Beautiful and Terrible Things: A Christian Struggle with Suffering, Grief, and Hope

Bible scholar Christian Brady, an expert on Old Testament lament, was as prepared as a person could be for the death of a child—which is to say, not nearly well enough. When his eight-year-old son died suddenly from a fast-moving blood infection, Brady heard the typical platitudes about accepting God’s will and knew that quiet acceptance was not the only godly way to grieve.

With deep faith, knowledge of Scripture, and the wisdom that comes only from experience, Brady guides readers grieving losses and setbacks of all kinds in voicing their lament to God, reflecting on the nature of human existence, and persevering in hope. Brady finds that rather than an image of God managing every event and action in our lives, the biblical account describes the very real world in which we all live, a world full of hardship and calamity that often comes unbidden and unmerited. Yet, it also is a world into which God lovingly intrudes to bring comfort, peace, and grace.

I think in the spirit of full disclosure I will confess to having known Christian Brady for many, many years.  Even decades.  As a colleague at SBL and as a friend.  I’ve had the extraordinary privilege of meeting his family and they are as genuine as he is.

That said, what I say in the lines to follow I would say if I had never met the author of this important book or not.

This book is the story of the author’s graceful and gracious response to the untimely and terribly sudden death of his little boy, Mack.  How does one manage to maintain sanity much less faith when the worst thing imaginable happens to his family?  How does one lose a child?  One’s own child?  A little boy both lively and beautiful who with his little smile illuminated rooms and brought joy to his mom and dad and big sis.  A little boy filled to overflowing with the gift of life itself.  How, in the name of God, does one survive that kind of trauma?

This book tells us how.  And in consequence of that telling, everyone who has ever experienced the misery of the deepest grief will find in the pages of this little book help like no other book (besides the Bible) can offer.

The book is made up of the following chapters:

Introduction: My God
1. Letting It Out
2. Here Is the World
3. The Why of Suffering
4. The Remainder
5. One Step
6. Walking in Grace
7. Living in the Moment
8. Raised Imperishable
9. The Already and the Not Yet
10. Hope
Prayers of Comfort and Thanksgiving

Each brings the reader further along the path from abject heartache to a deepened and ‘profound-ed’ faith (in the sense that the reader’s faith will become more profound with the turning of every page).

That Christian and his family are emerging day by day (I think it may be too much to say that they have emerged from the trauma caused by Mack’s death; after all, does anyone ever fully return to their life before such an event?) through the nightmare is a tribute to their faith in God and God’s love for them. It is that love that oozes from every page.

I want to show you what I mean rather than simply telling you, so below I’ve selected some excerpts that, I think, will give you a good sense of what’s achieved here:

When our son died, my mom reflected upon something her doctor had told her when my grandfather died. Mom was grieving deeply for her father, and the doctor commented that it was a shame we no longer wear black armbands as people did in the past. Then, at least, people would know that we were mourning, that our life was not, at this moment, what it had been before. When my father died, my sister-in-law, Jenni, made a black wreath with a yellow rose (my father was very proud of his Texas heritage) and placed it on the door of my parents’ home. Mom had suggested this as a way of letting the neighbors know that Dad had died without having to speak to each one, something she just wasn’t quite ready for. It was a great solution to that painful problem and had the added benefit of providing Jenni with a way to show her love and act in her grief.

These are the outward marks of the trauma we bear. But what about the wounds that never appear on the flesh? Anyone who enters and survives battle leaves changed, altered internally if not externally. The truth is that we all have seen battles, we all carry our wounds. Some of us are graced with a time of, well, grace—a few years or perhaps even decades when our conflicts and struggles are not more than puberty and a few personal rejections. But most of us carry deep hurts. Most people in this world, even in such an affluent country as the United States, experience hunger, poverty, prejudice, and losses that wound and maim. And once that happens to us, we never will be the same.

And

As we continue to live, we continue to celebrate our loved one. For example, it is proper and prayerful to commemorate their birthday and the anniversary of their death. We have no English term for the latter, but I often borrow the Yiddish term Jahrzeit. It simply means “anniversary” but is now used exclusively to refer to the anniversary of the death of a close member of the family (parent, sibling, or spouse) for whom the mourner would say the Kaddish, the prayer for the deceased on the anniversary of their death. Consider finding the right way for you and your family to celebrate such occasions. For example, my brother-in-law and his wife give each of their children a LEGO set on Mack’s birthday (and they send us a picture). I regularly light a candle as I give thanks to God and remember Mack and my father and the brightness of their light in our lives.

There are, at the conclusion of each chapter, ‘questions for reflection’, making this book more than suitable for small groups suffering grief and for counselors aiming to genuinely help those whom they counsel who are experiencing loss.

There have been a lot of books written on the problem of theodicy.  It’s a question that has haunted people of faith for millennia: how can God, who loves, allow horrors like the deaths of our children when their lives have scarcely begun?  This book is the best treatment of the topic, theologically, yet written.

I don’t wish to simply recommend this book.  Instead, I urge your reading of it.  And your sharing of it with those in your world, your circle of friends, your family, who have been or are suffering loss.  And keep a box of kleenex close at hand while you read it yourself.  You’ll need it.  I did.

About Jim

I am a Pastor, and Lecturer in Church History and Biblical Studies at Ming Hua Theological College.
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