For Those Whose Suffering Is Hidden

Recently, we attended parties celebrating milestones achieved by dear friends. One will attend Christian college after graduating high school; one begins a first job after competing as a student-athlete for another Christian school. Posted on our refrigerator, the invitations were reminders—not just of party dates, but also of pain we are navigating as parents.  

Two years ago, our college-aged son came home for the summer. Never an easy relationship, our interactions felt even more strained than usual, consisting primarily of watching his silent stalk from one room to another before closing the door. Invitations to connect—over a meal, over coffee, over anything—mainly seemed like inconveniences. Respecting his cues, we backed off, working to lower our expectations. But my mama-heart longed for a son who longed to be close to those who love him most.

One night after he passed through the room, the scent of smoke lingered. While he showered, we found a pack of cigarettes in his car. His angry response to our discovery was not surprising. Since it was late, we decided to discuss it after church the following day. 

I still remember the lyrics from one song in that service:  

Come broken and weary.
Come battered and bruised.
My Jesus makes all things new,
All things new.

Come lost and abandoned.
Come blown by the wind.
He’ll bring you back home again,
Home again. . . .

Come frozen with shame.
Come burning with guilt.
My Jesus he loves you still,
He loves you still.

Clinging to my husband’s hand as we sang those lyrics, I felt hope’s flicker: maybe this discovery was an unexpected way towards healing in the relationship with our son, and in his relationship with God. Maybe his aloofness was disguising a hurting heart we could comfort. Maybe he would want to come home again—to us, to Jesus.

The conversation after church did include unexpected news, but of an altogether other kind. Cigarettes forgotten, my husband and I listened, stunned, as our son disclosed his bisexuality. Rather than concerned about how his revelation might impact us, he was detached, maybe even a little defiant—a stance I now suspect was necessary to steel himself against what he understandably feared might be our reaction. Feebly attempting to disguise our sorrow and shock, my husband and I did our best to reassure our son that we love him—that no matter what, he is precious to us, precious to God.

Some say that when a child of Christian parents comes out of the closet, the parents respond by going into the closet. This has been true for us.  

Right away, we knew sharing this experience with most of our Christian friends would be unwise since in our faith community, knowledge about this single aspect of our son’s identity will unalterably distort their view of him. Rather than a beloved creation in whom God delights, many may now understand him only as the deserving recipient of God’s disgust. Feeling profoundly protective of our son, we’ve walked this journey in private, hoping to shield him from the cruelty we have witnessed both within the broader Christian community as well as in our own circles.  

Yet we also kept silent for our own sakes. Sharing this experience could shift us from peers to prayer requests, objects of the same Christian pity that we, in the past, felt for friends whose children’s lives didn’t align with their values. We now see how our pity veiled not just relief for our less-difficult journey, but also an assumption that our circumstances stemmed from our superior faith. For better or for worse, we have not been ready to find out whether our friends will respond similarly.

Hence, our mixed feelings about the invitations on our refrigerator. Do we want to celebrate the achievements of our children’s friends? Absolutely, yes. But we enter these and many other formerly familiar spaces knowing we will now respond to well-meaning inquiries about our children with what most people want to hear: they are succeeding; we are proud.

We are proud, and we say so. But we don’t mention the accompanying sorrow. We don’t explain that our pride is in our son’s courage as he takes up his space in this world. We don’t mention our fear of what his future holds. We don’t explain the tenuous path of loving him while continuing to follow Christ.

We have needed to flounder through the waves of regret and shame that threatened to drown us. We have needed our son to release us to speak our story. And we have needed the quiet companionship of a few wise, prayerful friends as we try to discern how to walk this path. Their steady, listening presence continues to be a blessed, grace-drenched balm.

The pain of this experience is exacerbated by its necessary hiddenness. The loss is not just ambiguous and ongoing, but also invisible to friends with whom we formerly shared more deeply. Withholding our sorrow amplifies a loneliness we cannot convey to those we love—and who have loved us—creating an additional layer of grief. More than mourning the loss of the future we prayed for our son, we grieve the loss of soul-sustaining friendships that—at least for now, and perhaps because of unnecessary caution—don’t always feel safe.

Maybe it is this realization that compels me to tell our story here. Yes, there is relief in telling the truth about our son. It’s a way to take up our space in the world. Much more than that, though, my prayer is that these words might offer hope to others whose suffering is hidden.

If that is you, please hear me say, dear one, that you are not alone.  

I have no answers, no solutions, no programs, no formulas. But my fears are quieted, time and again, by the promise of that song we sang two years ago:

The world was good, the world is fallen,
The world will be redeemed.
So hold on to the promise.
The stories are true that Jesus makes all things new.

* Lyrics from “All Things New” by Andrew Peterson, Ben Shive, and Andrew Gullahorn. Appearing on Andrew Peterson’s Resurrection Letters, Volume II, 2008.

Immersed in Christian community since her earliest years, Grace Apprentice knows the loneliness of seeing and celebrating God’s extraordinary provision and presence in others’ lives while secretly wondering why her own looks so much messier. After decades of quietly fearing what this messiness might mean about whether God’s grace extends to her, she is learning to notice the less-spectacular-seeming but equally-soul-sustaining ways God tends to her life and heart. She shares her experiences as a way of standing in solidarity with others who walk untidy stories, to let them know they are not alone, and to invite them to risk watching for glimpses of God’s grace in their own journeys.