Author: Victor Lee Austin
Publisher: Brazos Press
Publish Date: June 21, 2016
Pages: 160 pages (Hardcover)
“Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”
–C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
Five years ago, on a cold January morning, I received a phone call from my sister. She spoke only four words.
“We lost the baby.”
I barely heard what followed in my fog of grief. She had felt pain and known something was wrong. In the time it took her husband to take their daughter over to a friend’s house, she had delivered her son, alone, on the bathroom floor. He was sixteen weeks.
Just the day before, she had called to tell me she was having a boy. I was eight months pregnant with my own son. We would have little boys together.
For weeks after that phone call, I grieved. Sometimes I would be driving in the car, feeling generally happy, and then I would remember—like a punch to the gut.
My heart was a mess of emotions. There was pain: I had always tried to protect my little sister—and I couldn’t manage to protect her from this. I was on the other side of the country; I couldn’t even hold her while she cried. There was guilt: I was about to hold my newborn son, and my sister would never again hold hers. But perhaps most of all, there was anger—anger that God allowed this thing to happen to his sweet, faithful servant.
In all of this, my sister was beautifully strong and brave. But, I was angry at God.
In his recent memoir Losing Susan, Victor Austin describes the journey of his love for and loss of his wife. Austin—an episcopal priest—met Susan at St. John’s College in Santa Fe. He fell for her almost at once.
At first, she did not reciprocate. “Sadness,” Austin recalls. “I compared myself to T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, who sees and hears lovely beings singing and is almost carried away—and then reality cuts in. ‘I do not think that they will sing to me.’”
But to his great surprise and joy, she changed her mind. In an empty parking lot one night, she told him that she’d decided to accept his offer of marriage.
“And so it happened that I was married after much longing… to the dream of my eyes: a beautiful, unusual God-loving friend of Mary who was intellectually brilliant and a continual surprise to me.”
These surprises of Susan’s came in many forms. They came through her vivacious wit, evidenced in her eloquent published writings. They came through her joyful creation of family liturgies and traditions, which nourished faith in their children—a faith strong enough to withstand God’s taking away of their mother.
And they came through her love for children—not just her own, but the nine children she fostered. Many of these were babies suffering the effects of maternal substance abuse. Even though these children would not remember them, Susan would say that deep in their souls, they would have a memory of once being held and loved. That was reason enough.
“What I didn’t know then,” Austin writes, “was that, having given me my heart’s desire, God would proceed to take it away… I was exactly twenty-two and a half years old when we were married. Susan was a bit over twenty-three. It would be fifteen years before her tumor was found.”
It is phrases like this last sentence that most pierce the heart in Austin’s writing—the restraint with which he depicts his suffering. It makes his book all the more powerful—and also painful—to read.
For Austin, Susans’ death was not simply the effect of living in a broken world. It was God who took his Susan away. He felt, as the psalmist said, that “like a moth you eat away all that is dear to us” (39:12).
“The benevolence of God has often been dark,” Austin writes. “I have known God is real, but his love for me, it seems, has been an awful love. ‘Smile, God loves you’ was never a bumper sticker on my car. ‘God loves you; run for your life’ would be closer to my thoughts.”
In his grief and anger at God, Austin is not alone. He follows in the footsteps of other writers of the faith. Many have drawn a comparison between Losing Susan and A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis’ meditation on the loss of his wife.
“When you are happy…” says Lewis, “you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.”
But, expressions of anger at God—from the hearts of His faithful followers—date much farther back than Lewis.
“Awake, O Lord!” David cries out in the Psalms. “Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?” (44:23-24)
And of course, there is the book of Job—which Austin calls “the best book in the Bible.” In his suffering, Austin found himself drawn to the passage where Job’s loved ones comfort him “for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him.” That, Austin says, is how he feels about the loss of his wife. It is an evil that God brought.
Reading this phrase in Austin’s book, I initially recoiled. I remembered when my sister lost her child, what helped me most was to think that this was not the will of God. We live in a world broken by sin, a world not the way God intended it to be. And, we suffer the effects of that brokenness. God is not the author of evil. Nor is illness or disaster a punishment for sin, as Christ tells his disciples in the case of the leper (John 9:2).
Yet this broken world is controlled by a God who—according to our faith—is both all-powerful and all-loving. He could at any moment stop all suffering and pain. And so, with the Psalmist, we cry out: Why? Why, God?
There is a reason the problem of evil has not been resolved over thousands of years of human existence. There is not an easy answer. Responses to the problem have varied: from a complete departure from faith to a stoic, unquestioning acceptance.
But, if there is not an answer—at least this side of eternity—there is a hope. Towards the end of his book, Austin writes: “Jesus plumbed the absolute and literal depths of what it is to be human… This, to be honest, is good news for us. There are no depths to which we may have to descend that Jesus has not already descended.”
Christian Wiman, a poet who brushed close to death by cancer, describes a similar hope. “I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”… The point is that he felt human destitution to its absolute degree; the point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.”
Whatever the reason for allowing it, God is not distant from our suffering. He descended to earth and took on frail, pierce-able flesh, in order to become part of it.
What struck me most about Losing Susan was not just that Austin finds hope. In the midst of all his suffering, he finds joy, in the everyday rituals of caring for his dying wife.
“It is, also, not only that in doing these things I found God to be with me,” Austin marvels, “and in the tensest moments, to be present and helping me through. It is this: I found joy in doing these things… Doing these things for Susan and upon and beside and for the sake of her body gave me a joy I did not expect. I would weep. I would be angry. I would pace the floor. But there was joy in my bones… It is a joy that wraps around both of us and lifts us up, in the midst of such a mundane human thing as caring for one another’s corporeality—lifts us up to the heart of joy.”
Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican priest, author, and mother, recently opened up publically about the sorrow she had experienced within the last six months—the loss of a home, a father, and two unborn children. Yet, she also found the mercy and grace of God, even in the darkness.
“With each new sorrow, moments of beauty still turn up. They seep in. They find me. The hope of the resurrection persists. And so does the goodness of God in the small moments of my day. Even today, even here, even now, grace surprises and abounds. I feel lost and in the dark, but mercy finds me, again and again and again. Sometimes slowly. But nevertheless.”
This mercy, Warren says, comes most often through her church—through friends gathering around her to pray, through the gift of a casserole, through hands held during a memorial service. Often in the news, the church’s failures are highlighted. But, what does not make the headlines is the “quiet work that imperfect but good churches do, week in and week out.”
Austin’s book is subtitled: “the God who gives and takes away.”
The musician Sufjan Stevens once drew on this theme for the lyrics of one of his songs. “Oh the glory when he took our place, but he took my shoulders and he shook my face. And he takes and he takes and he takes.” But, Warren ends her post with a different emotion—one that astonishes and encourages me, in the midst of her suffering.
“Even in loss,” Warren writes, “the Lord, his church, and his beauty remain. He gives and takes away… And gives, and gives, and gives.”