This is the second of two posts that explore the subject of grief in the life of a believer. Part 1 presented the hallmarks and pitfalls of grief, along with a biblical perspective of grief. This month, in Part 2, the post will present ways we can prepare ourselves for, and respond to, grief.
I am an introvert. Actually, I’m a flaming introvert. Which means that, though I love people and find them interesting, I really, really, like to be alone. Fortunately, I married an introvert. And though we love being together, we’re also adept at making space for one another. Thus, you can imagine my surprise when I noticed myself suffering from loneliness during the COVID-19 lockdown and subsequent work-from-home state of affairs—a situation I thought was made for introverts.
After some introspection, I realized I was missing my co-workers. Though we’ve seen each other over the Internet, I miss being with them, in person. I miss our impromptu prayer sessions. I also miss having lunch together. And I miss regularly sharing chocolate, coffee, spontaneous conversations, and laughter with them.
What losses have you suffered due to the COVID-19 pandemic? Do you miss seeing family and friends? Have you had to cancel milestone celebrations, vacations, or other important events? Do you miss the peace and quiet of being home alone? Have you lost loved ones due to the disease? How are you navigating the grief that comes with loss?
I believe it’s possible to survive the inevitable occurrence of grief and mitigate some of its effects. We can do so by knowing God well beforehand, by pouring out our hearts to God in the face of grief, and by asking him to redeem our grief by helping us to make some meaning of our suffering.
Know God Well Before Grief Appears
There is a stunning difference between C. S. Lewis’s two books about pain/grief. If you want to know what Lewis thought about pain, and the truth of God in light of the existence of pain, read The Problem of Pain, which is a philosophical treatment of the subject he wrote before he lost his wife. If you want to know how he felt while in the grip of pain, read A Grief Observed, penned after her death.
Though Lewis’s relationship with God was tossed about as he floundered in his grief, ultimately, the truths he knew about God won out.1Packer, J. I., A Grief Sanctified (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2002), 151. This is as it should be. Our feelings should never dictate our theology. And while our theology may not eliminate our feelings, it can serve as a rudder to keep us from running aground in the sea of grief.2Keller notes that Paul indicates peace can be found in thinking “hard and long about the core doctrines of the Bible,” Keller, Timothy, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Penguin Books, 2013), 298. See also: Philippians 4:8-9.
This gives us a clue as to the best thing we can do to prepare ourselves for the suffering, loss, pain, and grief that invade our lives: know God. Know God as he truly is, as found in the pages of Scripture, and by experiencing an ongoing relationship with him through prayer.3Besides reading Scripture, I also recommend a classic book on the subject of knowing God: Packer, J. I., Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973).
Timothy Keller notes that spending time in the Word and in prayer can help us to “neither be surprised by nor overthrown by affliction.”4Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 197, 198-199. See: John 16:33. It provides comfort and the assurance of God’s love. It can also enable us to more easily utilize suffering to get to know God better, as opposed to allowing it to draw us away from him.5Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 191-192.
Lamenting and Trusting
Scripture tells us the truth about God, truth we can cling to when our minds and hearts seem to be playing tricks on us as we suffer in our grief. Knowing God well enables us to trust him in the midst of our suffering. The truth is, we don’t need to choose between lamenting or trusting, we can do both, just like the Psalmists who wrote the Psalms of Lament.6Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 252, 255.
The Psalms of Lament include both words of lament and statements of trust or assurance in God. See Fee and Stuart’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth for some good information about the Psalms of Lament.7Fee, Gordon and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for all Its Worth, Fourth Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2014), 212-232. See also my previous SEND U Blog post titled, “Contentment,” which also discusses the Psalms of Lament.
If you’re interested in reading through some of the Psalms of Lament, here is a list:
- Psalms of Individual Lament: 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 13, 17, 22, 25, 26, 27, 28, 31, 35, 39, 42, 43, 51, 54, 55, 56, 57, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 69, 70, 71, 76, 77, 86, 88, 102, 109, 120, 130, 140, 141, 142, 143.
- Psalms of National Lament: 44, 74, 79, 80, 83, 90.8See: Walton, John H., Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 73.
Spending time with God helps grow our relationship with him. And the deeper our relationship with God, the easier it will be to give our grief to him.
Give the Grief to God
Grief, says J. I. Packer, is “a state of desolation and isolation, of alternating apathy and agony, of inner emptiness and exhaustion.”9Packer, A Grief Sanctified, 168. How can we experience it in a way that honors God? Packer suggests several ways including: crying, telling God about our sadness (see the Psalms of Lament), praying (as we are able), and talking about our losses to ourselves and to others (through writing or conversation).10Packer, A Grief Sanctified, 168. Specifically, talking to ourselves or others about the loved ones we’ve lost can bring comfort to our souls as we remember them.
If we will allow ourselves to feel the feelings that swirl within us, to share them with God, to cry freely when tears come, to cling to the truth of “the goodness and grace of God,” and continue to seek God “as thankfully, submissively, and patiently” as we can (Packer says God “will understand if you have to tell him that you cannot really do this yet”), eventually we will find ourselves not just experiencing the comfort of God, but once again “thinking . . . living . . . and praising properly.”11Packer, A Grief Sanctified, 168-169.
Lewis continued to seek the face of God in the midst his agony. And, despite the closed door he felt when he initially sought God after his wife’s death, he eventually began to sense God’s presence again. Lewis says,
I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face?12Lewis, C. S., A Grief Observed (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 5, 6, 46.
Though God still did not answer his many questions, he sensed “a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze.”13Lewis, A Grief Observed, 69. Joseph and Job also clung to God in the midst of their suffering and grief. See: Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 255-269, for his thoughts about Joseph and Job trusting God in their suffering. This transformation occurred as Lewis continued his attempts at prayer, which, by his own admission, sometimes consisted of yelling at God.14Lewis, A Grief Observed, 30, 40.
The best place to acknowledge our grief is in prayer. We are encouraged repeatedly in God’s Word, by example and invitation, to bring our grief to God and to pour out our hearts to him.15See Keller’s discussion about Job and his conversations with God, along with some comments about Psalm 42: Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 287-292.
While others may reject our grief due to lack of interest, compassion, or skill in helping us navigate our losses, God will never turn a deaf ear to us or abandon us in our grief.16See: Psalms 34:17-18, 46:1, 61:1-3, 62:8, 145:14, 147:2-3; Isaiah 61:1-3; Matthew 5:4; 2 Corinthians 1:3-4; Hebrews 13:5; 1 Peter 5:7. See also: Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 242-245. And, as we run to God with our wounded hearts, we will discover that God, in his great wisdom and power, not only provides comfort but is able to help us make meaning of our suffering.
Grief. It can ambush the strongest heart and grind it to dust in a moment. It can also serve as a springboard to a new, different life. It’s possible to survive grief, not only with our relationship to God intact, but with a deeper relationship with him. Grief can also provide us with experience and tools for ministry. Furthermore, if we will allow him, God can redeem our suffering by helping us to make some meaning of it. Jesus provides a great example of this.
Scripture tells us that Jesus endured the suffering of the cross because of “the joy set before him.”17Hebrews 12:2. Jesus knew his sacrificial death would make a way to restore the broken relationships between God and humans. He knew it would provide salvation for all who would trust in him. He knew his suffering would not be in vain and that it had great meaning.
In the midst of our suffering, it’s difficult for us to comprehend the possibility that God could create something good from it. But, in his great power, God is able to do just that. Elisabeth Elliot says God desires to
transform every form of human suffering into something glorious. He can redeem it. He can bring life out of death. . . . When our souls lie barren in a winter which seems hopeless and endless, God has not abandoned us. His work goes on. He asks our acceptance of the painful process and our trust that He will indeed give resurrection and life.18Elliot, Elisabeth, A Path Through Suffering (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1990), 43.
In his book, The Wounded Healer, Henry Nouwen makes a case that the effectiveness of those who minister to others in their suffering is bound up in the minister’s willingness to reveal his or her own woundedness.19Nouwen, Henry, J. M., The Wounded Healer (New York: Doubleday, 1972), xvi, 72. Nouwen says,
Thus, our own sufferings, sorrows, and griefs (when properly attended to) can become a strength which fosters growth in the lives of others.21Nouwen, Henry, The Wounded Healer, 82-83, 87. The ability to share in another’s grief—because we, too, have grieved—is one way God helps us to make meaning of our own suffering.
So, how does the process of making meaning occur? It begins with “honoring” the pain, by acknowledging that “pain is valid, and worthy of a sympathetic response.”22Yancey, Philip, “Where Is God When It Hurts,” in Where Is God When It Hurts? & Disappointment with God, Zondervan Treasures Collection Edition (Grand Rapids, ZondervanPublishingHouse, 1996), 199. We cannot make meaning of suffering if we deny or ignore its presence in our lives.
The process continues as we faithfully journey through the stages of grief. Although God can help us find meaning along the way, making meaning is generally considered to be the last stage of the process. It can even occur years after the grief-causing incident. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross defines the five basic stages of grief as: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Building on this, David Kessler has added a sixth stage: making meaning.23See: Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth and David Kessler, On Grief and Grieving (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), 7, and Kessler, David, Finding Meaning (New York: Scribner, 2019), 2. Please note, these books are not written with a Christian world view, and, though the information about the existence of stages of grief is valuable, I do not agree with all that is written in the texts.
At some point in our journey of grief, we begin to look forward. Though meaning can be found in the act of suffering itself (this is especially true in cases where someone gives up his or her life for another), it is also found in what the suffering produces. Examples include things like the perseverance, maturity, character, hope, and glory that Scripture says are produced by the trials and suffering we face.24Romans 5:3-4, 8:18; James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 1:3-7.
Philip Yancey also concurs and says,
If we turn to God in trust, the affliction itself can be redeemed, by helping to form our character in Christ’s own image.25Yancey, Where Is God When It Hurts? & Disappointment with God, 200.
The making of meaning can be as simple as dedicating the suffering to the glory of God, making a donation to a favorite charity, or honoring one’s loss by creating a small memorial. Making meaning can also be as complex as the formulation of ministries, charities, or foundations created to honor the legacy of the one who has died. Sometimes, these entities are formed as a way to help others avoid the same tragedy that took our loved one’s life. Others are formed simply to provide those who grieve with a place to connect with individuals who have endured the same kind of suffering, loss, trauma, or tragedy.
It’s also possible for us to cooperate with God in making meaning through living out 2 Corinthians 1:3-7. This passage invites us to comfort others with the same kind of comfort we have received from God. I remember thinking, as I was grieving with a friend who had recently suffered a miscarriage, If part of the reason I experienced multiple miscarriages was so that I can comfort my friend, then I see some value in the losses I suffered. That precious time with my friend, weeping alongside her as she mourned the loss of her baby, helped both to redeem and to make some meaning out of my own suffering.
Though I’ve not lost any loved ones due to the pandemic, I’ve suffered a variety of losses. These include the loss of several overseas ministry trips, face-to-face ministry opportunities, conference learning opportunities, milestone celebrations, visits with friends, peace of mind, and a family vacation. In the face of these losses, God has provided comfort, grace, the assurance of his presence, and opportunities to connect with others and minister in new ways.
As I consider the losses I’ve suffered due to the pandemic, I can see that my faith in God and my appreciation of others have grown. I have a deep sense of gratitude for the ways God has provided for my needs during this time. God has also provided vision for ministering to others in new ways. And he is leading me into a time of evaluating my priorities, motives, and dreams for the future. As a result, these outcomes help give meaning to my experience of the pandemic.
Having said that, it’s true that I’m still working through some aspects of grief. So, I continue to both lament and trust, pouring my heart out to God on a daily basis, waiting to see what else God will do.
I’m grateful I don’t have to grieve alone. Nor must I grieve as those who have no hope, as Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:13. Though the context of this verse concerns the deaths of believers, the truth found within the text can be extrapolated to all of life. Those who know the true God, who have trusted in Jesus as their Savior, though they may grieve great losses, need never be without hope, regardless of their circumstances.26Psalms 46:1-11, 62:5-6; Isaiah 40:29-31; Lamentations 3:1-26; Romans 5:1-11, 15:13; Hebrews 6:11-20.
I hope because I know the God who is able to create good in the face of horrible loss. The meaning of Romans 8:28 is not that everything that happens to us is good. Rather, it is that God is able to make some good come out of all things—even things that are not good (God does not call evil good).27See: Walvoord, John F. and Roy B. Zuck, “Romans,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament (Colorado Springs: Cook Communications Ministries, 2000), 474.
Hope of Glory
I also hope because I know the one who gives me the hope of glory. Because Christ lives in me, I will see the redemption of my body and soul. And Paul tells me that my “present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed” in me.28Romans 5:1-5, 8:18; Colossians 1:21-27. This in no way diminishes the agony of suffering. Instead, it serves to magnify the glory to come.
Finally, I hope because I know the God who knows. He knows the moment a sparrow falls to earth (Matt. 10:29.) He knows about all my losses, even the smallest ones (like when each hair falls out of my head) (Matt.10:30.) He knows what I need before I ask him.29Psalm 139:1-4; Matthew 6:31-32; Hebrews 4:13. He is my strong tower, my rock of refuge, my shelter in the storm.30Psalms 18:1-6, 27:1-5, 55:4-8, 61:1-4, 91:1-8; Proverbs 18:10. He can be all these things for you, too.
What is your personal story of loss, pain, suffering, and grief? Are there experiences of loss from long ago for which you desire to find meaning? What about all the losses you’ve suffered during the past year? Have you acknowledged your grief? How have you connected with God and poured out your heart to him? Do you have a good friend, pastor, spiritual director, or counselor who can travel with you on your journey of grief?31If you’re struggling in your grief, you might consider contacting a caring professional who can help you work through your grief. If you don’t have a resource for finding a caring professional to help you on your journey of grief, contact Barnabas International, an organization dedicated to caring for global workers.
Are you at a place in your journey to begin considering how God can help you make meaning out of your suffering? Henry Nouwen notes that “wounds and pains become openings or occasions for a new vision.”32Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, 94. Has God raised a new vision out of the depths of your loss? Has he provided any blessings from—or in the midst of—your circumstances? Is it possible for you to comfort others in the same kind of grief? Can you utilize your experience to help those you are discipling as they suffer loss and grief?
Grief in Other Cultures
When working with and/or discipling people from different countries, it’s helpful to understand how their home cultures experience and manage loss and grief and to not assume that what is appropriate in our home culture is appropriate in all cultures. The book, Death and Bereavement Across Cultures, although not written with a Christian world view, provides insight on the issues of death and grieving in different cultures.33Parkes, Colin Murray, Pittu Laungani, and Bill Young, Editors, Death and Bereavement Across Cultures, Second Edition (New York: Routledge, 2015)
How will you navigate your journey through grief? I pray that, above all else, you will choose to seek, pour out your heart to, and cling to the one who sees your pain and hears your every prayer. For he is the one who is able to give you peace, heal your heart, and provide you with hope. He also can make meaning out of all your suffering. He is the one who loves you with an unfailing and everlasting love. The one who will never leave or forsake you. Never. Ever.
NOTE: Unless otherwise noted, Scriptures taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™