Good Grief: Soundings, Part Three – The Hope of the Grieving

 

For some people the phrase good grief, if not immediately associated with the classic Peanuts cartoon strips, seems something of an oxymoron.   What can be good about grieving a departed loved one?    In the first place, there is such a thing as bad grief, inconsolable grief,  grief that consumes the griever, or grieving without hope. The Bible doesn’t commend or command that sort of grieving.

Paul discusses good and bad grief in 1 Corinthians 15.  He tells us that grieving is both normal and natural — even for Christians.  As I said in the eulogy for our Christy girl, you can measure the depth of the love crater left behind for the deceased by the depth of the grieving when they pass away.  Just so.  It is right for Christians to grieve.  Those who have loved and been loved much, grieve much.  There is, however, a proviso: “BUT do do not grieve like those who have no hope.”

Now, I have met Christians who thought they had to be Stoics, and pretend they didn’t hurt.  Strong people, they thought, and especially men, should not allow themselves to grieve deeply and should certainly not let their grief show.

Wrong.  That’s Stoic apatheia: the aim of avoiding deeper emotion or pathos.  Forget that.  That is not Christian theology at all.  Christians are the very ones to grieve deeply because they have loved and been loved deeply.

Here is one of the mysteries about grieving.  Grieving, for a Christian, is about yourself.  That is to say, we are not grieving that someone is pain-free in heaven with the Lord!  That’s cause for celebration.  We are not grieving the condition of the Christian loved one at the moment when we do the grieving!

For the Christian, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.  There is nothing grave in that.  No indeed.  We are grieving for our own sense of loss, our own sorrow over the sudden departure, our own feelings of being bereft.  Grief is the self’s shock and awe over what has happened to itself.  And at some point you have to say, if a Christian’s grieving goes on perpetually it increasingly becomes apparent that we are too self-absorbed.  Perhaps we’re enjoying a pity party, enjoying all the attention and sympathy it brings not to the departed loved one but to us!

I have ministered to people like that.   I remember a little old lady who, even though her husband had died 30 years previously, still had not gotten beyond the fact.  Instead she was dwelling on the past wistfully, feeling sorry for herself, and missing the opportunity to go on living positively, remembering that “The future is as bright as the promises of God.”  Much though I tried, I couldn’t talk or pray Miss Pearl out of her funk.  Her experience of grief had made her bitter, not better.

What does it mean to grieve, then, as one who has hope?  It means we grieve with one eye forever fixed on the eschatological horizon.  It means we grieve knowing that resurrection will reverse Death.  It means we grieve knowing that Death will not have the last word about us.  Life will.  Elsewhere, Paul reminds us of the old saying “Who hopes for what they already have?”  Just so.  The hope to which he refers is not something we possess now in a fully realized form.  While I may have comfort now, and solace now, and peace now,  none of this is my hope.

My hope is in nothing less than a dramatic reversal of death in the flesh.  My hope is not even just in the Risen One, though that is true enough, but in his promise to raise those who are in Christ from the dead.  Nothing less than this is my hope.  So, as I grieve for our Christy, I do so in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.  I cannot wait to see her new resurrection form.  If she is any more bright and beautiful than she is in the picture above, I will need really good sunglasses to view her!

Death has a way of convincing us of what really matters in life.  It shuts up our petty squabbles and complaints and dumb remarks.  What really matters about the future is our resurrection — not harps and clouds, not celestial ambrosia or heavenly hash, but resurrection.  I can’t wait to see Christy in the Kingdom.

That is my hope, and that is my faith, and there are reasons I hold to this.  It is not a blind, or illogical faith, or one unfounded on evidence.  I hold to this because I remember that Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead.  I can hear him say to my Christy, “Talitha cumi.”

Although I am tearing up as I write this, Paul’s words remind me that it’s okay to have tears in our eyes as long as we have hope in our hearts.

  • Revbetty

    Beautiful. Thank you.

  • Edward Fudge

    Praise God — it is true!

  • Tim Fulkerson

    Amen and amen.

  • Pastor4all52

    Thanks for sharing so deeply. Praise God for Resurrection
    !

  • DuWAyne Lee

    Dr. Ben
    As I indicated in an earlier note to you my 55 year old daughter Sandi died in December of 2010 after being bed-ridden for 27 years due to a rare muscle calcification disease. I do not believe that God was directly responsible for her condition and death but he certaily could have prevented both . Here is a question for which I would welcome an answer. ” When it comes to resonsibilty what is the real difference between causing something to happen and allowing it to happen when you are in a position to prevent it?” Does it get God off the hook by saying that he did not send something terrible, he simply let it happen?
    DuWayne

  • Nancy

    Amen. May God hold you in His loving arms and may you and your family feel the comfort and peace only He can bring.

  • Mathieu G

    Wonderful thoughts. This one reminds me of this: “It is certainly right that we should bear one another’s [burdens]; that we should weep with them that weep, and for them that weep not for themselves. ‘When Jesus saw them weeping, He troubled Himself.’ He willingly sustained that emotion; He voluntarily suffered that sorrow; and it is good for us to tread in His steps. “But how far?” Just so far as does not disqualify us for any part of our duty; so far as softens, not unnerves, the mind, as makes us more, not less, zealous of good works.” ~~John Wesley

  • Benw333

    Brother Wayne there is an enormous difference between causing something to happen and not preventing it. For example, I did not cause my Yuliya’s first little fender bender, but I did allow it to happen by teaching her to drive, and then giving her the freedom to do it. Am I in any way on the hook for her accident? I suppose in a very indirect way I am. And God is responsible in the sense that he gave us freedom to live in this world and make viable choices, even when we have messed up this world and it has become full of disease, decay, and death. Now doubtless God could have made a different world in which nothing but his will is done all the time, whether actively or passively, but he did not make that world. He made a world full of beings with viable choices, with the powers of contrary choices, and with the ability to either mar or make a better world full of life rather than death. We have not chosen wisely.

  • Mark

    Ben, I love you! I don’t say that very often to another man, but, in your case I will make an exception. You are that rarest of rarities, a true scholar with a sense of humor and a desire to communicate. God bless you and your family and lift you up to high places. And may the Lord surround you with love and mercy!

  • Anonymous

    Well said, Ben, and what better place to help you keep your eye on the eschatological horizon than at Christ’s holy Table where we come to feast on our Lord’s body and blood given for us? May you find God’s healing grace every time you do.

  • Sue

    Thank You!

  • Roger McCort

    Professor –

    Although you do not know me, you have been very important to me and the work God has given me to do. Your teaching through your books has helped inform me and my congregation through me and has drawn all of us closer to God through better understanding.

    While I can do nothing to help ease the burden of your loss, I can tell you that I have greatly appreciated your sharing your grief with those of us who read your blog. Too many people struggle to avoid pain even though it must be faced head on. I know that I am not alone in praying for your family and I hope that there is comfort in knowing that there are many of us who wish we could sit in the ashes with you and cry with you in this difficult time, even as we share your joy that there is a reunion coming in God’s Kingdom.

    Grace and peace to you and yours.

  • Beth

    I’m pretty sure you are my new hero, Dr. Witherington…thank you for your honest transparency from such a deep and heartfelt loss…you continue to inspire…

  • Cheryl Catford

    Dr Witherington,
    I was saddened to hear of the death of Christy. You spoke so proudly and lovingly of her on your trip to Melbourne in 2010.
    May tears and hope continue with you.

  • Benw333

    Thank you Cheryl…..its good to hear from you. Hope you are well. Ben

  • Trey

    First my condolences to Ben and his family during this difficult time. I can only imagine the depth of your sorrow at this unexpected loss.

    To Duwayne’s question below and Ben’s response I feel compelled to say this. No matter how many times I have heard explanations proffered as to why there is so much indiscriminate suffering in the world – have I ever felt any of the standard theological explanations to be even remotely true or satisfying. It just does not wash for me in those moments of personal sorrow or when I must share in the grieving with others who have suffered a great loss. So my position on the problem of suffering is one where I feel compelled to sit on the fence and say ‘we just don’t know and there are just no good answers at this time’.

  • Kathy Howell

    Ben,
    Please accept my sincere condolences on the loss of Christy from this earthly life. I too believe that she Jesus has already welcomed her into the fullness of His presence with all the angels and the saints.

    Your words are powerful. The ethos, logos and pathos of your posts on “good grief” have been without equal. I am sorry you were unable to get through to Miss Pearl all those years ago. But please know that your good words have already made a difference with me. I realize that over past 9 years since Chuck died, I have grown a little more like Pearl than I would like to admit.

    I pray that God will continue to minister to you and through you; that faith, hope and love will continue to abound in your heart. And that the peace that passes all understanding will be poured out on you and your family keeping you all secure in His care until the very day of Christ.

  • Kathy Howell

    Ben,
    Please accept my sincere condolences on the loss of Christy from this earthly life. I too believe that she Jesus has already welcomed her into the fullness of His presence with all the angels and the saints.

    Your words are powerful. The ethos, logos and pathos of your posts on “good grief” have been without equal. I am sorry you were unable to get through to Miss Pearl all those years ago. But please know that your good words have already made a difference with me. I realize that over past 9 years since Chuck died, I have grown a little more like Pearl than I would like to admit.

    I pray that God will continue to minister to you and through you; that faith, hope and love will continue to abound in your heart. And that the peace that passes all understanding will be poured out on you and your family keeping you all secure in His care until the very day of Christ.

  • Schurch05

    I am a mom shattered by the horrific tragedy of losing my 24 yr.old daughter, & 30 yr.old son, in a car accident 2 yrs. ago. I don’t agree that grief is just about yourself! I suffer daily that my son didn’t get to fulfil HIS dream of getting married & having children, & my daughter couldn’t be a mom to HER 3 little babes for the rest of their lives! They didn’t want to die.Yes, they are perfect in Heaven, but they didn’t want to go there yet. There is no cut & dried time limit for grieving in the Scriptures. Every persons grief is unique, therefore can’t be perfectly compared to someone else’s. Just because you know your loved ones are in Heaven, does not help with losing them here. It is in great error to judge someone’s grieving period, & come up with such hurtful & damaging remarks as “pity party”! This is YOUR experience with Pearl. Her issues are not a general guideline for every body else. There are many damaging remarks that are made by people, & sad to say-Christians, but we have to remind ourselves that their motives are good-they want to help-they just don’t know what to do, or say. I cannot in any way, tell you the extreme pain, of losing Erica & Ryan, my most prescious, beloved children whom I prayed for since the womb, to be protected by God, since I became not by choice, a single mother who couldn’t be everywhere at once, to protect them myself. My belief in what the Word says is that God is the Almighty One, & He could have protected them. I don’t know why He didn’t. At this point our lives are shattered still. My grandkids are without their mommy. Destruction of life as we knew it, & a nightmare everyday that I can’t wake up from. I am in God’s hands, & need Him to breathe life into me. What do you do with your life, when half of your little family is taken away? Never to see them in this life again? People need to realize they can’t judge another person’s sorrow, anquish, & grief, but praying for them, loving them, giving them lots of hugs helps.

  • Benw333

    Thank you for sharing Schurch05. You are so right that each person’s grieving is different. That’s certainly true. It is also true that there are those who do have a pity party for a long time after people die. You say that grieving is not just about you, as your children would like to have had more life here, time with their children. I am sure that is part of the truth but I doubt they are grieving in heaven. Here’s what you seem to not have considered. If you were able to ask them today, ‘Would you trade your current life with the Lord in heaven and with other loved ones, for longer time with those you love on earth?’ I imagine the answer would be no, though of course no one can say for sure. But perhaps you should think about that, not as they would have thought about things were they still here on earth, but as they are currently thinking about things where they are now.


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