Jean Y. Gaffin
“Are we there yet?” We might hear this question from little ones in the backseat after only ten minutes on the road. They are too preoccupied with getting there to endure the ride, so we haul out a bag of time passers, or start the alphabet game, or, these days, hand over a smartphone!
You and I, on our journey through life, have the opposite problem. We are often so absorbed with the trip itself and find our journey so satisfying, we can’t take the time to think about our destination. Unlike earlier generations for whom disease and war were part of an everyday reality, we are in many ways protected by the medical advancements and health advantages we have today. In the early twentieth century, the average life span in the United States was forty-seven. Today, it is in the high seventies. And so we, preoccupied with our comforts, pursuit of pleasure, and the here and now, don’t often ask the question, are we there yet?
With few comforts and days full of long, hard work, the African-American slaves did ask, are we there yet? They brought forth out of their beaten condition beautiful spirituals, such as “Deep River,” which richly expressed their longing for heaven:
My home is over Jordan
Deep river, Lord
I want to cross into campground
Oh, don’t you want to go
To that Gospel feast
That promised land
Where all is peace?
When death and difficulty come, so many of us, busy enjoying our freedoms and comforts, are surprised. We suddenly enter a place in our journey that I call the valley of tears, and we experience perhaps the strongest of human emotions: grief.
Grief is an anguish of soul, a deep remorse over loss. There is a confused notion in some quarters that we shouldn’t grieve over loss because grief offends God by criticizing his care for us. That’s like saying that when you break a limb, you shouldn’t wince in pain.
The reality is that when we lose someone we love, the Lord has taken to himself a unique person whom he created. He doesn’t expect us to cast off such a relationship with a shrug. No, a great wrenching has taken place. Nowhere does the Bible tell us to just get over it. We are emotional beings, not automatons. Mourning has a proper place in our lives. Our Lord himself mourned when Lazarus died.
We Christians must allow the feelings of loss and sorrow in both ourselves and others; we must allow the tears, the confusion, and the disorientation. The reality takes time to sink in: our life may become disorganized, our feelings come in unpredictable waves, and our faith be tested. Yet we must let the process take place within us.
Everyone responds to grief differently. Some people seem to function purposefully for the Lord very soon after their trauma. Margaret Kent, a friend and member at Trinity OPC in Hatboro, Pennsylvania, got a call from the Philadelphia police one evening that her husband had been murdered as he was trying to sell encyclopedias to a couple. She was left with four children. Margaret, who would never see her husband again this side of glory, yet witnessed for Christ to the murderers in the courtroom.
Similarly, Eleanor Meeker, a fellow member of mine in the 1960s at Calvary OPC in Glenside, Pennsylvania, lost her eight-year-old son and only child, Robert, when a car grazed him while he was riding his bike. This was before the helmet laws. He fell off and hit his head, passing away a few days later. Eleanor went out of her way to console the driver and speak the gospel to her.
Grief can also plunge one into unexpected feelings. C. S. Lewis remarks in his book A Grief Observed, which he wrote after he lost his wife: “No one ever told me that grief felt like fear … the same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing” (chap. 1). The chapter goes on in merciless detail, describing the ping-ponging emotions he felt.
Donald Howard writes that during his wife’s years of battling cancer, they worked to plan her funeral, plan what he would do when she was gone, and so on. Yes, he was prepared for death. But, he said, “I was ill-prepared for grief” (Christians Grieve Too, 32).
My own mother was a nominal Christian in her early twenties when she became engaged to one she called “a fine, Christian young man.” He was killed in an auto accident. A few years later, she again became engaged and then married. Three months after the wedding, her new husband was killed in a hunting accident. At twenty-five years old, my mother thought her life was over. By God’s grace, she came to understand the gospel, as well as eventually meeting my father. She would be widowed again when Dad died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of sixty. Only the gospel spared her from total despair in her grief as she sought to be a godly wife and mother and, finally, a widow yet again.
Yet grief is not a dead-end. It is not a cruel, random fate. God is not an arbitrary being dangling us on a string for his own amusement. No, he has sent this grief into our lives for a purifying purpose.
This can be very hard to understand when we are in deep pain. But God, in his love, holds out the wonderful hope that our loved ones, if they loved the Lord, are now with our Savior, and we will see them again. This hope teaches us to depend on God because he is in control of everything in our lives, even the trials, for our good. A careful reading of Romans 8:29 reveals that “for our good” in verse 28 means that everything we go through is conforming us to the image of Jesus, so we can be sisters and brothers to him. Find comfort in that. Pray that this purpose will be met in your life.
In 1 Thessalonians 4:13, Paul writes, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” That hope is spelled out for us in 1 Peter 1:3–5:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
Part of grieving with hope is praising God for our loved one and the value of that person’s life and the blessings he or she now enjoys. How beautifully the Westminster Shorter Catechism explains our hope in Question 37: “Q. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death? A. The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection.”
Memorial services are appropriate for Christians because they help us to review and give thanks for the person who was allowed to be a part of our lives and to be a part of God’s story. It helps us to praise God who does all things well. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
As we grieve in hope, we learn to care deeply about the hopeless grief of unbelievers. We want to share with them that hope which is ours.
Our society today is far removed from biblical hope, deriding it or trying to suppress it. The horror of death is pushed under the rug as grievers throw parties celebrating “good old Joe.” Along with somewhat exaggerated eulogies, they might cremate the body and pour his ashes in a place he loved, such as the baseball field of his team. I’m not commenting on cremation but on the fanciful idea that ashes on the baseball field are somehow comforting. There’s no hope there.
Or consider that the number-one song played at funerals is Frank Sinatra’s My Way. Set to a beautifully seductive tune, it brags of a life lived the way one pleases. There’s no hope there.
Another popular custom is to talk about closure. When a perpetrator is brought to justice in a courtroom, the TV journalist might say that the family of the victim now has closure. The truth is that the verdict gives closure to everyone else—but the bereaved family, although they may be relieved that justice has been served, isn’t suddenly ready to move on to the next phase. Closure does not solve grief. Grief can’t be managed with closure. There’s no hope there.
So much vague language surrounds death—an angel took him, she’s at peace, he’s in a better place, and so on. People often don’t quite know what they believe about the afterlife, but they really like the idea that something nice is waiting. Their hope is based on wishful thinking, and there’s no true hope there.
Our hope as Christians, however, is sure. We have this confidence because God has promised us eternal life, and he always keeps his promises. How we yearn to see our unbelieving friends and family find the hope we have in Christ!
As someone once said, we should be prepared to let go of everything but God’s hand. This doesn’t make sense to anyone but a Christian. Why should I trust and love a God who took this precious person from me or who allows me to suffer this loneliness? Because no one in this life has loved us more than God. Because of his tender mercy and love, he sent his own Son to die for us and restore us to fellowship with him. How can we question a God who was willing to do that instead of casting us off forever?
As our God, his purpose is always to bring us back to him stronger in our faith. I had a friend who lost her daughter. On the tenth anniversary of her death, she said to me, “I wish I had the closeness to the Lord now that I had when he took my daughter.” That closeness is nourished as we remain in his Word, pray, and stay in fellowship with God’s people while they support us, encourage us, and remind us in a tangible way of God’s love.
As we rest in the Lord’s forgiveness and mercy, we must learn that he truly cares about what we are feeling. Jesus understands how weak we are. He has been there before us. “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isa. 53:4). And, as our high priest, Christ is interceding for us in those sorrows.
In our grief, we can also rest in the Holy Spirit’s intercession. In every period of life, we are too weak in our prayers because we are part of this fallen creation. We need the Holy Spirit to perfect our prayers. Surely he is pleading on our behalf when we walk through the valley of tears.
It is not always easy to comfort or be comforted in a time of sorrow, but we can learn a couple of things from Scripture.
We can learn how not to comfort by reading Job. The one good thing those three men did was to sit with Job for seven days without saying a word. Being present in quietness can be a comfort. (That was a Middle Eastern custom, and it can still be a comfort to mourners in our day.) But then they rattled off a bunch of theological reasons for why Job must have done something terribly wrong to deserve such suffering. Had he really been a hypocrite all his life? As we find out, the answer is no. We must not assume we know why someone is suffering. Only the courts of heaven know that.
Another mistake is to just repeat platitudes or verses, as if that will settle the matter. We cannot run roughshod over one who may be wounded by our glib “answers.” Each situation must be approached in prayer and godly intent. Nor should we suggest that we know what they are going through. No we don’t. No one’s pain is quite like another’s.
A quiet touch, a hug, even tears are OK. They give the one mourning the right to cry, and crying is surely a gift from God to relieve what is building up inside. You could also mention that you are praying for them. Being quietly helpful is such a blessing. Sending a note saying what memories you have of the one who is gone means so much. Don’t stop mentioning the name of the one who is gone. And continue to mention it in the months and years to follow.
Someone once sent me Question and Answer 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism in a note to comfort me, and I treasured it.
Q. What is thy only comfort in life and death?
A. That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.
On our journey to heaven, we will walk through the valley of tears, but we do not walk alone: we are in the loving arms of God and his people.
The author writes Bible studies, speaks at conferences, and is a member of Grace OPC in Vienna, Virginia. New Horizons, June 2018.