Severe Mercy

Recently we had to make sudden arrangements for our disabled adult daughter to be removed from our home and placed elsewhere.  She had to be taken traumatically by force from our house to a hospital mental health ward, since her behavior had become very belligerent and dangerous to herself.  This came after our having cared for her from infancy, through a normal delightful childhood and the insecurities of early adolescence, to the last five years in which her psychological and physical health has deteriorated from the effects of Huntington’s Disease, which is invariably fatal after years of decline.  We had wanted to care for her until the end, but now she’s gone from our house, and she won’t be coming back.

In the few days immediately following her departure, my wife and I both commented on how radically different the house was—I described it as “eerily quiet.”  I think our feelings about the necessary removal of our daughter from our care are somewhat like the feelings one has after having had an amputation, or the removal of an internal organ.  If pain is relieved or our life is saved as a result of the operation, we rejoice; but there is also some sadness at having to give up an integral part of us that at one time functioned well and contributed to our overall health.

This experience put me in mind of a book from several years ago by Sheldon Vanauken, entitled A Severe Mercy, which is a phrase from one of C. S. Lewis’s letters to Vanauken.  He and his wife had close contact with Lewis for a few years, both through letters and through their visiting him in England, so he knew the couple well.  They started the relationship as unbelievers, but ended up being converted to Christ.  However, they struggled to get past what had become, according to Vanauken, an all-absorbing pagan bond of love between them, which left no room for children or even God.  When his wife unexpectedly became ill with a fatal disease, and they were forced finally to submit their love to God, Lewis was bold enough to say that it was a severe mercy, a deprivation that perhaps had saved their souls.

In the past, my wife and I have experienced a number of changes in our lives and in the lives of others which were appropriately described as “severe mercies.” The concept is definitely helpful in understanding the necessity of our daughter’s being transferred from our care to the care of others who are better able to see to her needs at this point.  The trauma of separation is severe, but God’s mercy is showing through the pain of giving her up.  The familiar hymn, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” expresses beautifully this form of God’s provision and teaching, especially in stanzas 3 and 5:

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy and shall break

In blessings on your head.

His purposes will ripen fast,

Unfolding every hour;

The bud may have a bitter taste,

But sweet will be the flower.

           (William Cowper)

The writer of Hebrews also articulates this principle of profit encased in pain in speaking of God’s discipline of His children.  He first quotes from the Book of Proverbs, and then expands on that passage.  (Read in each occurrence of “son” a gender-inclusive “child.”)

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by Him.  For the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” [Prov. 3:11-12].  It is for discipline that you have to endure.  God is treating you as sons.  For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?  If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons . . . .  For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.  (Heb. 12:5b-8, 11, ESV)

Here lies the core of the difference between how believers and unbelievers view the things that are taken away from them.  Without faith in God’s love and providence, we focus on what has been lost, but the eyes of faith see God’s benefit overshadowing what has been lost, and we may even recognize that sometimes the enforced loss was necessary for us to experience the benefit.

Finally, when the thing lost was a good thing from God and not something harmful to us, we have a treasury of memories of God’s blessings during that time.  In our case, my wife and I are thankful that we were able to take two long trips requested by our daughter in the last two years, which, in spite of some blips involving her behavior, were rich and rewarding times together.  The memories of those trips, and the ways in which God made them possible and fruitful, will never be taken away.  And we hope that our cognizance of God’s goodness, past, present, and future, will always absorb any sense of loss.

Image: "Grace" by R. Alexander. CC license. 



Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)