When I was a pastor in my first parish a small boy, age ten, died in a farm accident. It was my first funeral for a child. I had many thereafter: cancer, a heart defect in a 22-hour-old baby, a six-year-old who hemorrhaged to death following a tonsillectomy. I cannot remember all the funerals I conducted over thirty-four years , yet I remember each child, vividly.
I remember especially the ten-year-old. He was standing up on the back of a tractor, behind the driver’s seat. The tractor was pulling a wagon of newly harvested corn, crossing a field bridge. The bridge was a collection of railroad ties arching a small ravine . It was old, untended through the years. It cracked in the middle and tumbled the boy off and back into the cascading load of corn.
Rushing to the farmstead I met the boy’s grandfather. He had been driving the tractor. He was raging. “Goddamn you, God. You killed my boy.”
I read an account this morning of an eleven-year-old, swept away in flash flooding in Wichita, Kansas. A neighbor aiding the search said: “The man upstairs had special needs for [the boy]. We can’t judge why he took him, but there was a reason for it.”
One reaction is fury, the other childish assurance. The grief, loss, tears; the choking pain and the terrible sense of alienation from God that we experience when encountering inexplicable death, we are told God did all that.
Christians hear a lot of this. “God broke our hearts,” reads a puerile sentiment I found in a funeral card, “to prove he only takes the best.” God does that? Does he, really?
What Death Really Is
Here is what death really is: Death is the enemy of God, it is evil loose in a fallen world. Death is not God’s go-to tool to get what he wants. Death is God’s and our fierce, fearsome, adversary.
If God did it, things are worse than we imagined. We have nowhere to turn in our anger and wretchedness. If God did it, we have no true spiritual weapon ready at hand to fend off the assaults of sin, death, and the devil.
If God is responsible for this death, to whom may we raise our lament, knowing that it will be heard? Lament is our cry, addressed to the only one who can help. From our deep lament, naming our irreplaceable loss before God, there we find the hope of Christ’s resurrection, God’s answer.
I called upon your name, O Lord, from the bottom of the pit;
You heard me call, “Let not your ear be deaf to my cry for help!”
You came to my aid when I called to you;
You said, “Have no fear!”
– Lamentations 3:55
Russell E. Saltzman, a former Lutheran pastor, entered the Catholic Church in 2016. He writes a regular column for Aleteia and was the long-time editor of The Forum Letter. “God Did Not Do It” is a shortened version of a reflection published on Aleteia.