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"Good Grief! Countering Life’s Losses with God’s Precious Promises"

August 12/18 1Thess.4:13-17

THE POWER OF PRECIOUS PROMISES

The apostle Peter opens his second letter to the church at large by recalling the awesome resources available to believers in Jesus through God’s abundant grace. 2Peter 1:3f “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.”

      Think about that – God “has given us EVERYTHING we need for life and godliness...” Do we really believe that? Or as Psalm 23 traditionally puts it, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” – “I shall lack NOTHING”. God’s power has given us everything we need. How? Peter clarifies – it’s through KNOWING Him who called us. Through our relationship with God, made possible by faith in Christ. Then, God’s glory and goodness convey to us what Peter calls God’s “very great and precious promises”. The treasure of Scripture truth – that’s why we memorize God’s word, so we can call these “precious promises” to mind, especially in times of stress and testing. Jesus said, Jn 6:63 “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.” God’s word is very special, potent, powerful, able to do His work in us. It’s through these promises, Peter maintains, that we “participate in the divine nature” – what an awesome concept! We, mortals, can share in God’s very nature! Meditating on God’s promises reinforces our being in-Christ. Also, Peter notes, those same promises help us escape the corruption, the degradation, including moral decay, that might drag us down and destroy us.

      So let’s take some time today to consider how God’s promises help us counter one of the toughest aspects of life: GRIEF. The Oxford dictionary defines grief as “Intense sorrow, especially caused by someone's death” - deriving from an Old French verb meaning “to burden”. Grief can be caused by many things, anything that makes you feel a sense of LOSS, not just the death of a loved one. Loss of a home through a house fire causes grief. Having to move on account of a job change for you or your spouse, and consequently losing multiple friendships, could be a source of substantial grief. Losing a spouse through them filing for divorce brings another type of grief – still very much a burden. How can God’s promises help us endure when the world seems to be falling out from under our feet?

THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW

One week after my wife died, close Christian friends passed along to me a resource that had been helpful to another local pastor when his own wife died. It’s called Getting to the Other Side of Grief: Overcoming the Loss of a Spouse, co-written by Susan Zonnebelt-Smeenge (a psychologist) and Robert DeVries (a pastor). I’ll be using it a fair bit today. It’s a helpful book because it’s written from a Christian perspective, with a theological component but also a very practical life-issues angle thanks to the input and experience of the clinical psychologist.

      Let’s step for a moment into the shoes of someone who has experienced extreme grief, the pain that results from losing a spouse through death. It’s something many of us will experience at some point in life. Thomas Holmes & Richard Rahe developed the Social Readjustment Ratings scale to evaluate the stress associated with specific life events; they consider the death of a spouse as THE MOST disruptive stress of life. Translate: maximum pain!

      Here are some American statistics – they’re 326M, we’re 37M in Canada, so multiply about 1/10... Widowhood happens to half of all married people. (Sidenote: but what about the adage that half of all marriages end in divorce? Actually in Canada the Vanier Institute of the family found the divorce rate was 38% based on 2006 data. So out of 100 marriages involving 200 people, 76 people will suffer the grief of divorce; of the remaining 62 marriages or 124 people, half - 62 persons - will suffer the grief of widowhood. Just pointing that out – more people will suffer the grief of divorce than of widowhood.)

      In the USA, 800,000 people face the stark reality of their spouse’s death annually. One-quarter (approximately) are men, 3/4 are women. (So - three times as many women as men.) Half of the total (400,000 people) are under the age of 45. And of those over the age of 65, half of the women are widowed, but just 14% of the men.

      To make it more personal, here is the story of Susan, the psychologist co-author...

      “Six years of marriage – it is hard to describe the depth of our happiness! Our daughter was born; we were both well established in our careers; we had a new home; our lives were filled with peace and contentment.Rick and I had it good.Then suddenly a grand mal seizure struck without warning.A week later, Rick was diagnosed with a brain tumour.Our daughter, Sarah, was just 18 months old at the time.The popular song "We Almost Had It All" captured our feelings. We did almost have it all—except for an ugly pathology report; except for a malignancy that would affect our lives for the next 17 years.

      “We struggled with the question, ‘Why, God – why us, when we had so much potential to do so much good for others?’ We resolved to stand on our faith and be used by God in whatever course our lives would take.As the next 17 years unfolded, we experienced all sorts of ups and downs, good times and bad.But through it all, God's grace was evident.We lived life to the fullest, even after Rick's frontal lobe was removed at the Mayo Clinic seven years prior to his death.Rick had phenomenal faith. It got him through his hell on earth in the healthiest way he could manage. Rick died on October 18, 1994, at the age of forty-seven.He is at peace now, and I am at peace for him. I don't wish him back here now; he suffered enough.

      “The last seven years of Rick's life were spent as an invalid.He had to give up his profession, and during the last two or three months of his life, he couldn't walk.He needed a lot of physical care.Family, friends, and hospice provided invaluable support.

      “When Rick died, I was exhausted. While he was alive, I had determined to do and be all that I could, so I pushed myself to be a good spouse and caregiver while I also continued my full-time clinical psychology practice.I functioned on two to four hours of sleep a night for several weeks prior to his death, but I made myself hold it all together, even during the visitation and funeral.I did it for Rick; I did it for Sarah; I did it for myself...

      “Beginning about the fifth month after Rick died, I was so down I wanted to kill myself.I knew I wouldn't do it.My Christian faith was solid – but that didn't prevent the feelings of despair that lasted for a few months.I was so miserable.I had never felt so alone and deserted in all my life.Rick was my kindred spirit, the person with whom I shared everything. Now there was no one—just a huge hole.”

ACCOMPANIED THROUGH PAIN VALLEY

One of the most common scriptures used at funerals is Psalm 23. V4 is one of the most ‘precious promises’ in the Bible for coping with grief. Ps 23:4 “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

      Pastor DeVries notes the psalmist “wasn’t thinking about people who were dying; he was thinking about people who were surviving.They were walking through the valley, surrounded by disease, death, and other obstacles.One possible reading of the phrase ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ is actually, ‘through the darkest valley’.When your spouse dies, the lights go out.Your life may become dark, forlorn, and dismal...

      “Psalm 23 makes very clear, however, that you never enter the valley alone...God is the Shepherd; he is leading the flock...As the hills begin to press in and the light of the sun begins to dim, the hand of the Shepherd is there to comfort and guide...Don’t deny your feelings; God is big enough for you to pummel his chest out of sheer frustration and fear.Some friends may tell you not to cry because your spouse is in a better place.They may say there is no need for tears because now the suffering is all over.Poppycock...

      “The valley of the shadow of death is not a box canyon...the valley of death has an exit on the other side. The psalmist is quite clear that you pass through this valley...In walking through it ‘I will fear no evil, for you are with me.’...Jesus had to walk the road to his death alone...And on the cross, because of the weight of our sin, even God the Father momentarily separated himself from Jesus, wrenching from him the cry, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mt 27:46) God forsook Christ once so that we would never be forsaken by him.I shall never leave you or forsake you is Christ’s promise.Christ also promised that ‘surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ (Mt 28:20) So Christ walks with us through the valley...

      “This shepherd’s rod is a symbol of God’s defense of his people.Even in this valley, nothing will harm you.Did not the apostle Paul proclaim: ‘I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Rom.8:38-39)? That is the shepherd’s rod.Nothing can stand in the way of the Good Shepherd – not even the death of your spouse, not even the dark days in the valley.He walks with you as you enter the valley, and he guides as you endure the valley.”

THE DEFINITE DIFFERENCE: NOT GRIEVING LIKE THE REST

Shortly after Yvonne’s funeral, someone was remarking on the noticeable difference between her funeral and that of someone else in the community that had died about a week earlier. That one had been subdued and gloomy, with hardly a mention of Scripture; whereas Yvonne’s was noticeably upbeat, positive, full of hope, more like a celebration. One man exiting after Yvonne’s funeral commented, “Of all the funerals I’ve ever been to, that’s the first one where I didn’t want it to stop!”

      What makes the difference? It boils down to the precious promise believers have that Jesus died for us so our sins could be forgiven, He rose again, and has gone ahead to prepare a place for us. Paul summed it up in 1Cor15:3f “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures...” The night before He was crucified, Jesus prepared His disciples for this whole topic of death and grief by giving them this precious promise: John 14:1-4 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

      Yvonne made it clear by her testimony and behaviour in life, echoed by the choice of songs for her funeral, that she trusted Jesus to be her Saviour both in life and in death. She was confident of that because she believed the Bible, particularly the account of Jesus’ sacrificial death and the miracle of His resurrection. If you think about it, it’s death in fact that underlines or guarantees the veracity of the resurrection account: all of Jesus’ disciples were killed refusing to back down from their conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead. As I keep explaining it to others: “People don’t DIE for what they know to be a LIE.”

      If we’re wrong or deluded or misguided on this point of Jesus’ death and resurrection, our faith is worthless. Paul put it this way in 1Cor15:17-19 “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” We would be delusional, pitiful write-offs, in a class with those who believe in fairy tales.

      BUT Paul didn’t stop there! He continues, 1Cor 15:20 “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” This is the miraculous, stupendous heart of the New Testament gospel message that all the apostles – and, after them, many in the early church – went on to underline in their blood as an eyewitness fact. And His resurrection from the dead makes all the difference for us. Jesus said, Jn 14:19 “Because I live, you also will live.” And we don’t even need to wait for death: eternal life for the believer starts here and now. Jesus said, Jn 5:24f “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me HAS eternal life and will not be condemned; he HAS CROSSED OVER from death to life.I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.” GLORY! HALLELUJAH! Can I get an ‘Amen’?

      So these precious promises flavour our grieving. Yes there is a tremendous sense of loss. In the case of a spouse, I tell people, “I feel lopsided – I’m missing my other half; a huge part of me is gone.” Yes we miss them; yes there are tears. But it’s a period of separation FOR A TIME, not indefinitely – because they knew Jesus, we are convinced we WILL see them again. This makes all the difference! Paul cautioned the church at Thessalonia as we read earlier, 1Thess 4:13f “we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”

      We don’t grieve like other people, those who don’t know Jesus, who have no hope. We believe Jesus died and rose, AND SO WE BELIEVE (this idea is built upon the previous fact) – we believe God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” What authority does the apostle cite for this? Very next verse, 1Thess 4:15 “According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you...” It’s God’s precious promise to His people.

      Note that expression - “fallen asleep”... For Christians, death is but a temporary state. When you fall asleep then wake up the next morning, you’re not aware of time passing. The dead in Christ have no sense of ‘missing out’ or suffering. Faith also flavours our understanding of what our loved ones are experiencing in the interim. We wouldn’t wish them back - not just because their final days were difficult; but because the limited reference the Bible makes to this interim state makes it sound even better than the very best day in our whole life! Paul, very much alive, said to the Philippians, Php 1:23 “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far...” Not by a tad, or somewhat better, but ‘better BY FAR’!

DEBUNK THE MULTIPLE MYTHS

Armed with God’s truth, we’re empowered to counter damaging myths that otherwise arise. Authors Robert and Susan address some of these.

      There’s the myth that ‘death is God’s fault’. Pastor DeVries states, “God’s entire purpose in sending his Son was to overcome death.” Now just pause here a moment: run that through your Biblical screening filter! Was it God’s “entire” purpose? What’s the Biblical answer to the question, “Why did God send Jesus?” Jn 3:16 “so that” whoever believes in Him would not PERISH but have everlasting life. 3:17 God sent His Son into the world..to SAVE the world through Him. 1Jo 4:14 “And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.” Jn 1:29 “John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’”

      God’s target in sending Jesus was more sin in particular than death. 2Cor 5:19 NASV “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them” – the separation due to sin was the bullseye, the target God had in view. Yes the sin of our first parents brought death into the world; death was NOT part of God’s original plan for our planet. Death is part of the package of evil, a consequence of our sin-corrupted cosmos. Sin and the resultant death are human’s fault, since we rebelled against God.

      Death itself was not the enemy on Yvonne’s last day. The day before she died, the nurse heard her lungs filling with fluid and recommended an X-ray and possible antibiotics at Wingham Hospital. So I loaded Yvonne in the car (with some difficulty) and took her to emergency, where her vitals were checked - she had an extremely high temperature, and very weak, rapid pulse. Dr Antoniadis met with us and did not recommend the X-ray or antibiotics. He noted Yvonne was palliative, the brain tumour was growing, and it was just a matter of time. He cited the old adage, “Pneumonia is the old person’s friend.” And also from his Hippocratic Oath obligation as a physician, “I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm” (later referred to as, “First, do no harm”). The doctor argued that to put her through the discomfort of having an X-ray and subsequent needles for antibiotic was doing more harm than just letting nature take its course. So I loaded Yvonne back in the car, took her home, and the next day as her breathing became more laboured and fever intensified, it could be said death came at the very end as a friend, as a welcome release, in view of her tough condition and “better” eternal prospect.

      Back to Devries’ accurate contention that ‘death is not God’s fault’... He writes, “The cross was the decisive battle, and the outcome of the battle is already guaranteed, but the war wages on. Only when Christ comes again will the victory be complete. So you grieve – but not like others. For while you can wail and weep, you also have the hope of the resurrection. Death is real; death is painful. But (Rom.8:38-39) ‘I am convinced that neither death nor life...will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’”

      Another myth is that ‘God does not understand.’ Pastor DeVries says, “God does understand.He is not so high and mighty that he doesn’t grieve with us. The Spirit of God groans with us in our pain (Rom 8:26).Jesus wept.He also experienced death when he (Php 2:8) ‘humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!’ More importantly, Jesus challenged death and the grave – and he won.”

      Here just listed briefly is a sampler, sort of a “top ten” of other ‘myths’ the authors list, to be aware of either when going through grief yourself or trying to express friendly caring to others who are experiencing loss.

     Myth1 Grieving extends over a set period of time, moves through definable stages or phases, and should decrease after three months and be completed after the first year.

     Myth2 The sudden death of a spouse is far worse than a death as a result of a long-term illness.Being able to anticipate grief makes the grieving process easier.

     Myth3 The loss of a child is far worse than other losses.

     Myth4 You should keep yourself very busy; too much time alone isn’t good.Move on and occupy yourself with your current life rather than focusing on the deceased.

     Myth5 Don’t focus on the fact that your spouse is dead; don’t talk about the loss or tell the story of the death.If you don’t think about the loss, the feelings will go away.If you have to talk about your spouse, say only positive things to elevate the deceased to sainthood.

     Myth6 One never gets over the loss of a spouse, and you will always feel the pain.Happiness is over forever now that you are widowed.

     Myth7 Look and act happy even if you are feeling awful.Be sure to accept all social invitations even if you don’t feel like it or eventually you will be left out.Keep doing all your same previous activities because this will honour your deceased spouse.

     Myth8 Wearing your wedding ring means you are grieving; if you take it off, you are done grieving and are ready to date.

     Myth9 To have fun or laugh while in the grieving process means that you didn’t really care much for your spouse.

     Myth10 Having friends of the opposite sex when widowed means you must be considering dating those friends or be romantically interested.

(There are others, but you can always buy the book!)

CLIMBING OUT OF THE HOLE

Grieving is a process. The authors offer many practical tips describing ‘tasks’ those coping with grief can work through in order to find closure and adjust back to normal living. Pastor DeVries describes how emotional healing happened for him.

      “I finally found release from the anger when I took charge of my grief.About 18 months after Char died, I suddenly went into an intense period of grief again.Probably because I had taken such a passive attitude toward grief, many of the emotions had been stored deep inside.But I also finally realized that I had not died.My life was going to continue, and if there was to be any quality in my life, I had to do something about it.That’s when I started doing a number of things: I realized I had put on weight because I had fallen into the trap of using food to make me feel better.I resolved to change my eating patterns...I also started following many of the suggestions in this book, especially writing letters to Char and reading them to her at the cemetery.I retraced my steps to some of our favourite, sentimental places.I looked through pictures.But most of all I finished the remodeling of my kitchen.I had to move on.So I did all these things intentionally to say goodbye.I said goodbye a hundred times, but each time it got easier.Now I know Char is gone.I loved her, but she is dead; I am not.I also love myself, and I will carry with me the wonderful memories of 28 years of a happy marriage.The pain is finally gone.The memories are secure, and my life now goes on.”

      In closing – DeVries recalls the first question in the Heidelberg Catechism he was raised with: “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I belong, body and soul, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.” He notes, “I belong, fundamentally, not to a husband or a wife nor to my children, my career, or this world.I belong to my faithful Saviour.Do you long to see Him? Have you faced the reality of your own death as you grieve the death of your spouse?”     

    Indeed!! Reach out to the Good Shepherd, who has traversed that valley of the shadow before us, and can bring us safely through its twists and turns. Let’s pray.