Jean Y. Gaffin
What do we learn from our grief? How is God training us in it? Through grief, God trains us both to be more like Christ and to become more heavenly minded. He takes our pain and uses it to train us in holiness, toward being conformed to Christ’s image
We learn from Christ, the one who suffered for us, as Romans 8:28–29 teaches us. Hebrews 12:10–11 reminds us of our goal: to share God’s holiness.
As we conform more to Christ, we become more aware of our destination and begin to look forward to it, not only because we will see our loved ones again, but also and more importantly because we will see our Savior.
Once at a Bible conference, I heard a mother-daughter duo sing, “We shall behold him, / We shall behold him, / Face to face in all of his glory.” Their lovely voices, matched with this heavenly concept, sent chills down my spine. Through grief, God is preparing us for heaven and helping us to let go of this world.
Sharon Betters, author of Treasures of Encouragement, lost her sixteen-year-old son in a car accident. She described the experience of his death as having been “unbolted from the earth.” In going through severe loss, her perspective on life became the perspective that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 7:29–31:
This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.These verses insist that we understand we are on the way to heaven where our citizenship is. Our citizenship is not here, as wonderful as this place is. We are seated in the heavenlies with Christ already. Eventually our whole selves, body and soul, will reside in the new heavens and earth with Jesus. We still do live here, and we have the purpose here to please the Lord, but we also are to hold very lightly to what we have.
Grief unbolts us from the earth. It causes us to look up and look forward to our hope: communing with Christ in heaven. Truly, though weeping may tarry for a night, joy comes in the morning.
On our journey through the valley of tears, however, we will likely meet the following roadblocks to joy.
The first roadblock is regret. When our loved one dies, we might find ourselves wishing that we hadn’t said that hurtful thing to him when he went out the door. Or that we had asked forgiveness for something that we had done. We might wish that we had said, “I love you” more often.
We can find our grief compounded by regrets. Of course, it challenges us to live our lives so that we wouldn’t have regrets if someone we loved were taken from us. Each day is a chance for us to be careful in our words and deeds to support those we love.
But what about the words and deeds that are too late to correct? God is waiting to forgive those in Christ. He is saying to us, “Did I die only for some of your sins, not all of your sins?” Please be comforted that, as you take this guilt to him, confess that you were wrong, and plead his forgiving love, you are forgiven. Leave the burden of unfinished business with the Lord. He wants you to move on to a new place of glorifying him. He wants you to know that his strength is made perfect in your weakness.
And the ones who have departed? If they are with the Lord, they are not dwelling on what you have done or not done. They are in a far better place.
The most profound regret is feeling responsible for death. Guilt can be a devastating roadblock in our road of grief. Our good friend’s married son backed out of his driveway just as his two-year-old rushed out of the house and behind the truck. The child died. This man could have wallowed in guilt. But, by the grace of God, he recognized that he never wanted to hurt his little boy and that he would have given his life for that little boy, but that, nevertheless, in God’s timing, this was the way his little one was to enter heaven. He didn’t allow guilt to keep him from being sanctified in his suffering.
I recently heard of a man who had faithfully raised his family to love the Lord. But when one of his daughters died of cancer, he stopped going to church and concentrated on blaming God. By the age of ninety-four, he was gravely ill in the hospital and still blaming God. His wife asked her new pastor to visit them. At the visit, the pastor insisted that the patient needed to repent and come back to the Lord. The pastor told him of all the wonderful things he had heard about the life and service of the daughter who had died.
The old man’s face turned red, and the pastor left the hospital thinking that he had really upset the patient. A short while later, the wife called to say her husband had died. “He wanted me to tell you,” she said, “that he had returned home to the Lord.” It was a wonderful ending. But think of all those years of fellowship the man lost because he blamed God!
Concentrating on God’s perceived injustice will only compound our sorrow and deal a body blow to our sanctification. We will be fruitless. If we find ourselves blaming God or others for the loss, we should meditate on Christ’s example, as Paul tells us in 1 Peter 2:21–24.
By giving a home to negative emotions, we may let grief actually ruin our health and well-being.
We may cut ourselves off from those closest to us—family, friends, and the church—and build such a memorial to the past that we refuse to live in the present. In Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, Miss Havisham lives in a cobwebby place where nothing has been touched for twenty years as she seeks to retain a life that is gone.
Elisabeth Elliot warns against self-pity, another very real temptation in loss. In her tract Facing the Death of Someone You Love, she writes:
I try to refuse self-pity. I know of nothing more paralyzing, more deadly, than self-pity. It is a death that has no resurrection, a sink-hole from which no rescuing hand can drag you, because you have chosen to sink. It must be refused and recognized for what it is.
God has taken people through intense grief to a place of peace and joy. Horatio G. Spafford lost all his fortune in a fire. Then the ship that his daughters and wife took to cross the Atlantic collided with another ship. The four daughters perished and the wife telegraphed Spafford, “alone saved.” Spafford set sail to go be with his wife, and when he passed the site of the collision, he was inspired to write the words of the wonderful hymn “When Peace Like a River.” The first stanza is,
When peace like a river attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
“It is well, it is well with my soul.”
When sorrow takes its proper place in our heart, we move on, like Spafford, in perseverance, which produces character and gives us hope. Christian suffering is done in hope, in resurrection hope.
As we move forward, our life will take on new contours. We will enter a new era in our journey toward heaven. We will always remember the old era and its meaning for us, because grief over time turns into a gentle sorrow that we will never completely lose.
My daughter, Lisl, had been with the Lord for almost eight years when I heard someone playing “The Rainbow Connection” from The Muppet Movie. When she was a girl, Lisl and I had gone to see this silly movie starring Miss Piggy, Kermit the Frog, and the rest of the Muppets. Lisl and I liked the music so much, we got the record (something many of you may have never had!). Years later, it wasn’t the schmaltzy words but the tune as it was played that dug into my heart in such a way that, for a moment, I was back with my daughter. The tears just welled up in me.
No, we will never forget those we have loved and lost, and yes, we will have poignant memories that intrude at the strangest times. But yet we are being sanctified through this loss and finding God’s ongoing purpose for us.
As Paul says in Philippians 1:21–23, although we may prefer to depart and be with Christ, there is work here for us still. Even as we long for heaven, we realize that we are on earth for a reason. There is something the Lord has for us to learn or do to his glory.
When we walk through the valley of tears, we must truly grieve and grieve well, but we do not grieve as those who have no hope. We know that God will not leave or forsake us. We see the preciousness of our glorious hope more vividly when we sorrow in this life. If our loved one was a believer, we will see him or her again. It’s just a matter of time: there is a time for weeping, but joy comes in the morning. God will turn our mourning into dancing.
The author writes Bible studies, speaks at conferences, and is a member of Grace OPC in Vienna, Virginia. New Horizons, June 2018.