Good Grief: Soundings, Part One



Having recently gone through the devastating experience of having our beautiful 32-year-old daughter die, completely unexpectedly, of a pulmonary embolism, I was determined from Day One (January 11, when she was found dead in her home in Durham, N.C.) to be open to whatever positive thing there might be to glean from this.  I cling by my fingernails to the promise of Romans 8:28 that “God works all things together for good for those who love him….”

The first point that was immediately confirmed in my heart was theological: God did not do this to my baby.  God is not the author of evil.  God does not terminate sweet children’s lives with pulmonary embolisms.  Pulmonary embolisms are a result of human fallenness and the bent nature of this world.

One of the primary reasons I am not a Calvinist and do not believe in such predestinings from the hand of God is (1) because I find it impossible to believe that I am more merciful or compassionate than God.   Also, (2) the Biblical portrait of God is that God is pure light and holy love; in him there is no darkness, nothing other than light and love.  (3) The words “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away,” from the lips of Job, are not good theology.  They’re bad theology.  According to Job 1, it was not God, but the Devil who took away Job’s children, health and wealth.  God allowed it to happen, but when Job said these words, as the rest of the story shows, he was not yet enlightened about the true nature of where his calamity came from and what God’s will actually was for his life — which was for good, and not for harm.

So, for me, the beginning of good grief starts with the premise of a good God.  Otherwise, all bets are off.  If God is almighty and malevolent, then there is no solace to be found in God.   If God is the author of sin, evil, suffering, the fall, and death, then the Bible makes no sense when it tells us that (1) God tempts no one, that (2) God’s will is that none should perish but have everlasting life, and that (3) death is the very enemy of God and humankind that Jesus, who is life, came to abolish and destroy.

“He came that we might have life and have abundantly.”  If there are promises I cling to, as I weep for my sweet Christy, it is this promise, not the sorry solace and cold comfort of “God did this but we do not know why.”  No.  A thousand times, no!  God and his will are always and only for what is good, and true, and beautiful, and loving, and holy.

As I stared at my baby in the casket — who did not even resemble herself at that juncture — I was so thankful that the God of the resurrection had a better plan for her than that cold comfort that “It’s all God’s will.”  I believe in a God whose Yes to life is louder than death’s No — not because God likes to hold antinomies like life and death together in some sort of mysterious unity, but because God is in the trenches with us, fighting the very same evils we fight in this world, like disease, decay, death, suffering, sorrow and sin.

They don’t call him the Great Physician for nothing.  He too took the Hippocratic Oath: “Do no harm.”

  • DuWAyne Lee

    Dear Dr. Ben. Here are some brief remarks that I shared with our people at my daughter Sandi’s Memorial Day service

    I would like to share with you a story that I related to my family in recent days. The late pastor, Dr. John Claypool, suffered the loss of his ten year old daughter, Laura Lue, to the dread disease of Leukemia. Four weeks after her funeral he told this story to his congregation.
    “When World War II started, my family did not have a washing machine. With gas rationed and the laundry several miles away, keeping our clothes clean became an intensely practical problem. One of my father’s younger business associates was drafted, and his wife prepared to go with him, and we offered to let them store their furniture in our basement. Quite unexpectedly, they suggested that we use their washing machine while they were gone. ‘It would be better for it to be running,’ they said, ‘than sitting up rusting.’ So this is what we did, and it helped us a great deal.
    “Since I used to help with the washing, across the years I developed quite an affectionate relation for that old green Bendix. But eventually the war ended, and our friends returned, and in the meantime I had forgotten how the machine had come to be in our basement in the first place. When they came and took it, I was terribly upset and I said so quite openly.
    “But my mother, being the wise woman she is, sat me down and put things in perspective for me. She said, ‘Wait a minute, son. You must remember that machine never belonged to us in the first place. That we ever got to use it at all was a gift. So, instead of being mad at its being taken away, let’s use this occasion to be grateful we had it at all.’
    “And then Dr. Claypool added, Laura Lue was a gift, pure and simple, something I neither earned nor deserved or had a right to. And when I remember that the appropriate response to a gift, even when it is taken away, is gratitude, then I am better able to try and thank God that I was ever given her in the first place.”
    Our beloved Sandi was on loan to us from God for 55 years and we will forever be grateful. A broken hearted Job said it beautifully, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

    DuWayne Lee

  • Sstadler

    Very true and insighful. When my dad died after a 51 day bout with gastric cancer it was amazing how many people either ignored that he had died (for lack of what to say) or they said something offensive without realizing it.

  • sstadler

    Very true and insighful. When my dad died after a 51 day bout with gastric cancer it was amazing how many people either ignored that he had died (for lack of what to say or they felt uncomfortable) or they said something offensive without realizing it.

  • CB

    Sorry to hear about you loss. I enjoyed reading your analogy of God’s good. I lost a parent when I was seven and remember fusing with Him. By the age of nine, God was my best confidant. I see many good memories that bring me joy. One day you’ll feel the same because you said, God would “do no harm.

  • Robert Glass

    Mr. Witherington-
    I met you only once (I am Elizabeth Glass Turner’s [Bitty] father) and I saw this post. I am so very sorry for your loss. Please be assured that there are many, many prayers to God to ease your grief, soothe your heartache and give you the strength to carry on your mission until you meet your daughter again.

  • Emerson de Oliveira

    Dear mr. Whiterington, my condolences and my prayers. From Brazil.

  • cas

    Dr. Witherington, First, my deepest condolences on the death of your beautiful daughter. Second, I’m grateful that you are willing to tackle the theological questions that her sudden death raises. My son died by suicide at age 23 in 2008. Now, of course suicide and pulmonary embolisms are very different kinds of deaths, but if psychiatrists are to be believed, suicide is a fatal outcome of (often untreated) depression, so perhaps they are not entirely dissimilar.

    I’ve heard thoughts from well-meaning loved ones like those you express in this post. They have suggested that perhaps God allowed my son’s suicide to spare him from a worse fate in this world. Like you I’m not a Calvinist, but like Rev. Lee, I don’t find much difference in God caused v. God allowed. Even if Satan was the author of Job’s suffering, God created Satan and sanctioned what seems like a terribly cruel game. The thinking seems circular.

    I find no solace at all in the idea that it was somehow an act of mercy for God to allow the suicide. That points to an impotent God, in my opinion, one who endorses horror instead of healing. I can, however, accept that it is a broken world, and have long believed that if I could merrily go along my way believing in God while genocide and starvation occur, I had better be willing to keep faith when tragedy befalls me. And I have kept faith, even though I feel a deep sense of betrayal that God allowed my son to die such a death. I think dealing with that will be my work of faith for a very long time, even as I know and enjoy God’s comfort, if that makes sense.

    I hope you will keep grappling with these issues here as you are able.

  • Susan N.

    Dr. Witherington, my heart goes out to you. May God’s healing grace continue to be a balm for your grieving heart. Your faith is an inspiration. Thank you for sharing this very personal story. ~A friend from the Jesus Creed blog.

  • Scott S.

    Dr. Witherington,

    I am so sorry of your loss. You, your family and friends are in my prayers. This post truly blessed me, and I am grateful for your speaking out of such great loss, so that the memory of your daughter is honored and our good God is glorified.

    May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you and yours.

    Scott S.

  • Trin

    Dr. Witherington -
    Condolences to you and your family on your loss. I am so very sorry.
    With your permission, I would like to post this on my theodicy blog.
    May the only Good God surround you all with the indescribable peace only his very presence can bring.

  • Alastair Blake Peters

    I have nothing to say, but wish i could sit beside ya.

  • Benw333

    All those who want to repost this are welcome to do so.

  • A sister

    OK so he doesn’t do it. But why does he allow it to happen?

    I have been asking the same question for the past year and a half since my baby brother died. Is there a coherent answer? Is there an answer that will take the pain away?

  • Benw333

    I think there is a series of coherent answers, but that doesn’t mean it will take away the pain. The answer is threefold and it is complicated. In a sense it is the same question if we were to ask why Jesus, when he was on earth, didn’t heal everybody he came even remotely close to, that was in dire need. The answer is that that was not his main mission in life, and however long we may live in these bodies it is not God’s plan to prop up this body forever. Everlasting life, not life in this body was the main focus and concern of Jesus, and it should be ours as well. Why particular persons don’t get a temporary healing or rescue is of course a mystery but I am talking big picture here. The second part of the answer is that God has structured the universe such that we not only have free choices, God also often allows us to have the consequences of our actions. If God intervened in every dire situation it would quickly become clear that we are all living a charade, and that our choices for good or ill do not in any way matter, since God, on this theory would always play his trump card. The easier part of the answer is that we live in a fallen world full of disease, decay, and death, and in such a place, God’s main goal is to get us saved so we can have everlasting life both in heaven and in the new creation through resurrection when Jesus returns. These answers of course will not lessen the shock or the pain of the heart, but they may help the head understand a bit better.

  • kinnaret

    Dear Mr. Lee:
    Yours is one of the best remarks in here. You nailed it on the head: God allowing something to happen is = to causing it. So many of us are in the same boat as you. It’s difficult to know whether to even bother praying since it’s so random as to whether our petitions will be answered.

  • Diana Trautwein

    I came here from Jesus Creed and I think I may stay around a while. This writing, this thinking – especially at a time such as this, laden with so many layers of sadness and loss – is just wonderfully rich and encouraging. I have wrestled so hard with much of what you have cited, both biblically and experientially. And I arrive at the same place you find yourself: God is in the trenches with us, not powerless (as the Calvinists insist is the only ‘logical’ recourse to denial of God willing such things) but weeping with us at the horrific nature of the spillover of death that permeates our world. And I do believe, and have witnessed, that God does indeed work things together for good, that God is always in the business of redemption. But I must also say to you that the hard, real truth is this: no amount of good can ever, this side of heaven, compensate for the loss of your girl. There is no existential scale that can possibly ‘balance out’ the reality of this death – nor any death, or any severely limiting illness or other horror of life on planet earth. Except, of course, for that Other Death – and the Resurrection which followed it. In that, I place my hope and my trust, forever grateful for the Incarnate One who knows our sorrow.

  • LaBarbara

    Amen brother!! God is good no matter what happens to us on this earth. We are all fallen and we all deserve eternal death. Thank God for providing eternal life for those who desire it. There is a real devil roaming this earth, seeking whom he may devour. I lost my brother and mother by age 15 and a husband and child by age 22. My husband has just had surgery for colon cancer. Heaven is not on this earth, but we all get a little taste of it through Jesus. Suffering makes heaven seem all the better–no suffering there. Hang on to Jesus. You might like the book, “Raising the Dead” written by a fellow sufferer.

  • Mike Sayyad

    Dear Ben,

    On behalf of myself and everyone at Priority Travel & Tours, please accept our deepest condolences on the loss of your beautiful daughter. The words you share here are very meaningful and honest. May God continue to give you the comfort and strength to have “good grief” which you so eloquently describe. You and your family are in our thoughts and prayers.

    Mike Sayyad, Jesse Booth, Monica Froehlich & Kathy Howell

  • Coach

    Fantastic post.
    My heart weeps for you.
    My God is the same God of whom you write.
    Hope, though dimly lit, is Hope just the same.
    Bless you.

  • Coach

    Fantastic post.
    My heart weeps for you.
    My God is the same God of whom you write.
    Hope, though dimly lit, is Hope just the same.
    Bless you.

  • Mlkehoe

    Thank you for this sharing. I will help others.

  • Mlkehoe

    Thank you for this sharing. I will help others.

  • Laurie

    I also lost my only child suddenly two months ago today. She was I miss her so much but if she can’t be with me – what better place than with Him? I’m so sorry for your loss. I understand what you are going through. Thank you for your insight – I found it comforting as I endure the grief.

  • Catherinah

    Dear Mr Lee and Kinnaret, I can not agree with you. God did not make us puppets so he can just pull the strings. He gave us a free will so that we can love Him back or not. He provided for our salvation and gives it to us as a free gift which we can accept or not. We can believe His Gospel or we can choose not to. The murderer chooses to murder – it is not God making him do it. The sinners’ sins they commit themselves – God does not sin – He hates sin! Read Romans 1 again. Kinnaret, try read your Bible from Genesis to Revelation and ask God to reveal himself to you. God bless you.

  • joey

    I’ve been through some pain in my life. Some forms of suffering can be talked about openly. Others can’t because of the stigma associated with them.
    So, am I hearing that the suffering I’ve been through is meaningless, random chance, just as likely to have occurred as not, that God “allowed”?!
    To hell with that. Tell me there is purpose to my suffering and I can deal with that (and I mean more than James 1). But tell me it’s meaningless chance?! That’s unacceptable.

  • Benw333

    Hi Joey: No one is suggesting it’s meaningless, or even random chance. The alternative to such a view need not be ‘God predestined it all before the foundation of the world’. Any Christian should believe what Romans 8.28 says regardless of whether they understand why this happened to them. But since God is not the author of sin, evil, or pointless non-martyrological non-punitive suffering such as my Christy went through, more thought needs to be given to what the meaning of such suffering is, and how God can use it for good.

  • Thegoodtale

    A gift for you from the wilderness… I invite you to hear the true word from God now delivered at the heel of time Gen 3:15.
    Satan has deceived the whole world Rev 12:9 until a woman delivers the true word to the world Rev 12:5, Rev 12:13 from the wilderness Rev 12:6. The true word proves by the word of God that not one child of God will be put in a hell fire no matter what their sins. It never entered the heart or mind of God to ever do such a thing Jer 7:31, Jer 19:5.

  • Christina Smerick

    Ben, I am so so very sorry. Please know that you and your family are in our prayers. You are right: God is love, and God weeps with you.

  • joey

    Dr. Witherington: Thank you for your response. I am no scholar, but I assume you are referring to Calvinistic predestination. I, too, find such doctrine offensive. However, I take issue with your use of the words “pointless” and “non-martyrological” (suffering not in the form of persecution?). When the Father explicitly says that he is the one who makes man “mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind (or cancerous? or diabetic? etc)” (Ex 4), I take it that he is saying that he IS the author of “non-martyrological” suffering. And when Jesus says that the man was born blind “THAT (purpose) the works of God might be displayed in him,” I don’t think that it was Satan or Random Chance who PURPOSED the blindness of the man or the resulting glory of the Father.
    Then when I read Paul in Philippians 3 saying that he wants to “know” (experientially) the sufferings of Christ SO THAT he might share in his glorification – that is, he wants to suffer FIRST so THAT he can share in his glory BECAUSE THAT IS THE CHRIST-ESTABLISHED PATTERN – when I read that, I wonder to myself, “What is a non-persecuted, North American believer to do?!” If Paul says that the established pattern is that suffering precedes glorification, and if he has only suffering in the form of persecution in mind, I am in trouble; I’m not following the established pattern. This pattern was also referred to by Jesus when he with outstretched hands, showing the nail holes said, “As (in the same manner) the Father sent me into the world, even so now I send you into the world.” If Jesus, here, also only had suffering in the form of persecution in mind, then I am not being sent in the same manner as he was sent. I’m not persecuted! Should I move to Iran and start proclaiming Jesus so that I can be persecuted?!
    HOWEVER, if Jesus and Paul had in mind suffering in all its forms – not just persecution – of a forgiven, redeemed believer then I AM following the established pattern, as the Father has enabled me. I am suffering even though I have been forgiven. I am suffering even though the Father has promised me something else. I am suffering because he has asked me to do so in his name. That I can live with. And I can live with the knowledge that the scriptures explicitly say that God is the author of such suffering. Pointless? Non-martyrological? Hardly.

  • Benw333

    Hi Joey: The problem is, you can’t take such statements as those in Exodus 4 at face value because God’s truth is only gradually revealed, and as Hebrews 1 says before Christ came that truth was partial and piecemeal. It is interesting to see the dramatic difference between say Samuel/Kings and Chronicles where the former says God did X, but the latter clarifies and says no it was Satan. The basic point is that God’s people only gradually realized that there are viable secondary causes in the universe that are not God’s actions. This took time. My point is that you need to start with Christ and what the NT says about suffering and its sources, not with the OT. You need to read what the OT says in light of the further and clearer revelation in the NT. When you do, you will not come to the conclusions you have about suffering.

  • joey

    So because 1 Chronicles 21:1 comes canonically later than 2 Sam 24:1 and Exodus 4, we can take it as it sits but we can’t take the latter as they sit? It couldn’t be that Satan was following God’s instructions so that both Samuel and Chronicles are correct and do not have to be construed as contradicting?
    I agree that the Lord Jesus is the complete revelation of God. Likewise, the New Testament is a more extensive, though not exhaustive, revelation than the Older Testament. However, the view of suffering and the roles of God and Satan are consistent between the two, and certainly aren’t contradictory. Again, I refer to Jesus’s New Testament comments concerning the blind man. Satan would not choose to do anything for the purpose of displaying the works of God. And Jesus said that the man’s blindness was purposed.
    Then there’s 2 Corinthians 12. Paul says that that he’d been given his thorn (I’m sure you know what has been speculated as to what the thorn was – probably some physical limitation) “…to keep me from being too elated.” He goes on to say that it was a “messenger of Satan” who gave it to him. So are we to believe that Satan initiated this; that Satan didn’t want him to get too big-headed; that Satan wanted Paul to be better equipped for the kingdom? No. God sent Satan to do what he wanted him to do – in order to make Paul a more effective teacher.
    Read Hays’ “Echoes of Scripture” (you’ve probably already read it), pages 57-63. Paul echoes the Servant texts all over the place and applies them to us! People need to know that the suffering they are enduring (in all its forms), as believers, is redemptive, and is in the manner after their King. They are truly living in the image of Jesus. Their suffering has a God-orchestrated purpose!

  • Benw333

    Hi Joey: Richard Hays is a good friend of mine, and frankly he would not agree with your reading of his book. He does not think that our suffering is somehow redemptive— that has to do with the finished work of Christ on the cross. But let’s talk about John 11 for a minute. Jesus certainly does not say in the Greek that God blinded the man….. he says that God will use his healing to display his glory! A big difference. Blessings, Ben

  • joey

    John 9 does not say “that God will USE his healing to display his glory.” The text SAYS the man was born blind, “…SO THAT (as you know, what scholars call a ‘hina’ clause, denoting purpose)…”
    So I misread Hays? I misread when he said, “Those who have ears to hear will hear and understand that the people of God, reckoned as sheep to be slaughtered, are suffering with Christ and thus living out the vocation prophesied for them according (to) the Scriptures. Upon them is the chastisement that makes others whole, and with their stripes is creation healed.”? (pg 63, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul)
    Moving on. I am truly sorry your daughter has died. I, too, have daughters, one of whom sustained a severe head injury last summer, requiring a craniotomy. We still have our daughter with us. May God comfort you in your separation from your beloved daughter, and may your reunion bring you joy beyond your current imagining. – joey

  • Benw333

    Joey there is a difference between a purpose and a result clause in Greek. John 11 can and should be read not as a purpose clause (God made him blind so that….) but as a result clause ‘the man is blind with the result that God will use his condition to reveal his glory’. We have a result clause in John 11 not a purpose clause. And yes, you did misread Richard. Richard is talking about martyrological suffering of the saints for their Christian witness, he is not, for example talking about suffering that happens from a car accident. Blessings, Ben

  • Bill Hughes

    For you Dr. Witherington, family, and friends.

  • Michaelpaultamilio

    Interesting that you find Mr. Lee’s remarks to be the best, but find yourself without a good reason to pray, that is very sad for me to think about, the most intimate and passionate relationship is to be found in the loving arms of God in Christ, in prayer, with faith and hope that God will indeed answer, and that they do indeed affect the way things turn out. Why was Peter released from prison? Prayer. Why was Hezekiah given 15 more years to live? Prayer. Please pray, random is a bad word, the only reason God answer to a prayer may be no, is because He has something better. I did not say less painful.
    God bless you and much love too…

  • Donna Stockin

    Joseph Bayly’s A View From the Hearse helped me a lot. He lost THREE children! Also, Thrice Through the Valley by V. Steel who lost three children and her husband is well.

  • Prchrmom

    The immediate context of this passage is the proclamation to Cyrus of the God of Israel’s ultimate power and authority, and what Cyrus’ role is to be in the restoration of Israel. I think it’s meaning is that all things are under God, in this world that is God’s creation. I agree that we can’t go from there to “God CHOSE that this illness, or disaster, or whatever would happen to this person or nation, but if we hold to God’s omnipotence and omniscience, then God does know, and God knows also that in the act of creating, the things that follow are the result of that first act. I want to live in a world where we have choice, free will and personal responsibility, and I believe that some of the terrible things that happen aren’t due to anything we did, nor are they the consequence of God “punishing” or “testing” us. This is about the sovereignty of God.

  • Temp Handle

    I only just learned of the news. Reading Ben’s remarks here and in later dispatches, I can only say that what he’s written is honest, measured, and mature. I don’t know if I could express myself as well on such a delicate topic. So I’ll be silent and contemplate Ben’s (and commenters’) thoughts instead.

  • MCharles

    Hi Pastor Lee, I am compelled to answer your question of God knowing and not stopping the events. My first instinct is that He wanted his daughter home with Him. Her suffering and time here had been served and you and your family had watched this for an extraordinary amount of time, and in His mercy he took her home to be with Him. I can only imagine your pain in both watching her bedridden AND then dying, but who knows what suffering she was doing on the inside and out. Her testimony was not in vain, as so much witness came through her suffering, which will continue to work in the lives of all who knew her and your family. I am sure you handled her illness with such Christian dignity and perseverance, and that is such a reason for those who dont know the Lord, to accept Him. She is celebrating life to the fullest now, that she couldnt here in her earthly imperfect body. But now can dance, and sing and praise her Father, and you will see this when you join her someday! Thank Jesus, she is whole and perfect now and has no recollection of her suffering here on earth, as there is no suffering and crying in Heaven, only rejoicing. God DOES NOT cause something terrible to happen, I can assure you, but He does not interject His will, but gives us free will, as well as events here on earth and then absolutely uses them for Godly purpose. Pray to Him to accept ‘the things we cannot change’ and to see now the positive in her life and praise Him for her joyous life now and everlasting. I pray His love will mend your broken heart a little more every day, until you look back, with a sweetness on her life and how she impacted you and others around her. We have a lady with four children in our church who is bedridden at 30, with severe MS, suddenly, and cannot speak, etc. and the outpouring of Christian love has been an inspiration to behold. So much good will come from this brave woman’s struggle and then God will take her home when it is His Will. I believe in a merciful God, who despairs when we despair and hurts when we hurt and only wants the best for us. He has these precious children in the palm of His Hand. God bless you, a reader in Opelika , AL.

  • MCharles

    Pray. Pray always without ceasing. You will be blessed just for your obedience, even when you dont know why you are or what good it will do, it is God’s commandment. Praying is NEVER random, something somewhere is affected by the prayers a righteous man. Pray for your closeness to God to be increased and to end this confusion that is an attack by the evil one. I pray you to be convicted that you seek God on this and realize that all petitions are answered in His PERFECT time. Not ours. And we must trust Him to know when. He is perfect and the author of only goodness and wants you closer and closer to Him everyday, simply because He loves you.

  • MCharles


  • David Newton

    Thank you for sharing. My nephew (sister’s son) died June 18, 2011. He was the first grandchild to my parents, an artist, future nurse and gourmet cook and his name is Nathan.

  • Conni

    I am very much trying to live by that. We lost my sweet mother in June after so much suffering and sickness. She was the heart of the family. Having been a most wonderful grandmother to 4 beautiful grandchildren, mother to 3children, wife, sister, aunt, and friend to many, our lives will never be the same. We were so very blessed to have had her as our “gift”. It doesn’t take the horrific pain and void away.