I’ve been walking through hard places now for years. Seeing my wife diagnosed with terminal cancer, going through endless cycles of chemotherapy with her, watching her slow decline, and now enduring a world of unbidden tears and loneliness as a single dad and widower. There are moments when I come to God and just ask, “When will this end?”
The great myth we desperately want to believe is that God is going to end our grief and pain. We want to believe if we just pray the right prayer, find the right spiritual habit, and clean up our act, our sadness and hurt will disappear.
Sometimes He does deliver us from specific struggles. But although He will fully end them in the resurrection, He often doesn’t end our grief and pain in this age. And when it doesn’t happen, often our obsession with that hope can make us miss the ways He meets and sustains us in the middle of our brokenness. When we become so fixated on what we want Him to do, we can fail to meet Him where He is and experience all that He does.
God offers each of us five gifts in our grief. These five gifts don’t make our pain okay. These five gifts don’t take our pain away. These gifts are things we can put hope in no matter what is happening around and within us. They sustain us as we walk in them.
God Gives Us His Presence
It’s common for Christians to talk about God watching over us. However, we tend to have a certain image of that: a giant face somewhere up in the sky, peering down, squinting, trying to see what’s going on in our lives. This is because we see God’s bigness as opposed to His closeness; He seems like a cosmic giant who’s struggling to see who we are as we scurry around His feet.
God’s bigness in Scripture, however, is much greater than that. He presses upward to fill the entire universe, and then, the heavens filled, presses back down into each moment and place until His full attention and full presence are in both the heavens and the earth. God is 100% watching over you, with you, invested in your joys, struggles, and hurts all of the time. It’s just that, because of His greatness, He’s also watching over everything else in the same way.
Right now, wherever you’re sitting and reading this: God is there. He’s attentive and listening. Whatever pain you’re feeling, God knows it and is all around you as you sit in it. Grief often makes us feel alone, but that doesn’t change the objective fact that God is within and around us even in the valley of the shadow of death. We can take the next breath and face the next moment, knowing He is here.
God Gives Us His Tears
God isn’t only attentive to us, but He also empathizes with us. He aches with us. He is not a dispassionate observer but a loving Father whose heart toward us is tender and kind. As the Psalmist reminds us: “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him” (Psalm 103:13, ESV).
There is deep mystery here, of course. God isn’t a human being, and while Scripture pictures Him as having a real emotional life, we shouldn’t lose sight of His transcendent otherness. However, the Bible over and over uses such language to describe God’s heart for us.
More than that, because of Jesus, God’s compassion is not abstract or secondhand. We see the heart of God in Jesus’s own tears beside the grave of Lazarus His friend, even as He was about to raise Him back to life. More than that, we see it in Jesus’s own suffering as “a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3, ESV). In Jesus, God Himself has known pain and understands our struggle the way only a fellow-sufferer could. God is near us, and He feels for us.
God Gives Us Purpose
Grief is at its most destructive when it robs us of purpose in our lives. Sometimes this happens emotionally, as when the lethargy of discouragement and depression settles over us. Sometimes it happens concretely: There was a real sense in which, with the loss of my wife, one of my central purposes for living had been taken away. Regardless, such a loss of meaning can easily consume our souls. After all, what determines whether we will keep moving forward in life has less to do with the weight of our burdens than it does with our sense that they are worth carrying. Without purpose, even a relatively light load will crush us to the ground.
Scripture calls us to recognize that our ultimate purpose rests in glorifying God, loving Him, and serving Him by showing forth His goodness to the world. The powerful thing about this purpose is that, unlike serving any created thing, grief cannot take it away. We can show forth God’s glory in our suffering just as much as in our flourishing. We can glorify Him in our dying as well as in our living (Philippians 1:20).
God’s glory doesn’t make our grief somehow good; it is still terrible and evil. However, it allows us hope that even our sorrow and pain can be redeemed and used by him. That is a hope that is big enough to call us forward even when the burden is heavy on our backs.
God Gives Us Each Other
When Scripture describes the church as the “body of Christ,” it isn’t just a metaphor. It’s an insistence that God’s people are the way Jesus is made physically present on earth in this age. His body is in heaven, but on earth, we make Him visible and present with each other.
This is especially important when we’re in hard and painful places. God feels far away from us, but a brother or sister giving us a hug or sitting with us in the late hours can be the channel through which He is brought near.
There is risk in opening yourself up to others in the midst of grief. People won’t always know what to say. Indeed, some will handle it poorly and might even cause more hurt. We should be wise about who we are open with.
However, taking this risk is also so worth it. In my own journey, there are many friends who have come alongside me at different points and been Jesus made present to me. They showed me His love, embodied His care, and even believed when I felt like I couldn’t believe anymore. For all its failings, the body of Christ remains an incredible gift and grace in our grieving.
God Gives Us a Future
It’s a myth that God is sure to end our grief and pain in this age. However, there’s an even greater promise that we can know is true. This age itself will end, and with it, all that’s wrong will be undone and all that’s broken will be healed. When Jesus Christ returns and our bodies rise with Him as He restores the earth, God Himself will dry our tears, and we will experience life unimaginable.
This hope doesn’t mean we won’t struggle in the present, but it assures us that death will not have the last word. At the end of this story, Jesus wins. The dragon is slain. The grave is torn open. Sin is destroyed. So no matter how large these terrible things loom in the present, we can be assured that they have an expiration date.
More than that, at the end of this story, our pain will end. We will find peace and rest in the arms of our Father. The joy and laughter that was lost in our darkest moments will ring out clearly, and all sadness in this world will be undone.
We do not know what the rest of this chapter contains. There may well be villains and disasters and hardships of all kinds. But we know what the next unending chapter contains, life with God forever and ever.
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