Some of you know my wife passed away to be with the Lord last year on March 28th. The last 9-plus months have waxed-and-waned in terms of the daily emotional ebb and flow. Some days are certainly harder than others; all days go by with some degree remembrance of her and yet the Lord has proven to be an ever present comfort, establishing peace and endurance explicable only by his grace.
During the last 9 months, I’ve had more changes unfold. I changed jobs, sold my home, moved to another state, moved in with relatives and am now seeking to integrate into a new church community. I hope to begin seminary in the summer taking a long view of transitioning to more formal gospel ministry.
I thought it would be good to write more reflections about grief and share a few things I am learning in the wake of grief. This will be a several part series.
ONE: Suffering is a community activity bringing us closer to Christ
This may go without saying for some but even so, the downhill slide that loneliness can tempt us to travel is to abandon our community. Isolation becomes the name of the game and it is easy to slip into. Grief prompts such a vast array of emotional experiences and a fleshly tendency is to manage all those experiences in isolation; to go it alone and do things by one’s self. It is easy to say to myself that because I am grieving, I have an “out” in terms my ongoing obligations to and within my community but also most certainly an “out” as it relates to fully receiving the benefits of my community. That is to say, there is a part of us that does not want to be comforted when grief quickens us. We would rather isolate. Sometimes, I do not want have to share lingering pain and at times do not want to accept comfort and support from those who love me.
Part of why I don’t want to accept support and comfort is because it moves me close into the community I would rather avoid. Receiving comfort and grace means that the method and means of handling pain on my terms has an essential flaw. The flaw is simply this: I can comfort myself. But the truth of the matter is, I cannot comfort myself. This is precisely the root belief where all sorts of disorders like addiction and other forms of abuse rest upon. Pride prevents me from accepting this, thus creating a double problem: The hardness of heart due to pride and the non-experience of comfort that God is ready to provide.
Here is part of the crux of it – God is standing by ready to comfort us in the wake of grief. He does so in a very specific way. One way is obviously through his Word. But another way, the way I wish to highlight, is through his people.
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.[2Co 1:3-4 NIV]
If you want to be closer to Christ in the midst of your suffering, you cannot abandon your community because the community of Christ is the very means and method of God’s comfort to you. You cannot comfort yourself.
Communion with Christ necessarily involves communion with God’s people. Suffering is not a random human phenomenon. Rather, for those in Christ, suffering is an experience that connects to us to Christ’s suffering and subsequent comfort. And in both instances, the sufferer best suffers in community where her comfort is also best experienced. Again, we cannot comfort ourselves.
This is how suffering becomes a community activity. Our first communion with Christ makes our suffering and pain uniquely connected to Christ. Paul goes on to say…
For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. (vs 5)
What are the suffering of Christ which flow into our lives? These are the sufferings that remind us and lead us to death. The principal suffering of Christ is his death itself on our behalf (cf. 2 Cor 4:10; Gal 6:17; Php 3:10). What are our suffering flowing out of our lives? They are the experiences that are part-and-parcel connected to why Christ’s suffering flow in the first place; namely, all the suffering wrought because of the reality of the presence of sin.
The reason people get sick and die is because of the reality of the presence of sin. It is right to grieve when someone we love dies, but in our grief we must realize that this pain and grief and sorrow is just the tip of the iceberg. We need an intercessor (who is Christ) to help us not only make sense of our disordered lives wrought by sin and death, but we need an intercessor to redeem us from this mire and mess.
So in this passage as Paul points us to Christ, we realize the story doesn’t end there. The mysterious dynamic continues.
Paul describes our comfort as necessarily accessible as is the present suffering we experience. He connects this thought with the phrase, “just as“.
The principal comfort we have in Christ is his resurrection life. This life guarantees our hope of heaven, our inheritance as co-heirs with Christ, not to mention, the full security and satisfaction of the wrath of God for our sin.
So the ever present comfort in our ever present suffering should not be missed, and it should not be missed because we avoid community.
Part of what Paul helps us understand is, there are many sufferers suffering at the same time. And in your church community suffering is ever present. Because we need to be comforted the lesson we learn from Paul is that the primary method of the comfort that God provides is a comfort that comes through his people.
Hence, the last phrase, “so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”
This is to say, others who have suffered in your community may not be going through the same exact kind of suffering as you. However, they have received comfort from God in their respective suffering nonetheless. The comfort they received from God is specifically designed to be passed along to their brother and sister in Christ, who is you, for when the time comes that you experience suffering of whatever sort.
Your brother and sister were comforted by God so that they can comfort you. Your brother and sister suffered in such a way so as to require a comfort that only God can provide. And we rest confidently that the means and method of their received comfort worked dynamically in the same way as the means and method for you and I; namely, through God’s people before them.
God is not above bringing suffering in our lives in order to further unite the body of Christ. If you are suffering, if you are grieving, if you are lost and alone, may I encourage you to consider taking hope that comfort is available in Christ’s body; that is, the church of God. Bring yourself closer to Christ’s body, and so when you suffer, you can see and experience and learn that suffering is a community activity that brings you closer to Christ himself.