How to deal with tragedy’s grief?

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Yesterday was such a beautiful day.

After the Creekstone 101 seminar wrapped up around noon, I decided to head up to R-Ranch north of town and treat myself to a few hours of walking the grounds. My plan was to head back home by dinner, hang out with the family and then dive into Saturday night sermon review.

After a couple of hours, I realized that the ringer on my phone had been off since the morning seminar. When I pulled it out of my pocket to see if Kristy or my kids had called, I saw a message from Tori Reilly, asking me to call her husband, Jon, as soon as possible. Jon is one of Barb and Leo Reilly’s sons.

Many of you know Barb and Leo, who moved up to Dahlonega from Florida about a year ago and have been very involved in the life of the church. Not only did they host and lead our K-Group, but they became dear friends to us. In fact, in a very short period of time, Barb and my wife would become very close friends. A number of our women can say the same thing.

The message from Tori to call Jon had the tone of urgency, so I stopped immediately to call. He quickly answered and shared news that I never, never expected to hear.

Barb, his mother, Leo’s wife, and a cherished friend to many of us, apparently had taken her own life.

“No. No. No. No…” This is a cruel joke.

On one hand, I felt utter disbelief… on the other, sheer grief.

Eventually, the shock of disbelief begins to wear off and the full weight of grief settles in.

At that point, what are we to do? What are we to do in the wake of tragedy and sadness? How are we to handle the grief?

Paul helps us in 2 Corinthians 1:3-9,

3 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. 5 For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. 6 If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. 7 Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. 8 For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.[i]

What are we to do in the wake of tragedy and sadness? How are we to handle the grief?

 

Remember the Heart of God

We see this heart of God in verse 3, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort.”

For those whom Jesus is Savior and Lord, God is our FATHER!

Think of how your heart aches for your own children when they are suffering affliction. Whether physical sickness of emotional suffering.

I would take their place if I could. Jesus did.  This is what the cross is about. Substitution.

This is the heart of God. The Father of mercies and comfort. The God who will go as far as it takes and beyond to heal and restore.

Our English word comfort is from two Latin words: cum + forte = with (cum) strength (forte).

 

Recognize the Power of Presence

We see this in verses 4-7 (verse 4 in enough for us to read, as the concept is repeated in verses 5-7), “[the Father] 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.”

It is no accident that the Holy Spirit is called the comforter – our cum-forte – our strength. His strength is manifest simply by his being present with us. Last week out message was on the indwelling Spirit. The Spirit who is not far, but near. The God who is with us.

The presence of the Spirit is to convince us in our grief that we are not alone. We are not forsaken. We belong to God as his sons and daughters… and he loves us with an affection deeper, higher, wider and broader than we can imagine.

It is the kind of love that tells us that we can be real. We can weep. We can not have all the answers. We can be confused and angry. And he still is there. He is not leaving. As it has been said,

“Even if we are not strong enough to hold onto Jesus, he is strong enough to hold onto us.”[ii]

Notice that God’s comfort is not what happens after a problem is fixed. His comfort, his strength, is what we experience in the midst of trouble and suffering.

As David wrote in Psalm 23:4, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

The rod and staff are representative of the Shepherd’s presence, and with his presence is his power to save, defend, and protect.

“For you are with me.”

Paul says that this is the kind of strength that we are to bring to others in their weakness and need. The comforting power of presence.

Notice that I didn’t say the comforting power of words. Yes, words have their place. But when Jesus showed up after Lazarus’ death, his tears shed in the presence of Lazarus’ sisters spoke more than 1,000 words.

Some of us really want to comfort others in their grief, but we avoid being present because we don’t know what to say and think we have to have the answers.

Neither are true.

Comfort is not about saying the right words or having answers. It’s about just being there. Being present.

Sometimes the best ministry is being present to listen.

If you need to say words, it is best to keep them few, and simple.

When my wife and I have been comforted in our own grief, the most powerful expressions of love we have experienced are friends who were willing to be present, to just sit with us, hold us, weep with us, and share their heart with simple expressions like “I am so sorry” and “I love you.”

Tears and hugs are often better than words.[iii]

The comfort that truly strengthens in weakness is not the words we say. It is just being with. Being present. Presence often is all the strength grief needs to persevere.

 

Sometimes, Grief Must be Allowed to Run Its Course

We see this in verses 8-9, “8 For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.”

For Paul and his associates, his affliction and grief caused him to despair of life. Thinking either he wouldn’t live through it or he didn’t want to live through it.

That is the way the flu was for me the last time I was stricken and laid low. It felt like a near death experience.

Somehow, the notion has entered into the church that once we become followers of Jesus that all of our problems go away. That wasn’t true for Jesus. It wasn’t true for Paul. It wasn’t true for Peter. It hasn’t been true for me, either.

In Jesus, the penalty of sin has been removed, but the brokenness of the fall remains until Jesus returns to make all things new and absolutely sin-free. Until then, suffering, pain, and grief will abound. We all will need the ministry of comfort to help us on the journey as we process our grief.

Maybe you have experienced the depths of emotional darkness and the weight of emotional pain that is symptomatic of things such as clinical depression, bipolar, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, etc.

It is no secret that I have suffered with clinical depression for the past sixteen years. Without modern medication, I fear to contemplate what I may have done to myself.

I understand the darkness and the pain, the emotional pain that feels physical. It is like an invisible weight upon the brain. For some, this emotional weight and consequent physical pain that results can cause us to despair of life.

I share this because there are many of us who suffer silently, with shame, thinking that a clinical mental illness is somehow a character deficiency.

Oh, I have plenty of character deficiencies, but clinical depression is not one of them! Things like depression, bipolar, and OCD are not moral issues, they are medical issues.

Furthermore, what research has discovered is that clinical depression, bipolar, OCD and the like are genetically transmitted, meaning that some of us simply have a genetic pre-disposition to depression in the same way that others are pre-disposed to high cholesterol.

These things are not cured with pep talks and platitudes.

If you are suffering or think you may be suffering, please get help. If you have suicidal thoughts, please talk to your physician… and talk to me. I’ll be glad to share my story. I would count it a privilege to be of comfort to you as I have received comfort—strength from a community of understanding friends and family.

But if left untreated, mental illness can crush you and cause you to despair of life. Please do not suffer in silence.

Though, it may not be a brain chemistry issue, but something as common yet emotionally debilitating as the loss of a job. The confirmation of a feared diagnosis. The break off of an engagement or stress in a marriage. The revelation of a secret sin. Some pressure that feels to great of a weight to carry.

So many griefs can cause of us to despair of life.

Like Paul, who admits in v. 8, “We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.”

Nevertheless, as God comforted Paul in suffering, the grief ran its course, the clouds dissipated, and he discovered a redemptive purpose in his experience.

Maybe it is a lesson for all of us.

He mentions this purpose in verse 9, “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that [despair] was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.”

Only in hindsight was Paul able to confess that his grief and despair had been used by God to drive the apostle away from himself as the answer to his problems and to God as his all sufficient hope.

To the God who raised Jesus—the Jesus who had given his life on a cross for the sins of his people, enduring suffering unto physical death so that we could receive spiritual life.

Jesus grief was so extreme, that the very night before his crucifixion, Jesus asked the Father in prayer if his suffering could be cut short. Nevertheless, Jesus was willing to let his grief run its full course… all the way to the cross—for us.

It is because Jesus received the sentence of death that we can face the pressures of life, not looking to ourselves, but looking to our Father and our God as our hope and strength—even in, our weakness… especially in our weakness, even when we are despairing of life itself.

___________________________________________

My seminary homiletics professor, Bryan Chapell, wrote a book entitled, The Hardest Sermons You’ll Ever Have to Preach. As I was up last night reading through a number of those sermons, one that stood out was delivered by Michael Horton at the funeral of a friend who had taken his own life. The conclusion of his message was so well-spoken that I thought I would share it with you and use it as our own conclusion to a hard, but I pray helpful message. Turning to Don’s family, with tender, yet firm hope, Dr. Horton says what I say to you today,

“You can turn to [God] as your father, not only because he knows how you feel, but because his loss secured your adoption into his family… And for all of us here who are afraid of death, or of life, the good news is that this man is still at God’s right hand, this Advocate who pleads our case [before heaven, clothing us perpetually in his perfect righteousness]. His name is Jesus, and if your faith is in this Rock of Ages and… Mighty Fortress, he will be your friend, in this world and in the world to come.”[iv]

 


[i] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 1:3–9.

[ii] Michael Horton in Bryan Chapell, The Hardest Sermons You’ll Ever Have to Preach, p. 257.

[iii] If you know the story of Job in the Old Testament, after he had experienced a devastating loss, some friends came to sit with him in his grief. After a long silence, they couldn’t take it. They finally began to speak, trying to explain why these things were happening to Job. For starters, they were totally wrong. They talked too much.

[iv] Michael Horton in Bryan Chapell, The Hardest Sermons You’ll Ever Have to Preach, p. 259.