Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Mark's thoughts: Questions and no answers at the death of our baby

Recently a blog post by Rachel Lewis entitled Why miscarriage matters when you are pro-life has been making the rounds on Facebook.  In the post Lewis reflects on the experience of miscarriage and raises some helpful questions regarding how Christians think and speak about the life that is lost.  She also speaks about actions that can support the mother.

When I hear or read about miscarriage, it is difficult not to think back to the most terrible sound that I have ever heard.  Amy had given birth to our first child Timothy.  A little over two years later she became pregnant with our second child.  There were some initial concerns about the pregnancy, and then everything seemed to be fine.  Amy was well along into her second trimester.  She had that wonderful look of a pregnant woman. 

Then while we were at my brother’s house, Amy saw troubling signs. My brother, a family practice doctor, helped us to make an appointment at an ob/gyn practice and we went that day.  The ultrasound was beginning and I knew exactly what to expect as we were about to listen to the baby’s heart.  Yet as the technician moved the instrument around Amy’s pregnant belly there was instead, a deafening silence.  There was no sound in the room except that of the ultrasound machine itself.  Between the silence and the look on the ultrasound technician’s face the situation became clear – our baby had died.

In the years since then, I have learned that miscarriages are not at all uncommon.  Many occur earlier in pregnancy than our experience, but they are each the unexpected loss of a baby.  As I read Lewis’ piece, my mind returned to a thought that has occupied it many times before when it comes to the subject of miscarriage.

We in the Lutheran Church really don’t talk about miscarriage.  Some of the reason for this is quite understandable.  The circumstances of many miscarriages do not leave a body to be buried.  More often than not it is not a public matter, but instead a very private one that few people know about.  While privacy may be something that helps some people in the grieving process, at times I wonder if this is really healthy. Miscarriage seems to be something that we often seek to avoid discussing. In part we do this in the attempt to avoid further hurting people who have experienced a terrible loss.

However, I think there is another reason why the Lutheran Church herself finds miscarriage to be a particularly uncomfortable topic.  After all, the Lutheran Church holds three beliefs very strongly.  The first is that life begins at conception.  The second is that since the Fall, all people conceived in the normal way of man are sinful, spiritually dead, and have the devil as their lord.  The third is that through Holy Baptism the Holy Spirit creates new spiritual life and gives the forgiveness of sins. Because of these beliefs, in the absence of the opportunity to administer Holy Baptism, we are left with no clear way to address the fact that this baby was alive and also a fallen, sinful individual.

In the desire to provide comfort, Lutherans have drawn upon cherished theological truths in order to find a way to address this problem.  The least plausible is the assertion that because the mother received the body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar, the unborn baby also received the forgiveness it provides.  It strains the imagination to believe that this fulfills what our Lord meant when he said about the bread “take eat” and about the wine “drink of it all of you.”  Beyond this it fails to take into account what the Small Catechism says about the need for faith in the words “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sin.”

More plausible and more frequently heard is the suggestion that God’s Word creates faith in infants in the womb.  Now no one doubts that with God all things are possible, and as Lutherans we certainly embrace the power of God’s Word to create faith.  As those who baptize infants, we also do not reduce faith solely to intellectual activity.   

It is true that Paul writes, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17 ESV), but clearly the faith described here is one that believes in and calls upon Christ (Romans 10:8-10, 14).  In the absence of any confession of faith, we have no means of certainty about forgiveness and salvation. It is true that John the Baptist leapt in the womb in the presence of Christ and Elizabeth said: “For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1:44 ESV).  But we are also told that Elizabeth was able to say this because she “was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41 ESV).  In principle it reveals that infants can respond to God’s saving work, but absent direct revelation by the Holy Spirit we have no way of knowing for sure.

The certainty of Holy Baptism is in fact the very thing that is lost when a miscarriage occurs.  The Gospel is about certainty.  Where God gives forgiveness and salvation, there is no doubt.  His saving work is certain and sure because it is his work.  How do we know that the child is forgiven and saved?  He or she was baptized!  That is the very reason that during her history the Church has permitted lay people to baptize in the face of life threatening circumstances when there has been no priest or pastor present.  The gift of Holy Baptism brings the certainty of salvation and so circumstances cannot be allowed to prevent the administration of baptism.

But what are we to say when it is God who permitted the circumstances that prevented baptism?  What are we to say when faithful Christian parents never have a chance to bring their baby to Holy Baptism before death?  It is understandable that we want to provide comforting answers.  But as Lutherans we know that we can only speak where Scripture speaks and that we must be silent when Scripture is silent.  The history of Christian theology is littered with false teachings that arose out of pious speculation – the attempt to provide answers where Scripture was silent.  When repeated long enough and by teachers famous enough, this speculation becomes “true,” even though it is not.  This is “tradition” – the handing down of things – at its worst and not its biblical best.

When we learned that our baby had died, I contacted a good friend who teaches at the seminary that I had attended and shared our loss.  Naturally he provided words of comfort and encouragement.  But in his reply the words that stood out were these: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21 ESV).  At the time, I was rather surprised by this.  It didn’t seem like the most comforting text to share.

Yet the more I have thought about it, the more I have realized that they were the perfect words.  At the loss of his children, Job didn’t ask questions.  He didn’t seek answers.  Instead, his words focused on the Lord. The Lord had given. The Lord had taken away.  What else was there to do but bless the Lord, because he is the Lord? 

In the face of miscarriage our questions will provide no answers – at least no Gospel answers, the kind that have no uncertainty.  Instead, we are left only with the Lord.  In this New Testament era we know the Lord to be the One who in love suffered and died for us on cross, and then rose from the dead.  This is the kind of Lord he has revealed himself to be for us and for all people.  And so long ago I realized that there is only one thing to do with this baby we lost.  I surrender my questions and my desire for answers, and instead entrust him or her to the Lord.  This little one rests in his hands. That is all I need to know.  



  1. After we returned from our own silent ultrasound, I called our pastor and he came quickly to our house and communed me and my wife and preached words of comfort from the scriptures. I will always be grateful to him for doing that. We did not feel the need to agonize over the eternal fate of our child or rationalize our way into some false assurance. We believe Christ for the forgiveness of our own sins and trust that He is never capricious or cruel, especially to the helpless.

  2. Thank you for this, Pastor Surburg. Grateful!

  3. I'm so glad my piece was helpful to you. And I'm so very sorry for the death of your second baby. Thanks for helping to break the silence on miscarriage.


  4. Great post, Pr Surburg. I appreciate your balanced view of the possibility of a child having faith before baptism by hearing the life-giving Word, but not knowing for absolute certain short of divine revelation (like in Elizabeth's case).

    Do you think we can find some additional consolation (but not certainty) in the OT promise of God's blessing to the thousandth generation, and the NT proclamation that the promise is for us and our children. I think finding hope in those two promises ties in to your statement, "I surrender my questions and my desire for answers, and instead entrust him or her to the Lord."


  5. Ben, I think we would put these and similar kinds of statements in that broad category of evidence that demonstrates God's grace and faithfulness to his people. They certainly provide the broader framework that allows us to take comfort in the fact that this God - our God - is the One to whom we entrust these little ones.

    In Christ, Mark

  6. Thank you for answering. I was thinking something along those lines.

  7. John Rogers, a Lutheran who was the first martyr of "Bloody Mary," published an English Bible in 1537 which was really a Lutheran study Bible. In the prefatory materials in the front he wrote a "Sum and Content of all the Holy Scripture," and his first paragraph, which treats of the nature of God, ends thus: "... of whom all things proceed, and without whom there is nothing; which [God] is righteous and merciful, and which [God] worketh all things in all after His will, of whom it may not be demanded wherefore He doth this or that."