I had always sworn that I would not let my children become “MK casualties,” but my eight-year-old son is an emotional and spiritual mess. It is a wild concoction of deep loss, painful and anxious cultural experiences, intellectual giftedness, spiritual warfare, absence of real friendships in his life, plus what we all deal with: sin.
Our son is a highly gifted, perfectionistic, anxious, deep kid whose loss upon leaving the United States at age three-and-a-half we underestimated, and who was targeted in just about every possible way by the enemy of our souls upon our arrival here in China five years ago. After five years of maladjustment to the culture, language, and food; numerous and frightening injuries and illnesses; and a barren friendship landscape (he has been unable to find one good, close friend with whom he feels safe to be himself), our son is hurting.
“Why is God doing this to me?” he asked as I was preparing dinner in the kitchen one night recently. The one friend with whom he had just begun to connect was leaving suddenly to go back to the United States with his family. What does a parent do with that kind of question? The “right” answers all taste pretty hollow and even bitter as I look into his face.
I look at my son and feel a heavy ache as I see his nervous gestures, his clinging to his securities and routines. I hurt at how he is daily frustrated by the diminishing of his dreams, unable to explain for him what I am just learning: that shattered dreams can bring us deeper into God’s heart. Every day he seems to feel cheated of some way his life is supposed to be. Everything he has to settle for daily seems paltry. His loss, fears, and unmet longings rule him so often. It sometimes seems a gargantuan effort for him to remain emotionally balanced throughout the day.
Occasionally the facade cracks and a terrifying torrent of rage or sorrow explodes, completely out of proportion to the event. Then he screams the most piercing words—“I wish I’d never been born!” or something like it—and shakes in all his limbs. There is no talking him out of it, no praying him out of it. Sometimes he will lie quietly, his head tucked under his covers, wanting me to hold him, but unable to speak, for a long time.
I often find myself walking on eggshells around his fragile self, trying to determine when he is hiding, when he is controlling because he feels out of control, when he is desperate for love and affection, when he is hurt and so becomes hurtful. I want to explain him to himself, but I cannot. I carry prayers around with me all day, unspoken groans that Abba somehow understands.
At times the hurt stops my breath as I realize that there are no guarantees for him. Things could get worse, a lot worse. He could lose the battle. His anxieties and obsessions could become more and more debilitating. He could get angrier and angrier at God, at us as his parents. He could become a social outcast, bitter, hiding himself away from the messiness and pain of human relationships. He could opt out of life.
I just finished reading Larry Crabb’s Shattered Dreams: God’s Unexpected Pathway to Joy(Waterbrook Press), and it describes this pattern I see in my life: as I have walked a number of dark nights of the soul now, I realize again that my trust deepens each time, often in direct proportion to my sorrow. I am realizing that this trust is trust in God for who He is, not for what He does for me. The ache I feel because I cannot make it all right for our son brings me to trust again and again, even when I am angry at my God.
Sometimes I scream at God: Hasn’t he had enough? Mercy, Lord!
Paraphrasing Crabb: Do I really believe that knowing God could bring more pleasure to my soul than seeing my son straighten out? I pray that He grants me the trust to say yes.
I do not get it. I can handle it, though, with the faith I have been given; I can walk through the murky mess with my faith intact. That is a gift from God; it is not of me. But this little boy? This bruised reed, this smoldering wick?
I want to say all this when I sit with friends, when we move deeper in conversation, but each time I hold back, even when I hint at the pain. I want to feel like another is carrying part of the load, but I always stop short of giving words to the ragged ache. It seems to be a mixture of fear of response, and weariness at the thought of trying to explain. I have to fight against the impulse to flatline, to withdraw. Sometimes it is all just too much.
This side of death, Jesus’ life was left unjustified by the Father. There was no rescue. He died in despair and rejected. But then: glorification, a new body, victory. I know. I do not know, however, that it will be that way for my son. Others have left the faith and have lived with feeling betrayed until their death.
I want to be able to say, without shocking or shaking the faith of another, that this is hard and that I feel frightened, that my longings for freedom of soul for my son are suffocating in their presence, in their heaviness. I want others to understand that it is understandable for me to feel it all this deeply. I need to grieve the loss of my dreams for him having a carefree, happy childhood, the as-yet unfulfilled dreams of seeing him thrive in life, in light, in grace. We are not always able to wrap up the loose ends of our lives in a neat little knot; this is one that I have to leave dangling for now.