Gerald and Lydia Sittser and their children were driving through Iowa in 1991 when a drunk driver hit them at 85 mph. Gerald lost his mother, his wife and a four-year-old child in moment. He sat beside the isolated highway and watched them die. He eventually wrote the following in a book entitled A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss:
“Catastrophic loss by definition precludes recovery. It will transform us or destroy us, but it will never leave us the same… It is not true that we become less through our loss – unless we allow the loss to make us less, grinding our soul down until there is nothing left. Loss can also make us more. I did not get over my loved ones; rather, I absorbed the loss into my life until it became part of who I am. Sorrow took up permanent residence in my soul and enlarged it… One learns the pain of others by suffering one’s own pain, by turning inside oneself, by finding one’s own soul… The soul is elastic, like a balloon. It can grow larger through suffering.
Life is characterized by loss. The weather changes. Cars break down. Favorite shows go off the air. We move into a new house. We leave a community and lose friends. Pets die. We lose our youth and our health. Then there is the loss of a marriage, of a parent, of a vocation, a dream, a life.
But though life is full of loss, it’s also full of new life. Age brings things that youth can’t. Some weather changes are good. We can enjoy new cars, houses, friends, pets, shows. The losses that threaten to overwhelm can enlarge us, deepen us, offer us something unexpectedly blessed on the other side. But the unexpected blessing follows the loss. Hope follows grief. Character follows the furnace in which that character was forged.
So as followers of Christ who want our emotional health to reflect the character and heart of God, let’s look at a biblical perspective on grief and loss.
Enter into your Grief
When King David’s friend Jonathan died, we read the following in 1 Samuel 1:17-27:
“Then David composed a funeral song for Saul and Jonathan, and he commanded that it be taught to the people of Judah. It is known as the Song of the Bow, and it is recorded in The Book of Jashar:
‘Your pride and joy, O Israel, lies dead on the hills! Oh, how the mighty heroes have fallen! Don’t announce the news in Gath, don’t proclaim it in the streets of Ashkelon, or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice and the pagans will laugh in triumph.
O mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor fruitful fields producing offerings of grain. For there the shield of the mighty heroes was defiled; the shield of Saul will no longer be anointed with oil. The bow of Jonathan was powerful, and the sword of Saul did its mighty work. They shed the blood of their enemies and pierced the bodies of mighty heroes.
How beloved and gracious were Saul and Jonathan! They were together in life and in death. They were swifter than eagles, stronger than lions. O women of Israel, weep for Saul, for he dressed you in luxurious scarlet clothing, in garments decorated with gold. Oh, how the mighty heroes have fallen in battle! Jonathan lies dead on the hills.
How I weep for you, my brother Jonathan! Oh, how much I loved you! And your love for me was deep, deeper than the love of a mother or wife! Oh, how the mighty heroes have fallen! Stripped of their weapons, they lie dead.’”
It wasn’t just that David mourned the loss of his friend. He ordered it to be recorded and taught to thousands; it was written and named. It’s not a song with a happy ending. It’s just a primal mourning for the loss of a great friend. The world had changed. Goodness had been lost. It ought to be remembered, grieved, commemorated, never forgotten.
The depth of our grief reveals the weight of the thing we lost.When is the last time we considered that God is honored when his people offer songs of lament about their grief and loss? Jesus was a “man of sorrow, acquainted with grief.” If grief is a gauge of love, then both his love and his grief was deep. Perhaps we, too, should grieve deeply that which we love deeply, and do it without shame. If nothing else, we show all those around us what matters most in life.
Embrace the Journey
There was a day between Good Friday and Resurrection. In some traditions it’s called Holy Saturday, or Black Saturday, or Saturday of Lights. It’s that day between death and resurrection where all that was happening was burial. The Apostles Creed notes not simply that Jesus died and rose again; he died, was buried, and then was resurrected.
“It is a long day, this Silent Saturday. In many ways it represents life as it is for all of us. Though we like to say that we live on the other side of Easter, and that of course is true in the ultimate sense, it is also true that we live somewhere between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The crucifixion is behind us, but death is still with us and the final victory lies somewhere in the future.” - Ray Pritchard, “Silent Saturday,” crosswalk.com
Silent Saturday is the day after the funeral, the weeks after the job loss or surgery, the months after the divorce, the years after a dream died. This is the dreaded in-between, that place where it feels like nothing is happening. We wonder if there is something wrong with us as people (or as Christians). Do I lack faith or dedication? Are God’s promises even real?
It’s important that we remember that God is just as present in these in-between times. The burial day for Jesus was part of God’s plain. It wasn’t the pain of loss; it wasn’t yet the triumph of new life. It was…burial. It was a time that tested faith and hope.
- Psalm 27;13-14: “I believe that I will look upon the goodness of the Lord in the Land of the living. Wait for the Lord…be strong…take courage…wait for the Lord.”
- Psalm 33:20: “My soul waits for the Lord…”
- The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18)
- James 5:11: “We consider those blessed who remain steadfast…”
These are not wasted times in the Kingdom of God. Peter Scazzero uses the analogy of compost. As we throw scraps on the garden, we see the broken husks of things that were once full of life but are now empty shells. It seems as if their story is over. But give it time – from that which was dead will spring new life. It’s in these times that some of the best formation and preparation happens for the new life that is to come.
See the Loss in the Light of the Gain
God is able to salvage the broken parts of the world. Paul writes in Romans 8:28 that “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose.”
This is not a promise of earthly happiness and ease, but of spiritual and eternal goods. How do we know? Because the verses before talk about how “creation groans” in its broken state, and the verses after that don’t claim that will change in this life. Paul notes that God will use these situations so that we will be “conformed to the image of His Son.” We will be called, then justified (or made righteous) and ultimately “glorified.” So in what ways can grief and sorrow conform us to the image of Christ?
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
“I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can endure all these things because Christ strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11–1
We increasingly realize that this world is not our home, the people matter more than things, that time is precious, that the truly good things in life are not found in money, or health, or entertainment, or fame.
When God responds to Job, God does not tell Job the why. He basically asks Job, “Do you understand how limited your power and perspective is? Do you trust me even if you don’t (or can’t) understand?” Job responds, “Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (Job 42:3)
I don’t know why my dad died so young. I heard, “God wanted him home.” Stop it. You don’t know. “God knew that in the future he might fall away.” Stop! I even heard the “lack of faith. Should have claimed his healing more boldly.” Really? You know this?
The Bible does not clarify why God allows us to suffer in a particular instance. There are broader principles: free will, a fallen world, God’s glory, our benefit (pruning), Satan’s schemes. But this particular time may not be known until after the fact, maybe not until we reach heaven and can see truth and reality clearly.
Paul said his suffering was “for the sake of the body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24). Our suffering enables us to more fully “bear another’s burdens, and so fulfill the Law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). As we pass on the comfort of God, we are in turn comforted. We gain an appreciation for the community of the broken, journeying together toward a resurrection. We recognize the importance of the moment; we take risks we might not have before because we recognize that life is a vapor, and some things must be done now or they might not be done at all. We reach out and look up more than ever.
“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10-11)
“Know” in the original language means to “know through experience.” If we want to experience Christ’s resurrection in us, we must share in his suffering. We enter into the life Christ offers when we enter into the life He lived – in its fullness. We must know one to know the other.
“Do not lose heart,” said Paul, “for our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding glory that outweighs them all…” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18). What we suffer is “not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
**The posts in this series (Look Beneath The Surface, Break the Power of the Past, Live in Brokenness, The Gift Of Limits) are built from a summary of notes I used when preaching a sermon series based on Peter Scazzero's Emotionally Healthy Church and Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (both the books and the study guides). Most of the main points comes from his work. I note when I quote him directly, but most of what you read are this insights paraphrased or adjusted to fit my audience and venue. Learn more at his website and his blog, and by all means order his books and read them thoroughly.
Some Recommend Songs
Mercy Me (“I Can Only Imagine”; “Homesick”)
Tenth Avenue North (“Hold My Heart”; “Worn”)
Steven Curtis Chapman (“With Hope”)
Julie Miller (“You Can Have My Heart”)
Adam Again (River On Fire"; "Babylon")
Some Recommended Books
Robert Kelleman, God’s Healing for Life’s Losses
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed and The Problem of Pain
Timothy Keller, Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering
Phillip Yancey, Where is God When It Hurts?