This post was originally written and submitted to a different outlet, and while it was ultimately not accepted for publication there, I decided I would still post it here.
You’ll notice a different format and tone than my usual pieces, but I took the opportunity to dig deep and express a time in my life both painful and beautiful.
My dearest sister in Christ,
At some point in each of our lives, we will have to answer the question, does suffering come from a loving God. The reason is very simply that suffering is as much a part of human existence as breathing. It’s a question that we can easily answer in theory, looking at passages in Hebrews and Proverbs that articulate that discipline comes from a loving God, a truth any good parent can corroborate.
But receiving that discipline, especially being such proud creatures as we are, can make us question how a God who loves us unconditionally can ever allow us to undergo such pain.
When I asked this question, it was the darkest spiritual period of my life.
Three months after our wedding, my husband and I found out that we would be expecting an NFP user-error baby two days prior to our first anniversary. My husband was initially shaken by the reality, but I was honestly thrilled, even though pregnancy took an unexpectedly high physical toll on me. When I was 36 weeks, I discovered that my daughter was full breech, and in my case, that required delivery by C-section.
When I gave birth to my daughter, it was the most profound spiritual experience God had yet blessed me with. Having a scheduled C-section made me feel that my daughter’s birth was something done to me rather than something I actively did. I can’t describe the pain that caused, particularly when unmedicated births are so highly praised, but God turned it into something beautiful. He allowed me to understand part of the mystery of His passion and death, that we received eternal life precisely through His submission to the will of His Father, just as my daughter was given life through my submission to what I believed was best and safest for both of us.
Despite the graces I received, I never wanted to have a C-section again. Medically and physically, it’s not ideal and presents many hardships that have serious repercussions for my husband and children. To avoid it, I needed to wait at least 9 months before trying to conceive another child. My husband and I chose a new method of NFP for the tricky postpartum period, a method that ended up being the worst choice for my body and stage of life. We conceived my son when my daughter was only 7 months old.
My dear sister, I cannot describe my anger, my sense of betrayal, my total confusion at how God would allow this. Our reasons for delaying a pregnancy were undeniably grave in every category – mentally, physically, emotionally and financially. The circumstances of our conceiving another child left me without a shadow of a doubt that this took place entirely at God’s will. While that should have been a source of comfort, it was instead the source of my greatest pain.
Since we were under the 9 month mark, another C section was inevitable. This had many repercussions that I – and God – were fully aware of. NFP had now “failed” us twice, but remained the only moral option we are allowed to space children. Most doctors will not perform a VBAC once a woman has had two C sections, and the maximum amount of C sections deemed safe, with some exceptions, is four. I could not see anything but that my husband and I would be required to use faulty methods to responsibly space and limit our family size. The fear of what our future could hold was overwhelming.
What could God be thinking?! How could He put us in this situation when we were being faithful to His teachings and the teachings of His Church? If this was the reward for faithfulness, I did not want to be faithful. I received some small consolations during my pregnancy, but nothing could break the darkness. I endured endless snide comments from strangers about the close ages of my children, and even misguided, though well intentioned comments from close friends and family. These exacerbated my own sense of failure, fear, guilt, and shame, and the crushing feeling that the God who supposedly loved me had totally abandoned me.
In the beginning, I shouted and cried angrily at God, but after a while, I stopped praying altogether. I knew that in prayer I open the door for God to work in my life, and I would not allow such a God to access any part of me, not even my anger. The last thing I said to Him was, “Jesus, I don’t trust you.” I still attended mass, and even confessed my lack of trust, but my soul remained barren.
As my pregnancy progressed, I found myself navigating the stages of grief. I had lost my relationship with God, and now I was trying to force my way through to acceptance of this new reality as quickly as possible. I wanted to just get back to how things were. I learned though that unless God wished to lift the darkness, no amount of forcing on my part would change that.
One Sunday, I heard a familiar Gospel, the story of doubting Thomas. As I listened, I realized how much I related to this apostle. Thomas had spent 3 years with Jesus. He heard His words, His predictions of His own death and resurrection. He saw His miracles, raising the dead, curing the sick, blind and lame. And yet, when Jesus fulfilled His Father’s mission by dying on the cross exactly as He said he would, Thomas refused to believe in the resurrection unless he saw it.
I was Thomas. All my life I had heard that suffering comes from a loving God to discipline us, that suffering can be transformed into something redemptive and beautiful, that it can lead us into a deeper relationship with Love Himself. I had to admit that there was nothing in my situation that was contrary to everything I had been taught in the faith since my first catechism. But now that it was my reality, I could not fathom how the darkness in which I now found myself could be allowed by a God who loved me, much less how I could ever go back to loving Him after He allowed this to happen.
My beautiful son Thomas is wiggling in my arms as I write this letter to you, dear sister. Of course I named him Thomas. He is my reminder that the darkness of my doubt was indeed the seed of a much deeper faith, a more intimate relationship with God than the one I had before. God in His wisdom saw that I needed to grow spiritually, and this was how that growth needed to take shape. Thanks to this sweet baby boy, God shined light on sinful areas of my life that I was not aware of, areas of pride and of worldly cares that put barriers between my soul and His love. I know now that I had to be in that place of darkness, and God in His goodness put me there. I had to suffer so that I could see these things clearly, so that I could better understand why it is we have to suffer at all, and so I could have greater compassion for the suffering of others. Paradoxically, it was the experience of feeling completely cut off from His love that expanded in my heart a greater capacity to receive it and to give it out to others.
My dear sister, I want to tell you that I will never doubt God again, that God will never allow me to be in such a place of darkness again, but I cannot. I also want to tell you that I have regained my full trust in God, but in truth I still carry the same fears about the future of our family planning.
I can tell you that I believe that God sees what I cannot, and that I believe now most firmly that my sufferings are only ever the prelude to joy in God’s perfect time. I can tell you that suffering is absolutely allowed by a loving God. Through it, we can detach from the things of this world. Through it, we can expand our hearts to suffer with others. Through it, we can more intimately understand the person of Christ.
These are the very reasons that God made us, and in His great love, He will do whatever it takes to help us to know it.
Yours in Christ through His Blessed Mother,
So very True Emily. Although my suffering is different my story is similar. Going through years of being ill and just wanting to be healed, it took realizing that God had a plan that was entirely different than my own, but so much better for me (of course!). Once I finally surrendered to His will everything became better. No I am NOT healed physically, but the peace and understanding are healing and grace beyond measure. Do I still have days when I struggle and doubt – of course, but as you said, God has to put me through that so I could learn to depend on Him alone, to detach from the world, from things, from my own pride and sinfulness. Thanks for sharing your story, I am sure it will help many who are in that dark place and not understanding why.