Lesson 16: The Agony of Grief
My friend Elizabeth Beck was happily heading for the tennis courts one morning when she stopped by her husband's office to say hello. She was surprised when the receptionist told her there had been "a change in plans" and that she should go home instead. Puzzled, Elizabeth went home and found her husband, Rob, waiting for her in the kitchen. That's when her life changed forever. She has graciously agreed to share her story here:
Rob told me that our son, Michael, and his fiancée, Lori, had been killed when their car was hit by a drunk driver the day before—Mother's Day.
Mike and Lori lived in California; we were living in Charlotte, North Carolina. Rob had received a phone call from one of Michael's law professors, telling him of their deaths.
We were a very religious family. Michael had accepted Christ in college, and he and Lori were both committed Christians. But when Michael had tried to explain to me his new relationship with Jesus Christ, I hadn't been able to understand what he meant.
Now we were in the agony of grief. We flew to California for the funerals, and a couple of months later we moved to Dallas. There, my days followed a strange routine. I would get our young daughter, Emily, off to school, then I would take a long shower. After I dressed, I would go to the grocery store, buy a small bag of candy, walk home, and eat it all.
I repeated this routine several times a day. There was a big hole under my diaphragm, and I tried to fill it by eating something sweet or spicy.
At the end of eighteen months, I was in the shower one day—actually on my hands and knees—and I called out to Christ, "I don't know what all this means. I don't know what being born again means. I don't know what it means to give my life to You. But whatever it means, You can have my whole life. You're going to have to take it because I can't go on this way. Whatever it is You want from me, You have it."
Instantly, everything was different. I found myself standing upright again. The pain was still there, but the despair was gone. Amazingly, as I dressed, the phone rang, and a casual friend said, "The Lord has laid it on my heart to ask you to go to Bible Study Fellowship. Would you be interested?"
I said, "Yes, what is it?" I knew I had to go.
I was able to start a few days later. I bought a Bible, went to classes, struggled with the questions. There were wonderful women in my discussion group, women who loved me and prayed for me.
The weekend before Easter, my nephew invited me to the Easter program in his church because he would be playing his violin. I went and was in a very emotional state through the whole program. When the crucifixion was portrayed, I was crying. I thought, Christ died for Michael. And then, very clearly in my mind I heard, Elizabeth, I died for YOU!
I had always known that Christ had died for mankind. Now, for the first time, it was personal. Now my spiritual growth really took off. I thirsted for God's Word. I understood the great truths of the Bible at last. I started to go to church, and I got involved in the women's ministries and met wonderful new friends.
In addition to this, Rob and I wanted to do what we could to prevent what had happened to us from happening to others. We got involved with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD); Rob eventually became chairman of its board of directors.
I was determined that the victims of drunk drivers be more than statistics; I wanted them to be seen as persons with names. So I spoke in many places, naming Michael and Lori and showing their pictures. I now look back at the worst incident in our lives and realize that our grief brought us into a personal relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ. Our faith in Him enabled us to make a difference in the lives of others who faced grief.
Elizabeth's story reminds us again of how painful grief can be—and how powerfully God uses every part of our lives, good and bad, to bring us into a closer relationship with Him. Did the Becks' grief automatically end when they found a new purpose in their lives? No, of course not. They would miss their son for the rest of their lives. But now they had hope and a sense of peace that God was with them, even in the midst of their pain. And there was one more step in their healing. Elizabeth continues:
The Lord made it possible for me to do something that for me was impossible. I had struggled for a long time with bitterness against the man who had killed our son. Even though I knew I should forgive him, I absolutely couldn't do it.
Finally a friend suggested that I forgive the man through Christ. I made a mental picture of the man with a transparency of the picture of Christ placed over it so that I could see the man's picture only through Christ's image. I depended on the Lord to enable me to forgive.
Some time later, a friend commented, "It's wonderful to see that you're over your bitterness and hatred for the man who killed Michael."
I hadn't even realized it, but the Lord had answered my prayer.
Loss Brings Pain; Pain Brings Grief
Probably one of the hardest things we have to face is loss. For parents like the Becks, it's the loss of a child. We also lose parents and friends to death. We lose mates through death or divorce. We lose health and have to adjust to an entirely different lifestyle. We lose the companionship of friends because someone moves. We lose jobs. Engagements are broken. Friendships are betrayed. These losses cause us to sorrow and to grieve, deeply affecting our emotions.
Grief is a feeling of deep mental anguish caused by loss. It can be the loss of a loved one, loss of possessions, loss of a career, or some other life-changing loss. Grief can also be sorrow for something that someone has done or failed to do.
Because we live in a fallen world, life inevitably includes sorrow. When sin entered the human race, it brought death—physical death and spiritual death with all the accompanying ramifications. Death or loss of anything we value causes grief. However, God has a higher purpose for His people, and He is faithful to use our most painful times to mature us, to draw us into closer dependence on Him.
One Grieving Woman
A woman in the Old Testament suffered the loss of everything. She was no stoic, no super saint. She felt the bitterness and hopelessness that accompanies grief. As we study Naomi, we will learn a lot about the God who cares for us in our grief.
Here's how Naomi's story unfolded: Because there was a famine in Israel, a Hebrew man named Elimelech took his wife, Naomi, and his two sons, Mahlon and Kilion, to live in a neighboring country called Moab. The family only intended to stay temporarily, but once they settled down in that godless society, they remained there for ten years. In that time the two sons married pagan women.
During those Moab years, I'm sure Naomi, in particular, felt a sense of loss. They were aliens, away from family and friends, and now she had two Moabites for daughters-in-law. She must have thought, "If only we had stayed in Bethlehem. I'd have daughters-in-law from my own people who understand our faith and customs." But the worst was yet to come:
"Now Elimelech, Naomi's husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. . . . After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband" (Ruth 1:3-5).
Naomi's future could not have been more hopeless, because she had no one to provide for her. In Israel, if a widow had no family she was cared for by the community. But they didn't have such humane laws in Moab. So when the news came that the famine had ended in Israel, she prepared to go back home. When she told her two daughters-in-law what she intended to do, they wanted to go with her. But she said, "Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands?" (Ruth 1:11).
Take Time to Feel Your Pain
It's clear that these women loved each other. They had all suffered terrible losses, and they wept together at the thought of separation. They demonstrate something important: God gave us tears to express our grief. As the beautiful passage from Ecclesiastes reminds us, "There is . . . a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance" (Eccles. 3:1, 4).
Here is a primary lesson: If you are experiencing grief for any reason, allow yourself time to mourn and weep. If you try to hold in your tears and to ignore your pain, there may be serious problems later. God gave us tears to shed in our grief, an outpouring of our inner pain.
One of the most freeing verses in the Bible is also the shortest one. When Jesus came to the home of Mary and Martha after Lazarus had died, He saw their grief. Even though He knew that in just a few minutes He would raise Lazarus from the dead, the Scripture simply says, "Jesus wept" (John 11:38).
Those two words give us permission to weep in our sorrow because they reveal how Jesus modeled for us this normal response to grief. Don't think it's more spiritual to hold in your tears.
Naomi wasn't afraid to feel her grief. Not only was she in extreme pain, but it is quite clear who she blamed for her loss. "'The Lord's hand has gone out against me! . . . Don't call me Naomi,' she told them. 'Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me"' (Ruth 1:13b, 20-21).
I would say Naomi was pretty depressed, wouldn't you? "The Lord's hand has gone out against me. He has afflicted me, emptied me, brought misfortune on me, made my life very bitter."
Her misery was evident in her demeanor, because once she got back to Israel, her old friends hardly recognized her. She still had no certainty about the future. By now, her daughter-in-law Ruth had insisted on returning to Bethlehem with her, but how were they to live? Naomi felt abandoned by God, and she had no reason at this point to think otherwise.
We can learn some valuable principles about grief from Naomi and her amazing story. Throughout the rest of this chapter, we'll study these principles and learn godly ways to deal not only with our own grief but with the grief of others.
Grief May Cause Despair or Depression
During times of sorrow, our emotions are like a roller coaster. On the downside, we shouldn't be surprised by feelings of despair or depression—those feelings don't mean we're unspiritual. In her despair, I'm sure Naomi asked the questions we all ask when sorrow comes. Why? Why did God allow this? Couldn't He have stopped it? Couldn't He have saved my job? Why did my husband have to die so young? Couldn't He have healed my child? Couldn't God have restored my marriage?
I heard a few months ago that one of my friends in New York was killed instantly in a bizarre accident. She was driving home from seeing her mother in a nursing home when a landscaping truck pulling a trailer crossed three lanes and the median and hit her head-on. My friend was a gentle, gracious, caring woman with a loving husband, children, and grandchildren. I found myself thinking, If only she had been one car length ahead or behind. Why did God let that happen?
The Old Testament saints did not believe in second causes. They believed in God's sovereignty over the world and the people in it. When Elijah held the dead son of the widow he stayed with during the famine, he cried out to God, "0 LORD my God, have you brought tragedy also upon this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?" (1 Kings 17:20).
When Job heard the news that he had lost everything, he said, "The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised" (Job 1:21).
God can handle it when we question His ways and put the blame on Him. But He wants us to accept what He sends us and still trust His goodness and His love. He has a purpose for our sorrow and loss.
Believe That God Will Use Your Sorrows for Your Good
Some of our afflictions come as consequences of sin, and others are intended to keep us from sin. Some come to make us draw closer to God and to enable us to grow spiritually. Some heartaches simply make us realize that God's way is best. Whatever the pain, God means it for good in our lives just as he did in Joseph's. It's worth repeating what Joseph was able to say twenty years after he lost everything through the hatred and cruelty of his brothers: "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives" (Gen. 50:20).
Joseph certainly couldn't have said those words the first thirteen years of his life in Egypt, but he saw God's purpose clearly seven years later. Sometimes it may take years for us to see the pattern God had in mind when He brought sorrow into our lives. But we do know this: God is sovereign. Nothing happens in heaven or earth that He does not know about and even permit. That is tough theology. But if we don't believe it we will swing aimlessly over an abyss of unbelief, uncertainty, and despair.
Think of the worst loss you have ever suffered, and consider these important questions:
- Can you think of anything good that's come out of it?
- Did it draw you closer to God?
- Have you seen answers to prayer because of it?
- Have you been able to help others just because of what you've experienced yourself?
- Do you have more compassion for others?
God uses everything in our lives to make us more like Jesus. And Jesus was a "man of sorrows and acquainted with grief' (Isa. 53:3 NKJV). How can we bypass sorrow and grief and still expect to develop emotional and spiritual maturity? We just can't decide to skip that course!
Even though Naomi didn't see it, God had a plan to meet her need and restore her faith and joy. He used her hopeless situation to get her back to the land where He could bless her. And best of all, He gave her Ruth, a daughter-in-law who was committed to her for life.
Ruth—Naomi's Great Blessing
Naomi and Ruth returned to Bethlehem at the beginning of harvest time. There was no welfare system in those days, but there was a way for the poor to get help. Farmers could only reap their fields once. Grapes could only be picked from the vines once. The widows and the poor were then to glean what was left over. This was workfare, not welfare. And since Ruth was the younger and stronger, she spoke up: "'Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.'
"Naomi said to her, 'Go ahead, my daughter.' So she went out and began to glean in the fields behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelech" (Ruth 2:2-3).
"She found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz." Ten little words. But behind them is the hand of Almighty God keeping His promise to defend "the cause of the fatherless and the widow, . . . giving [them] food and clothing" (Deut. 10:18).
God Is Working Even Though We Can't See It
God's plan for Ruth and Naomi was not an endless struggle for existence. He had a wonderful future planned out for them, but He didn't reveal it to them ahead of time. It would be nice if God would tell us His plans before they come to pass. But what He really wants from us is faith—simple, childlike trust in His goodness, power, and love.
When Naomi heard whose field Ruth had gleaned in, she responded enthusiastically.
"'The LORD bless him!' Naomi said to her daughter-in-law. 'He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and to the dead' She added, 'That man is our close relative; he is one of our kinsman-redeemers" (Ruth 2:20).
Boaz was a close relative of Elimelech's. The law in Israel stated that when a man died childless, his brother or closest relative was to marry the widow and have a child by her. That child would belong to the dead man and inherit his property. When Boaz stepped into her life, Naomi's faith was given a shot in the arm. God had not abandoned them; He had arranged things so Ruth would end up in Boaz's fields. And Boaz treated her with kindness and generosity.
Look Forward to the Future with Hope
When Naomi returned to Bethlehem, she arrived in a hopeless state of mind. That is often one of the results of grief When we grieve, we can see nothing but a bleak and empty future. But if we keep remembering that God loves us and has the power to help us and provide for our future, we are able to keep hope alive and our faith will remain strong.
The rest of the book of Ruth is a wonderful romance. Boaz loved Ruth, and Naomi instructed Ruth in the way to claim her rights under the covenant. Boaz immediately and gladly did all the legal things necessary to make Ruth his wife.
"So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. Then he went to her, and the LORD enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. . . .
"Then Naomi took the child, laid him in her lap and cared for him. The women living there said, 'Naomi has a son' And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David" (Ruth 4:13, 16).
Ruth had been barren all the years she was married to Mahlon. Now the Lord gave her a son, and Naomi had a family again. Naomi's old age was secure. God had not abandoned her. In fact, He had arranged all the details to fill her emptiness, provide for her needs, and restore her faith and her joy. This little grandson didn't carry a drop of Naomi's blood, but he was hers! And though she didn't live to see it, Obed became the ancestor of King David and ultimately of the Lord Jesus Christ. In Matthew 1:5, Boaz and Ruth are specifically mentioned in the genealogy of the Savior.
What Naomi and Ruth enjoyed in their happy ending was much more than they had lost, even though they couldn't comprehend the full dimensions of the compassion and blessings of God.
Jesus Showed Us That God Has Feelings
Jesus came, in part, to reveal to us what the invisible God is like. What Jesus felt, God still feels. Listen to the Lord's description of Himself to Moses in Exodus 34:6: "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin."
Compassion, anger, and love are all emotions. God feels, so He knows how we feel when we suffer loss. As the psalmist wrote, "But you, 0 God, do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand. The victim commits himself to you" (Ps. 10:14).
During Jesus' ministry, He came upon a funeral procession. The dead person was the only son of a widow, and she was accompanied by a large crowd of mourners, who shared her grief. In Luke 7:13, we read of Jesus' reaction to this tragic scene: "When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, 'Don't cry."
Then Jesus touched the coffin, "and those carrying it stood still. He said, 'Young man, I say to you get up!' The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother."
Can't you see Jesus gently saying to this grieving mother, "Don't cry"? Then He simply brought her son back to life. The response to this wonderful miracle demonstrated to the people that God was a God of compassion. The people "were all filled with awe and praised God. 'A great prophet has appeared among us,' they said. 'God has come to help his people" (Luke 7:16).
The widow's loss and the ensuing miracle were used by God to validate the claims of Jesus that He is the Son of God. God will still use our grief to bring glory and praise to Himself if we keep on trusting Him.
Avoid Emotional Extremes
When we are hurting, there are two extremes to avoid. One extreme is to block our emotions, determined that we will never care so much that we can be hurt that way again. It is unhealthy to block our emotions to protect ourselves. God wants us to feel so we are able to taste life in its fullness. The other extreme is becoming so consumed by our grief that nothing else matters. The best thing to do is to get back into the normal process of life again. I so admire women I know who've been widowed and continue to live fruitful, unselfish lives. They are involved with other people, helping and serving wherever they can.
Comforting Those Who Grieve
Those who have suffered loss know better than anyone else some important principles for comfort. Let's consider a few of those guidelines for encouraging the grieving:
Be Available for the Long Run
Everyone is there in the midst of the crisis, but after the funeral is over and the visitors are gone—that's the time to check up on the grieving person. Be there just to talk. Go with her to help handle legal details if she needs it. Suggest doing things with her to help get through this period of sorrow. If you and your husband have been friends with the couple, don't leave the widow out of social invitations now that she's alone.
Be Sensitive and Flexible in Your Communication
Don't assume that the grieving woman doesn't want to talk about her loved one. You may be tempted to say, "Let's not talk about it; it'll only make you feel bad." Many times, it's a comfort to talk about the person we've lost. It keeps the memory real. It helps to know someone else valued our lost loved one, too.
If you're visiting those who are dying, don't pretend they are going to get well. Give them a chance to talk about their death if they want to. Remind them about heaven, and assure them you will meet them there. Since the Lord Jesus Christ proved His victory over death by His resurrection, death for the believer is the entrance to eternal glory. There will be normal grief, but we shouldn't sorrow as those do who have no hope.
Don't Use Pat Phrases to Comfort Others
It's hard to know what to say to someone who is grieving. It may be easier to remember what not to say. For example, avoid saying, "I know how you feel." One young mother whose child had died at birth was told, "I know just how you feel. My cat died last week."
Don't say, "Time is a great healer." Don't even quote Romans 8:28 when the wound is raw. Tell the grieving person you are praying for her or him. Say something like this: "I can only try to imagine what you must be feeling. But I want you to know that I love you and I am available to do anything you want me to."
Don't say, "Call me if I can do anything." That puts the burden on the grieving person. Instead, you take the initiative. Offer to run an errand, pick up relatives at the airport, clean the bathroom, or answer the phone.
Trust God to Be the Comforter
We must recognize our limitations and remember that God is the one who "heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds" (Ps. 147:3). We should do all we can do to ease others' pain, but we can't do what only God can do. He is "the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles" with a comfort that is transferable.22 In a fallen world where loss and grief are guaranteed, God will use us to comfort others when wounds are raw and deep.
As women of God, we have authenticity because we ourselves have come through the valley of sorrow and tears, and our faith remains stronger than ever. God is real. The promises of Scripture are true. There is life after loss. The future is as bright as the promises of God. And time is not even the size of a period on this page when compared to eternity. All separation is temporary for believers. One day we will be forever with the Lord and with each other.
In the book of Revelation, God offers one final word about our grief: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. . . . And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away" (Rev. 21:1a, 3-4).
22 See 2 Cor. 1:3-4.
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