Roaring Rivers

Story by Cameron Smith | | Photography by The Smith Family

When I heard the news about my younger brother’s suicide, I was stunned. I can’t recall ever before or ever since feeling like my senses didn’t connect with my brain. A couple hours later, family friends offered to fly up to Washington and Lee University to bring me home.

I’ll never forget being on that small plane, looking out the window at the wing. I could see ice forming. The pilot was nervous, but I didn’t feel a thing. That wing encasing with ice might as well have been my heart. 

The horrific details don’t really matter. Tyler’s suicide was emotionally, physically, and spiritually devastating for my family.

When I returned to college after taking a term off, I was changed. The ice around my heart hardened. Not even the heat of my rage directed toward God would melt it. 

Frequently, I’d drive out into the darkness of the Blue Ridge Mountains at night. In a deep ravine with a loud river running through it, I’d scream at God.

“How could you?” I’d challenge. “We never did anything but try to honor you with our family. Is this what we get in return?” You can imagine the rest.

Most of my rage couldn’t even produce words. The howling sound was the projection of pure pain and anguish. As much as I wished the mountainsides would amplify my wrath to the heavens, the churning river drowned me out. As I raised my fist to the Lord, the river kept on carving its path through the rock. 

I could almost hear God’s challenge to me. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Where were you when I laid the channels for the rain?”

I wanted comfort. I wanted my icy heart to feel again, and God wouldn’t give it to me no matter what I said or did.

For the better part of a decade, I battled that internal darkness cased in an icy heart. I hung a smile on the front door, but I didn’t feel a thing. Thankfully, God blessed me with a righteous wife who served, often uncomfortably, as God’s messenger to me. 

After a period of Jonah-esque running away from God during law school, my wife plainly explained to me that she wouldn’t have children with a man who wasn’t even trying to live his faith. If the ice wouldn’t melt, God was going to hit it with a sledgehammer. 

And it cracked.

I felt like a child whose parents left him on the side of the road. I needed God to come get me or let me go my own way.

At first it was going through the motions. We decided to plug into a church in Washington, D.C., Capitol Hill Baptist Church. God provided us with some couples that mentored and loved us. We made a commitment that we’d be an active part of a theologically sound church no matter how difficult for the remainder of our marriage. 

The birth of my sons chipped away at the ice even further. The miracle of watching God put them together inside my wife was more evidence that God had not forgotten me. He was doing something. I just didn’t want to see it. 

Sadly, I held back the darkness that plagued me. I didn’t want anyone else to deal with it. Why should my wife, my family, my friends carry my burden? My reasoning was about as sound as trying to swallow a hand grenade and equally as damaging. 

It was a combination of arrogance and shame all at the same time. God, in his mercy, protected me from potentially disastrous consequences for my marriage and family, but my personal choices and absence of emotion created mayhem nonetheless. 

I reached a breaking point. 

I felt like a child whose parents left him on the side of the road.  I needed God to come get me or let me go my own way. The ice wasn’t strong enough to hold the darkness in anymore, and it flooded out. I literally wept on the floor of my house with my wife. 

God never gave up on me. He sent me a lifeline of a wife. He blessed me with my sons. And he was working on me for the better part of a decade whether I recognized it or not. 

Screaming in the mountains during college, I missed Job’s response to God. It’s now mine as well:

Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.

God knew it would take a long time for me to be able to see Him and rejoice in my suffering. It sounds like such a twisted notion. Nobody wants to suffer. Sometimes God’s plan demands it. 

The God of the Universe knows my name, and when he looks at me, he sees his Son whom he loves. I’m not a broken melting mess of darkness, and He will never leave me on the side of the road any longer than needed to accomplish His purposes.  

And that suffering my family and I endured … it actually produced endurance. That endurance might have taken a long time to turn into character, but it did. Now that character is producing hope — not just hope for me but hope for anyone weathering the darkness. 

I don’t know what God has planned, but he’s set his beautiful design into motion well before that river ever cut into those mountains, I put a ring on my wife’s finger, and my children took their first breaths. 

I still want God to take the darkness from me. I don’t want to be broken. But as much as I want that, I want my heavenly father to meet me at the gates of glory and tell me “Well done, good and faithful servant.” It might mean that the pain never goes away. It might mean I need to break even more. It’s definitely going to be uncomfortable for my family and me at times. 

But that hope is an awesome thing. I’m looking forward to God revealing his plan for my life and maybe helping others through their struggles along the way. It sure beats trying to shout over a river.