Amusement parks had always been destinations of choice for my family while I was growing up. It didn’t matter the vacation spot. We would, if there was an amusement park nearby, make it a priority visit. The reason for this priority was that we loved roller-coasters. The Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disney Land, Space Mountain at Disney World, and all the various roller-coasters at Six Flags theme parks called to us to ride them over and over again to our sheer delight.
There was one exception: The free fall ride. I do not know if it is still in existence, but when I knew it at my local Six Flags, it was a ride like an elevator without a door. Only a seatbelt harness held us in. Up six stories it climbed while our stomachs fell. Climbing higher and higher, the expanse of the park and the surrounding communities became like miniature-versions of themselves. It seemed the ride would climb as high as the heights of heaven. Then suddenly, the ascent ended. The car would tilt forward ever so slightly, so that all you could see below was the drop back to earth. For maximum thrill or terror, the car wouldn’t plunge down immediately. Riders sat for what seemed to be an eternity of waiting; suddenly, the mechanical support drew back and the elevator-like car would make its free fall back down to the ground at speeds as high as 90 mph. I only ever went on the free fall once. I hated that ride.
“Sometimes suffering feels like a free fall,” writes J. Todd Billings in his book Rejoicing in Lament.(1) It is a free fall away from all that was normal and routine in one’s life down into what seems to be a spiraling abyss of chaos and despair. After receiving the phone call in the early morning hours that my husband had suffered sudden cardiac arrest, I fell into my own free fall. While sitting in the airport waiting for my flight home, I remember saying to my mother, “My life will never be the same again.” I would free fall into another world never to return to the world I had inhabited for seventeen years with my husband. There would be no return to what was “normal.” There would only be a steadying of my legs, like I had to do after the free fall ride at the amusement park, landing in the strange new world of grief and loss that was mine.
Fortunately for me, I was not the first person to ever experience a loss like this, just as surely as I was not the first to ride the free fall, nor the last to experience its terror. There were many who reached out to me from similar experiences in person, and others who reached out to me through the pages of articles and books chronicling this shared journey. Of course, Christianity affirms a God who joins us in this journey, not as a fellow rider on a free fall, but as the foundation on which we might find our footing again. For author and theologian Todd Billings, this foundation has been tested in his own journey of grief and suffering as a result of a terminal cancer diagnosis. Yet, he writes:
“In a deeply paradoxical way, full of a mystery that blinds by its brightness, Jesus Christ, the God-human, displays the love of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—by taking on our human suffering and terror. Christ, the God-human, takes on the path of human suffering so that we are not pioneers in the darkness, so that we are not in free fall. Instead, even when our suffering seems senseless, even when we feel like we are in free fall, we can look to Christ to see, hear and taste that we are still in the ever-faithful, ever-loving hands of God.”(2)
The “Man of sorrows” and the one “acquainted with grief” is the reason why Christians can affirm that nothing is able to separate us from the love of God…not even death. Jesus Christ offers those who experience the free fall of suffering a firm foundation on which to land. Becoming fully human, Jesus is made the “high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses.” And it is here, Billings notes, in the mystery of the Incarnation “that in Christ, the impassible God becomes one with suffering flesh in order to heal it.”(3) God is not caught off-guard because of human suffering and misery, even as God in Christ identifies with all that it means to be human. “We hope because in Christ, God has taken on human suffering and death so that they are emptied of their ultimate sting.”(4)
But this is not a truth easily gained. In my own free fall into grief, despair, and pain, I needed the space to fall; if only to see and to know that there was a foundation on which I could depend, and which could sustain the weightiness of my pain. I needed to scream all the way down as I fell—screams of desperation, abandonment, anger, and loss. And it was necessary for me to lose all those supports that were, in reality, flimsy and faulty. It was only then, after this long, hard fall that I could begin to steady myself, strengthen my legs and stand up—again.
In the psalms of lament, the anguished cries of the prophets, and in the life and ministry of Jesus, there are pioneers who have gone before all who grieve and suffer. They have experienced the terror of all the twists and turns, the drops and descents of human life. They gave voice to their lament. Perhaps like myself, Dr. Billings, and all those who would wish for a different way, who would wish they didn’t have to ride the free fall of grief and loss, the paradox of the Incarnation—that God is in Christ enveloping human suffering—will yet invite sufferers to stand on this firm foundation.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) J. Todd Billings, Rejoicing In Lament (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015), 151.
(2) Ibid., 157.
(3) Ibid., 163
(4) Ibid., 163.