A tragic accident.
The night he died it stormed. My wife and I were restless, weeping, and holding each other closely. I remember pleading with God in my distress, “Why didn’t you send these rains just a few hours earlier? He wouldn’t have been outside! This nightmare never would have happened! Why did you allow it to happen this way, God?!”
My unchangeable circumstances made my cries feel hollow.
It’s now been nearly five years since my wife and I joined the unique fraternity of parents who have lost a child. To spare the horrendous details, what began as a seemingly picturesque day ended with us leaving the triage unit of the local Children’s Hospital without our son. No amount of prayers or medical practitioners could resuscitate him. We were thrust into a different dimension. Everything we thought we knew about our lives, our God, and our faith immediately came into question in the midst of the deepest grief we have known to date.
Sack cloth and ashes.
The morning after our son died I sat by myself crying and reading Romans 8 like I was clinging to an anchor in a hurricane. In the midst of trying to focus on the words, a dear friend and mentor sent me a text message with the words from verse 28:
“And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
Over the years I have learned two major characteristics about Romans 8:28. First, this verse carries immense power that can produce great hope and perseverance in followers of Christ. Second, it is at the same time like a dangerous weapon that needs to be wielded carefully. If this truth is pointed at a grieving person at the wrong time, or with the wrong tone, it can be devastating and destructive. But if a grieving person is helped to point this truth at the enemy, it can deliver a crushing blow to the prince of darkness.
There are three essential truths that I have gleaned from Romans 8:28, which have served as ointment to the sting of loss, and a lens by which to view our suffering:
The Apostle Paul makes it abundantly clear that “all things” happen to all types of people. He doesn’t say some things, most things, or even good things work together for good for those who love God. The reality is, Paul says “all things work together for good for those who love God . . . ”
In the initial state of shock that accompanied our grief, my wife and I desperately asked God, “Why? Why us? Why our son?” But as we slowly began to remember truth, we began to consider, “Why not us? Why not our son?” Did we really believe that we were excused from the implications of sin, suffering, and death? After all, several chapters earlier in Romans Paul reminds us,
“No one is righteous, no, not one” (Rom 3:10).
“All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).
As we have lived through our grief, it has been important for us to cling to the truth of Scripture. Romans 8:28 reminds us of the reality that all things, including our lives, are affected by sin. And better still, all things are within the scope of God’s redemption.
Once I came to grips with the reality of my situation, I determined that I should know how God was going to use my grief for His glory.
I began recording instances of the gospel advancing through my son’s death. Several people told us that they had used our story to witness to others. At one point, a local reporter asked if they could tell our family’s story on the news. When I asked the purpose he intended, the reporter suggested that he thought it would offer hope to others suffering loss.
Just weeks after burying my own son I was on the evening news sharing the message that in our grief we will be able to deal with the death of our son, because we believe in a God who knows infinitely more than us about the grief of losing a beloved Son. The morning after it aired a friend asked me how I felt about the piece on the news and I immediately began crying. Even knowing God was at work through our tragedy didn’t help us feel any better.
It eventually occurred to me that I was demanding something from God that I was not entitled to: omniscience regarding the purposes of my hardship. The truth is, I don’t deserve that information, nor can I handle it. Paul says of God later on in Romans . . . “How unsearchable his judgments, And his paths beyond tracing out” (Rom 11:33). The prophet, Isaiah, suggested something similar of the nature of God when he said, '"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,' declares the Lord" (Isa 55:8).
Humility is central to our faith. To surrender the need to know the “what if's,” “how’s” and “why's” is to trust God’s ultimate promise that He is making things right (Rev 21:5).
Lastly, the goal of seeing grief through the gospel is to be able, by God’s grace, to reinvest the fruits He bears in us through our suffering into life for His glory and the blessing of others. This kind of ministry from our grief certainly takes time and grace for us to come to, and the only way to get there is to keep our eyes fixed on eternity. Romans 8:28 does not suggest a time frame for when all things will work together for good. But we can have confidence that the time is coming, even if we can’t yet see it working itself out in our lives.
Possibly the best picture of our eternal hope is captured in Revelation 21, where we get a glimpse of the new heaven and new earth ushered in by Jesus’ return. One of the first acts of God in His restored kingdom is to wipe every tear from every eye of all saints throughout all history once and for all (v.4). Revelation 21 tells me about the immense, eternal good that God brought and will bring about from the death of His own Son. Because of the redemptive work Jesus accomplished through his own death, I can trust him in the midst of grieving the death of my son. He will also work my suffering for good . . . even when I can’t yet see it.
Rest assured, weary souls. He is working all things for the good of those who love him, and who are called according to His purpose.
Gabe deGarmeaux oversees local and global outreach and small group ministries at Pathway Church in Pennsylvania. He earned an MA in Cross-cultural Ministry at Dallas Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter @gabe_deg.