I remember one specific night, overlooking the Nile in East Africa, moonlight licking the waves below me. I listened to the steady roar of water unseen, which somehow seemed like it should lessen with the dark.
My husband and I were visiting Uganda, exploring whether God was pulling us there.
It was the place where God squeezed my heart to push my four kids—aged 7 to 2 at the time—out of my (false) sense of protection for them.
I stood above, Hebrews 11 churning like rapids in my head:
And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him….
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land… For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. (vv. 6, 8-10)
Out of all the things terrifying me about moving to Uganda, “What if something happens to my child?” was the worst I could imagine.
The Day My Fears Came to My Kitchen
Picture me a year later, in our Ugandan kitchen, bare feet cool on the tile. I am awake with my second-born before everyone else. Cannas and hibiscus lean over the porch behind us, greedy for sunlight.
My six-year-old and I are making pancakes. I snap a photo of him wearing the blue plastic bowl on his head, hamming it up.
Suddenly, he tells me he doesn’t feel good. I help him from his perch on the countertop to the floor, where he falls, unresponsive.
He moans unintelligibly. He wets himself.
I scream for my husband.
This is it, I tell myself as we pull sleepy children from bed into the minivan, headed to Urgent Care. This is when God takes my child from me.
What if something happens to my child?
That day, thankfully, was a false alarm chalked up to low blood pressure, low blood sugar, and medication issues.
And as time plodded on in Uganda, we learned to identify warning signs of most tropical illnesses. I came to feel relatively safe.
My husband and I finger-pricked for rapid malaria tests with every fever (my kids would insist, “I don’t have a fever! I promise I don’t!”). Friends and I talked about poop colors and consistencies as if we were comparing mangoes at the market. We all avoided the parasite-infected lake. Our family dewormed every six months. We underwent medical workups before leaving for home assignment, toting in our suitcases inexpensive medications for obscure illnesses, should an ailment have been missed.
But there’s a missionary couple I know of which, whenever I see them, causes my heart to break a little. Theirs was not a false alarm. Their daughter passed away during their first six months overseas.
They have in fact walked through that nightmarish blackness so many of us turn over in our minds before we go.
What if something happens to my child?
So Many Different Avatars of Pain
This can happen in a range of maladies, right?
As we look toward the possibility of overseas, some of us are weighing the dangers of crime or allergies or traffic particular diets, or needs for learning disorders or mental health, or simply our kids’ spiritual health and ages.
Because God has called us to make disciples not just over there to strangers or the unreached, but unquestionably in our own homes: “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).
And God knit our specific children with their specific needs in our wombs (Psalm 139:13-16). Rather than applying wisdom like a sledgehammer—God “told me” to go, which means a blind eye to all other responsibilities he’s placed in my care—we prayerfully examine the how and the what and the when.
For our children are not fishing boats or nets. They are disciples, too, souls placed in our care. It’s why we bring them along in our decision-making processes, tending their souls.
Martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
This tugs at the heroic in me, the noble and gritty. But what if something happens to my child?
What if he calls my child to come and die—despite all I know about God calling all of us as a family, despite my faith that God has numbered their days?
This cost can make us feel like our kids are innocent bystanders.
Remember that time…
As a generation increasingly well-versed in trauma, it’s not hard to imagine Abraham’s son Isaac having a few trigger responses when his dad later pulled out a familiar knife to, say, skin a rabbit.
Remember that time you almost killed me on purpose, Dad? How you made me carry the wood to sacrifice me, and tied me up and all that? Never been so thankful to see a sheep.
Abraham modeled what God himself would do: Prizing nothing above God.
WHAT IF SOMETHING HAPPENS TO MY CHILD? The End Game
Of course, when Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”—the dying wasn’t the end game.
Just like dying wasn’t the end game for Jesus: “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:3).
Or for Paul: “For me to live is Christ; to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). (See also John Piper’s Doing Missions When Dying is Gain.)
And yes, there are unblushing promises of reward fueling us from within.
(Sure, heaven is beyond my imagination [1 Corinthians 2:9]—but this doesn’t stop me from falling asleep to the thought of sugar-white beaches, lazy breezes, sapphire waters, and an in-house Starbucks bar next to my own pottery studio.)
But even more than heaven, God is our ultimate gain. He’s our great reward, the pearl of greatest price.
Jackie Hill Perry writes thoughtfully,
Let’s say that a person decided to go to somebody’s church, sit in their pew, sing their songs, then a sermon about holiness goes forth. In it they hear things like, “Take up your cross and die daily.” And “You cannot serve God and money.” What good does it do the hearer if they believe God is a liar? They disobey because they don’t believe Jesus has life in Himself, real life, better than any superficial life the world offers. If this isn’t brought to the surface, will they trust His call to die or will they imagine that life is just fine without Him? What if there is no talk of God’s supreme value—how, as God, He is better than everything that exists? Without it, what incentive is there to eliminate a lesser master in exchange for a good One?….
That’s why we’re here: to behold. To set our sights on a higher love.*
IS HE WORTHY?
What if, when God does the rare thing and takes a child’s life, he does so for their eternal gain and glory, because he’s that worthy?
So I think of a funeral my mom recently described to me of a friend of hers who died rapidly, brutally, from cancer, leaving three children right here in North America.
His wife, Mom tells me, is a beautiful pianist. At the end of the service, she sat down at the bench. Her fingers glided over the tune to this song:
Of all blessing and honor and glory
Is He worthy of this?
Does the Spirit move among us?
And does Jesus, our Messiah hold forever those He loves?
Does our God intend to dwell again with us?
Then, she and her three girls quietly and with dignity walked down the aisle to bury their husband and father.
Because he gives, and he takes. And he’s still worthy of blessing.
I write you these scattered thoughts with this primary idea: Jesus is worthy of our kids. Death is not their end or ours. The most beautiful version of our lives is one written by him, trusted to him.
Statistically, God will ask the ultimate price of very few of us; perhaps none of you reading these words.
And those of us left behind on earth, not gathered to Jesus’ chest in heaven, seem to pay the lion’s share, with holes remaining that howl when the wind blows through.
But even when we’re asking, “What if something happens to my child?”
He is worthy, friends.
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Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and senior editor for Go. Serve. Love. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International.
Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House) released October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.
*Perry, Jackie Hill. Holier Than Thou (pp. 7-8). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.