“I am becoming my mother," I said to my husband, Jeff, as we stood outside taking yet another picture to remember our weekend getaway. It was blowing snow and we were all underdressed, but like my mother, I knew that without a camera, my memory might fail me.
As a child I never understood my mom’s insistence about taking pictures like this. It seemed her need to capture every moment increased on vacation. I remember camping in the mountains near Ouray, Colorado, when I was 13. My dad had just grilled some burgers and my mom was the first to use the ketchup. Without considering the elevation, she opened the bottle, only to have it explode all over her hands and clothes. Most people would have reached for a napkin at this point—but not my mom. She reached for her camera. As frustrated as I was at her need to take a picture, I valued the smile it brought to her face.
I wonder if I would have posed differently had I known it would be the last picture we would ever take of us sitting together.
Two days later, my family was making the 24-hour drive to our home in Chicago. We were stopping to take a break at my mom’s friends' home in Bettendorf, Iowa. About 12 minutes from their house, just as we were ready to get off the interstate, our car rolled.
When the crash happened, I was asleep in the back of the station wagon. The car flipped in the air about 10 feet. I flew out of the window and landed on the other side of the ditch, facing the oncoming traffic. No injuries. My dad had a cracked rib. My brother had a few scratches on his arm. The three of us were totally fine. But the car landed on my mother’s side. The force caused her to hit her head on the cement. Within moments my mom was dead.
My brother came and sat behind me and just started praying. He had seen my mother so I was picking up on his fear. And then they pulled her out of the car, and that’s the hardest part for me. I remember what she looked like. A child shouldn’t have to watch anyone die … but their mother … it was really rough.
I was just 13. I didn’t know my mom like I knew my best friend. I can’t tell you her fears, I can’t tell you the deepest parts of her soul. I can’t even tell you a whole lot about her relationship to Jesus, but I can tell you she loved Him and she talked about Him, enough that I was annoyed by it. I'd think, “Oh, not again, not more Jesus!” but she loved to talk about Him.
She was a classroom mom and she was always talking to my teachers—not about me—about Jesus. In college she told her friend Ruth Ann about Jesus, and Ruth Ann was transformed by the Gospel. Two years later she told my mom about a friend, saying, “Hey, we’ve got a new brother in Christ, let’s celebrate with him. His name’s Bill.” My mom went out with him and a few months later they were engaged to be married.
So she was an evangelist—I wish I had more of that in me.
My parents both loved Jesus and had spent most of their lives building a community that was there to support me right after the accident. They loved me through it, but some were quick to assign God's name to my tragedy. In my mind, they were attributing the wreck to God, but at the same time saying this is not His ideal. I heard all sorts of things, some biblical, but perhaps unhelpful out of context. “God must have needed her more in heaven than we did.“ "God’s timing is always better than ours.” Very few of these resonated, but one thing my father said stuck.
He sat me down a few days after the funeral when everyone else went back to normal life and said, “Tsinia, you could spend your whole life asking why, and you will probably never know. But you can know this with confidence. God loves you more than you can imagine and He can do something incredible with this mess.”
My dad was right. Over the next several years I watched God rebuild my family and I witnessed healing and forgiveness. My Dad ended up marrying my mom’s dear friend a little over a year after her death and moving us to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Her husband, my dad’s best friend, had died of cancer the year before, and the two remaining spouses fell in love.
As a 14-year-old I thought, “How dare you!” But my stepmother was a lady who held me in the hospital when I was born. She loved me and she loved my father. She also understood the importance of Christian community and prepped her youth group students that I was coming, so they all clung to me right away.
I went through high school with these foundational people who were in this Jesus thing with me. In Chicago, I had very few Christian friends, so I’d turn to social things when I felt sad. But my friends in Cedar Rapids kept going back to the Bible or going back to prayer. I was witnessing them choosing to go back to Jesus. Now it wasn’t just my parents being the “crazy” people, it was people my own age, people I liked and trusted, people like me who were also going back to this “crazy” Jesus thing.
In college I met Jeff. We were both on a leadership team in the campus ministry we were part of. I got to know him spiritually
far quicker than I got to know him emotionally or intellectually. And I couldn’t resist him. He just captivated me. He has an ability to sit in a room and listen to everyone and then in one statement encapsulate it all. I married a wise man whose wisdom points me to Jesus.
Over time, I thought God and I were in a pretty good place. I pursued knowing Him, but I held Him at a distance emotionally. Because my theology led me to see everything as part of God’s master plan, I had a hard time talking to Him about my sadness. If my mom was destined to die, why would God need to hear my sorrow or pain? I was convinced He wanted things this way or else she wouldn’t have died.
I remember very clearly sitting in my son’s nursery 15 years after her death. I was admiring Emmett the way only a mom admires her baby, when it hit me. I am a motherless child. The person whose love I always expected would be there was gone.
I have an incredible stepmother. She loves me deeply and I know that. But she isn’t a replacement. There’s something about the way a mother loves her child that I’m glad I didn’t understand at 13. It took me 15 years, when I was having my own child, to realize what I missed out on.
How could God do such a thing? How could He replace such a love with the fear that invaded my thoughts nearly every time I got into a car? Why would He want my memories of a mom to be trumped by visions of her violent death? Suddenly, I was having a hard time reconciling my feelings toward God. I had some anger.
Jeff knew how I was feeling toward God when he called me on it. We were sitting in the car when he said that I had been blaming God all these years. He encouraged me to consider the possibility that this was Satan's deal. What if evil was to blame? What if God hated that I had experienced such tragedy?
It was like a veil had been lifted. Never before had someone I trusted spiritually given me permission to consider God like this. Scriptures came flooding to my mind of a God who wanted us to live, not to die. Jesus said He came to give life and to give life abundantly. He wept over his friend Lazarus’ death and raised him again to new life. When He entered Jerusalem, Jesus wept over the city. Those are two examples given in the Bible where Jesus cries, and in both those examples Jesus is crying over something that genuinely grieved His heart. Why would He cry if He caused those things? How could there be true grief if He had been the cause? It’s Jesus who is the most accurate picture of God that we have. Scripture tells us that time and time again.
The Main Thing
Growing up, I remember my dad saying you’ve got to keep the main thing the main thing. And the main thing is seeing that Jesus is who He says He is. As long as I don’t lose sight of the fact that Jesus is the son of God and that He died on the cross and He rose again to bring new life—as long as I’m keeping the main thing the main thing, I have the freedom to ask other questions, like, “Why do bad things happen?”
There’s got to be some acknowledgement of the fact that our free will, our choices, invite evil to have its way in the world, that as a result of creation and the fall, we have chosen certain things, and we have given Satan freedom in a lot of areas of our lives that grieve God. God’s not in the business of causing death or even stopping it, God’s in the business of overcoming death.
Me saying that God did not cause this car accident is not me diminishing God’s power in any way. It’s me saying God does have the power. God’s power is to overcome death by bringing new life, new life which He’s given me, He’s given my father, He’s given my brother. There is beauty to be found all over my story, and there’s this one day of tragedy that had its impacts.
I’m one of millions of children in the world who are motherless, so I want to serve a God who’s on my team, who’s saying, “This is not the way I wanted it. This is the way
it is, this side of the kingdom, this is the way it is.” I want to serve a God who’s grieving with the millions of other children who are also motherless.
In response to suffering, I imagine God as a friend, a powerful, powerful friend who just sits in the sadness and weeps with me. And then I imagine a God who overcomes death and says, “Come along with me.”
I think Satan wins when we ascribe something to God that was Satan’s. When we say, “God must have done that.” A lot of people say, “I can’t serve a God who looks like that.” Meanwhile Satan just got off the hook. What if you didn’t have to serve a God like that? What if God isn’t responsible for my loss or anyone else’s?
Keep evil where evil needs to be—with Satan. And keep all true and good and beautiful things with God. And keep Jesus right at the center. Keep the main thing the main thing.
Finding the Good
Many Christians who lose loved ones to death eventually seek out answers in the Old Testament Book of Job.
No book of the Bible—no piece of literature—addresses the question of suffering with more drama and emotion than Job, says Tsinia Borgman’s pastor, Paul Stewart of The Gateway Church.
As the story opens, Satan (the adversary) appears in heaven with a challenge: God, if you take away the hedge of safety and prosperity that you have put around Job, he will curse You to Your face.
Satan’s charge against God is that He runs a rigged universe and is a manipulative deity who blesses those who worship Him and withholds blessings from those who don’t.
God agrees to lift His protection, and Job’s life is attacked mercilessly by Satan. Job loses his children, his cattle and all his possessions. He never knows why and he never learns about Satan challenging God.
Through his stuggles, Job is told by his wife and friends that he must have sinned, though he hasn't. In the climax, God speaks to Job from a whirlwind, asking, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” Job 38:4 NIV. God reminds Job that He is a sovereign Creator and He does not answer to the creation.
God never answers the “Why?” question for Job. None of us get the answer. But we can take some comfort in a verse written to suffering Christians by the Apostle Paul: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” Romans 8:28 NIV.