We had just finished our first worship session. Our youth group was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota for a mission trip and it was now time to break out into our small groups that we would be working with for the week. We were staying in a local high school and the group I had been assigned to gathered in one of the hallways near the gym. I rested my back up against the wall and looked ahead at the wall in front of me. There were seven large picture frames with names, birth dates and death dates, and a collage representing each student’s passions and interests. One collage caught my eye. The student’s name was Aaron and he had died the year before. There was a basketball, a bow and a buck, a large mouth bass and a red rose in the middle. Not realizing that my leader could have been from anywhere, I pointed at the picture and asked him, “Did you know Aaron?” My leader replied, “Oddly enough I did. I actually just moved to California this year, but I used to be a teacher and a basketball coach here. Aaron was such a good kid.” My heart sank. “I’m so sorry for your loss.” The leaders phone rang and he stepped away from the circle. I focused on the death dates of the other students. The school had lost seven students in the last few years. Almost accidentally I shared with my new group, “Wow. This community has been through it. I don’t think we’ve lost a student at our high school in like 10 years.” My observation was met with silence.
Our leader came back. He knelt down in front of me and put his hand on my knee. He broke the silence as he broke the news. As his eyes met mine he uttered words that I’ll never forget, even though I have been trying to forget them ever since: “Matt. I’m so sorry. Your friend Kyle was killed in a car accident earlier today.”
And from what I can remember of that moment, all hell broke loose. I fell to the floor and I wept. The world went black and the emotional chaos ensued.
Later that night I tried to fall asleep but to no avail. I found a chair near a door that exited out to a field behind the school. I can’t really remember what happened but I know that I ended up in that field. As my tears dried and the shock wore off my anger overwhelmed me. In a fit of rage I looked up to the dark night sky and screamed, “God! If you can’t keep my friend alive, then why don’t you just go to Hell!”
If you have lost someone you love you know the cruel reality that time doesn’t stop for you. The world moves on. But you and your broken heart most certainly do not. The days that followed that horrible night turned into weeks, but the echo of my scream carried on: “Why don’t you just go to hell!”
In the weeks that followed I really didn’t want much to do with God. Why would I believe in someone who allows this kind of stuff to happen? Why would I put my faith in some “one” or some “thing” that doesn’t seem to show up when I need him the most? Why would I put my faith in a God who decides to play hide and go seek as a car slams into my friend robbing him, and all of us, of his life?
A couple of months later I found myself standing in church. I went to a Christian Reformed Church growing up, and so typical protocol required that we recite The Apostles Creed. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. If you haven’t, this is how it goes:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
And born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, died, and was buried;
He descended to hell…
Even as I type those last four words it sends a shiver down my spine: He descend to hell. I sat down on the pew and the tears welled up in my eyes. In that moment my rage, the rage that screamed, “God, why don’t you just go to hell!” was overwhelmed by the gentle whisper of Jesus: “Matt, I have been there. And I am with you now.”
A few years later I stumbled upon a book titled Telling The Truth by Frederick Buechner. In the book he tells the story of that day Jesus experienced hell himself.
“Later in the garden where it was his own death he had to sweat out, we are told he sweated blood. He said, “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me”, and the cup was not removed from him presumably because the Father was not willing to remove it, and one suspects that the unwillingness of the Father may have been harder for Jesus to choke down than the cup itself was. Later it was harder still. By the time he had been hanging there for awhile, he had no tears left to weep with and no more sweat, his tongue so dry he could hardly wrap it around the words which are among the few he ever spoke that people remembered in the language he spoke them in probably because having once heard them, they could never forget them no matter how hard they tried, and probably they tried hard and often: “My God, my God, why have you—“ and then the Aramaic verb from the Arabic root meaning to run out on, leave in the lurch, to be the Hell and Gone. “My God, my God, why hast though forsaken me.” My God, where the Hell are you, meaning if thou are our Father who art in Heaven, be thou also our Father who art in Hell because Hell is where the action is, where I am and the cross is. It is where the pitiless storm is. It is where men labor and are heavy laden under the burden of their own lives without you. Where they cut themselves shaving and smoke three packs a day though they know the surgeon general’s warning by heart.”
If we are willing to be completely honest with ourselves, we have all experienced some reality of, “My God, My God, where the hell are you?” What I never could have imagined is that it would be in the midst of my deep, dark, and chaotic rage that Jesus would gently show up and whisper the words, “Matt, I have been there. And I am here with you now.”
I continue to wrestle with God. I still have days when I throw my hands up in the air and yell, “God, where the Hell are you?” Sometimes I slip into deep and dark places and I sarcastically wonder, “What kind of a sick joke is this?” I still long for an answer to that simple, but unanswerable question: Why?”
I don’t have answers and I don’t know that I have any good advice either. But here is what I’m learning along the way:
God doesn’t need me to be right. But he does long for me to be real.
God doesn’t need me to put on a smile and choose joy because that’s what I’m supposed to do. But he does yearn for me to stop hiding my doubt, my hurt, and my heartbreak.
God doesn’t want me to ignore the hell of my life or the hell of this world and He doesn’t want you to ignore it either. But when we cry out He does promise to show up and be with us when we are in the thick of it.
And I don’t know what He will say to you or how He will say it. But I know I’ll never forget the day Jesus met me in the midst of my cry: “Why don’t you just go to hell!” I’ll never forget the day I heard Jesus whisper: “Matt, I have been there. And I am here with you now.”