When a Christian dies, it’s not uncommon to hear people talk about the peace of God that surpasses all understanding. Growing up, I always thought of this peace as a sense of warmth, calmness and nearness to God. It was something very tangible, supernaturally settling and emotionally comforting.
Then I sat in a hospital room and watched one of my best friends breathe her final breaths.
Over the next couple days as we prepared Katie’s funeral, I heard others describe the incredible warmth and tangible peace of God they experienced during those last hours in Katie’s hospital room. They described the overwhelming calmness and comfort that God provided in such a dark hour. Not just one, but multiple people recounted feeling the same overwhelming sense of peace as they said their goodbyes to sweet Katie.
I listened intently to their recollection of that night. I thought about my own experience of those very same hours. And then the brokenness in my heart pierced even deeper.
Why had I not felt the same presence of God? What was wrong with me? Was I less spiritually mature than them? Or even worse, was God turning me away?
I was too ashamed at the time to admit to anyone that not only had I not experienced those hours the same way they had, but almost everything I had felt that night was completely opposite of what they described.
Out of respect for Katie and others who were there during her final hours, I don’t want to go into much detail about all that I remember from her last day. But here are some things I don’t think Katie would mind me sharing.
The room was burning up. But even though I was physically sweating through my clothes, my bones felt cold as ice. It was a deep, shivering cold that coursed through my bones relentlessly.
I knew what was happening but I couldn’t cry. As long as Katie was still breathing, I couldn’t let my brain or my heart go to thoughts of her no longer being with us. I needed to stay focused on being present for her and her family. I could deal with my grief later, I told myself.
The afternoon turned into night. The darker it became outside, the colder by bones felt.
The changes in Katie’s state of health changed so drastically in just a few short hours. The images and sounds will never leave my memory. Some are more beautiful than I could ever put into words, like the way her husband and mother never left her side. Others are best left unvisited.
Late into the night, a pastor began leading us all in prayer. A few minutes into the prayer, my 9 month pregnant body hit its limit and the room started to spin. I hated the thought of leaving Katie, but I knew I needed to step out for a moment to breathe some fresh air and sit down. We had been in there for hours and I knew I needed a moment to take care of the precious little life kicking around inside me. I quietly slipped into the hall thinking I would just refresh and then go back in when my head felt more stable. What I didn’t know at the time was that I would never again be in the room with a living, breathing Katie.
While I was out in the hall, everyone said goodbye for the final time and left the room
so her family could have some much needed time alone Katie. While we were in the waiting room, Katie took her last breath. Her sister came back to the waiting room and let us know what had happened. At first I didn’t hear what she said. When someone later repeated the words, Katie is gone, it all came crashing down.
I couldn’t hold it together any longer. It didn’t matter if I was going to piss Katie off anymore, the tears were coming and there was absolutely nothing else I could do to keep them bottled up any longer.
Her family was so sweet and allowed us girls to go back in the room a final time to see Katie before we left the hospital. Holding her hand and looking at her in the same pink blanket we had given her just a few months earlier, I couldn’t hold back the sobs.
The room felt empty. It was still full of people. But it felt so empty without Katie breathing.
If I was supposed to feel God in that moment, I didn’t. Everything felt so wrong. This was not how things were supposed to be. No one is supposed to die a horrible death when they are a young newlywed. Peace was a nice thought, but it was not my reality.
Maybe I just needed to adjust my attitude, I told myself. But I knew that wasn’t true. I still believed that God was good. I still believed he had a greater purpose than anything we could understand in this life. I still believed that he loved us, I still saw evidence of his goodness and mercy all around me. But I couldn’t feel him.
When I had expected to feel his warmth, I felt cold. When I had expected to feel peace, I felt fear and anger. When I had expected to feel his presence, I felt emptiness.
Over two years have passed since Katie moved on from this life. The beauty and blessings that have poured into my life over the last two years have been remarkable. God has blessed me with two amazing kids who make every day a gift. I have a loving husband who sacrifices daily to take care of our family and protect our country. I have an incredibly supportive family and more genuine friends than I could ever deserve.
But even with all the good, even with the overwhelming gratefulness I have in my heart for all that God has redeemed in my life, I have still struggled to feel God’s presence since Katie left.
When I sit in church, I usually feel one of three things: numb, on the verge of tears, or burning anger. When I try attending women’s bible studies where some perfectly put together speaker refers to “bad days” as having the rain mess up her hair or having her water heater run out of gas on a cold snowy day, I want to scream. When I sit down to read my bible, I feel numb. When I pray for God’s protection over my children, a stab of fear often hits my stomach knowing that sometimes God’s ways are not our ways and I have absolutely no idea (and very little control over) what my kids’ futures will hold.
Perhaps it is wrong for me to share this with others. Perhaps some will view this as too negative and a poor testimony to the power of God.
But if I have felt this, there are likely others who are experiencing something similar in their own grief. And if there’s anything I want in this life, it’s for others to know they are not alone in their struggles.
If anyone is wrestling with similar feelings, I want them to know it doesn’t mean God is actually far away, or that something is wrong with them, or that he’s turning his back on them.
As long as we live on this Earth, shit is going to happen (sorry for the language, Mom). Deep, unbearable pain will hit, probably multiple times, in every person’s lifetime.
Some of those times the supernatural, all-consuming peace of God will wash over us in ways more tangible than words can explain. I promise that is real—I have experienced it before even if it wasn’t what I felt when we lost Katie. It’s not just some nice thought that Christians use to make each other feel better. It is a true peace that brings more stillness and comfort to my soul than any other comfort I’ve known.
But, is it possible that sometimes God might lead us through seasons where his presence is less emotionally and physically tangible in order to strengthen us and mature our faith in ways we might not otherwise experience if he always “felt” close?
I don’t know about you, but I’ve found these spiritually colder seasons require much more intentionality from my faith.
Choosing to place my hope in Christ when the pain of grief far outweighs all the cliché things well-meaning Christians say when they haven’t yet walked through the trenches…
Choosing to rest in God’s sovereignty when I feel anxiety wreaking havoc on my body and mind…
Choosing to trust when my heart tells me it’s too dangerous…
Choosing to love when my wounds tell me to build walls…
Choosing to never give up when the enemy whispers that hope is pointless…
Choosing to believe God’s here with me even when the enemy tells me God’s turned his back on me…
Choosing to lean into Christ’s love even when I can’t feel him nearby…
Intentionally choosing faith in spite of everything I’m feeling, those are the moments my faith is made real. Those are the times my endurance grows. Those are the days my faith is stripped raw, my hope is tested, and the only thing that matters is knowing Christ conquered it all, this is not the end, and no matter what happens in this life, no matter how close or how far he “feels” today, my God wins in the end.
I may not always have piece in the moment, but at the end of the day I sleep knowing that no matter what happens tomorrow, Christ has overcome death and one day even my deepest sorrows will be made new in him.
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,”[a] for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’[b] or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”