Forgiving God

A Story of Faith


By Hilary Yancey

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A young mother’s life is forever changed and her faith in God is broken when her son in diagnosed with complex physical disabilities. Restore and grow your faith as you read about Hilary Yancey’s personal journey back to God.

Three months into her pregnancy with her first child, Hilary Yancey received a phone call that changed everything. As she learned the diagnosis-cleft lip and palate, a missing right eye, possible breathing complications-Hilary began to pray in earnest. Even in the midst of these findings, she prayed that God would heal her son. God could do a miracle unlike anything she had seen. Only when Hilary held her baby, Jack, in her arms for the first time did she realize God had given her something drastically different than what she had demanded.

Hilary struggled to talk to God as she sat for six weeks beside Jack’s crib in the NICU. She consented to surgeries and learned to care for a breathing tube and gastronomy button. In her experience with motherhood Hilary had become more familiar with the sound of her son’s heart monitor than the sound of his heartbeat. Later, during surgeries and emergency trips back to the hospital with her crying, breathless boy, Hilary reproached the stranger God had become.

Jack was different. Hilary was not the mother she once imagined. God was not who Hilary knew before. But she could not let go of one certainty-she could see the image of Christ in Jack’s face. Slowly, through long nights of wrestling and longer nights of silence, Hilary cut a path through her old, familiar faith to the God behind it. She discovered that it is by walking out onto the water, where the firm ground gives way, that we can find him. And meeting Jesus, who rises with his scars to proclaim new life, is never what you once imagined.



The Jordan River

I learned I was pregnant after an argument. “Is this even real coffee?” I asked angrily after taking a small sip from the mug Preston, my husband, had just placed in front of me.

“Yes?” Preston looked at me quizzically.

We kept only regular coffee in the house, never decaf, so it was an odd question to ask. In response, I burst into tears.

Alarmed, Preston asked, “What’s really going on?”

I mumbled something about being sure I would fail all my graduate classes that semester and probably something about how I was the worst philosopher I’d ever met. I can’t remember exactly what I said next, but I remember Preston taking a step back, leaning up against the sink, and asking, “Should you take a pregnancy test?”

The thought hadn’t occurred to me. I shot Preston what I hoped was a withering look and marched into the bathroom. In defiance, I took the spare test we kept under the sink, prepared to prove that I was being the reasonable person, thank you, and my tears had nothing to do with something as wild or uncontrolled as hormones. The pregnancy test is meant to take a full two minutes, but the plus sign appeared after a handful of seconds. I glanced down while drying my hands and there he was. The pink lines kept deepening as the seconds ticked by, a faint pink quickly turning almost magenta, as if someone kept retracing the lines with a marker. My son Jackson has been forceful in proclaiming his existence ever since.

When I opened the bathroom door, Preston was on the couch, listening to the soundtrack to a musical called Violet. The title character was belting out a refrain from “On My Way” as I walked to the coffee table and perched on it, holding the test.

Left my troubles all behind me

Back there when I climbed on board

Jordan River’s where you’ll find me

It’s wide but not too wide to ford.

Violet is the story of a girl who wants to be healed—physically healed. It’s a story about faces that look different and the hope that those faces might change. It’s a story about the miracles we ask for, even when we don’t ask out loud.

We listened to the soundtrack on repeat that first morning of our changed life. Sutton Foster sang us to the CVS for extra tests. We drove down the highways of Waco, our voices joining the cast. We wondered if it was a boy or a girl. We wondered where we would fit a crib in our studio apartment. We laughed about the fight over coffee. Sutton Foster belted that refrain—Jordan River’s where you’ll find me—but we didn’t feel anywhere close to that river or the story she sang.

A few months into our pregnancy with Jackson, we received a phone call. The nurse’s thin voice slipped out of the speakers on my phone, and with it words: words with medical definitions, cleft lip and palate, follow-up ultrasound, high-risk pregnancy. Now, when I lean up against the bricks of the room where I first heard those words, they echo back, the walls keeping a record of the moment that everything changed. From there we had ultrasounds—what felt like hundreds, but what I now know was only nine. The maternal-fetal medicine specialist ordered a fetal MRI, an unusual procedure, attempting to understand our son’s face. There were second and third phone calls. The news rolled in. Jackson had no right eye, a very small jaw and chin, no external ear. Significant facial cleft, they called it in the genetic counselor’s office when we asked what language we should use to tell family and friends. I inhaled the words, and they filled my lungs with cold water, and it seemed that every breath for the next twenty weeks of my pregnancy came out like a gasp.

During those twenty weeks, between the first phone call and Jack’s first breath, we drove hundreds of miles to and from the hospital, to and from each consultation, each proximate diagnosis. When we drove, we listened to songs about miracles. We listened to praise music from our childhoods, gospel choirs, and old hymns. We never played Sutton Foster’s song, but we were still singing about the Jordan River. We were still singing about water that Jesus might walk on to come save us from what each appointment said was probably coming.

After Jack finally arrived, we lived forty-three days in the NICU, our hearts beating outside us in a blue, yellow, and red crib in what was labeled the Pink Room.

Jack had surgery just three weeks into his life to receive a tracheostomy and gastrostomy button (G-button)—his breathing and eating both to be done through tiny tubes nestled in tunnels of tissue carved by surgeons. We were scheduled for seventeen consultations—over three pages of appointments—before we were discharged. We drove home on a gray November morning too tired to think about singing. Jack slept, and for the first time since that twenty-week mark, I didn’t have anything left to pray.

*  *  *

Jackson’s first and favorite lullaby was “Poor Wayfaring Stranger.” I’m only goin’ over Jordan / I’m only goin’ over home. He still falls asleep leaning against my chest as I sing. I tell him again and again that these are the songs of our family: We are traveling up to the river, to the edge of it, and somehow, out into the water itself. I whisper across the wisps of his blond hair that I do not know how we came here, how to measure the expectations we once had against the weight of the miracles we were given. Jesus was calling us all—“Even you, Jack,” I say—to get out of the boat and come meet him. Meeting him, I promise Jack, is never what you once imagined.

Someone bought The Jesus Storybook Bible for Jack, and it says that when Jesus is sent from the Jordan River, it is the beginning of the Great Rescue. Jesus rises from the water to do works many could not have believed except that they had seen them. Some couldn’t believe them even then. Jesus comes up from the river to meet us: wayfarers with just our toes at the edge of the water, trying to find our way. Jesus was sent away from the Jordan to bring us back to it. To make us get out onto the water, far beyond where we might have gone on our own, out where our feet can’t touch the bottom. I’m coming to believe that’s where we find God. In the river that’s wide, but not too wide. That’s where I am now, searching for him. That’s where he took me, and where I brought myself.

This is a book about wading deep in the Jordan River—into those months where I prayed for miracles and the months that followed. This is a book about wading out in the confidence of one belief and finding that your feet can’t touch the bottom, that you might not know how to swim, that it is harder to see Jesus than you first thought. This is a book about the death of old love and the labor of new. A book about God. A book about forgiveness.

Chapter 1


I was sitting just outside the philosophy office, at a round table, working on a set of logic problems when the department’s office manager poked her head around the corner. She motioned me into the office and pointed to one of the phones, its red “hold” light flashing a steady rhythm. As a graduate student, I didn’t have my own work phone, so on the OB-GYN intake form I had filled out sixteen weeks before, I had listed the philosophy office number. I had assumed no one ever called work phones. It was the OB-GYN office.

“Are you somewhere private?” I don’t remember if the nurse said hello. I think she must have, because people usually do. But I only remember telling her no, I wasn’t, and told her I’d call her back on my cell phone. I began the work of worrying even as I dialed her number, which I’d written on a Post-it note. Don’t panic, I told myself, and my heart replied, You must. As the phone rang, I began to pace around the open hallway so that no one could catch more than a few sentences. We had been told at our ultrasound a week before that we’d only receive a call if there was a problem; no news meant good news. I had waited the weekend, sure that the phone call would come. When Monday had finally come and gone, I felt relieved by the thought that our newly named Jackson was healthy and normal. The nurse’s voice was rigid, almost metallic. She seemed to read the words off a piece of paper in front of her, no pauses, no punctuation.

“Your ultrasound results indicate that Baby has a cleft lip and palate do you know what these are?” Baby is a universal name for the person in the black-and-white pictures, the heartbeat you’ve been hearing for weeks, the long-awaited one, for our particularly long-awaited one. I started to cry, and, becoming embarrassed to be crying in front of the nurse delivering news that I had finally believed I would not get about my baby, I choked out a yes and told her I knew what they were. Hadn’t I seen the infomercials?

They used to play on our small TV in the living room during special presentations of movies or documentaries. During that phone call, I pictured the videos, children looking at the camera, their eyes wide with joy and longing, mouths gaping and grinning, their lips twisted up or away, revealing thin strips of pink gums. This was all I thought about, and then I stopped thinking.

I stood in the hallway of my department on campus, holding my still-small belly, where I was longing to feel movement. The words were on a distant, scratchy loop that I couldn’t turn off: ultrasound Baby cleft lip palate correctable with surgery. None of them computed; they floated past me but they kept returning. The words themselves were still following me. The nurse practitioner told me she didn’t handle high-risk pregnancies; I would need a new ob-gyn. She told me I needed a follow-up ultrasound with a maternal-fetal medicine specialist, asked whether I preferred to go to Temple or Dallas. She was still talking to me; I was a ghost holding the phone.


I said Temple. My mouth, disengaged from my empty brain, started to babble at top speed about how Temple was closer, which was so good because you know there is a lot of traffic on 35 and it would be too bad to drive to Dallas. When I finally stopped, she said she would put in the referral that day. I nodded, though she couldn’t see me, and finally, after a lot of what she must have thought was silence on my part, she asked, “Are you okay?”

“Uh, yeah, just a little…overwhelmed, I guess.” I started to cry again, and so I told her I had to go, that I needed to call my husband. Preston came and picked me up, and when I sat down in the front seat, I stared at my hands in my lap, my book bag by my feet. “The nurse called. She said something is wrong with Jackson, that he has a cleft lip and a cleft palate. That’s what the ultrasounds showed, and we have to go for a follow-up in Temple.” Preston nodded, took deep breaths as he swung the car onto University Parks Drive.

That’s what the ultrasounds showed. Even as I spoke those words, I hoped they could rescue us, that the nurse had just reported something that looked like cleft lip and palate. Another ultrasound, or three or four more, could show something different, could prove her wrong. I clung to the promise that seemed to rest in her words, that she was calling because of apparent test results, but the person behind them, he might defy the tests, he might prove us all wrong.

*  *  *

Before we knew about Jackson’s diagnosis (before I was showing and he was a monthly appointment and heartbeats thudding wild in my belly), I downloaded the What to Expect When You’re Expecting app. I read about the daily changes, waiting patiently every Tuesday morning for the weekly updates, with paragraphs of advice and things to think about. I wanted both glory and guilt; I wanted to know just what should be happening and what I should be doing to keep myself—so I thought—preparing to be a good mother. I ought to go to the gym. I ought to drink only decaffeinated tea. I ought to rest but also be active. Guilt, I have believed for far too long, is the safest, most reliable motivation for doing things you ought to do. I was driven by the fear of it and the feeling of it, to put in headphones and do Zumba in our apartment, to keep a record of how many vegetables and fruits I was eating.

But I went farther and farther down the rabbit hole each week. I read message boards and user threads and every post from every slightly panicked mother I could find. I soaked in the worries and their sly counterpart, the reassurances. A mother writes worried about morning sickness, and six other moms write back that, don’t worry, they had the same thing and dear son and dear daughter turned out fine. Our nurse practitioner wrote down at my first appointment that we had a “large baby for gestational age,” which prompted her to order an early ultrasound. I spent a week looking up every possible meaning of large baby for gestational age. I lay awake in bed replaying the possibilities from the crumbs scattered in forums and mom blogs. I fought with Preston about whether it was justified to be worried. He insisted it wasn’t, that it didn’t mean anything and probably our nurse just wanted to find a way to make insurance pay for the ultrasound, to do us a favor. When I thought he had fallen asleep, I looked up the blogs again on my phone, turning away from him so he wouldn’t see. This is the secret work of those blogs, of What to Expect, of the app and the animated weekly baby growth update: They make any reassurance that’s not from another mom, who’s been through the same thing, sound hollow.

I drank and drank and drank at that well of worry and reassurance, each sip leaving me thirstier. I could not stop thinking about the thousands of things I could ask. Should I eat pineapples? I read somewhere they can bring on early labor by softening the cervix. Should I eat yogurt? How much should I work out, and when is prenatal yoga most likely to benefit the baby?

And this seemingly bottomless well offered me the same empty water—well, I did Zumba and I highly recommend it. I did Zumba and had an early miscarriage. Have you taken time for a prenatal yoga class? Calcium is the most important thing, except for folic acid, which they tell you that your diet will provide but it probably won’t and it’s super important in the beginning of pregnancy, so you should have been taking a prenatal vitamin for about six weeks before you started trying to have a baby.

I could not stop looking things up. I could not stop drinking in this promise that if my answers to these questions were the same as those posted by seven other moms, then the baby would be okay. I prayed desperately night after night that God would just not let anything happen to this baby.

I tried to hide the depths of my worry from Preston the whole first trimester by only opening the app and reading the threads of conversation after he had dropped me off at school for the morning. Then I would settle in with my phone and my computer to learn what should be happening with the little one I was carrying. By now he should have arm and leg buds. By now he should have a heart beating strongly, forming its four chambers. Every day there was another “tip” for moms—ways to process what we were feeling or thinking or how to avoid morning sickness. Every week another animated graphic of what “Baby” looks like. Every week a reminder to think about things like dream nursery boards and flu shots and finding the “right” ob-gyn or midwife.

There is a strange superiority in this work of worrying and reassuring. We complain about the things that actually make us feel better. We want morning sickness while we complain about how awful it is. But we are secretly pleased to have it, because, you know, not having it could mean that your little one is having trouble. Sick mom, healthy baby. I don’t know how many women will say, I didn’t have any morning sickness and everything was fine! but I doubt it will ever stop up the flood, because it only takes one woman to whisper, to hint, that it is a sign of trouble and away we run back to the well, back to the chaos, back to the worry.

I did this. I took comfort in the fact that I couldn’t stomach anything before 11:00 a.m. I took comfort in seeing my applesauce or my yogurt come back up in the mornings. This means the baby is okay. I lived in the uneasy reassurance that my experience was “normal” and so the baby would be too. I read the blog posts, tried to follow their advice, collapsed into bed each night afraid that I had done something to put the baby, no bigger than a blueberry, in mortal danger, calmed only by one last quick look: If I drank wine at a wedding before I knew I was pregnant, will everything be okay?

*  *  *

In the first days after the phone call, we thought Jackson probably had a genetic condition of some kind, a twist or turn in that double helix that would have necessarily surfaced, no matter what I did or didn’t do. Pierre Robin sequence is a range of genetic duplications or deletions, spontaneous edits to the text of our growing bodies. The maternal-fetal medicine specialist, Dr. D, suggested it as a possibility, since it usually presents with malformations of the chin and jaw, with cleft lip and palate. But he couldn’t tell us, and the genetic counselors couldn’t tell us, what had really happened. Of the hundreds of thousands of bits of sequences that can change, all of us have something slightly different. Somewhere in the joining of chromosomes, our genes write the story a bit differently. It’s only in a few cases that the story becomes more complicated, only a fragment of the many hundreds of changes that make the doctors look longer, double-check measurements, send you to an office with too-brightly-colored plastic play mats.

We learned later, in the NICU, that it wasn’t genetic. The right side of Jackson’s face had been positioned in such a way, early on, that the blood didn’t flow enough to keep pace with his growth. Everything slowed down, the eye, the ear—they were made in miniature or not made at all. The body builds creatively; the body builds in the windows and spaces it is given. For one moment, a small pearl of time, there wasn’t enough blood, and so the body shifted and slowed and this beautiful face, so different from what we expected, took on the shape it has now.

I had imagined I would leave the geneticist’s office feeling absolved. I had weighed in secret a dangerous hope that Jackson’s condition was genetic. I imagined that if it was the dark and mysterious DNA that caused this, and not me, I could exhale. We hadn’t expected to get pregnant so soon. I hadn’t been reading those user threads about what to do when you are trying to conceive, and though we had known, that crisp Christmas Eve night, in the same darkness of spirit where God says light, that it was time to try, to receive, I hadn’t prepared. I drank champagne at a wedding. We flew to Belgium and back and I drank wine there and I never thought about folic acid. I never thought about vitamins, calcium, the preparation of my body to become a mother.

So I prayed the dangerous prayer that Jack’s condition would be genetic so that the DNA could absolve me of my inattention, my failings so early on to be the mother the user threads described. And the geneticist told me that there would be no absolution that way. I carried the guilt of the champagne for months; it was not until much later, sitting in a different hospital while Jack slept on my chest, sick with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), that I wondered for the first time if I was seeking absolution for what only the internet called sin.

*  *  *

We were late to our eighteen-week ultrasound. Preston surprised me with a lunch date at a farm-to-table restaurant just outside Waco. I had been picking at my salad throughout, then picking at my dessert. Ever since the positive pregnancy test, ever since the scribbled note of “large baby for gestational age,” I had lived on a live wire of worry. This ultrasound, which was the reason for the lunch, the reason for the celebrating, was full of fear. An ultrasound could declare that things hadn’t gone according to plan or it could bless us with uneventful normalcy, with everything as expected. I had worried for days that it would be the first, and as the ultrasound approached, I became convinced that something was wrong, that we would learn something terrible that Friday afternoon. I sat sullenly at our celebration lunch, listlessly moving the lettuce around on my plate with my fork. Preston tried several times to ask me why I didn’t seem very peaceful or excited. He tried to remind me that we were seeing our child for the first time. Instead of answering his question, I picked a fight with him about the fact that we would be late right as the waitress brought over our check. It was raining while we drove back, and I wasn’t dressed for it. My thin cotton skirt was covered in wet splotches. I pressed my hands against it, feeling a thousand goose bumps beneath.


  • "Hilary's work is true in the best Christian sense: she brings order out of chaos, finds beauty out of brokenness, participates in redemption out of sorrow, and practices resurrection in the very places of death. Her writing has an inexplicable loveliness to each word, like we're all homesick for what she glimpsed."—Sarah Bessey, author of Jesus Feminist and Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith
  • Hilary is one of my favorite writers. Period. Because she's not afraid of what her writing will uncover. She's not afraid to look doubt and question marks and God in the eye. And then she's not afraid to tell us exactly what she found. Open this book and let her show you. I promise it will change you too.—Lisa-Jo Baker, author of Never Unfriended and Surprised by Motherhood
  • "Hilary Yancey's writing is fraught with humanity and divinity, both. Her words are full of the... beautiful infusion of wisdom that happens when life does what it does."—Amber C. Haines, author of Wild in the Hollow
  • "With poetry and insight, authenticity and vulnerability, Hilary explores the hidden work of making space. Space for the stories we never thought would be ours. Space for the people who become ours to love. Space for the Grace of God, that so often lies hidden under it all."—Addie Zimmerman, author of When We Were on Fire and Night Driving
  • I love learning from Hilary as I read how she models, day in and out, the life of a parent who sees like Jesus. There's not a thing she writes that doesn't have a turn of phrase that catches in my throat, such a gifted writer she is. The melding of these two things-her way with words and her way as a parent-means this book is a much-needed gift to every one of us.—Tsh Oxenreider, author of At Home in the World: Reflections on Belonging While Wandering the Globe

On Sale
Apr 3, 2018
Page Count
224 pages

Hilary Yancey

About the Author

Hilary Yancey is an author who examines the significance within moments of everyday life. She earnestly and vividly explores the challenges and blessings of marriage, motherhood, and a life of faith–and how these are expanded and changed by disability. Hilary is also a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Baylor University and lives with her husband, Preston, and two children in Waco, Texas. Her blog can be read at

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