Jeremy Linneman serves as the pastor of community life at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He oversees small groups, operations, membership, and pastoral care. He also serves as a leadership development coach for Sojourn Network and writes on discipleship, groups, spiritual formation, leader development, sports, and culture at jslinneman.com. Jeremy and his wife, Jessie, have three sons.
I concluded the first part of my story on loss and grief with the outcomes of not processing loss and grief well: We become spiritually, emotionally and even physically dysfunctional.
Yet if we deal with the loss by faith, we come out a stronger, more stable, and more content as our grief brings us into deeper dependence on and knowledge of God. We find less of our joy and satisfaction in life’s circumstances and more in life with God, growing in trust, patience, compassion, and wisdom.
Scripture teaches us that suffering is one of God’s means (and I might argue, his primary means) of growing us in spiritual maturity. So how can we respond to suffering in a way that participates in that work of spiritual and physical life in us, rather than bringing about more pain and death?
We submit to our loss.
I love the story of Jesus at Lazarus’s tomb—how he wept openly and loudly. Even though he knows the outcome will be life, he grieves death with raw emotion. Even though Christ has right doctrinal understandings and a good grip on future realities, he allows himself to be overcome with the proper response to death: grief.
Our submission to suffering while we are grieving is the key to the growth God does in us through it. When we stop running from our grief, stop fighting it, and stop asking questions of it, we are able to embrace reality; we are broken and weak humans and God is our only comfort.
We realize that our suffering is accomplishing a good work in us.
When we submit to our losses, our wounds can do the work God intends of shaping us more into the image of Jesus; making us more of who we are intended to be (Jas 1). Remember the words of Jesus to doubting Thomas after his resurrection, “See my hands and my side, and put your hands in my wounds” (Jn 20:24-29). Or see in John’s vision of the New Creation in Revelation: Christ is revealed as a Crucified Lamb—his hands and his side marked from the Cross. These images are profoundly significant: Jesus still bears the marks of his suffering for all eternity! His wounds serve as a reminder for us for all time that Christ died in our place, but they also tell us something about God’s purposes for suffering. Even though Christ has been healed—indeed, he’s been resurrected to the fullest—he still carries these marks with him forever. They are what makes him, him and achieve God’s glory.
We trust the Father.
My 18-month-old hates sleep. The only way I can get him to sleep is to hold him so tight he can’t move, and then just outlast him. As a father, I want to explain to him that this is really for his good and that it will make sense when he’s older. Why doesn’t he see the value of sleep? He doesn’t see the whole picture. He’s a baby and I’m a dad—we’re on different levels of understanding.
I’ve heard Tim Keller describe our human suffering before God in a similar way. God is a loving Father working for our good within the constraints of our broken world. We kick and scream in the night, because we don’t get it—we don’t see the purpose in anything that’s unpleasant. But, all the while, God keeps on holding us. He absorbs our fists and kicks. In loss and grief, God is not absent. He invites and allows our kicking and screaming to him and has given us 150 raw, emotional Psalms as a biblical model for this. In the long, slow process of loss and grief, we often don’t understand what is happening to us, so we need to trust the Father.
We remember that grief doesn’t belong.
Grief is the most foreign thing in the entire range of human experience. It’s like we don’t have the emotional resources for it. We struggle to understand why we experience loss; we struggle to process the emotions of grief; we short-circuit God’s work of healing in our lives continually by trying to escape this foreign terror.
Yet our world tells us that death is a natural part of life. Since everything and everyone dies, our culture says, we can embrace death as a good and natural thing. But if this is true—if grief and death belong in our world—then why do we so struggle with them?
Biblically speaking, death is a curse; it’s our enemy. Death doesn’t belong. Thus, if we’re looking within ourselves for resources to deal with pain and loss, we won’t find anything helpful. We find healing in the face of death in the God of all comfort, who comforts us in our pains and troubles, our losses and wounds.
We hope in the New Creation.
In all things but especially loss and grief, we must remember that all things will be made new (Rev 21:5).
By the end of our lives and of all time, we will all have lost greatly and grieved deeply. But we will be returned to Christ. As the old writer and pastor Dr. Richard Sibbes wrote in The Bruised Reed, “No whole souls enter heaven.” In other words, we all enter bruised, torn, bandaged, and aching. But there, in the fullness of God’s presence and the absence of sin, we are made whole.
Searching for complete healing in this world is a futile effort. But as Christians, we have the opportunity to look to the New Creation daily. We look forward to the time when every tear will be wiped from every eye (Rev 21:4). We will see that our tears throughout the years were not in vain: God has stored them up for us (Ps 56:8). Indeed, our pains and losses must be more value to him than we realize!
From this eternal vantage point, all the suffering of the world will feel like “a light and momentary affliction” as Paul called it, and nothing compared to the newly revealed glory of Christ (1 Cor 4:17).
There is Good News: Loss is not the final word. Grief is not the final word. Death is not the final word. The final word is Christ—who suffered the ultimate loss so that we would receive the Spirit, who never leaves and whose comfort never ends.