Grace and Grief
Grace is one of the great words of the Christian faith. Without it the power of faith to heal pain, sustain in spite of life’s trials and to offer hope when life seems hopeless would be empty. Grace is like fuel to an engine. Technically grace is often defined as “unmerited favor,” especially when considered in the context of covering our sin. For the purposes of this article I think of it more in terms of its power available to believers in times of crisis and grief.
I think of Paul who suffered much through the years with what he called a “thorn in the flesh.” While we don’t know for sure what it was, we know it created serious difficulty for him about which he often asked God to relieve. Although he did not find healing grace for that malady, Paul did discover something precious. He found sustaining grace. He referred to it in II Corinthians 12: 9 when the Lord said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you.”
While there could be many applications and illustrations of the sufficiency of grace, I want to focus on its work in times of grief. At first glance these words might seem at the very least incompatible or even contradictory. However, I find them intimately related to one another. As you read further see if you agree.
Nothing has more potential for devastation in our lives than the unexpected death of a loved one. Hardly a week goes by without someone talking to me about an unexpected death in their family. Sometimes it is in our church family and at other times in the community or on other occasions that we hear about in the news. Tragedies happen in times of violence, accidents or unexpected illness.
So where does a person turn to in such times? One of the things we need to do is pay attention to our Bible. We are reminded of the experience of Jesus when Lazarus died. Jesus wept. Jesus grieved over his death and the effects on his family.
When we have a loss, we will grieve even as Jesus did. It is a natural part of life. Grief is not a denial of faith. Someone said, “Grief is as natural as eating when we are hungry or sleeping when we are tired.” When death occurs, grief is the response.
If grief is something natural and not a denial of faith, then where do we find help? First, it is helpful when you are not in the crisis of grief to understand the process of grief. Most are familiar with the general stages of grief. While not always in an exact order, most people experience similar dynamics. There is shock and a time of numbness. It is part of God’s plan which perhaps protects us from bearing the full long-term effects of the loss. There are periods which fluctuate between anger and guilt. There is often a period of intense questioning. Even Jesus cried out with a question from the cross when He asked, “Why hast Thou forsaken me?” All through the period of grief, emotion flows in and out of our day to day experiences. Some people go through a period of depression depending on the circumstances of their loss. The final stage is recovery and moving on with life.
Unfortunately some people get stuck in their sadness and never fully recover. I recall a word from Martin Luther, the great reformer, who wrote to his grieving friend whose wife had died. He told his friend to “grieve, grieve, and to grieve some more. But he warned him to finally put an end to his grief less he become idolatrous and worship the dead instead of the living Lord.”
The message for the believer in grief comes from the words of Paul in I Thessalonians 4:13 where he cautioned us not to grieve like those who have no hope. When we face grief, grace is God’s means of restoring hope. The Bible says when this body is no longer useful, for the believer, we have one made for us which will not crumble or pass away. We are reminded that this perishable must put on the imperishable. Death can be swallowed up in victory. “Death is not a period, but a comma, not an end, but a transition.”
There is not only grace which sustains us through crisis and death of loved ones, it also provides blessings in the process. They may be hard to see at first for grief is much like a fog. It slowly dissipates and the real light of day comes through.
The grace of faith through grief teaches humility. Death is a vivid reminder that we are not here on earth for eternity. It is so easy in this world to mistake our body for our soul and time for eternity. We are not here forever. When we realize our weakness and frailty, we can better acknowledge our need for God and thrust ourselves on His mercy.
The grace of faith through grief deepens relationships. It reminds us how much we need each other and that every day is to be cherished. It shocks us out of the shallow routines in which we often take each other for granted. Grief makes us wish we had turned off the television and talked more and perhaps adds to our resolve to do better with those who are living.
The grace of faith through grief develops our empathy with others. If we have never grieved it is hard to understand what others are going through. We learn from our grief how to help those who may be in circumstances where we once walked. This is particularly helpful with deaths of spouses, children and certain other unexpected tragedies and heartache. It is helpful in grief to remember Romans 8:28. “In all things God is working toward that which is good for those who love Him…” God can bring good out of our grief if we look to Him. Maybe that is to help someone else’s suffering.
Finally, the grace of faith through grief often intensifies our spirituality. Death of a loved one may not only be a profound emotional experience, it may bring us closer to the Lord. It can put us in close communion with God and people of faith. In the midst of our suffering, we may understand in fresh ways such passages as the 23rd Psalm. This grace is available, but not automatic. We must seek and hunger for a fresh understanding of our faith.
Facing grief is no fun. Death is a serious business. Getting through it well and with hope so often depends on our view of God. If we see our God as bigger than any grief we may face, then it is much easier to trust His grace and to say what Paul discovered, “My grace is sufficient for you.”