Seven hopeful words for grieving souls

As the holidays ramp up, here are seven things we can know that speak hope to grieving or stressed-out souls:

God is good. C. S. Lewis was one of the top two or three theologians of the 20th century. He lost his wife after a late-life marriage and he dealt with that loss by writing a lot about grief. He would say of God, “God is not safe, but he is good.” I don’t know if that truth hits you like it hits me when I’m down, but when I am down that becomes a critical piece for me. My mom died while I was in seminary (I was 34) and I remember my professor asking in class one day to name the most fundamental truth about God. I answered immediately that God is good. He told me that no, the most fundamental statement is that God is love. Which I know but I remember thinking that day, “Nope. Not for me. Today, in order for me to trust God at all while I drive eight hours back and forth every weekend to see my dying mother, what matters most that God is good.” Whatever the end-game, I need to know that even if I don’t understand all that happens, the God over it is good.

God is alive. Visit a country that believes in ancestor worship or idol worship and you’ll see the stark difference between our brand of hope and theirs. Rows and rows of idols representing ancestors who have died (with rocks piled on them, which are the prayers of family members) and rows and rows of trees with wishes tied to their branches. Rocks praying to stones. Paper praying to wood. Meanwhile, we profess this radical truth, that Jesus in the flesh is seated at the right hand of God the Father. Hebrews 9:11 calls him the high priest of good things to come (Jesus is the high priest of hope!). Everything we believe hinges on this truth: “Because I live, you shall live also” (John 14:!9).

Death does not get the last word. Which is not at all the same as saying death doesn’t matter. It does. Your loss matters and your sorrow in the face of it is perfectly legitimate. It is okay to be sad and even to hold gratitude and grief in the same hand. One doesn’t cancel out the other. I read the story somewhere of this indigenous village in Australia. When someone in that village dies, everyone else in the village moves a piece of furniture from their house out into their front yard. So the next morning when the person who has lost someone wakes up and looks outside their house, all over the neighborhood there is furniture in the yard. The compassionate message being sent to the grieving one is that yes, the world has changed. It does not go on as if nothing has happened. We can acknowledge that things may never “get back to normal” without ditching all hope. We can learn to walk in gratitude toward all we have even while we carry our loss. Friend, your loss is noticed, it matters, and it might not be fixable. But it doesn’t get the last word. An empty tomb promises us that.

I can survive death … both now and when my own life is over. The Old Testament feasts teach us the power of remembering. They were given by God to help the Israelites act out and remember their story. In Exodus 12, God tells the people, “Eventually, you’ll have kids who won’t remember what we’ve been through, and they won’t be able move forward if you don’t show them where you’ve been.” Even today, when Passover is celebrated by Jewish people, the youngest person in the room has the privilege of asking this question to invoke the telling of the story of the Jewish people being delivered from slavery: “What makes this day different from all other days?” God told the Israelites, “When the children ask, you tell them, ‘We do this because God is great, because He brought us up out of our slavery into a desert and toward his promises.” Sometimes the way forward is best charted by remembering where we’ve been and who brought us through. Remembering, we learn, is part of resurrection. And sometimes remembering is how we get courage to keep going. Perhaps a good way to begin this season is by choosing something to remember and celebrate. Or ask a friend to sit with you so you can share memories together. The Bible teaches us that we survive not by distraction but by remembering.

I can know why, even if I can’t know why right now. Maybe the hardest part of grief is the mystery of it. We are so sure that if we could just know the “why” we’d feel so much better. Not knowing the “why” is hard. Why did I have to lose someone I loved so much? Why is my marriage loveless? Why do my children suffer with illness or disability? Why so much loss and emotional pain? The questions that don’t have answers can be so frustrating but as it turns out, truth is not a set of principles we can logic through to find relief. Truth is a person. Which means the answer to your “why” is “Who.” It is Jesus being willing to be with me in my grief, without words, unjealously, unswervingly, peacefully there. And it is Jesus who teaches me to be a friend to those around me. In the face of our own pain, God may not give us all the answers we’re hoping for but he gives us himself, which is so much better in the long run than the temporary fix of cheap advice. I can know why, but maybe not now and maybe not even in this lifetime. But as it turns out, knowing Who is enough.

I can hope without being disappointedif my ultimate hope is attached to the Infinite. God has been talking to me lately about the difference between fantasies and hope. I am a master at wanting things I can’t have. Not stuff, so much. But I’ll get some crazy idea about what success looks like and then I get so frustrated when that thing I dreamed up doesn’t happen. What I’m beginning to learn is that things I dream up and then desperately want have no substance. They never were true, are not true now and never will be true. Since there is no substance to an impossible idea, its only function is to frustrate. Meanwhile real hope — biblical hope, hope with substance to it — is rooted in Jesus and his Kingdom. The Bible actually puts it just that way: hope is the substance of things not yet seen (Hebrews 11:1). That means real hope — though it is still unseen by us — exists substantially in God’s Kingdom. For those who grieve, this is both challenge and good news. We may have to put to death our frustrated fantasies — the “if onlys” that feed our disappointment and discouragement — but we can hope again, if we are willing to hope away from those fantasies and toward Jesus and his Kingdom.

Life is worth the fight. This world and our place in it is worth fighting for. Even if we have suffered, we live in a world created by a good God who lives, and who invites us to live also. We live in a world being reclaimed day by day by a Savior who loves us and who invites us to the other side of sin, suffering, hopelessness, pain and death. We live in a world in need of what we bring to the table. A worship song I lean on (10,000 Reasons, by Matt Redman) has this verse about learning to praise God all the way through, in this life and in the life to come:

And on that day, When my strength is failing, The end draws near, and my time has come … Still my soul will sing Your praise unending, ten thousand years and then forevermore.

In a stressful and often lonely season, my you find so many good reasons to praise our good God and trust what he is doing … even if you don’t have all the answers.

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