A Lesson from Jesus in Handling Grief

I’m not an expert on the subject of grief by any means – far from it. Yet recently several friends have had loved ones die suddenly and unexpectedly. I’ve found myself wondering, how are they supposed to handle that?

Then today I noticed a woman at the grocery store who had some sort of Christian bracelet. When I asked about the bracelet, she told me the heart-wrenching story of how her sister had died just two weeks ago of a rare form of cancer.

Wow. How is she supposed to handle that?

As I pondered these situations, a story in the life of Jesus came to mind. John the Baptist – Jesus’ cousin and the preacher who had inaugurated His ministry – was beheaded by King Herod. It was a gruesome event, with the severed head of Jesus’ forerunner put on a tray and given to his persecutors before his friends buried his body.

Knowing that He cared deeply about John, we’re told that John’s disciples “went and told Jesus what had happened” (Matthew 14:10-12 NLT).

So, how did Jesus respond to the news? He apparently didn’t spout a bunch of spiritual platitudes as we might have done. I probably would have offered some lame and inappropriate words of comfort, like “God will work it for good,” or perhaps the old standby, “He’s in a better place now.”

Jesus didn’t do that. In fact, we’re not even told what  He said. However, we can see three significant things He DID in the wake of His grief over John’s death:

  1. He withdrew and spent time by Himself  (vs. 12-13). Often after a loved one dies, we’re surrounded by well-wishing friends and family. That’s fine – up to a point. But Jesus went “to a remote area to be alone,” and usually we need to follow this example. Withdrawing shouldn’t make us feel guilty! It’s part of the grieving process, a necessary step in getting our bearings again.

How long should this “withdrawal” step last? A day? A week? A month? Longer? There’s no way to set a firm time limit, because everyone is different. In verse 23 Jesus again went to be alone, which shows that this step may need to be repeated from time to time. Yet it’s big mistake to get stuck in this phase forever, because we will eventually need to move on to step 2. 

  1. He found people needier than He was  (vs. 14-21). I’ll never forget my first Christmas after experiencing a significant loss in my life. It was going to be an incredibly lonely time for me, but God gave me a helpful strategy: I took my guitar and went to sing for people in a nearby nursing home! Although I’m not sure they particularly liked my singing, they seemed glad I was there. And my gloomy disposition certainly improved as I set out to bless people who were even lonelier than I was.

Of course, Jesus didn’t visit a nursing home after hearing of John’s death. But He reached out to heal a bunch of sick people and then took five loaves of bread and two fish to feed thousands of hungry people.

If you’re facing some kind of grief today, perhaps it’s time to reach out with the love of Jesus to someone who’s needier than you. Taking that step won’t immediately relieve the pain, but you’ll find it beneficial to put your grief in the rearview mirror instead of making it your constant focus.

  1. He (and Peter) walked on water  (vs. 22-32). I’ve probably lost you at this point. First of all, you assume it’s impossible  for you to walk on water. And even if you somehow could pull it off, how could that accomplishment have any bearing on your grief?

But you see, walking on water is a beautiful picture of going beyond yourself and doing something that once seemed impossible. In order to truly overcome grief, something supernatural must take place. Put simply: You need God’s help!

Not only did Jesus walk on water, but Peter did too. Peter did something he never could have done in his own strength – and so can you. Despite the initial devastation brought by your loss, you can make it. You really can be OK again. His grace is always sufficient if you take time to draw upon it (2 Corinthians 12:9).

This story also reminds us to keep our eyes on Jesus amid the wind and waves around us. Grief and fear are frequent allies, and our fears become overwhelming if we focus on the stormy conditions swirling in our path. Miraculously, the Bible says “perfect peace” is available when our eyes are fixed on the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 26:3, Hebrews 12:2, Philippians 4:4-9).

Perhaps, like Peter, your grief and fear have conspired to give you a “sinking feeling” down deep in your soul. But remember: Even when you feel like you’re about to drown in your sorrows, Jesus will be there to grab your hand when you call out to Him.

If you’ve suffered a major loss in your life, there’s a good chance you know a lot more about grief than I do. If so, I encourage you to take time to comfort others with the comfort you’ve received from God (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). As you stretch out your hand to others, your own healing process will be accelerated (Mark 3:1-5).

Even though you may feel bewildered by the loss you’ve experienced, never forget that the Lord is WITH you through it all: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed” (Psalm 34:18). When grief comes sweeping in like a flood, let it lift you higher and draw you closer to Him than ever before.

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The Cure for Bone-Deep Pain

bone-deep-pain

I once met a man who had become addicted to prescription painkillers.

“That must be terrible,” I empathized. “Where is your pain located?”

I expected the man to tell me about migraine headaches, pain in his back, or some other kind of physical agony. But, to my surprise, he took the conversation in an entirely different direction.

“Well, my wife left me a few years ago, and I’ve been really lonely. I’m also having conflict with my kids, and I don’t like my job. I basically hate my life and feel like a total failure.”

I wasn’t prepared for his explanation. What did any of those circumstances have to do with getting hooked on prescription pain medicine?

However, as our conversation continued, I began to see the connection. While some people become dependent on pills to alleviate their physical  discomfort, this man was desperately trying to numb his emotional  pain.

Perhaps you can’t relate to this. I hope  you can’t relate!

Yet here’s the sad reality for many people: There’s a kind of pain that goes far deeper than pain in our physical body. It goes to the very soul—to the core of our being.

I call this “bone-deep” pain, but it’s actually much deeper even than that.

King David seems to have been quite familiar with bone-deep emotional pain. While some of his psalms are exuberant and celebratory, many describe his deep internal agony, all the way down to his bones:

Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak;
O Lord, heal me, for my bones are troubled.
My soul also is greatly troubled…
(Psalm 6:3).

My life is spent with grief,
And my years with sighing;
My strength fails because of my iniquity,
And my bones waste away
(Psalm 31:10).

When I kept silent, my bones grew old
Through my groaning all the day long
(Psalm 32:3).

Some of David’s psalms attribute his bone-deep pain to things like grief, betrayal, and the torment he frequently received from his enemies. But other passages, such as Psalm 39, acknowledge that some of his emotional pain was the direct result of his own sinful, foolish choices:

O Lord, do not rebuke me in Your wrath,
Nor chasten me in Your hot displeasure!
For Your arrows pierce me deeply,
And Your hand presses me down.

There is no soundness in my flesh
Because of Your anger,
Nor any health in my bones
Because of my sin
.
For my iniquities have gone over my head;
Like a heavy burden they are too heavy for me.
My wounds are foul and festering
Because of my foolishness…

I am feeble and severely broken;
I groan because of the turmoil of my heart 
(Psalm 39:1-8).

Fortunately, there’s hope for those who are suffering bone-deep pain. David goes on to conclude that God is with him and well aware of his turmoil (v. 9). Even though there is no lasting relief for such pain through prescription painkillers, alcohol, or illegal drugs, David has found the only source of true hope: “In You, O Lord, I hope; You will hear, O Lord my God”  (v. 15).

David had experienced the incredible pain of internal torment, but that gave him authority to speak with great eloquence about the Shepherd who offers to lead us to a place of peace, safety, and renewed joy: “He restores my soul”  (Psalm 23:3).

Let those four beautiful words sink into the core of your being today: “He restores my soul.”  The Lord understands the severity of your pain, and He offers to penetrate—bone deep and beyond—to restore your soul.

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I’m Sorry for Your Losses

When my dad died recently, I was greeted everywhere by the same condolences, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Well, my dad was 94-years-old and in failing health before his death, and I’m confident he’s now enjoying his new, strong, and pain-free body in heaven. Yes, I will miss the long talks we had every few days, but I know it won’t be long until I’m with him again. And in the meantime, my loss is his gain.

Dealing with the loss of my father has caused me to think about the many other kinds of losses people sometimes face. In addition to the death of loved ones, there are such things as health setbacks, divorces, lost jobs, broken friendships, and financial reversals. Our losses come in many different shapes and sizes, and sometimes they come without warning.

Losses hurt, especially when we deal with more than one loss at a time. There’s only so much we can take. At some point, even a straw can break a camel’s back.

While most people are familiar with the numerous losses experienced by Job, lately I’ve been thinking more about Naomi, a lesser-known character in the book of Ruth who suffered multiple losses during her lifetime.

In the beginning, she and her husband Elimelech, along with their two sons, probably had a pretty nice life in Bethlehem. But then famine struck, leading to Naomi’s first losses. The family moved to Moab in search of food, and she suddenly lost both her homeland and her friends. With no Facebook, Skype, or even phones back then, her friendships seemingly were lost forever.

In Moab, Naomi’s losses only multiplied. First Elimelech died, then her two sons. She found herself having to endure life as a widow, with no blood relatives, living in a foreign land.

I’m sure people must have told Naomi something like we’re told today at such times, “Naomi, I’m sorry for your losses.”

Such sentiments would have been sincere and well-meaning, and Naomi herself was keenly aware that her many losses had taken a toll. No wonder she concluded, The hand of the Lord has gone out against me!” (Ruth 1:13)

While Naomi’s feelings were certainly understandable, they were totally wrong. God wasn’t against Naomi! Not in the least. Quite the contrary, He was getting ready to bless her with an unfathomable turnaround that would impact not only her own life, but history itself.

If you’ve read to the end of the story, you realize that the Lord had a plan for Naomi all along. Although there were plenty of losses along the way, each one paved the way toward her destiny. With every loss, Naomi was positioned one step closer to mentoring Ruth to fulfill her role in the lineage of Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem over 1,000 years later.

If it hadn’t been for the famine, Naomi and her family never would have gotten to Moab, where her son Mahlon married Ruth. If her husband and sons hadn’t died, Naomi never would have moved with Ruth back to Bethlehem, where Ruth would eventually marry Boaz and bear a son.

Consider how remarkable this is: More than 1,000 years before His Son would be born in Bethlehem, God sovereignly arranged events in the lives of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz to foreshadow the nativity. What a great testimony to His ability to orchestrate the events in our lives as well, even using our losses to prepare us for ultimate gains.

So, if God has removed something from your life recently, I’m sorry for the loss you’ve experienced. However, just as He did for Job and Naomi, He may be using your losses to prepare you for far greater blessings and breakthroughs ahead.

This may shed some new light on what Paul meant when he said he gladly “suffered the loss of all things…that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:7-10). Instead of spending much time lamenting about all his losses, Paul rejoiced that he kept gaining more of Christ. While the losses were no doubt painful, gaining more of Jesus made it well worth it in the end.

I’ll admit, I’m still grieving over the death of my dad and other losses in my life as well. But I pray I’ll experience what Job, Naomi, and Paul all found in the end—a new outpouring of the Lord’s grace and favor.

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Speeding Up Your Recovery

Although I’m grateful for all the good accomplished through the Recovery Movement over the years, I get perturbed by its tendency to assign people to long-term victimhood. The philosophy seems to be, “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic,” even if God has transformed your life and you’ve been sober for decades.

And things aren’t much better if you attend a recovery group for grief, divorce, overeating, codependency, or some other trauma in your life. It’s as if they hand out scarlet letters at the door, reminding you of your past.

When a friend recently attended a divorce recovery group, the leader told him that for every year of marriage, it generally takes several years to recover after a divorce. This is nonsensical, of course. My friend had been married for more than 30 years, so it would take him at least 60 years to recover based on the group leader’s formula. The leader’s prognosis was pretty disheartening to say the least.

And then the divorce group leader made another misguided statement: “There is absolutely nothing you can do to speed up your recovery. You just have to endure the pain until it subsides.”

Okay, I know what he means. You can’t take shortcuts. For every trauma in life, there will be some pain that simply must be endured. But does that mean there’s nothing we can do to speed the recovery? That’s both ludicrous and unscriptural.

We’ve all met people who are so full of unforgiveness and bitterness after a trauma like divorce that they’re prolonging their recovery. In fact, I’ve known people who will never recover in this life, because they won’t let go of their offense. Instead of the initial wound killing such people, their life is undermined by the infection they allowed to set in.

Just as we can do things to hinder our recovery, I believe we can position ourselves for faster and more complete healing.

Isaiah 58:8 describes this in a context of fasting, seeking God, repenting of wickedness, and serving the poor: “Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily.” Isn’t that good news? Yes, healing is a process that may take some time. But when you take the right steps, “your healing shall spring forth speedily.”

Years ago, the Lord showed me that discipleship is basically a matter of 5 Connections: God, People, Truth, Character, and Service. Remarkably, these same five components can speed along our emotional healing and recovery from difficult situations:

Connection with GOD: In His presence is healing balm and fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11). That’s the ultimate key to any kind of positive transformation we seek (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Connection with PEOPLE: Even though most emotional traumas are caused by other people, it’s also likely that God will use our relationships with people as an important component of our recovery. It’s an indisputable fact of life that positive, truth-speaking, encouraging people can help to speed our recovery, while negative, cynical people will just prolong our pain and foster more toxicity.

Connection with TRUTH: When we’ve gone through a life-altering situation, we must be careful to remain grounded in the truth of God’s Word rather than our transitory and misleading feelings. Satan uses our emotional traumas as opportunities to speak his lies, so it becomes more important than ever to cling to the truth about who God is and how much He loves us.

Connection with CHARACTER: Too often, people who are hurting try to self-medicate their pain through alcohol, drugs, pornography, gambling, toxic relationships, or other destructive activities. Such things are a great way to go from the frying pan into the fire. Instead, we should use any emotional trauma as a time for God to expose and heal any wicked or hurtful areas of our heart (Psalm 139:24). We also must carefully monitor our lives and take preventative action if we see some kind of bad fruit developing.

Connection with SERVICE: One of the greatest ways for us to receive healing is to reach out to heal the pain of others. Like the man who had a shriveled hand in Mark 3:1-5, our disability can be healed when we stretch out our hand in obedience to the Lord.

Those of us from a charismatic or Pentecostal background might prefer to think that all emotional healing should come from a supernatural, instantaneous touch from God. Just come to the altar for prayer, and everything will be alright.

While that kind of immediate remedy is surely possible, the Lord often prefers to take us through the process of healing. Why? Probably because the 5 connections in the healing process are the very same connections we need to become more like Christ. Just as sanctification and discipleship aren’t instantaneous propositions, emotional healing may take more than a single prayer.

If you’ve been struggling to break free from some kind of traumatic experience or relationship, don’t despair. God has a plan for your recovery—and it doesn’t have to take as long as you’ve thought.

Make a decision today to forgive and release those who have wronged you. Then engage in the 5 connections in the Lord’s unfailing process of recovery and transformation.

 

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