When Parents Fumble for Answers


I had a second cousin on my dad’s side who was older than me; her name was Lois. She was a big, warm-hearted person with a nice laugh who was always nice to me. My dad, who was never the social sort, really liked Lois, too. And like many children, I wasn’t sophisticated enough to understand the whole relational thing, so Lois was always “Aunt Lois” to me.

When I was about twelve, Lois developed leukemia. I remember many nights I spent praying for Lois. In fact, I think I prayed for Lois more than anyone or anything I can remember from that time. I remember reading verse after verse about how God heals. I prayed my heart out for Lois.

She died a little more than a year later in her young thirties. I was so broken up by this that I did not want to go to the funeral because I thought it was my fault that she died. Part of my childhood died with her.

Friday, I had to take my four-year-old son to the emergency room at the local children’s hospital. Despite my constant care and attention (and only three hours of sleep each on Thursday and Friday AM), I could not keep enough fluids in him to prevent his getting dehydrated. Father & son, hand in handHe entered that vicious vomit cycle of losing so much water from his system that adding it only made him more nauseous. In the end, nothing could stay down. He awoke Friday morning looking like one of those hollow-eyed waifs you see in ads for Third World children’s charities.

Now he’s a resilient kid, and despite some bad allergies to furry animals, he’s relatively healthy. Never once have I heard him say, “Daddy, I feel really terrible,” but he did so today. He looked really terrible, too. So at 8:30 AM, I sat half-conscious beside him and said, “Let’s pray for God to heal you.” After I prayed, he looked up at me and said, “I still feel terrible. Why didn’t God heal me? Why will I have to go to the doctor?”

It was the look on his face that broke something inside of me. That look reminded me of how I felt when my dad came into my room late one night to tell me that Lois had died. The expression I must’ve given my dad then was the same one I now saw in my own son’s eyes.

In that teachable moment, I tried to distill the ideas of special grace versus common grace to him, to tell him that God heals alone and sometimes He uses doctors, but that hurt look remained. There was the chink in the armor of childlike faith in a little boy whom I wished would never lose that simple faith that children seem to be born with, the faith Jesus commends for all of us.

He didn’t say much to me the rest of the afternoon. They turned the TV on in the room they gave him at the hospital, and through much of the four hours we were there watching the electrolyte solution plump him up like air in a deflated balloon, he was glued to Nickelodeon’s snarky cartoons for adults packaged for kids. When I’d had enough of the veiled references, we switched to Nick, Jr. Me, the one with all the answers, didn’t seem too filled with them in that moment and I couldn’t compete with the TV. And though he didn’t once cry at the hospital, despite the IV dripline jabbed in his hand, he cried when he got home over a waxed paper pill cup he’d clung to during the whole ordeal; I’d thrown it away as we were leaving the emergency room.

He’s physically fine now. And though he’d already seen a brain full of TV, his mom and I had rented Singing in the Rain and wanted to watch it before we had to take it back to the library. My son laughed his head off during Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” scene, and for a while everything seemed like it had always been.

I was a sheltered child. Even at in my 20s, I was pretty naïve. I regret none of that. Yet trying to preserve childhood today is an effort I think all of us underestimated when we started having babies. I thought I knew how to handle every possible outcome, but I didn’t know what to do about the look of abject disappointment I saw in the eyes of my own child when he realized that God was not going to make him better there and then, and that a trip to the doctor, and then to the hospital, was the only outcome. In that moment was a slow leaching away of the reservoir of childlike faith that Jesus loved in the children He blessed.

Millstones. I started thinking about millstones we tie around the necks of people less spiritually mature than we are. Had I said something in the past to my son that setup the expectation that was not fulfilled? Not as far as I knew. Though I’m relentless in turning what he hears of naturalistic explanations for life back to explanations of the workings of God in Creation, I must’ve left open a chink.

Adults put on the full armor of God through the spiritual disciplines and intense discipleship. But children must don that armor through the grace of God working in their parents’ personal instruction. With so many forces of darkness attacking from untold directions, I often feel unprepared for that task. The last thing I want to see happen with my son is for me to fumble the answers, to fail to provide his cover as he moves into adulthood.

It’s that look of innocence lost in a child’s eyes that should chill every parent to the bone.

7 thoughts on “When Parents Fumble for Answers

  1. This is why I like your blog so much. Real honest, transparent truth. The things that matter burn in your heart. You express them well and give grace to others in doing this.

    Although all of my children are now graduated from high school, how well I remember the very same thoughts, struggles, and feelings of helplessness.

    People ask me, “how did you raise 5 kids in this day and age that turned out so well” and I must answer, ” I did not. This is the grace of God.” Our children are in His hands.
    Blessings and agape, Bruce Harpel

  2. jared

    Wow. Dan, have you been reading my mind?
    In two hours, I have to take Macy (4 yrs.) to the doctor because a half-golfball sized sore on her bottom just isn’t going away. She’s been praying since last weekend, and we’ve been praying, and we’ve been putting antibiotic cream on it, but it’s just gotten worse.

    She didn’t take the doctor news well. She said, “Let’s just ask God to make it better.”
    I posted a bit on this at Thinklings a few days ago, about how her faith is so enormous. She KNOWS God can fix her bo-bo. Now she wonders why He hasn’t.

    She’s very worried that whatever the doctor does will hurt. And she’s already in a lot of pain, as it is. I tried explaining that even if what the doctor does hurts, it is only so that the bo-bo will get better and go away. I’ve tried connecting that thought, so bizarre to a child’s mind, to how Jesus did something that hurt very much so that we could all “get better.”

    But I still see her mind working, her confusion, her fear.
    Last night, my wife told Macy that if she could, she’d take the bo-bo herself and put it on her instead.
    Macy said, “But Mama, that would hurt you.”
    Becky said, “But it’d be worth it if it stopped hurting you.”

    Parenting is hard.

  3. “I must’ve left open a chink.”

    How many times, especially recently, have I shouted that at myself! How well I know that feeling – it’s a feeling of “I didn’t do enough, I failed”

    But I’m quite sure, Dan, that you haven’t. What put a chink in the armor (and it may not even be a chink – it may be a new plate. Time will tell) was life. It was living in this fallen world. The Lord uses these times to strengthen our dependence on Him, to strengthen our faith, to teach us an prepare us for life lived in a world hostile to Him in every way.

    Keep doing what you’re doing – it sounds like to me that you are doing a fantastic job as a parent.

  4. Robbymac

    This is very reminiscent of my trying to explain to my two-year-old daughter why her new-born brother was never coming home from the hospital.

    My daughter’s child-like faith was jarred by her brother’s death, but in the years since (she’s 16 now), she’s seen many examples of faith at work, and also examples of not seeing the results that are prayed for. Her faith remains.

    I think it’s partly because of God’s intervention in her own life, partly because of the choices she has made to trust Him even when she doesn’t understand, and partly because her parents (Wendy & I) have modelled continued trust in God, even when we didn’t/don’t have all the answers.

    Thanks for sharing so honestly in this post. I encourage you to continue to model this kind of real, authentic, honest Christianity for your children. In the long run, that kind of modelling will make all the difference.

  5. Scott

    I have to agree with Bill, Dan – “it may be a new plate.” I remember having the same thing happen to me as a child – prayer for healing and no healing. It happened several times that I can recall and each time it was both disappointing and confusing. It still disturbs my heart today, though I have better answers for why. But God “is not a tame lion.” And we can’t paint him blue and call him Genie, either. Perhaps God is merely beginning to guide him into His mystery. Nevertheless, I’m hurting with you. Peace|Prayers.

  6. Brian in Fresno

    Thanks for this great post Dan. There is something in it for every parent! Your post has touched my in a very special way as I continue to try to teach and display the life that is so important to me to my children. I truly pray that God won’t allow me to fail them. I fear that would be more than I can bear.

  7. Duncan

    Thanks for the stories Dan. Coming to terms with loss is no easy thing, for children or adults.

    My wife and I fostered a teenage boy whose dad died of cancer and whose mother died within a month of him coming to stay with us. He was like an old man – weighed down by having to go through grief at such an early age.

    We didn’t know then that our own kids would face something similar. Our third child died at the age of 18 months, hit by a car on the road outside our house. Breaking the news to them was no easy thing. We talked about the bird that had died. The cat that had died. And now their sister. It took a while to come to terms with that. But with that acquaintance with the death of a sibling came the realisation that one day their parents would die. And them too.

    On Kristen’s gravestone we put the phrase, “We are fragile beings living in a dangerous world”. I would add to that now something of the beauty and wonder of that world. Having come to terms with loss, our task as parents has become one of rediscovering the adventure of living courageously and creatively, despite our fears.

    We’ve experienced God’s healing in the work of doctors, in the natural God-given healing processes in the body, and also in prayer. But we see that none of it is magic. We don’t have the power to automatically or painlessly manipulate our health.

    Compassion has emerged out of these experiences. The realisation that many people suffer. Spending time in hospital opens us up to a world of people who are in the struggle for recovery.

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