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Dena Johnson Christian Blog and Commentary

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Of Grief and Grace


Grief accompanies all kinds of losses. Some grief is short-lived. Other times, it lasts a lifetime. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. Other times, it seems to be fading.

Maybe it’s grief from divorce. Or sickness. Or death. Or, maybe like us, you are overwhelmed by grief from all of these losses.

Last week was the six month anniversary of the death of the kids’ dad. It was an emotional week, filled with tears and memories. We went out to eat at one of his favorite restaurants. It was a rare splurge, but I wanted to give my kids an opportunity to remember him.

I’ve spent the last six months begging God to show me how to help my kids navigate their grief. I’ve seen three kids experience grief in three very different ways. I’ve seen tears and depression. I’ve seen hope and anticipation. I’ve seen anger and frustration.

I’ve encouraged them all to share their hearts, their feelings with me. I’ve offered counseling. We’ve pulled out pictures, remembered the good times. We’ve been to the cemetery to visit his grave.

And we’ve prayed. Day after day. Pouring out our hearts to God. Begging Him to use this pain for good, somehow, someway.

Because of the way God has used the pain of my divorce, I cling to hope! I know the good things God has brought into my life because of the pain. I know how He has used my loss to create a ministry. And I know the depths of his love and healing only because I’ve experienced pain and grief. I desperately want my children to experience the same type of redemption of their pain.

As I’ve looked for ways to understand my kids and their grief, I have looked to scripture. I’ve found some interesting stories that help explain exactly how grief affects people.

In the days when the judges ruled in Israel… a man from Bethlehem in Judah left his home and went to live in the country of Moab, taking his wife and two sons with him. Then Elimelech died, and Naomi was left with her two sons.… about ten years later,both Mahlon and Kilion died. This left Naomi alone, without her two sons or her husband. “Don’t call me Naomi,” she responded. “Instead, call me Mara, for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me home empty. Why call me Naomi when the Lord has caused me to suffer and the Almighty has sent such tragedy upon me?” Ruth 1:1-21 (selected)

Naomi faithfully went with her husband to a foreign land. While there, God blessed her with two sons. But her beloved husband passed away. Her sons also died before they could even have children.

Naomi returned to her home country, but she was lost in the throes of depression. She begged the people not to call her Naomi any longer, a name that means pleasant. She preferred the name Mara, meaning bitter. Her life had lost its joy, and she had become bitter because of the loss.

How many of us spiral into depression and negativity, forgetting all of the Lord’s blessings, when our lives suddenly fall apart? How many times do we become bitter and angry, allowing the pain and disappointments of this life to overwhelm and destroy us?

I’ve watched my own kids fight depression, lose their joy in life. I’ve been there myself. Depression is a very real consequence of grief.

When Jesus saw her weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, a deep anger welled up within him, and he was deeply troubled. “Where have you put him?” he asked them. They told him, “Lord, come and see.” Then Jesus wept. John 11:33-35

There He was, standing outside the tomb of his friend Lazarus. He had already visited with Lazarus’s grieving sisters, Mary and Martha, reassuring them Lazarus would live again. But, as He looked at the scene, Jesus could no longer contain His emotions.

And that’s when Jesus wept. He broke down. Let the tears flow. Allowed his emotions to show.

We don’t really know why Jesus wept. Maybe it was his sadness for his friend, lying in the tomb. Maybe it was the lack of faith He saw in those mourning Lazarus’ death. Or maybe it was His own empathy for His friends, overcome by their sadness. Whatever the reason, He cried.

The last six months have been filled with tears around our house. Tears over their dad’s death. Tears of fear of the unknown. Tears of lost hopes, lost dreams. Tears of empathy, compassion. Tears of anger and frustration. And, I’ve also watched as my kids have fought their tears, held them back, avoided letting their emotions show. It’s been an emotional six months.

Job stood up and tore his robe in grief. Then he shaved his head and fell to the ground to worship. He said, “I came naked from my mother’s womb, and I will be naked when I leave. The Lord gave me what I had, and the Lord has taken it away. Praise the name of the Lord!” In all of this, Job did not sin by blaming God. Job 1:20-22

Job lost everything. He lost his material possessions. He lost his servants. He lost his flocks. He lost his children. Eventually he lost his health.

And his response was to fall on his knees in praise.

I was amazed at my kids in those early days. The day after their dad died, we had a special service at our church. We had planned to go for weeks, but under the circumstances I was more than willing to miss it. But my kids begged me to go. They wanted to be in church. They needed to be in church. And so we went, tear-streaked faces, broken hearts.

And we praised God, even as our hearts broke.

After Nathan returned to his home, the Lord sent a deadly illness to the child of David and Uriah’s wife. David begged God to spare the child. He went without food and lay all night on the bare ground. The elders of his household pleaded with him to get up and eat with them, but he refused. Then on the seventh day the child died. David’s advisers were afraid to tell him. “He wouldn’t listen to reason while the child was ill,” they said. “What drastic thing will he do when we tell him the child is dead?” When David saw them whispering, he realized what had happened. “Is the child dead?” he asked. “Yes,” they replied, “he is dead.” Then David got up from the ground, washed himself, put on lotions and changed his clothes. He went to the Tabernacle and worshiped the Lord. After that, he returned to the palace and was served food and ate. 2 Samuel 12:15-20

David had messed up his life…royally. He had taken advantage of a woman, gotten her pregnant, had her husband killed. In the aftermath, he married the woman who was pregnant with his child.

But God couldn’t overlook his sins. Despite his repentance, God sent an illness on the child. David begged and pleaded hoping to spare the life of his child.

But God didn’t relent, and the child died.

How did David respond? He put away his mourning, and he went to worship. He pulled himself together and went back to business. He recognized that life continues even in the midst of death and loss, and he chose not to let his pain hold him back.

And that’s my prayer for my kids. I don’t want this pain to hold them back. I want them to move forward, to be propelled into their futures. I want them to find peace, power, and beauty despite their pain. I want them to learn that we can thrive and not just survive…even when life is filled with pain and disappointments.

Do you know what I love most about all of these experiences of grief? The grace. Every story is bathed in grace.
Naomi found grace in her daughter-in-law, Ruth, who refused to leave her side. She found grace when God brought a kinsman-redeemer along for Ruth, allowing Naomi to become a grandmother. She found grace by suddenly being thrust into the lineage of Christ.

Lazarus, Mary, and Martha found grace. They found grace in Christ’s resurrection power. They found grace when they came to understand that Lazarus’ death was used for God’s glory. They found grace in their Savior who had such great love and empathy for them.

Job found grace. After he walked through the pain of losing everything, he met God in a deeply personal and intimate way. He saw everything he had restored. He saw the second half of his life more blessed than the first.
And David found grace. He was blessed with another son, Solomon, who was the wisest man ever to live. He was blessed to be promised to always have a descendant on the throne. He was blessed with everything this life has to offer.

And I know my kids will also find grace. We pray every day that God will use this season of pain to help us find a deeply intimate relationship with the Father. We pray that we will find the good that He always promised would come to those who love Him. We pray that God will do an amazing work in us so He can do an amazing work through us.

That’s the beauty of walking with our Father. Where there is grief, there is also an abundance of grace. I pray that if you are lost in grief, God will reveal the touches of His grace that are flowing all around.



~~Life is funny sometimes.

I’ve been waiting for years for God to give me permission to enter the dating scene, and—at what seems the most inopportune and unlikely time of my life—I have found myself tip-toeing into a relationship.

As I enter this new season of life, I am asking many questions: What am I looking for in a man? What are the non-negotiables? How do I incorporate a relationship into my already full life? How do I balance work, ministry, and family?

But perhaps the most important question I am asking is: What does it mean for a man to be the spiritual leader of the home?

I actually brought up this question with a male friend of mine several months ago. He is a committed Christian, has served in ministry all of his adult life. And as we talked, I began to realize that men and women may have very different ideas of what it means to be a spiritual leader. Men seem to think they must be theological giants, exegeting scripture perfectly, presenting deep spiritual truths.

Women, on the other hand, don’t necessarily care about great theological truths. We are looking for more simplistic steps of leadership, basic daily steps to help us grow in Christ.

As I pondered these differences, I decided to dive in a little deeper. I surveyed a group of my female friends, and from their responses I have compiled a list of the most important characteristics of a spiritual leader…to a woman.

A spiritual leader has a growing relationship with Christ. Before a man can lead his wife or family, he must have a solid foundation. He should know for certain that he has given his heart and life to God. He should be fully devoted, seeking to grow daily in his walk with Christ.

What does this look like? A commitment to the word and to prayer. A commitment to church. A commitment to obedience. A man with a growing relationship with Christ will exhibit the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), will not merely listen to the Word but will do what it says (James 1:22). A growing relationship with Christ will be evident in the way he lives every day.

Then he said to the crowd, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily, and follow me. Luke 9:23

A spiritual leader models the Christian life for his wife and children. Not only does a true spiritual leader grow in his walk with Christ, he lives out God’s commands in front of his wife and children. He lives the Christian life in the privacy of his own home, behind closed doors where no one except his family sees him. He is the same in his private life as he is in his public life.

Modeling the Christian life for your family means you take the initiative to bring God into your everyday life. You make it a point to talk about God in the details of life (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). You pray together, pray for them. You make your life revolve around God and His purposes.

For husbands, this means love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. He gave up his life for her to make her holy and clean, washed by the cleansing of God’s word. Ephesians 5:25-26

A spiritual leader takes initiative to serve his family. Why did Christ come to earth? To serve and give His life as a ransom for many.

True leadership is servant leadership, and a true spiritual leader models Christ’s life by serving his family. I’ve known men who acted as if leadership was about his family serving him, as if he were the king of the house. Everyone walked on eggshells hoping they didn’t offend him…all while he sat in his favorite chair ordering his wife and kids around. I know men who hold the “submit” command over their wives, expecting them to meet their every want and whim.

That is not the portrait of a true leader. A spiritual leader looks for ways to serve his spouse and children. He seeks ways to help his family, to make their lives easier. He leads by becoming a servant of others.

Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many. Mark 10:43-45

A spiritual leader is a protector of those he loves. There are areas where we women simply were not created in the same way as men. As a general rule, we are physically smaller and weaker. And sometimes we need men to protect us.

It’s not just physical protection we long for, though. What about that person who spoke an unkind word? Or the family member who took advantage of us? Or the child who disrespected us? Sometimes we need our men to step in, to stand up for us. I, personally, am a very non-confrontational person. I would almost never speak my mind in one of those situations. But to have my husband step in and defend me (kindly and tactfully)? To have my husband help me fight those battles I wasn’t created to fight? Nothing would make me feel more loved than to know my husband has my back.

In the same way, you husbands must give honor to your wives. Treat your wife with understanding as you live together. She may be weaker than you are, but she is your equal partner in God’s gift of new life. Treat her as you should so your prayers will not be hindered. 1 Peter 3:7

A spiritual leader is a man of integrity. Integrity is huge to us! My life has been rocked by infidelity, and I could never trust someone who doesn’t live with integrity. I’ve learned that a man who would bend the truth in small areas also has the ability to bend the truth in larger areas.

Integrity is about complete honesty in all areas of life. A spiritual leader shows integrity at home and at work, in his finances and in his relationships. He lives at a level few people will understand. If he says yes, you can rest assured it will be done when he says it will be done. He doesn’t bend the rules to benefit himself. He is honest to a fault.

I will be careful to live a blameless life… I will lead a life of integrity in my own home. I will refuse to look at anything vile and vulgar. I hate all who deal crookedly; I will have nothing to do with them. I will reject perverse ideas and stay away from every evil. I will not tolerate people who slander their neighbors. I will not endure conceit and pride. Psalm 101:2-5

A spiritual leader exhibits true humility. Have you known a man who thought he was above accountability? He wanted to be a lone ranger, living his life on his terms without input from anyone else.

A spiritual leader recognizes his own weaknesses and invites others to hold him accountable. He seeks out godly counselors who have the freedom to ask him the tough questions…and he respects them enough to tell the truth. He realizes he is weak and prone to sin, and has systems in place to keep him on track.

And a humble man admits his mistakes, asks forgiveness, and changes his ways so he doesn’t make the same mistakes repeatedly.

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. Philippians 2:5-8

A spiritual leader is a loving, involved father. Scripture is clear about a man’s responsibility to his children. He is to lovingly bring them up, disciplining them properly. He is to lead them to know God, to walk by faith. He is to provide for his family, seeing to it their needs are met.

Show me a man who has a good relationship with his children, and we will see a man who is mostly content with life. A man who loves his children well will live a full life. But show me a man who neglects his children, who is harsh and angry with his children, and we will see a man who lacks peace in his life. His prayers will be hindered, and his relationship with God will be stagnant at best.

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger by the way you treat them. Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction that comes from the Lord. Ephesians 6:4

Perhaps the most important characteristic of a spiritual leader is that he recognizes that Jesus is the true head of the home. He knows his authority flows from God and he should not move unless God gives permission. He should willingly submit to the Father in every area of life. A true spiritual leader knows if he is following Christ, it will be easy for his wife to follow him. 

But there is one thing I want you to know: The head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 1 Corinthians 11:3

As I venture into the often overwhelming world of giving my heart to a man, I am looking for one who gives his heart fully to God. I am looking for a man who will be the spiritual leader my children and I crave.

Be On Guard!

~~In Oklahoma, few things are more certain than the uncertainty of the weather.

Thunderstorms are simply a way of life for us. Many of us love the sound of the thunder and the flash of lightning. There’s no better sleeping weather than right in the heart of storm season.

We are even growing accustomed to earthquakes. Did you know that Oklahoma now ranks as the number one state for frequency of earthquakes? A few weeks ago, we had a 4.8 magnitude quake that scared the living daylights out of me! I really thought we were having a sudden and quite unexpected thunderstorm that was bringing my entire house down! Our kitchen light swayed for over 15 minutes.

But we are best known for our tornadoes. I shudder to think how many people have lost everything. I live just southwest of Oklahoma City, and frequently we are the starting point for the monsters that track across our state.

Right now, it’s October. I guess you can consider October our “second” storm season, and tonight is no exception. I literally just came home from work to find the storm chasers parked along the highway next to our house. I turned on the television—quite unaware of what is building. To the north is a large storm with a tornado sweeping across the state. To our southwest is another storm system, building, growing, rotating…and headed my direction.

I just issued the directive to my kids to prepare for the safe room, the steel and concrete reinforced corner of my closet designed to withstand even the strongest EF-5 tornado. It’s our safe place.

This year, storm preparation has been different, however.

Back in May when we were preparing for a tornado, I gave my normal instructions to gather up the important stuff. We usually take the things that can’t be replaced: important papers, sentimental jewelry, computer, irreplaceable pictures. And, of course our pets. Most everything else can be replaced. It’s just stuff.

But when I gave the command this year, Cole and Cassie began to haul load after load of things into the safe room—a space that only comfortably fits about four people. There’s not room for tubs of pictures and big items. And my kids know that.

I watched, wondering what they were thinking, wondering where they thought we would fit, how we would get the dogs in there with us.

And then my daughter came around the corner with a stuffed bear in her arms. The bear is as big as she is! You could see the concern on her face.

“Mom,” she began, “I know it’s big, but I’ll hold it in my lap. I promise.”

My heart melted as I saw the tears welling up in her eyes, as she clutched the bear to her body. You see, the bear was the last Valentine’s Day gift her dad ever gave her, the last gift before he passed away unexpectedly in April.

Everything they carried to the safe room was something that reminded them of their dad, something they will never be able to replace. Pictures. Gifts. Reminders of the short years they had with him.

Items they want to guard at all costs.

As I watched my kids begin to gather up their important items once again and begin moving everything to the safe room for a rough evening of weather, I began to wonder what things I need to guard at all costs.

Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:7

Guard your mind. Battles are won and lost in the mind. What do you think David said as he approached Goliath with nothing but a sling and a few smooth stones? Was he telling himself how big and strong Goliath was, how scared he was? No! He was telling himself how big his God is! And that’s exactly what he told Goliath!

Scripture is full of exhortations to think on things that are lovely and noble and true and right (Philippians 4:8). It tells us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2).

And how do we guard our minds? By flooding them with the Word of God. Consume a steady diet of scripture. Take negative thoughts captive and replace them with words of hope from the Bible. Change the way you think to change your life.

Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life. Proverbs 4:23

Guard your heart. Our hearts are the center of our lives, of our emotions. According to Joseph Stowell in his book Fan the Flame, the heart is the authentic person, the part where we desire, deliberate, decide. It is, as scripture says, the deciding factor for the course of our lives.

Guarding our hearts involves living authentic lives of honesty and integrity. It means we choose to act in accordance with God’s word, even when no one is watching. It’s about following your thoughts (which you are guarding) with actions that also match the commands God has given us.

How do you want your life to turn out? Do you want to enjoy God’s best? Guard your heart. Live your life in such a way that one day you will hear your Savior say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Well done.”

The heart of the godly thinks carefully before speaking; the mouth of the wicked overflows with evil words. Proverbs 15:28

Guard your tongue. How many times have you opened your mouth without thinking? How many times have you wished you could take back the words you just spoke? How many times have you spoken words, only to rehash those words repeatedly, regretting every syllable?

We must guard our tongues. We must think carefully, weighing the words and their effects long before they leave our mouths. Our words must be words of grace and truth, words that build others up. Our words must be words of kindness and love, words of honesty and integrity. Our words must be words that point the world back to our Savior.

And the good news is that if you are guarding your mind and your heart, scripture tells us our words will be the proper words. “What you say flows from what is in your heart” (Luke 6:45).

Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. James 1:27

Guard your religion. Religion has become a dirty word in our culture. But what does scripture say about religion? True religion? It’s caring for the needs of those who are most needy, those who are the downcast of society. It’s about keeping ourselves pure, holy, before God. It’s about doing the right things.

We must learn to guard our religion. How often do we pass by the down and out, despising them, wondering why they can’t get it together? How often do we choose to judge the single mama because of her divorce or her child born out of wedlock? How often do we ignore the needs of those all around us?

It’s not enough to guard our tongues. Scripture teaches us that we must do more than just offer words of encouragement. “Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?” (James 2:15-16).

Tonight, the storms passed us by. We had a short scare as the tornado siren sounded, but we escaped unharmed. Even if the storm had hit our home, we were safe in our safe room…along with everything important to us. We took the steps to guard those irreplaceable treasures.

I hope you are taking those same steps to guard your lives, to place your life in the safety of the Father.

Lord Jesus, I pray you would help us as we seek to guard our minds, our hearts, our tongues, our religion. I pray we would keep your word at the center of our lives so it can penetrate our hearts, our minds, and help us walk in step with you. I pray we would recognize the importance of protecting those things you hold most dear, those things that determine the course of our lives. Be our shield, our strength, our protector as we run to you, our safe place.