Unpacking My Faith.

I threw my backpack to the floor and flattened it with my abdomen, yanking the zipper with all my might. I was determined to make it all fit, but I was having trouble. We were leaving on a ten-day, six-city (and what felt like 100 different train rides and 72 flights) trip abroad in Europe, and I was afraid of being unprepared.

My roommates teased me in my struggle.

“I think you can leave behind the extra winter coat,” Brenda laughed as I huffed.

“I. can make. this fit,” I panted. When I let go, two pairs of jeans unraveled and my hairbrush skidded across the floor.

Just then the door to our room swung open and Shahana came into the room, ghostly pale and crying. She collapsed onto the bed silently and pulled the covers close until her small frame disappeared beneath the duvet.

Brenda, Libby, and I exchanged glances and continued packing quietly. Several minutes passed and we thought she had fallen asleep, but then she pulled the blankets away from her face and addressed me in a whisper,

“Bethy? What do you think happens to people when they commit suicide?”

I paused, shocked by her question. Oh, God. What do I even say?

“I am so sorry, Shahana,” I said finally. “Who was it?”

A friend she hadn’t seen or talked to in years had killed herself the day before. Shahana cried and lamented her complacency as we listened. The miles between our Salzburg inn and our Midwest lives felt further than ever.

“What does Christianity teach you about suicide?” she prompted again.

“… Do you really want to know what they say?” I asked, my heart heavy as lead.

“No,” she answered.

I knew what a lot of Christians thought about it

–but none of it was worth repeating in the face of my friend’s raw grief. What is the truth about suicide? Is it selfishness? Insanity? Unforgivable sin? What would Jesus say to Shahana right now?

“What do you think happens to people when they commit suicide, Shahana?”

She waited a moment.

“I imagine that they find themselves in a room together, and they sit in a circle and talk, like in AA meetings,” she said.

I tried to picture it, familiar faces filling in the circle of metal folding chairs – Shahana’s friend next to a girl on my freshman softball team, next to my friend’s dad, next to the guy from my church that I always thought was handsome and never knew his name, next to the two girls from my husband’s seventh grade class.

I thought about Shahana and our roommates, the sparse conversations we had already had about our beliefs. I deeply admired Shahana for her regard of those of us who believed in God, even when she wasn’t sure she did. I thought about how different we were. She was half Indian, half Caucasian. Her father was Muslim and her mother was Christian, though they weren’t devout. I was raised Baptist and had spent several summers at church camp and on missions trips in Toronto, Puerto Rico, Philadelphia, Northern Ireland, and even at a Native American reservation in the Black Hills of South Dakota. I had been baptized and attended a Christian university where I took classes in biblical history and missions.

But when confronted by Shahana’s questions and grief, all of my experience and education felt paper-thin, a band-aid on a bullet wound.

“I’m so sorry for your loss, Shahana. I really don’t know how to answer your question.”

It felt so weak and unnerving to admit that.

To this day I still have no definitive answer to that question.

Yet even without an answer, I didn’t come away from that conversation empty-handed.

It could have easily derailed my belief in God to realize that even if I had the answer, I’m not sure I would like it. It could have easily given Shahana reason to doubt my faith’s legitimacy, too.

More than any other experience in missions or in my own life, Shahana’s question has challenged my faith. Her questions unpacked all of my heavy-handed theology and emptied me of my pride. That conversation and the questions I found myself asking in the days after filled me with a new understanding of God’s grace in keeping us humble. And although I can’t speak on her behalf, it didn’t deter us from having more discussions about God, faith, religion, and relationships.

Somehow my faith became more real when I finally was able to utter the words, “God, I don’t know.”

The thing about unpacking our faith is that it leaves a lot more room for grace – grace for ourselves, grace for our loved ones, grace for our enemies, grace for the hurt that all of us hold. And the wonderful thing about grace is that it heals.

Grace doesn’t weigh us down.

Grace lifts us up and grows our love and moves us toward change.

What is the hardest question anyone has ever asked you about your faith? How did you respond to it? If you were asked the same question today, how would you respond?

[photo: Jordan Pryor]

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  • Cardigan

    The hardest question I was ever asked was, “How can you still believe in a loving God when he’s let three of your unborn children DIE?” This was following my third miscarriage, and the person asking it of me was my unbelieving husband, who had heard the Good News but struggled with building a relationship with this God of mine. I think I answered the same way– “I don’t know.” And I saw it slip from my fingers like it was in slow motion– that golden opportunity to say something profound that would change the course of his walk forever, but I didn’t. I said, “I don’t know.” and the moment disappeared.

    The truth is, at that moment, I wasn’t sure God was good. I was furious. I didn’t know how to convince him of something I was struggling with myself.

    • http://www.bethanysuckrow.com/ Bethany Suckrow

      Yes, Cardigan, it so unsettling and scary to say, “I don’t know.” I’m always worried that by saying that, I’m missing my one shot to help people see God’s grace. But ultimately, it’s really not up to us and our words to change hearts. Our actions set the example, and to have the humility to admit to your husband, someone that you share so much of your life with, that you don’t know all the answers, is still a powerful thing. I pray that God uses that experience and your faith to reach his heart. Thank you for reading and for sharing your story!

  • http://lifebeforethebucket.blogspot.com/ Adrian Waller

    It’s amazing how life can so quickly dismantle our education, which we’re so quick to cling to at other times.

    Thanks for your courage in sharing this with us, Bethany. It’s a beautiful post.

    • http://www.bethanysuckrow.com/ Bethany Suckrow

      Thanks, Adrian!

  • Lucie

    This is such a difficult subject. I really feel for your friend. My own feeling, for whatever it’s worth, is that God judges each suicide case just as individually as He judges ALL departed souls, regardless of how death occurred. I’m reminded of a phrase from a novel, when the main character’s (atheist) husband has died and she lets the preacher handling his funeral know ahead of time that her late husband, while no saint, had plenty of good in him as well, her point of view being that “The Lord would judge, and the Lord would know what to judge from.” Who can say it better than that?

    • http://www.bethanysuckrow.com/ Bethany Suckrow

      So true. None of us can know for sure how God has worked in a person’s heart, and even though it’s hard not to have the answers, it’s also a relief. I’m so glad it’s not up to me to decide! As much as I struggle with it sometimes, the world really is a better place without me in charge. ;)

  • Pauline Scott

    http://paulinesthoughts.com/what-i-learned-about-suicide – I wrote a post about what I learned when my sister-in-law committed suicide (three years ago this Aug. 15). It has two helpful links in the article for people who are contemplating it, and people who know people who have committed suicide from people who work with this difficult situation.

    My mother-in-law asked me a similar question on the day of the funeral. I just told her that God’s grace is big, and that we always have hope. I don’t know what else to say in cases like that. My mother-in-law was in her 90s at the time and she just died earlier this year.

    It was a difficult time in my faith life and is still haunting.

    However, it helped me to see people differently who are struggling with conflict and to reach out to them more.

    • http://www.bethanysuckrow.com/ Bethany Suckrow

      Wow thanks for sharing, Pauline. I am so sorry to hear about your sister and mother-in-law. I think that even when we come to terms with what we can know of God’s love, experiences like that are meant to haunt us in a way, to keep us active, to keep us from becoming numb to others’ pain. Even four years later, I think about Shahana’s question and her grief a lot and it always challenges me to be sensitive of what others are wrestling with in their beliefs.

  • http://KatieAxelson.com/ Katie Axelson

    You handled the situation really well, Bethany. I once heard a Christian leader talk about suicide. I wish I remembered what he said. All I remember is that it was really good, really heart-felt, and really Biblical.

    • http://www.bethanysuckrow.com/ Bethany Suckrow

      Don’t you hate how everything you’ve heard and read flies out the window as soon as you need to remember it? Haha. I never do a sermon or a passage in a book justice when I try to remember them. Thanks for reading, Katie.

      • http://KatieAxelson.com/ Katie Axelson

        The best way for me to remember and process things is by writing them. Even then, I remember my words more than the words of someone else. It’s the idea of you really learn something when you need to teach it and writing’s my chosen method of teaching.

  • http://everydayawe.com/ Stephanie Spencer

    I’ve been asked some questions that seem hard in seminary and other venues of theological discussions. But in reality, those questions are easy. Because they are talked about separate from life experiences. It is when you are sitting across the table from someone in the midst of pain and grief that the questions become heavy. I think you were so, so wise to say I don’t know. Because even if you did, answers weren’t what was needed at that time. It was presence. I think of how often Jesus didn’t answer the questions posed to him. Love trumps theological posturing every time.

    • http://jasonandkelliwoodford.blogspot.com/ kelli woodford

      Well said, Stephanie. I couldn’t agree more.
      A truly humble, fitting approach to a grinding subject, Bethany.
      Thank you.

    • http://www.bethanysuckrow.com/ Bethany Suckrow

      YES, Stephanie! Even as I wrote this, I was compelled to go back and read through some parts of the Gospel where Jesus talks about salvation, and I love that He doesn’t always answer. He was so much more relational with people than we are comfortable with, especially as American Christians. His Grace is so radical. :)

  • http://cajoh.blogspot.com/ Christopher Johnson

    When I was younger I used to think that I will eventually know everything. However, as time went on I realized that there is more and more that I do not know. I enjoy how you relate the question with being prepared for a trip. We think that our faith shows us the answer, but when we look in our suitcase and find that what we may need is not there, it truly teaches us humbleness. Thanks for sharing,

    • http://www.bethanysuckrow.com/ Bethany Suckrow

      Thank you, Christopher! I think we can also look in our “suitcase of faith” and realize all the things we thought we needed that don’t belong, too, you know?

    • Lucie

      The older you get, the more you realize how little you really know. Trust me!

  • http://sayable.net/ Lore Ferguson

    Gosh girl. You are pure gem through and through.

    • http://www.bethanysuckrow.com/ Bethany Suckrow

      Thanks, love. Same to you. Thanks for reading. :)

  • 1lori_1

    Bethany, this is such an important issue and I love how you addressed it in this post….unpacking our faith. I worked with a devout Christian lady who lost a daughter to suicide and she had been so hurt by people telling her that her daughter would not go to Heaven…..Who of us knows the where the mind is in that place of deep darkness? I think this is one of those issues we have to leave squarely in God’s hands. I don’t know what else to do with it.

    • http://www.bethanysuckrow.com/ Bethany Suckrow

      I agree, Lori! And even as I wrote this post, I found myself looking for instances in Scripture that talk about death, suicide, etc. There are six counts of suicide in Scripture, all under very different circumstances, but there is never a point when God talks about it directly (that I could discern.) I think we are meant to leave it in His hands, because when someone is brought to that point of decision, it is between God and that person, right? And I think those that grieve the loss of someone that committed suicide face a different grief than most of us ever experience, so who are we to throw theology at them? Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

      • Lucie

        It has been suggested that the reason the Bible says so little on the subject is because to indicate that suicides were eternally lost would only add to the grief and horror of those left behind, while to indicate the opposite might tempt some into getting to Heaven a little faster (my paraphrase). I have no idea whether this is true, but it does seem to make some sense.

  • Emily_Maynard

    Somehow my faith became more real when I finally was able to utter the words, “God, I don’t know.”
    Mine too, B. Mine too. The day I said that is the beginning of me meeting God for real. Thank you for sharing this powerful story. You tell it well.

    • http://www.bethanysuckrow.com/ Bethany Suckrow

      Thanks, Em!

  • http://twitter.com/_ForeverHis17 Tara B

    Wow. This is just all soo good but my favorite part was, “Somehow my faith becamse mroe real when I finally was able to utter the words, “God, I don’t know.” Yes!! That was for me and thank you for writing it! God bless you!

  • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

    This is great. Lately I’ve become more comfortable with not having answers- I used to be afraid to ask the hard questions because not having an answer would be The Most Terrible Thing Ever. But now I believe if God is real, he can take it when I challenge him, when I tell him something in the bible is dumb, etc. Ironically, I am now challenging God and the bible a lot BECAUSE my faith is strong.

  • http://www.losingself.org/ Tracy Mbabu

    I still have a long way to go when it comes to my faith.

  • Bridget

    As I have lived (not long mind you, but its what I’ve got), I have discovered that God is a God of the Uncertain. He is the God of Mystery. This is the dude who literally exists outside of time because he FREAKING CREATED IT. That blows my mind. As part of this, he is also a God of Gray. We are commanded to live in the gray. Many people call this “faith”, I call it hard as anything. I have found, though, when we press into the gray, when we are transparent with ourselves and with God and with our brothers and sisters in Christ about the gray, the gray matters less. When we let ourselves live and exist in the gray, the questions become stronger and almost more exciting. If we live in the gray, questions don’t scare us as much anymore, because we recognize that that is exactly where God created us to be. It is actually kind of amazing and wonderful in a twisted, terrifying way :-) I still have a long way to go, but my first step has been to press into the gray, because it is exactly where God has called us to be.