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Shock and Disbelief

“In my alarm I said,
I am cut off from your sight!’
Yet you heard my cry for mercy
when I called to you for help.”
Psalm 31:22

In 1989, my husband, Ron, had a coronary angiogram to check for possible blockages. The doctor said he would discuss the results with me in the hospital waiting room. After waiting much longer than the test was supposed to last, I checked with the clerk, who told me the doctor had returned to his office.

When I called the doctor, he snapped, “I didn’t think you were at the hospital.”

His attitude stunned me and intensified my shock when he told me Ron was at risk for a heart attack, should not leave the hospital, and needed immediate bypass surgery. I was sitting by the pay phone, feeling dazed and disengaged from myself, as if watching the whole scene from a distance. I was so numb I couldn’t even cry. Ron was only fifty-two, and I was terrified that he might die.

In Gerald Sittser’s book A Grace Disguised, he wrote about his shock and tormented feelings after his mother, wife, and four-year-old daughter were killed in an accident. A drunken driver’s car going eighty-five miles per hour struck the family’s minivan head-on. Sittser described his reaction: “I felt dizzy with grief’s vertigo, cut off from family and friends, tormented by the loss, nauseous from the pain. After arriving at the hospital, I paced the floor like a caged animal. . . . I was so bewildered that I was unable to voice questions or think rationally. I felt wild with fear and agitation.”1

The Impact of Shock

Shock can hit us head-on, impair how we act and think, and assault our emotions as well. We feel as if we’re functioning normally, but in reality we do not act or think clearly at all. We are overcome by alarm, confusion, and disorientation. We do not remember essential information and focus instead on unimportant details.

“When we are in shock, our bodies are in a state of severe physiological alarm. This physical response is a natural reaction when our sense of security is threatened. We do not perceive the world as safe any longer, so we set up a defensive reaction that keeps us alert to anything that is unusual or fearful.”2

Some people collapse emotionally and physically and suffer sudden attacks of fatigue, trembling, and weakness. Others lose their appetite, feel restless, are in a constant state of alert, wanting to sleep but can’t. Ordinary tasks they could normally handle become overwhelming.

They seesaw between reality and unreality, aware one moment that tragedy has struck and denying it the next. Painful, powerful forces dictate their lives, and the impact of shock and loss of control is frightening.

Shock can reduce us to silence; we’re so stunned we can’t speak about our loss or listen to others discussing it. We want them to be quiet and leave us alone. Yet we don’t want to be alone. We need comforting, compassionate people around us.

When we hear bad news, we can be so stricken by shock that we can’t remember what was said or keep the information straight. Recently Ron had laser surgery on his eye. The surgeon took us through a booklet with pictures as he explained the severity of the deterioration in medical terminology we didn’t understand.

I could feel myself going into shock and shutting down. About all I heard was “could lose an eye.” I knew we wouldn’t recall much of what the surgeon said, so I asked for a copy of the booklet. Later I was able to read about his condition when I was more able to comprehend the information.

Scripture Reading: Acts 12:5-17, NIV

5 So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him. 6 The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. 7 Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.

8 Then the angel said to him, “Put on your clothes and sandals.” And Peter did so. “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him. 9 Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. 10 They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him.

11 Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were hoping would happen.”

12 When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. 13 Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant named Rhoda came to answer the door. 14 When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!”

15 “You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.”

16 But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. 17 Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. “Tell James and the other brothers and sisters about this,” he said, and then he left for another place.

Practicing the Spiritual Life

    • What answer to prayer has surprised you because you didn’t expect it to come?


    O my Deliverer, “Turn your ear toward me. Rescue me quickly. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me.” “Pull me out of the mud; don’t let me sink any deeper! Rescue me from those who hate me, and pull me from these deep waters.” “O guard my life, and deliver me; do not let me be put to shame, for I take refuge in you.” “Set me free from my prison, that I may praise your name. Then the righteous will gather about me because of your goodness to me.” (Ps. 31:2 god’s word; Ps. 69:14 nlt; Ps. 25:20 nrsv; Ps. 142:7 not paraphrased)

    Next: Six, Spiritual Shock and Disbelief