footsteps in the. sea

and rides upon the storm.

His purposes will ripen fast,

unfolding every hour.

The bud may have a bitter taste,

but sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err

and scan his work in vain.

God is his own interpreter

and he will make it plain.

I do not want God to "make it plain." If God could show us that there was a good and necessary reason for such a bad thing to have happened, it must not have been a bad thing after all. And I cannot accommodate that thought. In fact, I have given up asking why such bad things happen. Instead, I look to the future and ask, When is God going to come and purge evil from God’s world? When will God come to make God’s original dream for the world come true?

For me, there was no mystery about where God was and what God was up to on the morning of September 11, 2001. God was right there doing what God always does in the presence of evil that is willed by humans -- fighting it, resisting it, battling it, trying God’s best to keep it from happening. This time evil won. God, we hope, will one day emerge triumphant over evil -- though, on the way to that glad day, God sometimes takes a beating.