Grieving not as those without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13)—What does this mean?
I wanted to follow up on my blog from last month regarding the grief experienced by those who have buried a child. Since the death of our son in 2008, my wife and I realize that the Christmas season is not always the happiest time of the year for many. This journey of affliction is not a straight line or a stable target. I have learned over the past year the difference between the pain of missing Andrew and the pain of longing to see him. I deeply long to see him. He has been gone for 6 years. This is always made more tangible when I am in the presence of young men who are the same age which Andrew would have been. In my preparation for our Bible study on the Sabbath (the 4th Commandment), I wanted to make the distinction between this word and the word Sabaoth. The first time I came across the word Sabaoth was in that great hymn written by Martin Luther, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” This was one of Andrew’s favorites and was sung gloriously at his memorial service. As I was looking up information on this hymn, I came across a rendition by a group of incredibly talented musicians at Cedarville University by the name of HeartSong. As they all look to be in their mid-twenties, the pain of longing for my son truly reached a peak.
So, where am I along this journey of affliction six years later? My desire is to live out the words of Job in Job 13:15–“Though He slay me yet will I hope in Him.” Nicholas Wolterstorff in “Lament for a Son” speaks of owning our grief redemptively. This, too, is my desire. I pray that these words will comfort the bereaved and edify those who want to minister to the broken.
When I talk with others on the topic of grief I want them to know what grief really is–a life-shattering sorrow over loss. It rips life to shreds from top to bottom. The tranquility of our life has been invaded by an unwanted intruder. And the fact that our loved ones are with the Lord lightens but does not remove the feeling of loss and loneliness. To deny this is sub-Christian. To say that all is well, that God is in control (which of course is true), has more to do with false piety than biblical reality. In the experience of loss there is genuine grief and realistic sorrow. Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus (John 11:35). He wept because He was sad at the loss of His friend. The mystery of this encounter is not that He raised Lazarus from the dead. That was easy for Jesus. The mystery is that He so identified with our humanity that He shed genuine tears for His friend. Jesus was a man of sorrows and acquainted with suffering (Isaiah 53:2).
Though the Bible introduces us to the reality of Christ’s victory over death, it does not call us to heartless triumphalism. Loss is grief. The experience of bereavement for me is that every tearful memory wants to be replaced by another tearful memory. Tears are proper for the believer. Indeed, they should be even more copious, as we know something of the softening grace of God. And just because I have some great experience of faith, the pangs of human sorrow still cut me to the very core of my being. I am convinced God has given me bereavement to unveil the very power of the gospel in a dynamic way. I face the death of Andrew with a triumphant assurance but not without a deep pain for all that we enjoyed about him in this life.
As I continue to examine the problem of pain and suffering in the life of the Christian–as it relates to Barb and me, and as we are invited into the lives of others who are in the midst of desperate circumstances–I realize that my only hope is in the promises God has give us in His Word and in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1, 2). Paul gives me the ultimate hope in suffering when he states, “Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9).
We must be very careful in interpreting God’s purposes in suffering–our own or someone else’s. We rarely see any redeeming reason for it. God’s purposes are very different, even opposite from ours. And this is not a form of triumphalism, which I abhor. But when Jesus finally reveals the real purposes we will find them more glorious than we ever imagined and His reward so overwhelming that there will be no trace of bitterness, only overflowing gratitude.
I know I have probably worn out my welcome in this lengthy note but allow me to close with some observations. I pray that this will give some measure of hope to those experiencing the dark night of the soul.
- Much of the Christian life is spent trusting Jesus now and understanding Him later.
- Sometimes faithfulness to God and His Word sets us on a course where circumstances get worse, not better. It is then that knowing God’s promises is crucial.
- Faith in God’s future grace for us is what sustains us in desperate moments.
- Following Jesus does not insulate from life’s fiercest storms.
- Our future and our provision and our ultimate triumph are certain to God.
- Our lives and our circumstances are not ultimately about us (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). They are about Jesus Christ.
- God’s grace is more clearly seen and more deeply savored in our weaknesses than in our strengths (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
- Finally, in our present age, it is not the tears or the mourning or the affliction or the pain or death that is strange–“The whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). What is strange is their defeat. The day of deliverance is decreed. And it will come with sudden joy.
Yours in Christ,
“The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever!”
A Mighty Fortress is Our God, Martin Luther