Dealing with Grief: Avoiding Despair
© C. O. Bishop 12/27/14 THCF 1/4/15
Job 1:1-23, 2:1-10, 19:25; Daniel 3; Habakkuk 1-3
This past week, the week of Christmas, some neighbors around me had terrible things happen. One, an elderly man, the day after Christmas, lost his workshop to a fire, including tools, a classic car, racing motorcycles, and other things that had been his joy and private hobby for many years. One may philosophize, saying, “Ah, but no lives were lost!” Yes, that is true, but we humans hope to leave some heritage to grandchildren (if we have any) and that car and the motorcycles, his skill in building a race-bike, and whatever racing trophies he might have had were part of his legacy in his eyes. His most prized memorabilia were destroyed in the fire. Those cannot be replaced.
Far worse were the circumstances of another family nearby who, two days before Christmas, received the news that their youngest son (16 years old) has inoperable cancer, and that his only hope is very aggressive chemotherapy, as the tumor is on or very near his heart. He is still alive, but only a miracle can save his life. They will remember this grief and pain every Christmas for the rest of their lives. If God miraculously heals this young man, then they will also have the joy of remembering God’s supply.
How does one deal with such things? How can one endure the loss and not collapse under the weight of the grief? How can one find comfort, and even joy, in the face of such circumstances? How did people in the Bible deal with such things?
What about Job?
Job is the first person who comes to my mind: though his “friends” goaded him into some wrong statements, it is good to note that God (prior to his testing) said that he was a righteous man, a “perfect and upright man”. So the accusations later leveled by his friends were completely false. They were wrong, pure and simple. Not only were they wrong about Job, they were wrong about God…God says so, in Chapter 42. So, then, whenever we study the book of Job, we will do well to carefully examine who is talking, to see what God says about their comments.
Since today we are only touching on Job’s initial response, we will only hear four voices—God’s, Satan’s, Job’s and that of his wife, whose name is not recorded here. God makes authoritative statements regarding Job; Satan questions Job’s motives and character, thus saying God is wrong; God allows the test, and both Job and his wife respond. She broke under the pressure: Job did not. It is important that we do not join Satan or Job’s sorry “friends”, in accusing Job. If we differ from what God says, God is not wrong; we are.
Job’s response is one of the best recorded, in terms of handling grief: Job tore his clothes and shaved his head, in the classic reactions to grief for that time; but rather than railing against God, he fell on his face and worshipped God for His unchanging goodness, and for his authority. He made the statement that we so often piously quote at funerals: “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away…”, but he continued with the part we very seldom include: “…blessed be the name of the Lord!” This was not a religious platitude; it was pure worship. He confessed that his maker had the authority to take away, as well as to give: he worshipped God, in spite of his grief. God’s comment, twice in these chapters is that “…in all this Job did not sin with his lips.”
Later, under goading from his friends who wrongly believed that “bad things only happen to bad people”, Job made another famous statement of faith: “I know that my Redeemer liveth and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth…and that… I shall see him with my eye, and not another…” Job rested his faith in the coming final justice. Eventually, it is true, the friends goaded him into self-justification, but they and not he were judged for their actions. God corrected him, but rebuked them, saying, “My wrath is kindled against thee…for you have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath.” That is a good final note on Job’s life and discourse, and a cautionary note about Bible study. It is important to check who is talking in scripture…about two thirds of the book of job is recording the words of his friends, and God says they were wrong! We need to read carefully, and not make assumptions.
What can we learn from Job? First, that he was submissive to God’s will in his life: if he could have changed the circumstances, he would have—he loved his children and prayed for them daily, and offered sacrifices on their behalf; but when they were taken, it was through what even today, many people call “an act of God” (or, as the atheistic, secular world may say, an “act of nature”.) Job knew that there was nothing he could have done to ward off such an occurrence, nor certainly anything he could do to undo the damage. He was grieved at the loss, but accepted it as being from God, and stated that God had the authority to bring calamity as well as blessing.
He also knew that calamity is not always the result of sin…which his detractors had not learned. This is a hard one for us, too, even as New Testament believers: we tend to think that bad experiences must be punishment for some sin, even though both the Old Testament and the New Testament clearly teach that this is not necessarily the case. In Job’s case he had the confidence of a steady walk with God to bolster his spirit: he knew that the calamity was not punishment. It was only the accusations of the men he thought were his friends that moved him to defend against false accusations, and eventually he was bordering on self-justification, so God stepped in and stopped the test.
I can either rest in the character of God (bless God for his goodness, as Job did) or I can tear myself apart, looking for the hidden cause, the secret sin that must be the root of the calamity. I can worship, or I can wail. In a sense, as long as I choose to worship, I can still wail…but to God, not at Him.
One more thing to point out, here: Job evidently understood positional truth and the security of the believer, because he said that he knew (not just believed) that he himself, with his physically resurrected body, and his own eyes, would see his redeemer “at the latter day” when his redeemer was to stand upon the earth. How could he make such a statement if not for knowing the security of the believer? He did not just know that Jesus would make a triumphant return to Earth as the king (he is referring to the second coming, not the first) but he also stated that he himself would be there to see it, in a physically resurrected body. That is confidence…that is faith, the assurance of things hoped for; the sure knowledge of things not seen.
What about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego?
This is may not seem exactly the same thing, as what they faced was execution for Godly behavior, under an ungodly King. But consider: any “fiery trial” we may imagine can be seen in parallel to theirs. They had no children, nor would they ever, as they had been made eunuchs by this king’s decree; they were captive servants under a terrible regime. They were in imminent danger of being burned alive for refusing to commit idolatry, but they stood fast. Remember what they said: “We know that our God is able to deliver us…but if not (in other words, if He chooses not to deliver us)…we still will not worship your idol!” They chose to stand fast whether or not God would defend them. They were willing to die before disgracing their God.
We can choose to stand fast against the temptation to abandon faith, to question God’s character, to deny Him His due in our lives. Or we can give in, hoping to gain some peace of mind, as at least we will no longer find ourselves trying to justify God in circumstances that are beyond our understanding. I have known a number of believers to fall prey to this very thing. They felt they could no longer defend God’s actions so they joined his attackers.
God doesn’t need my defense. He is perfectly capable on His own, and has proven it on countless occasions throughout history. The three Hebrew youngsters were right and they knew it, but they also knew that God had made no promise to them, personally, to deliver them from harsh circumstances. So they took their stand with God, choosing to risk being incinerated rather than deny the God of their salvation. It seems that they shared Job’s confidence in the goodness of God, regardless of circumstances, and, that, like Job, they knew that the things that God does are not always explainable in human terms. Many times they are beyond our comprehension. I can either accept that truth, or, childishly, insist on an explanation.
God is not obliged to explain his actions, any more than I am obliged to explain to a saw-blade why I am filing away a portion of each tooth, to make the remaining portion sharp and usable. God can prune his vineyard, shear his sheep, sharpen his tools, and discipline his children. Discipline, again, does not mean punishment—it means training. Even in school, we might ask what discipline a student is pursuing…it means “what specific training are they hoping to attain?” A wrestling or football coach may demand that the members of his team run laps around a practice field as part of the discipline of their sport. It is not punishment at all, though it may feel like it. It is training, and has the goal of excellence in the sport.
In the case of Job and the Hebrew teenagers, we saw that God did reward them with a defense and a response of blessing. But what if He does not? Can we find joy in the person of Christ, even when the circumstances admit no compromise, and will certainly end in ruin?
What about Habakkuk?
Habakkuk was confronted with the evil of his own nation. He cried to God for Justice, but what he got was Judgment…and it was Just. God let him know that He, God, was about to judge the nation of Judah, using the Chaldean nation as the instrument of His judgment. Habakkuk knew that this judgment would result in utter catastrophe for Judah, as the Chaldeans (also called Babylonians) were a ruthless people. He protested that the punishment was too great, and that the “cure” was worse than the “disease”. But he was wrong and God was right (no surprise there….) God corrected his thinking, and declared that the judgment was coming.
Habakkuk accepted the coming judgment and declared that, though all the circumstances in which he usually found happiness and sustenance should fail, he himself would still find joy in the LORD (Jehovah); and that he would rejoice in the God of his salvation. That may seem a “pat answer” but you want to remember that Habakkuk was going to be right there in the judgment…there was no guarantee of a free pass through the judgment for him. He was about to see his whole way of life destroyed, and a high percentage of the people he knew and cared for destroyed, and all the rest enslaved. (By the way, this is the captivity that took Daniel and his friends, resulting in their castration and enslavement…this is not a theoretical test. It was the real thing.) We never heard from Habakkuk again. We don’t know what happened to him, whether he even survived the siege or possibly died before it began. But he had taken his stand with God, and chose to find joy and comfort in the person of his Creator and Savior.
The last phrase in chapter 3 of Habakkuk states that “He maketh my feet as hind’s feet, and setteth me upon my high places.” A “hind” is a type of deer that loves to climb in mountain crags. It is extremely sure-footed, and so “stays above” all the trouble below it. We might liken it to a mountain goat, here in the Americas, or an ibex (steinbok) in the Alps. The point is that while Habakkuk set himself to find Joy in the eternal God instead of the circumstances, he also placed his trust in his savior to keep him confident in Christ, not affected by circumstance.
That is easy to say, of course, but remember that these fellows made these statements while confronted with the loss of all that was dear to them, and probably their own lives, as well. Job had already lost all his children, and all his belongings, and his wife and friends seemed to conspire against him…she begging him to give it up and die (possibly, from her perspective, for his own good) and his friends urging him to confess nonexistent sins. The Hebrew children were facing the furnace in person. They could feel the heat, and knew that execution was imminent. Habakkuk only knew for sure that the destruction and captivity of his people was inescapable, and that everything he loved in life was about to be taken away. This was not a “maybe”—it was a definite event about to happen. Each of these believers chose to find their peace in Christ.
So…What about Us?
We, too, can choose to trust God. We can choose to find our joy in Christ. We can choose to believe that His Justice is greater than our sense of what is “fair”. We can choose to believe that His Love (demonstrated at the Cross!) is greater than our feeble affections, though we may love with all our hearts. Feelings may be strong, but actions are what get things done, and God acted! He went to the Cross in the person of Christ, and personally paid the price of our sins. Just “feeling sorry for us” would not have accomplished anything. He acted on our behalf.
I don’t know whether I would choose well under the circumstances I listed above: The loss of a shop building or other belongings might discourage me for a while, but the loss of a child or of my wife would surely destroy me, if it were not for the person of Christ. I hope that I would be faithful to trust Him even in hard times. So far, I have been able to do so…but, honestly, my circumstances have been pretty easy compared to what some believers endure.
We can pray for one another, and go to one another in time of need, encouraging those who suffer, helping those in need. We can support one another as we endure hard times. We can share with one another, working together to overcome adversity. But ultimately, our trust has to be in the One who created, saved and sustains us. We have to practice this daily, in the small things, to prepare ourselves for the hard things to come. Can you do it? Will you?
Ultimately we have to be committed to trusting Him even if he chooses to not rescue us from our trial. Job said (Job 13:15), “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.” That has to be the “bottom line” for us as well, or we will be enslaved to circumstances. When we only recognize blessing if it is something we like, we are enslaved to circumstances. That is not OK.
The blessing and mercy of God may include our early “graduation” from the “school” of life. The son of Jeroboam, in 1st Kings 14:13 was rewarded for his good by an early death, as the prophet said: “because there is some good found in him toward the LORD God of Israel.” He was the only one of Jeroboam’s household who received a proper burial, and his early death was provided so that he escaped the coming judgment. We do not always know God’s purpose, but we do know His character.
Learn early to trust the Lord in every circumstance, so that when the hard times come you are already fortified against them. Otherwise they will come without warning, and you will be overwhelmed. Choose continually to find your Joy, Comfort and Peace in the Person of Christ.
God give us Grace to trust you in every trial, to seek your Light no matter how great our darkness, and to seek your Love though all others have deserted us, and to find our Joy in You.