Suffering is real, and painful, and life-changing, and we shouldn’t minimize that. The good news of Jesus’s triumph over death and sin is real, and hope-filled, and life-changing, and we shouldn’t minimize that either. When we experience trials, we have to hold both truths in our hands at the same time and walk a line between them without falling off on either side.
I think that initially I fell off on the side of thinking I could minimize the pain of my husband Al’s death from cancer for my kids. They had lost their father and that was terribly sad. Of course, I knew that. But because the gospel brings so much hope, and probably because I am a “fixer” by nature, I guess I thought that if I could just “do everything right” as a parent, I could somehow cushion my kids from a lot of the pain of grief. If I could be loving enough, patient enough, encouraging enough, and strong enough, and if I could support them in just the right way, they wouldn’t hurt too badly. I could somehow make up for their loss and make everything somewhat OK.
But the truth finally came home to me one day that this was impossible. I could never be both parents to them. I could never make up for the loss of their dad. He was gone, and no amount of good parenting on my part was going to fill that void. The pain and grief of his absence were facts I couldn’t change – could hardly even touch in fact.
My daughter Rebeckah has commented, “Losing someone you love is like losing an arm. If you lose a limb, you learn how to cope, how to compensate, how to do life one-armed, how to carry on. Eventually the new state of affairs even starts to feel somewhat normal. But you are still missing an arm.” She’s absolutely right.
I suppose we often fall off on the other side too, minimizing the hope of the gospel — the good news about Jesus triumphing over death, setting us free from its power, and making us part of his family. That good news does a lot to undo the sadness of suffering in specific, tangible ways in specific, real-life situations.
For us, the gospel took the sting out of death. It did so for Al because when he died, he began to really live in God’s presence, full of joy, wholeness, and wonder. And it did so for the rest of us because we knew where Al was and could delight in the joys he was experiencing. We also knew we would someday be together with him again.
I also knew that the Lord would be a father to my children. Because of his covenant promises throughout the Bible, he would always be with them, listen to them, guide them, comfort them, strengthen them, and encourage them. He would never die and leave them, as Al had had to do.
The Bible is full of God’s care for the fatherless, so I knew he would watch over them, provide for their needs, and protect them. And the gospel gave us a second family. Our own family is wonderful, and I’m so thankful for the way they loved and supported us, even from far away. Because of the gospel, we had another family nearby too – the church. We had people who grieved with us, prayed for us, and helped us with all kinds of practical things. Although their dad was gone, my kids would be around men who would love them and show them what it looks like to live as men of faith and faithfulness.
The benefits of Jesus’s death and resurrection were real and brought genuine relief and blessing. The gospel doesn’t necessarily alter the circumstances of suffering in our lives. Suffering is real and painful, and it may continue to be painful for a long, long time. The gospel didn’t change the fact that my children were still without their dad. Al was gone, and he wasn’t coming back. I couldn’t erase the pain and grief of that for my kids. But the gospel does set our suffering in the context of a bigger reality – that Jesus came to reverse the curse of sin and death, and already his victory is turning back its effects. One day sin and death will be entirely eradicated, and as his people we long for that day, but even now we experience a foretaste of it. Even now that reality brings hope in so many ways (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
We cannot always “fix” situations or alleviate people’s hardships. But we can pray that God will give them eyes to see and inhabit the bigger picture – the truer reality – and find hope, relief, peace, comfort, blessing, strength, and even joy in the midst of hardships.
Excerpted from Grief Undone: A Journey with God and Cancer © 2015 by Elizabeth W. D. Groves. Used by permission of New Growth Press. Excerpt may not be reproduced without the express written permission of New Growth Press.
Elizabeth W. D. Groves, MAR, grew up in New England and now teaches Hebrew at Westminster Theological Seminary. She has four children, ages thirteen and up when her husband Al died in 2007, and four grandchildren born after his death.
Publication date: May 28, 2015