My father was slowly relinquishing his fragile life. His once sharp mind was now confused with the bleakness of Alzheimer’s. The cumulative effect of the medication to sustain his heart was destroying his liver, and the drugs needed to save his liver were threatening his heart. It was only a matter of time. He was refusing food — starving to death. I held his stubble-covered face in my hand and tried to entice him to drink a swallow of protein drink. I was doing it more for me than for him. Ten years have past and I sometimes still miss him. Some of my sadness is over the loss of a father, some for the life events we never shared. How one faces loss is what we call grief.
Did I grieve in the proper way? I’m not sure. Yet I am certain that time is not the great healer — it is only a great distancer. God is the great healer, but there are times when His prescription seems harsh. We are to trust in the One who is in charge of the universe and has the power to soften the blow of loss; yet, from our limited perspective, the impact does not feel cushioned.
The somewhat expected loss of a family member is not equivalent to the unexpected loss of a child or the tragic loss of innocence due to childhood abuse. Although the scenarios and details are different concerning grief, each of our life stories has a common theme of loss. Loss is the great leveler.
Loss has not always existed. All loss finds its beginning in the historic event that we call the fall. In that moment, the greatest loss occurred — our relationship with God. When sin entered creation, perfection and harmony and peace became tainted. We know that sin creates a loss of relationship with God. No other injury requires the death of our Savior to heal. But we accumulate other wounds that mount up in the shadow of the fall. We lose connection with others — relationships are filled with potential pitfalls. We lose connection with ourselves — not pausing to be still before our Father. Our sin nature blocks us from seeing our own blind spots and clouds our hearts. Sin thwarts our ability to see, understand, and interpret the world around us clearly. The pervasive reality of living in a fallen world requires us to taste loss.
The theme of loss is pervasive throughout the biblical narrative as a result of sin, but the theme of hope is never far behind as the Gospel breaks through the darkness. The great promise of Revelation — that no tear was wasted — assures us that somehow our good God is using the losses to bring all of creation to display His glory: a glorious display of grace and compassion and redemption and hope.
Loss Is Inevitable
While we live in this present evil age, loss is inevitable. When Jesus encourages us to build our house on rock and not on sand, He doesn’t say “if” the rains come. Notice His language: “when” the rain comes. The rain — our struggles and losses — cause us to live with a longing for heaven. We can have joy as we build our house upon the rock, but that joy is mixed with struggle. In Romans, we’ve been invited as adopted children of God to participate in the glory of God and share in the struggle. No one is exempt. Although the degree and level of suffering and loss may be dissimilar, we all will experience loss, and we all will have to face the realities of grief. For some it will be the news of the horrific loss of a child delivered by the late-night phone call that every parent dreads. Others will face the long protracted loss created by poverty or a broken family. Some may even face the tragic loss as victims of war, starvation, and abuse.
What do we do with our pain? What is our good God’s plan in all of this? If we are honest, we will admit that we often try to make a deal with God concerning loss: “I will follow you, but make sure my kids turn out okay. I will follow you, but I want to earn your blessing.” This is a distorted version of old-covenant thinking. It is a turning of the Law on its head by attempting to earn God’s blessings. In the full revelation of the new covenant, God has revealed that we already have all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ. Paul tells us that we should live out of this fullness because our greatest loss, our relationship with God, was forever addressed on the cross. We are not alone, and our Father will never leave us.
God Is Aware of Our Losses
Loss is inevitable. That struggle is at the core level of what we think about God: does He care? Scripture is clear that God is intimately aware of the “cries” of His children. Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and Lazarus’s tomb. We are told His “heart went out to” His children; He was touched by the faith and the plight of His children. The most obvious display of His concern for the effects of sin and loss in our lives is His coming and His sacrifice for us on the cross. God has not turned His back on His creation, and He is intimately concerned and moved by His children’s plight and the state of His creation.
How then shall we now grieve?
The answer to that question is a simple yet critical concept: you will either grieve alone and become internally centered, or you will turn to the one who suffered on your behalf and grieve with Him. The question is not if you grieve but when. What will you do? The real decision is how and with whom you will grieve.
In His great sermon on the hillside, Jesus stated, “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” Most of us, however, refuse to mourn and grieve. We refuse to mourn because we cannot wrap our finite minds around the despair and hope that live in loss. Since we cannot understand it, we do not face it. God is inviting us to face the significant and debilitating losses of our lives by resting in His arms, the arms of the One who has heard our cry, the arms of the One who is freeing His creation from the consequences of sin. God invites us to trust Him, to depend upon Him. Jesus says, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”
Do you live that way? Most of us do not, and how we deal with grief and loss often reveals our core belief about God’s nature and our own heart. As sinful people, we taste the devastating losses of sin and have a propensity to respond in sinful ways. Here are four primary categories that provide a foundation for understanding how we creatively push away the pain of loss. We tend to minimize, spiritualize, rationalize or criticize when we encounter loss. Minimization is the process of not living in the truth. We commonly respond, “It’s not so bad.” This will often lead to a wooden faith, a faith that does not foster deep dependence on God. Spiritualization is the act of hiding behind quick religious clichés. We do not really face our doubts or fears. Rationalization is our attempt to explain away the loss by using our reasons and intellect. “God is in control,” we say. The problem is that we never let the loss touch our heart; we are not honest with God about our struggle. We also tend to criticize, looking for someone to blame or place “fault” upon. These common strategies work to shelter us from grieving while moving us away from the pattern of grief we find in, for example, the Psalms. In the Psalter, we see God’s people facing grief honestly without minimizing the pain or hiding behind quick-and-easy spiritual answers. Instead, there is an embrace of the pain as the believer struggles and wrestles with God.
In Romans 8, Paul paints a powerful picture of our deep longings. He indicates that all of creation groans as in the pains of childbirth, waiting for the day of redemption. Paul utilizes the same picture when he speaks about his longing and desire for people to experience Christ more fully formed in them. This is similar to the process of birth: the ability to reflect the glory of God as Christ is formed in us is rarely birthed from ease. This vivid picture of a woman in labor illustrates the inevitability of pain as new life is created.
I would like to suggest the same powerful metaphor for grief. God will birth His glory in us as we allow ourselves to honestly and passionately face our most terrible losses. To live honestly is to admit the pain and sadness of the loss. There is no reason to live in denial — Jesus did not die on the cross so we can pretend. The Gospel allows us to grieve honestly, to admit that we struggle in the midst of confusion and doubt. Remember the words spoken to Thomas as he wrestled with his doubt — Jesus invited him to touch His wounds. But living honestly is not enough. Thomas responds by passionately trusting Jesus: “My Lord and my God.” Honest doubt will be coupled with a desire to know God more deeply, to know what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus by entering into His sufferings. We must embrace God and the mystery of His provision and His sovereignty in the midst of our suffering. Through the pain, God is birthing a child who depends upon Him more and knows that He is good even in the most difficult of times.
All of us will experience loss. We will either withdraw from our loss with creative repressive strategies, or we will embrace our loss with faith in God. God is continually birthing renewed, revitalized, and dependent believers, but the road to hope often navigates through despair.