A couple of months ago, we had a cluster of patients come through our pediatric ICU with extraordinarily heavy stories of injustice. One child had been severely abused for months by a caretaker in the hiddenness of the caretaker’s home. Another child had been shot by a stranger and was left mentally intact but physically paralyzed, likely for life. There were a couple of other cases of equally heavy weight, not to mention the ongoing COVID, cancer, and other complicated cases that continued to rotate through our unit. We were deeply distressed by the collective heaviness of our patient stories that we sat up close with for weeks.
The Struggle to See God in the Darkness
A struggle I heard from a number of fellow Christian nurses was, “I am just having such a hard time seeing where God is in all of this darkness right now.” I shared this same struggle as well. To understand the depth of our distress, you have to understand just how closely we witness the tortuous effects of sin and injustice when we care for these patients. These are not news headlines we nurses have the luxury to ignore because “That feels too hard to read about right now.” For an entire 12 hour shift, perhaps two- or three- 12-hour days in a row, we personally tended to the bruised, battered, disabled body of a tiny preschool-aged child and couldn’t help but imagine the horror he endured as his caregiver descended upon him with blow after blow. For an entire 12 hours, we talked with a severely depressed teenager who was independent and active just one week prior. Now, however, she was despondent as she confirmed again and again that she still could not feel her legs or wiggle her fingers because of the gunshot wounds she sustained. For the entire time that we care for these patients, we helplessly watch our patients’ parents vacillate between overwhelming despair and unrealistic hope. We walk deep in the trenches with people whose lives have been blown apart. We exist and move in the thick of their rubble, echoing their soul-searching questions.
It only makes sense that we would ask, “Where is God in all of this?” It is a real, valid, and important question. If you’re like me, you are left dissatisfied with the glib response, “God is with us.” While this response is true, our negligence in wrestling hard with what’s really going on beneath the surface of that question, leaves us open to the danger of not actually believing He is with us. If in our core, we believe we are a God-forsaken people, then we are nurses working in an environment where we are just picking up the pieces after God has left the picture, and this only leads us to despair.
Answering a Question with a Question
When we spend close time in these types of patient stories and ask, “Where is God in all of this darkness right now?”, I have to pause and ask, “What exactly we are looking for as the evidence of God when we are in this particular space?”
Is the absence of suffering the evidence of God we are looking for? If these cases just didn’t exist, is that when I think He’d somehow be more obviously present? And perhaps of equal importance, would I credit Him and worship Him wholeheartedly? This is a slight digression, but it is important to consider, because as much as we think we are after the evidence of God’s goodness (and thus His worthiness to be loved and worshiped), He also is after our truest goodness and the inclination of our hearts to love Him. I wish I could say that I have always loved Him the most and the best when life has been peachy, but curiously I have historically leaned into Him and treasured Him the most, when life has been the hardest. Philip Yancey’s book, “Disappointment with God,” takes a deep dive into how this also holds true for God’s people throughout all of Scripture and arguably all of time. We don’t always know what “evidence of God” is always best for our hearts.
Please understand, I am not saying that God dictates for evil and injustice to happen in the world so that I as a nurse can “be a better and more thankful person.” My only point here is that we need to be careful with presuming that we would suddenly be saints, deeply inclined to love and worship God, if we just never heard about cases of injustice throughout our lifetime.
We Are All Prone to Hurt Others
It is right for us to cry out to God with our questions and aching with cases of injustice in the ICU, but we have some things we need to come clean with ourselves before we shake our fist in accusation at Him. These stories of injustice break God’s heart as well. He created and commanded us to love, but the reality is that even those of us who think we are decent at love know so little of it in our lowest moments.
There is a reason my own heart, once so quick to accuse and judge parents who abused their babies, softened a notch with empathy towards those very parents when I had my own babies. When my three-week old was screaming unreasonably at 2:47am for the sixth night in a row, depriving me of desperately needed sleep, I finally began to understand the despair and internal rage that a stressed parent feels towards her baby who does not care one iota about the mother’s exhaustion. If I’m completely honest, in my months of early motherhood, there was only just enough presence of mind in me to put my screaming baby down so I could go to another room, take a breath and compose myself. This bit of grace kept me multiple times from shaking my baby out of exasperation, the way some of our patients’ parents shake their babies to near death.
Is this too raw of a confession for you to handle, dear reader? It’s the shock you feel over my confession that reveals how we are in no small amount of ignorance and denial as a society about the depths of our sin. I’ve talked with enough other parents to know I am not alone, but we like to pretend we are always better than we actually are. There is a reality we all have to come face to face with about our lowest points, how short we fall of love in our most honest, selfish moments. It is the reality we have to ‘fess up to, before we indulge too deeply in our accusations of God being the one to blame for our hurtful choices.
God is Present in Prevention: Saving Us From Ourselves
When we as nurses witness suffering from acts of hatred and injustice, perhaps what we are bearing witness to is the harsh reality of how capable we really are of hurting one another when we don’t take our sin and need for God seriously. This is how bad it can actually get when we set personal desire as law, and then dare God to show us whether it’s really going to hurt us all as much as He says it will.
I tremble to think how God knows all the darkest parts of me, parts that would shock and offend you if you knew all my wicked thoughts, temptations and emotions. But the grace of God found me, loved me, forgave me, healed me, changed me, and is changing me still. Yes, in fact, one evidence of God is prevention. I come across as gentle and mild-mannered, but those who’ve known me from my youth know that deep in my core lies a quick, sometimes strong temper that God continues to refine out of me for not only my sake, but also that of those around me. If not for God’s grace, I’m not sure I would have it in me to love and value my children, particularly in my most frustrated and stressed seasons. He is the One who has taught me over time to surrender my most selfish emotions to His loving ways. My own life is a testimony to the question of where God is in protecting vulnerable children. He saved me from the anger-driven trajectory I was on, saved me from becoming the worst version of myself, and saved others from becoming victims of my worst self.
This is the work He can do and is doing in hearts that yield to Him in love, but not all hearts are yielded to Him yet.
God is Present When We Hurt
Where is God in all of this darkness? I would argue that the very ache God puts in our hearts with this question is itself a witness to His love. The ache we feel reflects the heartbreak He felt over our sin that compelled the Father to send Jesus to suffer Himself from injustice, experience separation from His Father, and die on our behalf. These cases of injustice present some of the hardest evidence of our need for forgiveness, deliverance from our own darkness, and our need for freedom from the ultimate curse of death in this world. Perhaps our ache demonstrates not an absence of His presence, but shows the very embodiment of the tender heart of God in us as we lament for our sin-stricken world.
I would also argue that God’s seeming absence when we lament over injustice may actually not be His absence at all, but His extraordinary longsuffering patience towards even the perpetrators of injustice, a patience that we quite frankly don’t like, one we certainly don’t understand. But if we look at God’s ways in Scripture with His people from the start of time, we see a God of overflowing mercy over long periods of time towards people who never, ever deserved it. This is not to say that justice will not be met, because all of it will. All of it. But it is to say that His love is also absolutely scandalous. His love is deeper and His mercy wider than we think they should be, because our human love and mercy are so limited.
I have friends from high school who committed a brutal, senseless murder together over Winter Break of our senior year. The self-admitted ring leader was sentenced as a minor to life in prison without the possibility of parole because of the pre-meditated heinousness of the crime. In prison, he became a Christian and wrote letters to the church I was attending at the time, as our church knew his family and was actively caring for his parents and sister as they walked through this crisis. In one of his letters, he acknowledged that his life sentence was what he deserved. He wrote of his deep regret for his actions, which he could never take back, but also wrote of the unmerited mercy of God that he had such deep assurance of. It was a breathtaking letter, testifying of the ways that in Christ, “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” (Ps. 85:10) Even as this criminal rightly served his sentence in justice, mercy was still so abundant.
This is God’s longsuffering heart towards the most vile among us. It is scandalous and unsettling, but so glorious in the ways it reaches all of us who feel at times beyond hope, beyond love. His seeming absence or delay in striking down all perpetrators of injustice may in fact be evidence of the indescribable extent of His love towards even the worst of us.
The Response of Heart and Life
We can and must be moved, then, as Christian PICU nurses, to lament and to action. We embody the heart of God as we bear close, painful witness to the devastating effects of sin and injustice, and we lament with deep compassion for these broken bodies He loves so dearly. We go to the hurting with our nursing skills and the Father’s heart, and we groan and weep with the patients’ parents who ache for both justice and mercy in this lifetime and beyond. We can be more honest about our own selfish callousness and need for ongoing transformation. We are reminded to love our children in the moments we are tempted to choose ourselves over them. We are moved to support parents struggling with depression, anxiety, anger, and other stressors that might be triggers for abuse. We are moved to love and honor the disabled. We are moved to be involved with youth in the foster system. We are moved to speak boldly to our brothers and sisters in the Christian church about leaning into God’s heart by more honestly and courageously entering into the realities of grief and suffering in our world. We don’t have to do every one of these things by ourselves, but doing them together as the Body of Christ, we are His hands and feet, His loving presence in this world.