How can one explain what, indeed, cannot be explained? How do you describe love to someone who has never fallen in love? It seems that the most beautiful and the most painful experiences in life cannot adequately be described with words. Every significant suffering and loss is unique. And every person experiences them differently.
I cannot provide an answer to every case of suffering. But I can share a small part of my own life story, hoping that it might be an encouragement to others who face their own challenges and help them find their own way in dealing with suffering and death.
The loss of Ulrike
I was blessed with a happy child-hood and parents who believed in God and authentically practiced their faith. Though facing my own questions about God and faith, for many years I was never confronted with severe suffering or the death of someone near me even though I knew that this unattractive side of life existed. Yes, it is possible to talk about death and suffering in an abstract and theoretical manner. But when you are personally affected by it, your perspective changes drastically.
In 2009, my wife died. Ulrike was only 43 years old when diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. She had such a bright future and was, still, very much needed. After fulfilling years as mother to our three sons and a homemaker, she had just begun to work again as an elementary teacher, a profession she loved. As a teacher, she was not only successful but also appreciated by the children and respected by her peers.
We tried everything to bring healing. My wife was exemplarily consistent in her healthy lifestyle. She was positive and hopeful in her spiritual walk with God. We supported her as well as we could. We prayed. Ulrike asked for a special anointing twice, once at the beginning of her sickness and, again, toward the end.
But less than a year after the diagnosis, she died. Those who knew her can testify that she was an amazing example of faithfulness and had unwavering trust in the Lord. When she died, she was at peace with herself and with God. For her, death was a release from suffering; for us, the suffering had just begun.
The loss of Ulrike robbed my children and myself of experiences that cannot be shared with her, such as our oldest son’s recent marriage. She will never have the joy of holding a grand-child in her arms. We miss her counsel and support. This loss is extremely painful, and it cannot be compensated for—with anything.
Time, supposedly, heals all wounds. Time does not heal all wounds. Time itself can be the wound. Even though the initial pain of her loss has grown less intense with time, time also causes more and more memories of her to fade away, and so her absence remains a sore spot in our lives.
The “why” questions
The issue of pain and suffering raises difficult questions about God and faith. The doubt that suffering initiates even has the potential to destroy faith. After losing Ulrike, platitudes and traditional answers no longer made sense to us.
Meanwhile, we were confronted with those pertinacious “why” questions. Not only the question “Why did this happen to us?” but also “Why should this happen only to others and not to us?” Or, “Why should sickness, suffering, and death only affect others and not us?” After all, we live in a sinful and imperfect world, and, therefore, even Christians are not exempt.
If people follow God only to be spared from suffering and death, they will be sorely disappointed. Even when facing adversity and suffering, we have to learn to live our lives in such a way that others will not doubt the love of God. Instead, they will see the hope that we, despite our suffering, possess—and perhaps they, too, might develop the desire to trust for themselves this God whom we confess.
Some questions cannot be explained theoretically but need to be lived in such a way that our faith in God’s goodness and grace becomes visible. God certainly has no pleasure in our sickness and death. Only the devil enjoys it when we are sick and suffer or even face a shipwreck of faith when confronted with severe hardship. But our family firmly decided not to grant the devil this pleasure.
The hard choices
To suffer is difficult enough. But to suffer without meaning is unbearable. And yet we often experience painful things that, yes, seem meaningless. The strong temptation is, then, to find some meaning in what, otherwise, appears meaningless. But we have to learn to live with such open questions. That is, we need to trust in God and His goodness despite the unanswered questions and the apparent meaninglessness that can make our suffering even worse. Although I do not see any meaning in my wife’s death, I want to learn to live so that it is evident that I trust God anyway.
In difficult times, one often hopes that circumstances will change. We desperately wait for those changes. But in doing so, we focus only on our difficulties and obstacles. We start to compare ourselves with others and envy those who seemingly suffer less or fare better than we do. But, in so doing, we actually focus only on ourselves rather than on God, who alone is the foundation and surety of our hope.
After my wife’s death, I had a decision to make: Do I allow my impatience and doubts to invade my life and thus question God’s goodness? Or, can I start seeing in the challenges of life unique opportunities that can help me become the person who God wants me to be, and who I would not be otherwise?
Am I really willing to accept the loss of my wife as part of my existence? This was something I had not wished for myself. This was not how I had envisioned the second half of my life. This was not planned, this was not my fault, and this surely is not what I had wanted. And, yet—it is now part of my life. It has become part of my biography, my very identity.
More important than what is happening to me is how I respond to what is happening to me. It was tempting to remain in an illusory state of mind, a make-believe world, in which I would not allow the reality of her loss to really be part of my life. It seemed far easier to repress that painful reality. Only when I had the courage to confront the mechanisms of my denial and honestly face the painful reality of her absence—with all its ugly implications—was I able to cautiously order my everyday life anew. When I gave up my inner resistance against accepting the new reality, I had to cry, and yet, at the same time, it was as if a heavy load was lifted off my shoulders. It was as if God gave me wings to help me soar like the eagles once more.
Longing for God
My acceptance of Ulrike’s death, of course, still left many questions unanswered. It was, rather, a step in a learning process that I assume will last the rest of my life. Some of the practical things that have tremendously helped me cope with this loss and stay spiritually sane and joyful I have expressed in a book, Longing for God.* Especially helpful to me is the simple exercise of developing an attitude of gratitude. Also, learning to meaningfully pray for others has opened up new horizons in my own personal walk with God.
Of course, as a single parent and a man, I have needs and longings that cannot be easily stilled. The temptation is great to pursue a path that might bring quick pleasure but no lasting satisfaction and happiness. But this is not God’s will, I know. Instead, I have learned—and I am still learning—what it means to trust God day by day and to live by faith.
I might say I live by faith, but that will not be true if I fabricate the solution to my problems on my own terms. I need to learn to trust God and His truly amazing grace in every area of my life, even if I do not see how He will ever be able to meet my needs, at least humanly speaking. But then God has a thousand ways to help of which I know nothing (cf. Jer. 33:3).
I have learned that to trust God and His grace and goodness, to be connected with Him—this is what really counts. What resonates with this experience is an inner longing of the soul. Longing, to me, is a remarkably delightful word. Never are humans more human, it seems, than when we are longing for someone or something. Full of expectation. A sparkle in our eyes. Longing is a word that leads us out of a narrow mind-set and a dry spirit of ritual performance. Things that happen out of a deep longing are happening with the authority of the heart. In our longing, the whole human being is involved.
Longing is something you cannot command to happen. Rather, it grows and blossoms in the soil of love: it is free and never forced. The person who longs is not satisfied with things as they are but tries to change things for the better and, in the meantime, lives a life of faith by God’s grace alone, even amid pain and suffering.
As such, I long to see the day when Jesus comes again, when God’s great love will ultimately prove stronger than even death and He will resurrect those who have trusted in Him—including my dear wife, Ulrike.