A couple of days ago I received a very troubling email from a woman I don’t even know. The woman, let’s call her Shelley, is a student in an online religion class that I’m teaching. The first week Shelley posted a short bio and told the class that she had left a bad marriage and that after years of struggle she was engaged to a wonderful man, let’s call him Will, who she felt was sent by God to rescue her and her children.
About a week into the class, I got an email from Shelley telling me that her assignments would be late because Will had died that morning. I wrote a short note of condolence, explaining that I too had lost a beloved partner and that I would be praying for her and her children.
The next day in my inbox I found another message from Shelley, one that bent and twisted my heart like a rag doll. She was grateful for my note, she said, because though she had loving family around, they hadn’t experienced this kind of loss and she was feeling very alone. She and her children were devastated, but she believed that her faith in God, which Will had helped to nurture, would get her through.
I was saddened for Shelley and the sense of isolation she felt, but it was the next part of her email that shook me to the core. She told me that she and Will had both been saved last year, and that in response to their new relationship to God they had forged a new relationship with each other, seeking to express with their lives what they believed with their hearts. “I know he is a forgiving God,” she wrote, but she wondered, “Do you think that what we have done since being saved was enough for God to accept Will?”
I read these words, over and over again, through a veil of tears clouding my eyesight. Even now, more than a week later, I can’t read this without having to blink back tears. I think of this poor woman, grieving the loss of the man she loves and so worried about whether or not he will spend eternity in Hell that she is willing to share her deepest concerns with me, a woman whose personality, beliefs, thoughts and even face are unknown to her. “Anything to ease my fears some,” she wrote, crying out in her pain. She couldn’t speak to her pastor, she said, because he didn’t condone Shelley and Will living together and she had no where to turn for answers.
I was floored by her words, humbled by her trust, and most of all heartsick that in the throes of a terrible sorrow, Shelley had to wade through a belief system that left her terrified for Will’s salvation. Making a deep and earnest change in his life wasn’t enough, Shelley fears, to appease a vengeful God for past misdeeds. In the midst of what is likely the most harrowing grief of her life, Shelley has to worry about whether the forgiving God of whom she speaks really is forgiving, whether the creator of the universe could have as much compassion as she herself had for a man who had both loved and hurt her.
I wanted to wrap my arms around Shelley and tell her that all the rules and regulations we’ve made up in God’s name are meaningless compared with one act of love, that if she listened closely she could hear the still, small voice inside her speak of acceptance beyond even the thought of forgiveness. I wanted to take the pain of grief away, and I wanted to take away the terror even more. But all I could do was respond to her email with as many gentle words as I could find and send a cloud of prayers in her direction.
Shelley wisely decided to drop her classes for the semester, and it is unlikely that I will ever hear from her again. But I will think about this woman caged by a theology of fear wrought by those speaking of love, and pray that somewhere in my words or the Bible or the speech of a friend or her own heart she finds the key to unlock the cage and step into a world of compassion and peace.