Grieving with Hope
Before long, grief comes. It is the inevitable and often heart wrenching experience of every one of us this side of heaven. For those who profess to be Christians, there is no escaping what is common to all people everywhere. None of us grieve precisely the same way. For some, grief will be part of our experience until it is our time to leave our earthly tent. For others, the pain will pass more quickly with only occasional times when it seems to appear out of nowhere and catches us off guard.
The Scriptures encourage us by not dismissing or making light of grief. We do grieve. Jesus wept. Such deep trials will "distress" us, according to the apostle Peter. The Bible also remind us that grief, though real and difficult, is fundamentally different for those who have put their faith in Jesus Christ. Paul encourages a grieving and distressed group of believers in his first letter to the church at Thessalonica by telling them "We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep (a euphemism for those who have passed away), that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope." Paul then explains that Christians have a certain and joyful hope in the guarantee of the resurrection from the dead. Death is not final. Separation is not the permanent state for those who have put their trust in the crucified and resurrected Saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul writes "For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord."
The resurrection is the difference maker in our Christian faith. It declares that our Lord Jesus Christ has fully satisfied God's righteous requirements on our behalf. His death has atoned for our sin and has defeated death itself. His resurrection is the guarantee of the resurrection of all who have truly believed on Him as Saviour and Lord.
For this reason, we grieve not as those without hope but as those with certain hope. Grieving with hope still requires an exercise of faith. We must lay hold of the truth of the hope of the resurrection when we feel the "aloneness" or the "emptiness" or the loss of encouragement that we once felt from the presence of another loved one in Christ. The difference between having hope and not having hope is not that we don't have grief. The difference is that we have somewhere to go with that grief - to a risen and reigning Saviour and Lord.
This past week, I was with the church family of Grace Bible Church as they grieved alongside their pastor and his family over the loss of a dear sister in the Lord, Linda Webb. On Sunday morning, I pointed them to Psalm 16 which is a key text in the Bible pointing ahead to the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Both the apostle Peter and the apostle Paul use this text to argue that Jesus is the Christ who was prophesied to be raised from the dead. It is clear that David and our Saviour found great hope and comfort from the promise of the resurrection even in the most distressing times. Here is a summary of what I taught and what I have learned from Psalm 16, having walked a similar path of grief myself. I pointed out three "don't's" and four "do's":
1. Don't save yourself (Psalm 16:1-3). The psalmist cries out to God "Preserve me, O God, for in You I take refuge." The resurrection of Jesus is meant to reveal to us both what God has done for us in Christ. It also is meant to point us to the fact that Jesus is now risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of God in heaven making intercession for us. God took Jesus through the suffering of the cross in order to atone for our sins, but also to make him a "merciful and faithful High priest".
The temptation for many of us is to just tough it out. We don't let our thoughts be drawn to our sorrows. We keep ourselves busy. We keep a stiff upper lip. The problem with all of those things is that we are grieving not by faith but by human effort. We fail to recognize that our flesh will fail. We also forget to honour the fact that Christ is risen and interceding on our behalf. The resurrection is never a reason to become self-reliant. So, grieving with hope is moving forward holding onto to Christ by faith and telling Jesus how much we need His prevailing power. Don't save yourself. Jesus will bring you through it all, one day at a time.
2. Don't separate yourself (Psalm 16:3). Another tendency for all of us is to feel tempted to just slip away from others in our grief. It is sometimes hard to see people carrying on with life as normal when we can't imagine life ever being "normal" again. Or, we certainly don't want to be the rain cloud at every happy event, spoiling other people's joy by our unpredictable emotions. It can be difficult to hold it together and it is easier just to lay low and hope this storm will pass.
We need to keep in mind that this is not what Christ has intended for us. It is remarkable to me that when Jesus was, as He described it, "sorrowful unto death", that He didn't chose to go off alone. He went to Gethsemane and took His disciples. Then, he took Peter and James and John with him and asked them to pray alongside Him. Luke tells us that Jesus came back and found them sound asleep "from sorrow" instead of praying with and for Jesus. I would have said "Forget it." However, Jesus knew that we are not meant to grieve alone. Psalm 16:3 reads "As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight." Imagine Jesus saying that about us. We must see that God's people even with all our baggage and weakness are instruments of God to help us in our good.
When I was grieving the loss of my spouse from cancer, I determined to be in worship with the people of God. Sometimes, it would be a song that was song, a testimony that was given, or a Scripture that was read, that the Lord used to remind me of my unshakeable hope and God's unfailing love for me and my family. Even in tough counseling scenarios that I was involved in as a pastor, the Lord would force mean to say things to others that my own soul desperately needed to hear. God ministers mercy and grace through His resurrected Son. His resurrected Son shows mercy through His people. Don't separate yourself.
3. Don't sedate yourself (Psalm 16:4). The psalmist determines that in his time of difficulty, he will not put his hope in any other gods. In fact, he argues "The sorrows of those who run after another god will multiply...". It is tempting to put our hope for comfort in the things that everyone in the world does. Materialism, sensuality, pleasure, and self-promotion are common ways to deal with grief. Genuine grief is exhausting. False relief is tempting. We just want to distract ourselves from the pain until we hope it all goes away. Jesus warns his sorrowful disciples to pray lest they "fall into temptation."
I wonder how many people have faced the death of a loved one and then have been tempted or even seduced into the "we only live once" philosophy of life that drives our culture. Some people dive back into work. Some people look for love and reassurance in romantic relationships. Some people sedate themselves with a bottle or pills.
Think of how instead of alleviating our sorrows, these things often multiply sorrows in this life. Think about the disappointments, the broken relationships, the emptiness, and the destructive addictions that other gods or "idols" add to a grieving person's life. Imagine how this grief will be infinitely increased when we stand before God and people have turned from the only One who gives life and who has promised to "wipe away every tear" from our eyes. The price of chasing other gods rather than leaning on Jesus is far too great to allow. Grief is a crucial time to reaffirm our commitment to the God who has determined to end grief ultimately forever for all who trust in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Don't sedate yourself. Take it to the Saviour.
4. Appreciate The Lord (Psalm 16:5-6). Having Jesus as our Saviour and Lord changes everything. When it comes to grief, for example, we are able to thank the Lord for the blessings of this life knowing that we have not lost the most valuable things. They are, in fact, the foretastes of what is yet to come. I have found (and find) in my grief that the most helpful thing for me to do is to give thanks. When I look back, I can think of scores of reason to give thanks to God. When I look at what God continues to provide for me day by day, I have every reason to praise God. When I look ahead to what He has promised, I can say with the psalmist "The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.". The Psalmist sees where the lines have fallen for him. It is well with His soul.
Grief can coexist with gratitude. Being grateful doesn't end grief. It transforms it by not letting us forget that God will never leave us or forsake us. It is the discipline of speaking to ourselves of the temporary nature of our present sorrows and the constant care of our loving heavenly Father. I personally know of no greater remedy to my soul, day by day, then to thank God for His mercies which are new every morning.
5. Elevate the Lord (Psalm 16:7-8). There is one voice that the psalmist allows to have first and highest authority in his life. He writes "I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I have set the Lord always before me; because He is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken." This tells me that this is a deliberate activity of the psalmist. He intentionally places the Lord at his right hand (the position of highest authority.) The Lord gives him counsel.
Most men know that their wives are their best counselors. That is why I am grateful that I now have MariAnne at my side. Night time can be the toughest times for grieving people. It is when the busyness of the day subsides. It is when the quietness allows us to hear our thoughts. That is when a wife can remind a husband of God's truth when he begins to think all the "what if's and why's and worries". God's counsel is what we want when the "would've, could've, should've" thoughts arise. It takes discipline after the loss of a spouse or a close Christian friend to not allow the unhelpful, unbiblical, anxious thoughts to have the dominant voice. It takes prayerful effort to make sure that the devil's accusations or our own insecurities don't take us further into the pit of despair.
The psalmist gives the Lord the authority over his thoughts. The Scriptures must be read daily, memorized regularly, and given preeminence at night. We must learn to not listen to ourselves but rather, as the psalmist writes, to "instruct" ourselves in the night. Author Jerry Bridges is very helpful in teaching us as Christians that we have to learn the discipline of preaching the gospel to ourselves (see his book The Disciplines of Grace). It is crucial when we are grieving not to give authority to the unhelpful thoughts that condemn us, or rob of us of hope, or fill us with faithless anxieties. We must let Christ speak more to us than even our own thoughts. Elevate Jesus above your own thinking.
6. Celebrate The Resurrection (Psalm 16:9-10). It needs to be said to Christians that grief and joy are able to coexist. It is healthy and honouring to God to laugh while we are weeping. The resurrection is the one certain reality that gives grounds for the Christian to laugh as they remember and celebrate the life of a friend who has gone home to be with the Lord. The laughter is not flippant. The joy is deep and unshakeable.
There was a time when I wondered if I would ever truly laugh again. The remedy for my sorrow was not to pretend that it didn't hurt. It was to read of the hope of the resurrection in 1 Peter 1. There, the apostle Peter celebrates the "living hope" which we possess because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He tells how this hope is "imperishable, undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you." Then, he talks about how grief and joy fit together. Listen to his words: "In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have grieved by various trials so that the tested genuineness of your faith - more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire - may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love Him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation or your souls." It is hard to explain how such great joy can coexist with such deep grief except to point to our Saviour and what He has done for us. Without him, grief would be bottomless and endless. Instead, it is temporary and tempered by hope and joy. Let's keep reminding each other that one day (and that means one day soon), we will all be together with the Lord. Life is a sigh and we all are filing into eternity one right after the other. We will see on that day the reality that our sufferings in this life are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is going to be revealed. Imagine no more death, sickness, sorrow, sin, or suffering. Rejoice in the resurrection.
7. Anticipate the Lord (Psalm 16:11). We are meant to think about the future. The psalmist ends Psalm 16 making several affirmations. First, the Lord will "make known to me the path of life." God has charged Himself with the task of getting us through this life and safely home for Jesus' sake. Grief is not an obstacle that He can not handle. He will actually use it for our good and His glory. Not only does He lay out the path of our lives. The path leads to His presence where "there is fullness of joy." Think about that. No brother and sister in Christ who enters His presence ever wishes to be back here where the joy of the Lord is yet to be fully completed. Jesus Himself, in John 17, eagerly looks forward to going into the presence of the Lord and prays that His disciples might join Him there in order to experience the joy that He has known for all eternity. The best days here are but a foretaste of the fullness of joy found in Christ and shared with Him and His people endlessly in the new heaven and the new earth. He is making all things new (Revelation 21). The last line of Psalm 16 reads "at your right hand are pleasures forevermore."
Friends, grief is not a dead end street. Death is not a bottomless pit of darkness. It is painful but it will pass. By faith, anticipate what a reunion will come when the pleasures of heaven are opened up to the glorified eyes, hearts, and minds of all of those who have loved Christ. This should comfort us. The path home is in the hands of the Good Shepherd. The joy in His presence is full joy. The pleasures at His right hand never end. Thank God for giving us such a hope in the perfect provision of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ!