Opinion | Discipleship

My Son’s Suffering Helped Me Understand God’s Suffering

The birth of my child transformed my view of the “problem of pain” and divine foreknowledge.
My Son’s Suffering Helped Me Understand God’s Suffering
Image: Courtesy of Ebersole Photography

A few months into our pregnancy with Jackson, we received a phone call. The nurse’s thin voice slipped out of the speakers on my phone, and with it, words: words with medical definitions, cleft lip and palate, follow-up ultrasound, high-risk pregnancy. Now, when I lean up against the bricks of the room where I first heard those words, they echo back, the walls keeping a record of the moment that everything changed.

From there we had ultrasounds—what felt like hundreds, but what I now know was only nine. The maternal-fetal medicine specialist ordered a fetal MRI, an unusual procedure, attempting to understand our son’s face. There were second and third phone calls. The news rolled in. Jackson had no right eye, a very small jaw and chin, no external ear. Significant facial cleft, they called it in the genetic counselor’s office when we asked what language we should use to tell family and friends. I inhaled the words and they filled my lungs with cold water, and it seemed that every breath for the next 20 weeks of my pregnancy came out like a gasp.

During those 20 weeks, between the first phone call and Jack’s first breath, we drove hundreds of miles to and from the hospital, to and from each consultation, each proximate diagnosis. When we drove, we listened to songs about miracles. We listened to praise music from our childhoods, gospel choirs, and old hymns. We also began a journey to understand faith and suffering and uncertainty. I prayed desperately night after night that God would not let anything happen to this baby.

As the 18-week ultrasound approached, I became convinced that something was wrong, that we would learn something terrible that Friday afternoon.

The exam was completely silent. The technician commented only once, to express frustration that the baby moved so much that she was having trouble getting good pictures of the face. She sighed multiple times, tracing the same circles around and around, shifting in her chair. When she said that the baby was so active, I tried to smile. “That’s good, right?” She said nothing. I continued to stare at the green and cream border on the walls.

There was a large calendar just opposite the exam table, turned to the month of April. It had platitudes written across a beautiful sunrise background, things like “Live, laugh, love” and “Every act of kindness grows the spirit and strengthens the soul”—the kinds of quotes people hang on refurbished shiplap in their homes. I read the words and swallowed too loudly. I wondered if she could hear my heart beating against my bones. I wondered if she was judging me for my silence, my lack of joy. I wondered if she had even registered my face before hunting for my child’s.

I prayed in that room while lying in an anxious horizontal position. God spoke one thing back, something I proclaimed for a week or two, until the diagnosis, until the end and the beginning: “She can never tell you something about this person I do not already know.”

When we think about God’s foreknowledge, we are tempted to run so far out, foreknowledge trailing behind us like a kite. We cannot do, say, think, be anything but what God has already seen, already ordained, already determined. We think in terms of past and present and future, and God contains them all in his knowledge, a bucket of truths about us. We think, “God already knows,” and we often translate this as “God already made it to be the case that …” or “God already did.” At least we think, It can’t be anything except this.

But I think God’s foreknowledge might be better understood as an action. God foreknows because he is in all the places where we will go, because he stands next to us and near us before and after we get there. He hovers over and in and through time, and here the descriptions feel thin, unable to pin down the truth. God stands where we will stand. God moves where we will move. God sees what we do not yet but will someday see.

The summer I was pregnant with Jackson, as I studied for comprehensive exams in ancient and medieval philosophy, I read Saint Augustine and Boethius on the question of foreknowledge. They wondered, together, despite the years between them, about how foreknowledge and freedom coincide. Boethius writes, in the voice of Lady Philosophy, that “human reason cannot approach the immediacy of the divine knowledge.” God is in an eternal present, looking forth, a familiarity, a closeness with what we call future. God is immediate with the future. She can never tell you something about this person I do not already know.

We are quick to think that because God knew, God caused, or because God knew, God made it that way, that it could not be different, that God had already planned it all. We wonder why, if God knew something was going to happen, he didn’t intervene. Why didn’t he change the results of that ultrasound? Why didn’t he prevent what he already knew was coming?

But if we imagine that this knowledge God has about things we do not know is more like God seeing, God standing somewhere and understanding things we haven’t yet learned, I wonder if this might give us room to breathe. I wonder if we might stop trying to work out the calculus of causation, how God fits nicely into the narrative, how to make sense of suffering if it’s true that God already knows the suffering. Maybe it doesn’t mean that God caused it in that simple way we often like to pretend. Maybe it just means that God has already experienced the suffering, stood in the midst of it, known you in the midst of it, known your heart, known its breaking. Maybe it is also true, then, that God has known its mending, that he joins these experiences together in the immediacy of his knowing.

The idea of a normal pregnancy died on that table, in the quiet, before the technician brought my husband, Preston, back. It must have died long before, at the time the ideas about pregnancy should die—when the child arrives, when the pregnancy begins. I didn’t know it then. Then, I only knew that God had said his knowing was more immediate and perfect than the unfriendly technician. I knew that when Preston came back and she turned the screen around, our boy wiggled and rolled three or four times in 30 seconds, that it was “definitely” a boy, that he was definitely ours, that I loved every tiny highlighted bone and every mysterious piece of him moving through me. I knew that we would name him Jackson David, which means “God has been gracious” and “beloved friend.” I knew we would laugh and cry about how we had thought Jackson was a girl for all these weeks. My normal pregnancy died with the annunciation: God has been gracious; God has given us a gift, a beloved friend.

No one would ever tell us anything about Jackson God did not already know.

Hilary Yancey is a writer and philosopher living in Waco, Texas, with her husband, Preston, her two children, Jack and Junia, and their puppy, Sonja. She is completing her PhD in philosophy at Baylor University and can be found on Instagram at @hilaryyancey, on Facebook and Twitter, and at her website.

This essay was adapted and excerpted from Forgiving God: A Story of Faith by Hilary Yancey. Used with permission from FaithWords, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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