Putting the Perfect God on Probation

C.S. Lewis compared faith to a temple. He said it can be made of bricks or cards — and the only way to know is by testing it. My faith was cards, but on May 4, 2014, it came crashing down on me faster and harder than a load of bricks.

As we turned the corner to the last 200 meter stretch of the 13.1-mile race, Jessi slowed to a walk. “Come on Jessi, we’re so close!” I encouraged. She brushed an invisible strand of hair from her face, along with thoughts of giving up, and kept jogging. Thirteen miles into our half marathon, every step was farther than either Jessi or I had ever run.

Twenty steps later, my running partner stumbled. “Are you okay Jessi?” I asked. She didn’t answer but kept going, her hands out as if to catch her balance as she stumbled once more. “Are you going to pass out?” I asked. “I think so,” she answered. It was a hot morning at the Boulder Reservoir, especially for 10 a.m., and we hadn’t drank much during the race. As Jessi stumbled yet again, I helped her to the ground. “I’m going to go get help, okay?” I looked into her brown eyes. “Okay,” she said as I started running toward the finish line, looking for someone to help us.

It wasn’t until I returned with my dad a minute later and saw Jessi was unconscious, mouth clenched shut, not breathing, that I realized something serious was happening. Yet it still didn’t occur to me that those brown eyes might never see the world again.

Jessi, my dear friend since first grade, died that day and left me with so many questions. What happened? How did this happen? How could a healthy, 20-year-old die out of nowhere like that? Why? All I knew was that God did this to me and everyone else who loved Jessi. In my mind, at the hospital that day, I felt like God was judging whether Jessi would live or not, and we were waiting for his verdict. But after she died, it was the other way around. I was the judge and God had been found guilty. It was my job to choose God’s sentence.

Being a merciful judge, I put God on probation.

The fall before Jessi died, she started bringing me to her church. I got involved in a Bible study and for the first time in my life I had a personal relationship with God. I was on fire for God. I ran to worship him. I would pray and praise him all through my runs, and it overflowed into my daily life too. I was reading my Bible and writing in my prayer journal every day. But when Jessi died, I stopped. My relationship with God was like a fighting couple, where the couple acts civilized in public but in private they completely ignore each other.

I went through the summer in a daze of grief. I didn’t understand how the world could keep on going as if nothing had changed. I felt guilty being happy. It seemed like my memories of Jessi were fading. I wanted to be happy and trust God like I had before, but how could I follow a God who causes so much pain? Day after day I went to work and then I came home and binge-watched Netflix until I went to bed.

You would think being on top of a mountain, literally, would help pull me out of my grief. And for a moment, it did. In the first week of July, I went to Crested Butte, Colorado, for my older sister’s wedding. The day before the wedding, the groom’s large family and the wedding party went for a hike. I was one of the first people to reach the peak, and it felt great. It was beautiful and exhilarating — the first time I had been in nature since Jessi died. And then the rest of our group got to the top. As my sister stood on a rock a few feet from the ledge, posing for pictures, the thought of her slipping and falling attacked my mind. I retreated down the mountain, suppressing tears, all excitement from the hike completely vanished, and waited while everyone enjoyed the view.

Coming back home after the wedding was hard. My glimpse of joy on the mountain caught me in this battle of my angry grief vs. my desire to smile again. My mind was torturing me. In some desperate attempt to feel closer to Jessi, I had replayed my memories of our race on a repeating cycle all summer. It was fine when I could control these memories but when sleep came, I lost control and my dreams haunted me. I didn’t have nightmares about that day but instead regular dreams guest-starring Jessi. They felt so normal. Then I woke up and it hit me all over again.

So I became an insomniac by choice. I binge-watched Netflix before, but now I kicked it up to a new level. I watched until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. I was avoiding tomorrow. And it usually worked. But, sometimes, out of fear of sleep, I made 3 a.m. phone calls to my parents, screaming at God through the tears.

It felt like God and I were a fighting couple, except God wasn’t ignoring me. He was reaching out to me with open arms. A woman from my church texted me some Bible passages one day in late May. She finished the text by telling me God missed me. I hadn’t talked to her since Jessi died — she couldn’t have known I stopped talking to him.

By mid-July I was averaging maybe five hours of sleep a night. I was exhausted and sad but more than sad, I was scared. I noticed God hadn’t reached out to me in a while and I was afraid he gave up on me. I told people God was on probation, but I had always assumed I would come back to him eventually. Now I wasn’t so sure he would take me back.

Then one especially difficult day in mid-July, God calmed my fear. During the first part of my shift at work, I told my boss I was having trouble sleeping, and he suggested memorizing scripture when sleep wouldn’t come because it brings us closer to God and reminds us of what is true. When I got off work that afternoon, I listened to a voicemail from an old friend. At the end, she said, “God’s giving you a big hug today. I don’t know why I was supposed to tell you that, but I was.”

I went home, cried, and wrote in my prayer journal.

God has a sense of humor. I know this because, after a summer avoiding sleep, God met me at a sleep study I participated in during the first week of August. I had to stay at a hospital in Denver with no visitors for 10 days. I was basically getting paid to sleep 10 hours a night, which was great after averaging five hours a night for the majority of the summer. I brought a bunch of books with me to pass the time. One of those books was “A Grief Observed” by C.S. Lewis.

Lewis wrote: “Now God has in fact — our worst fears are true — all the characteristics we regard as bad: unreasonableness, vanity, vindictiveness, injustice, cruelty.

I thought: “Why would someone recommend me this book? I mean, does C.S. Lewis even know who God is??”

Lewis: “There’s no denying that in some sense I ‘feel better,’ and with that at once comes a sort of shame, and a feeling that one is under a sort of obligation to cherish and foment and prolong one’s unhappiness

Me: “Maybe you’re not as lost as I thought you were. I know exactly how you feel.”

Lewis: “For, as I have discovered, passionate grief does not link us with the dead but cuts us off from them.

Me: “Could that be why it feels like I’m forgetting Jessi? Maybe I should stop fighting for grief.”

Lewis: “Don’t we in praise somehow enjoy what we praise, however far we are from it?…And I am far, far away in the valley of my unlikeness from the fruition which, if His mercies are infinite, I may some time have of God. But by praising I can still, in some degree, enjoy her, and already, in some degree, enjoy Him. Better than nothing.”

I prayed to God.

But this time with a new attitude. Instead of wanting pain as a way to remember Jessi, I wanted the pain to grow me. Her memory, and impact on my life, can’t go away. It has played too big a part in who I am today. I realized that just as God used C.S. Lewis’s pain to help build my faith, God is going to use my suffering to help someone else. Just because Jessi isn’t on this earth anymore doesn’t mean God won’t work through her. God didn’t take away running and my love for him when Jessi died. Instead, he made it an even more powerful tool to share his love and glorify him. I just needed God to rebuild my faith before I could see it.