March 28th is the first anniversary of my late wife going to glory. Her name was Heidi. And that is how best to put it that she is in glory. She is not dead but with the Lord. Though we wait for the resurrection of the body (1 Cor 15:42), we know in the meantime, she is away from the body and with the Lord (Phil 1:21-23). But this isn’t an article on a theology of the eschaton; rather, about a theology of suffering, a theology of grief, and perhaps more importantly, a theology of comfort.
So much emphasis is placed on grief that, in some sense, to grieve is almost to be more admired than learning how to rejoice in it. Meaning, to be content in the Lord and have peace and contentment in Christ despite the pain of living in a fallen world where our loved ones die and pass onto the next, one is almost seen as a little odd; almost seen as ‘missing the point.’ A more popular phrase these days is: Don’t waste your suffering.
I would contend that we come very close to wasting our suffering when, in the course of it, we somehow fail to sing in the midst of it. We sing not because of the practical effects it has on our hearts and bodies but because of the spiritual and theological truths that undergird those efforts. We sing because our father rejoices over us (Isa 62:5). We sing to the Lord because He has been good to us (Psalm 13:6). We can sing because we no longer look for the living among the dead (Luke 24:5). Indeed, we sing because Jesus has risen from the dead (Rom 6:9).
In this article, I will outline five ways I’ve received comfort from God in the wake of the death of my wife. My aim is to point us to Christ so that if and when you face your own hardship, your own pain in the wake of death, here are ways God stands ready to comfort you as well.
There is a time to observe our grief (2 Sam 11:27), and there is a time to weep and mourn (Ecc 3:4), but there is also a time to rejoice and dance (Ecc 3:4); a time to delight in hardships (2 Cor 12:10); a time to observe the comforting balm of the gospel so we can go on and fulfill our mission and calling as Christians (2 Cor 1:4). My aim here is to emphasize the latter.
Comfort One: Jesus is Risen
When death comes knocking on our door, and those whom we dearly love are taken to be with the Lord, there is nothing in all the earth and nothing else in all of the course of human history more profoundly important for us to have sunk into our hearts than this truth: Jesus is risen.
This is not perfunctory. It is not a bullet point on a church membership interview. It is not a component of our annual Easter celebrations. Rather, it is the lifeblood of everything you call your Christian faith. If Christ is not risen, everything about your faith is utterly meaningless (1 Cor 15:13-14).
You might already agree. Maybe there is no argument there. I suspect you agree with me, but you might be asking, “How does the reality of Christ being resurrected actually comfort me in the here and now when my spouse or child just died?”
The comfort is received when we believe and see with our heart how his resurrection truly means that your loved one will also rise from the dead. Think about this for a few minutes, and maybe try to remember this the next time you’re at the gravesite: The person you buried will exit that proverbial tomb someday. Yes, is it okay to say this outloud. I have sat by Heidi’s burial site and said something like, “I look forward to seeing you again someday. I know this is temporary.”
The resurrection of Christ necessarily means this is temporary. Christ’s resurrection means death is no longer the worst thing that can happen to us. The more we believe this, the more our hearts can begin entering new phases of maturity marked out for us in light of our experience and acquaintance with death.
The comfort, therefore, is this: Jesus is risen. Please don’t misread me, however. This isn’t to suggest that your emotions will flip like a light switch. Think of when you were a child and your parent physically fed you. That was comfort received though you probably didn’t process it as comfort. Your childlike perception had no way to think of it as such. You are no longer a child, which means you can look back and affirm that your parents’ provision actually was comfort.
So as God’s children, those in Christ, when we seek God’s comfort — he gives us his Son. But not just any son – a risen-from-the-dead Son. A Son who was in the tomb, too, and who actually knows about death better than you at this point. The risen Son is the tangible means of God’s comfort and care for your grieving soul. Jesus is risen and alive. Therefore, take comfort.
Comfort Two: God’s people are God’s provision
Even though the previous point is true, it is also true that you are just a man. You are still in the flesh, and all the various weaknesses that existed before their death remain in you. Your temptations are the same; your inclinations toward various habits and your preferences are the same. And someday, unless the Lord returns in glory and might, you too will be like your spouse, child, or friend; you will die.
The point in bringing this to our attention is that we also realize that even though Jesus is risen, our sinful frailties are at work, daily prompting us and causing us to forget to receive the comfort therein.
God is aware of this. Therefore, God provided another tangible means of his comfort as we slog through life like Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress: Other Christians. I like to think of the true Church as God’s people. God’s people are God’s provision.
The Lord has been merciful and kind by providing many brothers and sisters in Christ as they have extended comfort over the last year. And this is how it ought to be, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Several near me have fulfilled this command with great diligence in prayer and patience as I’ve wrestled with having grief linger in my soul like the morning fog. In various ways, I’ve struggled with guilt and regret. I was given the grace to confess these things to others and, in doing so, found more grace in the face of my friend.
Like the Proverb indicates, “But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day” their fellowship in Christ has ushered renewed hope, strengthening my vision and clarity about tomorrow. In fellowship, I am able to keep pressing forward because what I am receiving from them is comfort, a comfort directly from Jesus.
2 Corinthians 1:3-4 ESV, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
Christians can only extend the comfort of Christ only if they have received comfort from Christ. Christians cannot extend what they do not have, and when we receive Christ’s comfort through fellow heirs in Christ, we are tangibly receiving God’s people as God’s provision.
Comfort Three: The Word is for food
Reflecting on the day before Heidi’s death, there are times of intermittent pangs of regret about how I managed that day. I often wonder whether she would have had a better chance of surviving had I brought her to the hospital sooner. Given our regular Saturday morning routines, nothing initially stood out to me as out of the ordinary. However, when I saw her wake up for the day, she was never as pale as I had seen her that morning. So, why didn’t God prompt me to get her up sooner, hours sooner, so that we can get to the hospital and have a few more hours head start on providing needed treatment?
Then I remember passages like Deut 8:3, “And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”
God purposely let Israel go hungry. He led them to a place of suffering and hardship, of wilderness (see verse 2). Why? To teach them about His word? To make man understand he doesn’t depend wholly on physical food for the body, but also every word of his? Really? At first glance, this seems harsh.
But the truth of the matter is this: We will not understand the deep imperative of believing, trusting, and depending on the Word of God, as we depend on food unless we suffer unless we’re in the wilderness unless God lets us go hungry.
As a counselor, one of the things my clients often want from me without them realizing it or seeing it like this is that they need a word from me. They want me to say something. They want my opinion on a matter. They depend on the things I say to them as having weight and even some degree of authority.
And it is true. They do need a word. They need someone to speak with them in truth, grace, and authority. I’ve seen it for myself that in their suffering, even the best of foods cannot and will not provide relief for the suffering soul. Intuitively, they know they need more than food; they need words.
Words touch the soul in a way food never will. So, what word shall they receive? Whose word shall they receive? Mine or God’s? God’s.
So, for myself, the death of my wife and the pain and anguish this initially caused me made me see the absolute necessity of God’s words. For so much of my life, and in many different ways, I might play around with his Word. I quote verses in a trite manner or purposely misquote in order to achieve some other aim. Of course, this is sinful and demands repenting. But God, in his kindness, lets us hunger so that His Word can rightly nurture us.
Suffering demands newfound fear and respect for the authority of God’s Word and provides new delight and new degrees of comfort. In pain, we need a Word. When death comes, we need God’s Word.
We need God’s Word more than we need relief from suffering. When we are in pain, the food for the soul is the Word of God. Suffering, hardship, pain, and difficulty are the pathways to make us see the futility of depending on manna alone. Death, grief, and even intermittent regret are the mechanisms God uses to make us see the truth and goodness of His Word as food for our soul.
Comfort Four: God hears your prayers
A fourth comfort is knowing and coming to believe in a fuller way that God hears our prayers. Death has a terrible silence to it: [Psa 94:17 NIV] 17 Unless the LORD had given me help, I would soon have dwelt in the silence of death.
More silencing than death, however, is silence from God: Psa 83:1-2 NIV, “O God, do not remain silent; do not turn a deaf ear, do not stand aloof, O God. 2 See how your enemies growl, how your foes rear their heads.”
Is there anything more silencing than the silence of God in the face of our great enemy’s death?
This is only the case if, in the face of death, he does not assist us if he is silent. If he doesn’t assist us by listening to us, we would surely have cause to tremble with anxiety if he is silent forever. We do well to remember that God does maintain a prerogative to keep silent if he so chooses. Who else knows better the timing of silence and the timing to speak than God, Ecc 3:7b, “there is a time to be silent and a time to speak.”
You and I ought not to fear. Even our Lord, the Son of God, our precious Savior, heard from God in his most horrible hour: Luke 22:42-43 NIV, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done. 43 An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.”
You might ask yourself how exactly do we gain assurance that he hears our prayers, and how does that hearing persuade unto comfort? At least two reasons: Firstly, you gain assurance by believing what he has already spoken: “Never will I leave you nor forsake you” (Deut 31:6 & Heb 13:5).
We cannot interpret our “impressions” or our “senses” or our “intuitions” as God’s breaking his silence in order to assuage our pain. If it is true that he will never leave us, then that necessarily means that he is with you in your grief and pain; that he is intimately close to your cries and tears and by the necessity of his nearness hears your broken words; hears your pleas and hears your prayers. You must believe by faith that he has not left you, and if he has not left you, then you can be assured that he hears you. Whether he hears is actually the problem of not believing what he promised to do, which is never to leave you.
Secondly, we know he hears us because we cannot always understand our own way as we continue to live and walk in faith. Pro 20:24 NIV, “A person’s steps are directed by the LORD. How then can anyone understand their own way?” The evidence of his hearing our prayers is through the work he brings by carrying us day-to-day. Isa 46:4 NIV, “Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you, and I will carry you; I will sustain you, and I will rescue you.” If you walk in obedience, then that is his gracious hand working in your life as a byproduct of your prayers for assistance. And even if you don’t ask for strength to walk in obedience in your pain, your savior most certainly does (Rom 8:34).
Comfort Five: You have a mission
The sting of death is perhaps never as poignant as when we lose someone we are ready to lay down our lives for, such as a spouse, a child, or a dear friend. Yet, we cannot exchange our lives for theirs. The death they died, they must have died. They must have died that death because that was the death God designed and planned in eternity past. We know this because it happened.
What is more, the precise moment Heidi breathed her last breath was not one fraction of a hair sooner than God’s sovereign will. It was not a moment too late or a moment too soon. In a sentence: Heidi’s death had perfect timing.
But just as the resurrection of Christ proves death not only has no reign over Him (Rom 6:9), we know and believe that death no longer has any reign over those we love who are in Christ who’ve died before us (Rom 6:8). And just as subsequent to Christ’s resurrection were the disciples’ life mission established (Matt 28:19-20), we do well to remember that mission, now, in light of seeing death up close, more than ever.
However, a particular area I wish to focus on here is a practical outworking of living missionally in the wake of death. We cannot live the mission Christ calls us to live when we are drowned in sin, overcome with despair, and when grief and pain undo us. So, what are we to do? Let us appeal to God’s word to Cain and apply this to grief.
Genesis 4:7 – If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.”
Inasmuch as God’s call to Cain to rule over the sin in him, to rule over his own heart, keeping guard of his heart against sin, so we too do well to understand an important implication.
The only reason death exists is because of sin. When death comes, so comes grief. So, logically, the only reason grief exists is because of sin. But when grief comes, so comes either despair or hope.
Those who hope in Christ can respond to grief in the same manner and spirit that Cain was called to respond to sin: To rule over it. We rule over grief by appealing to Christ and our hope in him. To rule over grief is to understand that death is truly powerless. We rule over grief by ensuring that we live the rest of our lives doing all we can to extend this hope to others.
When Christ died, the disciples had no hope. They (perhaps) felt grief—certainly his mother and a few other women. But grief instantly ended when they saw the resurrected Christ.
Yet, we know that just as our battle with sin lingers (Roman 7:7-25), the correlating effects of sin (i.e., grief) can linger, too. We struggle to keep hope. We struggle to believe the gospel. We struggle with the loneliness that may permeate our beds, homes, kitchen tables, vacations, Christmas gatherings, our…(fill in the blank).
My aim here isn’t to suggest that your pain can be turned off like a light switch. Ruling over grief doesn’t necessarily imply that. It ought to remind us that just as the work of ruling over our own hearts and fighting sin is daily, confronting grief may be daily as well. Just as the work of grace and sanctification proves, various sins no longer bind us; in like fashion, grief will not always bind us. Even if your heart is heavy until the day, you see your loved one in Heaven, that moment will result in the same instant-relief from grief as did the disciples when they saw the resurrected Jesus.
So, may your heart find comfort in living with a new degree of mission and orientation toward the grief you face. May your mission be that because of the resurrected Christ, you can’t help but share this hope that is in you and, in so doing, rule over your grief.
This article was first published on Servants of Grace on March 16, 2022.