Mourn With Those Who Mourn: The Weeping God and Me

van Gogh's 'Sorrowing Old Man'

Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Sorrowing Old Man’ (At Eternity’s Gate)

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

- C.S. Lewis [1]

My sister Nicole was born with a ventricular septal defect. Being the late 1970s, corrective surgery at the time had to wait until the child was large enough to undergo it (usually around 4 years old). The closer Nicole got to the prescribed age, the smaller the hole appeared to be getting. Shortly after her fourth birthday, my sister caught some sort of cold. The infection went to her heart, causing her to develop myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle). This infection left extensive damage, resulting in life-threatening episodes of atrial fibrillation (irregular heart beat). By the age of fourteen, Nicole had been diagnosed with one of the rarest forms of cardiomyopathy (heart disease). The prognosis was about 18 months of deteriorating life and eventual death. Yet, Nicole continued to get stronger to the surprise of both my family and doctors. One doctor consistently commented that if he were unaware of her heart’s condition, he would assume she was a normal, healthy teenage girl. After graduating high school, Nicole was accepted into BYU. Eager to get started, she moved to Utah and began attending summer classes. Then, while walking the campus on August 4, 1997, Nicole‘s heart stopped and she collapsed on a patch of grass near the Harris Fine Arts Center. Those who came to her aid could not revive her. My 18-year-old sister had died.[2]

nicole grave

For as long as I can remember, “bless Nicole’s heart” had been a staple of every family and personal prayer. It had provided a sense of security. The unexpected longevity of Nicole’s life had given a kind of “proof” to my 11-year-old mind that prayer works, God heals, and we’d all live happily ever after. That cozy little world was shattered. I entered 6th grade a couple weeks later missing both my sister and the warm security of my Mormon upbringing. Over the years, I could not get past that God had supposedly healed many in the scriptures, but had apparently refused to heal my sister despite daily pleas from her family. Comments about “God’s plan” or “just her time” or any number of other well-intentioned, but ultimately hollow explanations annoyed and eventually angered me.[3] Throughout middle school and high school, I remained active, but my spirituality fluctuated. I ranged from not believing at all to basically believing to believing but angry. What’s worse, I kept these feelings largely to myself. It was very much as C.S. Lewis described: “I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world” in which He appeared to arbitrarily decide who would be healed and who would not.[4] Due to what I would consider spiritual experiences, I eventually embraced my Mormon upbringing, served a full-time mission, and married in the temple. I remain as active as work allows to this day.

However, more recent developments involving some of those close to me—issues I will not discuss in detail—rekindled that old anger (one professional suspects I have “unresolved grief”). An already growing frustration with particulars of Mormon culture was intensified by these developments. I felt belittled on Sunday by what I saw as shallow, cookie-cutter answers to complex life questions. I also saw a flippant attitude toward difficult and disturbing problems. 

Enter Sam Brown.*

Sam Brown was invited by the Miller Eccles Study Group to speak here in Texas toward the end of January. Being an admirer of his work (especially his book In Heaven As It Is On Earth), I attended the fireside entitled “The Work of Faith and the Weight of Glory” at the Arlington Stake Center.[5] In his presentation, Sam compared faith to marriage based on these parallels: (1) initially a chosen relationship, (2) initially driven by a particular kind of passion, (3) a question of profound commitment and fidelity, (4) a process of trying and failing together, and (5) a transformation in which the significant other defines us. Passion comes and goes. Faith, like marriage, can be both blissful and tedious. But what really struck me was the reminder that my relationship with God is chosen by the both of us. It requires commitment. Failure without striving, Sam explained, is meaningless. Yet, striving without failure is not particularly meaningful either. By striving with Christ, we can be defined and transformed by Him. In other words, “all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art though greater than he?” (D&C 121:7-8). Most important, however, was Brown’s declaration that God is not a celestial vending machine and prayer is not a magical quarter. Faith acknowledges the risk of transformation and embraces the identity as a child of God, come what may. “God is love” (1 John 4:8), not a wish-granting genie. Fighting back emotion, Sam concluded by referencing his wife’s recent battle with cancer and loss of vision.[6] As I thanked Sam afterwards, explaining how close to home his words hit, he captured our feelings simply with, “It hurts. You cry a lot.” We weep in agony with our suffering loved ones. The hope is to emerge divine on the other side of it all. 

“Immortality is about quantity,” wrote the late Joseph B. Wirthlin. “Eternal life is about quality.”[7] This implies, as various scholars and philosophers have noted, that life eternal does not necessarily begin in the afterlife. Given the cosmological monism presented by Joseph Smith, the quality of eternal life can begin here and now. In fact, it seems to be expected when we consider the doctrines of eternal families and Zion. What is the life of those who willfully join the community of the saints? “[T]o be called [God's] people,” to be “willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light,” to be “willing to mourn with those who mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:8-9). Given the visionary experience of Enoch, I think it is safe to say that the mourning does not end in the heavenly realms:

And Enoch said unto the Lord: How is it that thou canst weep, seeing thou art holy, and from all eternity to all eternity? …The Lord said unto Enoch: Behold these thy brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands…wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer?

…and [Enoch] wept and stretched forth his arms, and his heart swelled wide as eternity; and his bowels yearned; and all eternity shook…And as Enoch saw this, he had bitterness of soul, and wept over his brethren, and said unto the heavens: I will refuse to be comforted… (Moses 7:29, 32, 37, 41,
44).

If life and creation are to continue into the eternities, the struggle with evil will as well. As “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), the exalted will find themselves in situations similar to that of Enoch’s God. While particular forms of evil and suffering may cease or changethe whole can never be fully stomped out. As Eugene England put it, “…God means we, like Job, must recognize that the universe itself, not a finite God, is the “proprietor” of [evil and suffering]; we could not have all the good of it, including the means to grow and know beauty and have joy and become more God-like, without the evil, not because God is that way, but because the universe, which he did not make, is that way. Furthermore…God is not an “impassive witness” of all this: He weeps.”[8] In other words, God mourns with those who mourn. Evil as we know it is an intrinsic part of reality. Gods, angels, and humans alike will always confront it in one way or another. What is important is that they are moved by it.

Doesn’t this undermine the omnipotence of God? If we understand all-powerful to be equivalent to some kind of superhumanthen yes. The late Truman G. Madsen explained,

[A]s soon as it is recognized, as in modern revelation it is, that there is more than one eternal will in the universe--indeed, an infinity of such wills or autonomous intelligences--we have cut the thread that supposes God can “do anything.” In all-important ways even He, the greatest of all, can only do with us what we will permit Him to do. Our center selves can agree or disagree, assent or resent, cooperate or oppose. To say, as the scriptures do, that God has all power and that He is almighty and that with Him all things are possible is to say that He has all the power and might it is possible to have in this universe of multiple selves. And as soon as it is recognized, as in modern revelation it is, that there are eternal inanimate things which are subject to laws, to “bounds and conditions” which God did not create but Himself has mastered, we have cut another thread of illusory omnipotence…[God] can do only what our wills and eternal laws will permit. In short, He did not make us from nothing and what He makes of us depends on us and the ultimate nature of a co-eternal universe.[9]

Perhaps we should begin defining God’s power and knowledge in terms of love, empathy, and understanding, rather than the x-ray vision of Superman, the super-strength of the Hulk, or the mind-reading of Professor X.[10] While these redefinitions do not wipe away the inconsistencies of divine intervention we read about in scripture, they may help provide perspective on what God’s “work and glory” actually is: our “immortality and eternal life” (Moses 1:39). God did not create the darkness and chaos, but He fashioned the cosmos out of it. Similarly, He did not create the suffering and evil, but He can embrace us and weep with us. He can love us and grow with us. He can, in a sense, create light despite the darkness and redeem those periods of despair for good. He can eventually say, as He did to Enoch, “Lift up your heart, and be glad, and look” (Moses 7:44). While suffering may indeed be a soul-making process (some psychological research indicates this to be true),[11] it is not inflicted for this “greater good.” Perhaps it is not that God allows our hearts to broken, but, in many cases, He simply cannot prevent it. But because of the love He has and the at-one-ment He seeks with us, His own heart is broken and yearns to heal both ours and His. Atonement is about unity, unity is about love, and love is about vulnerability.

The astonishing revelation here is that God does set His heart upon us. And in so doing, God chooses to love us. And if love means responsibility, sacrifice, vulnerability, then God’s decision to love us is the most stupendously sublime moment in the history of time. He chooses to love even at, necessarily at, the price of vulnerability…His freely made choice to inaugurate and sustain costly loving relationships is the very core of His divine identity.[12]

The problem of evil has been engaged by Mormon philosophers far more qualified than I.[13] But this is my personal experience with the weeping God of Mormonism. My hope is that I will see my sister again and that my loved ones will be comforted and healed. But most of all, I want what ultimately stirs this hope; it’s very root–love–to continue. It is the loving relationships with my God, my family, and my friends that bring about this hope. These relationships can be eternal according to Mormonism. Consequently, so can the vulnerability that comes with them. As Dr. Maguire (Robin Williams) told the young Will Hunting (Matt Damon) in Good Will Hunting, “If I asked you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable…And you wouldn’t know what it’s like…to have that love for her to be there forever. Through anything. Through cancer. You wouldn’t know about sleeping sittin’ up in a hospital room for two months holding her hand because the doctors could see in your eyes that the term visiting hours don’t apply to you. You don’t know about real loss because that only occurs when you love something more than you love yourself.”[14]

Suffering and loss certainly bring tears. But in God’s tears and our own, I see the first inklings of a “fulness of joy.”

*Special thanks to Sam for being the inspiration for this post and providing much-needed reflection.

 

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt, 1960), 121.

[2] See “Heart Attack Suspected in BYU Student’s Death,” Deseret News (Aug. 6, 1997): http://www.deseretnews.com/article/576500/Heart-attack-suspected-in-BYU-students-death.html?pg=all

[3] For a thoughtful post on this subject, see WWE‘s David Tayman, “No, God Didn’t Give My Wife Cancer,” The Improvement Era: A Mormon Blog (Dec. 19, 2011): http://improvementera.com/2011/12/no-god-didnt-give-my-wife-cancer/

[4] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harcourt, 1966), 115. It turns out atheists can still have animosity toward God. See Julie J. Exline, Crystal L. Park, Joshua M. Smyth, Michael P. Carey, “Anger Toward God: Social-Cognitive Predictors, Prevalence, and Links With Adjustment to Bereavement and Cancer,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 100:1 (2011): 129-148.

[5] The PDF and audio for Sam Brown’s presentation can be found at his website: http://www.samuelbrown.net/2013/fireside-in-arlington-texas-27-january-2013/

[6] See his wife Kate’s moving article “Why I Pray,” Peculiar People (Jan. 16, 2013): http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peculiarpeople/2013/01/why-i-pray/

[7] Joseph B. Wirthlin, “What Is the Difference Between Immortality and Eternal Life?” New Era (Nov. 2006): http://www.lds.org/new-era/2006/11/what-is-the-difference-between-immortality-and-eternal-life?lang=eng

[8] Eugene England, “The Weeping God of Mormonism,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 35:1 (2002): 65-66.

[9] Truman G. Madsen, “Human Anguish and Divine Love,” Four Essays on Love (Provo, UT: Communications Workshop, 1971), 57-58.

[10] See Loyd Ericson, “‘What’s Ragged Should Be Left Ragged’: God’s Problem of Evil,” 2012 SMPT Annual Meeting: http://www.scribd.com/doc/106922589/%E2%80%9CWhat%E2%80%99s-Ragged-Should-Be-Left-Ragged%E2%80%9D-God%E2%80%99s-Problem-of-Evil-SMPT-Proposal-2012

[11] See Richard G. Tedeschi, Lawrence G. Calhoun, “Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence,” Psychological Inquiry 15:1 (2004): 1-18; Kenneth E. Vail III, Jacob Juhl, Jamie Arndt, Matthew Vess, Clay Routledge, Bastiaan T. Rutjens, “When Death is Good for Life: Considering the Positive Trajectories of Terror Management,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 16:4 (2012): 303-329.

[12] Terryl & Fiona Givens, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life (Salt Lake City, UT: Ensign Peak, 2012), Kindle edition. “His Heart Is Set Upon Us.”

[13] For example, see Blake T. Ostler, David L. Paulsen, “Sin, Suffering, and Soul-Making: Joseph Smith on the Problem of Evil” & Daniel C. Peterson, “On the Motif of the Weeping God in Moses 7,” in Revelation, Reason, and Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman G. Madsen, eds. Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002); Loyd Ericson, “‘Which Thing I Had Never Supposed’: The Problem of Evil and the Problem of Man,” Sunstone 159 (June 2010): 51-56; David L. Paulsen, “Joseph Smith and the Problem of Evil,” BYU Studies 39:1 (2000): 53-65; Patrick Mefford here at Worlds Without End: http://www.withoutend.org/author/patrickmefford/

[14] The full scene from Good Will Hunting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qM-gZintWDc


Comments

Mourn With Those Who Mourn: The Weeping God and Me — 12 Comments

  1. When I first wrote up the vision statement for Worlds Without End several months ago, this is precisely the sort of writing I hoped for. Thanks so much for sharing, Walker.

  2. Thank you, Walker. This is profound. I often think about these questions, but I have not had the courage to voice them.

  3. Fantastic, fantastic thoughts, Walker. I particularly enjoyed: “Perhaps we should begin defining God’s power and knowledge in terms of love, empathy, and understanding, rather than the x-ray vision of Superman, the super-strength of the Hulk, or the mind-reading of Professor X.” Amen!

  4. Walker, beautiful is trite, but I can’t think of another word for your post. Love hurts. From what I’ve seen, the worst crisis of faith is not when you believe there is no God, but when you are angry at God, when it seems that there is no judgement and no judge, that God is a capricious monster who loves none but himself. This feeling is strongest when you watch a loved one suffer (which is what seems to have happened to Samuel Clemens in his later years). For the past five years there have been a series of deaths and illnesses and other things in the family, almost with little respite, so this post resonates with me. While most of those deaths were related to old age, there was one that was so shocking that it horrifies me to this day. It caused my closest loved one a deep crisis of faith like what I described above. I think Talmage was right when he suggested that Jesus died of a broken heart.

  5. Such an amazing insight. A favorite part ” But because of the love He has and the at-one-ment He seeks with us, His own heart is broken and yearns to heal both ours and His. Atonement is about unity, unity is about love, and love is about vulnerability.”
    I love that. So well written and the truth resonates with me. We are also fans of CS Lewis. You certainly have a talent with words and expression and I appreciate you sharing it with us.

  6. Pingback: Vol. 2.7 (Feb 11-17, 2013) « The Nightstand @ Weightier Matters of the Law

  7. I was doing okay until the line about visiting hours not applying to the husband staying with his wife. That was me. The only place where I have felt my wife’s presence after her death was on the hospital floor where we spent so many days together. This was beautifully written. Thanks.

  8. One of the great blessings of the Restored Gospel is that it teaches us that God’s infinite knowledge includes the experience of love and empathy and sorrow over the suffering of others, that God is not an emotionless intellect but a perfected person with eyes that can weep. I think such complete understanding of us all is what constituted both the suffering and the triumph of the Atonement of Christ. And we cannot know God, and become like Him, until we know the same sort of love and sorrow He feels.

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