By Steve Sivyer
There’s no comfort to be found in watching someone you love suffer and die. This needs to be said, because Christians often struggle with the best way to respond to grief. By our nature, we’re optimists: we believe in an afterlife, an edenic paradise where we can be reunited with those who’ve gone before us, and we fear that showing grief betrays us as faithless.
It doesn’t. The heroes of our faith grieved at death: David, as his newborn son lay dying, and again in his psalms; Job wallowed in the dust after the loss of his family; Jacob tore his clothes when he presumed his son Joseph gone; and Jesus himself famously wept when his friend Lazarus died. In no way was Jesus’s faith diminished by his tears; he didn’t mourn because of doubt, but because of his sorrow at the power death still holds over this mortal realm. Even knowing he’d raise Lazarus back to life did not stop him from raging against death.
Christians also struggle with grief because we know God is able to work miracles. As with Lazarus, God can reverse the course of suffering and death; I’ve heard of Christians refusing to bury loved ones because they just know God is planning to resurrect them (as if God is powerful against death but can be stopped by some dirt). Christians are likewise quick to proclaim “God is good!” when someone is healed and stay silent when they are not.
But if we truly believe that God is good, we have to believe that his is a normative good, and not bound by circumstances. If God is good (all the time!) - if this is a definite attribute of the Lord Almighty - then he is good irrespective of how much faith we have, how fervently we pray, or how much we put in the offering plate.
Here are two recent situations from my own family. Two different boys were suffering: one because of an accident that left him with a hole in his skull, and one from an aggressive tumor that overwhelmed his brain. The accident was killing the one boy quickly, sending him to a trauma center via helicopter within an hour; the tumor was doing its devilish work on the other along an agonizingly slow time frame, whittling him down over a period of years. Neither boy asked for his affliction, or “deserved” it, or suffered from a lack of faith leading to it: these things, as they say, just happen.
The accident victim was spared. At every stage of his recovery, Facebook friends helpfully commented: “God is good!” True enough, and probably encouraging to his mother and father, but what about the other boy? The tumor continued to weigh on his brain until, finally, in a decision no parent should ever have to make, his life support was removed and he slipped into the sweet hereafter.
And yet God, still, was good. But how is that a consolation to my cousins whose child died? How can they truly believe in God’s goodness in the face of unmitigated evil?
It happens that Jesus asked that very question in Luke 13, when he put the question to a crowd about the “eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them” (apparently a disaster well-known to first century Judea), saying: “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?” In other words: were they worse sinners? Were they less faithful believers? Did they not pray the right prayers or do the right things or eat the right foods?
As with most rhetorical questions posed by Jesus, the answer is a resounding “No”. Charles Spurgeon’s sermon on this passage sums it up well:
It is true, the wicked man sometimes falls dead in the street; but has not the minister fallen dead in the pulpit? It is true that a pleasure-boat, in which men were seeking their own pleasure on the Sunday, has suddenly gone down; but is it not equally true that a ship which contained none but godly men, who were bound upon an excursion to preach the gospel, has gone down too?
Remember that Jesus knows everything. He is omniscient. At this point in the gospel story, he knows that he will shortly be crucified and killed in Jerusalem - it is, in fact, his reason for going there. He knows the actual physical suffering he’ll endure, and the much greater spiritual suffering of bearing the weight of the world’s sin. He also knows of the coming suffering of his beloved people, who will spend the next century being so thoroughly crushed by Rome that their temple will be destroyed, their priesthood ended, and their residence in Jerusalem made a capital offense.
So he’s speaking not parabolically but seriously. Likewise his younger brother, James, writing to the leaders of the early church, chose to open his letter like this:
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4)
James, like his brother, would also leave this world a martyr, and can scarce have expected otherwise when he wrote those words. The apostle Peter says almost the exact same thing in his first letter, and he also would die for his faith. Because of that, and their place in the canon of scripture, we can count them trustworthy and true: but are they comforting? How can we count it as joy when someone we love dies?
Here are four biblical truths about suffering and grief. Notice I didn’t say the four biblical truths; the Bible is bigger and deeper and richer than I can possibly imagine. But if you are struggling with grief; if you’ve lost a loved one recently (or not so recently); if you are questioning God’s goodness in the face of evil, hopefully these truths will bring some comfort.
You’re grieving because this is not how things are supposed to be. The fact that we acknowledge suffering is itself proof that God designed a world free from suffering. A world without this design would not have a word for suffering. Pain, perhaps. Death, certainly. But we suffer and grieve when we perceive that something unnatural has occurred. The separation of death is not natural, not part of our original design. Your suffering is proof that something terrible has happened - not just the horrible event you’re dealing with now, but back very close to the beginning.
Suffering is not forever. The great promise of the gospel is that God created a plan to fix all of this, to restore the world to its original design: a paradise wherein every tear is wiped and every head lifted up, where there is eternal life free of pain and grief. The promise of Jesus was not just that he would redeem his creation but restore it. There is, therefore, a light at the end of the tunnel, even though it never feels that way to someone who is in the midst of suffering. That’s precisely why you must rely on faith - hope in the things you’ve not yet seen, but have been promised.
God is good, no matter what. God’s goodness is one of his defining attributes. It’s not something we can judge on a day-to-day basis, as such:
I got a new job today. God is +1 in the good column.
My dog died. -1 for God’s goodness.
My kid is sick. -1
My kid got better. +1
God goodness score for today: 0
We look at life through a very narrow point of view. God sees all the universe through all of time and in all ways. We simply don’t know how or why he will use the circumstances we’re going through at any given point. “We know,” says Paul in Romans 8, “that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” This is exactly why Peter and James tell us to be joyful through trials: because trials build our faith in a God we can’t see, and thus making the future payoff of that faith so much more glorious. We may not understand it today; but we will someday.
Faith will lead you out of grief - in due time. If you or someone you know is suffering, don’t expect feelings of grief to end today, or tomorrow, or next week, as if by magic. You should mourn the death of a loved one; it’s good, and natural, to miss their presence in your life and to mourn the separation. But it should also be noted that your faith, if you’re a believer, is what will ultimately lead you out.
Faith is strengthened when we see Jesus continue to work in people’s lives. Faith is strengthened when we reflect on the godly legacy of a faithful brother or sister, or when we hear the gospel preached at a funeral to people hearing it for the first time.
Look: I’ve only just touched on the depths of grief in this world. You may be reading it and hurting more profoundly than I could even imagine. So your comfort is this: stand firm. Most Christians are aware of the Armor of God passage in Ephesians 6, but take a fresh look at how Paul sums it up in verse 13:
Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.
Don’t trivialize how you feel or shrug it off and say that you need to “toughen up”. Don’t put on a brave smile in front of everyone but hold your depression inwardly. Tell the truth about how you feel. Tell the truth about your questions for God - or if you’re questioning if God even exists. Another attribute of God, along with his goodness, is his truthfulness: he never changes. You’re not blaspheming if you speak your struggles aloud; voice them in prayer, and let him comfort you.
Do stand firm in your faith, if you’re a believer. Do go back to the simplest truths of the gospel: that God so loved the world that he gave it Jesus, and that anyone who believes in him will have eternal life.
And, finally, go back to that most basic and elementary discipline spelled out in the “armor of God” passage: praying at all times in the Spirit. James says that the prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. So go forth and watch it do its work in your life today!