I remember the day, even though it was a long time ago, with clarity. Peggy and I had a decision to make. I was scheduled to take a business trip and, in just a few hours, would board a plane and be hundreds of miles away. But her father was gravely sick and, truthfully, we knew that he could pass away at any time…or weeks from that point. The trip was important for the mission we worked with, we both wanted me to take part in some critical ministry discussions. So we agreed I would go and Peggy would call me if she needed me.
As it happened, Peggy got the news her dad had passed away about 20 minutes after my flight took off. It would be hours before she could reach me, a day or more before I could get back to her. In the depth of her grief the one person she most needed to count on was not available. She didn’t even have a number she could reach me at, this being the days before cell phones. She did the only thing she could do, she called someone else who would be at the meeting and would see me and gave him the news and a request to have me call her.
He was, and is, a good guy, so he was sympathetic and eager to help. In her grief and distress Peggy commented how that this all happened just as I went out of touch for hours and cried in anguish that it was “the worst possible time.” His reply to her was “God’s timing is perfect.” In that instant a large dose of cold theological truth smacked a grieving woman like a two by four to the head.
Peggy and I have talked about that night many times and how good theology can be a poor comfort. What she needed was compassion, understanding and the grace to allow her to express her grief in the way it felt to her, what she got was a lesson on the sovereignty of God. This man remains our friend. I am sure that we all share with him that awkward and unsure feeling in comforting the grieving; there is just no good way to do it. But we learned that night the wisdom of advice my grandmother gave me as a child. “If you can’t say anything helpful, don’t say anything at all.”
I was thinking about that incident when I saw on the news this morning that a candidate for Senate from Indiana, Richard Mourdock, was asked during a debate whether abortion should be allowed in cases of rape. The question was a ticking time bomb. Here is his response:
“I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”
This was, of course, shortened in various headlines to things like “Indiana Senate candidate says pregnancy from rape is God’s intent.”
Once again a theological answer to an emotional question gave poor comfort. When spoken into a politically charged setting it was made worse by those who twisted his words to imply he didn’t care, something his full answer and subsequent comments make clear was a ridiculous assumption. But such is politics and this is why many Christians avoid it.
The tragedy of pregnancy from rape is that it can result in choosing between two innocent victims. Do we radically alter the life of the traumatized innocent woman or terminate the life of the innocent child? Anyone who thinks that question is easy hasn’t really thought it through. Those who blithely pick a side do so only by closing their eyes to one or the other of the victims. While we probably will never face a situation as this candidate did, where someone tries to paint us into a political corner, we may face similar difficult questions.
The lasting lesson is clear. Theology can be cold comfort. Only grace speaks to the hurting heart with the love of God. My call is to comfort the afflicted, to weep with those who weep. Theology may ground me to do this wisely but only grace equips my heart to want to.