On January 19 at 11:48 p.m., my wife, Justine, and I welcomed our second beautiful son—Samuel Thomas. We couldn’t have imagined that we would find ourselves back at the hospital for completely different reasons just two weeks later.
Justine had taken Samuel to his two-week checkup while I stayed at home with our eldest. At one point, I picked up my phone and saw this message from Justine: “They are sending him by ambulance to Valley Children’s [Hospital] for a fast heart rate. Faster than they have ever heard. Can you meet me at the hospital?” I remember staring at her message in disbelief, trying to digest what she had said.
Looking back, I have wondered what would have happened if his check-up was a day earlier or a day later. We might have never known there was something wrong until his symptoms had become far more serious at home. Or what if it had been in the middle of the night?
Once the moment had sunk in and some friends graciously let me pawn August off on them, I zoomed to the hospital. I confess that I have never burned so much rubber or ran more red lights.
When I arrived at the ER, there was a security guard who would not allow me to enter. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, only one parent was allowed inside. I will also confess that I slightly lost my “pastoral touch” in what I said to him. But after going back and forth at the front and with the nurses realizing that I was on speakerphone with Justine, I was allowed back. I received my visitor sticker, went through security and was then escorted through the doors.
In the trauma room
It was a sight to suddenly see my 17-day-old child hooked up to a hundred tubes surrounded by more than a half-dozen health professionals—in the “trauma room.” Us, in the trauma room? The same place where other children have died and parents have been stricken with unimagined with grief? Justine was thinking with the facts before her, with the emotions to come later. I walked in thinking about life and death from the beginning, trying to diagnose how bad the situation was.
Samuel was given medicine to lower his heart rate. It didn’t work. A higher dose. Still didn’t work. One nurse, who appeared to be more in charge than the doctor on call, assured us that there were more steps. But how many steps? What happens if they run out of steps? How serious is all of this?
I began to scan everyone’s facial expressions in the room to get a hint, a glimmer of how they were perceiving the moment. It was so surreal. The one nurse in charge had what I can only characterize as a “jocular” demeanor that didn’t fit the intensity of the situation at all. Upon reflection, it was her command of the moment paired with her attitude that kept everyone calm.
Next up, they were going to use the AED (automated external defibrillator) on Samuel to “reset” his heart rate. They hooked up the pad which seemed to cover his entire tiny chest. We stood in the corner with arms folded, pretending to look normal despite the chaotic moment. When they shocked him, his little body leapt upward, followed by crocodile tears. But nothing. His heartbeat was still too high. One of the nurses even cursed under her breath.
In response, the doctor ordered a second shock, but a higher wattage this time. I moved to the end of the bed to see what has happening. Then, someone told us what steps would be taken if the next shock didn’t work, but the sight didn’t allow the words to register in my mind.
Again, his chest launched upwards followed by an infant cry and tears.
This time, praise the Lord, his heart rate dipped to 180 to 200 bpm. Everyone held their breaths to see if these numbers would stick or whether they would begin to climb, and we would be back to square one. By God’s mercy, Samuel’s heart rate stayed level and then eventually began to settle down to 130 to 150 bpm. The on-call doctor moved on to the next crisis, others began to clear out of the room and we were left to hold our son in the aftermath of a 2-hour whirlwind which had seem to have gone by in only 20 minutes.
We were later told that Samuel has supraventricular tachycardia (SVT), an “abnormal pathway” in his heart that carries an electrical charge making the heart work much more quickly. Medication can help keep him level and he might need surgery by the time he’s 7 years old. For now, we are to learn how to use a stethoscope to take his heart rate, be mindful of potential symptoms for future episodes and do our best to live normally.
What was God doing?
Since this experience, I’ve taken some time to reflect and evaluate where God was in this moment. What was he doing through all of this? What did he think? Of course, why Samuel? What will be the fruit of this? What is God trying to show us? You know, the existential questions.
Both for Samuel in that trauma room and for all who suffer, I see three options before us when we encounter suffering: Satan is in charge, no one is in charge or God is in charge.
Consider the first option. If we say that the devil is lord over our suffering, then we can have no comfort. He is the wicked architect who can bring despair down upon us as he pleases, and we are at his mercy.
Second, if no one is in charge, then my suffering and yours has no ultimate purpose (telos). We may try to ascribe personal meaning to what has happened, but at bottom, there is the despair of knowing that the snuffing out of innocent life, the unexpected betrayal and loss of a deep relationship, or the botched surgical procedure that alters one’s quality of living can only be attributed to mindless, unfortunate chance.
Which is worse: knowing that the enemy is pulling the levers to our despair or knowing that our random suffering for the few seconds we’re here on earth is actually meaningless? I believe that both options, if taken seriously, can only lead to hopelessness.
However, there is another option: God oversees our suffering in such a way that he remains morally guiltless for permitting it to happen in our lives and yet accomplishes it for his glory and our ultimate joy.
Learning from Job
Consider the book of Job from Scripture where Job is completely innocent of the calamity that comes upon him. In a moment, his family, livelihood and health are all taken (see Job 1-2). How does Job respond? He says, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21. See further on Job’s perception of who caused his calamity 2:10; 12:9; 16:6-17; 19:21; 30:19-21). In Job’s mind, God clearly was the overseer of what had happened to him.
Moreover, though it is Satan who is the means to accomplish Job’s calamity, it is the Lord who gives him permission twice (1:12; 2:6); it is the “fire of God” that falls and destroys Job’s livestock and servants (1:16); finally, when Job is restored at the end of the story, the narrator states that his friends and family came to him and “and comforted him for all the adversities that the LORD had brought on him” (42:11, NASB).
If this feels wrong, take it a step further and consider that Job is never told the reason for his suffering. The reader gets a bird’s eye view into the heavenly court contest between the Lord and Satan as the fate of Job is decided. In fact, the response that Job gets to his demand to present his case before God (13:3, 15-19; 23:3-7; 31:35-37) is the thunderous answer in the storm theophany from God himself: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man.” Tim Keller, in his book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, characterizes this response to Job: “The Lord is God –and you are not!” These are hardly the kind of words you would expect from a grief counselor let alone the one who claims to be our “Shepherd” (Ps. 23).
“The truth is that our preferred depiction of the Lord would be of a God who never allows pain and suffering.”
The truth is that our preferred depiction of the Lord would be of a God who never allows pain and suffering. The problem is that such a preference not only fails to correspond to our lived experiences (Christians do in fact, suffer), it does not fit the revelation of God from Scripture, with the Job story as a chief example. This is where I first found Keller helpful in my interpretation of the Job story.
How is God fair in allowing Job to be an innocent sufferer and then never pulling back the curtain to show him what had been happening behind the scenes? By pointing to the Lord’s answer (ch 38-41), Keller shows that when we bring our self-justification projects before the Lord, we are shown to be unworthy before a holy Judge. There is only one Creator and Sustainer of life, nature and seasons who in his wisdom has the right to do what he pleases. God does not owe us an answer. And yet, by grace he does answer us, through his Word that became flesh, “the other innocent Sufferer,” that the Job story points leads us to: Jesus.
Keller writes, “We need to know that Jesus Christ bowed his head into the greatest storm–the storm of divine justice–for us, so we can hear a voice of love from the holy God. He took the condemnation we deserve so God can accept us. For Jesus is the ultimate Job, the only truly innocent sufferer…. As Job was ‘naked,’ penniless, and in physical pain (Job 1:21), so Jesus was homeless, stripped, naked and tortured on the cross. While Job was relatively innocent, Jesus was absolutely, perfectly innocent, and while Job felt God abandoning him, Jesus actually experienced the real absence of God, as well as the betrayal of his foolish friends and the loss of family…. When you suffer without relief, when you feel absolutely alone you can know that, because he bore your sin, he will be with you. You can know you are walking the same path Jesus walked, so you are not alone—and that path is only taking you to him.”
I don’t know why
There is a part of me that remains perplexed that God would duel it out with Satan in a heavenly court over Job’s life. I do not know why we go through unbearable tragedy. I do not know why God allows close friends to feel betrayed by each other after years of friendship. I do not know why God allows a husband to abandon his new wife after a short period. I do not know why a friend of mine’s wife has a terminal illness. I do not know why Samuel’s heart is the way it is, why we had to see him be shocked by an AED, or why we will have to go through whatever twists and turns that may come (barring miraculous deliverance). Could there be another episode this week? Next month? Never?
I do not know the answer to the why questions, but I do know where to point myself and you: to the cross. That is all that I know or desire to know (1 Cor. 2:2). The cross is the guarantee that the truly Innocent Sufferer, the God-Man, comprehends our suffering and can counsel us through it, since he has tasted death himself. “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb 2:18).
The cross is the guarantee that while this Innocent Sufferer was forsaken for us, he will never forsake us in our time of need (Heb. 13:5). Most importantly, the cross is the guarantee for us that death does not have the final word. For the One who has said that we are to “cast our burdens upon him” and who is “gentle and humble” toward us, is also our older brother who provides the foretaste of the life to come by his resurrection if we are found in him.
I heard a preacher say that there is not one person too strong who isn’t capable of being put in the fetal position by one tragic phone call. Despite all the Instagram reels I see about taking control of your life, the truth is that we don’t have a clue. This is why it is better to trust God than our selves because he alone is the good and sovereign Judge. In the end, it is better to be in the Lord’s hands than Satan’s, fate or our own.
In his strange but good providence, when suffering comes, God will not allow one thing to happen that he has not permitted, nor will he waste what happens but will use it to point us to himself while he stands in the fire with us. His presence allows us to stand with the conviction of one famous missionary who said, “I have a firm conviction that I am immortal until my work is done.”
I was in the trauma room with Samuel that Friday. But God fulfilled the meaning of my son’s name when we were there: “God has heard.” He heard us and delivered us. But most importantly, God was with us and will continue to be with us for whatever comes next. Amen.
Aaron Garza is the senior pastor at Bethesda Church in Huron, South Dakota. He is a graduate of Tabor College and received a Master of Divinity and Master of Theology from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he is currently a doctoral candidate. His research interest is the Anabaptists of the Radical Reformation. He and his wife, Justine, have two sons.
Aaron, I commend your treatment of those unexpected tragedies and unwelcomed sufferings in the believer’s life. You write with first-hand experience and a sincere desire to let the truths of Scripture speak into you and through you regarding this important life issue.
As a hospital chaplain, I visit the ICU, NICU, and ER quite often. Unlike little Samuel’s experience, the majority of my patients don’t return home. My visits for the most part are not happy visits.
While I have had a good number of inspirational visits where I have witnessed a fellow Jesus-follower at heaven’s doors and the family and friends releasing their loved one to move on with sadness, calmness, and hope in their hearts, the majority of my visits are not so. The spiritual roots of these patients and family members, many of them calling themselves Christians, are barely penetrating the depths of God’s grace where His sustaining power, emotional stability, and wisdom can be found. For them, grief and loss are “alien invasions.”
I resonate when you say, “I do not know why we go through unbearable tragedy.” I hear these words often. While the “wh” questions are not always spoken, they are always pondered. We will never be able to eliminate the “wh” questions entirely but I believe we will better learn to face them when we see grief and loss not as our greatest enemies, but as colleagues to help us become more like Jesus.
You beautifully relate your “tragedy” to the Easter story. To your thoughts, I would also say the Gospel is more than receiving forgiveness for our sins and later going to heaven one day (both beautiful truths of course); the Gospel is also about Abba being present in the midst of our suffering and afflictions for higher unseen purposes. And we hold the key to that happening. You and Justine have learned to open your arms wide to His embrace.
Pete Scazzero, former pastor and present pastor at large at New Life Fellowship in Queens, NY, says this about grief, “It comes without our permission and against our will. But this… is how God uniquely opens our hearts and transforms us.” In a recent podcast Pete helps us prepare for what inevitably will become those unwelcomed future events in our lives involving deep sadness and loss.
Chaplain Community Medical Centers, Fresno, CA