Note from Barbara: Today’s post is from an author new to me but perhaps not to you as she writes regularly for The Gospel Coalition and desiringGod.org. I read her new book, Glimmers of Grace, in one weekend. Her stories of patients and those who wait and pray with them spoke to me on many levels. I’ve been a patient more times than I’d like and I’ve waited for those I love to recover. Not all have. As a critical care doctor Katie Butler has seen so much more suffering than most of us ever will. And for that alone we can be grateful for her. But she’s given more by writing about the ways she’s seen the hand of God at work in these dark difficult moments and days of our lives. I highly recommend her book to all of you. I know you will enjoy this post from her; a taste of the stories she tells and the glimpses of our very present God she’s seen.
For months she’d sat daily at her teenage daughter’s bedside in the ICU, and grieved as illness swept over her little girl in waves. Hour after hour, she fought against the tide. When the girl’s skin sallowed to mustard color, she massaged her hands with jasmine-scented lotion. As delirium fogged her daughter’s mind, she papered the walls with photographs of amusement parks, prom nights, and Christmases with grandparents. When the girl shivered with fever, her mother wrapped her arms around her, enfolding her in the same warmth she’d known during her first moments on earth.
Then, after so many long months, an infection we couldn’t treat took hold. The girl’s blood pressure plummeted, and her oxygen levels soon followed. I found her mother crumpled in a chair, her head in her hands, tears dampening her hair. Although she’d seen her daughter’s stability falter so many times before, maternal instinct told her this time was different.
I put a hand on her shoulder, and felt her tremble. “She’s not going to make it, is she?” she said, her face still hidden in her hair.
My throat tightened. “I’m so sorry.” I squeezed her shoulder, and knelt beside her. I hated the failure of my hands to cure, and the inability of my words to comfort.
Finally, she raised her head, and her reddened eyes met mine. “I keep begging God to take out my heart, to keep it from breaking,” she said. “But I don’t even know if he’s listening anymore. My family says this happened to her because I stopped going to church. They say God’s punishing me.” Her voice cracked, and tears flowed anew. “What if this is all my fault?”
When the guilt overwhelms
Although her anguish was uniquely her own, this dear mother’s question is one that haunts so many of us who’ve walked with the sick. If you’ve interfaced with the hospital in any way, chances are high that you, too, have known deep remorse, and have wrestled with guilt. The problem of our sin nature snaps into sharp relief in the hospital, where grief and tragedy abound, yet where few converse in a language of atonement. We witness evil, cower from our failings, and search the halls for forgiveness, but find only white coats, monitors, and more questions in the dark. We study our hands, scrub them, and can’t scour away our errors.
Perhaps you’re a loved one caring for the dying. As you cradle a mottled hand, do you worry about decisions you’ve made? Do memories break through the sterility of the room, and trouble you with words you should have said? Words you shouldn’t have said?
If you’re a provider in the hospital, guilt likely constricts your heart like a vice. The threat of inadvertently hurting people stalks your thoughts. When you lose a patient, you consider your inadequate books, your hands that couldn’t deliver—and you despair.
Lord, have mercy. How can we weather such storms? How can we surface from such floods of guilt?
A gracious God, and merciful
And yet, even as we despair, and even as our guilt swallows us into darkness, our loving God remains faithful, and forgives us through his grace.
God is holy. He is just, perfect, and will not abide evil (Psalm 5:4). Yet God is also merciful. Jonah, the worst prophet in the Bible, who ran from God, knew him to be “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Jonah 4:2). And God poured out his mercy upon Jonah in abundance. He churned up a storm to thwart Jonah’s retreat, but didn’t permit the ship to break up or those aboard to perish (Jonah 1:4). He quieted the storm when Jonah plunged into the deep (Jonah 1:15). He appointed a fish to rescue Jonah, and restore him to dry land (Jonah 1:17). He lavished Jonah with mercy, even as the prophet rebelled, fled, and raged.
So, too, does the Lord pour out mercy upon us. When we profess faith in his Son and confess our sins, “he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Through Christ, he removes our transgressions from us as far as the east diverges from the west (Psalm 103:12).
When we flounder in our sin, whether amid storms of our own making or those imposed upon us, according to his mercy, God delivers us to dry land, and guides us back into his loving embrace.
You brought up my life from the pit
When memories of mistakes you’ve made, people you’ve hurt, and lives you’ve damaged with words, scalpel, or syringe storm you with guilt, remember Jonah flailing in the sea. In his mercy, God appointed Jonah to save the Ninevites, and a fish to save Jonah. So also, he appointed his one and only Son, whom he loved, to reside in the belly of the earth for three days, to redeem us from our sins and to gather us into his glorious presence forever.
When your loved one’s eyes close before you’ve said all you must, and remorse throbs within you, remember how God held back the raging waves from Jonah’s boat.
Above all, when the blemishes upon your hands will not scrape away and you languish beneath the weight of your sins, remember the sign of Jonah: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. . . . And behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:40-41).
Sin plunges us into a pit from which we cannot escape. Guilt swallows us whole. But God does not abandon us in those depths. In Christ, “he has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14).
Ours is a gracious God, and merciful. And in Christ, we are forgiven.
Kathryn Butler (MD, Columbia University) trained in surgery and critical care at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, where she then joined the faculty. She left clinical practice in 2016 to homeschool her children, and now writes regularly for desiringGod.org and The Gospel Coalition on topics such as faith, medicine, and shepherding kids in the gospel. She is also the author of Glimmers of Grace.