Coping With Grief Bill Bouknight January 1, 2006 Job 40:1-5, 42:1-6 Sometimes when I am with groups of children, I say to them, “If you could ask God any question, what would you ask Him?” Children raise questions like these: Why do dogs chase cats? Where does the sky end? Who does God’s job when he is on vacation? Is it true that my father won’t get to heaven if he uses his bowling words in the house? Recently I was at a restaurant seated near a mother and her little boy, perhaps 6 years old. I thought he was squirming around a lot, looking rather uncomfortable. Suddenly he asked, “Mom, why did God invent underwear?” Now, there’s a question I never dealt with in seminary, nor can I think of a single helpful scripture. A mother named Sally told me that her four-year-old daughter was having one of those days recently when she asked at least 100 questions. Finally, Sally said, “Honey, please give me a break. Please don’t ask any more “why” questions today, okay?” The little girl responded, “Can I say ‘how come’”? The children might be surprised to learn that adults have questions for God too. Some of them are fairly frivolous. I would like to ask if the world wouldn’t be better without flies, mosquitoes, and gnats. While I would want to commend the Lord for making men and women look different, I might ask him why he couldn’t have made them think a bit more alike. Then there are some deadly serious questions, like this one-how can we keep on going when life just breaks our hearts? In other words, how can we survive a significant loss? Or, how do we cope with grief? Grief is simply the pain we feel over loss. Usually we relate grief to the pain of losing a loved one. But that’s not the only kind of grief. When you realize that you’ve gone as far up the promotion ladder in your company as you’re going to go, there may be grief over unrealized dreams. If you have to consider the possibility that you may never be a parent or grandparent, there may be grief. When your spouse says, “I want a divorce,” there may be intense grief. When your health begins to fail, there is grief over things you can no longer do. When your vocation turns out to be more stressful than fulfilling, there is grief over wrong choices and missed opportunities. If your child has a handicapping condition, there may be grief about what he may miss in his life. Everybody has to drink a cup of grief along the way. There is a line in Tennyson’s poem, “In Memoriam” that reads as follows: “Never morning wore to evening, but some heart did break.” God knew that we would suffer grief and have questions about it. So he caused to be placed in our Bible the marvelous book of Job. In that inspired story, God and Satan have a conversation. They agree that the most righteous man on earth is Job. But Satan says to God, “No wonder Job is righteous. You have blessed him so bountifully, with health, family, and wealth. If you dare to remove all those blessings, he would denounce you.” “You’re wrong,” said God. “Job loves and trusts me simply because of who I am, not because of the blessings he has received.” Satan said in effect, “Put your money where your mouth is. We will find out what Job is made of.” God’s protection was withdrawn from Job. In a matter of days he lost his children, his possessions, and his health. Three friends came to Job. The best thing they did was to sit with him silently for seven days. Once they began speaking, they gave Job more grief than help. They were convinced that Job’s misfortunes had a rational explanation, that it was a just punishment for some sin he had committed. Though Job was convinced they were wrong, he was unable to find a suitable alternative answer. Often you hear about “the patience of Job,” but the fact is that Job did not have lots of patience. He fussed and fumed with God constantly, but he did not reject God. Finally, in Job 40, we have the climax of the book. God visits Job personally. He gives Job a glimpse of His incredible power and his flawless character. But he does not give Job an answer or an explanation. After meeting God personally, Job no longer needs an answer. If you know that God is good and loving and if you are in personal relationship with him, you can live with unanswered questions and cope with any loss. Now, in the light of Job’s story and the total biblical witness, let me offer a four-part recipe for grieving people. Remember that life is not fair but God is good Dr. Robert Schuller has a book by that title, and it’s certainly true. If this world were not marred by sin, it would be fair. But sin has cast a shadow over this world and only the light of eternity will finally abolish it. Job’s big problem was that he thought life ought to be fair. When life broke his heart he couldn’t understand why, since he knew that God was good. A Christian is not ready to graduate from spiritual kindergarten until he or she has learned that life is a strange mixture of good and evil, danger and delight, tragedy and triumph. God is good, but God does not control everything that happens in this free, sin-marred world. If God did assert control over everything, the world would not be free. Many events in our world break God’s heart. Do you remember how Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died? The great Protestant reformer Martin Luther lost a son. His wife Katie shouted at him, “Where was God when our son died?” Martin replied, “The same place he was when his Son died. He was there watching and weeping.”1 St. Paul had some kind of physical ailment that brought his ministry to a complete halt at times. He called it “a thorn in the flesh.” Some experts believe that he suffered from migraine headaches or a painful Mediterranean virus that caused blindness. St. Paul asked God three times to remove it. But God, who had healed other people when Paul had asked, did not heal Paul. Instead, God said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you . . . ” (2 Corinthians 12:9) St. Paul received no adequate answer for this debilitating condition, just an assurance of the presence and power of the risen Christ. We are growing spiritually when we can say sincerely, “I don’t know what tomorrow may bring, be it good or bad. But with God’s help, I can cope with anything.” Don’t be surprised by feelings relating to grief Job’s feelings were like those most of us experience following a significant loss . . . all over the map. Unbearable pain, anger, denial, resentment, apathy, and withdrawal. Recently Brian Griese, a National Football League quarterback, talked about his feelings from 16 years ago when he, then a 12-year-old, lost his mother to cancer. He said, “I was angry. Angry at society for not being able to cure cancer. Angry at God for taking away someone who was so good to so many different people. And I was angry at myself for not being a better son.”2 Often a grieving person feels intense guilt. “If only I had done this or that, it might not have happened.” Sometimes this awful thought creeps into our heads – perhaps God is punishing me. That was the message Job’s so-called friends tried to lay on him, but Job would not accept it. And God sided with Job. Remember, even though all sin brings suffering, not all suffering is due to sin. Jesus was sinless, but he suffered. You will divide your grief in half if you can separate it from any sense of guilt.3 It is true that time is a great healer, but time can also set ambushes. When the anniversary of a death or divorce rolls around, the pain may stab like a knife out of the dark.4 Don’t be surprised by strange and diverse feelings you have about your loss. You need at least one or two close friends who will listen patiently as you express those feelings. Stay close enough to God to let Him mend your heart One of Satan’s favorite techniques is to slip up to a grieving person and tell this bald-faced lie: “If God really loved you, He would have prevented your loss. Therefore, you should be angry with God. Have nothing to do with him.” Satan had a good mouthpiece in Job’s wife. She urged her husband to “curse God and die.” (Job 2:9) She was at least a quart low on encouragement. Job’s response was, “Though God allows the world to slay me, yet will I trust him.” (Job 13:15) Satan’s desire is to destroy us, in this world and the next. So, he first tries to separate us from God, our primary source of strength. We must resist his demonic arguments. A former great preacher in Atlanta, Pierce Harris, lost his wife Mary in a tragic auto accident. A few months later a man wrote to Dr. Harris and said, “I hope your terrible loss will not destroy your faith.” Dr. Harris said that he felt like writing back to him and saying, “Man, haven’t I lost enough already without throwing away my faith too? Why should I cast aside the only hope that keeps me going?” Ask God to bring good out of your pain Job had no way of knowing that his story would become an eternal blessing to all future generations of grievers. I can only imagine how often the story of Job was told by the suffering Jews in Hitler’s concentration camps. St. Paul declared that “all things work together for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) Notice Paul did not say that everything is good. Lots of things are terrible. But anything that is turned over to God in faith can be used as raw material for his good purposes. God has wastebaskets, but only for our forgiven sins. Nothing else is wasted. God desires that every experience, no matter how painful, produce some good. It has been 21 years since our son Aaron died. He was just eight years old when a brain tumor took him from us. In the months that followed his death, numerous people told me how his life and death had brought them closer to Christ. I recall a man who worked on the air-conditioning system of our church. He approached me about six months after Aaron’s death and said, “I used to have no interest in religion or church. But when your son died, I suddenly realized that death can strike people of all ages. I have three small children. I tried to imagine how I would cope if one of my kids died. I knew that I could not unless I got closer to Christ. So I invited him to be my personal Savior and Lord, and then my entire family made the same commitment. We are now in church almost every Sunday.” Back in 1983, my wife and I doubted that life could ever become good again. But it is! That does not mean that we don’t still miss Aaron. We think of him every day. Yes, we sometimes have “blue days,” when we miss him acutely, especially on his birthday and around Christmas. But we know that God will have all eternity to make up for the years we are separated. Whatever may have been your loss, I hope that these four biblical guidelines will assist you in your walk through grief. There is no way to avoid grief, but there is an unseen one who walks beside us and shares it. His name is Jesus. He is the Good Shepherd, the one who said, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) I love the chorus of an old gospel hymn that has these words: When answers aren’t enough, there is Jesus;He is more than just an answer to your prayers.And your hearts will find a safe and peaceful refuge.When answers aren’t enough, He is there. ____________________ William R. Bouknight is Senior Pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, TN. He is a Contributing Editor of Preaching. ____________________ NOTES:1. Campolo, Tony, Let Me Tell You a Story, (W Publishing, 2000), p. 186.2. From article in USA Today, November 10, 2004 issue.3. Redhead, John, from a sermon entitled, “How Can I Deal with Grief?” in a book of sermons entitled Putting Your Faith to Work (Abingdon).4. An observation by Leighton Ford, in an article for the Charlotte (NC) Observer newspaper, entitled, “Thanksgiving Grief: A Father’s Struggle,” November 24, 1983. 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