One of the things that I’ve had to do as a youth pastor over the last 13 years is talk students through grief and loss. I’m not going to pretend that I’m some expert on this issue, especially because I don’t think I do enough of a good job. But I do know that one of my jobs is to prepare students as best I can for grief later on down the road. Because we live in a world broken by sin, our lives will be marked with significant grief over the loss of loved ones, sudden or not. These periods of time are going to be deeply painful, and I know that an understanding of grief from a Biblical standpoint will go a long way in helping them heal. I’m always surprised by how much the students don’t seem to be paying attention, but years later, something will happen that will help them remember what’s been sown in their hearts through the faithful ministry of God’s Word.
There are no pat answers or Bible verses to turn to that make the circumstances change. Grief is the suffering of loss, and I don’t know of anyone whose pain of loss ever leaves. It’s possible to move on with your life, and it’s certainly possible to rebuild, but there’s a part of you that’s missing, so a sense of loss will always remain, however small it may be. Certain places and life events can transport us to memories we haven’t thought about in awhile, and the mourning returns. We can heal from devastation, but I don’t believe that you can ever fully recover from loss because I don’t think we’re meant to. The ultimate way in which we understand that something is deeply flawed with life is when we collide with the stark truth that death is coming for all of us. No one escapes this, and so loss is deeply entangled into our human existence: To be human is to experience loss. But to be human is also to recognize that there’s something wrong with this. We have a deep, ingrained intuition that somehow the world isn’t supposed to be like this. Family members aren’t supposed to die. Children aren’t supposed to be abused. Women shouldn’t be raped. People shouldn’t be racist. Governments shouldn’t oppress their citizens. These are all observations about the reality of the world we live in, and I can only imagine the desperate prayers that are offered to God every day from people experiencing suffering and unimaginable loss.
Many people say that all of this evil and suffering in the world is proof that God doesn’t exist. If God cared, how could he let these things happen? How could God allow people to suffer and die from cancer? How could God allow infants to be born, live in the NICU with breathing tubes and other hospital instruments for 8 days, and then die in active suffering? These are incredibly hard questions to answer, especially to those who are grieving. But abandoning God doesn’t strike me as a good solution because nothing changes about the situation. If God doesn’t exist, then it means that we’re nothing more than molecules and atoms, destined to decompose and turn to ash in a hundred years. There is no greater meaning or purpose to our existence because the universe just is. “We make our own meaning,” is what I’ve heard some atheists say. But that doesn’t sit well with me because suffering and pain is not some “meaning” we’re trying to create in a meaningless universe. It cheapens and belittles the loss. Why are we upset and grief-stricken when death is just simply molecules and atoms running out of energy? When our electronics run out of batteries, we say that they’re dead. But we’re not broken up about it. Why can’t we do that with our loved ones? Why does it hurt so much and remain with us forever? Because we instinctively know that human life is far more valuable than batteries. This reason points me directly to God.
Jesus tells a parable about a rich man and a poor beggar named Lazarus in Luke 16:19-30. This poor man is covered in sores and spends his life longing to eat the scraps from the rich man’s table. He never does. But when he dies, Jesus tells us that angels carry him to Abraham’s side. In other words, his suffering on earth never ended. He was poor in health, poor in wealth, and poor in hope. But in an instant, all of that is reversed, and his suffering is redeemed. Why he suffered isn’t explained, but his suffering wasn’t wasted. The most comforting aspect of this story isn’t that this poor beggar is found in heaven, but that he’s the only one who is named in the story. We’re never told the rich man’s name. We’re only given the poor man’s name: Lazarus. He mattered to God. And though his existence here on earth was incredibly pitiful, it was redeemed in heaven, where he was found in the arms of Abraham, one of the father’s of our faith.
We don’t know exactly why things happen as they do. We know we live in a broken world and often that brokenness invades our life cruelly. We don’t know why he allows certain people to suffer and die. But we know we matter. There is no suffering on earth that doesn’t matter to God, and he doesn’t let himself off the hook. Jesus came and entered into our world to suffer alongside us. Jesus knew loss: his earthly father Joseph, passed away when Jesus was young. His brothers and sisters thought he was crazy. He had no standing in society. He was betrayed by one of his closest followers. And people flocked to him to use him for their benefit. When he needed his friends the most, they all abandoned him. And when he needed God the most, when he was in anguish over facing his most severe suffering, God turned his back on him. Jesus knows pain, loss, suffering, and grief.
I don’t want to worship a God that abandoned us to the brokenness of this world. Jesus, he came into the world to redeem it. None of our pain and suffering is loss from an eternal perspective.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post for Truth Matters Ministries about waiting. You can read it here. Someone commented on the bottom, and this post is a result of taking my reply to the comment and elaborating some more.