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God and the art of road trip parenting

Is God really indifferent to our suffering?

Since my teens I had been familiar with the common atheist argument that God either does not exist or He must be utterly indifferent to our suffering and therefore not good. The first long road trip I attempted to make with my children after the death of my husband in a car accident brought new insight for me into those arguments.

My six children were between 14 and 4 years of age at the time. My husband had been asleep in the Lord for two years when I decided to try a summer road trip back to my hometown in the Midwest.

We were starting out on day two of a two day journey, refreshed after an evening of swimming and rest in a motel, full of complementary breakfast, armed with various diversions, when the kids started melting down: first, there were complaints, which I corrected from the driver seat, then began the fighting, which caused me alarm and then eventually several were crying, and finally full- volume screaming.

This is ridiculous. It just makes no sense. They are not calming down, they are escalating. This is a small space. What are they thinking!? They were usually fairly well-behaved, this was very strange and I could not account for it.

I kept making the usual threats, “Kids, I am going to pull over this van and….” What!? What will I do… ? I wracked my brain for suitable consequences that I could mete out in the confines of our van but in my panic nothing came to mind. They wouldn’t do this if their father were alive. I will just stick it out and be patient. It’s not like I can turn around, we are half way there! They are making things worse for themselves! I continued to make it clear that I was not happy with their behavior.

But then on top of their persistent chaos, a shoe sailed past my head from the back seat and hit the middle of the windshield. That is dangerous. I was deeply sensitive to fears of car accidents and I pulled over to the shoulder of the busy interstate as soon as I dared, got out, shaking with adrenaline and stomped over to the sliding door on our full -sized van, opening it angrily: “Look kids!” I said, “We are going to Grampa’s house and I am going to get us there. We are going someplace nice, some place you said you wanted to go!”

Their sullen, angry faces told me they were absolutely unchanged by my speech. No amount of car ride suffering justified this behavior which struck me as grossly counter-productive. This was mutiny. I felt powerless. I was car-jacked by my own children on the interstate. With semi’s barreling down only inches from the van, sending gusts of hot diesel wind into my face, I felt very alone and was trying not to cry. What am I going to do?

I took a deep breath. Lord have mercy. I summoned all my courage and then was surprised to hear this come out of my mouth: “Children, I am going to drive. You can either choose to make this trip pleasant or unpleasant for yourselves and everyone else. I AM COMPLETELY INDIFFERENT TO YOUR SUFFERING!” and I slammed the door.

In the time it took for me to walk to the front of the van and wait for a safe moment to race to the driver’s side and jump in before a passing semi took off my open door, the kids were inexplicably and miraculously exorcised from their temporary possession. We made great time on the last leg of our journey. But the shock of my own words and the questions it raised electrified my mind for the next eight, eerily quiet, hours through the flat, isolated, sparsely populated farming country.

I was thinking: I love these kids intensely. And yet it’s my love for them that requires me to be indifferent to their suffering right now. Are they suffering? Yes. But their cramped seating and temporary loss of freedom does not compare to what awaits. Could it be God is indifferent to my suffering in the way that must be right now? Could it be that from God’s point of view I sometimes behave like a recalcitrant, shortsighted child whose present suffering is all she can see? But St. Paul said:

“The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.“ (Romans 8:18).

My husband was my other self. His death is nothing less than an amputation to me. The loss of his daily, bodily presence still leaves me limping along, and sometimes it feels like only half of me is here. But it is also true that some things are more clear to me than they ever have been.

In spite of atheist arguments, the notion of an afterlife persists in human beings. Could it be the very intensity of the losses that we suffer in this life are what whispers to our souls that there must be something at the end of this long journey great enough to justify its difficulty and pain?

My children could not see through the discomfort of the long trip to what awaited them at the end. Typical of children, they were unable to delay gratification. And they actually made their own life and lives of their fellow travelers worse because of it. In our journey on this earth we have a choice to make. We can scream and complain and torture each other or we can consider that whatever difficulties we face, we should avoid making things worse than they have to be.

In the months since the loss of my husband I too would regularly perpetrate the spiritual equivalent of a temper tantrum (in spite of many blessings). And yes, sometimes I wondered if God was indifferent to my suffering. My faith told me that He wasn’t. And my experience that day reminded me that sometimes what looks like indifference is actually the most tenacious kind of love.

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